Thursday, November 5, 2020
I was a 14 year old high school freshman when JFK was inaugurated on a very cold January day. I remember Robert Frost trying to read a poem in the bitter cold while his glasses got fogged up. But I also remember Kennedy's stirring words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." It seems that half of the voting populace has turned Kennedy's works inside out and upside down. It seems the motto of those who voted for President Trump and his Republican supporters and allies is "I don't want anything from the country, and I don't want to do anything for the country." They don't want the government to guarantee a right to all Americans for health care, they don't care if immigrants and the poor suffer, and they certainly think that there is not any endemic or structural racism in the country. Wallace Shawn, the actor and author, wrote very insightful essay on this point in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. Shawn contends that previous generations of Americans bought into and accepted the idea that what made American special were our democratic ideals and our concern for the oppressed. Today, he argues, half of the country has given up on our ideals and regards the U.S. as no different than any other country. "We are not special; we do bad things like everyone else. Get over it and don't think we can become better"---is the belief. It makes sense then that Vice-President Biden's campaign argument that he was fighting for the soul of America did not move or persuade half of the country. We have become two nations: one half believing in trying to realize our ideals and the other half saying we never really believed in those ideals.
November 3, 2020
The Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) publishes timely essays, reports, and briefings on a whole host of issues facing U.S. prisons and jails. Last week (October 28), PPI published an eye opening report on how parole violations is an important factor in increasing the prison population. PPI did an analysis of parole and probation in the District of Columbia to show just how parole and supervision violations can cause a returning citizen to go back to prison. Returning citizens who are being supervised because they are on parole or probation can be sent back to prison for violating anyone of these rules:
Burdensome conditions of release
In D.C., people under supervision can get a technical violation for behaviors such as:
- Not reporting to their CSO
- Not allowing a CSO to visit their home
- Leaving the “judicial district” without permission
- Not working regularly
- Not attending training, school, or drug treatment
- Not notifying their CSO of a change of address or employment
- Going to places where illegal substances are sold, used, stored, or administered
- Associating others who are “engaged in criminal activity” or have felony convictions
- Not notifying, within 2 days, their CSO of a new arrest or mere questioning by police
- Acting as an informant or special agent for law enforcement without permission
- Not adhering to any other general or special conditions, like curfew or GPS monitoring
- Not submitting a sample for drug testing
- Not paying fees that are a condition of release
According to the PPI report, 1 and 7 held in the DC Jail are due to violations for one or more of the above rules. According to PPI, "Nationally, 45% of annual prison admissions are due to supervision violations, and 25% are the result of “technical violations” — noncompliant but non-criminal behaviors, like missing meetings with a parole officer. The sheer number of people held in jail for mere violations of supervision exemplifies the gross overuse and misuse of incarceration in the U.S."
The PPI report reveals why bringing parole back under local control of the DC government is so important. Currently, parole is supervised by the U.S. Parole Commission and the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency of the District of Columbia, otherwise known as CSOSA. By bringing parole back under the authority of the DC government, advocates and activists hope to have a hand in creating a Parole Board in the District whose focus will be on rehabilitation, providing medical and psychological care for those who are in need, and supporting returning citizens to return to the community. We are working on a Parole Commission that will not set up returning citizens for failure by being overly punitive for violation of technical or supervisory rules. Click here to read the PPI Report, Technical difficulties: D.C. data shows how minor supervision violations contribute to excessive jailing.
October 29, 2020
Here is a summary of an article from the Marshall Report. They surveyed incarcerated people asking them what interventions would have kept them out of prison. What would it take? Here is their answer:
Our second survey of incarcerated people this year asked what interventions would have helped them stay out of prison. Their number one response: mental health counseling. A close second: access to affordable housing. Formerly incarcerated people are 10 times more likely to be homeless than those who have never been to prison. Meanwhile, almost 90 percent of incarcerated Black men support the idea of moving funds from the police to social services like mental health or after-school programs. Three-quarters of incarcerated White men agree, including 64 percent of Republican White men. That’s amazing. In the general population, only 5 percent of Republican White men want to move funds away from the police. Published together with Slate, this story and our previous survey in March are the first comprehensive efforts to ascertain the political opinions of people behind bars. Read some of their responses here.
When advocates and activists speak about "defunding the police", one of things they mean is transferring money from law enforcement to support an array of mental health services. The percentage of incarcerated people with some mental health illness is significant. We have seen this year what happens when the police are called to intervene with a person on the street who is threatening and out of control. Force is applied and sometimes the offender is killed. This is what happened this week in Philadelphia. An out of control man who was threatening others with a knife was shot and killed by police officers. The victim had a long history of mental illness. Trained mediators were needed to calm the threatening man. Instead force was applied and another black man is dead.
October 27, 2020
In the Sunday, October 25 NY Times Magazine, Reginald Dwayne Betts wrote a compelling essay on the messiness, the conflicting feelings that he and many others have about the criminal justice system. Mr Betts was convicted at the age of 16 for carjacking and served time in Virginia prisons for nine years. After he was released his mother confided in him that she was attacked and raped while waiting for a bus. Mr. Betts had to confront his conflicted feelings: his own experience of the harshness and brutality of incarceration when just a teenager while at the same time wanting justice for his mother. Justice for his mother meant a harsh and uncompromising sentence for her attacker.
Mr Betts is a celebrated poet and author. Here is a summary of some of his accomplishments taken from his website:
Reginald Dwayne Betts transformed himself from a sixteen-year old kid sentenced to nine-years in prison to a critically acclaimed writer and graduate of the Yale Law School. He has written three acclaimed collections of poetry, the recently published Felon, Bastards of the Reagan Era and Shahid Reads His Own Palm. When awarded Betts the PEN New England Award for poetry for his collection Bastards of the Reagan Era, judge Mark Doty said:
“Betts has written an indelible lament for a generation, a necessary book for this American moment.”
His memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, is the story of a young man confined in the worst prisons in the state of Virginia, where solitary confinement, horrific conditions, and the constant violence threatened to break his humanity. Instead, Betts used the time to turn himself into a poet, a scholar, and an advocate for the reform of the criminal justice system.
The significance of Mr. Betts' recent NY Times essay is his confronting wanting punishment for a person who clearly did a terrible and harmful act and at the same time wanting to reform if not radically change how we punish people who commit violent crimes. His essay reminded me of how I felt about the murder of George Floyd. I wanted Officer Derek Chauvin to be sentenced to life imprisonment. Yet as I thought about the calls for the maximum penalty for Officer Chauvin, I also remembered my belief that most people should not be in prison for the rest of their lives. I remembered that I believe that people can change, that a person who committed a crime at the age of 30 or 40 is not the same person when he or she reaches the age of 65. What would it take for us to act mercifully toward Derek Chauvin or for the rapist who attacked Mr. Betts' mother? What does it mean to act mercifully/. These are questions we need to confront and answer.
October 23, 2020
This property (3701 Benning Road NE) was recently bought by CORE DC for the purpose of developing a halfway house that would serve DC residents released from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). For many years HOPE Village located in Southeast DC was the halfway house that DC residents returned to from the BOP. HOPE Village was privately run and managed. Over the years the feedback from returning citizens was overwhelmingly negative about conditions at HOPE Village and the the services they received. For years, advocates in DC urged the BOP to end its relationship with the private owners and offer a contract to a different vendor who had a proven track record of running halfway houses. When the coronavirus hit, HOPE Village was unable to provide safe space for its residents and it closed in April, 2020. CORE DC another private vendor who manages a halfway house for returning citizens in Brooklyn, NY was awarded the contract for DC. Advocates have been encouraged by CORE DC's presentations and looked forward to CORE DC building a half way house on Benning Road (picture above)
But now a new obstacle has arisen. Members of the community through their ANC have filed an application to designate the building as an historic landmark. This application prevents CORE DC from beginning to develop the property for a halfway house. The DC Historic Preservation Review Board will review this application on November 19. It is hard not conclude that several factors are prompting this application for historic status. Members of the community don't want returning citizens near them. They complain that the facility will be too large because it will house up to 300 residents. Additionally, real estate developers and local politicians see this property as place to develop. If the Historic Preservation Review Board accepts the application for historic status or even if it takes it time to make a decision, DC may never have a half way house. The BOP will decide to find another site outside of the District. DC residents returning home will find themselves once again displaced.Read more
October 14, 2020
Recently, I submitted the letter below to the DC Jails and Justice Task Force, Local Control Committee. The letter supports the Mayor and the DC Council taking back control of parole which has been in the hands of the U.S. Parole Commission for the last 23 years. The President of the United States appoints people to be Commissioners on the U.S. Parole Commission. The Commission is not accountable in any way to the residents of the District. The letter below outlines the important values and principles that should be the basis for a DC Parole Commission.
October 12, 2020
To: DC Jails & Justice Task Force, Local Control Committee
Re: Local Control of the U.S. Parole Commission
Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR) supports the District taking control of the U.S. Parole Commission at the end of its 2 year mandate from Congress in 2022.
IAHR has been an active participant in both the DC Reentry Task Force and ReThink Justice DC coalition for the last five years. IAHR participated in the discussions that led to the publication of The Parole Revocation Process in DC: What DC Could Accomplish with Local Control.
IAHR also was involved in the creation of the Report, “Establishing Principles for the Creation of a Local Paroling Authority in Washington, DC.”
IAHR especially supports the following recommendations of these two reports:
- Not allowing the paroling authority to incarcerate an individual for “technical” violations;
- Reduce jail incarceration during the revocation process.
- Minimize reliance on incarceration as a sanction.
- Involve community, advocacy and subject-matter expert participation in revocation hearings.
- Mandate data collection and transparency.
- Reduce time on supervision for parolees and individuals on supervised release.
- Adjust the hearing schedule to reduce jail incarceration and encourage alternatives to revocation and incarceration.
IAHR also strongly believes that the Parole Commissioners should be drawn from the residents of the District of Columbia and appointed by the Mayor with the approval of the DC Council.Read more
October 13, 2020
In this morning's NY Times, there is a news article about Rikers Island, the New York City Jail. The city has done a remarkable job of reducing dramatically the number of incarcerated men and women at Rikers. This chart shows the reduction in numbers at Rikers Island:
|Year||Total Incarcerated||In Solitary|
October 9, 2020
Gay Gardner, IAHR's Virginia Advisor, has been reporting that there has been a serious outbreak of Covid-19 at the Fluvanna Women's Prison in Virginia. In late September it was reported by the Fluvanna Review that "at least 115 inmates and 10 staff members at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women (FCCW) have tested positive for COVID-19 since early September, and two are currently hospitalized." Needless to say women with underlying medical conditions are frightened about the prospect of coming down with the virus.
Cynthia Scott and Melissa Atkins are two women with underlying medical conditions at Fluvanna Women's Prison that Gay has been in touch with and has tried to help. They've been going through an especially hard time during the COVID pandemic. They and their families have posted a petition on Change.org urging Governor Northam to grant them immediate release. Please consider signing their petition and sharing it with others.
In addition, it was reported today in the South Boston News & Record and Mecklenburg Sun that there has been a renewed flare up of the virus at the Baskerville Correctional Center. "As of Tuesday, the Virginia Department of Corrections reported 87 offenders who have contracted COVID-19 are being housed at the Baskerville prison. Four employees there also have been infected. One employee — 66-year-old prison warden Earl Barksdale — has died of the disease.
One offender at the multi-custody facility is currently hospitalized, but the other 86 infected inmates are housed either at the prison visitor center, or inside another pod designated as a quarantine area for those with the virus."
September 29, 2020
I was away last week for some time off which I really needed. This morning's news article in the Richmond Post-Dispatch reports that 31 incarcerated people have died in Virginia State Prisons! 17 have died at the Deerfield Correctional Center, which houses many geriatric prisoners. There has also been an outbreak at the Fluvanna Women's Prison with 115 cases. Fluvanna is the largest women's facility and houses the most seriously ill prisoners. The 265 active Covid-19 cases at Deerfield account for over half of the 474 total cases reported in Virginia State Prisons. Deerfield has a large geriatric population. More of these men should have been released when the pandemic hit last spring. Instead, Virginia has released a relatively few prisoners. Certainly the older prisoners at Deerfield would not pose a threat to public safety. Not enough has been done to release prisoners from facilities that are hothouses for the coronavirus.
September 17, 2020
Both the Washington Post and the NY Times published major news stories on government misconduct which has led to innocent people being convicted and incarcerated or to be falsely accused. This morning's Washington Post has an article on page 2 titled: Study: 54 percent of exonerees faced misconduct. The study was commissioned by the National Registry of Exonerations. It reviewed 2400 exonerations between 1989 and 2019. Close to 80% of exonerees were originally convicted of violent felonies. Of the 2400, 93 were sentenced to death and later cleared of any wrongdoing prior to their executions. The study found that police and prosecutors rarely faced any consequences for their misconduct.
Police and Prosecutor misconduct is one of the many terrible injustices that too often goes on routinely in the United States. But what really makes me angry is that both police and prosecutors are never punished in any way for holding back exculpatory evidence or for perjury. Too often we hold only some people accountable for crimes--often poor people--while we turn the other way when people in power commit crimes. This is why so many people have so little confidence in our criminal justice system.Read more