"In the U.S. Guilty means you are a bad person."

August 25, 2020

I just finished reading a book that really impressed me in its format, its content, and its honesty. The name of the book is The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence by Laurence Ralph. Mr. Ralph explores the history and background to the trial of Richard Zuley. Mr. Zuley was a top Chicago policeman and detective for over 30 years. In his role as detective on the south side of Chicago, he often brutalized and tortured people who were arrested and suspected of committing a violent crime. One of his victims, Andrew Wilson, who was convicted of murdering two Chicago policemen subsequently sued Mr. Zuley for damages incurred during his interrogation. Remarkably after two trials, a jury awarded Mr. Wilson $1 million. $900,000 went to his attorneys and $100,000 went to the families of Mr. Wilson's victims. 

Mr. Ralph, who is an ethnographer and a professor at Princeton University, presented this story as a series of letters. The letters are written to the current police chief of Chicago, to the future mayors of Chicago, to Chicago's Youth of Color, to other policemen who knew about the torture but felt powerless to do anything, and to young black activists who brought a petition to the United Nations charging Chicago police with genocide. Through patient and careful research Mr. Ralph discovered that many people within and without the police department knew about Mr. Zuley's torturing suspects. In fact, the torture could not have gone on for so long if people had spoken up. But other officers were intimidated by Mr. Zuley, others just turned away because the people being tortured were "bad people."  

Mr. Ralph has a remarkable discussion with a Guantanamo survivor, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was tortured often and on for 14 years. Incredibly--or not so incredibly, one of Mr. Salhi's torturers was the same Chicago policeman, Richard Zuley. According to Salhi, Zuley told him and another Guantanamo detainee that "it did not matter to him whether the man was innocent or guilty. It didn't matter because to Zuley, this was a bad guy."  "It seems to me, Slahi went on, "that in the U.S., guilty means that you are a bad person. But is it supposed to mean that? In a democratic country, I thought that guilty is supposed to mean that you did this or that crime.  Does it matter from a legal perspective whether you were a good or bad guy? I don't think so. But this `bad guy' mentality is brought up over and over in interrogations (pp.160-161)."

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A State-by-State Look at Coronavirus in Prisons

August 19, 2020

The Marshall Project is collecting data on COVID-19 infections in state and federal prisons. See how the virus has affected correctional facilities where you live.  The trends are not encouraging. The number of total cases has been rising since the end of June.  At the end of June there were less than 3000 weekly cases recorded throughout throughout the United States. By the middle of August there were 8,745 cases recorded weekly. Please write your Governor and Attorney General Barr telling them that they should release more inmates who are over 60, who have underlying medical conditions, or are within a year of release.  Urge them to be more consistent (wearing masks, sanitation) in preventive measures.  

CORONAVIRUS  UPDATED 5:45 P.M. 08.14.2020

Since March, The Marshall Project has been tracking how many people are being sickened and killed by COVID-19 in prisons and how widely it has spread across the country and within each state. Here, we will regularly update these figures counting the number of people infected and killed nationwide and in each prison system until the crisis abates.

This reporting was undertaken in partnership with The Associated Press.

By Aug. 11, at least 95,398 people in prison had tested positive for the illness, a 10 percent increase from the week before.

New cases among prisoners reached an all-time high this week after slowing down in June. The growth in recent weeks was driven by big jumps in prisoners testing positive in Florida, Texas, California and the federal Bureau of Prisons as well as outbreaks in Idaho, Iowa, Oregon and South Carolina.

Cases first peaked in late April, when states such as Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas began mass testing of prisoners. Those initiatives suggested that coronavirus had been circulating among people without symptoms in much greater numbers than previously known.

There have been at least 95,398 cases of coronavirus reported among prisoners.

62,102 prisoners have recovered.

Virginia is in 10th in the nation in the number of cases of Covid per 10,000 prisoners in the state prison system.  It has reported 2406 cases and 841 cases per 10,000 prisoners. 

Maryland is 24th in the nation in the number of cases of Covid per 10,000 prisoners in the state prison system.  It has reported 664 cases and 347 cases per 10,000 prisoners.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons in second in the nation (Texas is number one) in the number of cases of Covid per 10,000 prisoners.  It has reported 11, 524 cases and 745 cases per 10,000 prisoners.  

Click here to read the whole article and the breakdown by states. 

For Further Reading

August 13, 2020

This Sunday I will be giving a talk at one of the congregations/prayer groups I belong to on "Reimagining Criminal Justice in the United States." If you have been following us, you know that we have running a series of webinars on this theme.  Moreover, our virtual gala on September 9 is called "Human Rights at the Prison Door: Reimagining Criminal Justice in the U.S."  The last webinar in the series will be on Wednesday, August 19 at 11:30 a.m. Tyrone Walker, a returning citizen, will be interviewed. I have prepared a reading list for the talk I am going to give in case any of the participants want to do further reading. Here is the list I compiled:

American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer, Penguin Press, 2018.

Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor by Angela J. Davis, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics by Marie Gottschalk, Princeton University Press, 2015.

Chokehold: A Renegade Prosecutor’s Radical Thoughts on How To Disrupt the System [Policing Black Men] by Paul Butler, The New Press, 2017.

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, by Elizabeth Hinton, Harvard University Press, 2016.

Hell Is A Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and Sarah Shourd, The New Press, 2016.

Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth, Basic Books, 2018.

Solitary: The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation and How We Can Abolish It,  by Terry Allen Kupers, University of California Press, 2017.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, The New Press, 2010.

Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism by Marc Morjé Howard, Oxford University Press, 2017.

Waiting For An Echo: The Madness of American Incarceration by Christine Montross, M.D., Penguin Press, 2020.

This list is in alphabetical order by title. The most compelling books are the personal accounts such as Shane Bauer's American Prison. Mr. Bauer went undercover and got himself hired as a correctional officer in a private prison in Louisiana. His description not only of the brutality and disrespect shown to the inmates is matched by his descriptions of how deadening and exhausting the work is for correctional officers.

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DC Residents in the BOP

August 7, 2020

This has been a busy week. Today, I attended the ReThink Justice monthly meeting. At the meeting a representative of Council for Court Excellence (CCE) disclosed the results of a survey of DC residents in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).  Here are some of the statistics:

Who was at the BOP on July 4?  3221 DC Code offenders

Demographics: Sex                      Race

                               Female.   71             American-Indian.    2

                               Male.    3150            Asian                     6

                                                              Black                3078

                                                              White                  135

Top Charge & Security Level

Charge                                 Number

Homicide/Aggravated Assault.     1612

Robbery                                       429

Sex Offenses                                 324

Violation of Spv/Parole                   323

Drugs                                             35

Misc                                               33

Who is Coming Home?

1,042 DC Code offenders have release dates within 24 months.  

The full report with analysis has not been released yet. When it is posted on the CCE website, I will let you know and post the link.

Some Preliminary Observations

Most DC residents who are in the BOP have been convicted of a violent crime: homicide, aggravated assault, or robbery. Most DC residents in the BOP are black. If you want to see what mass incarceration means to the African-American community, just look at the demographics: the overwhelming percentage of people in prison are black men. If we want to reduce the number of black men in prison, then we as a society have to shorten prison sentences and invigorate parole. This means that people who have committed a violent crime should not be in prison for 30-50 years. It means helping people who have committed a violent crime make amends through a restorative justice program. It means ending the daily racial humiliations that black people too often experience in this country.   


Testimony at Special Session of VA Legislature

August 6, 2020

This morning IAHR Chairperson, Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass and IAHR Senior Advisor submitted testimony to the special session of the Virginia Legislature.  Here are their testimonies:

Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass

Good morning Chairpersons Hope and Herring, and honorable committee members.

My name is Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass, and I speak as a Virginia resident, a veteran, an advocate, and, more importantly, the mother of a beloved son who is currently wrongfully incarcerated. I am committed to the Black Lives Matter movement and bringing good trouble to the state legislature!

As to your agenda focus today, I do support an end to no-knock warrants, creation of civilian oversight at the state and local levels, and establishment of severe penalties for misuse of force by police officers, including de-licensure. Also, as chair of Interfaith Action for Human Rights, we stand in solidarity with our advocacy partners. Supporting eliminating Virginia private prisons, paying a reasonable wage for mandated prison labor, earned sentence credit, reinstate parole, and criminal cases; sentencing reform.

I want to spend most of my time discussing a topic that is not on your agenda but is, without a doubt, just as urgent a matter of reform to our criminal legal and corrections systems, which disproportionately and permanently harm Black people.

As you are aware, the practice of solitary confinement in Virginia’s prisons, as well as local and regional jails, is far too prevalent and causes irreparable mental and physical harm to those upon whom it is inflicted. Solitary confinement is barbaric and has been condemned by the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and other human rights organizations.

Depriving a person of human contact and other normal stimulation for 22-24 hours a day is inhumane on its face. Too often, however, it is imposed by corrections officers as retaliation or punishment for behavioral or mental health issues not related to one’s criminal sentence.

Continuing use of this torturous and potentially fatal practice during a global pandemic is even more unconscionable. Extended placement in isolation weakens one’s immune system and increases contact with guards who themselves may be infected. The Virginia Department of Health has recommended that solitary confinement units not be used to house people for medical isolation, but the Department of Corrections has not yet said if it will avoid doing so.

If the Virginia General Assembly didn’t have enough reasons to legislate an end to solitary confinement already, the need now is greater than ever. We can’t count on the DOC to do the right thing! Please take this opportunity now to end solitary confinement, which places Black people and others at even higher risk of harm during this on-going pandemic.

Thank you for your time.

Gay Gardner's Testimony follows.


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What Replaces Prisons?

August 5, 2020

Yesterday I read a review of Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair by Danielle Sered, New Press, 305 pp., $26.99. The author of the review is Michelle Kuo, who is an attorney and a professor of History, Law, and Society at the University of Paris. The focus of the book is on the brutality of prison life and exploring possibilities that could replace prisons as we know and experience them today in the U.S. Ms. Kuo writes: 

And prison itself is a horror: a chaotic and degrading environment where the threat of violence is constant. Overextended and corrupt guards allow assaults, or assault inmates themselves. In Alabama, inmate mortality has more than doubled since 2010. Since 2014, Texas and Florida, which respectively have the highest and third-highest prison populations in the US, have seen record inmate mortality rates. Investigative reports depict inadequate or nonexistent mental health care, overcrowding, and poor sanitation. During the first month of the coronavirus pandemic, Rikers Island had one toilet for every twenty-nine people. In Mississippi, where sixteen inmates died in a single month in 2018, prisoners live in “squalid conditions with standing sewage in freezing temperatures,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The practice of solitary confinement—sometimes for infractions as minor as speaking disrespectfully to a guard—is linked to nearly half of prison suicides. In Texas, the average time prisoners spend in solitary is four years.

Most people who have studied prisons usually agree that the threat of harsh punishment or lengthy sentences is not a deterrent to crime. The book by Ms. Sered explores at length the possibilities for instituting restorative justice practices and mediation in place of long and brutal prison sentences. . I plan to buy the book. For we as a society desperately need to come up with workable alternatives to punishment that will have the potential to provide justice to the victims as well as restore the lives of the perpetrators and the communities they live in. Here is another paragraph from the review that highlights a restorative justice program here in Washington, DC.  

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Inmates Dying at a BOP prison in Butner, NC

August 3, 2020

The Washington Post posted this morning an article entitled, Frail inmates could be sent home to prevent the spread of covid-19. Instead, some are dying in federal prisons. The prison in question is a federal prison in Butner, NC.  As it happens IAHR has a number of people writing to inmates at the federal prison in Butner. It is a large facility that includes a medium security prison, a low security prison, and a camp. In fact, in May IAHR received a letter from an inmate at Butner decrying the attitude of the warden and the staff toward Covid-19. Please read the letter and the Washington Post article. If you are outraged by the inertia of federal officials in releasing older inmates and those with underlying medical conditions, please write a letter to Attorney General Barr and your local Congressional Representative. Tell them that those incarcerated with underlying medical conditions were not given a death sentence and they should be given compassionate release. Too many incarcerated in federal prisons have died unnecessarily! 

Racial Disparities in Incarceration

July 29, 2020

Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) produces research on incarceration as well as on policing, sentencing, and reentry. PPI just published a series of graphs called "Visualizing Racial Disparities in Mass Incarceration" by Wendy Sawyer.  Ms. Sawyer writes, 

Recent protests calling for radical changes to American policing have brought much-needed attention to the systemic racism within our criminal justice system. This extends beyond policing, of course: Systemic racism is evident at every stage of the system, from policing to prosecutorial decisions, pretrial release processes, sentencing, correctional discipline, and even reentry. The racism inherent in mass incarceration affects children as well as adults, and is often especially punishing for people of color who are also marginalized along other lines, such as gender and class.

Because racial disparity data is often frustratingly hard to locate, we’ve compiled the key data available into a series of charts, arranged into five slideshows focused on policingjuvenile justicejails and pretrial detention, prisons and sentencing, and reentry. These charts provide a fuller picture of racial inequality in the criminal justice system, and make clear that a broad transformation will be needed to uproot the racial injustice of mass incarceration.

Following the slideshows, we also address five frequently asked questions about criminal justice race/ethnicity data.

Here are a series of graphs that highlight these disparities. 

jail incarceration rates

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Letters from Fluvanna

July 27, 2020

Over the last three weeks IAHR has received a series of letters from inmates incarcerated at Fluvanna Women's Correctional Center in Virginia. What impresses me most and makes me very angry is just how little respect is given to those incarcerated at this prison. Denying women underwear, proper shoes, and holding onto outgoing mail are ways to humiliate the incarcerated. As a religious person, I bristle when people are gratuitously shown disrespect. It is a violation of one of my core beliefs that everyone should be treated with respect.  Here are the messages we received:

On 7-8-20:  I was wondering if you were still doing inquiries on prisoners behalf during the pandemic. I have two incredibly pressing issues that are affecting us right now.  The first being that we are not being given clothing and needed materials such as bras, panties, shoes, wash cloths, towels, night gowns, etc. It has been over 6 months since we have gotten clothing exchange. My panties and many others are in shreds and my shoes, again like others, have holes in them. We still have to wear shoes to go to rec, medical and anywhere else we are taken. mine have literal cracks in the bottom, causing my feet to get wet if it rains. We have begged and pleaded and filed paperwork, but we are being ignored. Our counselor even tried, to no avail, to get us at least panties.

The other issue is the access to the law library. . . . No one is allowed in to do research (I have documentation to prove this), even the ones that are mandated by law. 

On 7-13-20:  Update: I was finally able to get shoes, and was given panties that are a size too small because they do not have anything in between a 6 and 11. I was given these by an offended property officer, who was not willing to discuss or even hear that there was a severe problem in our building with other people getting the items that they needed. She was only willing to discuss me, and was very matter of fact that SHE was not out of anything but the state was when I asked if it were true that they had been out of many things since January. She did confirm that the STATE had been out and had been waiting on inventory...since January. I remained polite even though she was clearly upset and took my informal and follow ups personal, even though they were not. Still, many people are not comfortable filing complaints, and are in need. The Unit Manager and the Counselor are aware, but say they have done all they could. Just wanted you updated on what has transpired. Thank you again for all of your help! It is appreciated!

On 7-22-20: . . .The mailroom is holding our mail, and it has taken a ridiculous amount of time to get our mail in. Tonight took the cake. I got my letter from the Governor's office telling me that they received the documentation I sent to them. BUT the letter was dated May 20 and postmarked May 21. Yet the mailroom held it for TWO months and then scribbled on the barcodes on the front and back to prevent me from telling when it came and put their received stamp "Received - inspector #2 July 22 2020". However, they forgot to check the red stamped US postage that has the day it was postmarked printed within it. They did this with my legal CDs and kept them on their desk for weeks telling me that they were not here, until I wrote an informal and a man in the administrative office found them on mailroom staffs desk. . .Thank you so much for all you do and any help you can give with this. We could be missing very important legal and regular correspondence. We need some outside help.



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News from VA prisons

July 21, 2020

IAHR received news yesterday that Michael Ford was transferred to Green Rock Correctional Center and is in a 14-day quarantine as a precaution against COVID-19. Mr. Ford joins IAHR in thanking those of you who contacted the Department of Corrections on his behalf.

You may remember that we put out a "take action bulletin" last week which read: 

Michael Ford #1471470 is currently incarcerated at Greensville Correctional Center.  As of April, he had had no disciplinary issues in the last 4 years and qualifies for transfer to a lower-level facility, but he was told he could not be transferred until the COVID-19 pandemic was over, which is clearly not consistent with the fact that other transfers are occurring. 
Mr. Ford was placed in the RHU (Restrictive Housing Unit/Solitary Confinement) at Greensville on April 14, 2020, and is still there. This happened apparently because he was given a disciplinary charge for allegedly threatening an officer, which he denies.  In fact, the charge was subsequently dismissed. No reason has been given to Mr. Ford as to why he is considered to pose a security threat that cannot be managed without keeping him indefinitely in "restrictive housing."  
Your efforts on behalf of those abused in prison do make a difference!
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