Waiting for an Echo: The Madness of American Incarceration

July 16, 2020

Today I listened to another moving and informative interview on Fresh Air conducted by Dave Davies.  Mr. Davies interviewed Christine Montross who is the author of a newly published book called Waiting for an Echo: The Madness of American Incarceration. Ms. Montross is a psychiatrist by training and she became very interested in what happened to her patients when they were arrested. This led her to an in depth exploration of how police, the courts, jails, and prisons deal with people who are mentally ill. In order to understand better what happens to mentally ill people when they become wrapped up in the criminal justice system, Ms. Montross became a court appointed psychiatrist to determine whether those arrested were fit to stand trial and if found guilty to be placed in prison.  

Ms. Montross quickly found out that incarceration makes people with mental illness functionally worse off. Working in the prisons, she witnessed how all inmates are treated with disrespect and brutalized especially by being placed in solitary confinement. She testifies how the food is made deliberately disgusting for people being held in solitary. Prisons, she says is place where everyone experiences dehumanization, both staff and inmates.  

The best part of her interview is that she took time to explore and report on prisons which operate totally differently. She was able to investigate in person how Norway changed its prison system from being basically like the U.S. model into something totally different and humane. In Norway, inmates have their own rooms which they can lock. They have access to kitchens so that they can prepare their own meals for themselves and others. In Norway hardly anyone is put into solitary and if they are placed in isolation it is only for a day or two, no more than several days. In Norway prisons are founded on human rights and on the idea that everyone, no matter what he or she has done, deserves respect.  

Ms. Montross' eloquent testimony supports all of IAHR's efforts to change the values by which we in this country incarcerate people who have been convicted of crimes. I just ordered the book and I urge you to do so as well.   

The Invention of Police

July 14, 2020

I just read another illuminating and learned article by Jill Lepore, entitled, "The Invention of Police."  I urge everyone to read it.  The essay was published in this week's New Yorker.  Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard University. She is an incredibly prolific and provocative scholar whose books are readable, even exciting. In this essay, Ms. Lepore asks a basic question, "What are the origins of policing in the U.S.?" She demonstrates how policing from the beginning was intertwined with slavery, union busting, controlling new immigrants, and dominating indigenous peoples. The first police were slave patrols out to catch runaway slaves. Police forces were often organized privately by corporations to intimidate and threaten union organizers. From the very beginning in the 19th century police were armed, unlike the police in Great Britain. Over the course of a century or more, police became more heavily armed. The purpose of police then was to dominate those who many considered were "social outcasts." People of color, African-Americans, Latinx, Chinese, East European immigrants were the ones who had to be controlled. These people were often perceived as a threat, as dangerous, and as having innate proclivities for crime.  

The time has to come to change this narrative. People of color and immigrants are not the enemy. We now have the opportunity to change the narrative by holding police officers, prosecutors, and correctional officers accountable for misconduct: for use of excessive force, for brutalizing people in their custody, for lying under oath, and destroying or hiding evidence. Police and correctional officers need to see their mission as being public servants. They are commissioned to serve the public and to protect public not to terrorize the public.  


Violence in Prisons from Prison Guards

July 8, 2020

On Monday, July 6, the Washington Post published an opinion piece by Steve J. Martin entitled, "It's not just policing that needs reform. Prisons need it, too." According to the Post, Mr Martin "worked as a corrections expert for the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security and as a federal monitor in class-action lawsuits. He is the federal court monitor for litigation involving use of force at New York’s Rikers Island jails."

Mr. Martin's op-ed makes many important points about how brutality and excessive force are all too common in prison. Mr. Martin describes in vivid detail the kind of brutality and violence at the hands of corrections officers which is all too common in federal and state prisons and in local jails. Often the brutal methods that corrections officers employ result in serious injuries to inmates that sometimes that results in death.  

Mr. Martin advocates that corrections officers must be held accountable for their actions. He writes that "Too few officers face sanctions, even for killing a detainee. Internal review too often fails to provide meaningful scrutiny. The testimony of inmate witnesses is discounted, and, as with the police, the “code of silence” among prison staffs helps protect abusive officers. Autopsies and death certificates often ignore the use of force that might have precipitated the death."

Basically, he says that brutality is the result of poor leadership and lack of political will. This is true in itself. Stronger and more enlightened leadership would help. But stronger and more enlightened leadership may not be sufficient. It may be difficult to identify and secure stronger and more enlightened leaders. There will always be stronger and weaker leaders in any system. There has to be a mechanism to provide accountability without relying exclusively on leadership.


Read more

Mayor Bowser-US Parole Comm

July 6, 2020

I hope everyone had a happy Independence Day in spite of the difficult conditions we find ourselves in.  However, I am happy to report that Mayor Bowser finally has publicly requested from Congress through Congresswoman Norton's office to that the authority of the U.S. Parole Commission be transferred to the DC Government. In a letter just recently released, Mayor Bowser asked that "the District regain local control of parole functions through federal legislation." For a number of years, criminal justice reform advocates have been pushing the DC Council and Mayor to take back control of the U.S Parole Commission, which affects thousands of DC residents.  The Mayor asked that Congress pass legislation renewing federal control of the U.S. Parole Commission for only two years. This will give the District government time to plan, fund, and implement a smooth transition of the parole function to local control. For a full description of the issues surrounding the U.S. Parole Commission and its significance to the District, please read my June 19 blog posting entitled, "DC Statehood-Black Lives Matter."  

I urge DC residents to send a note to Mayor Bowser thanking her for her leadership on this issue.   

Read more

Covid-19 in VA Jails and Prisons

June 26, 2020

Following up on the previous blog post, here is detailed news article from the Virginian-Pilot about how Covid-19 is being dealt with in Virginia's prisons and jails. People have gotten sick unnecessarily and people have died unnecessarily as well.  People who are near the end of their sentence are still languishing in prison or jail.  There is a lack of facial masks and other PPP.  These stories are heartbreaking because it could be different and still can be different. More people need to advocate on behalf of those in prisons and jails.  Please call Gov. Northam's office at (804) 786-0000 and ask for the Governor's office. Tell them to release incarcarated people who are at least a year from the end of their sentence; tell them to release inmates with underlying medical conditions, and tell them to release inmates who are 60 or older.  Urge them to provide more PPP and cleaning supplies to staff and inmates.  Read the news article from the Virginian-Pilot below.   


Read more

The Spread of Covid in Prisons

June 26, 2020

This week we have learned that the coronavirus is ripping through much of the southern and southwestern sections of the U.S. The press and media is full of stories of how the virus is spreading exponentially in these parts of the country.  But we also learned this week that on the whole prisons have failed in dealing with the virus. This week Prison Policy Initiative released a report grading each state's response to Covid-19 in their prisons. According to this report most states have failed in protecting their prison populations. Here is the report:

By Emily Widra and Dylan Hayre   Tweet this
June 25, 2020

When the pandemic struck, it was instantly obvious what needed to be done: take all actions possible to “flatten the curve.” This was especially urgent in prisons and jails, which are very dense facilities where social distancing is impossible, sanitation is poor, and medical resources are extremely limited. Public health experts warned that the consequences were dire: prisons and jails would become petri dishes where, once inside, COVID-19 would spread rapidly and then boomerang back out to the surrounding communities with greater force than ever before.

Advocates were rightly concerned, given the long-standing and systemic racial disparities in arrest, prosecution, and sentencing, that policymakers would be slow to respond to the threat of the virus in prisons and jails when it was disproportionately poor people of color whose lives were on the line. Would elected officials be willing to take the necessary steps to save lives in time?

When faced with this test of their leadership, how did officials in each state fare? In this report, the ACLU and Prison Policy Initiative evaluate the actions each state has taken to save incarcerated people and facility staff from COVID-19. We find that most states have taken very little action, and while some states did more, no state leaders should be content with the steps they’ve taken thus far. The map below shows the scores we granted to each state, and our methodology explains the data we used in our analysis and how we weighted different criteria

Read more

John Oliver on Covid-19 in Prisons

June 22, 2020

Last night John Oliver spent 18 minutes on how prisons are a breeding ground for Covid-19. He also pointed out that prisons have inadequate supplies of protective equipment, soap, and Purell.  Moreover, most prisons are putting inmates in solitary confinement as a way to deal with Covid-19. The Unlock the Box Campaign recently released a Report, Solitary Confinement is Never the Answer. Here are five key findings of this report:

  • COVID-19 has led to an explosion in the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers.

  • While COVID-19 presents a grave and growing threat to incarcerated people and correctional staff, the use of solitary confinement will increase, rather than curb, the spread of the virus.

  • Significantly reducing prison and jail populations remains the best way to protect the health and safety of incarcerated people, correctional staff, and communities from COVID-19.

  • For people left within prisons, COVID-19 can be contained without the dangerous use of solitary confinement through universal testing, the safe separation of positive and non-positive residents and staff, and high-quality personal protective equipment (PPE) for all people living and working in these facilities.

  • Quarantine and medical isolation in prisons must not resemble punitive solitary confinement, which is an internationally recognized form of torture.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons in which most DC residents are incarcerated have set on a course of total lockdown. Contact your Senators today to urge them to make clear to Attorney General Barr that the federal Bureau of Prisons "total lockdown" in response to public protest was immoral and that it must never happen again.


DC Statehood-Black Lives Matter

June 19, 2020

June 19 or Juneteenth is like April 16 for DC residents. Congress passed the Compensated Emancipation Act to end slavery in the District of Columbia and President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law on April 16, 1862. Three years later, after the Civil War ended and after the 1865 ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution officially abolishing slavery nationwide, African Americans in the District began to celebrate April 16 as a holiday. 

Political Leaders In the District often complain that District residents are still not totally free because DC is not a state. Congress has the power to overrule legislation passed by the DC Council and the District has no real representation in the Congress. Our Congressional representative is not a voting member. Often District political leaders hint that overt racism influences the debate on whether DC should become a state.

Yet District leaders are not immune from criticism and charges of hypocrisy.  For instance, Congress had indicated last year that it would be willing to transfer authority of the U.S. Parole Commission (USPC) back to the District. 

The U.S. Parole Commission has the power to discipline DC residents who have been given early release from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  Every DC resident who is convicted of a felony serves his or her sentence in a federal prison. There are approximately 4500 DC residents incarcerated in 122 prisons around the country.


Read more

Excessive force in prisons

June 18, 2020

Much of the nation seems to have woken up to the use of excessive force by police. The killings of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks have galvanized much of the nation to act against police killings, brutality, and excessive force. Yet, the plague of excessive force is not restricted just to the police.  It is also commonplace in the nation's prisons and jails. Yesterday I received a letter from our friend MarQui Clardy who is incarcerated in a Virginia State Prison. Here is some of his testimony about the use of excessive force in the prison he resides in.

"What isn't being talked about is the use of excessive force by the other law enforcement officers; those who work inside jails and prisons. While notable, those instances of unwarranted officer aggression seen in street protests are rare. However, this happens on a regular basis behind bars. The difference is that there's no mass demand on behalf of us for an end to it. This is another clear example of society's indifference to the treatment of incarcerated individuals. Being confronted by officers in riot gear with the same paintball guns, batons, shields, tasers, stun grenades, and tear gas is a regular occurrence in here, and the threshold for these officers to use force against us is much lower than in society. The purpose of riot gear is to contain riots. But between 2010 and 2019, there were only 10 notable prison riots in the entire nation, which begs the question: Why is riot gear used so frequently in here?"


Read more

Prisons are the Hotspot for the Spread of Covid-19

June 17, 2020

Recently, IAHR received a letter from a person who was incarcerated in a Virginia prison but was subsequently transferred to a Florida prison.  In the letter she states how the Florida prison isolated her and some other prisoners by placing them in a garage!  Here is a quote from the note we received:

so we are supposively moving out of the garage this week. but everyday they feed us peanut butter and jelly, and Bologna and cheese. we only get 1 hot meal a day, breakfast which is coffy cake and cold oatmeal. oh they spaced us out so we are social distanced 1 feet apart Cruz they moved the 1st 2 rolls of people on the other side of the garage.. we hang our clothes on the wall with paperclips and we're straight living out of bags. we have a boat for our matress but were sleeping on the Floor. no bull-shit its crazy. We’ll know today if the quarantine is lifted, I will keep u posted.”

This is another deplorable example of how prison authorities are dealing or rather not dealing with the threat of Covid-19:  prisoners forced to sleep on the floor, given inadequate meals, and not really being able to distance themselves from each other. 

In today’s New York Times, there is a news article on the spread of Covid-19 throughout the nation’s prisons.  The Times reports: Cases of the coronavirus in prisons and jails across the United States have soared in recent weeks, even as the overall daily infection rate in the nation has remained relatively flat.  The number of prison inmates known to be infected has doubled during the past month to more than 68,000. Prison deaths tied to the coronavirus have also risen, by 73 percent since mid-May. By now, the five largest known clusters of the virus in the United States are not at nursing homes or meatpacking plants, but inside correction institutions, according to data The New York Times has been collecting about confirmed coronavirus cases since the pandemic reached American shores.

Read more

Donate Volunteer

get updates