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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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.

 

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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.   

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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.   

 

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