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.Read more
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
Top Charge & Security Level
Homicide/Aggravated Assault. 1612
Sex Offenses 324
Violation of Spv/Parole 323
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.
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:
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.
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.Read more
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!
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 policing, juvenile justice, jails 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.