IAHR February 15, 2017 Newsletter

IAHR February 15, 2017 Newsletter

In this issue of the IAHR Newsletter you will find a call for Advocacy in Maryland, an analysis of statistics about solitary in Maryland, a report on the screening of “Solitary” in Richmond, an essay on torture and solitary by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, and a news article in Slate on an important court case in Pennsylvania.

Prisoner Rights' Advocacy Day in Annapolis-February 28, 2017 

Click here to sign up to participate  

This year several groups are joining forces to support a substantive bill limiting the use of solitary confinement (called restrictive housing by Corrections) and another bill calling for removing the Governor from the parole process for lifers eligible for parole.

What:    Prisoners’ Rights Advocacy Day

Where: Lowe House Office Building, 6 Bladen Street, Room 406, Annapolis, MD, 21401

When:  Thursday, February 28, 2017 from 9 am to 2 pm

Agenda:  9 - 10 am - Refreshments and Advocacy Training

10 - 11 am - Explanation of bills and Q&A  

11 am - 1 pm - Visits with legislators in their offices

         1 pm - 2 pm - Debriefing

To sign up click here

IAHR along with our coalition partners are advocating for two important bills. 

Restrictive Housing (SB 1015 & HB 1001)

In the report mandated by last year’s law that was initiated by IAHR and the ACLU, Corrections reported that in FY 2016 68% of inmates spent time in solitary - 22 hours or more, alone or with another prisoner in a small cell for an average of 50 - 60 days. 269 inmates were released directly from solitary to the public. 172 inmates in solitary were diagnosed as Seriously Mentally Ill (SMI). 9 juveniles spent time in solitary.

To read the Department’s report, click here. 

Removing the Governor from the Parole Process for Lifers eligible for parole (SB 694 & HB 723)

Maryland is one of only 3 states that grants the Governor the right to veto/deny the recommendation of the Parole Board concerning parole for lifers eligible for parole.  The effect is that NO prisoner eligible for parole who is granted that by the Parole Board actually gets parole - not even those sentenced when they were juveniles.

Details about the Legislation

The Bills:  SB1015 - Correctional Services -Restrictive Housing - Limitations

            Lead Sponsor: Senator Lee

            Hearing in the Senate: Tuesday, Feb. 21, 1 pm

            Companion House Bill: HB1001

            Lead Sponsor: Delegate Moon

            Hearing in the House Judiciary Committee Room: Feb. 28, 1 pm

            SB694 Inmates - Life Imprisonment - Parole Reform

            Lead Sponsor: Senator McFadden

            Hearing in the Senate: February 15, 1 pm

            Companion House Bill : HB723

            Lead Sponsor: Delegate Queen

            Hearing in the House Judiciary Committee Room: Tuesday, February 14, 1 pm

To read the bills online, click here and enter the bill number: capital letters SB or HB followed by (with no spaces) the number.

Parking?  We will provide tips closer to the date.

Click here to sign up

More information? Contact Rabbi Feinberg at 202-324-9160 or [email protected].

Supporting Groups: Interfaith Action for Human Rights, The ACLU of Maryland, Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform, Maryland Justice and Safety Alliance, Out for Justice, The Greater Baltimore Grassroots Criminal Justice Network, among others. 

Analysis of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services’ First Report on the use of Restrictive Housing (Isolated Confinement)  by Suzanne O’Hatnick

An astonishing 68% of the Maryland State prison population found itself in Restrictive Housing in FY2016! Average lengths of stay were between 50 and 60 days. Dr. Juan Mendez, the former UN Rapporteur on Torture, himself a victim of torture, along with prominent psychiatrists, declared that more than 15 days in isolation can cause profound and lasting psychological damage. We don’t know what the maximum length of stay was for any prisoner.

Here are some other statistics from the report:

  • 269 prisoners were released directly from Restrictive Housing to the public.
  • 172 prisoners who were diagnosed at Seriously Mentally Ill were confined in Restrictive Housing.
  • 9 juveniles of the 20 juveniles held in adult prison spent time in isolated confinement.

On the plus side, DPSCS, under the guidance of the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) is modifying the sentencing matrix of the Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR), moving from a maximum stay in isolation from 360 days to 60 days - far from 15, but much better than 360.  NIC is also providing training in de-escalation techniques to corrections staff.

DPSCS is developing a structured housing facility and program for the most violent offenders who continually commit infractions, with individualized case plans and incentive-based programming.  Also under development is a similar facility for the seriously mentally ill (SMI) who continually commit infractions of a violent nature. This facility is to be tailored to address the specific mental health needs of the seriously mentally ill.

In response to this report Montgomery County Sentator Barbara Lee and Delegate David Moon, also of Montgomery County, have written a substantive bill (see above) to do two things: put some basic parameters around restrictive housing - allowing for variation but requiring documentation that other methods of recourse have been tried; and to provide some level of public oversight to follow the progress of reform and to provide access to documentation as reform is underway. 

We urge you to support our efforts to put real limitations on how long any one inmate can be consigned to isolation.  Please sign up for Advocacy Day on February 28 by clicking here.  

250 View HBO's "Solitary" at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond 

On February 8, IAHR along with the ACLU of Virginia sponsored a screening of Kristi Jacobson’s HBO film, “Solitary.”  A diverse audience gathered which included students, residents, returning citizens, Virginia Department of Corrections staff, and relatives of returning citizens and of those incarcerated. 

Following the screening, Rabbi Feinberg led a panel discussion which included IAHR Board Member, Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass, Ms. Jacobson, and Marcus Bullock, CEO of Flikshop.  Ms. Jenkins-Snodgrass is the mother of an inmate at Red Onion State Prison in Pound, VA where the film was shot.  Mr. Bullock is a returning citizen who spent eight years in Virginia prisons. 
Claire Gastanaga (ACLU-VA Exec. Director), Rabbi Feinberg, Marcus Bullock, Kristi Jacobson, and Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass

Members of the audience submitted many questions which stimulated a lively discussion.  Here are some of the salient points that emerged:

  • While Virginia prison authorities have clear guidelines about justifying consigning inmates to prolonged isolation, these guidelines are not always observed.  While Red Onion officials have reduced the number people in solitary, many prisoners still remain in prolonged solitary for years.
  • Mental health services are woefully under budgeted and understaffed.  A Department of Corrections’ official stated that there is one mental health professional to every 250 prisoners.
  • Managing a maximum security prison has adverse effects on staff.
  • Both Correction officials and the public need to hold up successes of reentry and not just dwell on the failures.  Prison officials should see successful reentry to society as part of their mission.

“Solitary” will be available on HBO for another three weeks and it will be available indefinitely on HBO GO and HBO NOW.  Read a review of the film by clicking here. 

Solitary Watch: Trump Wants to Bring Back Torture. For Thousands of Americans, It Never Went Away by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, February 10, 2017

Among the many calamities ushered in by the Trump era is a renewal of the national debate over the legitimacy of physical torture. The President, unsurprisingly, has long been in favor of it, asserting repeatedly that “torture works,” and promising to bring back practices “a hell of a lot worse” than waterboarding.

draft of an executive order leaked during Trump’s first week in office calls for a revival of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and of the network of overseas Black Sites that sprung up after 9/11. (For now, Trump says, he will defer to his Defense Secretary and CIA Director, who believe that other methods of extracting information are more effective—though that could change at any time.)

A stinging response to Trump’s order came from John McCain, one of the only Republicans in Congress willing to disagree with the President on any front. “The President can sign whatever executive orders he likes. But the law is the law. We are not bringing back torture in the United States of America.”

But as McCain, of all people, should know, torture has been taking place all along, right on American soil.

During his nearly six years as a POW in North Vietnam, McCain endured terrible beatings and other forms of physical torture. Yet he described his two years in solitary confinement this way: “It’s an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”

For some of the roughly 100,000 people held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails, the extreme isolation and sensory deprivation of solitary are being used, as they were on McCain, as a means of coercion, whether it be to reveal information or simply to plead guilty while awaiting trial.

For tens of thousands of others, this spirit-crushing treatment is imposed simply as a prison “management tool.” People in prison are routinely condemned to spending 23 hours a day alone in small, bare cells, for months, years, or even decades– not by a judge or jury, but by prison staff, including rank-and-file corrections officers. Infractions as trivial as talking back to a guard, failing to return a food tray, or having too many postage stamps are reason enough to land you in prolonged isolation. Click here to read the rest of the essay.

Slate: Solitary is a Great American Shame. A new court ruling takes steps to rein in inhumane incarceration by Mark Joseph Stern, February 10, 2017

Shawn T. Walker spent 20 years in a windowless cell measuring 7 by 12 feet. He was allowed to leave that cell five times a week to spend two-hour intervals in a restricted area known as the “dog cage.” Before entering the dog cage, Walker was required to undergo a strip search—including a body cavity search. To avoid these intrusions, Walker did not leave his cell for nearly seven years. He ate his meals alone in his cell, where he was constantly inundated by the sounds of other inmates in solitary confinement. Like virtually everyone subject to solitary, Walker developed severe mental disorders including insomnia, acute emotional distress, and uncontrollable body tremors.

Walker’s first 14 years in solitary were unavoidable: Pennsylvania placed him on death row for committing first-degree murder, and in Pennsylvania, death row is solitary confinement. But after 14 years, his capital sentence was vacated. Walker was no longer awaiting execution—yet the state kept him locked in solitary, without any clear explanation as to why, for six more years. Only after a court formally converted Walker’s sentence to life imprisonment was he removed from solitary and placed in the general population. Eventually, Walker sued, alleging that his six extra years in solitary violated his constitutional rights.

On Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit agreed with Walker in a broad ruling that strictly limits the use of solitary in the three states within the circuit: Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. The decision marks a considerable victory for opponents of solitary who argue that prisons routinely abuse the practice in violation of the U.S. Constitution. This week’s ruling contributes to a growing consensus among federal courts that the judiciary must curb solitary confinement—a consensus likely to be affirmed by the Supreme Court in the near future. Continue reading the article by clicking here.