IAHR November 8 Newsletter

IAHR November 8 Newsletter

This week the IAHR Newsletter contains four articles:

The Marshall Project: 28 Days in Chains: In this federal prison (Lewisburg), inmates have a choice: live with a violent cellmate or end up in shackles.  

IAHR Meets Virginia Corrections Officials

A Letter from Talib M. Shakir

FDC's Broken Parole System: Judges, lawyers, and legal advocates sign an open letter in support of would-be parolees languishing far too long. 

28 Days in Chains, reported and published in collaboration with  NPR.

On Feb. 3, 2011, corrections officers at Lewisburg federal penitentiary in rural Pennsylvania arrived outside Sebastian Richardson’s cell door. With them was a man looking agitated and rocking back and forth. He stared down at Richardson, who at 4 feet, 11 inches was nicknamed “Bam Bam.”

The man, officers told Richardson, was his new cellmate. The two would spend nearly 24 hours a day celled together in a concrete room smaller than a parking space.
Sebastian Richardson in an undated photo. 

Sebastian Richardson, 51, didn’t know his new cellmate’s name, only that he also went by a nickname: "The Prophet." He had a habit of screaming songs or shouting the spelling of words for hours, as though competing in his own private spelling bee. There were also rumors that he had assaulted more than 20 previous “cellies.”

“He’s Lewisburg’s weapon,” said former Lewisburg inmate Deangelo Moore. “If he like you, he like you. But if he don’t, he’s your worst enemy.”

“Every cellie he get he always end up fighting,” said Lenelle Gray, another former Lewisburg inmate. “He was just crazy.”

So when officers told Richardson to cuff up and step aside to make room for his new cellmate, he refused.

Richardson later claimed in a LAWSUIT1 that the guards took The Prophet away and then returned 30 minutes later with reinforcements. They moved him to a laundry area to be stripped, searched, and put in paper clothes. Richardson yelped in pain as they then placed him in hand and ankle cuffs, clicking them tighter until they cut into his wrists and Achilles tendon. A chain, locked high on his chest in a practice known among staff as “T-rexing,” forced his arms into an awkwardly high bend and made it hard to breathe. Officers then walked him, haltingly, to a cell where another man was being held in identical shackles.

The details of Richardson's story are laid out in a lawsuit he filed against the Bureau of Prisons and the agency's response to that lawsuit — and are reinforced by Richardson's letters from prison and interviews with former inmates.

According to inmates' lawyers, Lewisburg staffers, and more than 40 current and former prisoners — who made similar claims in lawsuits, court testimonies, government audits, or letters and interviews with The Marshall Project and NPR — restraints are used as punishment at Lewisburg, often for those who refuse their cell assignments. Inmates have no say over who shares their cell, even if guards place them with someone who has a violent history, is from a rival gang, or is suffering from a severe mental illness.

If they try to refuse a cellmate out of fear, as Richardson said he did, they are locked into metal “ambulatory restraints” for hours or days until they relent.

Seven prisoners said that they were threatened with or subjected to a punishment far more painful than ambulatory restraints, a form of punishment that at other prisons is used as a short-term last resort for uncontrollable inmates. It is known as “four-pointing” and consists of having each limb cuffed to a corner of a concrete slab or bed frame.

Richardson was freezing in the new cell. He claimed that guards left the window open when they locked him in. His paper uniform was no match for the Pennsylvania winter air. It didn’t help that the uniform was soaked with urine; in restraints, he wasn’t able to pull his pants down to use the toilet.

Richardson’s cuffs also made the top bunk an impossible reach. So when the other prisoner would take the bottom bed, Richardson did the only thing he could: He would curl up on the concrete floor.

Guards came every two hours to check on him. Richardson said they ignored his complaints: his swelling hands, his soiled clothes, his cut ankles. Instead they reiterated his options — be locked in a tiny cell with a violent man or cope with the restraints.

Richardson remained cuffed for 28 days.  To read the rest of the article please click here.  

 IAHR Meets Virginia Corrections Officials

Representatives of IAHR and its coalition partners in Virginia met with Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) Director Harold Clarke and more than twenty members of his executive staff on October 26.

Documentary on Red Onion Prison and VDOC Video

Director Clarke introduced a new video made by the Department of Corrections.  The decision to make the video was sparked by corrections officials’ disappointment with Kristi Jacobson’s documentary film “Solitary,” which depicts the impact of prolonged solitary confinement at Red Onion Prison.  Clarke considers “Solitary” to be unbalanced, because it omits information about the Step Down Program, which has enabled many men to transition out of long-term isolation, as well as interviews that Ms. Jacobson had filmed with Clarke and other VDOC officials.  He decided to make a video that included this information, along with more updated information about some of the prisoners interviewed in “Solitary.”

Advocates’ Concerns

After watching the video, advocates raised concerns based on their communication with men incarcerated at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge prisons and their family members.  These concerns include: (1) lengthy periods of isolated confinement following disciplinary charges, despite a rule limiting disciplinary segregation to 30 days; (2) inexplicable delays in prisoners’ access to the materials they need to progress through the Step Down Program; (3) people with mental health issues that impede them from exhibiting the behaviors needed to succeed in the Step Down Program; (4) very long projected timeframes for completing the Step Down Program in individual cases; (5) inadequate due process for and communication with prisoners and their family members about why they are in “segregation” and how long they will remain there; and (6) inadequate accountability for abusive behavior by staff.  Specific examples were cited.

Outcome of Dialogue

The dialogue was productive, although Director Clarke and his staff did not have many answers for the specific concerns advocates raised.  He expressed willingness to investigate any allegations of wrongdoing and said that abusive behavior by staff is not tolerated and has resulted in terminations.  He and his staff agreed that no one who is mentally ill should be held in isolation and insisted that they are working towards this goal.  At the same time, they expressed concern about resource limitations, including around mental health care.  Director Clarke agreed to give serious consideration to IAHR’s request that comprehensive data on the Step Down Program and isolated confinement be made public.  There was agreement by all to make this the first of many meetings.  Finally, Director Clarke agreed to enable a group of advocates to visit prisoners at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge prisons.

Remaining Concerns

IAHR and its Virginia partners look forward to building on this initial meeting to address our remaining concerns.  The Step Down Program has enabled many men at to be released from prolonged isolation, but we continue to worry about obstacles to completing the program that some individuals encounter.  We also remain concerned about people being removed from the general prison population and placed in isolation for arbitrarily and excessively long periods following disciplinary infractions.  In too many cases, there is inadequate communication with prisoners about why they are in segregation and when they can expect to get out.  We are not confident that there are adequate means to ensure that specific abuses rise to the attention of managers.  Finally, we share the department’s concerns about limited resources, particularly as financial constraints affect access to mental health treatment and health care generally.  The meeting provided a solid foundation for further dialogue and advocacy.

 Letter from Talib M. Shakir

(Editor's note: This letter was originally written to Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie who represents Ward 5).  
My name is Talib Shakir, inmate #11030-007, and I want to write you regarding bill that addresses juveniles sentenced as adults. I am a DC inmate who is serving out a sentence I received as a juvenile offender for 20 years to life.  I am currently in my 24th year of this sentence, and have gone before the parole board twice.  I was recommended for release, but then denied by the US Parole Commission, at my most recent parole hearing in 2013.

From my understanding you clarified the language of the bill to include retroactivity to those who have served 20 years or more, and have not yet reached their parole eligibility date. Although this may seem reasonable it isn't. Not including those who have reached their parole eligibility date will undermine the rule of the Supreme Court.

The parole board uses a set of guidelines that are harsher for juvenile offenders than adults. The parole board uses factors that are based upon one's pre-incarceration history. In most cases juveniles that have been charged as adults have a juvenile history and other terms of imprisonment. Whether to a group home, probation or actual confinement, those factors are used against the offender.

If a person was convicted of a crime prior to the age of 19, the salient factor scores against them. If they have had any drug or alcohol use the score is against them. In most cases drugs and alcohol are factors contributing to the crime in itself.

The parole board does not factor in post incarceration issues that are favorable, when deciding release. They use punitive guidelines in making decisions. For further review one can look at the 1987 DC regulations for parole salient factor scoring and one will note the scoring system for juveniles are harsher than their adult counterparts.

This amended bill allows for the offender to appeal to the sentencing judge for release. That should apply to ALL juvenile offenders. The judge sets the sentence based upon all the elements of the offense: age, family history, other offenses etc. The parole board disregards those very important factors and solely rely on the Pre-Sentencing Report, made by a probation officer after interviewing the offender.

I have been incarcerated since 1993; at the age of 17 I was sentenced to 20 years to life. As of now I have served 23 and a half years. The judge in my case, at the time of sentencing, refused to grant the AUSA request to impose a consecutive sentence. He stated, "I do not agree the defendant should serve consecutive sentences. I am making my decision today based on these mitigating factors: 1. the defendant’s age. I am, literally, sentencing today a young man who is not only chronological a child, but does not possess the same mental capacity as an adult. I am making my decision today taking into account the defendant’s age, prior juvenile history, the role alcohol played in the offense. It is the intent of the courts that the defendant serves no less than 20 years." He turned to me and said, "Mr. Shakir it is my hope that you take advantage of this time and make something positive of yourself. Ultimately, you have a duty to yourself, your family and the members of the community which you need to uphold." 

I have done the time set by the courts. The parole board has extended that time based on factors already used by the sentencing judge. As long as the sentence is indeterminate the parole board can continue my term of incarceration. It is only fair that I have a chance to go back to the sentencing judge and have my case reconsidered by him.

I have seen the parole board twice. The first time after serving 17 years. I was recommended a 1 year set off. I was given a 3 year set off. I had a hearing in 2013 and was recommended parole. I was given a 5 year set off. My staff representative was the Associate Warden of Programs, who endorsed my release.

I am married, have money saved (almost $20,000), good family and community ties. At the time of my hearing I had 2 job offers, and was in the process of applying for college in order to finish my collegiate studies. The hearing examiner noted I was a better parole candidate, at that hearing. It is not often that a warden accompanies an inmate to a parole hearing.

I have not had any major infractions during my term of imprisonment. I have taught and facilitated countless classes, forums and courses. I have co-facilitated victim impact classes with college professors. I am a certified personal trainer, I am a certified tutor (certified by the Department of Labor, 4000 contact hours of study), I am certified in victim advocacy; I teach ESL and Spanish GED. I am in the process of getting my TESOL certification. I am a licensed barber, I am certified substance and alcohol abuse technician, I am a certified Life Coach, I have worked with the Arizona juvenile youth probation division, I have conducted programs for at risk youth, I am the founder and director of a program called "The Reconstruction Program" that I developed to address the needs of at risk youth and re-offenders. The program is in partnership with Dr. Patrick Williams MCC, BCC, founder and director of "Coaching the Global Village. www.coachingtheglobalvillage.com. The organization is global and I have and continue to, work with other member of the criminal justice field who apply life coaching principles to their offenders. Currently, I am working with people in Australia as they are looking for ways to add life coaching principles into their re-entry system. I have participated in all the programs the BOP has to offer: anger management, drug abuse, parenting and even the most intense re-entry program the BOP offers: The Life Connection program. This program is a residential program that last 18 months and has over 1800 contact hours of programming.

I have all of this, and more, documented. The parole board has not considered any of this in determining my release. In fact I have been given more time at each hearing; three years at the first hearing to five years at the second hearing. My next hearing is scheduled for June 2018. As long as I have life on the back of my sentence the parole board can extend my term of incarceration to 30, 35, 40 years. It has happened, and currently happens. Guys are set off time after time with disregard of their positive achievements.

I should have the same right to make and appeal to the sentencing judge for release. To not include those who have reached a parole eligibility date is unfair and unjust. It goes against the rule of the court that the "judge" can make the determination for release. Those powers should not be handed over to a parole board; a board that does not take into account those issues the Supreme Court has determined to have influenced the irresponsible decision of juveniles.

It is important to note that the ACLU in Maryland successfully won an appeal against Maryland, as it concerns their juvenile offenders. They have offenders who have "parole-able life sentences" but were not granted parole by the governor. Just because a life sentence is parole-able does not mean that the parole board is entitled to grant it. Which is why it is important for all branches of the government: legislative and judicial, are on the same accord when it comes to juvenile offenders

I am requesting you reconsider making the retroactive to all juvenile offenders. Whether they have reached their parole eligibility date or not. They should have the same right to petition their judges for review. This would be in complete compliance with the Supreme Court’s ruling. Thank you for your consideration in this matter. 

Sincerely, Talib M. Shakir 

DC's Broken Parole System

Washington City Paper, September 30, 2016
by Scott Rodd

Judge Mary Ellen Abrecht first became aware of D.C.’s dysfunctional parole system in “correspondences with prisoners,” she says. She served as a D.C. Superior Court judge from 1990 to 2003 and as a senior judge from 2003 to 2015. “[They] would write to me saying, ‘I expected to be eligible for parole by now.’...Those kinds of complaints became frequent enough that I started to credit them,” she says.

Abrecht is one of 17 judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and legal advocates who signed an open letter earlier this year arguing that many D.C. offenders serving parole sentences have languished behind bars for significantly longer than intended. The letter supports a petition before the Supreme Court, which was distributed this week, against the U.S. Parole Commission, a little-known federal agency under the Department of Justice. The Parole Commission assumed authority over 10,000 D.C. inmates with parole sentences after parole was abolished in the late 1990s. The transition of authority to the Parole Commission was rocky from the start: Court battles ensued, federal statutes were rewritten, and legal advocates began to question if the commission was adequately prepared to process D.C. inmates.

“I was surprised that the Parole [Commission] was sort of ignoring the judge's sentence and establishing their own guidelines as to what kind of time the offense was worth,” Abrecht says. “When you’re a judge making a sentence, you expect that your sentence [will be] honored.”

The lack of access to rehabilitative programming, in particular, posed a significant risk of extending incarceration for D.C. offenders serving parole sentences. The Parole Commission regularly required participation in rehabilitative programming before granting parole, but extensive waitlists likely waylaid inmates who applied and some programs were only available at a handful of facilities. For inmates who committed serious crimes, like as sex offenses, the lack of access to rehabilitative programming not only significantly extended incarceration but also poses public safety concerns upon release. 

Click here to read the rest of the article.

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