Published: Tue, 24 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500
Last Build Date: Tue, 24 Jan 2017 02:12:18 -0500
Sat, 14 Jan 2017 14:45:00 -0500
(image) A former Texas corrections officer is facing two to 10 years in prison for leaking video of inmates being tear gassed to a local news outlet in what his lawyer says is an attempt at retaliation, Houston's ABC13 reported Wednesday.
A grand jury indicted former Texas Department of Criminal Justice officer Elderick Brass in December for "misuse of official information" after he leaked video from May 2015 showing another corrections officer at the Lychner State Jail firing a tear gas canister into the chest of an inmate to break up a brewing fight. Brass is due to appear in court next month.
In the video, sparks can be seen flying as the canister hits the inmate, who was later treated at a hospital for his injuries. ABC13 reports:
When the video leaked to ABC13 in August 2015, TDCJ admitted 'several mistakes' were made that night. Among them:
- The tear gas round used in the incident never should've been used inside. It was designed for outside use.
- The tear gas round never should have been aimed towards an inmate's chest. Instead it is designed to be shot against a hard surface like the floor or a wall spreading the gas.
- The prison system told ABC13 it should have been shot through a slot in the dormitory door, not feet away from two groups of angry inmates with numerous corrections officers in the room as well.
After an investigation, the guard who pulled the trigger was put on TDCJ employment probation, but kept on the job. He was never charged with any crime.
It appears the TDCJ thinks the only unforgivable mistake made that night was blowing the whistle. Harris County, where Brass's trial is set to take place, has a new district attorney. Democrat Kim Ogg defeated incumbent D.A. Devon Anderson in November on a reform-minded campaign. Let's see how she handles this case.
Thu, 12 Jan 2017 10:53:00 -0500The effects of solitary confinement on inmates can be long-lasting and destructive, but they can be even more devastating to inmates with disabilities, according to a new report released Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union. Over the past several years, there has been a growing outcry to limit or abolish the use of solitary confinement, which critics say amounts to torture and can have permanent psychological impacts on inmates. The Obama administration, for instance, banned the use of solitary confinement on juvenile inmates in the federal prison system. The ACLU report, "Caged In: Solitary Confinement's Devastating Harm on Prisoner's With Physical Disabilities," sheds light on the unique challenges that inmates with disabilities face in solitary. "The current and formerly incarcerated people with disabilities who we spoke with described their experiences of enduring extreme isolation for days, months, and even years," the report says. "They shared the pain and humiliation of being left to fend for themselves in solitary confinement without wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, or other necessary accommodations to carry out life's basic daily tasks. Without these vital accommodations, many of them were left without the means to walk, shower, clothe themselves, or even use the toilet." Despite the passage of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, which guarantees equal access and protections to those with disabilities, the report says inmates with disabilities are sometimes placed in solitary confinement for no other reason than a lack of other adequate housing. One case cited in the report is former Oregon inmate Dean Westwood, who is paralyzed from the chest down and relies on a motorized wheelchair for mobility. Westwood pled guilty in 2014 to Medicaid fraud and tax evasion and was sentenced to a year and a half in prison. During Westwood's sentencing, prosecutors assured the court that Oregon prisons were ADA compliant and had adequate facilities to house him. Westwood says he was placed in isolation at the infirmary of Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon for 22 to 23 hours a day for 17 days. He says the staff were unprepared to deal with his needs, and for the first 48 hours of his imprisonment he was not given his prescribed medications to prevent painful muscle spasms and control his bowels. He ended up soiling himself. "Shit, I just figured that's how it was," Westwood says in an interview with Reason. "You get thrown in prison, and they can do whatever the fuck they want to you. I suppose I should have known better, but I was just scared and trying to wrap my head around all this. The walls were white cinder block. I don't know if you've ever been inside, but in a small space like that you can physically feel the walls caving in on you. At one point I remember thinking that if I beat my head on this wall really hard, it will either knock me out, or maybe I'd hit it hard enough that I wouldn't wake up. That was constant. To this day I don't know how I got through. I don't know what stopped me from beating my head on those bright, white walls." He was later transferred to another facility where he says he was isolated in an infirmary with no access to the law library, the rec yard, or any of the programs that offer chances for reduced sentences. According to the ACLU report, inmates with disabilities placed in solitary, even if for no punitive reason, have little access to the programs and social interaction that inmates in the general population enjoy. And they can often be denied physical therapy and other regimens that keep their bodies from deteriorating further. Westwood sent a "kite"—prison slang for a written message—to his case manager, asking why he was being kept in isolation. The response he says he eventually received: "We can put you wherever we want, whenever we want." He was later transferred to the Oregon State Penitentiary, where other inmates act as assistants to those with disabilities. "Here I am as a level one, the l[...]
Tue, 03 Jan 2017 04:00:00 -0500
(image) Police in the United Arab Emirates have arrested a maid from Somalia for giving birth out of wedlock. The baby is being held in the prison nursery where the mother is allowed to visit only to feed him.
Fri, 30 Dec 2016 06:45:00 -0500
(image) The total number of people in American prisons and jails, which peaked in 2008, fell last year by more than 2 percent after rising slightly in 2014, according to numbers released yesterday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The 2015 total, 2,173,800, is the lowest since 2004, reflecting a gradual reversal of the incarceration explosion that began in the early 1980s.
The jail and prison population shrank by 51,300 last year. State prisons accounted for 42 percent of that drop, followed by local jails (31 percent) and federal prisons (27 percent). The U.S. incarceration rate fell from 690 to 670 per 100,000 people, which is still higher than that of any country except Seychelles.
Drug offenders accounted for half of federal prisoners and 16 percent of state prisoners in 2015. The decrease in the federal prison population was largely due to shorter drug sentences authorized by Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Commutations, which totaled 163 in 2015, accounted for a tiny share of the drop. The decrease in the state prison population was driven largely by sentencing reforms in states such as California, which in 2014 changed many drug and property felonies to misdemeanors.
The total correctional population, which includes people on parole and probation, also shrank last year, from 6,856,900 to 6,741,400. About 1 in 37 adults was under correctional supervision at the end of 2015, the lowest rate since 1994.
Crimes rates are falling along with incarceration rates. From 2010 to 2015, a new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts notes, "the nation's imprisonment rate fell 8.4 percent while the combined violent and property crime rate declined 14.6 percent." The two trends are related in at least two ways: A decline in crime means fewer arrests, and it makes sentencing reform more politically feasible. So far warnings that less incarceration would result in more crime have not been borne out. "In the 10 states with the largest imprisonment declines," Pew notes, "the crime rate fell an average of 14.4 percent, compared with 8.1 percent in the 10 states with the biggest growth in imprisonment."
Wed, 14 Dec 2016 00:01:00 -0500Seychelles, a group of 115 islands off the east coast of Africa with 92,000 residents, does not figure prominently on many lists, but it leads the world in locking people up. It is the only country with a higher incarceration rate than the United States. If the reforms recommended in a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice were fully implemented, the U.S. would fall from second to fourth place on that list—behind Seychelles, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Turkmenistan, but still far ahead of every other liberal democracy, not to mention Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe. The report is nevertheless an admirable effort to grapple with the morally and fiscally pressing question of who belongs behind bars and who doesn't. Between 1974 and 2007, the U.S. imprisonment rate (excluding people in local jails) soared from 102 to 506 per 100,000, thanks to changes in sentencing (including mandatory minimums and "three strikes" laws), parole (including "truth in sentencing" laws), and prosecutorial practices (including an increased tendency to bring charges). Since 2007 the imprisonment rate has declined a bit, but it is still more than four times as high as in the mid-1970s. This imprisonment binge was largely a response to crime rates, which rose dramatically from the 1960s until the early '90s, when they began a long slide. Today the violent and property crime rates are half what they were in 1991. Although "it is tempting to look at these data and assume that mass incarceration caused this decline in crime," the Brennan Center says, research suggests imprisonment played a modest role that shrank over time. It turns out that increases in the number of people behind bars and the amount of time they spend there yield diminishing returns. In recent years, states such as California, Texas, New York, and New Jersey have seen crime rates continue to fall while substantially reducing their prison populations. The trick is figuring out which offenders can remain free and which prisoners can be released without compromising public safety. Prison should be reserved for the most serious offenders, and longer sentences are not necessarily better, especially in light of evidence that they do not enhance deterrence and may actually increase recidivism. The Brennan Center argues that alternatives to incarceration, such as community service, electronic monitoring, restitution, and drug treatment, are generally appropriate for "lower-level crimes" such as minor drug offenses, minor property crimes, simple assault, and "lesser burglary" (involving unoccupied structures and no direct contact with victims). About 364,000 current prisoners fall into this category. The report also recommends default sentences for half a dozen more serious crimes that are 25 percent shorter than current sentences. That change would reduce the average sentence for "serious burglary" from 1.7 to 1.3 years, for aggravated assault and nonviolent weapon offenses from 3 to 2.3 years, for drug trafficking from 3.4 to 2.6 years, for robbery from 4.2 to 3.1 years, and for murder from 11.7 to 8.8 years. Since average time served in state prisons rose by 33 percent between 1993 and 2009, a 25 percent reduction would make state sentences about as long as they were in the early 1990s. Applying the reduction to current prisoners would allow 212,000 to petition for release. The Brennan Centers recommends that judges decide who should be freed on a case-by-case basis, taken into account the expected impact on public safety. It costs taxpayers $31,000 a year to keep someone in prison. Releasing the 576,000 prisoners in the two categories identified by the Brennan Center, who represent two-fifths of the prison population, therefore would save about $18 billion a year, a quarter of state and local spending on corrections. Indiscriminate incarceration and disproportionate penalties cost more than taxpayer money. They impose heavy, long-lasting burdens on offenders, their famil[...]
Thu, 01 Dec 2016 16:00:00 -0500While the use of solitary confinement in the U.S. has been decreasing in recent years, there were at least 67,442 inmates in the U.S. locked in their cells for 22 or more hours a day in the fall of 2015, according to a report released Wednesday by the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) and Yale Law School. The report gives a significant, albeit incomplete, snapshot of the use of solitary confinement in the U.S., which is an outlier among countries in its use of the widely condemned practice. The census includes federal and state inmates placed in any form of "restricted housing" for at least 22 hours a day for more than 15 consecutive days. It did not include local and county jails, federal immigration detention centers, and juvenile and military detention centers, meaning the number could be higher. The survey found that "a national consensus has emerged focused on limiting the use of restricted housing, and many new initiatives, as detailed in the report, reflect efforts to make changes at both the state and federal levels." South Carolina, Utah, and Colorado have all reduced their use of solitary confinement. "What we are seeing is that prison systems are motivated to reduce the use of isolation in prisons and are actively putting into place policies designed to reduce the use of restrictive housing," ASCA president Leann K. Bertsch said in a statement. However, the report also found wide variance from state to state and prison to prison. The percentage of inmates held in solitary in federal and state prisons ranged ranged from 1 percent to 28 percent. Twenty-nine percent of inmates were placed in solitary for three months or less, but there were roughly 3,000 across the country who had been held in solitary confinement for six years or longer. Of those, more than half were in Texas, dwarfing every other state and the federal Bureau of Prisons system. Louisiana held nearly 14 percent of its prison population in solitary confinement last fall, although state officials say that, when prisoners held in county jails are included, that number drops to around 8 percent. Likewise, Utah held about 14 percent of its prison population in solitary, but officials say they have since significantly overhauled their restrictive housing practices. In 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture concluded that solitary confinement beyond 15 days constituted cruel and inhumane punishment. Unsurprisingly, locking human beings in tiny boxes for years at a time has negative psychological effects. In recent years, both the ASCA and the American Correctional Association released new guidelines and standards limiting the use of solitary confinement. The Obama administration also banned the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal prison system and limited the amount of time adults can spend in solitary. The push to phase out the lengthy and punitive use solitary confinement is not limited to activists, but is increasingly popular among corrections officials. In an interview with The Atlantic Thursday, Rick Raemisch, the executive director of Colorado Department of Corrections and a critic of the widespread use of solitary confinement, said, "We've got to change the way we do business." Does solitary work? No. It works for one purpose, really, which is if you have a very serious incident occur, you need to put that person somewhere until you can figure out what happened and to start to address the cause. What we have found is that our data has shown that the less you use it, the safer your facilities are, and that the safer your facilities are, the safer your community is once they get out. We've tried to build around positive reinforcement versus solitary confinement, which by any means just isn't effective. [...]
Tue, 29 Nov 2016 13:00:00 -0500We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to give you one more reason to donate to Reason's 2016 webathon: Our journalism is so incendiary that prisons are scared to distribute our magazines to their inmates, lest chaos erupt. I'll tell you about how things went down below, but in case you're already glazing over at webathon posts, let me give you the TL;DR: If you're on the outside, subscribe to savor your freedom to consume illicit dead tree reads about free minds and free markets, and donate because producing the kind of articles that gets wardens' panties in a bunch ain't cheap, but it's the Lord's work and you know it. As you may recall, in September a Florida prison censor impounded our latest issue, claiming that the magazine "presents a threat to the security, good order, or discipline of the correctional system or the safety of any person." More specifically: "it depicts of describes procedures for the construction or use of weapons, ammunitions, bombs, chemical agents, or incendiary devices" What was the fuss about? Oh, a little infographic on popular accessories for AR-15s. To be clear, designer Jason Keisling did not offer instructions for how to construct an AR-15 from ramen noodles and plastic sporks, nor strategy on how to use one to kill a warden; the piece offered some snack-sized tidbits about how the military firearm's many interchangeable accessories accounted for some of its popularity with civilians. But Reason just learned we're on the outs in Arizona as well. The irony is more delicious than a plate of mystery meat from the cafeteria, given the subject matter of the issue. That's right, it was our "How Not to Build a Jail" cover story about prison reform in D.C.—a thoughtful treatment of an issue that might be of rather signifcant interest to our incarcerated readers, natch—that caught the eye of clink censors this time. Here's the explanation we got from the Arizona Department of Corrections Office of Publication Review when we requested an appeal of the decision: DO 914.07 deems certain publication content contrary to ADC's penological interests to "assist with rehabilitation and treatment objectives, reduce sexual harassment and prevent a hostile work environment for inmates, staff, and volunteers . . .." See DO 914.07, § 1.1....The December 2016 contains Unauthorized Content pursuant to DO 914.07 §§ 1.2.3 and 1.2.7. Specifically, the cover page and pages 20-27 contain depictions of prison riots, among other descriptions concerning prison institutions and prison populations, that may be detrimental to the safe, secure, and orderly operation of the institution. §1.2.3. Not to mention that the issue acknowledges the existence of DRUGS. Which are BAD, you guys. And no one in the pokey knows about marijuana already, so it's best if they don't read about legalization efforts in California, right? It could only give them ideas. Page 11 of the issue contains an article discussing marijuana, which is Unauthorized Content under § 1.2.7 as promoting drug paraphernalia. Accordingly, the issue was withheld and contrabanded by the complex, which is the first level of review. The authorties at Arizona's finest crowbar hotel conclude with a reminder that they have their eyes on us: Accordingly, any future issues of Reason addressed to an ADC inmate will be reviewed on an individual basis to ensure contents meet the standards and guidelines set forth in DO 914....This deliberative process is critical in order to facilitate ADC's penological interests in maintaining the safe, secure, and orderly operation of the prison system. We always appeal these bans and will continue to do so. Why not donate today support those efforts, as well as the kickass journalism that keeps getting Reason bounced from America's hoosegows?[...]
Thu, 03 Nov 2016 14:20:00 -0400Just to be feminist or something about my recent round of posts on predatory authorities, let's look at this story out of Michigan, where a man who served time at the state's Parnall Correctional Facility claims that a baby-mad female prison counselor with whom he fathered a child used him as "a virtual sex slave, demanding sexual gratification at her whim." The 44-year-old man, Steven Moerman, was imprisoned on drug charges and receiving counseling for undisclosed mental-health issues. Now out on parole, he's suing the Michigan Department of Corrections, prison officials, and Gov. Rick Snyder over what he claims was repeated rape by prison counselor Susan Lee Clingerman, also 44, whom he says was undergoing fertility treatments in order to conceive a child with him. "Defendants failed to provide Mr. Moerman humane conditions of confinement by knowingly, voluntarily, recklessly, and with willful disregard to Mr. Moerman's personal safety, allowing him to be sexually assaulted and raped," the lawsuit, filed in Jackson County Circuit Court, asserts. Moerman claims prison officials knew what was happening or should have known because another prison counselor acted as a lookout for Clingerman—who was banned from prison property in September 2014 and fired the following January—while she had sex with Moerman in her office. Corrections Department Spokesman Chris Gautz claimed an investigation turned up no such lookout. But a Parnall corrections officer did catch Clingerman and Moerman having sex in her office once, according to prison records filed with Moerman's lawsuit. Clingerman claims she was having a consensual sexual relationship with Moerman, who fathered the child she gave birth to in April 2015. In a statement, Clingerman said she knew she "could get into trouble—including firing" for the relationship but did not know she "could be prosecuted for this." Under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, however, prisoners cannot legally consent to sex with prison employees because of the inherent power imbalance. Thus, any prison guard, counselor, or other employee who has sex with a prisoner, no matter how theoretically willing that prisoner is, opens themselves up to liability for sexual assault. Clingerman has already gone through the criminal process, pleading guilty to a felony charge of misconduct in office as part of a deal that allowed her to stay off the sex-offender registry. Initially, she was charged by Michigan state police with second-degree sexual assault. Clingerman was sentenced on the official misconduct charge to 27 days in jail and 18 months probation, according to court records. In the past two days, I've blogged about criminal-justice authorities accused of breaking prostitution laws their colleagues rigorously enforce, abusing their power to coerce sex from citizens, and even forcibly sexually assaulting people. If there's a point other than informing people about arguably newsworthy stories, it's not to cast aspersion on all cops, nor to shock—in fact, I want just the opposite of the latter. I want people to realize—as I have in covering sex and criminal justice stories intensely for a few years now—how truly common sexual abuses of power by police are, especially against certain classes of vulnerable people (like sex workers and prison inmates). It's yet another reason we need criminal-justice reforms that increase police accountability and take away authorities' power to threaten people with or send them to jail/prison over things like prostitution and drug possession.[...]
Fri, 23 Sep 2016 15:40:00 -0400
(image) Chelsea Manning, in military prison for releasing classified military documents to Wikileaks while serving in Iraq, will be sent to solitary confinement partly due to a July suicide attempt.
Manning attempted to kill herself in her cell in July. In response to her failed attempt, she faced additional administrative punishment, including solitary confinement, transfer to a more secure prison, and the elimination of any possibility for parole.
Today a disciplinary board decided to punish Manning with 14 days in solitary confinement, seven of which will be suspended.
Of the charges, she was acquitted of one: "Resisting the Force Cell Move Team." This was a strange bureaucratic accusation that potentially punishes a prisoner for anything that requires this team to be called to remove somebody from a prison cell, regardless of the reason. She was found guilty of "Conduct Which Threatens" because her suicide attempt disrupted the orderly operations of the prison. She was also found guilty of having an unauthorized book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, about the activists of Anonymous, in her cell.
One does not have to believe that Manning was innocent and one does not have to support the legitimacy of Manning's transgender identity to be concerned about the use of solitary confinement as a form of punishment for somebody who clearly acted out due to mental health issues and frustrations. If Manning were a less polarizing figure and had been diagnosed with something much less culturally controversial like bipolar disorder, it would be very easy to grasp that isolating somebody who had attempted suicide is an absurd response for a prison.
The Obama administration has ordered an end to putting juveniles in federal prisons in solitary confinement. Some states are attempting to scale back on the practice as evidence increasingly shows that it doesn't help, and should really only be considered as a last resort, not a form of punishment.
Read more from Fight for the Future, the activist group supporting Manning, here.
Fri, 09 Sep 2016 15:30:00 -0400
As Reason subscribers around the country were settling in to peruse the new issue of the magazine this week, one reader wasn't so lucky.
A Florida prison has impounded our current issue. The stated reasons: "(3)(a) It depicts of describes procedures for the construction or use of weapons, ammunitions, bombs, chemical agents, or incendiary devices" and also "(3)(m) It otherwise presents a threat to the security, good order, or discipline of the correctional system or the safety of any person." We received notice at our Los Angeles office that the issue was now in administrative limbo earlier this week.
What was the offending story, you might ask? Has Reason become the newest incarnation of The Anarchist Cookbook? Hardly. Page 8 of the magazine contained a small infographic on popular accessories for AR-15s by Jason Keisling. To be clear, Keisling did not offer instructions for how to construct an AR-15 from ramen noodles and plastic sporks nor strategy on how to use one to kill a warden; the piece offered some snack-sized tidbits about how the military firearm's many interchangeable accessories accounted for some of its popularity with civilians.
We're terribly sorry that our incarcerated subscriber isn't able to see the infographic. He's also missing out on Matt Welch's great cover story on the major parties' fiscal fantasies, Shikha Dalmia's foray into the politics of two of America's most Muslim cities, and Tate Watkins' insider account of Haiti's dysfunctional coffee industry.
But you know who else probably can't see a bunch of that stuff? You! Unless you subscribe to our print or digital edition, you have no better access to our amazing content than a man trapped in a cage.
Celebrate your freedom. Subscribe today!
Tue, 06 Sep 2016 15:45:00 -0400Philadelphia officials can't ban political or religious speech at the airport just because it might make some visitors uncomfortable, says the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The decision is a victory for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had been told that city policies prohibited its ads from appearing at the Philadelphia International Airport. The trouble started in 2011, when the NAACP attempted to run an ad on airport-display monitors that said, "Welcome to America, home to 5% of the world's people & 25% of the world's prisoners. Let's build a better America together. NAACP.org/smartandsafe." But city officials declined the ad, citing an informal Philly policy that prevents airport-advertising with noncommercial messages. In 2012, Philadelphia passed a formal policy stating that ads not proposing "a commercial transaction" were forbidden at the airport (as were ads relating to alcohol or tobacco products, sexually oriented businesses, and political campaigns). Noncommercial ads promoting Philly tourism, transport, and government-initiatives were exempted. The city justified this policy by citing a desire to avoid controversy and to maximize ad revenue. City lawyers argued that controversial political or religious messages in some airport ads could jeopardize the impact of nearby commercial ads, thereby leading to an overall decline in willing advertisers. They also claimed that even if revenue wasn't affected, the ban would be justifiable to keep visitors from feeling offended. Not good enough, said the circuit court. "No matter the type of forum, restrictions on speech on government property must be reasonable. The city's ban on noncommercial ads at the airport is unreasonable because it is not supported by the record or by common-sense inferences," wrote Circuit Judge Thomas L. Ambro in a decision cosigned by Chief Judge Theodore McKee. Third Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman, however, dissented, writing that the city should be able to regulate speech in order to create a "comfortable environment" for travelers. "It still seems reasonable to think that disallowing controversial advertisements on the airport's more than 100 monitors will have a positive impact on travelers' experiences by removing some stress or controversy from their journeys," Hardiman wrote. That does indeed seem reasonable—and also irrelevant. The role of government regulations on speech shouldn't be to maximize profits for commercial enterprises or protect the delicate sensibilities of passersby. Luckily, Judges Ambro and McKee seem to believe that the First Amendment trumps turning Philly's airport into one big safe-space from emotional discomfort. "Because the ban [on noncommercial airport-advertising] is unreasonable, it violates the First Amendment and cannot be enforced as written," their opinion stated. The judges also noted that the city's claims about ad revenue and offense-taking may merely be a cover for its "viewpoint discriminatory" speech policy—that is, that Philly's official reasons for rejecting the NAACP ad could have been concocted after-the-fact to conceal a simple dislike for its message. The city conceded as much was possible in court, admitting that its argued reasons might be "strictly in the realm of lawyer argumentation." The court points out that, "asked if the City can invent justifications when writing its appellate briefs, counsel for the City answered yes" and that "the City further conceded the possibility that its actual intent might have been to suppress viewpoints that cast Philadelphia or the region in a negative light."[...]
Sun, 04 Sep 2016 12:00:00 -0400Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration, by David Dagan and Steven M. Teles, Oxford University Press, 240 pages, $29.95 Only recently have scholars taken a sustained interest in the 20th century construction of the "carceral state," the instruments and political logic by which the United States became the global leader in imprisonment. In Prison Break, David Dagan and Steven M. Teles, a pair of political scientists based at Johns Hopkins University, offer an elegant account of a related story: the conservative pivot away from prison. Given the role that law-and-order Republicans played in forging the punishment apparatus in the first place, the story told by Dagan and Teles is as surprising as it is important. Since most criminal law is written by the states, most offenders convicted of a crime go to a state prison. As of now, Republicans boast almost twice as many governors as Democrats; in 23 states, they control both the statehouse and the executive. If the carceral state is to be dismantled, Republicans will have to supply not just the workhorses but much of the leadership as well. The central insight of Prison Break is that Republican criminal justice reformers do not accomplish their task by parroting progressive views or renouncing cherished ideas. Instead they adopt what Dagan and Teles describe as an "indigenous" language, fashioning an authentically conservative critique of mass incarceration. The authors pay particular attention to a process they call identity vouching: a willingness to entertain unorthodox ideas when a well-credentialed and highly trusted leader or organization espouses them. Identity vouching helps explaining all manner of reforms, from support for gay marriage to action on climate change. But it is particularly well-suited to the elite group of conservatives converted—sometimes as part of an actual Christian conversion—to oppose the politics of mass incarceration. Dagan and Teles recount the stories of two Republican insiders, Pat Nolan and Charlie Colson, both of whom served time behind bars and, as a result, offered powerful testimonials on the dismal choices prisoners confront. Colson, known as President Nixon's "hatchet man" and convicted for his role in the Watergate crimes, founded the organization Prison Fellowship after his release in 1976, and he used this platform to perform outreach to prisoners and their families as well as mount criticisms of the "lock 'em and leave 'em" approach to criminal justice. Two decades later, Nolan joined Colson's group after his own stint in federal prison, and with him came renewed focus on legislative advocacy and conservative reform. Prison Fellowship and its affiliated work was a lonely ministry until Tea Party activism endowed the party with a more stridently ideological tenor, opening the door to a critique of the prison-industrial complex that resonated with the movement's appraisal of government performance in other areas. By "creating a climate of permanent austerity in the states," Dagan and Teles write, Tea Party activists made the "GOP's long time exemption [from fiscal review] for police and prisons ideologically and fiscally untenable." Republicans who "established increasing levels of incarceration as a problem" now positioned themselves as more conservative than others, not less. The authors devote much attention to Texas' pioneering efforts, which began in 2007, and Georgia's more ambitious reforms, which started in 2011. After these states lent their conservative imprimatur to criminal justice reform, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Ohio followed with substantial legislative packages. In general, the new laws entailed lower penalties for nonviolent crimes, non-carceral sanctions for parole a[...]
Tue, 30 Aug 2016 07:00:00 -0400The federal Bureau of Prisons announced Friday that it will curtail its practice putting dangerous inmates in cramped cells together for up to 23 hours a day, a practice paradoxically known as "double-cell solitary." The agency, as part of the Obama White House's directives earlier this year to reduce the use of solitary confinment, said it will now require mental health screenings before placing an inmate in what's known as its Special Management Unit, which is meant to hold gang leaders, violent inmates, and others considered too dangerous for the general prison population. Time in SMU will be limited to two years, with the goal of getting most inmates out within one year, and, the agency said, it will no longer release inmates straight from SMU back out into society. Solitary confinement is often described as a tiny slice of hell, but arguably more hellish, as Jean-Paul Sartre once famously observed, is being trapped with another person. Civil liberties advocates argue the practice of putting two inmates, many times violent or mentally ill or both, in a 6x10 foot cell for up to 23 hours almost day ensures they will become more violent, more ill, or both. "We're placing people in SMU who are supposed to have behavioral problems," Amy Fettig, the senior counsel for for the ACLU's National Prison Project, said in an interview. "But then we're placing them in a cell the size of your bathroom with another person for 12 months. That type of arrangement sets up people to be injured, if not worse." As the Marshall Project reported earlier this year, at least 18 states double-up their restrictive housing unit cells, more than 80 percent of the 10,747 federal prisoners in solitary have a cellmate, and the consequences are often deadly: One prisoner, Aaron Fillmore, started feeling an unexplainable aggression towards his cellmate. "It was a level of discomfort that I never experienced before," he wrote in a letter. Fillmore was double celled at Lawrence Correctional Center in Illinois for three months. "I had thoughts of just punching him in the face. Why? I have no idea. I just had the urge to do it." In 2013, an Ohio man suffering from psychotic delusions strangled his cellmate a day after they were placed together. The murdered cellmate was two days away from being released. A prisoner in Georgia stabbed his cellmate multiple times in 2014 as officers were handcuffing that cellmate through the cell door. When guards demanded that the prisoner put his hands up to be cuffed, he yelled in response, "I can't do that. He just kept messin' with me." That same year in Alaska, two cellmates who had been friends got into an argument, which ended when one strangled the other. After realizing what he had done, he screamed for the guards' help. Fettig and other civil liberties advocates say the reforms are a step in the right direction, but still far above international standards for solitary confinement. A United Nations expert on torture has called for solitary confinement over 15 days to be completely abolished. And, Fettig said, although inmates in SMU are not technically in solitary, "what we hear from mental health experts is it's still an extreme level of isolation even if you're with another person. The mental health impact is very, very similar. You're likely to see the mental and cognitive degradation that occurs in severe isolation." Alan Mills, the executive director of the Uptown People's Law Center in Chicago, a nonprofit legal aid organization, said "double celling does not relieve the damage done by solitary." "To the contrary, it makes it worse," he continued. "People confined to solitary develop coping mechanisms--constant pacing is one, very strict routines is another. Having a second person, a[...]
Tue, 23 Aug 2016 13:04:00 -0400Time and again, cigarettes have served as a spontaneous currency behind bars. But they aren't the only good to have played that role. As my colleague Elizabeth Nolan Brown reported here yesterday, a new sociological study has revealed that ramen noodles are now the currency of choice in at least one prison. While the ramen standard takes hold in that institution, other commodity currencies have emerged in other parts of the world, sometimes as stopgap substitutes for the government's money and sometimes as something more long-term. Here are a few of the examples we've covered in Reason over the years: The T-Shirt Standard: Haiti has an extensive trade in second-hand clothes; it also has an official currency that isn't always stable. And so Haitians have sometimes used the former in the place of the latter. "When the paper or coin currency of a nation is unstable and in short supply, it is not uncommon for a good (and often a relatively plentiful good) to take the place of currency—via a kind of generalized barter," one of the filmmakers behind the documentary Secondhand (Pepe) explains. The Minute Standard: Kenya fell into chaos after the corrupt elections of 2007, and the stores that ordinarily sold prepaid phone minutes shut down amid the violence. Phone credits quickly became more valuable than the government's money, and many people found it relatively convenient to use those units of talk time as a substitute currency. While this was a quick-fix response to a crisis, mobile phone credits had already been used as an alternative currency in more stable times. As the cell phone economy took off, many Africans living abroad discovered that the safest, cheapest way to send remittances home was simply to buy phone minutes for their families. It was an easy step from there to just trading the minutes. The Fish Standard: Ramen isn't the only food to replace cigarettes as a prison currency. Packs of mackerel and cans of tuna have done the same. One difference: While ramen's popularity as money is linked to its popularity as a meal, most prisoners don't like the mackerel enough to actually want to eat it. No doubt this makes it easier to accumulate savings. The Opium Standard: Just as ramen isn't the only food to become a money, tobacco isn't the only drug to play that role. Seven years ago, an AP dispatch from Afghanistan described a town where the "common currency was what grew in everyone's backyard—opium." The scene sounded like a Norman Rockwell/Thomas De Quincey mash-up: "When children felt like buying candy, they ran into their father's fields and returned with a few grams of opium folded inside a leaf. Their mothers collected it in plastic bags, trading 18 grams for a meter of fabric or two liters of cooking oil. Even a visit to the barbershop could be settled in opium." Alas, "the economy of this village sputtered to a halt last year when the government began aggressively enforcing a ban on opium production." You didn't realize the war on drugs could double as a deflationary monetary policy. The Cocaine Standard: In Colombia, on the other hand, a government crackdown inadvertantly encouraged the use of coca leaves as a medium of exchange. "No money has reached Guerima for months," the Telegraph reported in 2008, "and transactions are conducted in coca, with one gram enough to buy a soft drink." Possibly a coca-cola. The Pee Standard: When I blogged that cocaine story eight years ago, I also linked to an article that claimed prisoners were using yet another valuable commodity as money: drug-free urine. (Talk about liquid assets!) I'd call this one the gold standard, but I guess that name is already taken. Unlike that other gold standard, this one seems especially su[...]
Mon, 22 Aug 2016 12:35:00 -0400
(image) Cigarettes have long served as one form of currency between prison inmates, but they're being supplanted in the bartering hierarchy by an unlikely candidate: packaged ramen noodles. So says researcher Michael Gibson-Light, in a paper presented at the 2016 American Sociological Association (ASA) Annual Meeting this week. He attributed the shift—which can be seen even in prisons where smoking is still allowed—to "punitive frugality" stemming from prison cost-cutting and cost-shifting, and the resulting unhappiness among inmates over the quality and amount of food they're served.
"Services are cut back and many costs are passed on to inmates in an effort to respond to calls to remain both tough on crime and cost effective," said Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Arizona. "Prisoners are so unhappy with the quality and quantity of prison food that they receive that they have begun relying on ramen noodles—a cheap, durable food product—as a form of money in the underground economy." Like cigarettes—and, increasingly, in place of them and other erstwhile prison-bartering staples, like stamps—they're used to exchange for other goods, services such as laundry, and bargaining chips in football pools or card games.
The rise of ramen noodles as prison currency is just one of Gibson-Light's findings from interviewing inmates and staff at an all-male, Sunbelt-area state prison from May 2015 to May 2016. Honing in on inmates who worked as laborers, his research led him to focus largely on a spectrum of monetary practices among inmates.
While his research was only conducted at one prison, the ramen noodle finding is in line with other investigations into prison markets, he noted. "What we are seeing is a collective response—across inmate populations and security levels, across prison cliques and racial groups, and even across states—to changes and cutbacks in prison food services."
"Prison staff members as well as members of the inmate population provided narratives of the history of changes in prison food—the past few decades have seen steady decreases in the quality and quantity of inmate food," Gibson-Light said.
Gustavo Alvarez, who spent more than a decade in a California men's prison, published a book last year on creative ramen recipes from behind bars (titled, aptly, Prison Ramen). "Large buckets lined with plastic trash bags would be used to cook huge spreads," including "dirty ramen," adorned with canned Vienna sausages and green beans, Alvarez told NPR. "It can bring a couple of guys who don't have much together. Why? Because maybe a guy has a bag of chips—that's all he has to his name. And this other guy is blessed to have a couple of soups. Well, they get together, they make an interesting meal."
A 2014 Vanity Fair story on prison food also yielded a "prison chicken nuggets" recipe: "Take ramen noodles, boil it down to literally mush. You ball it up, put a piece of cheese and beef summer sausage in the middle. Make sure it's tightly wound up. You cook it in the microwave for ten minutes until it's brown."