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Published: Sat, 21 Apr 2018 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sat, 21 Apr 2018 04:00:45 -0400


Open Season on Russian Oligarchs, Prison Porn Ban Heads to Court, How the Media Got the Pulse Massacre Wrong: Reason Roundup

Thu, 05 Apr 2018 09:30:00 -0400

Russia's business elite become latest target of Mueller investigation, sanctions. A new twist in the great election-meddling caper: Special prosecutor Robert Mueller is stopping Russian tycoons at the border to search their digital devices. Mueller has been looking for links to illegal Trump-campaign contributions by showing up with search warrants to greet "at least two Russian oligarchs whey they arrived at US airports," according to Mother Jones. "One oligarch, according to sources who spoke to CNN, had his electronic devices searched after his private jet landed at a New York airport." Hopefully there's more to Mueller's game here than we know, because this—"investigators are asking whether wealthy Russians illegally funneled cash donations directly or indirectly into Donald Trump's presidential campaign and inauguration" (via CNN)—does not seem like the most effective strategy. That isn't the kind of information that people tend to just offer up willy-nilly. But maybe Mueller's team has some leverage. Or maybe they're trying the same strategy that trapped Alex van der Zwaan, the London-based lawyer sentenced earlier this week to 30 days in federal prison. The feds got van der Zwaan not because of any underlying criminal activity, but because he withheld information about the last time he had talked with "Person A" and with Rick Gates, who was Trump's deputy campaign manager. Although the reason for van der Zwaan's omission may not have been related to the underlying investigation—he says he was worried about getting in trouble with his law firm if they found out he had recorded a call between him one of the firm's principals, and in any event the recordings showed all of van der Zwaan's contact was related to work he had done in 2012-13 related to Ukraine—the lie provided an opportunity for investigators to get more data on folks who were more closely related to Russia or the Trump campaign. Meanwhile, the Trump administration "plans to sanction Russian oligarchs this week under a law targeting Moscow for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election," reports Reuters. Sources told the news agency that the sanctions would be brought under bipartisan 2014 legislation known as the "Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act." Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at The Week thinks we might be going a bit overboard with the Russian scapegoating right now. "From Putin's perspective, the Trump administration is probably a wash, if not a net negative," writes Gobry. But the election of Trump has given Putin one major benefit: fear. The West used to see Russia as a joke; now the West sees Russia as a dangerous threat. Putin wins not by actually swinging the U.S. presidential election but because Americans believe that he did. Americans are now (once again) convinced that Russians hate us for our freedom, which gives ideological oomph to previously less charged conflicts. ... if there is a "new Cold War," it is not because Russia sends bombers dangerously close to NATO airspace, but because this confrontation between states, as old as humanity itself, now has a component of global ideological combat. FREE MINDS Prison "porn ban" extends to explicit letters and yoga magazines. A federal judge is considering whether South Dakota's statewide ban on porn in prisons is constitutional. The case arose from an inmate, Charles Sisney, who says all sorts of non-pornographic content got caught up in porn prohibition, including a yoga magazine, images of Michaelangelo's work, and Japanese comics. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of South Dakota and the National Coalition have filed briefs in support of Sisney's case. Even when things like fitness magazines aren't getting caught up in South Dakota's prison porn prohibition, the parameters of the ban go way beyond adult films, nude images, or other things that most people would consider to be porn. Prisoners are banned from writing sexually explicit letters or receiving them, and from receiving any visual or written material that's deemed sexually explicit. "Further, all letters t[...]

Discovery of Police Corruption Freed Dozens of Imprisoned Americans in 2017

Wed, 14 Mar 2018 16:15:00 -0400

In 2017, 84 Americans were freed from prison after revelations of government misconduct helped prove them innocent. That sets a record, according to an annual report on exonerations in America. It's actually only part of the picture. An additional 96 defendants in Chicago and Baltimore were released last year in "group exonerations" as a result of two very high-profile police corruption cases. The details are part of the National Registry of Exonerations' annual report, a project by the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society, the University of Michigan Law School, and the Michigan State University College of Law. All in all, 139 exonerations were added to their registry for 2017, a drop from 171 in 2016. Though the total number of exonerations came down, a record number of people were exonerated due to official misconduct, mistaken eyewitness identification, false confessions, and perjury or false accusations. There has been a significant decline in exoneration for drug crimes—just 16 this year—and that's because a backlog of cases from Harris County, Texas, has finally been cleared. In Harris County, the district attorney's office discovered hundreds of cases where defendants pleaded guilty to drug possession but subsequent crime lab tests discovered no actual illegal substances in the drugs. The county has been working since 2014 to go through all these cases and free people imprisoned for substances that turned out to not be illegal. These stats do not include the group exonerations in Chicago and Baltimore, because the National Registry treats them separately from targeted exonerations of individuals who have had to prove their innocence from behind bars. Around 1,800 people were freed in such group exonerations from 1989 to 2017; the number of targeted exonerations in that period is 2,161. Some other interesting stats: Defendants who were exonerated in 2017 served an average of 10.6 years in prison before being freed, adding up to a total of 1,478 total years of life lost. Ledura Watkins, 61, was convicted of murder in 1976 in Detroit. After serving 41 years in prison, he was exonerated and released in June after details came out about faulty forensic evidence and police and prosecutor misconduct. His case represents the longest sentence served by anybody on the registry. The registry keeps tabs of several different types of official misconduct that lead to innocent people being imprisoned. Among the behaviors that led to this record-setting year, the most common form was concealing evidence. Of the 51 cases where a person convicted of homicide was subsequently exonerated in 2017, 43 involved official misconduct in some fashion. That's 84 percent. There were 29 exonerations involving false confessions in 2017, another record. Almost half the cases took place in the Chicago area, many involving a Chicago detective accused of abusing suspects during interrogations. Eleven exonerations were a result of false confessions connected to that one detective. In 66 exonerations—almost half the total—the underlying crime didn't even happen. Sixteen of these were drug possession cases, 11 were child sex abuse cases, and nine were murder cases. One severe case in Louisiana saw Rodricus Crawford convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death after his infant boy was found dead in his home in 2012. Police and prosecutors insisted Crawford had killed the boy, but the conviction was reversed when the defense was able to provide enough evidence that the boy died of bronchopneumonia. Feeding into the problem of people being convicted of crimes that didn't even happen, there were a record 87 exonerations connected to witnesses who perjured themselves or otherwise falsely accused the defendant. In 40 cases, a defendant was accused and convicted of a crime that didn't even take place. The Registry of Exonerations' reporting only goes back to 1989. But this week they've also unveiled a database of 369 exonerations that they have been able to track down that too[...]

Report: Imprisoning Drug Users Doesn't Stop Drug Use or Prevent Overdoses

Thu, 08 Mar 2018 16:00:00 -0500

Louisiana imprisons people at a higher rate for drug crimes than any other state in the country. Oklahoma ranks second. One might then think that Louisiana and Oklahoma would have correspondingly lower rates of drug use and drug overdoses. Nope. According to a new report released by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the two states rank pretty high in drug use and overdose deaths. This newly released set of findings shows that incarcerating people for drug crimes does not correlate with either less drug use or fewer overdoses. Louisiana ranks 13th in the county in drug use. Oklahoma ranks 10th in rates of both drug use and overdose deaths. Contrast them with permissive California, which ranks 47th in drug imprisonment (though keep in mind that still works out to nearly 16,000 people). California does rank very high in drug use rates. It's second, just behind Colorado—and this is excluding marijuana, which has been legalized in both states. But California also ranks 40th in drug overdoses, surprisingly low. So California may be more permissive and have greater drug use rates, but these drug users are less likely to die of overdoses than those in Oklahoma or Louisiana. In short, years and years of incarceration-focused drug wars have done nothing to control drug use. Tennessee ranks fifth in prison sentences for drug use, while New Jersey ranks 45th. Yet they both rank nearly the same (40th and 42nd) in rates of drug use. Pew even includes what is a nearly incomprehsible quartet of maps, entirely to highlight how impossible it is to determine any pattern between incarceration, arrests, drug use rates, and overdose death rates. Take a look (and perhaps scratch your head): Pew sent these findings last summer to President Donald Trump's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. Making more of the report available right now is useful, given that the president has been playing up punitive responses to drug trafficking (though at this point I'd argue "punitive" is a euphemism when talking about a man who fantasizes about executing dealers). Trump is nominating a man to the U.S. Sentencing Commission who is opposed to reducing mandatory minimum sentences and insists that incarcerating more people leads to less crime. That, Pew reports, is not what the evidence shows: The absence of any relationship between states' rates of drug imprisonment and drug problems suggests that expanding imprisonment is not likely to be an effective national drug control and prevention strategy. The state-level analysis reaffirms the findings of previous research demonstrating that imprisonment rates have scant association with the nature and extent of the harm arising from illicit drug use. For example, a 2014 National Research Council report found that mandatory minimum sentences for drug and other offenders "have few, if any, deterrent effects." The finding was based, in part, on decades of observation that when street-level drug dealers are apprehended and incarcerated they are quickly and easily replaced. On the other hand, reduced prison terms for certain federal drug offenders have not led to higher recidivism rates. In 2007, the Sentencing Commission retroactively cut the sentences of thousands of crack cocaine offenders, and a seven-year follow-up study found no increase in recidivism among offenders whose sentences were shortened compared with those whose were not. In 2010, Congress followed the commission's actions with a broader statutory decrease in penalties for crack cocaine offenders. The report notes that, in defiance of everything coming from Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Americans by wide margins oppose lengthy mandatory minimum sentences as a tool to fight drug use and believe imprisonment for nonviolent offenders should be scaled back. Pew has polls from Maryland, Utah, and—yes—Oklahoma and Louisiana to back this up. The report concludes: Putting more drug-law violators behind bars for longer periods of time has generated enormous costs for tax[...]

Brickbat: Feel Safe

Mon, 26 Feb 2018 04:00:00 -0500

(image) An investigation by the Marshall Project and the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper found that between 2011 and 2017 Tennessee judges declared more than 340 people to be "safekeepers," meaning the local jail is unable to house them because of their health issues or mental problems. These people, who often haven't been convicted of a crime, are transported to a state prison, many times hundreds of miles from their homes, and held in solitary confinement. For their own protection.

Emergency Hearing to Address Fate of Pregnant Prisoners in California

Thu, 22 Feb 2018 11:40:00 -0500

An emergency hearing in federal court today will address allegations that some California jailers have been negligent in caring for pregnant prisoners and generally abusive toward female inmates at the Santa Rita Jail. Six women, all currently or formerly incarcerated at the jail, filed a lawsuit in January against the Alameda County Sheriff's Office. In the suit, they allege all sorts of abuses, including pressuring pregnant prisoners to have abortions, denying them adequate food, and providing wretched medical care. The case draws attention to a problem that extends far beyond California yet has only recently started to get mainstream attention. But has the attention in this particular case come too late? Alameda County has denied responsibility for any medical negligence, citing its use of a private contractor to provide health care to prisoners, and it has denied responsibility for the inadequate diets, on the grounds that food is handled by another private contractor, Aramark. Both the county and the medical contractor, the California Medical Forensic Group (CMFG), have moved to delay the case, saying they need time for more investigation. CMGF has requested an extension until at least late March. Meanwhile, pregnant prisoners are still being housed in a place where guards allegedly deny them adequate food and hygiene products, subject them to conditions that cause miscarriages, force them to wear dirty underwear, serve them filthy food, let infectious diseases go untreated, and left one woman to give birth alone in solitary confinement. In an email to CMFG's attorney, the prisoners' lawyer, Yolanda Huang, wrote that she "appreciate[d] that in a routine litigation, [the request for more time] would be reasonable and deserving of courtesy. However, in the present case there is a pressing situation due to the fragile and quickly changing needs of unborn children." One of the pregnant plaintiffs, Dominique Jackson, is pregnant with twins and also suffers from asthma and a heart condition. "She has difficulty breathing and neither her heart condition nor her asthma is being treated by defendants," said Huang in a February 17 declaration to the court. Her treating medical provider at Highland Hospital stated that the nutrition Ms. Jackson is currently receiving is inadequate for someone carrying twins and recommended home release. Ms. Jackson's diet and medical care have not been improved or changed in any way since the filing of this lawsuit. CFMG has three weeks to respond, "a week longer than normal under the local rules," yet "they present no reason besides a vague reference to 'investigation' for needing extra time," noted Huang. "Time is truly of the essence here."[...]

People Stuck in Jail Because They're Poor Have New Hope

Wed, 21 Feb 2018 14:15:00 -0500

If you're arrested in Nashville, you can pay your bail to be freed. If you can't afford bail, you can wait in jail. But they charge you for that as well: $44 a day. Now Councilmember Freddie O'Connell has introduced a resolution to end the daily fees, which he describes as a "non-sentenced form of financial punishment." These prisoners have only been charged with crimes, not convicted. And if they cannot afford bail, they're unlikely to be able to pay jail fees. And no, the fees aren't levied to cover the costs of jailing people. The money actually goes into the general fund and can be spent on anything in the budget. Fortunately, Nashville is apparently not pushing very hard to collect them. As the Nashville Scene notes, judges waive millions of dollars in jail fees each year, and even when they don't, the city only actually collects a small percentage of the fees. Still, for fiscal year 2015, Nashville extracted more than $1.5 million from people who had been merely been accused, not convicted, of crimes. The effect is yet more financial pressure pushing poor citizens to accept whatever prosecutors offer if it will help get them out of jail, thus increasing the likelihood of they'll end up with criminal records that follow them around. The Pretrial Justice Institute has calculated that people who end up stuck in jail because they cannot afford bail are more likely to have their lives disrupted after just a few days—losing their jobs and incomes—and are therefore more likely to plead guilty. Nashville isn't the only place seeing a push to reform mechanisms that leave people who haven't been convicted stuck behind bars. This month Philadelphia's City Council voted in favor of a resolution to end the practice of cash bail in Pennsylvania. City Lab notes that a third of the people sitting in Pennsylvania's jails are there because they cannot afford bail. The city's new district attorney, Larry Krasner, supports such a change. (UPDATE: Krasner announced this afternoon he would end the practice of seeking cash bail for low-level offenses) Likewise, Atlanta's new mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, signed an ordinance this month that eliminates cash bail for a host of low-level, nonviolent crimes. Local activists had drawn attention to the oppressive and thoughtless use of cash bail in the court system that had left a homeless man in jail for three months because he couldn't afford a $200 bond for soliciting donations in a roadway. And yesterday in California, Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced his office will not appeal a state court's decision ordering a new bail hearing for a 63-year-old man who has been in jail since May, unable to cover his $350,000 bail. The man, Robert Humphrey, is charged with entering an apartment, threatening the resident, and stealing a $5 bottle of cologne. In a press conference, Becerra declared his support for changes to California's bail system so that decisions are based on "danger to the public, not dollars in your pocket." A legislative effort to reform California's pretrial services and minimize cash bail stalled last year, but a new push is underway. If it passes, California will join New Jersey, which implemented a pretrial assessment system that did away with cash bail last year, and Alaska, which did the same at the start of 2018 (and are now working out some kinks in the system).[...]

Tennessee Bill Would Make It Easier for Ex-Convicts to Get Jobs

Thu, 15 Feb 2018 14:45:00 -0500

In Tennessee, a new bill would make it easier for ex-convicts to find work by easing the burden occupational licensing boards place on people released from prison. If the bill became law, boards could only deny licenses based on past crimes that are directly related to the sought-after occupation, preventing arbitrary discrimination against people with criminal histories. "When the prison doors open and it is time for those who have served their time to be returned to our communities, one of the most critical factors to keep them from re-offending is an opportunity to make a living," said Republican Senator Kerry Roberts. "This bill helps remove barriers that exist in licensing so that they have access to employment as long as the offense does not directly relate to the occupation or profession." "Last year there were over 13,000 felons released out of our jails and prisons in Tennessee with over 2,200 released from Shelby County," said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris. "The most important thing we can do to ensure these folks don't return is to provide them with a path to employment." Occupational licensing boards remain a significant problem for those seeking employment after prison. As Reason's Eric Boehm reported: In 29 states, occupational licensing boards are allowed to reject applications from anyone with a felony conviction. In Illinois, for example, a criminal record automatically disqualifies people from obtaining 118 different state licenses, preventing them from pursuing work as barbers, massage therapists, roofers, cosmetologists, and dozens of other professions. Around a quarter of persons in the U.S. had to acquire an occupational license in order to practice their current profession, up from only 5 percent of persons in 1950. And in many states, no matter how unnecessary the license my seem (be it a florist license, horseshoeing license, or a milk testing license), ex-offenders can be prevented from obtaining permission to work if they have a criminal record. Tennessee is one of the of harsher regulatory states with respect to occupational licensing. The Institute for Justice ranks the state as the 13th most "broadly and onerously licensed state." According a press release relating to the bill, Tennessee requires a license for 110 jobs and nearly every licensing board can deny a license due to past crimes, including misdemeanors. This bill marks a potential step in the right direction, and measures like these may even slow the current rate of incarceration. With fewer options to earn a living, formerly incarcerated persons are more likely to be drawn to a life of crime.[...]

Trump Says In SOTU That Administration Will Pursue Prison Reforms

Tue, 30 Jan 2018 21:49:00 -0500

President Trump said his administration will pursue reforms to the federal prison system and its reentry programs as part of his 2018 State of the Union speech tonight. "As America regains its strength, this opportunity must be extended to all citizens," Trump said. "That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance." The comments are somewhat of a change in tone for Trump, who made tough-on-crime rhetoric a hallmark of his stump speeches as a presidential candidate in 2016. He decried Obama's clemency initiatives and referenced "American carnage" from out-of-control crime in his inauguration speech. But Trump's son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner has been meeting privately with conservative criminal justice reform advocates on a regular basis over the past years, as well as lawmakers on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. Kushner has made criminal justice reform, which has been stalled in Congress for the past several years despite what appeared to be growing momentum, one of several key priorities. In January, the White House held a roundtable discussion on reforms to prisons and reentry programs for former inmates—much more palatable to conservatives, especially Attorney General Jeff Sessions, than changes to sentencing laws. "We support our law enforcement partners, and we're working to reduce crime and put dangerous offenders behind bars," Trump said at the roundtable. "At the same time, we want to ensure that those who enter the justice system are able to contribute to their communities after they leave prison, which is one of many very difficult subjects we're discussing, having to do with our great country." Mark Holden, the general counsel for Koch Industries and a prominent conservative advocate for criminal justice reform, said in a statement that Trump's comments State of The Union comments were "very encouraging and we look forward to continuing to work with the White House, the administration, members of Congress and states to make this vision a reality nationwide." "We applaud the president for acknowledging the need to change our policies and expectations around prisons, which are failing to equip individuals to successfully return to society and succeed," Holden said. "Prisons should focus on rehabilitation, reformation, and redemption. Reducing crime starts with lowering recidivism and the best way to do that is to make sure that incarcerated individuals—over 95 percent of whom will one day be released—leave prison better than when they arrived." Holden is also the chair of the advisory council for Safe Streets & Second Chances, a new $4 million initiative launched by Koch Industries and the Texas Public Policy Foundation last week. The initiative will work with 1,000 participants in four states— Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and Pennsylvania—to improve job opportunities and reentry back into society for former prisoners. "We are incredibly pleased that President Trump took time this evening to recognize the importance of reforming our corrections policies," said Brooke Rollins, President and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. "History shows that it's not enough to simply lock people up and then release them with no plan for reentering their communities. We must build on the approach used in states to rehabilitate incarcerated individuals so that they're less likely to wind up back behind bars." Pat Nolan, the director of the American Conservative Union Foundation's Center for Criminal Justice Reform, called Trump's comments "a milestone in the growing conservative movement to apply conservative principles to our justice system." "Our reforms reflect our values of accountability for both offenders as well as government agencies, support for crime victims, treating each person with dignity and offering [...]

ACLU Sues Pennsylvania For Putting Death Row Inmates in Permanent Solitary Confinement

Thu, 25 Jan 2018 17:10:00 -0500

Five inmates on Pennsylvania's death row have spent a cumulative 115 years in solitary confinement—more than 42,000 days with little to no human contact in a cell the size of a parking space. Such extreme and prolonged deprivation violates their constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment, according to a new lawsuit filed today on their behalf, as well as 151 Pennsylvania death row inmates, by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Abolitionist Law Center. "Defendants' years of infliction of mental and physical harm on Plaintiffs and the Class Members strips them of their dignity and worth, transgresses civilized society's notions of decency, and constitutes a practice that is disavowed in modern society," the lawsuit says. Pennsylvania automatically places death row inmates in solitary confinement, regardless of their behavior, and they stay in those 8-by-12-foot concrete cells 22 hours a day, every day, until they're executed or their sentence is overturned. Because of the rarity of actual executions in Pennsylvania—the last one occurred in 1999, and there have only been three total since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976—this effectively means death row inmates are condemned to decades of mind-scrambling isolation. Eighty percent of the state's death row inmates have been in solitary for more than 10 years, according to the lawsuit. One plaintiff in the lawsuit has spent 27 years in solitary. "This is a profoundly damaging practice that exacerbates mental illness, creates mental illness in previously healthy people, causes and aggravates a whole range of physical illnesses, and it destroys people," says David Fathi, Director of the ACLU National Prison Project. One of the most pernicious effects of prolonged isolation, Fathi says, is what social psychologist Craig Haney, a who studied inmates at the "secure housing unit" in California's infamous Pelican Bay State Prison, calls "social death." "You forget how to interact with other humans," Fathi says. "You've just forgotten how to be a person, really." Beyond that, there's also the fiscal argument. Holding an inmate in a supermax cell costs two- to three-times as much as keeping them in the general prison population, Fathi says. The Supreme Court recognized as early as 1890 that solitary confinement has a devastating effect on inmates, but courts have traditionally given wide deference to prison managers when it comes to security. However, the lawsuit argues the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections' policy serves no penological purpose, and Fathi says courts have become more receptive in recent years to claims that solitary confinement is unique from regular prison practices. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required inmates be afforded procedural protections from being sent to supermax confinement. In 2015, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a concurrence that "research still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price." Both the federal government and states have been slowly rolling back their use of solitary confinement. In recent years, both the Association of State Correctional Administrators (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. While the use of solitary confinement in the U.S. has been dwindling 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 last year by the ASCA and Yale Law School. The p[...]

New Jersey Prisons Back Off Ban of The New Jim Crow, But Censorship Behind Bars Is Still Widespread

Tue, 09 Jan 2018 10:01:00 -0500

Hours after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) accused it of censorship, New Jersey prison officials rolled back a ban on Michelle Alexander's influential critique of mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow. The ACLU discovered the book was banned in two New Jersey prisons through a public records request. The Intercept reports: "The ban on 'The New Jim Crow' violates the right to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the correlative protection of Article 1, paragraph 6 of the New Jersey Constitution," ACLU attorneys Tess Borden and Alexander Shalom wrote to Gary Lanigan, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections. The ban also points to some blood-boiling ironies. "Michelle Alexander's book chronicles how people of color are not just locked in, but locked out of civic life, and New Jersey has exiled them even further by banning this text specifically for them," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha in a statement. "The ratios and percentages of mass incarceration play out in terms of human lives. Keeping a book that examines a national tragedy out of the hands of the people mired within it adds insult to injury." Shortly after that, NBC reported that officials were lifting the ban at those two prisons and reviewing their policies. Unfortunately, New Jersey was not an outlier. State prison systems ban thousands upon thousands of books. At least as of 2015, the North Carolina prison system also banned The New Jim Crow, along with hundreds of other titles. Texas, one of the most censorious prison systems in the nation, bans roughly 10,000 publications, including The Color Purple, Where's Waldo?, and John Pfaff's Locked In, another book on mass incarceration. It does, however, allow Mein Kampf. Just last week, new rules went into effect at three New York prisons banning care packages that aren't purchased through one of five approved vendors. State officials say the policy, which will eventually go statewide, is meant to crack down on contraband. But prison rights organizations say the move will severely restrict what inmates can receive, including books. NYC Books Through Bars, a volunteer group that sends free books to inmates across the country for free, wrote in a letter last week to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that "this draconian restriction closes off so much of the world to thousands of people": The approved vendors' catalogs are currently limited to the following books: five romance novels, fourteen bibles and other religious texts, twenty­four drawing or coloring books, twenty­one puzzle books, eleven guitar, chess, and how­to books, one dictionary, and one thesaurus. No books that help people learn to overcome addictions or learn how to improve as parents. No Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou, or other literature that helps people connect with what it means to be human. No texts that help provide skills essential to finding and maintaining work after release from prison. No books about health, about history, about almost anything inside or outside the prison walls. Reason, too, has had run-ins with prison censors. Issues of Reason have been impounded by Florida and Arizona prison officials. The latter found my cover story on the deplorable conditions inside the Washington, D.C., jail "detrimental to the safe, secure, and orderly operation of the institution." And in what is surely the crown jewel of stupid prison bans, in 2010 the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Wisconsin prison system's ban on Dungeons & Dragons. The game constitutes a gang threat, according to very serious prison officials.[...]

The Fourth Circle of Helvetica

Fri, 15 Dec 2017 13:58:00 -0500

Swiss newspaper Il Caffè writes about American private prisons: "Quando il carcere è un affare privato", by Marta Valier. I'm quoted in it a couple of times. Check it out if you read Italian!

Here are some quotes:

Proprio nel 2014 però, grazie a politiche contro il costo crescente dello stato carcerario e il sovraffolamento penitenziario, il numero dei detenuti era cominciato a scendere. Poco dopo, ad agosto del 2016, in seguito a un report del dipartimento della Giustizia che denunciava problemi di sicurezza nelle prigioni private e una generale peggiore qualità delle condizioni di vita dei detenuti rispetto alle prigioni pubbliche, l'allora ministro della Giustizia [SV note: some Italian sites called her "il vice procurate generale", which might be more accurate -- she was the deputy AG], Sally Yates, aveva annunciato lo smantellamento del settore chiedendo di sospendere il rinnovo dei contratti. L'annuncio aveva fatto piombare le azione del settore, che scesero ulteriormente quando, durante un dibattito presidenziale, anche la candidata Hillary Clinton s'era mostrata contraria alle prigioni private. I giochi sembravano fatti.

"Inaspettatamente però ha vinto Trump e ha capovolto tutto, o meglio, è continuato tutto come prima", spiega a Il Caffè Alexander Volokh, professore di giurisprudenza alla Emory University. Subito dopo le elezioni presidenziali infatti, il nuovo ministro della Giustizia, Jeff Session[s], ha annullato le linee guida del suo precedessore. Secondo Usa Today, la Cca e la Geo hanno ringraziato con un versamento di 250mila dollari ciascuna al comitato inaugurale di Trump.

I blogged about that aspect at National Review and on this blog (see also here). Later, I'm quoted on the need for better contracting, which I've written about in Emory Law Journal -- next to a quote from my grad school professor, economics Nobel laureate Oliver Hart:

Nel corso degli anni sono stati effettuati diversi studi. Quasi sempre la conclusione è che, per quanto riguarda i costi, il settore privato è più competitivo. Ma sulla qualitá non c'è accordo unanime. "Per quel che ne sappiamo, non possiamo dire che siamo di fronte a una crisi umanitaria nelle prigioni private", ha detto Volokh. " Le condizioni nelle prigioni private non sono buone, ma non lo sono nemmeno in quelle pubbliche". A suo parere si dovrebbe cominciare a scrivere contratti migliori, con precisi incentivi a migliorare la qualitá di vita nelle prigioni. "Purtroppo non ne siamo ancora stati capaci".

Anche Oliver Hart, premio Nobel e professore di economia all'università di Harvard, pone l'attenzione sul tipo di contratto. "Se non è scritto bene l'azienda privata, soprattutto se si tratta di un'azienda il cui scopo è il profitto, potrebbe non comportarsi nell'interesse pubblico", ha detto Hart in una email. "Ma a quel punto è troppo tardi".

For extra credit: You've probably already guessed what font is appropriate for Switzerland. What about for southern Switzerland, where Il Caffè's readers probably hail from?

ACLU Accuses Poultry Processing Prison Camp of Human Trafficking

Thu, 02 Nov 2017 15:30:00 -0400

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oklahoma is suing to stop the state's courts from sending people to "an unpaid labor camp disguised as a rehabilitation center." The suit accuses the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program (DARP) of federal labor violations and human trafficking. The class-action complaint, filed in federal court in Oklahoma, comes on behalf of seven people sent to DARP, which has facilities in both Oklahoma and Arkansas. Participants say they were told the program would be focused on counseling and addiction recovery. "Instead," the ACLU says, "these plaintiffs were forced into a human trafficking scheme and remained under threat of prison sentences if they did not complete the program by providing hundreds or thousands of hours of unpaid labor to the Drug Alcohol Recovery Program and private corporations, doing such work as welding, plastic product manufacturing, and chicken processing." Along with DARP, the suit names as defendants several businesses that benefited from program participatns' labor: Hendren Plastics, R&R Engineering Company, Simmons Foods, and Western Alliance. Other defendants include DARP head Raymond Jones and contractor Glenn E. Whitman. "This is an action brought by survivors of human trafficking and forced labor," says the ACLU's complaint. "This forced labor scheme was developed by Defendant Raymond Jones in conjunction with others in the poultry processing industry, who together created a pipeline for forced labor performed under threats of imprisonment and judicial punishment." Former DARP participants say that any pay they earned from the companies went to DARP and Jones; that they were fed one bologna sandwich and a Little Debbie cake for lunch and were often expected to make do on that for their entire 12-hour shift of manual labor; and that they were forced to sleep in bedbug-invested barracks and fed chicken from the plant that was unfit to sell. Programs like DARP's have become popular as a supposedly humane and productive alternative to incarceration for people arrested on drug charges. But a slew of allegations suggest they benefit hucksters and corporate interests on the backs of addicts and drug-war victims. And the authorities don't just overlook or condone all this: They're the ones funneling vulnerable people into the scheme. Last month, an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting found many similarly troubling tales about Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery, a program popular with courts in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and Missouri. That program advertises itself as a faith-tinged treatment facility with a work component. But the investigation suggested that participants were more like indentured servants, subject to grueling work, unsafe conditions, and mandatory church but little counseling or treatment. "Alternatives to incarceration are an important component to battling our mass incarceration crisis," says ACLU of Oklahoma Legal Director Brady Henderson. "But profiteering schemes like D.A.R.P. are not the answer. Without proper oversight, medically qualified counselors and meaningful services, incarceration alternatives like this one are ripe for abuse." According to the ACLU, DARP participants wind up there mostly through sentencing for criminal charges or as part of a plea deal, or in order to meet drug diversion program requirements. Some were sent there after requesting in-patient addiction treatment as part of their probation. Of those bringing the federal complaint, some "desperately needed drug and/or alcohol treatment" and were sent to DARP "because they lacked health insurance or the financial resources to pay for in-patient drug treatment," the suit states. "Others did not need drug treatment at all, and instead were sent [ther[...]

When Prisons Become Nursing Homes

Sun, 22 Oct 2017 06:00:00 -0400

When Americans think of federal prisons, they probably don't picture nursing homes. But maybe they should. Thanks to the long mandatory sentences that come with many drug offenses, elderly inmates have emerged as the fastest-growing sector of the federal prison population.

As of June 2017, there were nearly 35,000 federal inmates over the age of 51; 10,000 were over the age of 60. Many of these prisoners suffer the same illnesses afflicting the elderly population in free America, from heart disease to Type 2 diabetes to cancer. The difference is that elderly prisoners receive care while shackled to a bed.

Many aging and sick federal prisoners die under horrid conditions—but they needn't. In 1984, Congress empowered the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to petition for the early release of inmates in "extraordinary and compelling" circumstances. This power is formally called "compassionate release." It's perfectly legal and reasonably safe: Older prisoners seldom resume their criminal behavior upon release, and terminally ill prisoners almost never do.

Yet the BOP uses compassionate release sparingly. After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer—which is often fatal when treated by even the country's finest physicians—Michael Hodge, who received a 20-year sentence for marijuana trafficking, asked to be allowed to die at home with his wife. He was denied without explanation.

For years, advocates on both the left and the right have begged the BOP to use compassionate release more often. In 2013, Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz joined them, citing the astronomical cost of incarcerating and treating the elderly. By his office's calculations, prisons with older populations spend $10,114 on health care annually per prisoner, while facilities with younger populations spend just $1,916. In 2016, the U.S. Sentencing Commission expanded the criteria in hopes of addressing both the human and the financial costs of forcing aging drug war prisoners to spend their final days locked up.

While we don't know how many petitions the BOP denies each year, Human Rights Watch reports that it has granted, on average, less than two dozen annually since 1992.

That could soon change. In July, Sen. Richard Shelby (R–Ala.) ordered the BOP to explain in full how it administers this option, and asked for data on everything from who gets rejected and why to how many prisoners have died while waiting for the BOP to decide on their petitions.

Reformers have a long list of policies they'd like the Bureau of Prisons to change. Some would require completely rethinking how we incarcerate people. But allowing the sick and elderly to die with dignity should be a relatively easy call.

Judge Threatens Arizona Prison Officials With Contempt For ‘Pervasive and Intractable Failures’

Thu, 12 Oct 2017 08:00:00 -0400

A federal judge said Tuesday he is considering holding Arizona prison officials in contempt of court for their "pervasive and intractable failures" to abide by a 2014 agreement to improve care of inmates in the state prison system. Three years ago, the Arizona Department of Corrections agreed to settle a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and several other law firms by taking steps to improve medical care inside its prisons. The lawsuit, filed in 2012, followed media investigations and persistent allegations of fatally inadequate medical care by the department's medical provider, Corizon. Prison officials have been accused of defying court orders and intimidating inmate witnesses as they resisted complying with the settlement. An increasingly exasperated U.S. Magistrate Judge David K. Duncan issued an order Tuesday calling on the department to show why it should not be held in civil contempt for failing to meet the guidelines and benchmarks in the agreement. Duncan's order came after he hauled Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan into his court in August to address allegations that guards were retaliating against inmates who testified about poor conditions inside the state's prisons. When Duncan ordered the department to stop any such retaliation, Ryan sent an email to his staff saying the ruling was "disappointing," and that they "deserved better." In another court filing in September, an ACLU lawyer says she overheard an Arizona correctional officer say to several fellow officers, "Those fucking ACLU lawyers. Who the fuck do they think they are telling us what we can and cannot do to inmates? I can do whatever I want, whenever I want." "All of this disrespect for the rule of law," Duncan fired back, "is something I have never experienced or seen in nearly 30 years of being a lawyer, or in 16 years as a judge." If Ryan is held in civil contempt, he would join the company of former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, a fellow Arizonan and one of America's most anachronistic and cruelest lawmen. President Trump pardoned Arpaio this summer after he was found guilty of both criminal and civil contempt of court. Andrew Wilder, a spokesperson for the department, says in a statement to Reason that it is "firmly committed to holding its current contracted health care provider, Corizon, accountable for its contractual responsibility to provide inmates the constitutionally-mandated health care to which they are entitled." "Moreover, ADC already has taken significant and concrete actions to encourage Corizon to meet the specific performance measures under the Parsons Stipulation," Wilder continues. However, in 2016, when the ACLU and other lawyers for the plaintiffs filed complaints that the Arizona Department of Corrections had failed to comply with the settlement, local media outlet 12 News reported that it was still being "inundated with emails and phone calls from families of prisoners alleging their loved ones are not getting the treatment they need." The news outlet 12 News published an investigation in 2014 revealing that, despite Corizon's $125 million annual contract with the state, Arizona inmates faced disastrous delays in physical and mental health treatment. Separate reports by doctors touring Arizona prisons also found stomach-churning conditions and neglect. Courthouse News, summarizing the reports, described it as "an understaffed system in which an inmate died with infected lesions swarmed by flies, a man who ate his own feces was never seen by a psychiatrist, and a woman swallowed razor blades while allegedly under constant watch." One of the doctors described a 30-year-old inmate who was given less t[...]

I Became a Pot Felon at 18. I'm Owed More Than an Apology.

Thu, 24 Aug 2017 14:15:00 -0400

When asked why I advocate for legalization of recreational drugs, I give a simple answer: Because the government doesn't know what's best for me or others. But there's another reason, and it's far more personal. Twenty-five years ago, as a college freshman, I was arrested by undercover cops for selling $80 worth of marijuana to fellow students. I was convicted of two felonies: distribution and possession of a narcotic. I spent a month in jail. Long after the ordeal, I feel resentment at the United States government and the old conservative guard who still mostly run it. It's important to understand that becoming a felon, even for a minor non-violent crime, is no small issue when you're 18 years old. In addition to the government taking away your voting and gun rights, and forcing you to submit to random drug tests, a felony makes it extremely difficult to ever get a normal job. A criminal rap is a serious and derogatory social badge. You'd think there would be some consolation that since my run-in with the law in 1992, America has been slowly withdrawing from its conservative anti-drug fervor. Currently, 28 states allow medical marijuana use, and eight states now have made recreational use legal. Eventually, pot will likely become legal everywhere, including $80 amounts to students on college campuses. So all is well, right? Wrong. Millions of other minor drug offenders like me are left holding the bag. It wasn't just the defamatory criminal sentence many of us received. The government confiscated my Jeep Comanche and my beloved Honda motorcycle during the ordeal. What little money I had I spent on lawyers and judicial filings in our convoluted court system. My total financial loss a quarter of a century ago was $20,000 dollars. Had I been able to invest that money in the stock market, for example, I'd have over $100,000 now. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that 8.2 million people in America were arrested between 2001 and 2010 for marijuana offenses. The Washington Post says at least 137,000 people sit in US jails on any given day of the week for weed. Now that the country is on its glacial way to likely legalizing marijuana and taxing the sale of it like it does beer, where is the official apology, to me and all those others? For many of us, an apology—and the government's inevitable mea culpa when they likely make pot legal across the land—won't be enough. Some of us also want compensation for the financial damage forced upon us—for the literal theft of our property. Maybe that means a class action lawsuit insisting on government reparation for all damage caused, maybe in the form of tax credits or proceeds from the sale of unused Federal land, so as not to abuse the American taxpayer further over the drug war. It's safe to say—given the damage caused and the lives affected—such a suit would likely be in the billions of dollars. Whatever happens, don't expect minor drug offenders to forget the harm Uncle Sam has caused now that smoking a joint is finally becoming legal and acceptable.[...]