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Published: Tue, 28 Mar 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Tue, 28 Mar 2017 19:18:08 -0400


Journalist Barrett Brown on Prison, Leakers, and Private Intelligence Agencies: New at Reason

Wed, 22 Mar 2017 11:34:00 -0400

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Barrett Brown was just released from prison last November after four years behind bars for, among other things, posting a series of videos in which he appears to threaten an FBI agent. How things escalated to that point in the first place is a complicated matter involving email hacks, drug addiction, and the murky world of private intelligence contractors.

Often straddling a line between journalist and participant, Brown's rise to prominence tracks that of the hacker collective Anonymous, perhaps best remembered for its campaigns against Scientology. Media outlets characterized Brown, not always entirely to his liking, as the spokesman for Anonymous, and it would be his association with hackers that would later put Brown on the FBI's radar.

For his part, Brown believes that it was his investigation into several private intelligence contractors following the hack of a firm called HB Gary. Brown and his team discovered in the emails that several of the firms had joined together into a conglomerate called Team Themis, and that one of Team Themis' projects was to develop potential lines of attack against critical organizations like Wikileaks and journalists such as Glenn Greenwald.

Brown sat down with Reason TV in the Dallas headquarters of D Magazine, where he now works covering city council meetings, to talk about life in federal prison, the state of the private intelligence industry, what an ever-leakier world means for the future of U.S. politics and culture, and his plans to create a decentralized activism network based on lessons learned from Anonymous meant to shake up media and governmental institutions.

Approximately 19 minutes.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Mark McDaniel and Alexis Garcia. Music by Kai Engel.

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Journalist Barrett Brown on Prison, Leakers, and Private Intelligence Agencies

Wed, 22 Mar 2017 11:00:00 -0400

Barrett Brown was just released from prison last November after four years behind bars for, among other things, posting a series of videos in which he appears to threaten an FBI agent. How things escalated to that point in the first place is a complicated matter involving email hacks, drug addiction, and the murky world of private intelligence contractors.

Often straddling a line between journalist and participant, Brown's rise to prominence tracks that of the hacker collective Anonymous, perhaps best remembered for its campaigns against Scientology. Media outlets characterized Brown, not always entirely to his liking, as the spokesman for Anonymous, and it would be his association with hackers that would later put Brown on the FBI's radar.

For his part, Brown believes that it was his investigation into several private intelligence contractors following the hack of a firm called HB Gary. Brown and his team discovered in the emails that several of the firms had joined together into a conglomerate called Team Themis, and that one of Team Themis' projects was to develop potential lines of attack against critical organizations like Wikileaks and journalists such as Glenn Greenwald.

Brown sat down with Reason TV in the Dallas headquarters of D Magazine, where he now works covering city council meetings, to talk about life in federal prison, the state of the private intelligence industry, what an ever-leakier world means for the future of U.S. politics and culture, and his plans to create a decentralized activism network based on lessons learned from Anonymous meant to shake up media and governmental institutions.

Approximately 19 minutes.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Mark McDaniel and Alexis Garcia. Music by Kai Engel.

Subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Like us on Facebook.

Follow us on Twitter.

Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes.

Oklahoma Jury Rules in Favor of Army Vet Who Died in Jail Due to Neglect

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 15:15:00 -0400

(image) Back in October 2011, Army veteran Elliott Williams died in a Tulsa County, Oklahoma, jail cell after being denied medical care for a broken neck and left to lie on the floor, paralyzed, for days, the Tulsa World has reported.

Today, KRMG reports that a federal jury ruled in favor of Williams' estate and called for Tulsa County to pay $10.2 million in damages and for former Sheriff Stanley Glanze to pay $250,000.

Evidence presented in the case included video surveillance of the last 51 hours of Williams' life, which directly contradicted jail records that claimed he was eating and receiving medical care, per the KRMG report. Instead, the video revealed a horrible reality. Williams lay for days naked and paralyzed on the cell floor, with food occasionally tossed in and water kept just out of his reach. Repeated calls for help were ignored by both the prison guards and the medical personnel.

Williams was initially arrested in Owasso, Oklahoma, on a misdemeanor obstruction complaint, according to the World. Owasso officers responded to reports that he was suffering a mental breakdown, and he was taken into custody after he refused to obey police orders to remain seated. Instead, Williams reportedly approached officers and told them he wanted them to shoot him. He was pepper sprayed and taken to Tulsa County Jail, where he rammed his head into the door of a holding cell and broke his neck.

The state medical examiner ruled that Williams died of "complications of vertebrospinal injuries due to blunt force trauma" and was suffering from dehydration, per the World report.

"We believe that this prolonged and reckless neglect, in the way that they treated Elliot Williams in the Tulsa County jail, really constitutes one of the worst civil rights violations in U.S. history," Williams' estate lawyer, Dan Smolen, told KRMG.

Defense attorney Guy Fortney indicated to the World that he will be meeting with the current sheriff to discuss future plans, including potentially appealing the decision.

Williams' family meanwhile said the ruling, while satisfying, isn't enough. "No amount of money is going to bring him back," Williams' brother Kevin Williams told the World. "People need to be going to jail. There needs to be criminal charges filed."

Trump Can Help Stop Prison Rape

Sun, 19 Mar 2017 06:15:00 -0400

(image) During the lame duck session in December, Congress did something amazing: It actually passed a criminal justice bill. Tucked among the provisions of the bipartisan law were new state reporting requirements on prison rape. While that's great, there's a lot more that could be done if the federal government is serious about stopping this heinous crime.

Back in 2003, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions worked across the aisle with Democrat Sen. Ted Kennedy to pass the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). Evangelical Christians, led by Chuck Colson—the former Watergate conspirator who turned to prison ministry after his own stint on the inside—were instrumental in whipping GOP support. But the Justice Department didn't adopt national PREA standards until 2012. Four years after they went into effect, the Associated Press reported that only 12 states were in full compliance with them.

A nationwide inmate survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 2011–12 an estimated 4 percent of state and federal prison inmates and 3.2 percent of jail inmates reported being sexually victimized by another inmate or a member of the staff. In 2013, Eli Lehrer wrote at National Review that "PREA has reasonably few real teeth and, as a result, truly awful prisons and jails can still get away with allowing rampant sexual abuse. Cultural attitudes towards prison rape, distressingly, haven't changed much."

One major requirement of the law is that juveniles and other vulnerable inmates be segregated from the general adult population. This is a logistical headache for prisons and jails, especially ones in states that can try juveniles as adults, and the official consequences for failure to comply are rather minor. Under PREA, states risk losing 5 percent of their federal prison grants for noncompliance. Governors of those states are required to submit letters to the Justice Department demonstrating how they are using federal funds to bring their prisons in line. County and local jails are, by and large, not covered by the law at all.

Sessions is now Donald Trump's pick for U.S. Attorney General. If confirmed, he'll have authority over the entire federal Bureau of Prisons system. Will he use his power to enforce the bill he co-sponsored?

Improving federal oversight of state prisons' efforts to stop rape, and strictly enforcing the current standards in federal prisons and immigrant detention centers, are two areas where the new administration and GOP-led Congress could make bipartisan, good-faith progress on criminal justice.

Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians all agree that prison rape is a gross violation of inmates' human dignity and an unacceptable stain on the U.S. justice system. Congress has already shown twice that the two parties can work together on it. It's time to give PREA teeth.

Prison Guards Who Threw Inmate in Hot Shower, Killing Him, Committed No Crime, State’s Attorney Rules

Sat, 18 Mar 2017 11:43:00 -0400

Darren Rainey spent two hours locked in a shower inmates at the Dade Correctional Institute said prison guards left set to scalding hot before dying of the injuries caused by the water. Rainey's skin was peeling off when he was removed from the shower. Inmates say he was screaming to be let out before he died, and that guards regularly used extremely hot and cold showers to punish mentally ill patients. Nearly five years later, in a report released Friday, the state's attorney has ruled that there was no criminal conduct by the guards. In her ruling, Katherine Fernandez Rundle said, according to the Miami Herald, that John Fan Fan, a sergeant, and the officers involved in getting Rainey into the shower, Ronald Clarke, Cornelius Thompson, and Edwina Williams, didn't act with premeditation, malice, recklessness, ill-will, hatred or evil intent. The officers involved were eventually promoted after the incident. The state attorney claimed testimony from inmates was inconsistent with testimony from prison staff as well as physical evidence, and that she could not find evidence Rainey was burned to death. His family says they were pressured to cremate his body, the fact that Rainey's skin fell off on contact after his death is undisputed, and the nurse who tried to take his temperature after he died said it was too high to register on the thermometer. A prison officer tested the shower a couple of days after Rainey's death, finding it went as high as 160 degrees, but no investigators checked the shower the day of Rainey's death. Only two prison officers, the nurse, and a paramedic were interviewed by police immediately after the incident—other witnesses, including inmates, were not interviewed until 2014. That investigation, the Herald notes, only started when the newspaper began "raising questions about the case as part of what would become a three-year probe into corruption in Florida prisons." Harold Hempstead, an inmate who acted as an orderly at the mental ward, was reportedly the first person to question the incident. According to the Herald, he wrote letters and filed complaints "with police, the medical examiner and the state attorney about Rainey's death as well as other alleged abuses" in the transitional care unit, where Rainey died. Hempstead was recently transferred to a prison in another state, the Herald reported, making it impossible for them or other newspapers to interview him in the wake of the investigation report. In mid-2012, another inmate committed suicide at the prison, leaving a note about the abuses he said he suffered while there. His death was not part of the Rainey investigation. The Herald also notes inconsistencies in the investigative report about abuse—at one point the report says just one other inmate said he had been thrown into an extremely hot shower, but at another it reports on two other inmates who said the same thing. After the paper's work exposing abuses at the Dade Correctional Institute, the Herald reports that the "warden and assistant warden were forced out, and, later, then-Secretary [of Corrections] Michael Crews stepped down amid political pressure." The inspector-general of the prison system also eventually left—he had been accused by his investigators, according to the Herald, of hampering investigations. Correction Secretary Julie Jones told the Herald she was appreciative of work by police and the state attorney, which exonerated the officers, and said she was still committed to reforms. "We will continue to integrate services which ensure these inmates successfully re-enter society," she told the Herald, "and lead crime-free lives upon release."[...]

Think the Sharing Economy Needs More Regulation? SXSW Panel of Women with Prison Records Shows the Down Side.

Sat, 11 Mar 2017 18:45:00 -0500

(image) Pivoting off the success of Orange Is the New Black, a South by Southwest panel Saturday brought in four women who have served time in prison to discuss reforming—even eliminating—America's massive incarceration system.

The four women advertised themselves as having served 200 months of prison time between the four of them, all for non-violent, money-focused crimes like laundering or wire fraud.

One of the women, Teresa Hodge, has started an organization called Mission: Launch, Inc., to help people who have been convicted of crimes and released get back on their feet with technological training and entrepreneurship. The panelists took sharp note of the fact that having a criminal record as a felon will shut them out of many jobs, even if their crimes bore no relationship with the work that they did. Panelist Pamela Keye, for example, said she cannot restore certification to work in education, though her conviction was for money laundering. "I served my time, and yet the civic death caused by my incarceration makes me feel like I'm eternally serving a life sentence," she said.

Panelist Andrea James noted that the conviction also makes it a challenge for women released out of prison to find new affordable housing and regain custody of their children. She knew of women who were still living in shelters two years after release because they couldn't secure housing or jobs. Evie Litwok, who went to prison for tax evasion at the age of 60, said she hasn't been able to secure any work post-release despite her decades of skills developed prior to incarceration. They also levied a healthy amount of criticism of the drug war as a primary cause of female incarceration, James going so far as to call for the legalization of all drugs, period.

It was interesting to see them keep hammering on the issues that so heavily intersect with government regulations overseeing who may be licensed to work in various occupations, because it is a jarring counterpoint to a government panel earlier in the day, "When the Sharing Economy Is Taken Away." That panel focused on government control and regulation over the sharing economy as a way of making sure the rules reflect the values of the communities they're serving. It focused on Austin here, which implemented a fingerprinting ordinance for ride-share drivers that prompted Lyft and Uber to exit the market.

This was apparently seen as a good thing as a way to prevent massive corporations like Uber from cutting corners or operating on the cheap to maximize profits. But absolutely nobody expressed any concerns that this regulatory demand, based as much on fear as actual risk, could further make it harder for the likes of the released prisoners the "United State of Incarcerated Women" were focused on to get back on their feet and become self-sufficient again.

Decades of Exoneration Stats Show Blacks More Likely to Be Wrongfully Convicted

Tue, 07 Mar 2017 11:45:00 -0500

America saw another record year for the number of prisoners being exonerated, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society, University of Michigan Law School, and Michigan State University College of Law. For 2016, 166 people were exonerated of crimes and released from prison, 52 of them for murder. Of all the exonerations, 70 cases involved official misconduct of some sort, and in 74 of the cases, convictions came from guilty pleas. And in 94 cases (also a record) it turned out that no actual crime occurred at all. These were mostly drug cases but also some child sex abuse cases. Most famously, the San Antonio Four, four women convicted in 1998 in a fabricated satanic child sex abuse ring scandal, were released in 2016 after it finally became clear the crimes never occurred. This year researchers decided to go back over its entire history of reporting exonerations dating back to 1989 to examine the role of race in wrongful convictions. It turns out it's a big role. Try to contain your surprise. The analysis focused on the three types of crimes that have, over time, produced the greatest number of exonerations in the registry: murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes. Here's some of their calculations from 27 years of data pulled from the study's executive summary: African Americans are only 13 percent of the American population but a majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated. They constitute 47 percent of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations. Innocent black people are about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people. A major cause of the high number of black murder exonerations is the high homicide rate in the black community, the report notes, but obviously the innocent people are not responsible or contributors to the rate. Black prisoners who are convicted of murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers. African Americans imprisoned for murder are more likely to be innocent if they were convicted of killing white victims. Only about 15 percent of murders by African Americans have white victims, but 31 percent of innocent African-American murder exonerees were convicted of killing white people. The convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were 22 percent more likely to include misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants. Based on exonerations, a black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white sexual assault convict. The major factor for the disparity appears to be mistaken eyewitness identification by white victims. Assaults on white women by African-American men are a small minority of all sexual assaults in the United States, but they constitute half of sexual assaults with eyewitness misidentifications that led to exoneration. African-American sexual assault exonerees received much longer prison sentences than white sexual assault exonerees, and they spent on average almost four-and-a-half years longer in prison before exoneration. It appears that innocent black sexual assault defendants receive harsher sentences than whites if they are convicted, and then face greater resistance to exoneration even in cases in which they are ultimately released. African Americans are about five times as likely to go to prison for drug possession as whites—and judging from exonerations, innocent black people are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people. Reminder: Despite what some people believe, stats show that blacks and whites use drugs at about the same rate. Blacks are more frequently stopped, searched, arrested, and convicted—including in cases in which they are innocent. Sin[...]

Why Ending Mass Incarceration Means Locking Up Fewer Violent Criminals: A Conversation with John Pfaff

Sat, 25 Feb 2017 09:00:00 -0500

In Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration—and How to Achieve Real Reform, Fordham University law professor John Pfaff takes aim at the conventional wisdom that the war on drugs and race-based prosecution of it are the primary factors causing the U.S. prison populations to continually rise. Pfaff's Twitter bio states (in part), "I'm not contrarian—the data is," which is a pretty apt summation of his focus on the "bottom up" causes of mass incarceration that seem to contradict what he calls "The Standard Story"—that mass incarceration is the result of top-down federal policies. "The Standard Story" has been made most prominent by Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and the Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, and while Pfaff says he respects the efforts that went into these works, he counters such "deployment of rhetoric" by digging into the harder to rectify data which shows that mass incarceration is driven far more by local prosecutors than federal drug war policies, and it's not even close. Reason spoke with Pfaff in a coffee shop near Fordham Law's Manhattan campus about why he never lets his students use the phrase "criminal justice system," why he never uses the phrase "violent offender," and why he's still optimistic about criminal justice reform in the era of President Donald Trump. Reason: What are people who have gravitated toward Michelle Alexander's argument that mass incarceration is a direct consequence of the federal drug war missing? Pfaff: I'm sympathetic to the argument but I think it still downplays the way which that rhetoric resonated in part because of violence. To frame it as the war on drugs suggests a very top down approach—framing this as a war on drugs. We could change our framing, redeploy our police officers, and we can shift things. I think the lessons of the war on drugs and punitive [sentencing] in general was more bottom up. The example I always point to is New York state. We passed and ratified drug laws in 1973. That was when New York state sort of declared its war on drugs. And the number of people in the New York state prison goes up slightly in the years after '73 and then it goes down. In 1984 there were actually fewer people in New York state prison for drugs than '73, so you have this huge rhetorical war on drugs being declared and local prosecutors just don't do anything with it. Then in the mid-1980s, there's this giant explosion of violence, and you see this huge rise in drug-related incarcerations which suggests to me that there is a substantial contextual component to this. Then, drug admissions start to decline in New York state in 1998, well before the real reforms in 2008. Reason: And people were just catching up to the fact that crime was dropping, even in the public consciousness, in the late 1990s. Pfaff: Exactly. I always like to point out the fact that there were actually more total people victimized by violent crime in 1990 than in the 1980s. I don't ever allow my students to use the phrase criminal justice system and I push back when people say the system does what it is designed to do because there isn't a system there. It's many systems. Police at the city level, the prosecutors at the county level, the parole boards at the state level. Whether [Alexander] meant it as sort of a broader rhetorical push or not, it's been interpreted by people who've read it to mean that people in prison for drugs are driving our prison population. So I keep coming back repeatedly to this survey that Vox did. The question was do you think the majority of people are in prison for drugs? Sixty percent of all respondents across all three groups [liberal, moderate, conservative] said yes. Reformers like Alexander are saying it's the war on drugs that does it. It's also our focus on the feds, which really represent just a small fra[...]

Cell Blocks Aren't Psych Wards

Tue, 21 Feb 2017 06:00:00 -0500

In April 2015, Jamycheal Mitchell, 24, was accused of stealing $5 worth of snacks from a convenience store. A Virginia judge ordered Mitchell, who had been prescribed schizophrenia medication, to be sent to a psychiatric hospital, but there were no open hospital beds, so he was put behind bars instead.

Five months later, Mitchell was found dead in his cell at the Hampton Roads jail, 36 pounds lighter and lying in a urine-soaked bed, according to his family.

In December, the Justice Department launched an investigation into civil rights violations in that facility. "All prisoners, including those with mental illness, have a constitutional right to receive necessary medical care, treatment and services," Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

If the Justice Department intends to hold jails and prisons to those standards, it has many more cases to launch. Across the country, the mentally ill are routinely shoved into cells and denied proper care.

An investigation by the Sun Sentinel in Florida found the Broward County jail's contracted health care provider "left severely mentally ill inmates unmedicated and malnourished, despite having the authority to help them." Seven inmates have committed suicide or suffered extreme weight loss while in isolation at the jail since 2010, the newspaper reported.

There have also been four deaths just since April 2016 in the Milwaukee County jail, run by Sheriff David Clarke—reportedly on Donald Trump's shortlist for Homeland Security chief. One of those inmates was a mentally ill man who died of "profound dehydration."

A Huffington Post investigation found there were more than 800 jail deaths across the country, most of them unreported, from July 2015 to July 2016. About a third of those were suicides.

Ask any corrections official or beat cop, and he'll tell you the system arrests and holds the same troubled people over and over. Even with the best of intentions, using jails to house the mentally ill is a bad policy. When standards are lacking or staffers don't care about their wards, it can be a deadly one as well.

The Fight for Criminal Justice Reform is Moving to the States

Wed, 08 Feb 2017 17:15:00 -0500

With the once-bright prospects for overhauling the federal justice system now looking grim under a Trump presidency, civil rights and criminal justice groups are turning their attention to the states with ambitious and well-funded plans to reduce the prison population, city by city and county by county. The American Civil Liberties Union, the MacArthur Foundation, and the U.S. Justice Action Network, a bipartisan coalition of advocacy groups, have all announced plans in recent weeks to redouble their work on criminal justice reform at the local level, where it arguably matters most. Mass incarceration is "a local problem with local solutions that's national in scope," says Laurie Garduque, the justice director of the MacArthur Foundation. Last week, the MacArthur's Safety and Justice Challenge announced a new round of "innovation fund" grants to 20 different cities. The grants will fund projects ranging from a new risk assessment tools in Campbell County, Tennessee, designed to steer low-income single mothers away from the criminal justice system, to technology to track and analyze racial disparities in San Francisco jails. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union is beefing up its Campaign for Smart Justice with the goal of reducing incarceration by 50 percent by 2020. In the coming months, the ACLU will roll out a roadmap for reducing incarceration by half in each of the 50 states. "States were ground zero for the battle against mass incarceration before the election and ground zero after the election of Donald Trump," Udi Ofer, the director of the ACLU campaign, told reporters in press briefing last month. "This a battle that must be waged and won at the state level." The first round of upcoming ACLU investments will target states identified by the organization as having the highest volume of prisoners, the highest incarceration rates, and the largest racial disparities within their justice systems. Unsuprisingly, the states with the highest volume and rates of incarceration are Texas and Louisiana, respectively, but the states with the worst racial disparities show how large of a task the ACLU is taking on: New Jersey, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Vermont. The ACLU launched its criminal justice campaign in 2014, supported by a $50 million grant from George Soros' Open Society Foundation and followed by an addition $22 million in donations. Much of the energy on criminal justice over the past few years focused on reform bills in Congress that would have had a modest but tangible impact on the federal prison population. At the time, it was considered more politically realistic than attempting to tackle the vast and varied state criminal justice systems. To get an idea of the scope of the criminal justice system outside of the federal government: There are roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S.; 3,142 counties with their own jails, cops, and courts; more than 2,400 elected prosecutors with largely unchecked power; and 50 states with their own prison systems. As Fordham University law professor John Pfaff has persuasively argued, tackling mass incarceration will involve rethinking not just the war on drugs, but how we as a country prosecute and punish violent criminals. Of the estimated 2.2 million people incarcerated in the U.S., 86 percent of them are in state correctional systems. Non-violent drug offenders only make up 16 percent of the total state prison population. there's no way the U.S. can even get close to cutting its prison population by 50 percent without releasing violent offenders—a much more fraught enterprise for politicians. Organizations like the MacArthur Foundation believe they can make significant cuts to the number of people admitted to jails, and subsequently prison, by targeting the front-end of the justice system: whether low-level[...]

Texas Prison Guard Leaks Video of Improper Tear Gassing. Guess Who Gets Prosecuted

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.

New Report Highlights Horrific Impact of Solitary Confinement on Inmates with Disabilities

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 10:53:00 -0500

The 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 k[...]

Brickbat: Difficult Labor

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.

Incarceration and Crime Rates Continue to Fall in Tandem

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."

The Illogic of Indiscriminate Incarceration

Wed, 14 Dec 2016 00:01:00 -0500

Seychelles, 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 pri[...]