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Preview: Reason Magazine - Topics > Punishment/Prisons

Prisons



All Reason.com articles with the "Prisons" tag.



Published: Fri, 26 May 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Fri, 26 May 2017 09:01:34 -0400

 



Documentary on Prison Boom Fails to Provide Facts or Context

Fri, 05 May 2017 14:52:00 -0400

Independent Lens: The Prison in Twelve Landscapes. PBS. Monday, May 8, 10 p.m. Watching The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, I was reminded of an old movie joke. Q. How many surrealist directors does it take to screw in a light bulb? A. November. Airing as part of the PBS Independent Lens documentary film series, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is not really surrealist, just torpid and self-consciously arty. It's the sort of stuporous film in which you get languid shots of trains rolling endlessly along a track, images to which aesthetes can assign virtually any metaphoric value—the inexorable human will to free movement, the industrial world's uncaring despoliation of the environment, the quiet desperation of Americans awaiting delivery of their breakfast Cheerios—without fear of contradiction by actual reported facts, which are few and far between in Twelve Landscapes. Twelve Landscapes is rooted in a clever (conceptually, anyway) attempt to make virtue out of necessity. Making a documentary about America's burgeoning prisons (population 2.2 million and growing all the time) is an exercise in frustration because it's nearly impossible to get cameras inside them. So Canadian filmmaker Brett Story approached from the opposite direction, with a series of vignettes about how incarceration affects the world outside. But lots of thing can go wrong between conception and birth. Story's affection for the tedium of cinema verite, her rejection of journalism for aesthetics, and, most fundamentally, her neo-Marxist certainty that the driving force behind American penology is corporate conspiracy all combine to make large chunks of Twelve Landscapes nearly unwatchable. The fact that a lot of New York City chess hustlers learned their trade in prison (if it is a fact; if Story has any evidence beyond the assertion of a single player, it's not to be found in in Twelve Landscapes) is an interesting tidbit. But the key word is "tidbit"; watching guys stare at chessboards for four minutes is even more excruciating than it sounds. I thought it was interesting to listen to the musings of a California inmate who's part of an all-female forest-fire-fighting crew ("I think of myself as a hero, and [even though the prison rules prohibit me from talking to them] sometimes I can tell that the public does, too") until I learned—and not from the film itself—that she's actually an actress playing a composite character whose lines were collected from many different interviews. Story's refusal to use narration or otherwise provide facts to establish context for her vignettes actually damages her own arguments at times. The fact that people in Wheelwright, Kentucky, think their local prison is an economic boon to their community would have a lot more impact if Twelve Landscapes had mentioned that the surrounding counties host more than a dozen prisons, regional jails, and detention centers, including two supermax facilities; pockets of depressed rural America are becoming unlikely headquarters of the prison-industrial complex, welcoming correctional facilities that the suburbs don't want. Yet even with that detail added, the prison boom in Kentucky is more interesting than significant. Does Story really believe that America's enormous prison population was produced by the tawdry manipulations of powerful Appalachian political forces? A bit of actual reporting might have disclosed that—depending on whose numbers you believe—somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of U.S. prison inmates are incarcerated on drug charges. Even at the low end of that spectrum, ending the drug war would result in enormous savings in both dollars and broken lives. For all its flaws, though, the small-ball approach of Twelve Landscapes sometimes hits the target. There's a fascinating interview with the owner of a warehouse that assembles gift packages for prison inmates, helping their families negotiate the eternally mutating jungle of security rules about what can be sent in and what can't. (CDs, which can allegedly be broken up and used as shivs, are prohibited; but t[...]



Jury Says Jail Officials Should Face Charges for Prisoner’s Dehydration Death

Tue, 02 May 2017 15:25:00 -0400

A jury is recommending seven Milwaukee County jail employees should face charges for the horrific dehydration death of an imprisoned man denied water for a week in 2016. Terrell Thomas, 38, was imprisoned in a solitary cell with his water deliberately shut off by jail officials, who claimed they had done so because he had attempted to flood a previous cell. But this left him with no water to drink for seven days. His death was ruled a homicide by medical examiners. Prosecutors in Milwaukee County took the unusual step of putting together an "inquest jury" to see if they felt there was probable cause to charge any jail employees with crimes for Thomas' death. A decision by an inquest jury does not bind prosecutors to any sort of action. It's simply an advisory. After hearing testimony for a week, jurors decided that there was probable cause to charge seven corrections officers at the jail with felonies for abuse, neglect, or ill-treatment of prisoners. It will be up to District Attorney John Chisholm to decide whether to charge them or not. He can decide to charge just some of them. He can also decide to charge others beyond these seven. Jail officials had been attempting to portray Thomas' death as a communication issue, with several people testifying that they had no idea that Thomas' water had been shut off in his cell. But on Monday jurors were told that jail officials had subsequently turned water off to other prisoners' cells as a form of punishment. This happened after Thomas died of dehydration. What happened to Thomas might not have been an isolated incident. From The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: Earlier Monday the jury heard that in the weeks after Thomas died jail officials ordered the water shut off for two other inmates in the disciplinary pod of the Milwaukee County Jail. Those two inmates were punished for covering their cell windows, jail logs show. A prosecutor called the practice "torture," which was doubly shocking because it followed the death of Thomas. In addition, jail policy allows water to be turned off only when a prisoner has flooded a cell, not as punishment for misconduct. This additional information certainly challenges the claim that Thomas' death was the result of poor communication with no malicious intent. In the meantime, in related news, a captain with the county's corrections department abruptly resigned over the weekend. He was not one of the seven people targeted in the inquest considered by the jury. He testified in the inquest, though, that he saw Thomas' water get turned off and told his commander. He says he received "no directive" from her. She disputed the captain's claims and said he was trying to make her the "bad guy." The commander, Maj. Nancy Evans, is one of the seven people named by the jury as potentially criminally responsible for Thomas' death. And over the weekend, another inmate in the Milwaukee County corrections system died. This was not in the county jail, but the county-run House of Corrections. That death is still being investigated and few details have been released.[...]



Brickbat: Sheriff, Businesswoman

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) A federal judge has ruled that Morgan County, Alabama, Sheriff Ana Franklin violated a consent degree when she took $160,000 from the fund to feed inmates and loaned $150,000 of it to a used car lot that later went bankrupt. Franklin said she had received legal advice saying she did not have to obey the consent decree but didn't say who gave her the advice. The county attorney says he didn't tell her that.




How Florida Entraps Pain Patients, Forces Them to Snitch, Then Locks Them Up for Decades

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 09:30:00 -0400

On April 11, 2002, Cynthia Powell entered the criminal justice system for the first time in her life, for what could be the rest of her life. Two detectives for the Sunrise Police Department in Florida had arrested Powell in the parking lot of a Starbucks for agreeing to sell 35 of her Lorcet pills—basically Tylenol with a small amount of hydrocodone—and some of her Soma pills (a muscle relaxant) to an undercover police officer. Powell, a 40-year-old African-American woman, had no prior convictions and no arrest record. Her occupation was listed on the arrest report as "unemployed." On her criminal history sheet, it's listed as "disabled." "Anyone who knows my mother knows she's a sweet lady," Powell's daughter, Jacqueline Sharp, says in an interview with Reason. "Even before she went, people would drop their kids off for her to watch them." In many other states, Powell would have been a candidate for a diversion program or maybe probation. Under Florida's ruthless anti-opioid laws, she received a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison on charges of drug trafficking and possession with intent to sell. As fentanyl and heroin use have spiked across the U.S. in recent years, lawmakers and prosecutors have responded by pushing tough new sentences to crack down on dealers and users. The Pennsylvania Legislature is advancing a bill, pushed by state prosecutors, to restore mandatory-minimum sentences for drug crimes. An Ohio town has started filing misdemeanor charges of "caus[ing] serious public inconvenience or alarm" against overdose victims, simply for receiving treatment from emergency first-responders. U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) introduced a bill last year to dramatically lower the weight threshold to trigger a five-year mandatory federal prison sentence for fentanyl possession. And in Florida, where lawmakers seem to have exceptionally short memories, a state senator has introduced a bill, with the backing of the Florida Sheriff's Association and the Attorney General's office, that would create harsh new penalties for fentanyl trafficking. But before legislators pass new laws, they should look at Florida's recent history. Two decades ago, the state enacted strict mandatory-minimum sentences to combat prescription pill abuse. In an effort to shed light on the effect of those laws, Reason pored over the cases of every current inmate in the state admitted for trafficking hydrocodone or oxycodone pills. Those cases, rarely examined at the macro level and never at the individual level, show Florida's war on prescription pain medicine has been an abject failure for 20 years and counting. A Reason analysis revealed that there are more than 2,000 inmates serving sentences in the state for trafficking oxycodone/hydrocodone. Although Florida legislators passed the laws with the intention of going after large-scale traffickers, 63 percent of those currently serving time for pill trafficking offenses are first-time inmates like Powell. Many, like Powell, were set up by confidential informants who started working for the police after their own arrests. The mandatory-minimum sentences stripped judges of their discretion, saddled the state with an aging, expensive inmate population with no possibility of early release, and have been woefully inadequate at getting pills off the streets or treating addicts, many of whom are now turning to more powerful opioids like heroin and fentanyl. Mandatory Minimums Were Supposed to Crack Down on High-Level Dealers To understand why Cynthia Powell is in prison today, and how Florida settled on its approach to opioid use, you have to return to the mid-1990s, when Florida gained a reputation as ground zero of the opioid epidemic. After OxyContin entered the market in 1996, clinics that dispensed the powerful painkiller began to proliferate throughout south Florida. The state's Interstate 75 corridor became known as the "Oxy Express." In 1993, the state had abolished mandatory-minimum sentences for all but the hig[...]



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

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

src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/72fq-2dp3XM" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0">

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.

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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 m[...]



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[...]



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 ad[...]



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.