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Preview: Reason Magazine - Topics > Punishment/Prisons


All articles with the "Prisons" tag.

Published: Sun, 25 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sun, 25 Jun 2017 08:01:44 -0400


Bail Reformers Seek to Keep the Poor from Being Stuck Behind Bars

Mon, 12 Jun 2017 14:40:00 -0400

Should poverty keep a citizen in jail after an arrest but before conviction, even if the defendant poses no further risk of harm or flight? There is a push on to change the way bail works so that it's less punishing to the poor. The Connecticut legislature passed a bill (at the governor's urging) last week to make bail less oppressive. A measure in California is temporarily stalled while opposing sides hammer out details. The conflict pits civil rights and criminal justice reform advocates against law-and-order politicians who campaign on tough stances and the bail industry which is financially dependent on the revenue generated by the bail process. After some compromise with the bail industry in Connecticut, Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy has ushered in modest reforms. Connecticut's bill bars judges from setting cash-only bail and restricts judges from setting bail in many misdemeanor cases, though they can do so for those with a history of not showing up in court or who are flight risks. The law also attempts to hasten the timeframe for bail review hearings, attempting to cut the deadline from 30 to 14 days, so indigent defendants are not stuck in jail as long. Malloy has noted that when poor people are stuck in jail cells solely for having been arrested, it can have huge impacts on their livelihoods, even before they've been convicted or even tried for any crimes: "The fact is that being incarcerated for as few as a couple of days can have a dramatic effect on that person's ability to maintain housing, employment, and contact with their family – all of which are keys to ensuring people lead productive lives and that the cycle of crime and poverty does not perpetuate. This legislation builds upon our dramatic successes in leading the nation towards creating a fairer and more just criminal justice system." Even broader bail reform legislation passed California's Senate but has been held up in the state's Assembly after significant resistance from some legislators and heavy lobbying from the prison industry. The California bill would introduce a county-level pretrial service that would evaluate and help courts determine which criminal defendants are actual flight risks and attempt to create a system through which people are not stuck in jail awaiting trial because they cannot afford to pay bail. The goal: Get nonviolent offenders back home and reduce chances they lose their jobs, housing or face other negative consequences simply because they are merely accused of crimes. Such a change necessarily means an industry dependent on people seeking out financial assistance to make bail is going to take a hit. And they're not remaining quiet about it. According to KQED, insurance companies for the bail industry have spent more than $170,000 lobbying lawmakers over the past few months. While debating the bill, Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Temecula) warned that people would lose their jobs, and reducing bail demands would "decimate an industry dominated by women and minority owners, and it will cost the state millions of dollars annually in lost taxes." Stone's complaint that defendants should be forced to seek out bail or rot in prison cells in order to keep people in the bail industry employed may not be a particularly compelling argument to many, but California lawmakers do seem concerned about costs. The California Assembly's analysis of the legislation notes that it's going to impose hundreds of millions in costs to create these new county-level pretrial services that the state will be obligated to fund. Yet the analysts don't seem to be able to put any sort of price tag on how much counties will save by having fewer people in their jail cells, labeling the prospect as "unknown but significant." Connecticut is calculating its more modest bail reform will save the state $30 million over two fiscal years. In California, nearly 60 percent of people awaiting trial are behind bars, according to statistics provided by the American Civil Liberties Union's Northern California chapter. Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, the criminal justice and drug[...]

Man Free After Serving 25 Years for Murder Linked to Switched Bullets

Fri, 09 Jun 2017 09:59:00 -0400

After 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, charges against Desmond Ricks have been dropped. The Michigan Innocence Clinic showed that his 1992 conviction was based on fraudulent evidence contrived by Detroit law enforcement reported, The Detroit News. Ricks was convicted of second degree murder for the death of his friend Gerry Bennett, who was shot outside of a Detroit burger joint. Prosecutors and police claimed that Ricks killed Bennett in cold blood using a gun that belonged to his mother, Mary Ricks. The Detroit Police Crime Lab, which was closed in 2008 due to an audit that found errors in ballistics testing, claimed to match the bullets from Bennett's body to those in Mary Ricks' gun. His case was referred to the Michigan Innocence Clinic in late 2011. David Moran, director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, spoke with Reason. He believes evidence shows that the Detroit Police Crime Lab acted fraudulently: "On the same day that the police seized the gun from Mary Ricks, Desmond Ricks' mother, the Detroit Police Crime lab issued a one page report saying that the bullets pulled from Gerry Bennett's body matched that gun and no other gun in the world. And that's simply not possible because we now know what those bullets looked like. They were analyzed by the Michigan State Police and we have photographs of them. They are horribly mangled as you would expect from soft lead .38-caliber bullets that go from a skull all the way to the spine. There are just not enough marks left on the bullets to match them to any gun. So there is no way that those bullets could have been definitively matched to any gun...It's very hard to see how that could have happened otherwise outright fraud." In the original trial, the judge appointed ballistics expert David Townshend to conduct independent analysis of the bullets. Townshend initially verified the Detroit Crime Lab's findings. From prison, Ricks contacted Townshend and asked him to visit him here, even offering the retired Michigan State Police Officer gas money. As explained by Moran, Townshend would conduct his analysis by firing bullets from Mary Ricks' gun into a water tank and comparing those to the autopsy bullets given to him by Detroit police. Townshend was always suspicious of the bullets he received "because they didn't seem like they were mangled enough for having gone through a skull and in the spine. Nor did they have the stains that you would expect to see on bullets that had been pulled out of a dead body" Moran said. After the 2008 crime lab scandal and visiting Ricks in prison, Townshend came to the conclusion that the autopsy bullets were switched with the Detroit Crime Lab's own test bullets. He signed an affidavit in 2015 stating that the bullets he received were not from Bennett's body. Unfortunately, Ricks' case may just be the tip of the iceberg. According to Moran, the Detroit police violated the Constitution frequently in the 1990s by inventing false confessions or arresting and holding witnesses until they implicated a defendant. While the Wayne County Prosecutors Office received a grant to look into other cases that the Detroit Crime Lab may have mishandled, they only searched back to 2003. Moran intends to ask the Michigan Attorney General to launch a full independent investigation into convictions based on crime lab analysis. For now, Ricks told The Detroit News that he is ready to move forward: "There's no excuse for what they did, but I have to move on. I just didn't want to die in prison. Now, I'm just trying to get some semblance of my life back. I just want to pay my taxes and be a good citizen." He is also entitled to $1.25 million from the state.[...]

Prison Unions Punish California Taxpayers

Fri, 09 Jun 2017 01:00:00 -0400

If you ever wondered what's wrong with California's state government, then mull over this simple example: While California cuts its prison population and staff, it's increasing the amount of money it spends to operate its massive prison system. In the private sector, a decline in the number of "customers" and workers would mean lower overhead. But in state government—or, at least, this state government—the opposite is true. The higher costs are driven by escalating pay and benefit packages negotiated by unions that represent prison guards and other staff. It's an example of how powerful public-sector unions keep the state from getting spending under control, even when the need for such spending plummets. That example comes from a new report by the Vera Institute for Justice. "Despite a decline in both its prison population and the number of prison staff, California's prison spending rose $560 million between 2010 and 2015, primarily because salary, pension and other employee and retiree benefits continued to increase, also a result of union-negotiated increases," explained the New York-based think tank that promotes criminal-justice reform. California is unusual from a national perspective, per the report. Thirteen states have reduced prison populations since 2010, but they've also cut their prison spending by $1.6 billion. Seven states have increased their populations, but have managed to decrease their prison spending, (by $254 million). Fifteen states have increased their prison populations and also increased their total prison spending by a half-billion dollars. California is in an ignominious group of 10 states that saw declines in the prison population since 2010, but which increased spending by $1.1 billion. Furthermore, California's spending increase accounts for more than half of that number. California has by far the costliest system of incarceration in the nation at more than $75,000 per inmate per year—more than triple the average cost of the 18 states with the least-costly rates. Regardless of one's views on prison-reform issues, it's clear that California gets far less bang for its buck than other states. The savings could go to other parts of the criminal-justice bureaucracy, or to other programs or, heaven forbid, back to taxpayers. Instead, the money goes to maintain a system that isn't changing to reflect new realities. The study focuses on the 2010 to 2015 period, and some major prison-related laws—e.g., 2014's Proposition 47, which reduced many felonies to misdemeanors and resulted in further reductions of prison populations—got started toward the end of the study period. Yet, if anything, these disturbing spending trends only accelerated in the ensuing years. "Gov. Jerry Brown's spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1 includes a record $11.4 billion for the corrections department while also predicting that there will be 11,500 fewer inmates in four years because voters in November approved earlier releases for many inmates," wrote Don Thompson for The Associated Press. "Since 2015, California's per-inmate costs have surged nearly $10,000, or about 13 percent." That's a whopping increase in a short period of time, and even more amazing given that state just raised gas taxes because it claims to be out of cash. Some argue that there was no "safety dividend" from the passage of Prop. 47, the AP article explained. That's an unresolved point. After hitting record lows, crime rates in some big California cities have gone up the past couple of years. There is no definitive data-driven answer to the causes yet, but many conservatives blame Proposition 47 and the governor's "realignment" policies, which fulfilled a federal prison overcrowding order by moving many state prisoners to county jails. Of course, early-release decisions and the like should be driven by public safety and civil-liberties issues rather than simply cost concerns. But even if there were no cost savings to the criminal-justice systems overall because of that pro[...]

GOP Maps Out New Ways to Throw People in Federal Prison

Thu, 01 Jun 2017 10:00:00 -0400

New legislation being drafted by House and Senate Republicans would serve essentially as a clearinghouse for their tough-on-crime, tough-on-immigration stances. It would create new mandatory minimums, prepare the feds to imprison thousands more people, find new ways to punish sanctuary cities, and collect biometric and biographic data on anybody immigration takes into custody, regardless of citizenship status. The 333-page "Building America's Trust through Border and National Security Act of 2017" is being assembled by two Texans, Sen. John Cornyn and House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul. Like omnibus legislation, it's a Frankenstein's monster of cobbled-together bills that probably couldn't get passed on their own, certainly not before Republicans controlled both Congress and the White House. A source provided Reason a copy of the draft legislation. Among the measures currently included in the bill's text: The bill includes "Kate's Law," legislation designed to increase federal mandatory minimum sentences for illegal immigrants in crime cases. It's named after Kathryn Steinle, who was killed by a felon who had been deported but returned illegally to the United States. It creates a new mandatory minimum sentences for illegal immigrants who commit crimes. An illegal alien who commits any drug trafficking or violent crime gets a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. If that person had previously been kicked out of the country before for committing a crime, the mandatory minimum sentence jumps to 15 years. In addition, those who continue to return illegally to the United States after being deported (regardless of any criminal record) face 10-year sentences if they get caught. The bill authorizes the construction of "tactical infrastructure"—as in physical barriers or a "wall"—along the southwest border of the United States, and it orders the Department of Homeland Security to get such infrastructure into place by January 2021. It doesn't specifically define what the infrastructure should look like, and it doesn't appear to provide for its funding. (It does call for $33 billion to improve border surveillance.) The bill spends 60 pages authorizing a host of border patrol operations and functions. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would see a staff increase of 1,500 special agents, 500 of which would be assigned to the border. The number of ICE investigators would increase by 1,000. The bill offers a host of financial incentives and bonuses to hire and keep border patrol officers. The bill's authors want to fund an increase of "not less than 50 percent per day" over the previous year in the number of prosecutions for illegal border crossings along the Mexican border, and they want to fund all the personnel needs that would entail. The legislation would provide federal grants to border states to assist local law enforcement agents if they help with border control and immigration enforcement. The bill calls for a biometric data collecting system for any person entering and leaving the United States who is not a citizen, and for checking their identities against several databases. (The databases would cover not just suspected terrorists, but also everyone who is in the United States illegally, has violated the terms of their visas, or has overstayed their visas.) It calls for collecting DNA samples from any detained aliens that are subject to deportation. The bill calls for the detention and removal of immigrants who are in the country illegally regardless of any involvement in any other crimes. It also authorizes Homeland Security to detain a deportable alien for removal if he has been tried for a crime, even if he hasn't been convicted. To make space for all these people, it funds an additional 10,000 beds in the federal detention system. The bill denies federal grants to sanctuary cities. A rival bill introduced recently would cut Department of Justice grants to such cities. This bill goes much further and denies sanctuary[...]

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 [...]

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 becam[...]

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: Despi[...]