Inmates Volunteer in Iowa Program

An earned release program (ERP) at the local prison is giving minimum security inmates positive behavioral reinforcement while also sustaining the needs of Couleecap in Prairie du Chien, Iowa.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford


Once a week, three inmates from the Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution (PDCCI) are released to Couleecap for three hours to perform volunteer labor, accomplishing work such as sorting and pricing clothing, testing electronics, sorting games and puzzles, putting away food pantry groceries, folding bags and otherwise performing innumerable other jobs. This is all under the supervision of PDCCI’s Sgt. Tanner, alongside the regular Couleecap and Bargain Boutique workers and community volunteers. Tanner said:

The ERP guys are all volunteer inmates who enjoy coming here. It gets them out in the real world and they appreciate that they’re helping out the community. Many of these inmates are the type of men who end up utilizing programs such as the food pantry and thrift shop when they reintegrate into the community.

Though PDCCI is considered a medium-minimum security prison, all ERP inmates are classified as minimum security, which means they have not committed “dangerous” crimes and pose no escape risk. Background checks and paperwork are done and the men must be approved before starting the work.

Couleecap Bargain Boutique and Food Pantry Coordinator Jann Sturmer said:

I think that they’re not only happy to get out, but also once they see what the work is and that the proceeds help people in need, they like it all the more. They come here with such great attitudes and they can accomplish more in three hours than most people can in eight hours. It’s nice to have the men with the muscles to help with the heavy lifting.

When the food truck delivers federally-supplemented food once a month (from  The Emergency Food Assistance Program from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service) , “the inmates may stay longer than their three-hour shift to assure all the food is put away,” she added.

In the past year since PDCCI and Couleecap began partnering for this program, at least 50 inmates have helped at the thrift store on four different occasions to accumulate 12 hours each. Once they’ve hit 12 hours of community volunteerism, they’ve completed the program. Tanner added:

A lot of them want to volunteer more than that. Everyone involved would like to see this opportunity happen two times a week, for three hour shifts. But PDCCI is short on staff to make it happen.

Sturmer said the community is in the position of being truly blessed to have a lot of volunteers, yet Couleecap is really in need of more. “They can work one hour a week, there’s no set schedule, every little bit helps. Kids can volunteer too,” she stated. “Some of the other volunteers were apprehensive at first (about the inmates working alongside them), but now, especially when they see how hard-working they are, everyone really enjoys it and has become very accepting of it.”

Tanner said, for the inmates, this positive relationship within the community is good for all. As part of the earned release program, these interactions help the inmates realize more about the crimes they committed, who they affected and how they impacted people. It’s part of their community reintegration process.

“It’s good for them,” he stated. “They’re doing great work, they like it, and a lot of them want to come shopping here when they get out.”

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

3 Common Myths About Homelesssness

As a young psychologist in the 1980s who had researched treatment of the mentally ill, I was concerned by many reports suggesting that the growing number of homeless people may be due to deinstitutionalization. Over 30 years my group and I have conducted many studies of homelessness.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Myth #1: The homeless and ‘poor will always be with us’
This statement about the poor, attributed to Jesus in Matthew 26:11, can be taken out of context to suggest that people need not be concerned with caring for the poor and homeless. According to such an interpretation, assistance to the poor is a waste of time. Most Biblical scholars disagree with such a pessimistic interpretation.

But will there really always be poor people? Rates of homelessness vary widely across nations. In our telephone surveys of random samples of citizens across 10 developed nations, the chance that a given citizen had experienced homelessness at some point in their lifetime varied between 2.2 and 8.6 percent.

It’s not yet clear what explains this variation. Is it the quality of social and health services in different countries? Could different patterns of substance abuse or immigration explain it? In any event, at 6.1 percent, the U.S. has one of the highest rates among developed nations.

If nations vary so widely, that suggests national policy changes could reduce high rates of homelessness. In the past decade or so, the U.S. has dramatically ramped up resources devoted to eliminating homelessness among veterans. Thanks to these efforts, veteran homelessness went down 35 percent between 2009 and 2015, outpacing the 10 percent total reduction in homelessness.

Provided with ongoing support services, the homeless mentally ill and other homeless persons can maintain themselves in permanent housing over long periods of time.

Other research suggests that homelessness can be prevented among vulnerable groups. For example, in a statewide evaluation, youth exiting foster care and detention facilities in Tennessee were randomly assigned to a special outpatient program or to a control group. Those in the program spent significantly less time homeless over the next year and also had other positive outcomes, like higher employment income.

Myth #2: Homelessness affects only very limited segments of American society
For sure, homelessness is more likely to affect those who are poor or otherwise disadvantaged in our society. But homelessness appears to touch the lives of a wide range of Americans, including some who average citizens would never have thought to be vulnerable.

Many people mistakenly believe that most of the homeless are mentally ill. Studies done by our group and others over the last 30 years have found that only one-quarter to one-third of homeless adults show a documented serious mental disorder, like schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.

Substance use disorders among homeless adults are much more common. Sixty to 75 percent of homeless people struggle with substance abuse at some point in their lifetime, versus 16 percent among the general population. Both serious mental and substance use disorders are less common among homeless mothers, their children and unaccompanied homeless youth.

Recently, studies have shown that college students suffer from high rates of homelessness and food insecurity. A recent survey of over 40,000 students across the U.S. found that 9 percent of university students and 12 percent of community college students had been homeless in the past year.

Over three decades, my team has interviewed thousands of homeless people. We have very rarely found anyone who we might consider to have “chosen” a homeless lifestyle. Yes, there are women, youth and others fleeing violent or otherwise very difficult life circumstances. Yes, there are some with severe mental or substance use disorders who have no other alternative to the streets or homeless shelters. If given the “choice” between a mental hospital, a jail or a homeless shelter in a dangerous area of town, some will, with good reason, take to the streets.

Myth #3: The public has developed ‘compassion fatigue’ when it comes to homelessness
Starting in the late 1980s, researchers have conducted a series of public opinion surveys on homelessness in the U.S. and other developed nations. In the 1990s, some in the U.S. media started to suggest that the public was experiencing “compassion fatigue,” the feeling that homelessness had become an intractable problem that no longer needed so much societal attention.

However, the evidence doesn’t support this at all. For example, surveys continue to find that a majority of the public would pay more taxes to help the homeless.

Perhaps it’s an issue of perception. My team analyzed the media’s interest in homelessness over the past 40 years, focusing on four major U.S. newspapers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.

There was virtually no media interest in homelessness prior to 1980, when Ronald Reagan began his first term as president. Interest then took off, perhaps due to actual increases in the numbers experiencing homelessness. This curiosity peaked in 1987, the same year that the first major federal funding was passed, then declined as the media became interested in other topics.

Since 1995, media interest has been steady at a relatively low level. Given these findings, perhaps a more accurate conclusion is that the mass media have experienced “compassion fatigue.”

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

Gaps Remain in Florida’s Youth Diversion Program

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the James Madison Institute were among the groups discussing this year’s iteration of the Caruthers Institute report “Stepping Up: Florida’s Top Juvenile Pre-Arrest Diversion Efforts” on a Tuesday morning conference call.

Dewey Caruthers, president of The Caruthers Institute,can-florida-state-map-cities_which conducts the study, said that juvenile civil citations have “widespread support across the political spectrum,” with conservatives and liberals agreeing that diversion is the best remedy for “common juvenile misbehavior.”

Caruthers said these programs help public safety, improve outcomes and save taxpayer money.

One major move: “civil citations” are now rebranded as “pre-arrest diversion” programs. “This language is both more expansive and more accurate – unlike traditional citations, juveniles who receive civil citations must report to a program that includes a needs assessment and sanctions beyond a simple fine.”

For advocates, this year’s report took a look at best practices and how they translate into results. Many of the conference call speakers noted that this approach is one with self-evident benefits, and spotlighted the intersection of smart “restorative justice” policy and the interests of taxpayers and policy makers.

Demographically, there is equity among both gender and ethnicity in the use of diversion. Utilization across the board is 58 percent, with Latinos topping out at 65 percent, and whites at 57 percent. Diversion is more likely in incidents in schools (75 percent of the time) versus incidents in the community (52 percent).

Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that “we’re doing better with the racial disparity problem,” though there are still gaps in schools.

According to the report, “As illustrated by past editions of this study, there has been a consistent disparity in the frequency at which students of color are arrested for eligible offenses at school.”

Black students are still almost 2.5 times as likely as white students for school arrests, per the report. Leon County is the worst, with black students being 11.67 times more likely than white students for arrests.

The issues with racial equity in school usage of this policy was the worst news of this report, which by and large shows strides, with evidence-based progress.

The state’s top three counties using pre-arrest diversion are Monroe at 97 percent, Miami-Dade at 95 percent and Pinellas at 93 percent.

Rural counties are laggards on this front, and there is room for improvement for next year’s report.

“Nearly all the top-performing jurisdictions have a policy that presumes law enforcement officers should issue a pre-arrest diversion in all eligible instances. Arrests, with few exceptions, must be justified in writing by the law enforcement officer,” the report reads.

Caruthers noted that in top-performing jurisdictions, civil citation is a “presumptive norm” and that law enforcement training is annualized for veterans and part of orientation for new hires.

Many jurisdictions have utilization rates of 90 percent or higher, Caruthers said.

Monroe County was singled out for routing youthful offenders into diversion programs within 24 hours of the offense.

And diversion is effective as a deterrent. According to the report, only 4 percent of juveniles in these programs reoffended over the next 12 months.

The biggest barrier to diversion are arrests for domestic violence.

The report lauds Duval and Hillsborough counties for strides made from previous years, with memoranda of understanding driving a policy change.

“Duval County adopted a new memorandum of understanding in May 2017 expanding its use of pre-arrest diversion by defining eligibility, addressing the process of citing an eligible youth, and strengthening its Teen Court program. This has led to an increase in utilization from 27 percent in 2016 to 59 percent in 2017. The county had an average 90 percent utilization in the first quarter of 2018, positioning it to be a top performer in 2018,” the report states.

Duval had racial disparities in utilization that have abated, as of 2018, with increased usage, a priority of State Attorney Melissa Nelson that has become policy.

Michelle Morton, Juvenile Justice Policy coordinator of the ACLU, asserted the “increased advocacy … changed the culture,” turning around Duval’s approach to these issues.

McCoy noted that “racial disparity” issues have been mitigated in Duval due to “increased utilization” of diversion programs.

Hillsborough County, meanwhile, “adopted a new memorandum of understanding in August 2017 expanding its use of pre-arrest diversion by expanding the list of eligible offenses. The County continues to exclude 13 misdemeanors that are eligible in other counties.”

“The new agreement followed a one-year pilot study using pre-arrest diversion for marijuana possession. This led to an increase in utilization from 37 percent in 2016 to 50 percent in 2017. The county had an average 60 percent utilization in the first quarter of 2018.”

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

Female Imprisonment Skyrocketing in Mississippi and Elsewhere

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Although they make up only 8 percent of Mississippi’s inmate population, women and girls in the state’s prisons and jails face a singular set of challenges today, a new report finds.

Not least of these challenges, per Washington, D.C.–based national advocacy group The Sentencing Project, are burgeoning law enforcement efforts, stricter drug sentencing laws and post-conviction barriers that affect women disproportionately.

Moreover, Mississippi’s rate of female incarceration rose 925 percent between 1978 and 2016, from 8 to 82 incarcerated women per 100,000 female residents. Mississippi now incarcerates women at a rate 1.5 times than the national average.

As of 2016, the most recent data available, Mississippi ranked 14th out of all states for the rate of female incarceration.

Researchers and advocates from The Sentencing Project, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and two regional organizations based in Nashville and San Francisco sought to contextualize national and regional statistics with projects they’ve undertaken in specific cities and regions in a web panel Tuesday.

In seeking solutions for women and girls, panelists concurred that the process of securing justice should be rooted within communities, not the current courts system and its counterparts — foster care, the juvenile-justice system and government welfare programs.

“It’s not freedom when I have a young woman come to me who’s not in jail anymore but her kids were taken away on Thursday,” said Jessica Nowlan, executive director of the San Francisco-based Young Women’s Freedom Center. “That’s not winning.”

Nationally, 1.2 million women and girls are now under supervision of the criminal-justice system, with 1 million on probation or parole and another 200,000 women in local jails or state and federal prisons, said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project.

Most of these women have young children, she added — over 60 percent of women in state prisons have at least one child under age 18.

At a national level, the growth rate of incarcerated women doubles that of men, though women make up only about seven percent of the U.S. prison population. And African-American and Latina women are currently imprisoned at twice and 1.4 times the rate of white women, respectively.

In contrast to men, more than half of whom are imprisoned for violent offenses, most women are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes, per The Sentencing Project. Only 37 percent of women in state prisons in 2016 were convicted of a violent crime.

These numbers are mostly driven by local and state policies, thus yielding the wide range of imprisonment rates across states, Ghandnoosh said. At 149 per 100,000, Oklahoma ranks first, while Massachusetts and Rhode Island are tied for last at 13 per 100,000.

Within Mississippi’s system, disparities have emerged between resources allocated for female and male inmates, as the Atlantic reported in April. The Mississippi Department of Correction’s website lists 13 vocational opportunities for men, such as auto mechanic and welding technology, and only five for women, including cosmetology and “Family Dynamics,” which is described as an expanded form of a home-economics class.

Other MDOC programs tailored for women include a recent re-entry workshop, backed by Arianna Huffington, businesswoman and co-founder of the Huffington Post, that uses “principles routinely applied in the corporate world.”

All women in MDOC state prisons are held at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County.

Andrea James, founder and executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, posed the question:

How do we shift the system? It involves finding ways to pull back from the current system and really engage communities in taking back their power. Engage communities in being a part of the process of making decisions about what does justice look like for us? What do we want our communities to look like?

Nowlan, of the San Francisco-based Young Women’s Freedom Center, provided a case study of work still needed for young, incarcerated women, even in California: “Still no housing, still in poverty, still having to do survival sex work,” she said. She cited incidents in which snatching phones or stealing laundry soap turned into felony charges.

Research conducted by the Freedom Center into the past 25 years has shown a “huge correlation” between homelessness and incarceration, foster homes and juvenile justice systems, Nowlan added.

Oleta Fitzgerald, Southern regional director for the Children’s Defense Fund in Jackson, links the plight of incarcerated women of color in Mississippi, particularly, to a dearth of economic opportunity, citing poverty as a driving force behind the state’s incarceration rate.

“When you intersect poverty, gender and race, you’ve got yourself something,” Fitzgerald told Mississippi Today.

That Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation, ACLU of Mississippi executive director Jennifer Riley Collins adds, means that most women who enter the criminal justice system are economically disadvantaged with little education, few job skills, and sporadic employment histories.

Women leaving prison, Riley outlined in a statement, must stay clean and sober, return to a primary caretaker role for their children, earn a livable wage, obtain reliable childcare and transportation, and find safe and sober housing for themselves and their children. And all of this occurs while they try to meet requirements of community supervision and additional demands of other public agencies such as child welfare.

Women need to be provided with a basic safety net: transportation, community spaces, housing, healthcare, education, employment, and economic security. Without a safety net, women often are forced to return to a life of survival and are not afforded the opportunity to be restored.

In organizing efforts to address the disruptive effects of incarceration on women and children, organizers have found it crucial to include the experiences of the incarcerated themselves.

“We don’t do anything — not one thing — without first reaching to the women and girls and (families) who are on the inside of the prison bunk,” James said.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford


Aussi prison job programs help ex-convicts stay out of trouble

Prisoners who took vocation and education training programs in jail were twice as likely to remain offence-free five years after release when compared with inmates who didn’t.aussi

This is among the findings of a recent joint study by criminologists from five Australian universities that surveyed data from correctional services institutions in NSW, NT, ACT, and South Australia.

The study, titled ‘Australian prison vocational education and training and returns to custody among male and female ex-prisoners: A cross-jurisdictional study’, looked at data of more than 10,000 prisoners released in 2010–11 and compared it to data in 2016 showing which of those prisoners were back in prison.

Dr Jesse Cale, UNSW Senior Lecturer in Criminology, says he and his colleagues were able to determine who among the sample had taken VET training and who hadn’t, enabling them to see whether there was any correlation between undertaking VET and staying out of jail:

At the end of the day, engaging in vocational training in prison reduces the risk of returning to custody or reoffending over at least a five-year follow-up period.

But he warns against interpreting the study as showing a causal relationship between engaging in vocational programs and a lower rate of recidivism:

While overall vocational education training reduces the likelihood of the return to custody, the type and appropriateness of the training has a big impact on the result.

This ties in with a second conclusion of the study which says a one-size-fits-all approach to VET programs is not effective. Rather, prisoners need to be assessed and recommended to programs individually, based on their needs, interests, and strengths.

Cale says:

Employment needs to be considered against the needs of the individual and the strengths of the individual, just like other behavioral change programs. So that might be one reason why it’s effective for some people and maybe not others.

Contributing to the variation in results was the fact that some states might not have the same resources to throw at programs as other states, while implementation of programs from institution to institution also played a part.

Like so many criminal justice issues, the issue isn’t always whether the program is right or wrong, but can the program be effectively implemented.

However, despite the correlation between VET programs and lower recidivism rates, the authors found that preparation for employment within the prison walls was no guarantee a prisoner would find work on the outside.

Dr. Cale says:

People can do all the VET programs in the world in prison, but if there’s no work when they get out… Employment is a big factor related to whether people offend in the first place or reoffend when they’re released from custody.

“There has to be consideration of the external job market when you’re running these programs – that training they receive in prison is actually appropriate to the job market they walk into.

The study looked at a sample of 10,834 prisoners who were released in 2010–11, of whom 1063 were women.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

21 Floridians a day die from drugs while legislators cut treatment

Despite a record-breaking state budget of $88.7 billion and a raging drug-addiction horror show that kills 21 Floridians a day, the state prison system is eliminating programs that help alcoholics and drug users prepare to move back to your neighborhood.

Brilliant! Thank you, legislators, for refusing to provide money to fight the opioid epidemic. Dumping untreated drunks and junkies who have been warehoused for years into communities with no support is such a marvelous idea. Nothing can go wrong in that scenario, can it?

Across Florida, 33 mental health and substance abuse facilities that treat inmates are either closing or will be handling only work-release operations after June 30 because Department of Corrections officials must cut nearly $30 million in substance abuse and mental health programs. Not that they want to.

DOC warned state legislators in February that it would need more money to provide constitutionally required primary health care for 96,000 inmates and to meet orders from three Florida courts to provide another $100 million in services as the result of deliberate and chronic underfunding of prison health care over years.

How did legislators react? This crew defiantly made cuts and lowballed the $2.4 billion corrections budget by $79 million. Corrections needs $28 million more alone to renew the basic health care contract with Centurian LLC, the only bidder DOC could find in the last two years to take the job that pays nearly $440 million annually.

Hundreds of Central Florida inmates now will be dumped into cells without a chance to better themselves at facilities in Orlando, Clermont, Kissimmee, DeLand, Daytona Beach and Polk City, and they will return to local communities having gotten not a whit of help. Many are considered high-risk offenders.

The remarkably successful 38-year-old Reality House in Daytona Beach, the state’s only substance abuse program to house inmates before they begin work release, unfortunately was caught up in the frantic slashing. Though fewer than 5 percent of its inmates returned to prison in the past, Reality House will be laying off 60 people and sending 100 men enrolled in the unique program back to sit in their cells until their release dates.

Phoro by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Addiction help isn’t the only target for reductions. Shamefully, the DOC is saving $500,000 from firing prison chaplains and librarians. It’s pretty low to deny a prisoner a pastor or a book.

Meanwhile, try to decipher the thought process of elected officials who cut treatment beds in the midst of a public health crisis and in a state that last week joined five others to sue the drug companies that make the killer pills. Florida looks stupid — not to mention confused about it wants to do to fight addiction.

DOC Secretary Julie Jones laid out the problem during an interview with the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald last year:

Legislators may think people in prison are “just inmates,” but she pointed out the inconvenient truth:

They come back home next to you and me. We need them to be productive citizens, and we need to give them a chance.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

New Homelessness System in Kern Co., Calif.

As the homeless situation continues to intensify in Los Angeles and Orange County, tension has been mounting in Bakersfield over homelessness. Just last month, Kern County Supervisors were confronted by a group of women who wanted to know why they were seeing more homeless people and if homeless people were purportedly being transported to Bakersfield.

According to the Kern County Homeless Collaborative’s Point in Time Count from January, Bakersfield saw a nine percent increase in the homeless population despite seeing a hefty drop in total from 2007.

At the end of this month, a ten-year plan, spearheaded by former mayor Harvey Hall, to end homelessness will sunset, and a new plan will begin. A key stepping stone in that new plan is the coordinated entry system. It’s being touted as a possible solution to seeing a visible difference in our homeless communities, and it’s being implemented all across the country.

Heather Kimmel of the Kern Housing Authority says the program is meant to pinpoint the most vulnerable and get them into housing in the most expedited way possible:

This system is going to play an integral role in reducing and ultimately ending homelessness in our community. It’s going to allow us to provide services in a more expedited way, it’s going to allow us to target those resources for the most vulnerable in our community, and it’s going to give us good real-time data to start analyzing gaps so we’re not going depend on data we receive once a year in January.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Eighteen agencies are currently working off the same centralized database. In the past, if a homeless person entered one of the twenty-six resources devoted to homelessness, that individual did not necessarily get housed. According to Kimmel, the previous system in place was not focused on helping the most vulnerable and was too fragmented to help the homeless get to the right source. Kimmel says this current system is meant to rectify those issues and catalyze the process for getting housed.

Kimmel says this database will be a community effort, and the Homeless Collaborative is currently holding presentations to better educate organizations on the new system.  She added:

We’re actually giving many presentations right now as the Homeless Collaborative to members of the community…business owners, faith-based organizations…about how they can come to the table and help us in this effort. Homelessness is a community issue. It’s not an agency issue. It’s not a government issue. It’s a community issue. And if we’re really going to move the needle and impact Kern County, it’s going to take everybody to do that.

Kimmel does not anticipate any negative feedback on the program. She believes most people won’t notice what she says will be a difference in our streets. She believes outreach workers are trained well enough to execute the questions and does not anticipate additional reticence from the homeless community.

Matthew Billington of Flood Ministries is currently using the survey when he performs outreach work to find out who is vulnerable and connect them to the right resource. He says it’s been a bit overwhelming since the program is in its infancy stages. Kimmel says:

We ask questions that help us identify the vulnerability based on their mental health status, substance abuse status, physical health status. Basically, what we learn from the survey is who is the most mentally ill, who is the most medically vulnerable, who has the highest need for supportive service and wrap-around services in housing intervention.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

Juvenile Solitary Confinement, Though Proven Harmful, Rises in Chicago

Research shows prolonged solitary confinement can lead to depression, anxiety, and psychosis, and children are particularly vulnerable to these negative reactions because their brains are still developing, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Mental health professionals, advocates, and even many detention center administrators say the practice should be sharply curbed, if not eliminated.juvenile 1

Instead, staff at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, one of the largest juvenile jails in the country, regularly confine kids for hours at a time. Youth in the jail say it’s not uncommon for staff to threaten them with solitary for bad behavior.

Over the past two-and-a-half years, kids at the JTDC have been confined to their cells more than 55,000 times. Taken together, the time they’ve spent in solitary adds up to nearly 25 years.

The punitive use of solitary confinement at the JTDC has risen over the past two years, even as the population has shrunk 20%. There were 1,000 more punitive confinements in 2017 than in 2016, an increase of almost 25 percent. 

Staff at the juvenile jail have confined kids for more than a day for damaging or failing to wear their identification wristband, up to 34 hours for exposing themselves, nearly three days for threatening someone, and up to 10 days for participating in a group fight.

State rules require juvenile detention centers in Illinois to limit room confinement to 36 hours, but they aren’t being enforced. Staff have kept kids in their room for longer than 36 hours in every month since May 2015, when Leonard Dixon took over the facility as superintendent. As recently as December 2017, staff confined two kids for more than 100 hours, while their fellow inmates got to spend extra time with their families for Christmas.

The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, which inspects county detention centers to make sure they’re compliant with the rules, can’t do anything even if they are non-compliant.

“Other than doing the audit, we have no real authority – no teeth to enforce anything,” said Heidi Mueller, who directs the state agency.

A growing consensus among experts is that juveniles should not be confined as a punishment for bad behavior. National standards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation say that solitary confinement should only be used as a temporary response to youth who are an immediate threat to themselves or others, and that as soon as they calm down, they should be returned to regular programming.

Overall, kids at the JTDC are being confined as punishment for shorter periods of time — the median confinement is about five hours, down from more than 10 hours in summer 2015 — but experts and advocates say even that is far too long.

Dixon, the superintendent, said solitary confinement is a necessary “behavior management tool” — he wouldn’t call it a punishment — and he doesn’t plan to stop using it:

Confinement is something that you use to ensure that your facility doesn’t get out of control. There are consequences for behavior. And we’re not going to run a facility where the kids can do whatever and you have an unsafe place.

But Mike Dempsey, director of a national organization of juvenile corrections administrators and the former head of Indiana’s juvenile justice agency, said staff who think using confinement makes a juvenile detention center safer are mistaken:

Kids come out of isolation more aggressive and more dangerous, often, than when they went into isolation. You shouldn’t use isolation as a disciplinary tool. Really, no good comes from it. You should avoid it at all costs.

The suicide of Kalief Browder in June 2015 brought the dangers of solitary confinement for teens into the national spotlight. Browder was arrested in the Bronx when he was 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack, and spent three years incarcerated on Rikers Island while awaiting trial, more than two of them in solitary confinement. Two years after the charges were dropped and he was finally released, he hanged himself.

Even before Browder’s death, experts had warned of the negative effects of locking kids and teens in their rooms. A February 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that about half of juveniles who committed suicide in custody from 1995 to 1999 were in solitary confinement at the time of their deaths.

Although little research has been done on the long-term effects of solitary confinement on young people, mental health experts suggest it can exacerbate existing trauma and mental illness. Roughly one-third of the teens in Cook County’s juvenile jail had a mental health diagnosis on an average day in 2016.

Mikah Owen, a pediatrician and assistant professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Jacksonville, said:

What we know now is that being exposed to trauma, especially at a young age, changes your body physiologically and changes your brain structure so that you’re more likely to respond more aggressively to certain stimuli. There is a developmentally appropriate way to address kids who are experiencing that, and that is not locking them in a cell.

The Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, Dempsey’s organization, which represents the heads of state-level juvenile correctional agencies, has recommended that juvenile facilities reduce solitary confinement. “There is no research showing the benefits of using isolation to manage youths’ behavior,” they noted in a 2015 report.

In 2016, President Barack Obama issued an executive order banning solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody, but it was largely a symbolic move, since the vast majority of kids are incarcerated in state and local prisons and jails.

That same year, advocates launched the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign, which now has more than 50 supporting organizations, ranging from civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to the nation’s largest professional associations for correctional employees and administrators. States such as Massachusetts, California, and Colorado, and localities including New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., have banned or severely limited solitary confinement for juveniles.

Cook County has gone in the opposite direction. In 2016, a team of juvenile detention experts from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Children’s Law and Policy evaluated the facility for compliance with the Casey Foundation standards. They found the use of room confinement at the JTDC had increased “very substantially” since an earlier assessment in 2013.

In a strategic plan written in October 2016, the JTDC administration set a modest goal of reducing confinement by 2 percent over the next five years. Instead, the number of confinements has increased. There were 5,536 punitive confinements in 2017, up from 4,453 in 2016.

Illinois is among the states that have sharply limited solitary confinement as a punishment in its youth prisons, as part of an ongoing lawsuit with the ACLU. That leads to the ironic fact that a kid from Chicago can be confined to his cell for hours or days while awaiting trial at the Cook County detention center, when he is presumed innocent, but not once he is found guilty and sentenced to a state youth prison.

When Leonard Dixon took over the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in May 2015, it was coming out from under federal court oversight. The facility had a history of overcrowding, mismanagement and awful conditions—including excessive use of solitary confinement—which had led the ACLU to file a lawsuit in 1999.

The largest category of punitive confinement – and the one that has increased the most since Dixon started – is for “unauthorized movement,” which the Center for Children’s Law and Policy noted could be something as small as stepping outside of the T.V. room.

The Center for Children’s Law and Policy has already told the JTDC to cut back on solitary confinement twice. It’s not clear why they expect the third time will be any different.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford; photo by Lankford

New Oklahoma Laws to Impact Female Prisoners

The criminal justice reform bills approved by the Oklahoma Legislature last week don’t go as far as reformers would have liked. Yet they appear headed to Gov. Mary Fallin’s desk, and Republican leadership is interested in continuing down this road. This is progress worth celebrating.

Last year, five bills resulting from the governor’s task force on criminal justice got bottled up by a Republican committee chairman who made it a practice during his time in the Legislature to oppose just about every reform idea that was presented to House members. Those five bills eventually wound up in a conference committee and they didn’t emerge before the 2017 session ended, despite pleas from Fallin and others to put them up for a vote.

That member left the Legislature lastOkla

year, providing reformers with hope that something might happen in 2018. Some heartburn returned when the bills sat idle for several weeks, but last week the Senate approved the five bills and the House approved two others in moves applauded by leaders in each chamber.

For too many years, GOP members have shied away from criminal justice reform for fear of being labeled “soft on crime.” But more and more, they are coming to understand that these are attempts to be “smart on crime” and provide some relief to the state’s aging prisons, which are filled beyond capacity and on track to stay that way.

Without changes to the status quo, it’s been projected that Oklahoma’s prison population, now at about 27,000, will grow by roughly 8,700 by the year 2026. Approval of the task force bills in their original form was expected to produce a slight reduction in the prison population over the next decade. It’s anticipated the prison population will continue to grow under the amended bills, but at a far slower rate than it is today. That’s a victory.

The seven pieces of legislation are all as sensible as they are overdue. House Bill 2281, for example, would adjust penalties for several low-level offenses such as larceny and forgery. It also would create a tiered structure for property crimes, with those involving items valued at less than $1,000 becoming misdemeanors. It’s expected this will help lower the female incarceration rate, which has been No. 1 nationally for 25 years.

Another example is Senate Bill 793, which eliminates the life-without-parole option for drug possession with intent to distribute, distribution, manufacturing and trafficking, and gets rid of most of the law’s mandatory-minimum sentences. SB 689, meanwhile, would give courts the chance to reduce life-without-parole sentences in some cases, and modifies the lengthy sentences related to drug trafficking.

And, more changes may be in store. Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, the next leader of the Senate, says he hopes to work with district attorneys and others between now and the 2019 session.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

Vermont Private Prison Limits Psychiatric Care, Human Rights

THE VERMONT Agency of Human Services has proposed a large psychiatric and prison facility for Franklin County. It has been proposed that this facility be built and maintained by CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, a scandal-plagued private prison contractor.

This secure facility would consist of some 925 beds for male and female prisoners and would serve youth, forensic, and geriatric patients. It purports to offer a solution to a perceived crisis in the mental-health system in which those reporting to emergency departments of hospitals are held for long periods of time while waiting for a bed at an appropriate facility.

This proposal illustrates an increasing trend that conflates a lack of access to psychiatric care with a threat to public safety and public health.

This thinking ignores that there is already significant overlap between the criminal-justice system and the mental-health system. The further intermingling of these systems could very well end badly both for people who are imprisoned and people who are receiving psychiatric treatment.juvenile 2

Despite calls from prison-reform activists for more diversion to treatment for those who are jailed, the lives of those involuntarily committed to treatment for mental illness are subject to judicial intervention from the start of their confinement in one of the designated facilities in the state.

They are subject to court orders that allow them to be drugged forcibly and orders of non-hospitalization that require that they take psychiatric drugs once they are out of the hospital setting, lest they be returned to the hospital.

They face months of involuntary confinement, at the discretion of a judge.

An added emphasis on mental-health care in the criminal-justice system is less likely to result in an increase in meaningful counseling and compassionate care, and it could easily result in the increased use of antipsychotics as a means of chemical restraint.

There is also likely to be an additional layer of surveillance once inmates are released on parole or probation. In this scenario, inmates may be freed on the condition that they adhere to a regime of medication that may not be needed and that may be ultimately harmful to their physical or mental health.

This is not to say that there are not unmet needs among the imprisoned, and that drastic changes are not required to address these needs.

The Vermont Department of Corrections reported that in 2015 that 47 percent of those imprisoned were receiving mental-health services. According to the Vermont Human Rights Commission, there are obvious dangers attendant with this already-established relationship — particularly an increased reliance on solitary confinement.

To equate crime and untreated mental illness without explanation or qualification also serves to obscure criticisms of both the criminal-justice and the mental-health systems. It provides a pat set of explanations and solutions to social problems that require a more-thorough examination.

In accepting these explanations and solutions, we lose perspective on both and gain nothing in terms of public safety or the preservation of human rights.

Essentially, this puts the cart before the horse: being imprisoned is a traumatic experience that in many cases precipitates emotional crises.

In a 2017 report, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that some 1 in 7 prison inmates and 1 in 4 jail inmates reported serious psychological distress in the 30 days preceding a 2011-2012 survey.

While it would be possible to infer the harmful stereotype that many prisoners are mentally ill (and that many who experience mental illness are incipient prisoners), it is more politically astute to argue that losing one’s freedom and being placed in an institutional setting leads to emotional crises.

The same argument can be made for involuntary admission to a mental hospital, where patients experience many of the same losses of freedom.

In a report to the Department of Mental Health, Wilda White, executive director of Vermont Psychiatric Survivors notes that homelessness is the most significant determinant of long wait times in an emergency department. Housing status is also a major predictor of who will come into contact with the police.

Homelessness, incarceration, and civil commitment are all interrelated and mutually reinforcing phenomena that have economic inequality at their base rather than mental illness.

The way forward is not continuing to warehouse those who are suffering, but to redirect funding to housing and other programs that provide people with resources for survival.

In a 2016 report, the Center for American Progress estimated that the costs associated with providing supportive housing to inmates who are disabled is half of what it costs to incarcerate them.

While the proposed facility in Franklin County represents a commingling of the worst impulses that accompany calls for increased public safety and increased treatment for mental illness, it brings us opportunities for increased collaboration between prison reform and abolition movements and the movements of psychiatric survivors.

If the $3.25 billion that this mega-prison is anticipated to cost over 20 years were to be allocated to the development of truly affordable and accessible housing, we would more effectively address the issues that psychiatric hospitalization and imprisonment purport to solve.

And at the same time, we would forego the loss of freedom, exacerbation of suffering, and perpetuation of stigma that they actually deliver.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford