Archive for Humane Exposures

Programs Help Michigan Hit Lowest-ever Recidivism Rate

At 28.1 percent, the Michigan Department of Corrections already beat its numbers by 1.7 percent in 2018 from last year’s count, which recorded the recidivism rate at 29.8 percent, the lowest ever. Recidivism in Michigan has hovered around 30 percent in recent years, and has proven a sharp decline from 1998 when the rate was a significantly higher at 45.7 percent.

Michigan’s impressive position in

the area of recidivism is speculated to be as a result of important programs and training that the state has put in place with just such goals in mind. The department’s “Offender Success” model provides inmates with education, skills and job training in high-demand fields that can lead to stable careers and lower the risk of re-offense.

“Our communities are safer when we give offenders the tools they need to become successful and productive members of society,” said Heidi Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections. “The department has made it a priority to provide high-quality education, training and support to offenders returning to our neighborhoods, and Michigan’s declining recidivism rates show these efforts are working.”

Some examples of the new DOC training programs include the Vocational Village, which operates at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia (since 2016) and one that opened shortly thereafter at the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson. These two programs provide training in automotive technology, welding, CNC machining, robotics, commercial truck driving, forklift operation, carpentry, plumbing, electrical trades and concrete and masonry work.

Gov. Rick Snyder said:

Ninety-five percent of people in prison will be paroled, and 100 percent of them need a job. Finding employment is the best deterrent in keeping former offenders from returning to prison. The Department of Corrections should be proud of the work it’s doing to help our returning residents to give them the chance that best helps them find a successful path in life.

Michigan’s recent record-breaking recidivism rate is an important indicator that the Michigan DOC is meeting its mission to prepare prisoners to reenter the community as law-abiding citizens.

Washington added:

When we give offenders the skills they need to lead crime-free lives as productive members of society, it makes Michigan a safer place to live. These figures show our efforts have been effective, and we look forward to building upon that success.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

Michigan Recidivism Rate Reaches Lowest Ever Recorded,

L.A.Continues to Try to Arrest Away Homelessness

As the number of homeless people has risen dramatically in Los Angeles, so has the tension between those living in squalor on the sidewalks and the residents who have to walk past their encampments, the smell of urine in the air. City officials struggle to balance the rights of homeless people with the rights of everyone else. The region clearly needs to create more housing, but that has been a maddeningly slow process in a city with 34,000 homeless people.

In the meantime, homeless people are

Photo by Los Angeles Times

Photo by Los Angeles Times

vulnerable to being cited by police for breaking any of a passel of the city’s so-called quality-of-life ordinances, which forbid activities such as sleeping on the sidewalk, urinating in public or possessing a shopping cart. A citation can carry a $300 fine — an unaffordable sum for a destitute homeless person. If it’s not paid or if the person cited fails to appear in court, a bench warrant is automatically issued. That can lead to the homeless person getting arrested and in some cases jailed, then returning to the street, locked into an absurd cycle of debt-driven citations, arrests and homelessness.

If you have no home or place to store your belongings, then you carry around your possessions and rest on the sidewalk during the day. If there are no bathrooms for you to use, then you urinate and defecate wherever you happen to be. If anyone thinks citing and arresting people for doing these things means they won’t do them any longer, they’re crazy.

Officials note that the increase in arrests parallels the growth in the local homeless population. But reflecting the trap set by high fines, more homeless people got arrested in 2016 for failure to appear in court for an unpaid citation than for any other reason.

City Atty. Mike Feuer already runs a series of citation clinics at which lawyers work with homeless people to resolve the tickets on their records that can reduce their eligibility for housing and jobs. That’s great and should continue. But that’s on the back end. We need a better approach on the front end. Police need a more productive way of interacting with homeless people on the streets.

For starters, officers need to have the resources to offer a homeless person an alternative to a citation or arrest on the spot. If they’re not accompanied by an outreach worker to help persuade a homeless person to accept services and temporary housing, they need to have a phone number for one.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck insists that his department’s goal is to get homeless people the services they need, and that officers make arrests as a last resort to stop someone who repeatedly breaks the law. There are already teams of police officers in different parts of the city that go out to encampments along with professional outreach workers. But not every police officer on the street encountering a homeless person has an outreach worker at his or her side. When that help isn’t available, police should be instructed that the preferable way to deal with homeless people is to offer them a choice: Get cited and possibly arrested, or agree to work with a service provider.

Granted, this is not the ideal way to get homeless people linked up with counseling and case management and shelter beds. Even when there is a professional outreach worker at the officer’s side, the homeless person is still agreeing to services at the threat of being cited or arrested by someone with a badge and a gun. In general, homeless people who voluntarily accept help are more successful at working with service providers. Among other things, that means we need more outreach workers on the streets — and more temporary housing that they can offer quickly to homeless people.

But here is what we know does not work: charging people money they don’t have; telling people not to go to the bathroom on the sidewalk without offering them public toilets; putting people in jail for being homeless. Let’s stop telling ourselves that arresting homeless people in encampments is actually cleaning up the streets. It’s not.

Too Many UK Female Domestic Abuse Victims Locked Up

Judges are locking up too many domestic violence victims due to a “lack of understanding,” according to the president of the UK’s Prison Governors’ Association. Andrea Albutt is calling for a reduction in the female prison population and for funds to be diverted to women’s refuges and drug addiction centers.

Her fears the UK is failing women offenders were sparked by a report by the Prison Reform Trust, which revealed the majority (57%) of those jailed last year were domestic abuse victims. The trust found more than half (53%) of women in jail reported having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child, compared to 27% of men.

The report, which was backed up by data from the Criminal Bar Association, found most women were locked up for crimes less serious than those which they had suffered and identified “strong links between women’s experience of domestic and sexual abuse and coercive relationships, and their offending”.

It found women arrested for domestic violence incidents were rarely the primary aggressor and police were failing to investigate history of abuse.

Andrea Albutt

Andrea Albutt

The level of damage that you see in prisons is a tragedy,” says Albutt, formerly governor at Low Newton women’s prison in Durham. “It can be a joy working in a women’s prison because you get the chance to make such a big difference but there are so many damaged women. They become a victim a second time again when put in priso

Albutt was also governor at HMP Eastwood Park, a prison for women with complex needs. Asked why she thought domestic abuse victims were so regularly jailed, she said: “I think it is a lack of empathy, a lack of understanding. There is a lack of services out there in the community.”

Charities also told the trust there was scant domestic abuse training among the Crown Prosecution Service [CPS], probation, magistrates and judges, except at a few specialist courts.

Albutt says women are being disproportionately hit with prison sentences of less than one month, and incarceration for minor offences sees women lose custody of their children.

One in four women jailed last year was sentenced to 30 days or less, with almost 300 put behind bars for under two weeks.

The report found most women were locked up for crimes less serious than those which they suffered

One of the trust’s key findings was that women affected by domestic abuse were often coerced into offending and in “distinct ways.” It singled out trafficked women, foreign nationals, women from minority ethnic and religious groups and those with learning difficulties as particularly vulnerable to coercion.

It called for Police and Crime Commissioners to use their powers to ensure more out of court disposals for petty crimes and for the CPS to reconsider guidance.

It concluded that “criminalization and particularly imprisonment compound the problems of women affected by abuse” and that current legal defenses fail to cover the “broader spectrum of sustained psychological, physical and financial abuse that lies behind some women’s offending”.

Albutt is calling for magistrates and judges to consider more community sentences for both sexes amid rising fears of a crisis in UK jails.

The impact of prison on women is far, far greater than it is on men
A 30% cut to budgets over the past decade has led to crumbling buildings, alarming inspection reports, a prison officer recruitment crisis and record rates of violence, self-harm and suicide.

Albutt said:

Services for women in prison are very good, but that doesn’t alter the fact that in most cases they shouldn’t be in prison. They should be able to receive those services out in the community.”

The impact of prison on women is far, far greater than it is on men. The crime to me rarely fits the impact of imprisonment. It’s so very tragic and, it feels to me, unnecessary.

There is no evidence, that I am aware of, that women are becoming more criminalized and there is a disproportionate number of women in prison.

She added:

What you tend to find with female offenders is that they’re offenses are at the lower end of the scale but there tends to be a high proportion of custodial sentences. There is usually an abusive relationship behind [the criminality] – so, often a dysfunctional abusive upbringing, an abusive father, an abusive partner – and usually there is an element of coercion in the criminality.

What you tend to find with women is that they are usually primary carers and often they have children very young. There is also a high proportion of short sentences and you find that in most cases, going to prison means they lose everything. So, their partner, whether they are abusive or not, tend to disappear, the kids go into care, they lose their accommodation and, if they have a job they lose that job. Their whole world falls apart.

Albutt continued: “Services for women in prison are very good, but that doesn’t alter the fact that in most cases they shouldn’t be in prison. They should be able to receive those services out in the community.” She said a number of reports as far back as Baroness Corston’s 2006 study had recommended more community sentences and crime prevention.

Albutt added:

It is a far, far better model but it was never implemented because it was an expensive model.

If we could reduce the population in women’s prions and divert some of those funds into women’s centers – like domestic violence refuges, drug addiction centers and skills centers – that would be better. In doing that you are going to create fewer victims because their children will not be left alone.

To me, it is a no brainer because it will reduce offending and reduce the number of victims in jail.

Baroness Corston’s 2006 report recommended jailing fewer women and bolstering support centers in the community, but services such as women’s refuges are closing down. A National Audit Office report last year shone a light on how women were coping once they found themselves behind bars. It found that 28% of women inside jails were found to be self-harming, while the figure for men was 12%.

Each prison place costs around £47k a year, Albutt says, and there is little sign of fresh investment. Reducing the prison population, she claims therefore, should be a central aim of policy:

There are way too many people in prison. You can’t reduce the prison budget by 30% and continue to lock up the same number of people.

We have a lot of short-term offenders and we know that short-term sentences don’t work because we aren’t with them long enough to make a significant difference.

I’m not saying there should not be a consequence to people breaking the law. Of course there should be, but all other options need to be considered before people are put in prison for a short sentence. You can’t reduce the prison budget by 30% and continue to lock up the same number of people.

I understand that the victim of a crime wants to see punishment and that they want to see them in prison – but while it might make you feel better as the victim of a crime, it won’t change that person’s behavior. It’s a very expensive thing to do and it has no impact.

Albutt says prison governors have been scathing about privatization in the justice department. Failed contractor Carillion was the provider of jail maintenance until it folded earlier this month. A slew of inspection reports on jail maintenance have been damning, with Inspector Peter Clark describing HMP Liverpool as “squalid” in his latest reports.

“They never worked from day one and it was a complete disaster,” says Albutt. “I think the whole contract from start to finish was complete naivete.

Failed contractor Carillion had the maintenance contracts for UK prisons, which Albutt says were “a disaster.”:

The [in-house] works department that we had previously – at least that was in the governors’ control. Large swathes of the prison responsibilities were contracted out. So while the governors’ name might be above the door, all they have is an influencing role. They don’t have any control. They are constantly telling me that they are very, very frustrated.

The main concern is staffing and they do need new technology.

She acknowledges there is little public sympathy for prisoners, adding:

You don’t know who is going to end up in prison. If someone you love is in prison, you want to know that they are getting what they’re entitled to and that, if they have a health problem, they are getting the appropriate care.

And one day we will be releasing back on to the streets so we want to make them better people.

We have to care for them, we have to invest and, if we don’t, what does that say about us.

She adds:

Prisons are in crisis, there is no doubt about that. All public services have had to take their fair share of austerity but it is clear that prisons do not win votes.

We have a record number of people killing themselves in prison but no one seems to be asking why.

 

She says a lack of investment is driving the crisis in prison officer recruitment, however, as many do not feel safe in an “intimidatory atmosphere”.

Asked what will happen in the coming years if no new cash is found for prisons, Albutt concludes: “Well, we will just continue firefighting.”

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

Horrible Conditions at Two Arkansas Youth Facilities

Some Arkansas teenagers in state custody have spent the past several weeks confined to unheated dorms during below-freezing nights, showering in mold-infested stalls and living with shortages of supplies such as shampoo.

Those are among a score of findings of juvenile_3mistreatment at two state-run juvenile facilities cited in a five-page letter mailed recently to state officials by Disability Rights Arkansas, an advocacy group that operates under federal authority.

“Due to the dire conditions and circumstances at the facilities, the neglect rises to a level of abuse,” wrote Thomas Nichols, the group’s managing attorney. “[It]                                                                                 Photo: Susan Madden Lankford

not  only violates health and safety codes, it lacks common decency.”

The group sent one of its inspectors to the state-run Juvenile Treatment Center and Juvenile Correctional Facility in Dermott on Dec. 20, after receiving anonymous complaints about the conditions there.

Photos taken at the time of the December inspections, which were also attached to the letter, detail signs of neglect: pools of standing water at the end of a hall, an entryway framed by shattered glass with a jagged hole, a clogged garbage disposal drain encircled by slimy bits of food.

Because of the state’s procurement system, requests for repairs go unanswered for months; youths don’t get supplies, such as winter jackets and shampoo, in a timely manner; and food shipments run about two weeks late, the Disability Rights inspectors also found.

In the kitchen, the freezer, ice-maker, oven and griddle are unusable, the kitchen sink leaks and the fryer’s power switches on and off on its own, the report stated.

If conditions don’t improve soon, then Disability Rights Arkansas could seek action via the U.S. Department of Justice or private litigation, Nichols told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“We need to take a step back and think, ‘What are our next options here?’” said Nichols. “We can just keep issuing these letters, watch them fall in a black hole — or we can do something different.”

After receiving the letter, Youth Services Division staff members visited both Dermott lockups and will do so again today, said Amy Webb, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services, which oversees the youth agency.

“We take the safety of our youth seriously,” Webb said. “Some of the issues … raised should have already been addressed.”

The division also expects to release a formal response Monday, which will contain steps to fix remaining issues, she said.

Youth agency staff members immediately addressed some findings, including repairing furnaces, finding available laundry machines and ordering new kitchen equipment to replace equipment that “reached end-of-life usage,” Webb said. Other issues require more time, she continued. For instance, structural work is needed to fix the standing water.

Disability Rights Arkansas inspectors said they did note improvements being made at the Dermott facilities in the summer. Workers were repairing a roof and building a shed on the property.

“It looked like they were starting to make a little bit of progress,” said Kris Stewart, one of the disability group’s monitors.

The latest letter echoes complaints contained in a letter the group sent to the Youth Services Division and a handful of other juvenile-justice advocates last January.

At that time, the nonprofit found that the conditions at six of the seven youth jails — which the state had just taken over, at the governor’s direction — had deteriorated, mostly because of previous private facility operators who ran the sites without much oversight by the youth division.

Teens lived in quarters reeking of urine, for example; they didn’t have access to adequate schooling and required mental health and substance abuse treatment.

The correctional unit can house up to 32 males age 18-21, while the treatment center can house up to 30 adolescents.

Disability Rights Arkansas staff members continue to inspect the youth lockups three to four times a year. The nonprofit’s monitoring efforts began after the U.S. Department of Justice unearthed instances of abuse and misconduct at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center near Alexander, the intake facility for the state’s juvenile-justice system.

The Human Services Department is new to running the seven youth lockups, taking control of the sites in Colt, Dermott, Harrisburg, Lewisville and Mansfield beginning in January of 2017. In the past, the facilities were run by Arkansas nonprofits and before that, private companies, which also had rocky histories involving the mistreatment of detained youths.

The state agency intends to relinquish control of the lockups by next year, but Disability Rights Arkansas doesn’t think that’s a good idea. Nichols said:

We see what happens when there is private control of these facilities. That is rife with problems itself. If we’re ever going to stop the school-to-prison pipeline, we’re going to need to do something about these facilities.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

Prisons in 30 States Now Hire Former Inmates

cellIn 2010, Cindy Stubbs was nearing the end of a 14-year sentence in a South Carolina prison, determined never to return. A mother of four, locked up on gun and drug trafficking charges since she was 34, Stubbs worked inside the prison translating textbooks to Braille. Three months before her release, she caught a break: a telephone interview at another Braille plant, in North Carolina, led to a job offer. But there was a catch. This plant was also in a prison.

She’d be managing prisoners, returning every weekday to exactly the sort of place she’d spent years waiting to leave. “At the beginning, it wasn’t easy,” said Stubbs, now 55. “Some people in society feel when someone is able to come out of prison and make a good salary and a good position, they don’t feel like you are deserving of it.”

She is one of a small number of former prisoners who have returned to penitentiaries as employees after their release. At least 30 states have policies to allow such hiring, though they do not necessarily track how many they have brought aboard. But a few agencies are beginning to formalize programs, with the explicit goal of reducing the stigma that can follow ex-prisoners as they look for jobs.

In December, a new law began allowing the Michigan Department of Corrections to hire those it has released, after the agency openly promoted the idea. “We knew that as we were going out every day talking to the business community and asking them to hire our parolees, that it would be hypocritical if we wouldn’t hire them ourselves,” DOC spokesman Chris Gautz said.

In the many states that allow such hiring, there can be myriad restrictions. Most do not allow ex-prisoners to be correctional officers. Texas largely limits hiring to certain positions, such as substance abuse counselors and contract construction workers, and some sex crime convictions are disqualifying. California bans ex-prisoners from jobs that involve access to personal or medical information of other staff and inmates. Minnesota makes them wait a year after release, and Wyoming won’t let them work in the same facility where they served until five years after release.

Many states don’t track how many ex-prisoners they have hired, but those that do aren’t reporting big numbers; Arizona said they have had hired “at least 11” ex-prisoners.The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections changed its policies in 2016 and sent its own recruiters to job fairs for ex-prisoners, but none applied.

It might not just be the restrictions. “I was very apprehensive,” said David Van Horn, the first ex-prisoner hired by the New Mexico Department of Corrections in 2015 as part of a new “Returning Citizen Program.” He was released on parole after spending 20 years in prison for killing 68-year-old Norma Clouse in an arson attack after he “abused and terrorized” her and her husband, according to legal records, and then shot two law enforcement officers.

In Michigan, a union newsletter said the new policy was met “with mixed feelings and some confusion.” Spokeswoman Anita Lloyd said in an interview that the union is more comfortable with the formerly incarcerated working in rehabilitation programs.

Ex-prisoners who have returned have said they can serve as role models for the people still inside. “I really want them to know there is hope out there,” said Larry Vene, who served more than four years in Washington state for producing methamphetamine. He learned to be a wastewater treatment plant operator while inside, and then returned to the department in 2013 to train current prisoners.

“They listen to me because I’ve lived what they’re living.” For Stubbs, who still manages 22 prisoners at the Braille plant in a North Carolina prison, the biggest shift was mental. Interacting with other staffers in her new job, she said, her mindset was “stay behind the yellow line” and “yes, sir” and “no, sir.” One day an administrator shook her by the shoulders. “She said, ‘You are not an inmate anymore’,” Stubbs said. “It took me a minute to adjust.”

Like Vene, she enjoys being a role model for her employees, but her past also gives her a nose for trouble. Before opening, she identified every hiding place in the office, filled with cubicles, bookshelves and computers. She knew which inmates to hire: avid readers with no “disobeying orders” violations in their jackets. Six months after opening, an inmate asked how she knew so much about prison. She told her story.Stubbs said:

My history is an encouragement to them, but they also know I do this for a living, and I don’t put up with any foolishness.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

In U.K., Homeless Men Increasing “Survival Sex”

With Manchester, U.K. homelessness on the rise young men are increasingly selling their bodies as a way to survive. The number of men working in this dangerous trade, both gay and straight, has rocketed in the last decade. As homelessness mounts and austerity bites, a growing number of young men are selling sex online. The city’s male sex workers often use websites like Craigslist to advertise to clients. 

But, often, behind the image presented online, are personal struggles. Homelessness is still the biggest problem facing male sex workers across Manchester. And so called ‘survival sex’ is becoming increasingly common among the hundreds of young men selling their bodies. Many are homeless or unemployed, dozens have recently been released from prison – for them selling sex is a way of surviving.

Spice, the dangerous synthetic drug which has blighted Manchester city center, is one of the most commonly used drugs among ‘chaotic’ young men who sell sex to survive. For those who choose to do sex work, party drugs and those used during chemsex – such as crystal meth and GBH – are popular.
These men spend their lives hidden from view. Charity workers say they can look unremarkable, making it difficult to identify those who are vulnerable.

For those young men, the services provided by charity The Men’s Room represent a lifeline. Volunteers here try to expand their horizons by using amenities the men might otherwise walk past.

Visiting an art gallery or a trip to the theatre is a little luxury that many of us would take for granted. But the experience is completely new to many of these men. Charity boss Fergal McCulloch says this is the best way to reach out to service users and give them a taste of normality. He says how clients recently worked with a playwright and saw their work performed on stage at the Royal Exchange Theatre.

And just last month, they took part in a project creating art work which was exhibited at Manchester Art Gallery. McCulloch said:

None of them had ever gone into an art gallery in their lives. They were treated as experts and artists themselves. It gave them that sense of empowerment saying ‘we have every right to be here’. If you get the chance to do something uplifting you’re doing something different from your day to day struggles. It allows the men to have a space and just think differently. It makes them think there is a whole other life here and gives them something to aspire to. The feedback was amazing. We gave them postcards of the artwork so they can show it to people and say ‘I made that’.

Male sex work has become more widespread in recent years. Some in the trade have told charity workers they started doing sex work from as young as 14. Many of them have spent time in care. Almost all male sex workers in Manchester are British.

Contrary to their female counterparts, they don’t answer to a pimp or work in saunas or brothels. Instead, they advertise online. In 2016 researchers found 353 men selling sex online in Manchester through two specific websites. If you include men offering sex on classified sites like Craigslist and Backpage as well as social media sites, that figure rockets to almost 2,000.

McCulloch added:

It can’t be overemphasized how much of an impact the internet is having. There is a magnitude more doing it online compared to on the streets but quite a lot of those are not our traditional clients.

“The number of people prepared to do online work has really changed. I thought we would have seen a much bigger increase in survival sex. But we’re actually seeing a bigger increase of men who are bisexual or gay doing online work. Ten years ago the idea of sex work would never have crossed their minds. It’s all part of how culture has changed and young men’s attitudes to sex.

“Clients are not on the street anymore either – they are online too. There’s still a street scene but there’s been a huge explosion of online work and there’s a real blurring of the boundaries.

As such, volunteers at the Men’s Room have adapted their working practices so men can reach out to them through social media and instant messaging apps like Whatsapp.

Of course, sex with strangers can be a dangerous business and many of the clients who use the Men’s Room have suffered sexual abuse. Fergal recently worked with a young man who had been drugged and gang raped – but refused to report the incident to police.

“Most of those who experience sexual assault fail to report it,” he says. “For a lot of the guys we work with sexual violence is something that happens. Very rarely will they report an assault.”

Though its a disturbing issue, he says sexual assault is nowhere near as common a problem as it is among women working in the trade.

In fact homelessness is by far the biggest issue Fergal and his team of volunteers deal with on a daily basis.

“The hidden homeless are young men living chaotic lifestyles. They are not the guys you see on the streets.”

The grey areas of male sex work seem to make it a far more complex issue than the work carried out by their female counterparts. But charity workers have found that two common patterns have emerged.

There are the openly gay young men living ‘chaotic lives’, perhaps with a drug or alcohol dependency who are happy to work in the trade.

Many of those engaging in survival sex identify as a straight and find it degrading, Fergal says.

But male sex work is such a complex issue that the team at the Men’s Room find that no two cases are the same.

As such they develop a ‘bespoke’ service for each client to help them with advocacy support and signpost them to charities that can help with issues like housing and employment.

McCulloch explains:

Their needs are different, they don’t all have the same level of need. There’s that group of men who come from a place of chaos and survival and not from that place of choice. They may have issues with mental and physical health and they are homeless. It’s a twin track. We have the advisors who help with advice, guidance and signposting. We’re the bridge between them and other services. Then we also want to encourage men to get involved in our arts projects.

Thanks to a National Lottery grant the Men’s Room currently has enough funding to support its work for another three years. But the cash boost will only pay for 40 per cent of the work carried out each day and Fergal says donations are desperately needed.

“It gives us stability for the next three years, but we still need to fund the other 60 per cent,” he says. “I think the work we do is really valuable.”

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

Black Imprisonment Plunges While White Imprisonment Rises:4 Possible Explanations

One of the most damning features of the U.S. criminal justice system is its vast racial inequity. Black people in this country are imprisoned at more than 5 times the rate of whites; one in 10 black children has a parent behind bars, compared with about one in 60 white kids, according to the Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality. The crisis has persisted for so long that it has nearly become an accepted norm.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

So it may come as a surprise to learn that between 2000 and 2015, the imprisonment rate of black men dropped by more than 24 percent. At the same time, the white male rate increased slightly, the BJS numbers indicate.Among women, the trend is even more dramatic. From 2000 to 2015, the black female imprisonment rate dropped by nearly 50 percent; during the same period, the white female rate shot upward by 53 percent. As the nonprofit Sentencing Project has pointed out, the racial disparity between black and white women’s incarceration was once 6 to 1. Now it’s 2 to 1.

Similar patterns appear to hold for local jails, although the data are less reliable given the “churn” of inmates into and out of those facilities. Since 2000, the total number of black people in local detention has decreased from 256,300 to 243,400, according to BJS; meanwhile, the number of whites rose from 260,500 to 335,100. There have been significant drops in the jailing of blacks from New York to Los Angeles, coinciding with little change for whites.

Taken together, these statistics change the narrative of mass incarceration, and that may be one reason why the data has been widely overlooked in policy debates. The narrowing of the gap between white and black incarceration rates is “definitely optimistic news,” said John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University and an expert on trends in prison statistics. “But the racial disparity remains so vast that it’s pretty hard to celebrate. How exactly do you talk about ‘less horrific?’”According to Pfaff, “Our inability to explain it suggests how poorly we understand the mechanics behind incarceration in general.” In other words, how much of any shift in the imprisonment rate can be attributed to changes in demographics, crime rates, policing, prosecutors, sentencing laws and jail admissions versus lengths of stay? And is it even possible to know, empirically, whether specific reforms, such as implicit bias training, are having an effect on the trend line?

“If we want to continue or accelerate [the trend], we need to acknowledge it and figure out why it’s happening,” said Adam Gelb, director of the public safety performance program at The Pew Charitable Trusts and an expert on prison data. “Maybe we can bottle it up and replicate it.”

In that spirit, here are four (not mutually exclusive or exhaustive) theories, compiled from our research and interviews with prison system experts, to explain the nearly two-decades-long narrowing of the racial gap in incarceration.

1) Crime, arrests and incarceration are declining overall.Those decreases benefit the most incarcerated group: African Americans. Crime rates have been on the decline since just after 1990, as have arrests. Given that both measures disproportionately affect the black community, one theory goes, the overall drop should shrink the racial gap in incarceration, too.According to the Marshall Project analysis of federal data, arrests for nearly every type of crime (one exception was prostitution, which peaked earlier) were on the rise until the early to mid-1990s, followed by a steep decline that affected African Americans more significantly than whites. From 2000 to 2009, for example, there was a 22 percent drop in arrests of black people for violent crime; for whites, it was 11 percent. Since these offenses are most likely to result in substantial prison sentences, the shift most likely transformed the racial makeup of incarceration, as well.

2) The war on drugs has shifted its focus from crack and marijuana to meth and opioids. As Michelle Alexander (author of “The New Jim Crow”) and many others have extensively documented, the so-called war on drugs has been waged more aggressively against people of color. The arrest numbers bear this out: The black vs. white disparity for drug crimes remains extreme.But the narrowing of that gap since the mid-1990s — right around the passage of the 1994 crime bill, which is often blamed for the spike in black incarceration — has been nearly as sharp. And in 2000, something else happened: White people started getting locked up for drugs more often. From 2000 to 2009, the black imprisonment rate for drug offenses fell by 16 percent. For white people, it climbed by nearly 27 percent, according to BJS.What explains this? There is no reliable national data breaking down how many drug offenders are in prison for which particular substances. But experts hypothesize that it may have to do with the waning of one epidemic — crack, which devastated black communities in the 1980s and 1990s — and the emergence of another — meth and opioids, both used in greater numbers by whites more recently. Such a theory may also explain why the narrowing of the racial gap has been more dramatic among women, who are disproportionately incarcerated for drug crimes, according to the Sentencing Project.

3) White people have also faced declining socioeconomic prospects, leading to more criminal justice involvement. Starting around 2000, whites started going to prison more often for property offenses: robbery, burglary, theft, motor vehicle theft, forgery, counterfeiting and selling or buying stolen property, often categorized as crimes of poverty. From 2000 to 2009, black incarceration for those crimes dropped nine percent, the BJS numbers show. It went up by 21 percent for whites.Explanations for this shift are also speculative. But some analyses suggest that an overall decline in life prospects for white people over the past few decades has also led an increase in lawbreaking among that population, especially crimes of poverty. One much discussed study by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton found that between 1998 and 2013 — precisely when these racial shifts in incarceration were occurring — white Americans saw their rates of mortality, suicide and alcohol and drug abuse spike acutely.Yet that cannot be the whole explanation for the rise in white incarceration rates. African Americans have long been worse off on most of those socioeconomic metrics: jobs lost to automation and globalization, homes lost to the 2008 mortgage crisis, declining unionization and wages, loans denied. Perhaps, says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, whites are just newer to the experience of poverty, which could explain why their rates of drug use, property crime and incarceration have ticked up so suddenly.

4) Criminal justice reform has been happening in cities, where more black people live, but not in rural areas. Starting in 2000, the rate of prison population growth in the United States finally began to slow, thanks not only to declining crime but also to efforts at reform. These have included treatment alternatives for drug offenders, sentence reductions for inmates who participate in educational programming, reentry services for former inmates and reduced sanctions for technical violations of parole.Yet this is a tale of two Americas: urban and rural. From 2006 to 2014, according to a recent analysis by the New York Times, annual prison admissions plummeted in major cities such as Los Angeles and Brooklyn, due largely to criminal justice reform. But in counties with fewer than 100,000 people, the incarceration numbers have actually risen even as crime declined. People in rural districts are now 50 percent more likely to be sent to prison than are city dwellers, as local prosecutors and judges there have largely avoided the current wave of reform.

New York offers an illustrative example. It reduced its incarcerated population more than any other state during the 2000s — but almost entirely through reductions in the far more diverse New York City, not in the whiter and more sparsely populated areas of the state.Even with all of these factors at work, the racial inequity of the American prison system remains vast and continues to wreak devastation on black and Latino communities nationwide. At the current rate, the disparities would not fully disappear for many decades. Even more troubling, racial divides in the juvenile justice system are getting significantly worse. In 2003, black youth were incarcerated at 3.7 times the rate of white youth; by 2013, that number had grown to 4.3.

As Michelle Alexander wrote to The Marshall Project in 2015:

Until we learn the true value of the lives we have wasted, and until we truly reckon with our nation’s history… and until we muster, as a nation, a willingness to invest heavily in the communities that have suffered the most, we will find ourselves in an endless cycle of reform and retrenchment — periods of apparent progress followed by the creation of new systems of racial and social control.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

King County (Seattle) Bans Solitary for Juveniles

In a unanimous vote recently, the King County Council banned the use of solitary confinement for youth offenders. This comes less than two months after we first told you about a lawsuit filed by the families of four juveniles, who allege their children were put in solitary confinement for up to three days at a time, as punishment.

BornNotRaised1

 

“It’s wrong and should not happen,” said Nick Straley, a staff attorney at Columbia Legal Services in Seattle.

The group filed suit against the county in October, but Vice Chair of King County Council Rod Dembowski said under its watch youth solitary confinement is now banned in King County.

“What we are trying to do with young people, it’s more about getting them back on track. A solitary confinement practice really causes permanent and irreparable harm,” said Dembowski.

In a news release, the County Council said there is a growing national consensus that placing juveniles in solitary confinement is inhumane. According to a the Council’s news release, “The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has noted that even short periods of isolation often have serious long-term mental health impacts on juveniles, and research shows that solitary confinement does not reduce behavioral incidents and may increase aggressive or violent behavior by youth.

The suit against the county alleges four juveniles were held in solitary confinement for days on end.

“They were receiving only an hour out of every three days and in certain cases they were only getting out only 15 minutes every three days, that is simply a barbaric practice and is shouldn’t happen to anyone,” said Straley.

The allegations came as surprise to Dembowski.

“I was under the impression we didn’t have solitary confinement for your people in detention,” said Dembowski.

He said solitary confinement has never been a practice at the Juvenile Detention Center in Seattle, but he learned through the lawsuit the confinement allegations are centered at The Regional Justice Center in Kent, where juveniles or auto-declined cases – that is youth charged with adult crimes are awaiting adult court.

“Those youth are separated from the adult population at these facilities, but solitary confinement/isolation has also been used for these young offenders where it is not at the Youth Services Center,” according to the Council’s news release.

“I read the allegation in the complaint that described young people being held 72 hours at a time, with little exercise, interaction and next to nothing of an education component and it upset me it’s not the right thing we’re doing here it’s not the right approach,” insisted Dembowski.

While Straley called the ordinance an excellent first step he told Council members during a public comment period prior to the vote, that the solitary confinement ban should extend to teens who commit crimes when they’re 18.

“An 18th birthday is no more than a date,” said Straley, who is hoping for subsequent legislation.

The measure now goes to County Executive Dow Constantine and could go into effect between now and July First.

The ordinance prohibits solitary confinement of juveniles except when it’s deemed necessary for safety and security.

The Council is also moving forward with a recommended framework to reach the goal of zero youth detention for its new youth jail which is currently under construction.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

4-Week Re-entry Classes Prepare Georgia Inmates

born-book-cover

Rick Rubisch/The Newnan Times-Herald

Rick Rubisch/The Newnan Times-Herald

Going to prison is tough – but leaving prison and succeeding outside the walls can also be a struggle – especially for people with a criminal record that can make getting jobs and housing difficult. To ease that transition and help set inmates up for success, the Coweta County Prison is holding four-week “Re-entry” classes for inmates who are nearing their release date.

 

The prison just graduated its second class.The classes are part of Gov. Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reform package. The primary goal is to reduce recidivism.

“The state wants everybody to do it, but every prison doesn’t,” said Deputy Warden Larry Clifton. “This is something we took on.”

Clifton became deputy warden in April, and he and Warden Bill McKenzie discussed several programs that McKenzie wanted to start, including a GED program and the re-entry class.

The GED classes started in June and are led by inmates Johnny Anderson and Rick Rubisch – whom some have given the nickname “Professor.”

“It is on their own time. It isn’t their job – it is something they choose to do,” Clifton said of the inmate instructors.

Capt. Ryan Alexander, one of the prison’s counselors, oversees the re-entry program.

“Alexander has done a great job,” Clifton said. “He and Rubisch worked together and got this thing going.”

The state puts out a guide for re-entry classes, and Alexander said they have tailored the program to fit the setup of the Coweta County Prison.

Inmates learn about the barriers they are going to face upon release, as well as tools and resources to help overcome those barriers, Alexander said. Those include job searching skills, goal setting, managing finances and furthering their education. Classes are two hours a week for four weeks.

For the first class, representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s office and a former federal prison inmate visited for a screening of a documentary, “Released: When does the Sentence End.” In the documentary, ex-offenders are interviewed about the hurdles they face and what they did to overcome those challenges.

“They present the truth: there are going to be hurdles,” Alexander said. When a prospective employer sees that an applicant has been in prison, “it brings up a huge wall.”

The documentary and the former inmate are there to tell the inmates – “don’t let it stop you. Keep pushing, keep wanting to get to that goal,” Alexander said.

For the second week, representatives from the Georgia Department of Labor visit and talk about all the resources and programs that the DOL has for former inmates.

Through the Top Step federal bonding program, employers can hire inmates without worrying about financial liability. There are also some tax credits available.

Re-entry students also get help on resume writing, and have a resume to take when them when released.

In the evenings, after everyone is back from work details, lots of work goes on for resumes and GED classes. “There’s a lot of homework involved,” Rubisch said “We have some that are study-aholics.”

“I can’t say enough about Rubisch,” Clifton said. “He’s a really smart man who has a huge heart to help people. He gets them fired up, and he gets them to dedicate all this extra time – it’s not something we make them do.”

“A lot of these guys will say ‘I’ve never written a resume, I’ve never been in a job interview,’” Alexander said. The re-entry classes “give them the tools and a chance to be able to go do that – not just getting released and saying, ‘Well, what now?’”

Representatives from the Department of Community Supervision, which oversees parole and probation, come out to talk to inmates about how probation and parole will work once they get out, how they can help them, and about how to get housing.

Week three is about finances and goal setting. Inmates work on setting a budget and talk about education opportunities.

“For a lot of these guys – just as for some people on the outside – they’ve never really done a budget,” Alexander said. “For anybody, it helps to see where your finances are coming in or going out. It’s more stuff to help them get back into a regular life.”

In the final week, “We do 10-minute mock interviews with each person,” Alexander said. “Some of us from the facility come in, and we try to invite other people from the Department of Community Supervision to come in and help with interviews.”

They tell the inmates to expect to get asked about their time in prison.

“Nobody wants to put this on their resume, even though this is probably the most valuable experience they have,” Rubisch said.

“We say don’t lie about it – use it as a way to sell yourself,” Alexander said. Through the work details at the Coweta County Prison, many inmates learn marketable skills, including road work, heavy equipment operation and automobile repair.

Inmates are asked to talk about their strengths and weakness, and after the interview they are critiqued about better ways to answer certain questions.

Rubisch said a primary goal in the class is to keep it real. “Sometimes people have this illusion that everything is going to be great when they get out of here. They don’t realize the people that they left out there are expecting a change.”

If you don’t change your way of thinking, you could be right back in prison, he said.

“Somebody’s got to care about these guys,” Rubisch said. “It’s very important what they do here.”

And, it’s fun, he added.

According to Clifton, some of the younger inmates have never really worked.

The classes help them understand what it is going to be like to go out and find a job and how they will need to act. “That is huge,” Clifton said.

Some of the students get excited and put in a lot of extra time on their resumes. “It gives them that hope that there is something outside of prison,” Clifton said.

And some are just ready to get out.

Clifton says the re-entry classes seek to show the inmates that there are tools available to help them have a life outside the prison walls.

“It puts them in a different mindset of what life should be and can be once they are released,” Clifton said.

Alexander and the prison’s other counselor, Lathel Gardner, took the program and ran with it, Clifton said. “I want my people to have credit for that. They work hard for it.”

“As a prison, one of our main priorities is keeping the community safe and helping to get these guys a good start – that is why we’re doing that,” Alexander said.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford