Archive for Prison

Forget the polarization, both sides agree on incarceration

English: Newt Gingrich at a political conferen...

English: Newt Gingrich at a political conference in Orlando, Florida. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know it’s hard for many to believe in our polarized political climate, but there are issues on which liberals and conservatives are in accord. The brouhaha of election season has now ended, and we would like to shine a light on one of those subjects; incarceration.

There are some constants when considering the plight of the incarcerated, be they women, juveniles, veterans or some other demographic. These are things that cross party lines, and exist at the intersection of financial pragmatism and humanitarianism.

There are reassuring stirrings online. Take this November 13th article from The Reality Based Community by liberal blogger Harold Pollack:

 For obvious reasons, liberals can’t fix this alone. But there’s good news. They’re not alone. One bright spot in modern conservatism has been the new concern expressed by many prominent figures from Bill Bennett to Newt Gingrich to the over-incarceration problem.  Twenty years ago, culture-war conservatives supported harsh criminal justice policies. Since then, many conservatives have subsequent found reason to reconsider. Conservatives have different reasons for this change of perspective. Libertarians lament the expansive reach of the surveillance state, and the needlessly harsh punishment of many nonviolent offenders. Religious conservatives lament the incredible waste of human potential implied by the warehousing of so many people. Fiscal conservatives lament the billions of dollars spent to finance such policies.

This is key. Both sides need to see the common ground that exists on these issues. The fact that some are starting to notice it and write about it is heartening. The idea that conservatives and liberals cannot cooperate for the common good, or cannot find common ground on social issues, is a a mistake at best and a fabrication at worst.

We need to ignore the polemics of partisan politics and take a look at the people and groups who are guided by facts and research. For instance, many on the left are surprised when they learn that they have an ally in none other than Newt Gingrich, as reported in The Washington Monthly:

 “There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential,” Gingrich wrote in 2011. “The criminal-justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it.”

None of Gingrich’s rivals in the vicious Republican presidential primary exploited these statements. If anything, his position is approaching party orthodoxy. The 2012 Republican platform declares, “Prisons should do more than punish; they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization.” What’s more, a rogue’s gallery of conservative crime warriors have joined Gingrich’s call for Americans to rethink their incarceration reflex. They include Ed Meese, Asa Hutchinson, William Bennett—even the now-infamous American Legislative Exchange Council. Most importantly, more than a dozen states have launched serious criminal justice reform efforts in recent years, with conservatives often in the lead.

I think it is important to point this out. Our nation’s dialogue all too often deteriorates into petulant name calling and far-fetched “facts”. A close look at the work actually being done across the country shows that both sides are finding positive results with rehabilitation instead of incarceration. From a fiscally conservative stance it quite simply provides “more bang for the buck,” while the socially conscious element of this approach appeals to liberals. Like all good plans it satisfies on multiple levels, the key one being results.

I’d like to make this  call to action. Let us each reach out to those on the opposite side of the political divide and work with them on this. You might make some friends while doing good at the same time.

There are representatives of both the Left and the Right on our team at Humane Exposures. I consider it one of our strengths. I also consider it important that we are an example of the fact that both sides can work together for the common good and the future of our children.

Want a little bit more info on why It’s more expensive to do nothing? Check out this trailer for our documentary of the same name:


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Infographic: The Cold Hard Facts about Incarceration

The Cold Hard Facts about Incarceration

Browse more data visualization.

Infographic: Invest in People, Not Prisons

Invest in People Not Prisons

LIttle Girls in Solitary

The Girl - High ContrastSolitary confinement. A harsh penalty, and purportedly one of last resort. The type of penalty reserved for hardened, adult criminals. Or so it seems on the surface…

How would you react if told that solitary is often used for the most minor infractions, and the recipients are all too often female juvenile offenders. This is the subject of a recent piece on RH Reality Check by Yasmin Vafa of the Human Rights Project for Girls:

There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the severe psychiatric consequences of placing individuals, and particularly children in solitary confinement.  Prisoners who have experienced solitary confinement have been shown to engage in self-mutilation at much higher rates than the average population. These prisoners are also known to attempt or commit suicide more often than those who were not held in isolation. In fact, studies show that juveniles are 19 times more likely to kill themselves in isolation than in general population and that juveniles in general, have the highest suicide rates of all inmates in jails.

Every year approximately 600,000 girls are arrested in the U.S. The majority of these girls are incarcerated for non-violent offenses  such as truancy, loitering, running away, alcohol use, or violations of prior court orders for non-violent offenses. Evidence demonstrates that 73 percent of these girls are victims of some form of physical or sexual abuse. Many of them end up in these exact circumstances.

Despite all these facts, when girls in the juvenile justice system express evidence of or the desire to self harm, the typical response is to put them in solitary confinement. While these girls are being placed in solitary for their own protection, there is no consideration given to the fact that such practices deepen existing trauma. When subjected to isolation, these youth are often locked down for 23 hours per day in small cells with no natural light.  This confinement can last several days, weeks or even months, which leads to severe anxiety, paranoia, and further exacerbation of mental distress. The ACLU has reported that in certain juvenile detention facilities, girls are restrained with brutal force and are ‘regularly locked up in solitary confinement — a punishment used for minor misbehaviors as well as for girls who express wanting to hurt themselves.’

This is an especially important topic because this week, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Human Rights, and Civil Rights is holding their first-ever Congressional hearing on the issue of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails. It is our distinct hope that we will see the subject of juvenile solitary confinement addressed in this hearing, as well as the other other issues faced by both juveniles and females incarcerated in the American prison system.

Women’s Experiences of Abuse as a Risk Factor for Incarceration

Women’s Experience of Abuse as a Risk Factor for Incarceration

Where is the world’s prison capital? Would you believe Louisiana?

Cell at Camp HUnfortunately I find it all too easy to believe. As long time readers are aware, I’m the member of the team who is not in San Diego. I’m located in my home town of New Orleans, a city as rich in culture as it is in tragedy.

Cindy Chang of the New Orleans Times-Picayune showed us just how bad things have become in her cover story yesterday.

Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s.

The hidden engine behind the state’s well-oiled prison machine is cold, hard cash. A majority of Louisiana inmates are housed in for-profit facilities, which must be supplied with a constant influx of human beings or a $182 million industry will go bankrupt.

I’ve often written about creeping privatization in our justice system, and with good reason. How can actual justice be involved when the bottom line is to fill as many beds as possible? It’s basic common sense that the two are incompatible, and the latter is ethically questionable.

Even worse is the fact that this approach is funneling money away from programs that do work. Chang continues:

More money spent on locking up an ever-growing number of prisoners means less money for the very institutions that could help young people stay out of trouble, giving rise to a vicious cycle. Louisiana spends about $663 million a year to feed, house, secure and provide medical care to 40,000 inmates. Nearly a third of that money — $182 million — goes to for-profit prisons, whether run by sheriffs or private companies.

‘Clearly, the more that Louisiana invests in large-scale incarceration, the less money is available for everything from preschools to community policing that could help to reduce the prison population,’ said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a national criminal justice reform group. ‘You almost institutionalize the high rate of incarceration, and it’s even harder to get out of that situation.’

It pains me to see my hope at the forefront of such a misguided and disastrous trend, especially in these recent years after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failure. We now lock up more human beings than any place else in the world, and yet we still have one of the highest rates of violent and property crime in the entire United States. It’s just not working.

If you want a look at what the rest of the nation will look like if we do not reverse this trend of privatization, read Ms. Chang’s article. It is an extensive and disturbing piece of reporting that will send chills down your spine. I’d also recommend Charles Mondonado’s article in Gambit Weekly – Privatizing Louisiana’s Prisons.

There is a truly frightening future being forged, and I am sitting on it’s leading edge. Please take a look at what is happening down here. Educate yourself before this model becomes the norm.

It is far more expensive to do nothing.

Federal Intervention Requested at Orleans Parish Prison

Behind BarsTuesday evening the Southern Poverty Law Center filed for a preliminary injunction against the New Orleans sheriff’s office. This filing pointedly requested the intervention of a federal judge due to the severity of the allegations. 

This action come a mere one month after the SPLC  filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman over unsafe and unconstitutional jail conditions.  Allegations that were supported by a Department of Justice inspection a few weeks later that found “inadequate staffing levels in jail facilities, pervasive violence and substandard mental health care.”

These findings were hardly shocking to anyone who was paying attention back in 2009 when prior DOJ investigations revealed a similar level of unconstitutional activities. In the intervening time, to the intense frustration of advocates, there was practically no public communication from the feds or local authorities about how to resolve the problems.

This latest filing by the SPLC requests U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to both grant investigating attorneys “expedited discovery” and hold a hearing about the conditions in jail within the next 90 days. (It is worth noting that Gusman’s office had asked last month for an extension of the original lawsuit.)

As if the findings prompting the lawsuit were not enough, reports are now filtering in about escalating violence in the facilities under scrutiny – violence that seems to have a level of retribution in its make-up.

Laura Maggi, a reporter for The Times-Picayune, brings us the unpleasant details:

Since the lawsuit, there has been an ‘uptick’ in violence, while inmates who need mental health care continue to be neglected, wrote Katie Schwartzmann, managing attorney for the law center. For example, the filing accuses jail deputies of anally raping an inmate with an object, beating up another shackled inmate and failing to protect three inmates attacked by other inmates.

One of the original plaintiffs, inmate Kent Anderson, signed an affidavit that deputies have threatened him since the lawsuit, saying they could move him back to a jail facility where he believes isn’t safe. ‘Since my lawyers filed the lawsuit, things have been hell for me. Deputies tell me, ‘You want to complain about things? You want to tell your lawyers? We’ll send you back to Old Parish Prison,” according to the affidavit.

Our justice system is flat out broken, there is no other way to truthfully describe it. Conditions of overcrowding and violence are found across the nation, and often in facilities housing not only male offenders, but also those incarcerating women and youths.The situation in Orleans Parish Prison is a horrible reminder of this fact.


Southern Poverty Law Center sues Polk County Sheriff for abusive conditions

SPLC_LogoPolk County Sheriff Grady Judd is on the hot seat facing accusations that children held in his county’s adult jail have been consistently subjected to abuse, neglect and violence.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SLPC) filed a class action lawsuit against Judd (Case Number 8:12-cv-00568-SDM-MAP, filed in the United States District Court Middle District of Florida/ Tampa Division) that describes brutal treatment and condition in the jail. Among the disturbing allegations are incidents such as:

  • Draconian punishment for even minor infractions of the rules. One example cited was spraying them with harsh chemicals for taking too long to get dressed.
  • Incidents of both physical and verbal abuse by guards. One noted example was a a guard twisting a teenager’s arm behind his back and threatening to break it.
  • Failure to provide adequate educational services.
  • Failure to provide adequate rehabilitative services.

That is an amazing array of negatives, particularly since the facility has only been housing children for six months, since October of 2011. Why are they doing so? Because of SB 2112, passed by Florida lawmakers last Spring. SB 2112 allows counties to place children as young as eight years old in adult jails, and they have.

Three quarters of the the youth arrested in Polk Country are brought in for minor infractions – misdemeanors and probation violations mostly – yet over 100 children are incarcerated there under the supervision of guards that have no expertise or training on how to work with children.

So far Polk is the only county in Florida that detains youth charged as juveniles under adult jail standards rather than Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) standards. The situation there reflects the damage that SB 2112 has done in basically reversing over 40 years of work creating protections for children that adult jails cannot provide.

It’s almost as though Sheriff Judd wants to breed more crime and criminals, a view the SPLC website seems to agree with me on:

Decades of research shows that exposing children to adult jails leads to more crime, not less. Based on this research, states around the country have passed legislation prohibiting the placement of children in adult jails. Florida legislators bucked this promising trend when they passed a law that could funnel more children into adult jails throughout the state of Florida.

‘The abuse suffered by the children of Polk County should serve as a cautionary tale for counties throughout the state of Florida that are considering housing children in adult jails.’ Galloni said. ‘This lawsuit demonstrates that incarcerating children in adult jails is bad public policy that inflicts incalculable harm on children, results in negative public safety outcomes and exposes taxpayers to tremendous legal liability.’

We will be following this story closely, and will hopefully be bringing you a few interviews with some of the folks behind the SPLC lawsuit in the near future.

The Economics of Incarceration in Arizona

MoneyThe economic side of the penal system is something we look at a lot. In so many cases, the return of preventative programs vastly outstrips the return we see from imprisoning people. Our documentary is titled It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing because that is, quite simply, the case.

Of course, there are also darker sides of the economic angle that bear scrutiny. When we speak of the economic factors, we are talking about ways in which to spend less and achieve better results. For some others, it is a matter of how much can be made from the business of incarceration.

Laura Sullivan has a very illuminating piece on NPR (you can read it or listen to the audio) focusing on this very subject. She takes a look at the spiderweb of business interests that stand to reap serious financial gains from Arizona’s new immigration law. [Note: this is not a debate about the law itself, but an examination of the way in which the prison industry has influenced the letter of the law for its financial gain. Comments debating immigration law will be considered off topic and not published.]

While there has been both forceful opposition and support for the law, it would behoove both sides to look closer at the way the law came about. NPR did some digging:

NPR spent the past several months analyzing hundreds of pages of campaign finance reports, lobbying documents and corporate records. What they show is a quiet, behind-the-scenes effort to help draft and pass Arizona Senate Bill 1070 by an industry that stands to benefit from it: the private prison industry. The law could send hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to prison in a way never done before. And it could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in profits to private prison companies responsible for housing them.

What follows is a hard look at the influence of lobbyists. It starts with the Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce, who claims the bill was his idea. His stated stance is that Americans need to look at the cost of not enforcing our laws and securing the border. The interesting part is that instead of bringing his idea up on the Senate floor, he instead brought it to a meeting of a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that took place last December at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C.

If you look at the composition of the group, an interesting picture develops:

It’s a membership organization of state legislators and powerful corporations and associations, such as the tobacco company Reynolds American Inc., ExxonMobil and the National Rifle Association. Another member is the billion-dollar Corrections Corporation of America — the largest private prison company in the country.

Both members of the Corrections Corporation of America and Pearce are not only members but also sit on several of ALEC’s boards. Model legislation was developed at the Hyatt, legislation that was adopted almost verbatim four months later. Pearce claims that even though lobbyists were in attendance, he did not go to meet with them, but rather to meet with other legislators:

Pearce may go there to meet with other legislators, but 200 private companies pay tens of thousands of dollars to meet with legislators like him.

As soon as Pearce’s bill hit the Arizona statehouse floor in January, there were signs of ALEC’s influence. Thirty-six co-sponsors jumped on, a number almost unheard of in the capitol. According to records obtained by NPR, two-thirds of them either went to that December meeting or are ALEC members.

That same week, the Corrections Corporation of America hired a powerful new lobbyist to work the capitol.

This is an economic angle that we need to watch. There is no way to fight the bloating of our prison system without realizing that this is big business. There are so many jobs and so much money wrapped up in the penal system that it’s truly frightening. The approach to imprisonment being taken in Arizona and many other places seems to view an increase in the number of people incarcerated as a good thing, since, after all, it creates jobs and salaries. The fact that it costs taxpayers far more than the alternatives does not enter into that kind of logic.

This is not merely a problem in the areas near the border when immigration is such a massive issue. On the first of last month, I wrote about the astounding and disturbing state of affairs in Canon City, CO, the town with 13 prisons. Just to put it into perspective, Canon City has 36,000 residents, which makes it roughly one prison per 2,700 people. Sounds like big business to me, especially since one of those 13 is the Supermac, the new “Alcatraz of America.”

It does not matter whether this happens in Arizona, Colorado, or some other state. The fact remains that we have 5% of the global population and roughly a quarter of the world’s incarcerated here in the U.S.A. If the trend of embracing the corrections system as a revenue-generating business continues, those numbers will become even more out of balance.

So, as the prison system in Arizona hits a major growth spurt, I’d like to leave you with two short quotes to keep in mind:

‘When we provide treatment, we can cut recidivism rates down 25, 35, sometimes 40 percent.’
— Douglas B. Marlowe, J.D., Ph.D., Chief of Science, Policy and Law, National Association of Drug Court Professionals


‘It makes long term economic sense to try and take care of these people in a humane way, and help them heal.’
— Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., Senior Fellow, Child Trauma Academy

Source: “Prison Economics Help Drive Ariz. Immigration Law,” NPR, 10/28/10
Image by AMagill, used under its Creative Commons license.
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Alabama Inmates Tell Kids to Stay in School in a Documentary

SchoolIt is no secret that there is a link between education and one’s eventual path in life. Nowhere is this more painfully asserted than by the number of dropouts that end up in jail or prison. In Alabama, the officials have taken notice, and are using a short documentary film to communicate the “stay in school and out of prison” message to the students. Rick Harmon, a reporter for The Montgomery Advertiser, fills us in:

You wouldn’t expect drug dealers and killers to be in­vited into Alabama classrooms — especially not to teach. But they had a message that everyone from Gov. Bob Riley and Alabama Superintendent of Education Joe Morton to the inmates themselves believed Alabama students needed to hear.

The message was stay in school and out of prison. It was delivered by ‘lifers’ at Wetumpka’s Tutwiler Prison for Women and Atmore’s Holman Prison during a 52-minute video called ‘Inside Out.’ The video, created by the nonprof­it Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, was shown at tri-county area high schools last year.

We have the highest percentage of the population behind bars in the U.S. than any other nation on the planet. A Northeastern University study had reported in 2009 that, on an average day, roughly one in 10 male high school drop­outs between the ages of 16 and 24 was incarcerated. With high school grads, that number is down to one out of 35, and it’s only one out of 500 among the college graduates. In 2002, the Harvard Civil Rights Project study found that 68 percent of prison inmates are high school dropouts.

These are disturbing numbers. Numbers that the documentary hopes to put a dent in. When delivering messages to kids, there is often a credibility gap that the people behind the film hope to overcome by having the actual inmates be the ones delivering it. Harmon writes,

‘I couldn’t get a good job with no education,’ one of the female inmates at Tutwiler says in the documentary. ‘That’s why I kept selling drugs. That’s why I ended up here.’

‘I wonder where I would be now if I had stayed in school and gotten the kind of education my parents had been en­couraging me to get?’ says a male inmate at Holman serving life without parole.

Obviously, we believe in the power of personal narrative, especially in situations like this one. It is easy for a child to view the possibility of future incarceration as an abstract. When it transmutes into a real person, the impact is magnified many times. As always, putting a human face on these issues is vital. These raw, basic stories of humanity have a better chance of striking home than sanctimonious pronouncements or dry factoids. Especially when we’re talking to children.

We will be returning to this topic with our next book, Born Not Raised: Kids at Risk, which explores the troubled psyches of youngsters serving time in juvenile hall. The book showcases a variety of creative tasks taken on by the young detainees — writing projects, artwork, elicited responses to photographs. The revealing results underscore the Humane Exposures’ conviction that early education and youth development are the most effective strategies for breaking the cycle of at-risk behavior and helping our youth thrive. Look for the announcements about the publication date soon!

Source: “THE DROPOUT PROBLEM: Many leave schools for life in lockup,” The Montgomery Advertiser, 10/24/10
Image by dave_mcmt, used under its Creative Commons license.
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