Sunday, October 21, 2018
Joining a minority of US jurisdictions, the Supreme Court of Washington ruled last week that sentencing of youthful offenders to life sentences without parole violates the US Constitution. 21 jurisdictions including states and the District of Columbia having ruled similarly and the present minority of states demanding that juveniles not have a minimum sentence of "life" look is growing.
The man in question murdered three members of his family when he was 15. The victims were his parents and 5 year old brother. He obtained his GED and took courses through a community college while incarcerated. But as a psychologist testified, the youthful brain fails to consider long term consequences of actions.
In 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to automatic life sentences was unconstitutional. The Washington State legislature then passed a statute allowing youthful offenders to have their sentencing reviewed, but provided that life in prison was still an option. That option is now struck by the Supreme Court.
This opinion moves human rights forward in Washington State and comes shortly after the state's Supreme Court determined the state's death penalty was unconstitutional.
Thursday, October 18, 2018
The Constitution's failure to acknowledge full voting rights in black men and all women, has had long lasting repercussions. The founders ignoring the fundamental rights of more than half of the population produced devastating results that extend into this decade. Active voter suppression efforts are taken to prevent people of color from voting. Threats of arrest for voter fraud, and other acts of intimidation are not only common but are effective. One of the most insidious deprivations of voting rights is denying the right to vote to those who are incarcerated for felonies and for newly returning citizens. Maine and Vermont do not deprive those convicted of felonies of the right to vote, even while incarcerated. This is not so in other states..
In 2016, Crystal Mason of Texas voted in the presidential election. She had no idea that she was not permitted to vote while on probation. And certainly no one from the state, including her probation officer, ever told her she could not vote while still doing community service. Ms. Mason, who is African-American, was recently sentenced to five years in prison. Being both female and a woman of color, Ms. Mason is just the sort of individual that the founders never intended to enfranchise. The resulting avoidance by the drafters connects to present voting disruptions in a direct line.
A majority of states permit returning citizens to vote. Before someone you know who was formerly incarcerated participates in voting, it would be helpful for them to check and learn who is permitted to vote and when voting may resume in the jurisdiction of residence. One helpful resource may be found here.
Sunday, September 9, 2018
Between August 21 and today, a nationwide prison strike has been in progress. Incarcerated individuals across the nation have protested in various ways. Some stopped working their often grueling jobs that pay two to three dollars a day, sometimes less. Others have engaged in hunger strikes while many refused to purchase items from the prison commissaries. Commissaries charge hugely inflated prices. Strikers are particularly courageous as prison retaliation can be fierce, including solitary confinement.
One of the major issues that prompted the protests is the poor quality and often dangerous food served to the prisons. A Center for Disease Control study found that incarcerated people are more than six times more likely to get a food borne illness than other individuals. Many states' prison food does not meet the state's own minimal nutritional standards. The privatization of prisons, and prison food delivery has made conditions even worse as the quality of food deteriorates to make prisons and private corporations more profitable.
Other concerns include ending forced labor, creating humane prison living conditions and developing prison policies that prioritize the humanity of the incarcerated.
Sunday, July 22, 2018
If you had an opportunity to design housing for those who have been convicted of a crime, what would it look like? Would there be any need for solitary units, or even bars? An opportunity to eliminate cages? Spaces for recreation and education?
More than one prior post on this blog has described the horrors of Rikers Island.
For those of you living in New York, an important meeting will be held in the Bronx as a part of the Close Riker’s Island Campaign. The meeting organizers will challenge attendees to consider what a new detention facility would look like if designed by community members. The announcement reads:
Please join us to have a discussion about the Close Riker's Campaign and what it means to the Bronx Community. We would like to hear your thoughts and ideas about the creation of a Bronx borough-based jail. The Bronx is the only borough where a new facility will be built while the other detention centers in the various boroughs (except for Staten Island) will be expanded. What is your vision? What do you feel the Bronx community needs? What are your suggestions for bringing more people together to be part of the decision-making process of what affects our communities? What would a detention center look like if its vision was inspired by the community?
LOCATION 360 E 161ST ST BETWEEN COURTLANDT AND MELROSE AVE BRONX, NY 10451
For more information contact Carmen at 718-508-3440
Other communities are challenged to convene gatherings to discuss better systems of detention and demand humane conditions.
Tuesday, June 12, 2018
Last week President Trump commuted the sentence of a 63 year old woman who has been imprisoned for over twenty years, having been given a life sentence for drug trafficking. Alice Johnson had been convicted in 1996 for conspiracy to possess cocaine and for attempted possession of cocaine. Her crimes were non-violent but her sentence was considered by many to be disproportional to the offenses. Ms. Johnson became involved with drug trafficking during a desperate time in her life. She had lost her job, was divorced and experienced the death of her son.
Advocates have been working hard for years to secure Ms. Johnson's release from an Alabama prison. How was Ms. Johnson able to obtain success? Kim Kardashian took up her cause after reading a tweet about the case. Ms. Kardashian began advocating for Ms. Johnson, first by contacting Ivanka Trump and then Jared Kushner. Finally, Ms. Kardashian secured a meeting with President Trump. Ms. Johnson had been denied commutation under the Obama administration. President Trump noted that Ms. Johnson was a model prisoner and executed the documents necessary to release the great-grandmother.
At the urging of Sylvester Stallone, President Trump earlier issued a full pardon for now deceased heavy weight champion John "Jack" Jackson.
Other pardons were less well received publicly, but involved the famous or notorious. Dinesh D'Souza and Lewis "Scooter" Libby are among those who received Trump presidential pardons. So be a celeb or find yourself one should you seek a presidential pardon during this administration.
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
With the focus on elimination of mass incarceration and ending inhumane prison practices, the Pew Charitable Trusts have examined what works. With its motto of "Using Data to Make a Difference", their research has shifted from finding methods of changing attitudes for those incarcerated or at risk of incarceration to shifting criminal practice and policy to prevent incarceration in the first instance.
South Carolina, for instance, has seen a 14% reduction in numbers of incarcerated individuals since providing options for both sentencing and release. The enacted legislative reforms reduced penalties for minor drug and property crimes, while release options expanded with community supervision expanded. During the six year period covered by the study (2010-2012) six prisons closed, the crime rate decreased and the existing prison population is largely more violent criminals.
Since 2010, 35 states have raised felony theft thresholds but experienced no increase in crime. Generally, all US states have experienced a decrease in crime.
"Experts attribute the nation’s sustained drop in violent and property crime rates to a host of factors, including better policing; the increased incarceration of certain repeat offenders; an expansion in private security personnel; an aging population that is less prone to criminal behavior; and technological advances, such as the widespread use of surveillance cameras, car- and home-alarm systems, and digital transactions that have reduced the need for cash."
The US prison population is still the largest in the world. But what is apparent is that shifts in state policy make significant differences. Both federal and state prisons remain the sites of gross human rights violations, with the states incarcerating the clear majority of those engaged with the criminal justice system. Even seemingly small legislative changes can make significant differences. A good reminder that local human rights advocacy can create important change.
Sunday, May 6, 2018
Having just completed my first Inside Out program with our local women's jail, I witnessed first hand the transformation that occurs when those who have been deprived of adequate education begin their journey to learning. A 2013 RAND Corporation study affirmed what most suspected. Education is key to reducing recidivism. "Our meta-analytic findings provide additional support for the premise that receiving correctional education while incarcerated reduces an individual’s risk of recidivating after release." The promotion of Inside-Out programs was one topic discussed recently by Pulitzer Prize winning Prof. James Forman at the AALS Clinical Section Conference. Forman is the author of Locking Up Our Own, which looks at the roots of mass incarceration. Forman advocated for more college education classes in prisons and jails.
Receipt of books by those who are incarcerated is essential for continuation of "inside" self-education. But educational programs are not a priority, particularly for privatized prisons. Everything from phone calls to Skype visits with children are available only to prisoners who pay. Shortsighted is the most generous description I can attach to a recently announced policy that prisoners would no longer be able to receive books directly from distributors, except for one approved by the prison. And those books would come with a 30% mark up.
Family and friends of incarcerated men and women responded, as well as those inside, as well. Coleman federal prison in Sumterville, FL was one that announced the new policy and that facility was the topic of advocacy efforts through national listserves and individual inquiry. Then the policy was rescinded.
To the extent that the policy was a "test", the national grassroots response was sufficient to at least postpone its implementation.
Sunday, March 11, 2018
This past Friday I was privileged to participate in a conversation on Race, Redemption and Restoration sponsored by the Public Welfare Foundation of Washington, D.C. The conversation brought together a nationwide group of those working with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. I was humbled to be in a room filled with the formerly incarcerated and those who support them. As a white woman, I was there to learn. And I dd. The discussions gave me a broader perspective on the historical background of mass incarceration, which has been effective through a combination of voter suppression strategies, "war on drugs" and other tactics to enhance black oppression and the suppression of everyone of color.
The conversation was honest and magnificent. Many in communities are doing amazing work to support the formerly incarcerated, including working to change laws and policies that aid unjust arrests and sentencing; developing housing, and creating communities that foster dignity. Future posts will focus on some of the organizations providing innovative and effective supports.
I wish I could better capture the conversation's tone, as well as the caring and brilliance of the day. But for now let me restate part of the discussion and something that is obvious. The most effective action that a white person can take is to inform and influence other whites. Tempering the resistance to creating racial equity is something that whites are particularly well poised to do. How to transform racist views is something whites must learn. The oppressed carry enough burdens. Building white empathy is insufficient because creating empathy alone does not result in change. White people have to figure this out and carry the burden of the conversation. It is not up to the oppressed to teach others how to change.
Monday, March 5, 2018
Just Us Voices gives formerly incarcerated women an opportunity to tell their stories. The organization is soliciting formerly incacerated women to tell others about their experiences within and without of prison. To view a video of last years' voices click here. The penal system is not designed to accomodate women, their needs or their special circumstances. Just Us Voices encourages women to share their experiences as a form of healing, as a way to enfold others into the experience and eventually into advocacy.
Just Us Voices describes itself as "a new multimedia initiative that aims to transform the public dialogue on mass incarceration through storytelling and the lived experiences of formerly incarcerated women. Although women are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, the national conversation on mass incarceration focuses primarily on the experiences of men. JustUS Voices will broaden the conversation to include perspectives and insights through the unique lens of gender, race and justice."
Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Under-reported in discourse addressing prison conditions and human rights violations is the particularly harsh treatment of women prisoners. The dis-empowerment that comes with gender oppression brings with it even more abusive conditions for pregnant women who have even less control over their lives than other prisoners.
A class action lawsuit filed in Almeda County, California addresses the horrific conditions suffered by incarcerated women the Santa Rita prison. The lawsuit details the horrific conditions, particularly for pregnant women. The lawsuit details pregnant women being denied blankets, healthy nutrition, and fresh air. Pregnant women are denied medical care and encouraged to have abortions.
A press release describing the suit states the "The women seek injunctive relief under the U.S. and state constitutions and demand an end to inhumane and sexually biased treatment at Santa Rita. Plaintiffs charge they are subject to more restrictions and harsher treatment than male prisoners, including being held in holding cells for longer periods of time, being denied equal access to jobs outside the cell, limited on classes and education, and subjected to more frequent strip searches and body cavity searches." One woman delivered her child alone with the baby's umbilical cord around the child's neck. The woman screams were not only ignored, a prison employee shut a door to muffle the sounds. Other inhumane treatment is described in the complaint.
Thursday, August 27, 2015
Last week, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) found that the United States violated Bernardo Aban Tercero's rights to due process and a fair trial that are enshrined in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. Tercero, a Nicaraguan national who has been on death row since 2000, is scheduled for execution in Texas on Wednesday. Tercero had deficient capital counsel at trial, sentencing, and at every stage of his post-conviction proceedings. His trial attorneys never conducted a comprehensive investigation into his social history, as required by the American Bar Association (“ABA”) Guidelines on minimum standards of representation in a capital case. There is also no evidence that Tercero himself was ever evaluated for mental illness or intellectual disability which could make him ineligible for the death penalty, despite significant evidence of risk factors. Human Rights First, which filed a petition in the case, is urging Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to adhere to the IACHR’s recommendations to stay the execution pending review of the trial and sentencing.
Dallas News reports that on August 25th, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted yesterday's scheduled execution. The Appeals Court returned the case to the trial court for review.
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
In two earlier posts, we reported on the Texas case where plaintiffs sought the release of children and their mothers from immigrant detention centers. After issuing her initial order, Judge Gee gave the Obama Administration an opportunity to respond as to whether it would comply with the terms of the Flores settlement and release mothers and their young children. The Administration responded that it planned no change in its current policy.
On Friday, Judge Gee entered her order. She ordered the release of immigrant children held at the detention centers. More than 1800 mothers and children are held in three detention centers in both Texas and Pennsylvania. The Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law said that thousands of innocent children have suffered severe psychological and sometimes physical harm during their over year-long detention.
The government has until October 23rd to comply with the order.
One basis for the Plaintiffs' claims was that the detention centers are run by private corporations, not the government, as called for in the Flores settlement. While it is noted that the Texas centers have gyms, schools and other amenities, a prior post reported that the centers are often very cold and the women and children are provided only one aluminum blanket each, which is inadequate to keep them warm.
The administration has not yet announced if it will appeal Judge Gee's decision.
Wednesday, August 19, 2015
by Deborah Popowski, Lecturer on Law and Clinical Instructor, Harvard Law School, guest contributor
On August 5th, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a report denouncing the United States government for unlawfully detaining men in Guantánamo in violation of their human rights and offering recommendations for how the Obama administration should hasten the prison’s closure. It calls for the immediate release of all detainees who will not be charged or tried, and for the use of federal courts instead of military commissions to prosecute those not released.
Personal Integrity and Access to Justice
The 136-page report, “Towards the Closure of Guantánamo,” provides the most recent holistic and independent account of conditions in the prison. The Commission expresses particular concerns about indefinite detention; the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; a discriminatory detention regime; limited or no access to judicial protection; lack of due process; and lack of an adequate defense.
The Commission calls on the US to end the inhumane practice of force-feeding detainees and to ensure that all men receive “adequate medical, psychiatric and psychological care” that respects principles of confidentiality, patient autonomy, and informed consent.
The report also takes on the conditions that contribute to these grave health problems, including to prolonged isolation, incommunicado detention, and indefinite detention. On the latter, it notes having “received specialized information on the severe and lasting physiological and psychological damage caused by the detainees’ high degree of uncertainty over whether they will be released and when; or whether they will see their family members again.” It adds that the “continuing state of suffering and uncertainty creates grave consequences such as stress, fear, depression, and anxiety, and affects the central nervous system as well as the cardiovascular and immunological systems” and concludes that the continued, indefinite detention of men in Guantánamo violates their right to humane treatment.
The Commission’s analysis of personal integrity violations underscores that the fulfillment of this right requires providing detainees with meaningful avenues to monitor, challenge, and remedy their treatment and conditions. To this end, it asks the US government to declassify evidence of torture and ill-treatment, disclose conditions in Camp 7, ensure accessible and effective judicial review, and grant access to an independent monitoring body to investigate detention conditions. Additionally, it urges compliance with the UN Committee Against Torture’s recommendations to investigate all abuse allegations, prosecute those responsible, and ensure effective redress for victims of torture and ill-treatment.
An entire chapter is devoted to detailed analysis of the judicial remedies available to detainees post-Boumediene, which the Commission concludes are neither adequate nor effective, citing concerns with the operation of presumptions and burdens of proof. While the report credits the US with positive changes made via the Military Commissions Act of 2009, it ultimately finds that the military commissions system fails to meet the government’s human rights obligations. Its main areas of concern include their “independence and impartiality …, the uncertainty regarding the application of the US Constitution; respect for the right of equality before the law, to confrontation and to a speedy trial; respect for the principle of legality, and the retroactive prosecution of crimes.”
“A Prison for Foreign Muslim Men”
The Commission notes that Guantánamo’s exceptional regime is rendered even more problematic because of its exclusive application to Muslim men of non-U.S. nationalities, “which creates the appearance that it is targeting individuals based on their nationality, ethnicity, and religion.” Reports of religious-related abuse also played a role in the Commission’s personal integrity analysis. The report’s conclusions and recommendations remind the US government of its obligations to respect detainees’ rights to freedom of conscience and religion, and specify that these include guaranteeing access both to communal prayer and a Muslim chaplain.
The Commission calls on the US to allow transfers for trial, emergency medical treatment, and also release and settlement in the cases of cleared men who cannot return to their home countries and are unwilling or unable to settle elsewhere. To that end, it asks Congress to repeal the National Defense Authorization Act provisions that restrict transfers of Guantánamo detainees to the United States, and urges the executive to interpret the NDAA requirements “in a flexible manner” so as to meet its rights obligations. The report also highlights other necessary measures within the executive’s power, such as expediting the Periodic Review process, stepping up diplomatic negotiations, accelerating transfers to countries of origin or third countries, and ensuring that Yemeni detainees cases receive individualized reviews.
Finally, it calls upon other member states to accept detainees for resettlement. Given the Commission’s influence in the region, advocates are hopeful that this report, with its detailed and unequivocal critique of the regime’s unlawfulness, will significantly help efforts to resettle some of the cleared men in Latin America.
Friday, August 14, 2015
Guest writer Irene Scharf writes on the Obama Administration's response to release of women and children from the immigrant detention centers:
The recent decision by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee condemning the government’s mass incarceration of refugee families, specifically mothers and children seeking asylum in the U.S., reminds us that the Obama Administration continues to maintain ill-advised positions with regard to the treatment of immigrants in this country.
The Administration’s disappointing response to Judge Gee’s decision is to continue supporting the incarceration of refugee women and children who have fled violence and persecution in their home countries. The decision has been denounced by several organizations with expertise in this area, including the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and the national American Immigration Law Association.
The Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS), which has called for an end to mass family incarceration, notes that the “ruling correctly found that incarcerating children with their mothers violates the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) obligations under the 1997 Flores v. Reno settlement agreement, which governs the custody and treatment of children by DHS. That agreement … requires release of children along with their mothers unless the families pose a flight risk or danger.” The decision enumerated some of the harms caused by confinement of children, including “‘long-lasting psychological, developmental, and physical harm” as well as impeded “access to legal representation, critical for asylum seekers navigating our complex system of immigration laws.”
The government’s insensitivity to the rights of immigrants, particularly children, is not new. In 1988, in an article I co-authored, What Process is Due? Unaccompanied Minors' Rights to Deportation Hearings, we examined the rights abuses to which unaccompanied immigrant children were subject by the legacy Immigration and Nationality Service. During that time, prior to the institution of protections, children entering without their parents were wrongfully pressured to waive their rights to deportation hearings, even when they had asylum claims. The administration's ongoing support for detention is reactionary by perpetuating the abuses the Flores settlement was intended to end.
A New York Times article on the subject notes that
“Judge Gee … found that migrant children had been held in ‘widespread deplorable conditions’ in Border Patrol stations after they were first caught, and she said the authorities had ‘wholly failed’ to provide the ‘safe and sanitary’ conditions required for children even in temporary cells.” (Julie Preston, July 26, 2015). The CGRS reminds us that “[t]he operation of inhumane family detention facilities violates the rights of refugee families and contravenes our cherished national commitments to liberty, due process, and justice.”
As of June 30, about 2,600 women and children were held in the three incarceration centers, according to government officials.
Monday, June 1, 2015
United States Falls Far Behind New Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners
On May 22, 2015, the UN Crime Commission approved the revised Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Mandela Rules. The new rules are long overdue, the original set having been drafted in 1955. In the ensuing 60 years, how people in prison fare has improved in some areas, such as the use of corporal punishment. But many areas have not. The world over, pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners suffer from overcrowding, as well as the attendant lack of adequate medical care, shelter and food, not to mention violence at the hands of some officials and prisoners.
The United States is notoriously the world leader in incarceration rates; we have also broken ground in draconian practices, most notably institutionalized solitary confinement. The new Standard Minimum Rules regarding indefinite isolation highlight just how out of step the United States has fallen.
So-called supermax prisons proliferated across the United States, largely unchecked, following the hardening of the federal USP Marion in the early 1970s. States such as California—site of the longstanding controversy regarding the use of solitary at Pelican Bay—were quick to follow. The 1990s prison boom saw the widespread construction of supermax facilities even in relatively small prisons systems (such as my home state of Connecticut), a development driven principally by “tough on crime” politics and federal funding.
In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court offered a tentative step forward in Austin v. Wilkinson. The decision formally recognized prisoners’ procedural due process rights with respect to placement into and exit from isolation. Yet the decision was conspicuously silent as to the substantive rights of people in long-term solitary.
As a recent study of state policies documented, the post-Wilkinson world has done little to place genuine stopgaps on the overuse and misuse of long-term isolation. The initial placement usually bears the trappings of due process, but the criteria are so open-ended as to undermine the legitimacy of the proceedings. Worse, the processes and standards by which an individual may be returned to the general population are typically opaque and vague. Thus, a prisoner deemed to be a threat may be plummeted into near-total social and sensory deprivation, often punctuated by mental breakdowns and bursts of conflict with staff. The ensuing isolation may last months, years, or, in some cases, decades.
The deleterious effects of solitary on prisoners are well-documented; also troubling are reports of high suicide rates and other ill-effects on staff members, who must endure the same inhumane and conflict-ridden environment as the prisoners under their watch.
For individuals facing the death penalty, isolation is automatic and permanent. As the ACLU documented in a 2013 report, prisons systems across the country elect to segregate death-sentenced individuals in supermax-type conditions. (There are a few notable exceptions, such as Missouri, that underscore that the current system is a choice not a necessity.) People facing execution by the state must wait out their last years in isolation, regardless of whether they pose any threat to staff or other prisoners, for no reason other than the nature of the conviction. Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years on death row before his exoneration in 2010, testified before the U.S. Senate that “solitary confinement does one thing, it breaks a man's will to live and he ends up deteriorating. He's never the same person again.”
By contrast, the revised Rules reflect a growing consensus that solitary confinement may only be used sparingly, for the shortest term possible (a matter of days, not years), and never against vulnerable people or solely by virtue of the nature of the conviction. Solitary confinement “shall only be used in exceptional cases as a last resort, for as short a time as possible.” The Rules draw clear lines for juveniles and the mentally ill, who may not be isolated for any period. The Rules also upend the commonplace isolation of death row prisoners, as isolation “shall not be imposed by virtue of a prisoner’s sentence. These revisions echo the recent work by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, who has repeatedly criticized the widespread and extended use of solitary confinement.
For the thousands of prisoners cast into “the hole,” the Rules might seem little more than wishful thinking.
But there are signs of hope. A movement to “stop solitary” has emerged from diverse parts of U.S. civil society and across the political spectrum. A cohort of state corrections leaders have pushed quietly for change amid their own professional associations and have pioneered alternatives to solitary. Ten years ago, the current discourse would have been unfathomable. There is still the real risk that the political winds will shift or that reforms will prove superficial. But, as the new Mandela Rules remind us, the time to put an end to the United States’ failed experiment is now.
Tuesday, May 26, 2015
Many years ago I read Miller and Swift's Words and Women (1976). The book demonstrated how language has been used to separate women from men in ways that assign women to lesser status. The authors brought to my consciousness the power routine language has in creating bias in how we view other human beings.
Recently Reality Check published a piece by Victoria Law and Rachel Roth: Names Do Hurt: The Case Against Using Derogatory Language To Describe People in Prison. Law and Roth remind us on the power of language to de-humanize one segment of our population.
The authors write, "The term 'inmate' is the most pervasive of these words; it is widely used by judges, prison and jail officials and staff, and the media. Far from being neutral, this word objectifies and disparages people who are imprisoned."
Desensitization is a tool for those who administer cruelty. In its extreme, administering the death penalty is difficult to manage if the man or woman killed is appreciated for their humanity. Less dramatic, but equally chilling, referring to those who are incarcerated as "inmates" disguises the mission of prisons. Traditionally we understand incarceration to serve two purposes, the first being punishment and the second rehabilitation. Most would agree that rehabilitation is at best a limited goal of most states. De-humanizing those in prison assists those who advocate punishment only and view rehabilitation efforts as luxuries to which those who are in prison are not entitled.
Once we de-humanize the population we have no reason to consider what could be done to respect the humanity of men and women in prison. Our use of culturally accepted prison language, whether unintentional or not, ties us to the conspiracy of those whose goals are punishment, no matter how cruel or counterproductive.
Friday, May 8, 2015
The state often ignores evidence that could prove innocence. We know this. Nonetheless, each revelation is shocking. Recent revelations that the FBI acknowledged hiding evidence that likely would have led to innocent verdicts were the latest disturbing discoveries . According to a New York Times article, the FBI's forensic scientists confirmed that the testing "was scientifically indefensible in nearly every one of more than 250 cases reviewed."
These recent disclosures stem from suppressed DNA hair results. One defendant was executed on the FBI claim that hair found at the scene of a murder matched that of the defendant. In truth, the hair sample in question belonged to a dog. After this and other cases which exposed flawed FBI forensic testing, the FBI reached an agreement with the Justice Department (motivated by the work of The Innocence Project) to review the forensics in over 2500 cases.
The quality of justice is mediocre. Common goals should converge. If the government is not interested in whether the convicted are actually guilty, surely it is concerned with reducing crime in our communities. Wrongful convictions mean that the perpetrators are left free to commit additional crimes. Ensuring integrity of forensic evidence is one way to meet the needs of citizen protection and avoid wrongful convictions and executions.
Monday, March 30, 2015
While students at Columbia University hold demonstrations encouraging the school to divest ownership shares in private prisons, an order of nuns has devised a different solution for ensuring prisoner human rights. The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, through their Mercy Investment Services, Inc., have be purchasing shares in those prisons.
Fund manager Sr. Valerie Heinonen has been purchasing shares in private prison companies since 2000. The fund strategy is to purchase a sufficient amount of shares to influence change in the way that private prisons are run. Heinonen told CNN Money: "What we want is the establishment of a human rights policy at these companies".
The two largest owners of private prisons are Geo Group and Corrections Corporations of America. The companies have been hugely successful. According to CNN Money, the stock of Geo Group has risen 130% over the past three years. But, many argue, those profits are made on the backs of prisoners whose human rights are disregarded.
With the decline in incarceration rates, empty private prisons have been used to house detained immigrant children and adults. As reported by CNN, Mercy has raised concerns around food, housing and education for detained children and adults. Sr. Heinonen said: We've also been concerned about legal access for people." The Mercy Fund and prison ownership companies are in communication, addressing the human rights concerns. The Mercy Fund has also used corporate process successfully. After its initial success with a corporate environmental ballot, prison waste is being recycled. The nuns then moved on to typing executive compensation to social, as well as financial, success. Said Sr. Heinonen: "By the time we got started with the human rights policy, we had had had some success with other shareholder initiatives." Now the prisons have official human rights policies.
Prison reform by shareholders and others is a long term venture. But the investor strategy gives the shareholders clout that is no longer available to those who sell their stocks in protest.
Friday, March 27, 2015
The current issue of the Canadian Journal of Human Rights is a special volume focused on solitary confinement and human rights. Articles in the interdisciplinary journal include prisoner writing and philosophy as well as comparative analyses from Europe and the United States.
In the U.S., though its use has decreased since a peak in the 1990s, solitary confinement remains pervasive and concerning; an estimated 80,000 prisoners are currently detained in solitary confinement in the U.S. Indeed, even the mainstream media has picked up the issue, with no less than Vanity Fair publishing an essay on "the horrors of solitary confinement" in its January 2015 issue and the New York Times running Emily Bazelon's essay on "the shame of solitary confinement" the following month.
Activists are determined to bring an end to the practice, and have called for a complete ban on prolonged solitary confinement of more than 15 days. Lawsuits have been one vehicle. A suit in New York City led to favorable reforms. Pelican Bay prisoners mounting a pending suit in California recently won a motion to maintain past prisoners as members of the class, increasing the pressure on the state. Also in California, Statewide Coordinated Actions To End Solitary Confinement (SCATESC), began March 23, 2015, with actions in Arcata, Oakland, San Diego, San Jose, Santa Cruz and in Philadelphia, PA. More locations will join on April 23rd and then 23rd of each month following.
The upcoming University Periodic Review of the U.S. by the Human Rights Council will provide another occasion for scrutiny of U.S. prison practices. A consortium of groups, led by the Center for Constitutional Rights, submitted a succinct document to the Council addressing solitary confinement. The final paragraph of the submission aptly sums up the current struggle for reform:
"The US warehouses tens of thousands of prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement, a practice
that is well-known cause to devastating psychological and physical effects. These harms are disproportionately visited upon people of color, politically-active prisoners, and those whose
gender or sexual identity is perceived to make them vulnerable to sexual assault. The US Government must take concrete steps to end the use of prolonged solitary confinement; to ensure
meaningful process prior to such confinement; to develop standards that prevent the
discriminatory use of solitary confinement; and to compile data on the use of solitary
confinement across the country."
Friday, December 26, 2014
The University of Michigan Law School maintains a registry of the exonerated. According to the registry, nearly one hundred individuals were exonerated this year. With the assistance of innocence projects, law school clinics and other pro bono counsel, the wrongfully accused have garnered new hope since Attorney Barry Shek co-founded the first law school affiliated innocence project in 1992.
One exoneree, Kenneth F. Ireland, was appointed by Governor Daniel Malloy of Connecticut to serve on the state's Board of Pardons and Parole. The appointment is provisional until the legislature votes next year but in the meantime, Mr. Ireland has been an active member of the board. Governor Malloy is leading the way in acknowledging that there is much to be learned from the exonerated. Along with an apology, the state of Connecticut has acknowledged the many lessons that the wrongfully convicted can teach us about avoiding the mistakes of our past. Good news!
To read the most recently reported exoneration case reported on this blog click here.