The Prison Complex

Monday, Jul 21, 2014, 8:33 pm  ·  By George Lavender

WATCH: Comedian John Oliver Weighs in on America’s Criminal Justice System

In the latest episode of HBO's Last Week Tonight, comedian John Oliver turned his attention to America’s prison system. (It’s not the first time that he has weighed in on the justice system, an earlier episode saw him tackle America's use of the death penalty.) On Sunday, Oliver brought his brand of fact-checked comedy to incarceration:

We have over two million people behind bars right now. We have more prisoners at the moment than China- than China! We don’t have more of anything than China, other than, of course, debt to China.

For 17 minutes Oliver, took aim at everything from the War on Drugs (“our drug laws do seem to be a little draconian, and a lot racist") to private prison companies, as well as corporations who provide food and health services in prison.  

Oliver lampooned an appearance before a Senate committee by the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Charles Samuels, in which he struggled to answer a question about the size of solitary confinement cells. (Samuels wrongly gave the size of an isolation cell as 6 x4 feet, before correcting himself.) Samuels clarified that the cells are in fact 7 x 10 feet, or as Oliver put it "plenty of room for a ping pong table and an imaginary opponent as your mind slowly becomes untethered."

The former guest host of the Daily Show also took a more serious look at the use of prison rape as a comic punchline:

We are somehow collectively able to laugh about references to the fact that 4% of prisoners reported being sexually victimized in the last year. 

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Saturday, Jul 19, 2014, 7:40 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Sentencing Commission Votes to Reduce Thousands of Prison Sentences

Thousands of prisoners could be released from prison sooner than expected, after the US Sentencing Commission unanimously voted on Friday to allow some sentences to be retroactively reduced. 

In April the commission voted to reduce the sentencing guidelines for future drug offenses, a move which they estimated will reduce the federal prison population by more than 6,500 prisoners within five years. Reuters reported the change in April:

The commission unanimously recommended reducing the sentence dictated by the quantity of the drug by two levels, or an average of 11 months. For example, someone caught with 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of heroin would serve 51 to 63 months rather than 63 to 78 months.

Friday's decision extended those same guidelines to people already serving a prison sentence; an estimated 46,000 prisoners. Those eligible for release under the plan will first have their cases reviewed by a judge to determine whether they pose "a risk to public safety." In a press release, Judge Patti B Saris, said the proposal, “reduces prison costs and populations” while “safeguarding public safety.”  

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Wednesday, Jul 9, 2014, 10:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

More Correctional Officers Arrested in Rikers Island Investigation

The arrests of three correctional officers from Rikers Island brings the total number of correctional officers arrested as part of the wider investigation into the jail to at least 12.   "You are entering Rikers Island" Matt Green

An investigation into corruption and abuse at New York's largest jail has resulted in three more arrests. According to the New York Times, the Investigation Department has been examining what commissioner Mark Peters has described as “a pattern of lawless conduct at Rikers that must be brought under control.” Two correctional officers and a captain at Rikers Island jail complex were arrested Wednesday charged with beating an inmate and later attempting to cover it up. 

The beating occurred on Oct. 30, 2012, just after Hurricane Sandy. Tensions were high after the storm, according to a statement by the Bronx district attorney, Robert T. Johnson. Rikers was short-staffed and inmates had been locked in their cells for much longer than usual because of the storm.

At the George R. Vierno Center, one of the 10 jails at Rikers, an inmate named Gabino Genao became verbally abusive to one of the defendants, officials said. In response, the defendants went into Mr. Genao’s cell, handcuffed him from behind and led him to a vestibule, “where one of the officers allegedly threw the first punch, but missed when the inmate ducked,” Mr. Johnson said.

The officers then pushed Mr. Genao to the floor, and all three began to punch and kick him in the head, neck and torso, officials said. At one point, one of the officers grabbed a baton and hit him multiple times. He then lost consciousness.

Mr. Genao, now 27, suffered multiple contusions that officials said were consistent with the imprint of a standard-issue baton used by the Correction Department. He had been incarcerated for a parole violation. Continue reading...

According to the New York Times, the officers then allegedly filed reports that did not mention the use of the baton and were “inconsistent with both the assault of the inmate and the injuries he sustained.” 

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Sunday, Jul 6, 2014, 10:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Violent Crime in Prison Doesn’t Count in Federal Reports

Violent crime is nearly half what it was in the 1990s, according to two federal government reports which track crime rates. But by excluding a significant population, are these reports painting an incomplete picture? Neither the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports nor the National Crime Victimization Survey, produced by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) take into account violent crime in prisons. At Slate, Josh Voorhees takes a closer look at these statistics. He points out that if the incarcerated population of 2.2 million people lived in a single city, it would be the fourth largest in the country. As for the crime stats in that city, Voorhees writes:

Someone living there is less likely to be murdered  than they would be elsewhere in America. That, however, is where the good news ends. The bad news, of which there is plenty, is that the life he faces is so brutal that he is more likely to commit suicide than if he were free, and his chances of being raped and beaten, possibly repeatedly, appear exponentially greater. 

Voorhees explains that, given the size of the incarcerated population, the decision to exclude a large proportion of violent incidents involving prisoners from national crime statistics is significant.    

If we had a clearer sense of what happens behind bars, we’d likely see that we are reducing our violent crime rate, at least in part, with a statistical sleight of hand—by redefining what crime is and shifting where it happens. “The violence is still there,” says Lovisa Stannow, the executive director of Just Detention International, a human rights organization dedicated to ending sexual abuse and violence in prisons and jails. “It’s just been moved from our communities to our jails and prisons where it’s much more hidden.” It counts as an assault when one drug dealer beats up a second on the streets of Chicago, why shouldn’t it count as sexual assault when one of them is raped after he is sent to prison? It is a crime when someone beats his wife, so why shouldn’t it be a crime when that same person attacks a prison guard?

Technically, of course, they are crimes—only the likelihood that someone will be investigated, charged, and prosecuted for them are vanishingly small. Indeed, the assault—especially if it’s between inmates—is likely to never be officially noted. The Department of Justice chooses to exclude the bulk of violence committed inside its correctional facilities from the national crime surveys. These wholesale omissions make it impossible to paint a complete picture of life behind bars in America, but there are nonetheless bits and pieces of the puzzle that we can pull together from what little is available. Continue reading...

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Tuesday, Jun 24, 2014, 11:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Juveniles Still Face Decades in Prison Under New Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Wednesday marks the second anniversary of the US Supreme Court's decision banning mandatory minimum sentences of life without parole for under 18s. A new briefing by the Sentencing Project says that state's efforts to comply with that decision have been “decidedly mixed.” Miller v Alabama struck down mandatory minimum sentencing laws in 28 states and the federal government, finding that such sentences amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment." 

A majority of the 28 states have not passed legislation. Frequently, the new laws have left those currently serving life without parole without recourse to a new sentence. Though 13 of the 28 states have passed compliance laws since Miller; the minimum time that must be served  before parole review is still substantial, ranging from 25 years (Delaware, North Carolina, and Washington) to 40 years (Nebraska and Texas).

In its 2012 decision the Supreme Court noted that ‘developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds,” such as in ‘parts of the brain involved in behavior control.”

According to the Sentencing Project, of the 28 states affected by the Miller v Alabama ruling, only three have banned the use of life without parole for juveniles entirely. Fifteen states have yet to come up with new sentencing guidelines. In 2012, The Guardian spoke with Quantel Lotts, who was sentenced to life without parole at the age of 14.

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Monday, Jun 16, 2014, 12:08 pm  ·  By George Lavender

The Price of Prison Time: States Pay-Out for Post-Conviction Exonerations

There have been a spate of high-profile exonerations this year. Gabrielle Emanuel at NPR's Planet Money examines the amounts that states pay-out when someone spends time in prison for a crime they are later found not to have committed. 

Twenty-one states provide no money — though people who are exonerated can sue for damages. Twelve states and DC award damages on a case-by-case basis. Another seventeen states pay a fixed amount per year of imprisonment.

And among states that pay a fixed amount per year, there's a huge range of payments.

Several states and the federal government offer $50,000 per year for people wrongly convicted in federal court. Why is that such a common figure?

Federal payments were set by a law passed a decade ago. At that time, Alabama had the highest compensation at $50,000 per year, so the feds simply decided to match that, according to Stephen Saloom, policy director at the Innocence Project. Other states may have followed the lead of the federal government.

According to the Innocence Project there have been 316 post-conviction DNA exonerations in US history including 18 people who had been sentenced to death.

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Tuesday, Jun 10, 2014, 4:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

‘When I See You, I See $80 a Day’: New Report Slams Private Prisons for Immigrants

Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville, Texas is one of thirteen privately run prisons for non-US citizens   ACLU of Texas https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/assets/060614-aclu-car-reportonline.pdf

“Believe it or not I care” is a Management and Training Corporation (MTC) company slogan on display at Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville, Texas. But a new report by the ACLU is calling that slogan into question. Last summer, 30 prisoners at the facility were placed in isolation units “for refusing to leave the recreation yard and return to their dormitories after prison officials ignored their complaints of toilets overflowing with raw sewage,” according to the report.

The report calls Willacy “a physical symbol of everything that is wrong with enriching the private prison industry and criminalizing immigration.” Nearly 3,000 so-called “criminal aliens” are locked up in the privately run facility, one of 13 “Criminal Alien Requirement” (CAR) prisons in the United States. Managed by private companies on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the facilities are mostly used to hold low-security non-U.S. citizens convicted of immigration offenses or drug-related crimes.

Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private-Prison System," the result of several years of investigation into five CAR prisons in Texas, describes overcrowded facilities, inadequate medical care and widespread use of solitary confinement.

According to one of the report’s authors, Carl Takei, CAR prisons have “mushroomed” in recent years as a result of a massive increase in prosecutions for illegal entry or re-entry. “This is an offense that until about 10 years ago was very rarely charged and now is one of the most charged offences in the federal judicial system,” says Takei.

While federal prisons are supposed to follow American Bar Association standards, researchers “uncovered evidence that the CAR prisons use extreme isolation in ways that are inconsistent with the ABA Standards and BOP policy.” The report alleges that prisoners were isolated in Special Housing Units (SHU) for “minor infractions or even for requesting new shoes or extra food.”

The Federal Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on specific allegations in the ACLU report, but in response to an email from The Prison Complex, Chris Burke, a public affairs specialist at the agency, defended the use of private companies, calling the practice “an effective means of managing low-security, specialized populations.”

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Monday, Jun 9, 2014, 8:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Shocking Photos From Inside Private Prison

Photos from inside the East Mississippi Correctional Facility show burn marks and bloody cell floors.   https://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/tour-east-mississippi-correctional-facility

A privately-run prison in Mississippi holding “seriously mentally ill” prisoners stands accused of being dirty, dangerous and corrupt.  East Mississippi Correctional Facility, operated by Management and Training Corporation (MTC), is the subject of a lawsuit brought on behalf of several prisoners at the facility. 

After widespread criticism of conditions inside the same prison the previous operator, the GEO group, discontinued its contract with the state in 2012. At the time, the GEO group said that the prison was “"financially underperforming." 

A lawsuit first filed a year ago by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center alleged that “grossly inhumane conditions have cost many prisoners their health, and their limbs, their eyesight and even their lives.”  

Photos taken as part of a tour of the prison, showed “charred door frames, broken light fixtures and toilets, exposed electrical wires, and what advocates said were infected wounds on prisoners’ arms and legs,” according to the New York Times.

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Friday, Jun 6, 2014, 4:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Colorado Bans Use of Solitary Confinement for “Seriously Mentally Ill” Prisoners

Colorado's Governor John Hickenlooper signed Senate Bill 14-064 into law on Friday, “restricting the use of long-term isolated confinement for inmates with serious mental illness.”

The bill  requires the department of corrections to review the status of all offenders held in long-term isolated confinement within 90 days if the review determines that the offender is seriously mentally ill, the department shall move the offender from long-term isolated confinement to a mental health step-down unit, a prison mental hospital, or other appropriate housing that does not include long-term isolated confinement”

As the Associated Press reports , the bill prohibits the Department of Corrections from keeping prisoners with mental health issues in isolation units, “unless there are exigent circumstances”

The legislation aligns with what the agency already was working on. Last week, there were 228 Colorado inmates in solitary confinement, and none were mentally ill.

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Monday, Jun 2, 2014, 8:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Imprisoned for Being Too Poor to Pay a Fine?

Debtors' prisons were formally abolished in the United States in 1833. Before then if a defendant couldn't pay their court fees or fines, that is where they would end up. A century and a half later, in Bearden v Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that judges cannot send people to prison for failure to pay fines without finding out their ability to pay.

If a State determines a fine or restitution to be the appropriate and adequate penalty for the crime, it may not thereafter imprison a person solely because he lacked the resources to pay it. Williams v. Illinois, 399 U. S. 235Tate v. Short, 401 U. S. 395. If the probationer has willfully refused to pay the fine or restitution when he has the resources to pay or has failed to make sufficient bona fide efforts to seek employment or borrow money to pay, the State is justified in using imprisonment as a sanction to enforce collection. Continue reading...

That case came on top of an earlier Supreme Court decision which established that extending someone's prison term because they are unable to pay a fine violates their Fourteenth Amendment rights. How to determine whether someone “willfully refused” to pay, has proven difficult. As a year-long NPR investigation found, defendants who are unable to pay are doing time. 

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