The Prison Complex

Wednesday, Dec 17, 2014, 8:31 pm  ·  By George Lavender

DC Mayor Withdraws Proposed Jail Health Care Contract Amidst Controversy

DC Mayor Vince Gray on Tuesday withdrew a proposed $66.1 million contract with Corizon Health Inc. to run DC's jail health care. The Mayor had faced opposition to the plan from prisoner advocates as well as legislators, the Washington Post reports:   

City procurement officials had tentatively awarded the three-year contract last month to Corizon Health Inc. — the nation’s largest provider of health care in prisons and jails, operating in more than 500 facilities in 27 states. The D.C. Council was set to vote on the contract Wednesday.

But Gray (D) withdrew the contract Tuesday evening, according to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and an administration official, who both said it appeared that Corizon did not have enough support for approval. Continue reading...

Mayor Gray's office hit back at critics of the proposed contract, according to the Washington Times

“We agreed to withdraw it to give Corizon more time to get the facts out,” said Mr. Gray’s spokeswoman Doxie McCoy. “They were getting unfairly smeared. It will likely be resubmitted next year.” Continue reading...

ThinkProgress' Alice Ollstein, who reported on the contract spoke with HuffPost Live about Corizon's trackrecord in other prisons and jails. She also points out that the contract with the Tennessee-based company could be resubmitted by incoming Mayor Muriel Bowser when she takes office next month. (The report begins at 15.40)


Tuesday, Dec 16, 2014, 10:00 am  ·  By Alice Ollstein

The Shady For-Profit Company Poised To Take Over DC Prison Healthcare

This article was originally published on ThinkProgress.   Shutterstock

The DC City Council could vote as soon as Wednesday on a 5-year contract for the notorious prison healthcare company Corizon to operate at the DC Jail and Correctional Treatment Facility. The contract would give the company jurisdiction over the medical care of the more than 10,000 DC residents that cycle through the jail every year.

Several former prisoners, including DC native Victor Carter, have been organizing against Corizon’s bid, phone-banking and lobbying City Council to reject the contract. Carter, who was incarcerated for 18 months at the DC jail, told ThinkProgress he was moved to speak out based on his own experience with inadequate care.

“On several occasions, I told them I was having stomach pains, and they kept sending me back to my room,” he said. “It got to the point where I was bent over and I couldn’t walk. I had blood in my urine and throwing up blood. After like the fifth day, when they finally saw me, I ended up in surgery and had my gall bladder removed.”

Though he described the current healthcare system, which is run by the non-profit clinic operator Unity, as “not up to par,” he and other advocates say Corizon would be much worse for DC. “For them, it’s all about revenue, it’s not about helping people,” Carter said. “I mean, it’s on the stock market! They make money off of us being incarcerated! So, I can’t sit back and let this go on. Some justice has to be done. Even though you’re an inmate, you still have rights.”

The largest private prison healthcare company in the country, Corizon has come under fire for neglecting and abusing inmates in Minnesota, Virginia, Florida, New York,Idaho, Kentucky, Maryland and, most recently, Arizona.


Saturday, Dec 13, 2014, 5:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Wisconsin Woman Jailed Under ‘Cocaine-Mom’ Law

The 'cocaine mom' law, which protects fetuses and incarcerates women, has been adapted in several states, including Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Minnesota.   (Edward Corpuz/Flickr)

A Wisconsin woman jailed under a so-called “cocaine mom” law is at the center of a soon-to-be-filed civil rights lawsuit. Tamara Loertscher was summoned to court and jailed for refusing to attend an inpatient drug treatment program. Loertscher and her attorneys say officials initiated unborn child protection proceedings against her for alleged illegal drug use while she was 14 weeks pregnant.

As Jessica Mason Pieklo reports at RH Reality Check, Loertscher says she had been using drugs to self-medicate for a thyroid condition because she did not have insurance but stopped using the drugs because she believed she could be pregnant. In July 2014 she sought medical care for her thyroid condition as well as for depression. After submitting to a urine test she disclosed her past drug use to hospital staff.

Loertscher and her attorneys claim that within days of Loertscher seeking care, hospital workers had already turned over Loerstcher’s hospital records to the state without Loerstcher’s knowledge or consent. They also claim that with those records in hand, state officials filed a petition accusing Loerstcher of abuse of an unborn child and held a hearing in which the state had appointed an attorney, known as a guardian ad litem, for the 14-week-old fetus, but granted Loerstcher no meaningful representation.

At the hearing, Loertscher and her attorneys allege she was ordered by the court into in-patient treatment even though she had not used drugs recently and voluntarily sought medical care. When Loerstcher refused to go to in-patient treatment, she was held in contempt of court and sent to jail, where she was held for 17 days without prenatal care and subject to abuse and harassment. Continue reading..

Inside jail, Loerstcher says she was sent to solitary confinement after refusing to undergo another pregnancy test. As Jessica Glenza reports in The Guardian, Loerstcher was jailed under a Wisconsin law dating back to the 1990s which extended the protections of the children's code to “unborn children" defined "as unborn humans who are at that stage of fetal development when there is a reasonable likelihood of sustained survival outside the womb, with or without artificial support.”


Friday, Nov 28, 2014, 8:00 am  ·  By George Lavender

‘Chipping Away At The System’: Maya Schenwar on Alternatives to Our ‘Justice’ System

Maya Schenwar, author of Locked Down, Locked Out   (Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Writing about Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn't Work and How We Can Do Better, Michelle Alexander says, “This book has the power to transform hearts and minds, opening us to new ways of imagining what justice can mean for individuals, families, communities, and our nation as a whole.” (To read a chapter from the book, click here). The Prison Complex spoke with the book's author, Truthout Editor-in-Chief Maya Schenwar, about how writing the book changed her own perspectives on prison abolition and alternative forms of justice.

To start with, why did you first decide to write this book?

Given my experience with having a family member incarcerated and also my correspondence with people in prison over the years, my hope was to introduce into this conversation this element of connection and disconnection. These statistics get repeated again and again: We have 2.3 or 2.5 million people behind bars, we're the most incarcerated country in the world, the drug war ... Those are all really important to hear and talk about, but a lot of times those millions and millions of other people who are affected by incarceration but not incarcerated themselves aren't discussed. The families, and loved ones, and communities of people who are behind bars are often affected in really damaging ways and that affects the rest of us. Every single person in society is affected by incarceration, so I definitely wanted to bring that into the forefront of the conversation. The other thing I wanted to do was talk about how prison disconnects and isolates and tears people apart—and what are things we can do to bring people together in a way that can address harm and violence without prison. It's always tricky to talk about that, but I think it's really necessary because otherwise all of our discussions about mass incarceration or incarceration in general come down to, “Well we always have to have prison, whether or not we incarcerate a lot of people it always has to be there to protect us.” I think if you challenge the idea that prison protects people and talk about the way prison damages people you have to be able to also talk about ways to do things differently. So I want to try to begin addressing that.

Who did you imagine reading your book?

It's funny because that's one of the things you have to put in a book proposal and I kind of faked it when I wrote my proposal. I was like, "Oh well I think the people I'm targeting are people concerned about social justice, like the people who read Truthout but don't necessarily know a lot about the prison-industrial complex. But in writing this book, I kind of shifted a little bit in my head, because a lot of time the people I was writing about were not people who would necessarily be reading Truthout or identify as progressive. So I think that one of the challenges with writing about the prison-industrial complex that demonstrates how it affects everyone is trying to write with the feeling that you're not just speaking to leftists or progressives or people who identify a certain way ideologically, but to people who are affected by the system nonetheless. I hope when people read the book, they gain a little bit of understanding of how they might be affected.

Before this interview, The Prison Complex asked for questions on Twitter. @AliceOllstein asked:

@MayaSchenwar @GeorgeLavender What do u say to people paralyzed by the enormity of the task of end mass incarceration & its many cruelties?

— Alice Ollstein (@AliceOllstein) November 25, 2014


I think that the answer to that is you can never have some huge monolithic campaign to end mass incarceration. It wouldn't be feasible, and it would also be counter to the kind of action that's actually effective. I think that the point of thinking about abolition or decarceration as a goal is to think about chipping away at the system from various sides, so you're not saying, "I'm going to end mass incarceration now," but, “There is this prison near me, how can I think about a campaign to close that prison or reduce the population?” And do that with the consciousness of spreading the word about mass incarceration. So educating people about why the whole system is bad while you're chipping away at parts of it and helping to shrink it at the same time. I also think building alternatives—well, I don't even like the word alternatives—but building other ways to deal with problems and ways to prevent violence from happening are really motivating ways to work towards abolition. So if you talk about it in terms of mass incarceration, that's this towering thing that's very abstract. What I try to do in the book, and what a lot of organizers are doing, is to say, “Okay, mass incarceration is millions of individual people, so how do we start identifying those individual people or communities or groups and start thinking about what they really need.” I think chipping away at the system from various sides means figuring out in your role and in your position in life what can you do to contribute towards shrinking the system. That's a lot more manageable. 


Friday, Nov 21, 2014, 5:00 pm  ·  By Maya Schenwar

Locked Down, Locked Out: Exclusive Excerpt from Maya Schenwar’s New Book

"Locked Down, Locked Out," by Maya Schenwar. Chapter seven, "Storytelling," is re-printed on The Prison Complex with permission from Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

"Storytelling" is chapter seven of Maya Schenwar's book "Locked Down, Locked Out." Kayla is Maya Schenwar's sister and Angelica is Kayla's daughter. 

“We need to trust people to be the experts on their own lives.”

—Domestic violence survivor interviewed by the StoryTelling & Organizing Project

Although Angelica’s entrance into the world undoubtedly ranks as my family’s most significant event of 2013, followed by Kayla’s reincarceration, the loss of a dearly loved inanimate object nears the top of my Big Deal list. On a sleepy late summer evening shortly before my sister gives birth, I’m ambling across the parking lot of a Seattle restaurant late in the evening with two old friends. We’re relishing the warm breeze and chatting about the possibility of ice cream.

But one of my companions stops short, two feet from my car.

“Oh my God,” she says, low. “The window.” The back window has been shattered through the middle, as if by a bowling ball. Glistening shards are still dropping lightly onto the back seat.

My heart thuds, pushes me forward. I plunge my hand through the hole. “Where is my laptop?” I say, patting the shard-covered seat, then pounding it. The sharp bits stick to my palm, which emerges wet and red-slitted. The laptop—along with the uncom fortable shoulder bag in which it was kept, which also contained my only pair of glasses, an assortment of tampons, and a notepad filled with embarrassingly moonlike self-portraits sketched during a PowerPoint presentation at a recent conference—is nowhere. The back seat is empty.

One hundred thousand words of the book I’ve been researching and writing for the last eleven months, about prison and prisoners and, well, “crime,” are stored inside that computer. It also contains millions more cherished words—stories, articles, notes, humiliating diary entries from my early twenties, passwords “hidden” in the guise of other files—and all the music I’ve acquired since 2004. My many un-Facebooked photos. My book, my book.

“Do you have it backed up?” my friend’s voice floats into my ear, as if traveling down from the tree. No. I have an external hard drive—I’ve had it for seven months. I just haven’t yet removed it from its packaging.

You aren’t supposed to leave your laptop on the car seat. I have never left my laptop on the car seat, always stowing it away securely in a corner of the trunk. But tonight, I did.

I think fleetingly of the person who bashed in the window. I wonder what they must have been thinking in the act of bashing, whether they needed money, whether they were just teenagers trying to be badass, whether they had thought of me, whether they were thinking about me now. In the background, someone murmurs something about a police report. Calls are made on a cell phone, the name of the restaurant given, the make and model of the car.

“They’ve got your phone number,” I’m told. “We gave them the info about your case, so they’re on it.” In my head, a page from the book I’ve lost reads itself to me, slowly. One sentence asks, “Before you call the police, think, are they really going to help—and who are they going to hurt?” Another reasonably points out, “The prison-industrial complex deals with ‘cases,’ instead of ‘problems’ and ‘human beings.’”

I grab for my phone. My palms are still wet, dotted with small red cuts. I stare at my phone, willing the police to call.

But over the next week, I wait and wait for the announcement of the triumphant return of my laptop. The police never locate it. My “case” is tucked into a bulging file with hundreds of other sorrowful, identical tales—dozens of stolen-laptop reports have already been filed in Seattle that summer. (“It’s kind of an epidemic!” one officer explains to me excitedly over the phone.) Arrests—probably of poor people and people of color—are undoubtedly made as a result of some of those stories. Some of those arrested are probably sent to prison, and some of them may not be guilty. When they get out of prison, it remains to be seen whether they’ll steal more laptops. Or rather, it remains to not be seen. I’ll certainly never know.

In fact, the process I bought into provided no support for me, beyond the false, momentary sense of security that came from filing a report. It was geared toward catching and punishing a person—or a bunch of people—rather than addressing the impact of my loss, or the causes of the “epidemic” in the first place. It’s just one component of a system obsessed not with solving problems or aiding victims, but with “crime.”


Thursday, Nov 20, 2014, 12:23 am  ·  By George Lavender

Listen: California Attorney General “Shocked” By Her Own Department’s Arguments Against Parole

California Attorney General Kamala Harris said Wednesday she was concerned people would believe authorities had an “ulterior motive” for keeping people behind bars. Harris' comments came a week after the Los Angeles Times reported that lawyers for her department had argued against paroling more eligible prisoners because “prisons would lose an important labor pool.”

As Paige St.John of the LA Times reported, federal judges last Friday ordered California to implement a new parole program.

Most of those prisoners now work as groundskeepers, janitors and in prison kitchens, with wages that range from 8 cents to 37 cents per hour. Lawyers for Attorney General Kamala Harris had argued in court that if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.

Prisoners' lawyers countered that the corrections department could hire public employees to do the work. Continue reading...

This week Harris told Buzzfeed she was “shocked” to read that lawyers for her department had made the arguments. On Wednesday ThinkProgress' Alice Ollstein asked Harris about her department's legal arguments. Here's the recording of that interview



Sunday, Nov 16, 2014, 1:01 am  ·  By George Lavender

Clinton-Era Law Costing Death Row Prisoners Chance At Appeal

Just a day. That's all it takes for a death row prisoner to lose the chance to challenge their conviction in federal court. Under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996, a defendant has up to a year from the date of their last state appeal to file an appeal in federal court. A new investigation by the Marshall Project has found that since the AEDPA became law, dozens of prisoners have lost that right simply because they or their lawyers filed too late. “Death by Deadline” begins with the case of Kenneth Rouse, an African-American man sentenced to death in 1992 in North Carolina for the murder, robbery and attempted rape of a white woman. 

One of the jurors, Joseph S. Baynard, admitted that his mother had been robbed, murdered and possibly raped years before. Baynard had not disclosed this history, he said, so that he could sit in judgment of Rouse, whom he called "one step above a moron." Baynard added that he thought black men (“niggers” was the term he was quoted as using) raped white women for bragging rights.

As claims of juror bias go, the evidence could hardly have been stronger. But Rouse's final appeal was never heard. Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Rouse's lawyers had just one year after his initial state appeal to petition for a last-resort hearing in federal court. Continue reading... 

As the Marshall Project reports, Rouse's lawyers missed the filing by a single day. And Rouse's case is not unique. According to the Marshall Project article, at least 80 inmates facing the death sentence have missed crucial filing deadlines ever since President Bill Clinton signed the limitations into law.


Saturday, Nov 15, 2014, 6:00 am  ·  By Victoria Law

The Mother Who Just Wanted to Know When Her Son Would Eat

Dolores Canales speaking against the use of solitary confinement at a panel in California. (Waging Nonviolence/Global Women’s Strike)  

This article first appeared at Waging Nonviolence.

The temperature in Corona, California, can soar above 100 degrees in the summer, sometimes climbing as high as 110. For Dolores Canales and others locked into their cells 22 hours a day in the Administrative Segregation Unit at the California Institution for Women, the extreme heat was aggravated by the extreme lack of privacy.

“The cells get extremely hot in the summer, so you have to take your clothes off [to stay cool],” she recounted.

But the unit was circular, and the guard stationed in the center was able to see into any cell with the turn of his head. “You can’t cover the window on the door, so you’re always exposed to the guards, who are mostly men.”

Canales spent nine months in segregation at the California Institute for Women in 1999. “There, I had a window. The guards would take me out to the yard every day. I’d get to go out to the yard with other people,” she told me in The Nation.

Still, being in isolation took its toll. “There’s an anxiety that overcomes you in the middle of the night because you’re so locked in.”

Canales was unable to shake that anxiety even after leaving segregation and reentering the general prison population until she was released in 2000. She recalled breaking into a sweat and panicking any time she saw a group of officers even though she had broken no rules.

“I just can’t forget,” she said.

With her dark brown hair pulled into a ponytail, one can see the emotions that play across Canales’ face when she talks about solitary confinement — especially since her son Johnny is now living through a similar experience.


Wednesday, Nov 5, 2014, 9:00 am  ·  By George Lavender

Prop 47 Passes: California Wobbles Towards Sentencing Reform

Prop 47, a California ballot measure that could reduce some sentences from felonies to misdemeanors passed easily on Tuesday  

California overwhelmingly voted to take some of the wobbles out of its criminal justice system on Tuesday. 

“Wobblers” are crimes that can be charged either as felonies or misdemeanors. Prop 47, a ballot measure requiring misdemeanors instead of felonies for certain “non-serious, nonviolent” drug and property offenses, passed with 58.5% of the vote.

The ballot measure's supporters claim the Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act will save millions of dollars which would otherwise be spent on locking up people on lower level drug possession and property crimes. According to the Yes on 47 campaign “California counties will save hundreds of millions annually and state prison reductions will generate between $750 million to $1.25 billion in savings over the next five years alone. Those savings will be shifted into K-12 school programs (25%), victim services (10%) and mental health and drug treatment (65%).”

Supporters of the proposition included former San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón. Celebrating the passage of the ballot measure the Yes campaign stated “we can no longer waste billions on costly and bloated state prisons while our communities suffer.” 

The proposition was opposed by the California Police Chiefs Association who warned it would “burden our criminal justice system.” The CPCA warned that Prop 47 would “overcrowd jails with dangerous felons who should be in state prison and jam California’s courts with hearings to provide “Get Out of Prison Free” cards.” The Association opposed the loss of discretion for prosecutors to choose whether to charge someone with a felony or misdemeanor.

According to ThinkProgress' reporter Nicole Flatow Prop 47 passed on a night in which voters “sent a signal that they are ready to reform a system that has sent more people in the United States to jail than in any other country in the world.” Flatow points to ballot initiatives in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington DC all of which passed measures decriminalizing marijuana on Tuesday as further sign of a national shift on criminal justice issues.


Saturday, Oct 18, 2014, 1:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Prison Baseball: San Quentin’s World Series

San Quentin baseball fans watched the Giants take on the Athletics "for bragging rights"   George Lavender

As the San Francisco Giants take on the Kansas City Royals here's a "World Series" with a difference. Across the San Francisco Bay from AT&T Park, prisoners in California's oldest prison took part in a high-stakes game of their own in August. Dressed in uniforms donated by their major league namesakes the San Quentin Giants took on the San Quentin Athletics in the main yard of the prison. Here's the story I produced for WBUR's Only A Game

San Quentin has a long history of prisoner baseball. In 1950 Blackie Schwamb earned a reputation as "the greatest prison baseball player" while playing at the prison. Most of the players are serving life sentences but the last game of the 2014 San Quentin baseball season also happened to be the Giants' center-fielder Anthony Sorrell's last game in prison.

“It’s going to be sad to see him go because I want to see him play baseball next year with us,” said Sorrell’s teammate, Giants third baseman Chris Deragon. “But at the same time, man, I want to see him go home. I’d rather see him home than be here by far.”

Deragon has been in prison for 17 years, most of his adult life. This was his third season with the San Quentin Giants.

“I’ve hit a couple of walk-off home runs,” he said.  “I usually hit cleanup — three, four, five; that range. I one-hopped the gym. That’s a major league home run. I’ve cleared education quite a few times. I’ve walked off a home run over that satellite dish over that building.”

As Deragon pointed out, there are more than a few obstacles to playing baseball in a prison. From lost foul balls to frequent alerts, it’s not uncommon for games to get called off entirely because of security issues. Continue reading...