The Prison Complex

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.


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

“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.”


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.

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.


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.


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. 


Tuesday, May 27, 2014, 7:59 pm  ·  By George Lavender

TIMELINE: A History of the Death Penalty

More than 3000 people are on death row in the United States. This exclusive interactive timeline for The Prison Complex charts the history of the death penalty since it was re-instated in 1976.   Creative Commons CS Monitor


Tuesday, May 27, 2014, 8:00 am  ·  By George Lavender

Prisoner Deaths in Florida Mental Health Units Investigated

An investigation is underway into the death last week of a prisoner in a mental health unit at a Florida prison. According to the Miami Herald, Damion Foster died in the unit at at Charlotte Correctional Institution on Thursday after an altercation with corrections officers. 

Foster died when corrections officers were attempting a “cell extraction,’’ the source told the Miami Herald.

The DOC “is prepared to take immediate action to ensure accountability, based on the outcome of the investigation and the medical examiner’s report,’’ agency spokeswoman Jessica Cary said.

Foster was suicidal, but it’s not known how or why he died, sources said.

Florida's Department of Law Enforcement is investigating Foster's death. Florida's Department of Corrections is already facing criticisms for another death in its custody. Darren Rainey died June 23rd 2012 after being locked in a small shower.

“I can’t take it no more, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again,’’ he screamed over and over, according to a grievance complaint from a fellow inmate, as Rainey was allegedly locked in a shower with the scalding water turned on full blast.

A 50-year-old mentally ill inmate at the Dade Correctional Institution, Rainey was pulled into the locked shower by prison guards as punishment after defecating in his cell and refusing to clean it up, said the fellow inmate, who worked as an orderly. He was left there unattended for more than an hour as the narrow chamber filled with steam and water.

When guards finally checked on prisoner 060954, he was on his back and dead. His skin was so burned that it had shriveled from his body, a condition referred to as slippage, according to a medical document involving the death. Continue reading...

Darren Rainey's autopsy was carried out more than a year and a half ago, but the Medical Examiner has not yet ruled on the cause of death, according to the Miami Herald,  “because the police probe has been pending.” 


Saturday, May 24, 2014, 8:00 am  ·  By George Lavender

Deaths on Rikers Island Raise Concerns for Mentally Ill Prisoners

Recent deaths at the Rikers Island complex in New York have raised concerns about the treatment of prisoners with mental health issues   US Geological Survey

Two deaths on Rikers Island have raised concerns about the treatment of prisoners with mental health issues inside New York City's largest jail. Writing in the New York Daily News, former corrections commissioner Bernard Kerick said something was “very wrong” at the jail.

With assaults on the rise and two mentally ill inmates dying after acting out and then being neglected in their cells, as officers allegedly ignored their calls for help, it’s clear the system is again spinning out of control.

Kerick was responding to a report by the Associated Press that a prisoner with mental health issues had died after being left alone in a cell for seven days. 

After a mentally ill Bradley Ballard made a lewd gesture to a female guard at the Rikers Island jail, he was locked in his cell alone for seven increasingly agitated days in which he was denied some of his medication, clogged his toilet so that it overflowed, stripped off his clothes and tied a rubber band tightly around his genitals.

During that period, guards passed Ballard’s cell in the mental observation unit dozens of times, peering through the window in the steel door but never venturing inside — until it was too late.

The 39-year-old Ballard was eventually found naked and unresponsive on the floor, covered in feces, his genitals swollen and badly infected. He was rushed to a hospital but died hours later.

“He didn’t have to leave this world like that. They could have put him in a mental hospital, got him some treatment,” Ballard’s mother, Beverly Ann Griffin, said from her Houston, Texas, home. “He was a caring young man.” Continue reading...

Ballard died on September 11th, just five months before another Rikers prisoner “baked to death” in an overheated cell. According to the Associated Press, Jerome Murdough was arrested for trespassing in February, after sleeping in the stairwell of a public housing building. 


Friday, May 23, 2014, 8:00 am  ·  By George Lavender

County Sheriffs Refuse to Comply with ICE Holds

Alameda, Calif., became the latest county to announce that it would no longer keep undocumented immigrants in jail at the request of immigration authorities alone. Wednesday's announcement by the sheriff's department means Alameda will no longer comply with detainers issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Announcing the change, Sheriff's Capt. Colby Staysa ordered anyone currently in jail solely because of an “immigration hold” to be released immediately. 

Alameda follows neighboring Contra Costa county, as well as counties in Washington, Colorado, and Oregon, who have decided not to comply with so-called “ICE detainers” after a federal judge in Oregon ruled that Clackamas County had violated a detainee's Fourth Amendment rights by holding her without probable cause. That came on top of an earlier decision by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals which ruled that law enforcement agencies are not required to honor the detainers, and that the decision to do so is voluntary.


Sunday, May 18, 2014, 8:00 am  ·  By George Lavender

Sixty Years After Brown v Board of Education, Racism Persists in Prison System says Attorney General

Attorney General Holder's rhetoric has marked a shift away from the "War on Drugs"   Official portrait of United States Attorney General Eric Holder, Wikimedia

Attorney General Eric Holder used the 60th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education, to address “the struggle that still must be waged” for racial justice in the criminal justice system. On May 17th 1954 the Supreme Court overturned the doctrine of “separate but equal” schooling, established almost six decades earlier under Plessy v Ferguson. 

Since the era of Brown, laws making classifications based on race have been subjected to a legal standard known as “strict scrutiny.” Almost invariably, these statutes, when tested, fail to pass constitutional muster. But there are other policies that too easily escape such scrutiny because they have the appearance of being race-neutral. Their impacts, however, are anything but. This is the concern we must contend with today: policies that impede equal opportunity in fact, if not in form.

Speaking to students at Morgan State University, Maryland, Holder returned to an issue he himself has previously referred to as “the school-to-prison pipeline.”   

Codified segregation of public schools has been barred since Brown. But in too many of our school districts, significant divisions persist and segregation has reoccurred – including zero-tolerance school discipline practices that, while well-intentioned and aimed at promoting school safety, affect black males at a rate three times higher than their white peers.

In an apparent reference to the public outcry over comments by Clipper's owner Donald Sterling, Holder cautioned against focussing solely on overt displays of racism, and instead urged his audience to look at the subtler forms of racism that still exist. The Attorney General took issue with Chief Justice John Roberts, for arguing that “the path to ending racial discrimination is to give less consideration to the issue of race altogether.” Quoting another Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, Holder suggested that “(T)he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.”