The Prison Complex

Thursday, Oct 9, 2014, 9:42 am  ·  By George Lavender

OverCriminalized: Alternatives to Incarceration?

Kilee Lowe from “Nowhere to go but Jail” by Brave New Films.  

America's prisons and jails are filled with people arrested for crimes connected to homelessness, mental health issues, and drug addiction. “Overcriminalized,” a series of videos from Brave New Films launching today spotlights attempts to offer alternatives to incarceration in three cities: Salt Lake City, Utah, Seattle, Washington, and San Antonio, Texas. 

Nowhere to go but Jail 

In 2014 100 cities criminalized sitting or lying in public places. “The homeless end up in criminal justice systems, because there hasn't been a better alternative” says Lloyd Pendleton, Director of Utah Homeless Task Force. Salt Lake City adopted a “Housing First” approach to homelessness. As Gordon Walker, Director of Housing and Community Development in the city explains that means “instead of asking people to change their lives before we gave them housing, we chose to give them housing, along with the supportive services and then allow them to change their lives if they wanted.”

The War on People

“I really can't remember what the first thing I got arrested for (was)” says Misti Barrickman as she recalls a long list of drug related arrests. Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, is a pre-booking diversion program for minor drug offenses that provides people in the Seattle, Washington area with treatment programs. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “drug arrests in Seattle fell more than 30 percent from 2010 to 2011 – and local jail populations appear to be declining too” at least in part due to LEAD. The Drug Policy Alliance also praised the program for marking a shift away from an “enforcement-first” approach to one focused on health. 


Wednesday, Oct 8, 2014, 11:38 am  ·  By George Lavender

Former Chicago Police Commander Accused of Torture Released from Prison

Marks on the ear of Andrew Wilson, left by alligator clips used to electrocute him   Peoples Law Office

Jon Burge, the former Chicago police commander accused of systematically torturing black prisoners for decades, was released last week after three and a half years in prison.

Federal prosecutors alleged that between 1972 and 1991 Burge was in charge of a group of police officers called the “Midnight Crew.” Many of those detained by Burge and his officers later testified that they had been subject to beatings, burnings, mock executions, suffocation, and, as the Chicago Tribune reports, electrocution

“Holmes, a former Black Gangster Disciples leader, was arrested by Burge in 1973 and taken to a South Side police station, where detectives hooked him up to an electrical box, put a bag over his head and shocked him until he confessed to a murder he says he did not commit. Holmes said he still remembers Burge in his ear, calling him the “N” word and warning him, “Don’t you bite through that bag.” Continue reading...

Another prisoner, Andrew Wilson, also testified that Burge and another detective had tortured him after he was arrested for the murder of two Chicago police officers.

"Burge came in and said, 'Fun time,'" Wilson testified. With that, he and another detective shocked him repeatedly and pressed him against a hot radiator. Burge later brought out a second device that looked like a curling iron but had a wire sticking out of it, he said.

"He jabbed that in my back, and you got the full jolt," Wilson testified. "He stopped because I was spitting blood."

Wilson testified that he eventually confessed to the murders after Burge told him he would be tortured again if he did not make a statement. Continue reading...

Wilson was originally sentenced to death before the state supreme court threw out his conviction. He was convicted again in his second trial and sentenced to life in prison. The alleged torture of several arrestees who were later placed on death row was cited as a factor in Governor Andrew Ryan's decision to issue a blanket commutation to all Illinois prisoners awaiting execution. Wilson died in prison in 2007. As John Conroy of the Chicago Reader describes, Wilson filed multiple court cases against the police for the treatment he experienced.

Wilson's case was pivotal, not simply because he won it in the end but because of what it led to—the exposure of a torture ring. In February 1989, during the first civil trial, one of Burge's colleagues began sending anonymous letters to the People's Law Office in police department envelopes. He or she listed the names of "Burge's Asskickers" at Area Two and said Wilson wasn't the only torture victim. Continue reading...

Burge and the other officers involved were protected, as John Conroy describes by the “willing blindness of state and federal prosecutors and then by the statute of limitations.” Burge was eventually convicted by federal prosecutors of lying in a civil case when he denied knowledge of the abuse. After serving time in a minimum security prison in South Carolina he will reportedly now go to a half-way house in Florida.


Friday, Sep 26, 2014, 4:21 pm  ·  By George Lavender

US Prisons Guilty of Censorship Says Report to UN

America (The Book) by the Daily Show host Jon Stewart is one of the books included in a 2011 list compiled by the Texas Civil Rights Project of books banned in Texas prisons.  

Botticelli, Caravaggio, Cezanne, Dali, Da Vinci, Gaugin, Goya, Kahlo, Magritte, Matisse,Michelangelo, Miro, Modigliani, Picasso, Raphael, Ray, Rembrandt... The list goes on. But this isn't a reading list for a fine arts class, it's a list of artists whose work is banned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).

According to a joint report to the United Nations' (UN) Universal Periodic Review by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) and Freemuse US prisons are guilty of censorship of books.

Texas, one of the largest corrections systems in the country, allows prisoners to receive books from publishers. As the report describes, when books arrive at the prison, they are first checked by the mailroom officer to see if they are on a list of approved books.

The mailroom officer decides whether they are objectionable by determining whether they 1) contain contraband; 2) contain information about manufacturing explosives, drugs or weapons; 3) are written “solely for the purpose of ” “achiev[ing] the breakdown of prisons” through strikes, riots, or gang activity; 4) encourage “deviant criminal sexual behavior ”; 5) contain instructions on how to set up “criminal schemes; or, 6) contain “sexually explicit images.” Continue reading...

The NCAC and Freemuse report found that of the 11,851 total blocked titles in Texas, 7,061 were blocked for “deviant sexual behavior ” and 543 for “sexually explicit images.” The reports authors conclude “To survey the list of works banned by the TDCJ is to appreciate the dangers of the broad discretionary powers granted to prison officials under the concept of 'legitimate penological interest'.”


Wednesday, Sep 24, 2014, 12:21 am  ·  By George Lavender

Despite Anti-Shackling Laws Pregnant Prisoners Are Still Being Put In Handcuffs and Chains

"Pennsylvania Corrections' own records show pregnant women were shackled 109 times in the 2012— 2013 fiscal year. And that's just in jails that report it."   Image by (cc) Flickr user Thisisbossi

Carolyn Sufrin still remembers the first time she saw someone give birth in shackles.

In 2003 Sufrin was a resident in training as an Ob/Gyn in Pittsburgh. “I delivered a baby of a woman who was shackled in bed” she told Making Contact's Lisa Bartfai in 2013, “and it was an extremely traumatic experience for me as a doctor, and also for the patient.”

According to Sufrin, shackling pregnant women could make responding to medical emergencies extremely difficult. “In those moments we don’t have time to be negotiating with a guard or a correctional officer to say, 'Hey you mind just unlocking those handcuffs, those restraints?'”

The American Medical Association adopted a resolution in 2010 to prohibit the shackling of women during labor and a growing number of states have introduced at least some legal limitations on the use of shackles on pregnant prisoners.

Pennsylvania passed a law prohibiting the shackling of pregnant inmates after their second trimester in 2010 but in a report for WHYY in partnership with The Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, Audrey Quinn found that enforcing the law has been complicated.

Earlier this year the Pennsylvania ACLU reported hospital staff across the state still saying they see inmates coming in to give birth with handcuffs on. Pennsylvania Corrections' own records show pregnant women were shackled 109 times in the 2012— 2013 fiscal year. And that's just in jails that report it.

"Now we're just working to get it implemented effectively," says Pennsylvania state senator Daylin Leach, the primary author of the anti-shackling bill.

But doesn't the passage of a law mean that progress will be made?

Leach gives a tired laugh. "The fact is, he says, "when you do pass new legislation you do have to notify people as to the requirements of that legislation. Particularly the people who are going to be dealing with that legislation."

To some people, not shackling pregnant women seems like a no-brainer. But to many corrections workers, this goes against a very basic tenet of prison life: when an inmate gets escorted off prison grounds, they get shackled. Continue reading... 

Reporter Audrey Quinn submitted freedom of information requests to Blair County Prison, for records of pregnant inmate shackling.


Sunday, Sep 21, 2014, 6:10 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Thirty Two Florida Prison Guards Fired Amid Allegations of Abuse

Florida's prison chief took the drastic measure of firing thirty two prison guards on Friday amid widespread accusations of criminal wrongdoing and misconduct in the state's prison system. The Miami Herald reports that many of those fired were connected with suspicious deaths in custody

Eighteen of those fired by Secretary Michael Crews were involved in the death of Matthew Walker at Charlotte Correctional Institution on April 11. Walker, 55, was killed in what the DOC is calling an “inappropriate use of force.”

Five other fired corrections officers from Union Correctional had been accused of using excessive force in the death of inmate Rudolf Rowe on Aug. 16, 2012. Continue reading... 

Among those dismissed on Friday was Rollin Suttle Austin. In 2010, a prisoner at Franklin Correctional, Randall Jordan-Aparo, died after being gassed on Austin's orders. An investigation by Florida Law Enforcement found that Jordan-Aparo's death was unrelated to the gassing.

Austin remained on the job for three years, until a team of prison system inspectors visited Franklin to look into unrelated wrongdoing and stumbled onto the circumstances behind Jordan-Aparo’s death, calling it a case of “sadistic, retaliatory” behavior by guards. Continue reading... 

Jordan-Aparo's death is now under investigation by the US Department of Justice. The Miami Herald's investigation found Austin's personnel file contained multiple allegations of wrongdoing.

Austin allegedly operated very much the way corrections officers have been trained for decades, according to Ron McAndrew, a prison consultant who studied the phenomenon of “goon squads’’ while he was warden at Florida State Prison in Starke in 1998.

McAndrew testified in legislative hearings that “goon squads” of guards have long roamed Florida’s prisons, attacking inmates and enforcing vigilante justice, while higher-ups turned a blind eye, as they did in 1999 when a squad of guards beat and killed Death Row inmate Frank Valdes.

McAndrew said the sheer number of Austin’s complaints — and the similar pattern of abuse alleged in them — should have been a red flag to his superiors at the prison and in Tallahassee. Continue reading.. 

As reported here at The Prison Complex, Florida's prisons have faced increased scrutiny in the wake of the 2012 death of Darren Rainey. Rainey, who was diagnosed with mental health issues, was allegedly locked in a scalding hot shower by prison guards as punishment for defecating in his cell. When his body was found an hour later, “his skin was so burned that it had shriveled from his body, a condition referred to as slippage” the Herald reports.


Tuesday, Sep 16, 2014, 2:33 am  ·  By George Lavender

Forty Years in Solitary: Two of the Angola Three Sue Louisiana Prison Officials

(L to R) Albert Woodfox, who is suing prison officials in Louisiana after more than 40 years in solitary confinement, and Herman Wallace, who died in 2013 three days after being released from prison, also after decades in solitary.  

Albert Woodfox has been in solitary confinement for much of the past 40 years.  Along with Herman Wallace and Robert King, Woodfox is one of the “Angola Three,” three members of the Black Panther Party who spent much of their lives in solitary confinement inside the walls of Louisiana State Prison, Angola. King was released in 2001, after 29 years in solitary confinement. Wallace, who was recently featured in the documentary film “Herman's House,” died in 2013, three days after his release from prison. The last member of the Angola Three still incarcerated, Woodfox launched a lawsuit to challenge his continued solitary confinement, and along with Robert King, is seeking damages from prison officials. The family of Herman Wallace, settled with the state. 

The Prison Complex caught up with George Kendall Director of the Public Defender Initiative, at Squire Patton Boggs, who is working on the case.


Friday, Sep 5, 2014, 4:33 pm  ·  By George Lavender

California Jails Forcing Women to Take Pregnancy Tests Face Legal Challenge

One of the largest correctional facilities in the US, California's Santa Rita jail requires female prisoners to undergo a pregnancy test.  

Women inside Alameda County jails in California are being forced to undergo pregnancy tests. As  Susie Cagle  on RH Reality Check reports, “no one can say for exactly how long Alameda County jails have been forcing arrested women to take pregnancy tests, and no one can really explain why.”

In June, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed a lawsuit against the county sheriff's department challenging the practice. 

“If the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department is genuinely concerned about the health of women in their custody, voluntary pregnancy testing should be administered as part of a comprehensive health exam,” said Elizabeth Gill, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “Forcing a woman to take a pregnancy test is a clear violation of a person’s constitutional rights, as well as a violation of other state law.” Continue reading..  

Cagle reported on mandatory pregnancy testing in Alameda, after her own arrest while covering the Oakland General Strike in 2011. She writes, “the story of Alameda’s mandatory pregnancy tests is really the story of how U.S. prisons have grappled with an influx of young women over the past four decades: with supreme incompetence and intermittent malice.” 

One after another, women held at Alameda County jails told me similar tales of coercion and confusion, regardless of their alleged crime or their personal medical history. (The women all asked to remain anonymous.)

“They made me take one even though I’m infertile, told them so, and even though that could have easily been verified with one phone call. They had a woman cop watch me pee, I think because I had indicated I didn’t want to take a pregnancy test,” one woman told me in a written message.

“They told me it was because ‘Glen Dyer can’t hold women, so all women being held at Glen Dyer need to take a pregnancy test,’ which didn’t make any sense,” wrote another. 

“It struck me for the first time when I was forced to pee in the cup, that I really could be coerced to do things that I didn’t want to do, and that it didn’t take much either. I was pretty furious that even my own bodily fluids were not my own,” a third woman wrote in her prison diary, which she shared with me. Continue reading...

The ACLU court case is expected to be heard this fall. The reason for testing in the first place remains unclear. It's also not apparent whether the testing was done at the behest of the sheriff or the private company managing healthcare in the jails.


Thursday, Sep 4, 2014, 8:45 pm  ·  By George Lavender

North Carolina’s Longest-Serving Death Row Prisoner Released

Henry Lee McCollum spent thirty years on North Carolina's death row before his conviction was vacated this week  

North Carolina's longest serving death row prisoner was freed this week after 30 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Henry Lee McCollum and his half-brother, Leon Brown, who had been serving a life-sentence for the same crime, were released on Wednesday. The two half-brothers' sentences were vacated after DNA evidence implicated another man in the 1983 rape and murder of an 11 year old girl. 

As Slate reports, their convictions were based in large part on false confessions.

McCollum and Brown were 19 and 15 at the time local police were investigating the murder of Sabrina Buie. Both confessed to the crime after lengthy police interrogations. They recanted shortly after—in fact McCollum has recanted 226 times—but were convicted, largely on the basis of the false confessions, even though no physical evidence connected them to the crime scene. Police also hid exculpatory evidence for years. Continue reading..

The majority of false confessions documented by the National Registry of Exonerations, occurred in homicide investigations. Samuel Gross, editor of the registry, told The Prison Complex:

..this is a reflection of “the fact that far greater resources are expended on investigating homicides than other cases.” This produces a higher clearance rate “but in addition it also produces a higher rate of false positives, of errors. Put a lot more effort into it you get more convictions you also get a higher number of false convictions.”

It might be hard to understand why someone would confess to a crime they did not commit, but there are some common factors. Dahlia Lithwick at Slate points to a 2011 article by Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia Law School, which seeks to explain how those false confessions come about. 

Because detailed confessions represent such powerful evidence, when defense attorneys tried to challenge the confession evidence they all failed. This was true even when there were some clear signs that these were confessions proffered by vulnerable people who may have been subject to highly coercive techniques. Of those 40 exonerees who confessed, for instance, 14 were mentally disabled or borderline mentally disabled, and three more (at least) were mentally ill. Thirteen of the 40 were juveniles. All but four were interrogated for more than three hours at a sitting. Seven described their involvement in the crime as coming to them in a "dream" or "vision." Seven were told they had failed polygraph tests. Like Sterling, all of them waived their Miranda rights. Despite all these hints that their confessions were lengthy and coercive, and despite the fact that they were mostly vulnerable individuals, none had any luck challenging their confessions before trial. The confessions were thought to be such powerful evidence of guilt that eight were convicted despite DNA tests at trial that in fact excluded them as the culprit. Continue reading..

Both McCollum and Brown, who have intellectual disabilities, were interrogated by police without an attorney present. 


Monday, Sep 1, 2014, 5:20 pm  ·  By George Lavender

California Moves to Change Solitary Confinement for Mentally Ill Prisoners

Mentally ill prisoners held in isolation in California will be housed in separate units away from other prisoners under a plan to improve care and comply with a court order, the Los Angeles Times reports. 

The cellblocks — while still isolating prisoners from the rest of the population and largely from one another — will increase the time those inmates are allowed outside their cells and the amount of treatment they receive.

In an undated memo to wardens filed in court Friday, state prisons director Michael Stainer described an intent to "offer a robust mental health program" within what he called "alternative segregated housing."

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton immediately accepted the plan, submitted as part of a long-running class-action lawsuit, commending both the state and inmate lawyers for the "substantial effort." Continue reading...

As the New York Times reports, California incarcerates large numbers of mentally ill people. 

Prisons and jails around the country have seen the numbers of mentally ill inmates increase as state hospitals have closed and community mental health services have been reduced by budget cuts. California is no exception. More than 27 percent of male prisoners and almost 38 percent of female prisoners suffer from mental illness, according to department statistics. Continue reading...


Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014, 3:31 pm  ·  By George Lavender

How Many People Are Convicted of Crimes They Didn’t Commit?

Michael Phillips with his family after an exoneration hearing in July.   Via the Dallas County District Attorney’s office (@dallas_da)

The answer is: We don't know.

“The great majority of people convicted of criminal offenses are guilty,” says Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations and a law professor at the University of Michigan, “but the great majority are not everyone.”

This year the National Registry of Exonerations, the only body tracking exonerations nationally, has already recorded more than 50 cases in which “a person who has been convicted of a crime is officially cleared based on new evidence of innocence.” The interactive list ranges from people in prison for a matter of years to some incarcerated for decades and shows a steady rise in the number of recorded exonerations over the last two decades.


As reported here at The Prison Complex, there have been a string of high-profile exoneration cases this year.

Just last month Michael Phillips took a step towards clearing his name having previously been convicted in the 1990 rape of a 16 year-old girl in Dallas, Texas. His exoneration was highly unusual because it took place as the result of a review by the prosecutor's office, not because of legal action on Phillips' behalf. As the Washington Post reports, Phillips even plead guilty to the original crime.

Phillips pleaded guilty because, he said later, his attorney told him that as a black man who had been accused of raping a white teenager, he should try to avoid a jury trial. He went to prison for a dozen years and, after his release, spent another six months in jail after failing to register as a sex offender. Continue reading...

Exonerations can offer a limited insight into the wider issue of wrongful convictions. The National Registry of Exonerations currently lists 1,409 cases. According to Gross his team have got better at tracking the number of exonerations, but he says “the great majority of wrongful convictions never come to light at all. Exonerations are a minority of the people convicted.”