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Chicago is focusing on the release of Nicole Harris, who 'confessed' to killing her son after being held 27 hours by police. Today she is free, "after serving seven years of a thirty year sentence. Her conviction in the death of her son, Jaquari, was overturned by a federal appeals court last October and earlier this month the 7th Court of Appeals ordered Harris’s release." Meanwhile, her life, her family's life, and the taxpayers of Illinois have all suffered. Maybe it's time to stop rewarding police for confessions and instead reward them for mediations, truth, etc. http://wrongfulconvictionsblog.org/2013/02/26/coerced-confessions-obscure-justice/
Andre Thomas is making the news in Texas Tribune. He's on death row, except he's blind after gouging out both eyes and hears God telling him things--like to murder his wife and children, and pluck out his eyes. Texas Ct of Criminal Appeals said "Thomas is “clearly ‘crazy’ but he is also ‘sane’ under Texas law,” because a jury had concluded he knew right from wrong at the time of his crime. Yup. The answer to mental illness in the 60s was that communities would rush in and help all those kicked out of mental institutions. "In 1955, there were 500,000 patients in psychiatric hospitals nationwide, said Lynda Frost, director of planning and programs at the University of Texas at Austin’s Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. In 2000, there were 59,000." http://www.texastribune.org/2013/02/20/andre-thomas-mental-health-and-criminal-justice-co/
Bruce Western, Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, is highlighted both on the cover and the inside story on "The Prison Problem." "We may have skimped on welfare, but we paid anyway, splurging on police and prisons. Dollars diverted from education and employment found their way to prison construction." Perhaps this unusual coverage will help Harvard graduates better understand causes, conditions, and solutions to mass incarceration.
March/April 2013, The Harvard Magazine, p. 38-43
When you read that inmates have gone on a hunger strike, you have to know conditions are really, really intolerable. They know they'll be punished with solitary. What what has these inmates so upset? "Among other complaints, the hunger strikers at Pontiac (which is the oldest prison in Illinois and the eighth-oldest in the country) have stated that Plexiglas barriers placed on their cell doors, installed recently supposedly to increase security, are preventing their rooms from being heated. Inmates are protesting as well against a lack of necessities, such as the forms required for them to receive visits, legal-sized envelopes, cleaning supplies and hygiene products. Inmates have claimed that they are charged $5 to use items like nail clippers, and that these utensils are not sterilized between uses, even though some of the prisoners have communicable diseases." http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/02/19/pris-f19.html
Writing on Corrections.com blog, Carl ToersBijns (retired prison system manager, etc.) investigates how the state and private industry can work together to create better prisons. It isn't easy, and it requires a lot of oversight:
A formerly incarcerated woman describes the suicide path of a 16-yr-old girl who bounced into and out of a New York prison. "Get out of prison, go report to parole, go to Credo, (drug and alcohol counseling), go to mental health, get a job, pay your rent, don’t drive till we say you can, pay parole, pay credo, be home at curfew. You give up because it is all to stressful, can’t get a decent job because you are just out of prison and no one wants to hire you, zero job programs or training programs for parolees. One can’t even go to VESID (vocational training) until 6 months after you get out of prison and by then it is usually too late." These people need our help. http://solitarywatch.com/2013/02/18/voices-from-solitary-disciplined-into-madness-and-death/
So California is closing prisons and shifting inmates--into already crowded prisons. Victoria Law, of Truthout, is doing the new math: "In December 2011, on the heels of the US Supreme Court's decision that the overcrowding in the California state prison system is unconstitutional, the CDCR proposed converting Valley State to a men's prison and transferring its women and transsexual prisoners to the neighboring Central California Women's Facility (CCWF). That month, CCWF was at 160 percent capacity with 3215 people. 'The CDCR has been talking about gender-responsive and gender-humane prisons. They said that women have different needs than men, but look at us now - women are overcrowded with eight to a room,' Wendy stated. A room, according to the Merced Sun-Star, is 348 square feet."
Bradley Schwartz, once lawyer, then once inmate, is detailing his experiences in a continuing blog, Prisonpath.com. Terrific insider info! One suggestion I'm passing along because it relates to prison conditions and grievances: don't snitch. But then, how do you write a grievance if someone is doing you wrong? That conundrum is part of the daily challenge of an inmate's life, and not one for an easy, flippant answer. http://www.prisonpath.com/what-is-prison-really-like?goback=%2Egde_69017_member_214145203
The Texas legislature cut 20% of law school's clinic budgets last time around. Texas does not fund a state-wide Innocence Program, as some other states do. We need that funding restored, and even increased. Turns out many an inmate shouldn't be inside, using our tax dollars, wasting his/her life. If mere research and the will for justice count, then these students deserve funds.
Super Bowl means more to the captive audiences behind bars than it means to most free-world households. Sports Illustrated recently ran an essay from an exonoree, explaining that "sports are crucial to survival." Sports allowed Jeff Deskovic "to leave the prison for a while, even if in my own mind." Critics who want to unplug prison TVs need to re-think their positions: having a few out-of-prison fantasies may keep the inmates sane.
One year ago, Ohio's Lake Erie Correctional Facility was taken over by the the Corrections
Corporation of America's (CCA). "CCA's track record over the last year at Lake Erie amounts to an across-the
board failure: burdening the local community, failing to control the escalation
of dangerous conditions within prison walls, all the while ratcheting up costs
despite big promises of efficiency." Who let this happen? "The compliance rating plummeted from the 97.3% compliance rating the prison
achieved when publicly-owned to 66.7%. Auditors found outrageous
violations like prisoners being forced to use plastic bags for defecation
and cups for urination because they had no running water for toilets. Basic
conditions were heinous, with black mold, standing water, and spoiled food found
throughout the prison. Perhaps even more troubling were reports that the medical
department is grossly understaffed and many prisoners go untreated." http://www.aclu.org/blog/prisoners-rights/states-should-run-screaming-cca-avoid-dangerous-and-disgusting-prisons
State by state, sanity may overtake former prison policies. The New York State Bar Association has passed a resolution against the lengthy, and frequently unnecessary, use of prolonged solitary confinement. The Association believes solitary offends not "just the conscience, but the Constitution." They write, "solitary confinement, if used at all, should be measured in days, not years, months, or even weeks, ensuring that all prisoners, regardless of their conditions of confinement, have some minimal measure of interactive activity so that their psyche does not begin to deteriorate." http://solitarywatch.com/2013/01/30/state-bar-association-calls-on-new-york-to-profoundly-restrict-its-use-of-solitary-confinement/#more-7683
Special Master Matthew Lopes is investigating California prisons at the courts' request. He wants to see all 33 state prisons but has seen only one--enough to make him argue against Gov. Brown's request to end court supervision of the state prisons. "The problem of inmate suicides … must be resolved before the remedial phase of the Coleman case can be ended," Lopes wrote, referring to the 2001 lawsuit that led to the appointment of a special master. "The gravity of this problem calls for further intervention. To do any less and to wait any longer risks further loss of lives." The prison system is responding with a 609-page report. Yep!
The state closed 100 crowded beds, and Gov. Jerry Brown now wants the courts out of the prisons, and calls any further improvements to the California system "nitpicking." Wait a minute, insists those who investigate: "a court-appointed monitor said in papers filed last week that Mr. Brown’s demand to end oversight is “not only premature, but a needless distraction” that could affect care for mentally ill inmates. The monitor cited dozens of suicides and long periods of isolation instead of treatment.
His defense lawyers believe they have proven 10 times over that Larry Swearingen was in jail when he supposedly murdered Melissa Trotter. State prosecutors and the courts have agreed to DNA testing, but--they can't agree on when the testing will be done. Because he is scheduled to be executed Feb. 27, Swearinger is rather involved in the disagreement. Specifically, the defense wants the labs to take more time and perform sophisticated tests; that could change the execution date.
Miami-Glade, never a forerunner of prison innovation, has nevertheless announced it would begin serving kosher meals to any Jews who request them. Officials promise that kosher food will soon extend to women's prisons and other facilities with a large portion of Jewish inhabitants.
Is it "frivolous and excessive" to ask for more than 100 free pages to be copied toward an inmate's law suits? The Utah prison system has decided so. They point out that much of the requested information can be accessed through interviews, etc. But at least one committee member questions why at least the prison system manuals aren't kept available in the libraries so inmates can read them there. http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/55286729-78/records-inmates-policy-inmate.html.csp
It's taken a major budget crisis and numerous examples of million-dollar cases, but the Texas Legislature is actually looking at the stringent procedures that keep terminally ill patients within the cells. Head of the parole system, Rissie Owens, is frequently quoted as saying these prisoners are known to have miraculous recoveries and commit new crimes; perhaps the legislature can investigate how many do actually pick up their pallets and walk into crime.
If you were governor of a state that was under federal orders to reduce prison overcrowding, what would you do? California's Jerry Brown has decided to change the definition of overcrowding. Yep. "The state said its 33 prisons on average are at 149.4% of design capacity. Nearly half of the individual prisons are much higher than that: 172% at North Kern State Prison, 187% at the Central California Women’s Facility, and the men’s section of Valley State Prison in Chowchilla is now at almost 352%." Gov. Brown thinks that the state "has improved living conditions within its prisons to the point it no longer needs to meet court-ordered caps on prison crowding."
Should inmates work while they're in prison? Some critics of work programs see them as modern slave factories, where an inmate earns, perhaps, $0.81/hr. In California, one program that teamed with trades unions taught the inmates a skill, and helped them get employed upon release. But the State has run out of money, so the program is being discontinued. The recidivism rate for inmates who succeed in the program is astonishing low; perhaps critics should re-think their position and urge the states to offer them everywhere.
Washington state has opened new programs to help those in isolation units earn their way out.
"At Clallam Bay, the path out of isolation runs through the color-coded tiers of the Intensive Transition Program (ITP), housed since 2006 in a unit originally built for juveniles.
About 30 inmates, all volunteers, agree to a nine-month program stocked with coursework such as "moral recognition therapy" and "self-repair," gradually earning more freedoms." Some are former gang members; some are mentally ill. http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2020081649_prison08m.html
Policy varies from state to state, from Warden to Warden. Despite the First Amendment, Public Information Officers of prisons can ban the public from knowing what is happening inside prisons, and that can't be all good now, can it? Jessica Pupovac, investigating prison journalists' access to prisons for her master's thesis, uncovered a wild array of policies and yet, and yet taxpayers spend approximately $74 BILLION on state and federal prison systems annually. Yet the public can't know how the dollars are spent?
Prison Grievances: when to write, how to write, offers both entertainment and education. In this section of the blog, I'll offer you pieces of the book so you can understand what all the tooting and rooting are about. It's a good book. 10/4/12. You can't write a grievance without understanding the Prison Litigation Reform Act. It requires, for instance, that you must first talk over your problem with a prison officer BEFORE you write the grievance (except in cases of injury or fear of death). That way, the officer has an opportunity to correct the problem before you take it to the Grievance Committee. 10/9/12. If the talk doesn't take care of your problem,then you MUST write a grievance. In Texas, that's a Step 1. In the federal prisons, the counselor will give you a BP 9. Answer all the questions. Be as specific as you can. Do NOT include legal jargon. 11/1/12. Make only one claim per grievance. 11/5/12. Do not repeat the grievance before the listed time is up. If it is an emergency, then go ahead! Otherwise, give the system time to respond. 11/14/12. If your problem is not resolved, and you see a flaw in the answer, then you can file a second grievance--but only about the problem in the answer: the reader got the facts wrong, the answer did not match your problem, etc. Do not write a second grievance that repeats your initial complaint--it won't get you anywhere. 1/20/13. If you get no response at all to a grievance, even after the allowed extension, then file the Step 2 with an explanation about the missing response. No, really, the main office is not under the control of the unit bosses (or Martians), and they will actually read your grievance. 2/14/13. Yes, a form-response is frustrating. It is difficult to balance the requirement to 'be specific' with the requirement 'keep it short with no attachments.' So your game plan: always include who-did what-to whom-when. Then mention the number of witnesses, for instance, but offer to discuss those details.
INFORMATION Behind the Walls. Jorge Antonio Renaud (University of North Texas Press, 2002). Should be required reading for families who need information on the practical aspects of prison life. With 24 chapters on elements of prison life (living quarters, craft shop, discipline), the book provides a comprehensive overview with marvelous concrete detail. I found the Apendices especially useful (custody level, medical/dental, libraray, commissary, recreation, good time, parole, officials, and resources). Do you know the difference between GP and PC? You will when you buy and read this book. Special mention: many formerly incarcerated have written about prisons; most can't write. Mr. Renaud was a journalist before his missteps, and the book is a delightful, easy read.
GRAPHIC NOVELS sentences: the life of M.F. Grimm. author Percy Carey, artist Ronald Wimberly (DC Comics, 2007). 5 Star, champagne flight best ever. The decline and fall of a former Sesame Street star is just as compelling as the edgy, unusual art. Although this book chronicles the life, the second life, the fall, and the eventual redemption of a rapper, prison conditions are always front and center. Would-be, wanna-bees need to read this graphic novel. If it doesn't spell out the consequences of fast money and bad decisions, then nothing will.
MEMOIRS Prisoner of Conscience: a memoir. Kenneth Kennon (XLibris, 2001). Could there be a more inlikely inmate than a Christian minister who was arrested for silently marching against the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia? Rev. Kennon intended to protest; he did not intend to go to federal prison for 6 months. This almost-daily log of impressions, insight, and poetry can help families understand the long, long days, the daily insults, the joy of receiving mail. Unexpected humor both in the prison and in Rev. Kennon's writing is especially endearing: a transportation guard asked him what a prisoner of "con-science" is; he had seen posters the Reverend's friends held up as he walked through the gates. Perhaps any word that begins "con" catches the eye?
This box will have reviews of some of my favorite books, movies and whatever else I might discover. Please send me your favorites, and I'll review them!