Tag Archive: prison reform

After Obama Clemencies, Activists Question Scope of Bipartisan Prison “Reform”


From Truth Out/ By Victoria Law

On July 13, President Barack Obama granted commutations to 46 people, including 13 serving life sentences, in federal prisons for nonviolent drug offenses. More than 35,000 people, or 17 percent of the federal prison population, have applied for early release since his administration announced its Clemency Project for people in federal prisons for nonviolent drug offenses in 2014.

“We’re at a moment where some good people in both parties, Republicans and Democrats, and folks across the country, are coming together around ideas to make the system work smarter, make it work better,” the president said in a Facebook video posted July 13.

Less than three weeks earlier, on June 25, 2015, Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) and Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) introduced the Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective (SAFE) Justice Act. The bill calls for allowing sentence reductions for federal drug war prisoners, a move which could potentially affect half of the current federal prison population.

The latest in bipartisan criminal legal reforms, the act has been championed by organizations from the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union to the Koch brothers, the Police Foundation and Right on Crime. But, notes Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which also supports the act, “The bill does not repeal any federal mandatory minimum sentences or reduce drug mandatory minimum sentences across the board, but instead limits the application of federal mandatory minimum drug sentences to the highest-level offenders, as Congress originally intended.” (more…)

Bipartisan Unity on Mass Incarceration: Opportunity or Sidetrack for Movement Building?


From Truth Out / By James Kilgore

Mass incarceration continues to trend. As Heather Thompson, professor of history at the University of Michigan and leading scholar on the Attica prison rebellion, told Truthout, “Three years ago to talk about incarceration was like you were talking Latin.” No more.

The past year has offered us a cavalcade of conferences, webinars, nonprofit startups, media events, potential and actual legislation along with feel-good moments where everyone from Rand Paul to Eric Holder jumped on the bandwagon of criminal “justice” reform. While this has been a process, two events do stand out.

The first was the extravagant Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform in Washington, DC, in March. The unlikely collection of sponsors included the Koch brothers, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and Van Jones’ nonprofit #cut50 (as in reduce the incarcerated population by 50 percent in 10 years). Additional support came from partnering organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance, the Sentencing Project and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

The summit, emceed by Jones, brought together an array of superstar speakers from various parts of the political spectrum: Newt Gingrich; conservative Georgia governor Nathan Deal; former prisoner turned writer, entrepreneur and activist Shaka Senghor;Orange Is the New Black author Piper Kerman and singer John Forté, who played his guitar and spoke about his own incarceration. In the audience dozens of state and federal elected officials joined well-known researchers and activists who were fighting mass incarceration long before Charles Koch knew what a mandatory minimum was. Since this summit, the Koch brothers have built the event out into a roadshow, holding smaller versions in Ohio, Florida, Georgia and Illinois. (more…)

The Death Penalty Is Cruel. But So Is Life Without Parole.


From The New Republic / By Stephen Lurie

Prison cells don’t attract many spectators, but executions have always drawn crowds. Paradoxically, the names and identities of death row inmates only come to matter when their execution had been scheduled: from impending death we take a sudden interest in life.

Despite the incongruity, this isn’t all that surprising. Twenty-first century America is still susceptible to the time-honored spectacle of state-sanctioned death, even if much of the attention now scrutinizes, rather than cheers, the practice. Recently, there have been many stories typical of the current fascination with American capital punishment, most notably Ben Crair’s piece in this magazine and Jeffrey Stern’s in The Atlantic. Like other recent examinations of the death penalty, both accounts focus specifically on the act of execution by lethal injection; each covers botched executions and the question of cruel and unusual punishment in the death chamber itself. Stern’s story centers on the act and ramifications of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett’s execution: A paramedic—and later, a physician—fail to find a vein in a dozen stabs into Lockett’s flesh so the execution can proceed. (Which it does, equally gruesomely.) Crair’s investigation deals with the national execution drug shortage—including Lockett’s experience along with many others—and highlights Ohio prisoner Joseph Wood’s story; his execution was so mishandled that he “gasped and snorted for one hour and 57 minutes… the longest execution in modern history.”

For Stern and Crair, as well as many human rights-minded activists and advocates, the death chamber is a potent and useful example of inhumanity. Other, newer abolitionists—like the legislators in Nebraska that voted to abolish the death penalty there last month—focus on the act of execution as well. While the death chamber is itself horrific, abolitionists would be remiss to ignore the more common punishment: the immense cruelty of a prisoner’s long wait for execution. The “death row phenomenon” and associated prison conditions cause significant psychological and physical harm; a so-called “death before dying” is both internationally condemned and domestically pervasive. If the end to capital punishment in the U.S. is based on concern for human beings—whether in a religious or moral sense—the reform movement must be concerned with the prison conditions left when death is not on the table. (more…)

Why Americans Don’t Care About Prison Rape

alcatraz_prison_block_cc_imgFrom The Nation

In June of 2012, the New York Times “Room for Debate” feature considered whether or not convicted youth offenders should be treated differently than adult convicts in the penal system. Those in favor of trying some youth offenders in adult courts included a victims’ advocate, and an attorney from the conservative Heritage Foundation; those against included an inmate at California’s San Quentin prison, and a human rights activist. The victims’ advocate and the attorney from the Heritage Foundation talked about extreme cases of violence and the benefits of stern consequences. The inmate and the human rights activist talked about rape.

“The suicide and sexual abuse rates of younger prisoners are higher than those of the physically mature,” Gary Scott, the inmate, noted: “how can rehabilitation be possible in such a dangerous environment?” Scott was incarcerated at age sixteen.

T.J. Parsell, the human rights advocate, put it like this: “In early 2003, I testified on Capitol Hill with Linda Bruntmyer, a mother from Texas whose 17-year-old son was incarcerated after setting a trash bin on fire. In prison, he was raped repeatedly. He later hanged himself inside his cell. I felt a special bond with Linda, because I too had been raped in prison at 17.”

Taken together, the accounts of the carceral system featured in the Times’s roundtable on youth offenders span the entire American conception of prison itself. On one hand, prisons are understood as the terminus at the end of a long line of injustices adjudicated by a cold bureaucracy. On the other hand, American prisons are infamous for their brutality, especially when it comes to sexual violence. Being sent to prison is, in this sense, not the conclusion of the criminal justice process but the beginning of long-term torture.

That prisons routinely house thousands upon thousands of instances of sexual exploitation and rape is at the very least tolerated, and at most subtly appreciated as part of their punitive purpose. Our collective meh at the bracing reality of prison rape may be partially premised on the fact that the problem seems contained; but like most severe sicknesses, it only appears that way, and not for long. (more…)

“Operation Streamline”: The New Prison Boom

Efrain Alejandro, a Mexican who has twice served prison time in the United States for illegally crossing the border, at the Kino Border Initiative shelter in Nogales, Mexico, January 28, 2014. Migrants like Alejandro are meant to be discouraged by the special courts known as Operation Streamline, but the resulting mass deportations have led to accusations of assembly-line justice.

Efrain Alejandro, a Mexican who has twice served prison time in the United States for illegally crossing the border, at the Kino Border Initiative shelter in Nogales, Mexico, January 28, 2014. Migrants like Alejandro are meant to be discouraged by the special courts known as Operation Streamline, but the resulting mass deportations have led to accusations of assembly-line justice.

From Truth Out/ By Leticia Cortez

What is “Operation Streamline”? It’s a U.S. Border Patrol Operation that began in 2005 under G. W. Bush. This law makes jail time mandatory for people convicted of illegal entry or re-entry into the United States. The plan was designed to get tough on illegal immigration by arresting and prosecuting those crossing the border, instead of simply deporting them or placing them in a civil detention center. This made the private prison industry a very profitable sector since they started incarcerating these immigrants. According to a report released last year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 80 percent of immigration defendants convicted in federal court since 2010 received a prison sentence. This has had a dramatic effect on the makeup of the criminal justice system.

The immigration issue in this country is complex on many levels from the personal, political and economical. If one looks at it from the perspective of a woman, man or child caught crossing illegally, then held in jail up to 15 months, one must ask what is going on with the new prison industrial system. The war on immigrants is replacing the previous war on drugs that filled the jails and made obscene profits for private prisons. This new prison boom is foremost in states along the border with Mexico such as Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico. In Texas it costs the state $266/day to house a person not including food. That’s $97,090 per year paid for by taxpayers.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced reforms to the nation’s drug sentencing laws in an attempt to reduce the number of federal inmates held on non-violent drug charges. “It’s great that Eric Holder is talking about over-incarceration, but the actions he’s taking are not tackling the full scope of the problem,” said Carl Takei, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “There’s this whole other population that’s looming in the background, and growing.”

Advocates for reducing incarceration say that true reform of the prison system must also address the criminalization of immigration since reducing punishment for drug offenders is unlikely to affect the private prison industry.


NC inmate’s death shows need for prison review

kerrFrom News and Observer

When a convict goes to prison, he loses his freedom, but he does not lose his humanity. And he should not lose his life.

Michael Anthony Kerr lost all. The 53-year-old former Army sergeant who had a mental illness died March 12 while being transported from the Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville to Central Prison in Raleigh. He was being taken to Raleigh for medical treatment after spending his last five days in solitary confinement, handcuffed and lying unresponsive in his own waste.

Kerr’s sister, Brenda Liles, who had taken her concerns about her brother’s well-being to top prison officials, said, “They treated him like a dog.”

Now the state Department of Public Safety is treating the public like Kerr’s death is none of its business. The department gave minimal assistance to the medical examiner doing the autopsy, and Secretary of Public Safety Frank Perry has declined to discuss the facts of the case . (more…)

Prison Phone Calls Will No Longer Cost a Fortune

jail-phone-revenuePrison phone rates have decreased by 25% to 50% overnight thanks to new U.S. rules, according to one service provider

From Corporate Media

Hundreds of thousands of U.S. prison inmates and their families will now be able to speak by phone at much lower prices thanks to new federal rules that went into effect on Tuesday. The new rules were crafted by the Federal Communications Commission and are designed to crack down on what prison inmate advocates call abusive and predatory practices by phone companies.

For over a decade, many prison inmates in both state and federal facilities have paid significantly higher rates to make interstate phone calls than people outside of correctional facilities. According to the FCC, some prison inmates have had to pay as much as $17 for a 15 minute phone call.

The new rate caps, which were passed by the agency last fall under the leadership of acting FCC Chair Mignon Clyburn, impose a limit of 21 cents per minute for debit or pre-paid calls and 25 cents per minute for collect calls. At those levels, the cost of a 15-minute call would be reduced by as much 80% to $3.15.

“This is a huge victory for justice for ordinary people at an agency that is usually more attuned to private interests,” says Cheryl A. Leanza, policy director at the United Church of Christ, which has long advocated prison phone reform. “Increasing the connections between families and inmates helps all of us. Strong family connections improve the likelihood that when inmates are released, they will not become repeat offenders, and that makes our society safer. We are very grateful to Commissioner Clyburn.” (more…)