Friday, July 29, 2011

Surely I'm confused. All drugs legal in FL?

What will happen to Florida's drug prohibition, ruled constitutionally invalid in this week's Middle District of Florida Shelton decision?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Benefits and Discontents of Incremental Reform

A few recent events have made me think about the advantages and drawbacks of reforming the correctional system incrementally, that is--by "fixing" one aspect of it at a time. Two things in particular came to mind.

The first is the tension between death penalty activism and life imprisonment, or long-term imprisonment, activism. Last year, at the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty meeting, I talked about the perils limiting activism only to the grounds that would "work", such as innocence and cost. In the same meeting, Senator Mark Leno, for whose good intentions and immense contributions to correctional reform I have much respect, said that  abolishing the death penalty would not hamper public safety, as we could still throw dangerous convicted felons into prisons for the rest of their lives. This idea, of limiting the struggle to the death penalty under  the assumption that life imprisonment was somehow okay or even advisable, worked well in a room in which people were gathered as a narrow coalition - there were representatives of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation in the room, as well as law enforcement agents who oppose the death penalty but are otherwise on board with law and order policies. So, politically, narrowing the struggle to "just" the death penalty is necessary to bring together all these groups of activists. However, narrowing the focus of the struggle to the death penalty under the argument that life imprisonment in a supermax facility, say, under SHU conditions, is not as bad, is a severe blow to the struggle against isolation, debriefing, and other humiliating conditions suffered by inmates who were not sentenced to death--precisely the conditions leading to the hunger strike, now entering its third week. Is this why the strike is getting so little press coverage? Because, in California, it is now politically easier to stomach a potential death penalty abolition than humane conditions for presumed gang members? Both of these goals are worth fighting for, and I wonder whether patience and incremental gains here will be to the inmates' advantage or detriment.

The second is SB9, the Fair Sentencing of Youth Act, which for all its noble purpose and fancy name affects the sentencing of very few juveniles in CA, and less than 3,000 nationwide should it become national policy. Happily, SB9 recently passed 5 to 2 in the Assembly Public Safety Committee meeting; that is a very good thing, and it may make a meaningful difference in the lives of the few young men and women behind bars with no glimmer of hope for freedom in their future. However, as some blog commentators mentioned here in the last few days, the proposal is limited in effect to those juveniles, rather than giving more hope to juveniles sentenced to life with parole (say, 25 to life) or to otherwise lengthy sentences. Both groups of inmates - and the second group is, of course, more numerous - are worth fighting for, and again, I hope the incremental system will work to the benefit of the second group over time.

Changes and reform in criminal justice policies have historically been incremental. SB9 would not have existed without Roper v. Simmons, after which many activists may have asked themselves why it made sense to separate the fight . Similarly, the current proposal to end the death penalty in CA would not have come to life without years of moratoria and incremental struggles about amounts of this or that drug. And none of this would have been achieved, in my opinion, without the mundane, gray backdrop of the financial crisis, serving as a constant reminder to activists and disinterested citizens alike that we cannot afford mass incarceration and punitive extravaganzas. The current hunger strike in Pelican Bay, which I hope will finally start attracting more media now (mainstream news coverage of this event of seminal importance has been pitiful, with the exception of the L.A. Times), might not have come into existence had the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata not given inmates hope for change.

So, the revolution will not come in a shiny parade. It will happen stone by stone, proposal by proposal, shutting down the mechanism not because all policymakers will suddenly come to the realization that what we have done is excessive, brutal and inhumane, but because we will gradually be unable to afford more and more pieces of the puzzle. It will be less dramatic, but the end result will be no less gratifying, and it is still worth fighting for, step by step, brick by brick.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Making Sentencing Reform a Priority

Sign this ACLU-California petition at

Save Money and Increase Public Safety

To Governor Brown, Senate President Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Perez:

As you work to solve the long-term budget deficit, please make sentencing reform a top priority. Sentencing reform will help balance the budget, balance our priorities, and balance the scales of justice.

Two simple sentencing reforms would save California taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars annually:

  1. Make possession of small amounts of drugs a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
  2. Make low-level, non-violent property offenses misdemeanors instead of felonies.

These two reforms fit with your realignment plan by keeping state prison for violent and serious offenses. But they provide additional benefitslowering court costs, shortening sentences and saving both state and local dollars that can be used for public safety, drug treatment, social services and public schools and universities.

You have the power to bring back balance to the State of California.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Monday Protest in Sacramento

click to enlarge text
This Monday, supporters of the striking inmates will meet at the CDCR headquarters in Sacramento.

Previous statements from CDCR denied the existence, or minimized the size, of the strike. Now, it appears that CDCR is admitting that thousands of inmates are striking. The disappointing bit, however, is that the interpretation by the authorities completely misses the point. Look at this odd CDCR statement in the Chronicle: 

Prison administrators said the 676 remaining inmates who have refused meals since the strike began July 1 probably synchronized their statewide effort through organized criminal networks.

"This goes to show the power, influence and reach of prison gangs," said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "Some people are doing it because they want to do it, and some are being ordered to do it."

What is being missed here is that, as opposed to the common race-related segregation and animosity within walls, this strike uniquely bridged people of different races. Probably, as in any form of public protest, there is leadership, and it would not be a big surprise if leaders are charismatic and had leadership status prior to the strike. What is remarkable here is CDCR's refusal to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Why would thousands of people in deplorable conditions make their conditions even more deplorable by risking their health and well being in refusing food? Maybe the actual substance requires institutional attention? No, let's just say "gangs", and it will make the demands of thousands of people incarcerated in abysmal conditions disappear.

If you, too, are upset, and can make it to Sacramento on Monday, make your voices heard.

Edited to update: It appears that an attempt to negotiate with striking inmates has been made. CDCR has promised it would conduct a "comprehensive review" of SHU. Unsatisfied and displeased with these vague statements, inmates continue striking. Mediators report some of the strikers have lost 25-35 pounds and their health is deteriorating.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Leveraging Brown v. Plata to Achieve Correctional Health? Humonetarianism from Vera's Michael Jacobson

Today's Bloomberg News features a piece by Michael Jacobson of the Vera Institute of Justice, who is making points akin to the ones we made in the aftermath of Brown v. Plata. Yes, the decision was limited to the issue of medical services, but it is a grand opportunity to heal California's broken corrections. Here are his operative suggestions:

Fortunately, there is a way to deal with this influx safely and humanely. Over the past three decades, jurisdictions across the U.S. have ensured that only those who present a genuine threat to public safety fill prison beds, while those who can thrive with supervision and services in the community get the help they need. California officials can begin emulating three steps, starting immediately:

-- Statistical analysis has made it possible to accurately predict who is likely to commit new crimes and who isn’t. California officials, especially at the county level, should put in place risk assessment instruments based on this data to decide who needs to be held and who can be supervised safely in the community. Research has shown that overpunishing offenders who present little risk will in many cases turn them into real threats to public safety. Scarce taxpayer dollars need to be used explicitly for strategies and programs that we know will reduce crime, and not increase it.

-- Invest in a network of community-based services that can serve those released under supervision, including formerly incarcerated people. Workforce development programs or drug treatment can go a long way toward ensuring that people can remain safely in the community. For instance, in a multiyear evaluation of the Center for Employment Opportunities, a transitional jobs program for former prisoners based in New York City, the nonpartisan education and social policy research organization MDRC found significant drops in recidivism, with the strongest reductions for former prisoners who are at the highest risk.

-- Strapped local officials should resist the understandable temptation to use the money that accompanies redirected inmates and parolees for other needed programs, including general services that are being cut. Although public safety need not be as expensive as we currently make it, it can’t be done on the cheap. Besides, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative of the Department of Justice is designed to show that a shift in spending from incarceration to policies like those listed above actually makes communities safer.

As we argued elsewhere, one of the dangers of cost-oriented discourse is its fallacies in encouraging long-term health of the correctional system and its proclivity toward panicky, immediate solutions. The key to leveraging the cost argument to achieve correctional health is to think smarter, not faster.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

News from Pelican Bay

Image courtesy: SPCR (full story here)
Yesterday's protest at UN plaza was an inspiring and uplifting event, even as it reminded us of the horrifying, hellish conditions inmates are subject to at SHU units.

Anti-death-penalty activist, author and journalist Barbara Becnel gave us some news about friends inside, as did a number of family members and friends. It's not easy to go without food or drink in prison, let alone under an isolation regime, in which food is one of the few things you have to look forward to. Health is deteriorating, but the men are determined to go all the way with the strike, said Becnel, because "we are already dead."

Some of the publications I read, as well as evidence from visitors and family members, suggests that the CDCR publicized its 4th of July menu, which included items the inmates had not seen in a long time, in an effort to break the strikers' spirits. And some former SHU inmates spoke up about their horrifying experiences in small, metallic, windowless cells, where they were locked for 23 hours a day save for a "dog run" for an hour.

The full formal complaint, including the inmates' demands, can be read in this issue of Prison Focus (or, in a nutshell, here). The inmates ask for an end to collective punishment and "behavior modification"; for solid evidence, rather than conjecture, in labeling an inmate as a gang member; for an end to the abysmal, pshchologically harmful isolation regime; for adequate food; and for adequate programming. These are not demands for privileges, but rather for basic human rights.

Reports on the scope of the strike are misleading. Moreover, several newspapers have not even picked up the story. Please, inform the uninformed. Even in the era of Brown v. Plata, something must be done. Favorable decisions from the Supreme Court mean nothing if the outcome of relief isn't felt in the darkest corners of the California correctional machine.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Today's Protest in Civic Center

Gentle Readers,

If any of you is planning on attending today's prisoner hunger strike solidarity action at UN Plaza in San Francisco's Civic Center between 11:00am and 1:00pm, please don't be shy, seek me out and say hello. I'll be wearing a CCC blog t-shirt.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Inmates' Hunger Strike Expands,0,3504424.story

Inmate hunger strike expands to more California prisons

Inmates in at least a third of California's prisons are believed to be refusing meals in solidarity with maximum-security prisoners at Pelican Bay.

By Sam Quinones, Los Angeles Times
July 6, 2011

Inmates in at least 11 of California's 33 prisons are refusing meals in solidarity with a hunger strike staged by prisoners in one of the system's special maximum-security units, officials said Tuesday.

The strike began Friday when inmates in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison stopped eating meals in protest of conditions that they contend are cruel and inhumane.

"There are inmates in at least a third of our prisons who are refusing state-issued meals," said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The number of declared strikers at Pelican Bay — reported Saturday as fewer than two dozen — has grown but is changing daily, she said. The same is true at other prisons.

Some inmates are refusing all meals, while others are rejecting only some, Thornton said. Some were eating in visitation rooms and refusing state-issued meals in their cells, she said.

Assessing the number of actual strikers "is very challenging," Thornton said.

Prison medical staff are "making checks of every single inmate who is refusing meals," she said.

More than 400 prisoners at Pelican Bay are believed to be refusing meals, including inmates on the prison's general-population yard, said Molly Poizig, spokeswoman for the Bay Area-based group Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity.

The group had received reports on the strike from lawyers and family members visiting inmates over the weekend, she said.

The group's website claims that prison officials attempted to head off the strike by promoting a Fourth of July menu that included strawberry shortcake and ice cream. According to the website, the wife of a Security Housing Unit inmate said her husband had never had ice cream there and "has never seen a strawberry."

Inmates at Calipatria State Prison — with more than a thousand prisoners — were among those reported to be refusing meals, Poizig said. Prison officials could not be reached for comment.

But Thornton acknowledged that inmates at the prison were refusing to eat state-issued meals.

The strike was organized by Security Housing Unit inmates at Pelican Bay protesting the maximum-security unit's extreme isolation. The inmates are also asking for better food, warmer clothing and to be allowed one phone call a month.

The Security Housing Unit compound, which currently houses 1,100 inmates, is designed to isolate prison-gang members or those who've committed crimes while in prison.

The cells have no windows and are soundproofed to inhibit communication among inmates. The inmates spend 22 1/2 hours a day in their cells, being released only an hour a day to walk around a small area with high concrete walls.

Prisoner advocates have long complained that Security Housing Unit incarceration amounts to torture, often leading to mental illness, because many inmates spend years in the lockup.

Gang investigators believe the special unit reduces the ability of the most predatory inmates, particularly prison-gang leaders, to control those in other prisons as well as gang members on the street.

Prison administrators are meeting with inmate advisory councils to discuss the inmates' complaints, Thornton said.

But "I have not heard there's been any decision" to modify policies governing the Security Housing Unit, she said. "A lot of those policies have been refined through litigation.",0,3504424.story

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times