Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Personal Perspective on Prison Healthcare

Some readers may recall the excellent posts that appeared in the SF Bay Guardian politics blog for a while, authored by an unnamed inmate in a CA facility. Now released from prison (congratulations, and welcome back!) Just A Guy continues to post about his experiences.

His recent post in the Guardian criticizes Governor Schwarzenegger for the decision to appeal the Plata/Coleman ruling.

Don’t Arnold and the state government see this isn’t about just health care for inmates, but also about rational laws, rational sentencing, and treating human beings with dignity and respect? I know the majority of the public would rather bury its head in the sand than face this issue, but this issue is in your living rooms, in your classrooms, and on your streets. It isn’t just the gang-banging jerk from the hood that’s being thrown in jail for ridiculous amounts of time in California -- it’s also middle class addicts, college students etc … It’s your neighbors, your friends’ kids, and your kids that are all affected by this insanity.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

New San Quentin Hospital Opens

As reported by the Associated Press on Seattle Pi:

The receiver who once ran California's prison health care system promised three years ago that he would use his court-backed muscle to build a new medical facility in record time.

The pledge has come true with the opening of a $136 million, five-story hospital at San Quentin State Prison - four months earlier than its ambitious schedule and $10 million under budget.

Yet the state-of-the-art facility already is a relic from a time when California had money and the federal receiver could act with impunity. Its aggressive advocate, receiver Robert Sillen, is gone, too.

Officials showed off the 50-bed hospital and its dental, medical and mental health outpatient clinics in an exclusive tour for The Associated Press last week, even before it was seen by top state officials. Parts of the facility are already in use and the rest are scheduled to open in January.

props to Jerry Jarvis for the link.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Fruit of Humonetarianism: An Expected Decline in Incarceration

As reported recently on the Chron, tight state budgets are expected to lead to a reversal of the incarceration trend nationwide:

The United States may soon see its prison population drop for the first time in almost four decades, a milestone in a nation that locks up more people than any other. The inmate population has risen steadily since the early 1970s as states adopted get-tough policies that sent more people to prison and kept them there longer. But tight budgets now have states rethinking these policies and the costs that come with them.

"It's a reversal of a trend that's been going on for more than a generation," said David Greenberg, a sociology professor at New York University. "In some ways, it's overdue."

The U.S. prison population dropped steadily during most of the 1960s, but it has risen every year since 1972, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

About 739,000 prisoners were admitted to state and federal facilities last year, about 3,500 more than were released, according to new figures from the bureau. The 0.8 percent growth in the prison population is the smallest annual increase this decade and significantly less than the 6.5 percent average annual growth of the 1990s.

Happy Holidays to our readers, and a Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Decline in Inmate Death Rate; Rise in Preventable Deaths

The Federal Receiver's office has recently released information regarding the 2008 inmate death reviews. According to the report, there is an overall decline in inmate deaths, from 248.6 to 215.5 per 100,000 inmates.

Out of a total of 369 deaths, 122 - the largest category - were due to cancer. Suicides, accounting for 38 deaths, come in second as causes of death. The report classifies 17% of deaths as "possibly preventable". Out of the 303 non-preventable causes, cancer, suicide, and liver disease are the leading causes, which, as the report states, are "not unexpected given the high incidence of smoking, drug abuse and depression in the incarcerated population". Out of the 61 possibly preventable deaths, cancer, sudden cardiac arrest, and pneumonia top the list. The most common lapses in care identified by the report are misdiagnosis (81 cases) and lack of access to appropriate care (25 cases). The report finds strong causal connections between the identified lapses in care and preventable deaths.

The report also provides some interesting discussion of preventability, which, as it states, is "in the eye of the beholder". The multiple lapses of care are, of course, a cause for concern, but I for one am thankful for the transparency of information.

Resuscitating the Michigan Deal?

(image courtesy Michigan Radio)

Attentive followers of the overcrowding crisis may recall the failure of the deal to house California prisoners in Michigan institutions back in August. Since then, the correctional institutions in question - the maximum security Standish facility and the minimum security Hiwatha facility - have been standing empty, even after Michigan reached a deal to house Pennsylvania prisoners.

The Chron reported yesterday that Michigan is looking at several possibilities, among them a new proposal for CA. Another possibility is housing Guantanamo prisoners, and as Michigan Public Radio reports, Obama administration officials have toured the facility in order to determine whether it would be suitable for the job.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Prop 9 Lives: Access to Parole Suitability Hearing Content

The CDCR website reports on an implementation of one of Prop 9's aspects: Victims, and others, will have access to an online transcript of the inmate's parole suitability hearing before the parole board. The transcripts are emailed to the victim, free of charge, or mailed for a flat fee of $25 per transcript.

This raises understandable concerns about confidentiality, which are answered by limiting the availability of this information to registered victims. The request webpage reads:

Marsy’s Law, Penal Code section 3041.5 (a) (4) permits the victim, next of kin, members of the victim’s family, and two representatives designated by the victim to request and receive a stenographic record of all proceedings. Any persons requesting a hearing transcript must be registered and meet the criteria of a victim as identified through the Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services (OVSRS). Please note: You must be registered in order to have your transcript request processed.

Now, the form used to request victim services (see image) allows you to register even if you are a "concerned citizen." However, it does limit notifications of parole hearings to victims and next of kin. It would make sense to similarly limit the ability to request a transcript. Moreover, this mechanism does not prevent forwarding the email received by victims to others.

Given the potential for wide dissemination of parole suitability hearing information, the question is: Does the public have a right to know the content of the hearing? What do you think?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Back on Track Graduation

Two weeks ago, 15 formerly incarcerated men and women graduated from the San Francisco District Attorney's program Back on Track. The video above, from a 2007 news segment, provides an introduction to the premise of the program. The program has a record of dramatic recidivism reduction, but very few participants. Nevertheless, it might be the herald of similar initiatives.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Book Review: Sunbelt Justice by Mona Lynch

Mona Lynch’s new book Sunbelt Justice will hit very close to home for Californian readers. The book tells the story of the Arizonian correctional system, starting with the early twentieth century and ending with Janet Napolitano’s time as governor. It is a fascinating account, which those of us interested in California corrections will read like a good political thriller.

Two principles underlie the Arizonian correctional philosophy: an ethos of self-sufficiency, which led to a lack of sympathy toward offenders, and a dislike for large governments, accompanied by sentiments of frugality. The early days of Arizona corrections were shaped by these ideas. Unencumbered by a yet-nonexistent central command and headed by strong personalities, prisons and juvenile institutions were run on the cheap, relying on a combination of inmate work and tough discipline for their daily operations.

Things briefly changed during the late 1960s with the formation of the Department of Corrections, which was headed, in its initial years, by outsiders. Its first Director, Allen Cook, was a veteran of the California correctional apparatus, and brought with him the large bureaucracies and rehabilitative ideals that characterized California corrections at the time. Initially welcomed, Cook ended up overstaying his welcome. The series of outsiders that succeeded him – most notably McDougall, who brought with him a system of good credits and community corrections reminiscent of Machonochie and, more recently, Murton – were unsupported, and eventually ousted, by the state politics.

The reign of Director Sam Lewis and his successors can best be seen as a reinstatement of a “new-old regime”. Lynch does an excellent job presenting this era’s complexities. On one hand, it is very much in line with (or ahead of) developments that were occurring elsewhere in the nation: the disillusionment with the rehabilitative idea and the emergence of law-and-order politics. On the other hand, in the Arizonian context, it is a variation on the original old theme of harsh discipline and no rehabilitation, a nostalgic return to the roots, albeit with the complication of exponential growth in prison population and a much larger bureaucratical apparatus.

Particular emphasis is given to this transformative period between the late 1970s and mid-1990s; Lynch provides a multilayered account of state politics, federal prison litigation, and their detrimental impact on prison conditions.

It is illuminating to compare Lynch’s insightful and informative account with the parallel Californian history. Arizona was not nearly as committed as California to the rehabilitative ideal, and its early correctional style was much more “Texan” than Californian. The model of inmate farm labor, accompanied by harsh discipline, reminded me very much of the incredible footage in Susanne Mason’s Writ Writer. In that respect, the backlash of the 1980s felt much more like a “homecoming” to toughness and frugality. However, many features are familiar. The political shift to the New Right and the increasing centrality of crime control to political campaigns are very familiar. So are the various legislative acts and voter initiatives of the mid-1990s, which in Arizona, as in California, failed to take into account the disastrous financial effect of county-level increasing sentences on state-level corrections. Even victim initiatives, which are downplayed in Lynch’s account, are in the background, as in California.

The questions I’m left with have to do with the level at which history is made. Arizonian correctional history was shaped by strong personalities, who played, to varying levels of success, on a changing political arena. Is it possible to swing back the punitive pendulum, citing costs? That is what Director McDougall attempted to do in the early 1980s, with only limited and temporary success. This Arizonian lesson does not bode well for an era in California in which the only effective argument against punitiveness is related to taxpayers’ wallets. The other ominous lesson is that of the Supreme Court’s limited support for federal intervention in Arizona prisons, providing only weak support to Judge Muecke’s constant supervision and review of the state’s prison population and conditions. The Roberts court may exhibit a similar level of inhospitability toward the federal intervention in California. Under such conditions, forceful and innovative personalities can prevail only for a limited time, and the fate of the system is ultimately shaped by broader socio-political developments. Perhaps we are now in a better place, and state citizenry recognizes the unsustainability of our correctional monster. In the meantime, Lynch’s excellent book offers an opportunity for grim reflection.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Wiccan Prison Chaplain Case Before Ninth Circuit

(image courtesy Cherry Hill Seminary website)

The religious freedom of inmates has been a central theme in prison rights litigation. The California prison movement has been transformed in important ways through litigation on behalf of Black Muslim inmates; for background on this, check out Christopher Smith's excellent paper or Eric Cummins' wonderful book The Rise and Fall of the California Radical Prison Movement. Following these cases, and others, CDCR employs a "five-faith policy", according to which it employs five paid prison chaplains in the following faiths: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Native American. Now, a Wiccan clergyman, who has volunteered in California prisons for many years, is challenging this policy before the Ninth Circuit.

Patrick McCollum is a well-respected Wiccan authority, the author of Courting the Lady and a faculty member at Cherry Hill Seminary, a Neo-Pagan educational institution. He has testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on prisoners' religious freedom. According to the information on the book flap, McCollum began his service as a statewide Wiccan chaplain in 1997, after advising the State in a dispute involving a Pagan inmate. He is a member of the American Correctional Chaplains Association.

McCollum's case was defeated in the District Court, for a preliminary issue of standing. The District Court decided that McCollum lacked standing and could therefore not sue CDCR; the only people with standing to sue in such matters are current inmates, not people looking to be hired for the position. After all, said the court, at most McCollum could argue for CDCR to assess the limitation of chaplaincy positions to five, but even applying broader standards would not necessarily lead to including Wicca among the faith groups that merit a paid position, nor to hiring McCollum himself.

Interestingly, CDCR initially argued that, in assessing the need for prison chaplaincy positions, it applied a set of objective criteria: (1) liturgical needs, (2) the numbers of the group, (3) existing and alternative accommodation means, (4) security, (5) cost, and (6) other practical factors related to institutional operational needs. However, at a later stage CDCR stated that it never applied these criteria, though it intended to use it from now on.

The summary judgment decision has been appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a brief submitted to the court, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Anti-Defamation League, and other organizations, argue that the District Court's decision was erroneous.

Some of the arguments for and against McCollum's position are presented in this Opposing Views piece. Should there be standing in this case? Have McCollum's rights been violated? On the merits, does the "five faiths" policy constitute religious discrimination? Curious to hear what our readers think.

Here are some words from McCollum, in an interview included in the documentary A Hero Denied, which focused on the rights of Wiccan soldiers.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Federal Raid on Undocumented Immigrants with Records

The L.A. Times reports:

Immigration agents arrested nearly 300 foreign nationals with criminal records during a three-day sweep in California, officials announced Friday.

. . .

Officials said 96 of the 286 arrests took place in Los Angeles County. Among those arrested in the county were a suspected gang member from El Salvador who had a 2004 robbery conviction and a Guatemalan man with a 1993 conviction for lewd acts with a child under 14.

"These are not people we want walking our streets," Morton said.

The arrests were conducted as part of a controversial program designed to arrest and deport immigrants who have criminal records, who have ignored deportation orders or who were deported and illegally reentered the United States. About 400 officers and agents took part in the operation. The arrests included people from Mexico, Denmark, Taiwan and Tonga.

These news make a powerful juxtaposition to the "sanctuary city" policy, which has just become law in San Francisco.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Violence, Victimization, Self Defense

I have just returned from an exhilarating, terrifying, moving, transformative weekend, learning self defense at Impact Bay Area. It was an intense experience that made me think about victimization and punitiveness, and about the difference between laying blame and taking responsibility.

Much of our discussion of the overuse of prison has to do with the mammoth-scale incarceration of nonviolent offenders. The fiscal, moral, and efficiency-related arguments against a huge correctional system should not cloud the fact that, in fact, there are folks out there for whom there really is no solution beyond incapacitation. The percentages are much lower than we may be led to believe in legislation campaigns. Nevertheless, the fact that horrifying incidents are uncommon does not make them any less horrifying.

It is important to say these things, because otherwise everyone involved in debates about penology and corrections end up on both sides of a divide: pro-victim or pro-offender. This boundary is false for several reasons. Research consistently shows that victims and offenders are not mutually exclusive populations. On the individual level, as David Farrington finds, growing up in violent homes is a good predictor of later violent behavior; on the broader spatial level, crime often affects low-income neighborhoods. While overenforcement tends to disproportionately target minorities, and the poor, underenforcement (as Alexandra Natapoff argues in this law review piece) might harm and overlook the same populations.

Arguing against too much incarceration does not equal arguing that crime and violence are not real. They are real, and so is fear of crime. Where you stand on such matters is very much up to your personal conscience. I've come to believe that the best way to fight against violent victimization is to be prepared for it; and the best way to take care of actual and potential victims is to take real steps to ensure that they cease to be victims as fast as possible. Maybe, if victims know how to defend themselves better, there will be less victimization, and people who have been truly hurt by violent crime will not have to resort to punitive politics as a tool to cope with their horrifying experiences.

Impact Bay Area is a nonprofit organization that teaches self defense to women using a technique called "model mugging". Participants learn basic and useful techniques to defend themselves in a myriad of possible situations and do many practice fights against padded instructors who simulate muggers and rapists. The fights are done in an adrenalized state and feel truly real and terrifying. When (not if) you prevail, you feel incredibly empowered. Since fighting is one's last resort, the course also teaches one to effectively set boundaries against assailants, to use one's voice and body language effectively, and, if these important measures fail, to effectively fend off attackers. Even in situations that seemed hopeless to me, it turns out there are many things one can do to continue fighting.

On a feminist level, self defense is incredibly empowering. Rather than theorizing patriarchy and male domination, self-defense transforms the classic perspective on the body (as an object of domination) to a tool of strength and wisdom in dangerous situations (if you're into this sort of discussion, check out this fabulous piece by Martha McCaughey).

I have yet to fully process the journey I went through this weekend. I was placed in terrifying situations, in which our mock assailants did a terrific job pinning me to the ground, grabbing me by the hair, insulting me using vile words, and creating situations that I would consider hopeless before this weekend. In all these situations, I fought back and prevailed. It was fantastic, and thought-provoking, and exhilarating.

I've learned that several places teach effective self-defense techniques. Girl Army is another option in the Bay Area, and a short search on the internet should help you find something helpful in your area. This course should be on the curriculum of every high school or college in the world. Until that happens, educate yourself and learn what to do to protect yourself. You are worth fighting for. Go kick some ass.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Community Justice Center Update

The Chronicle provides a good updated account of how things are going at the Community Justice Center. Among other things, it seems that the attendance rate for drug felony charges is 86%, and for low-level misdemeanors, 22%.

As a comparison, this piece about a probation experiment in Hawaii, and its impact on recidivism reduction, may be of interest.

Props to Aaron Rappaport for the Chron piece, and to the Collaborative Justice blog for the Hawaii piece.