Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Fundraiser for Homeboy Industries

As a few blog readers might know, when not fighting the California correctional ogre, I am an open water marathon swimmer. In 24 days, I will swim the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim - 24 miles of nonstop swimming in ocean water.

I am using the swim to raise funds for Homeboy Industries, a wonderful Los Angeles based reentry nonprofit. All the information is in this link. 100% of your contributions go to Homeboy Industries; the swim expenses come out of my personal pocket. If you can, please consider contributing so I can support their important enterprise!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform, Day 2

What an incredible second day we had. It started off with a conversation about prison and health care. Michael Bien of Rosen, Bien, Galvan and Grunfeld went head to head with Ben Rice of CDCR. Despite the ongoing litigation, we were able to get a preview of their arguments. Despite the elimination of "bad beds" and evacuation of prison gyms, there are still horrific practices, especially in the usage of cages for extended periods of time. Holding patients in cages for treatment and as waiting room acts as a huge disincentive for seeking treatment. And double-celling in cells that were clearly unfit for the practice is also documented in the photos. Dr. Harold Orr of the Alameda County jails talked about the influx of patients and the jail's preparation to handle their medical needs, and Azadeh Zohrabi talked about the cruelty and health risks involved in long-term solitary confinement.

Then, we shifted to a discussion of sentencing, with the help of Judge Richard Couzens, public defender Garrick Byers and prosecutor Lisa Rodriguez. One thing became pretty clear: While there are many holes in AB 109 and the accompanying legislation, it did get into quite a few wrinkles and offered a lot of possibilities. I hope that other legal practitioners have as much facility with the nuts and bolts of the new law as our participants!

Senator Leno's keynote address highlighted the way criminal justice legislation gets made in California. It was a sobering reminder of how partisan and divided the legislature is and how difficult it is to procure good will from the other side, which was especially illuminating in Senator Leno's tale of the failure to downgrade simple possession to a misdemeanor.

After lunch, we had a conversation about realignment in the counties. Wendy Still and Jody di Mauro talked about the concept of realignment and the change in perceptions and recidivism, and Manuel La Fontaine inspired the audience by turning around our conversation to a need to revolutionize our perception of crime and criminal justice.

Then, we talked about reentry with David Cowan of Alliance for C.H.A.N.G.E., who discussed the shortcomings of just "providing people with services" rather than seeing them as human beings. This was echoed by Robert Rubin's discussion of voting rights and felon disenfranchisement, and in Gerry Lopez's remarks.

And finally, we had a large panel discussion on the future of juvenile justice. Barry Krisberg of UC Berkeley and Dan Macallair of CJCJ offered dueling perspectives on whether the state or the county are better places for juveniles. Judge Elizabeth Lee told us about the juvenile mediation program, complete with anecdotes of its impressive success. Julia Sabory told us of interventions with juveniles, including bringing their awareness to the profit much of the system makes of their incarceration ("and how much did YOU make?"). And our closing speaker, Senator Leland Yee, told the story of SB9, and also gave us a new issue to fight against: The practice of solitary confinement of juveniles. Apparently, efforts at preventing this horrific practice have been politically blocked. Audience questions brought up the issue of school discipline and its disparate application.

Thank you to everyone who made our conference such an astounding success. Judging from the conversations in the foyer, our panelists sparked a lot of reflection and inspired many of our attendees to think deeper about the issues.

Two things stood out for me this time around. First, I was extremely impressed with the abundance of talent and hard work of so many people working on issues concerning California Corrections. We may disagree, sometimes passionately, about the solutions, but there is very little gratuitous malice (it's not non-existent, but very rare.) Folks all over the system take their work very seriously.

And second, I was blown away by the quality and civility of discourse, even on very contentious issues. The temptation to "make nice" and ignore serious legal, political and financial issues sometimes rivals the temptation to escalate arguments into ad hominem attacks and oversimplifications. Instead, our panelists considered, acknowledged, and respected divergent perspectives, even when passionately arguing for a particular take on an issue or situation. The resulting intellectual experience was precious because it is so very rare, and it made me hope and believe that such dialogue is possible.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform, Day 1

Day One of our conference went by smoothly and raised a variety of important issues for discussion. On the introductory panel, Jonathan Simon and I tried to offer grand narratives to explain what has happened since the original Plata v. Schwarzenegger decision. I told the story of humonetarianism, which should be fairly familiar to readers of this blog. Jonathan focused on the human rights and dignity aspect of incarceration reform, arguing that the term "realignment" has a quasi-chiropractic sense to it: We "tweak" something that is broken to "fix" it, when in fact that unknowns abound. Without a deeper understanding of the humanity of fellow human beings, no progress will be made in prisons.

On the second panel, we heard from proponents and opponents of Props 34 and 36 about the aftermath of the election. Par for the course of living in the Bay Area is that one is often surrounded by likeminded people and not much intellectual, deep interaction occurs across political divides. In that respect, I found the panel fascinating. Jeanne Woodford and McGregor Scott are obviously on two opposite sides of the political map, as are Michael Romano and Marc Klaas. Nonetheless, they had great respect for each other and appreciation for the finer points of their opponents' arguments. They also knowledgeably engaged with Drew Soderborg's masterful analysis of the financial impact of the two propositions. I wish all California politics were run with this much insight and nuance.

More highlights coming up tomorrow: Health care after Plata, realignment in the courts and in the counties, reentry, and juvenile justice. Please plan on joining us!

Today! California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform

California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform starts this afternoon!

Join us today and tomorrow for a conversation about the promises and challenges of state criminal justice and corrections.

For those of you too far away to be with us in person, we will be tweeting the conference live at @aviramh.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Stop Torture: The Continuing Fight Against Solitary Confinement. Guest Post by Ashley Toles and Courtney Oxsen

The following is a post by Ashley Toles and Courtney Oxsen, who organized the incredible event on solitary confinement at Hastings yesterday. Pictures are by Ashley Toles and Robert Hammill.


What an incredible evening we had at UC Hastings Tuesday night! Our wonderful panel titled “Pelican Bay Hunger Strike Resumes: The Continued Struggle to End Long-Term Solitary Confinement in California” was accompanied by a life-sized model of a solitary confinement cell found in California’s Secure Housing Units (SHU). Urszula Wislanka and Penny Schoner from the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition were extremely helpful in getting the model SHU prison cell set up for tours. The model SHU cell is a life-sized 8'x10’ windowless cell that the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition brings to various events in California. It is eye-opening for people to actually step inside and get a small glimpse of the tiny, cramped space that many prisoners held in solitary confinement have to live in for decades. On a table to the side of the model SHU, we had letters that people could send to Governor Jerry Brown, explaining how they felt when they stepped inside the cell. The Governor has been largely silent on the issue of solitary confinement in CA prisons, and we want to urge him to respond meaningfully to the torture that has been going on for far too long, since even before Pelican Bay State Prison SHU was constructed in 1989.


As we watched people enter and emerge from the model SHU, we were able to see the shock on their faces when they experienced how claustrophobic that small space made them feel, even for just a few moments. Many people said they were surprised by how small the cells are, how many hours prisoners are held in their cell per day, and how many years prisoners are kept in solitary confinement! This sense of shock is the reason we need to have as many events like this as we can; most people simply do not know that this torture is going on in their beloved State of California.


The panel was moderated by the lovely Hadar Aviram, who did a wonderful job introducing all the panelists and asking the right questions to get the discussion going. The first panelist to speak was Charles Carbone, a seasoned prisoner rights lawyer and counsel on the Ruiz v. Brown lawsuit filed by prisoners who have spent more than ten years in SHU, who is well-versed on the intricacies of CDCR's policies and rhetoric. He outlined a history of solitary confinement, explaining the 19th century puritan societal worldview that giving a person a Bible and sending them to do "penitence" in solitary confinement would reform them. Ultimately, that policy experiment was deemed a rehabilitative failure, but American government has embraced solitary confinement anew in recent decades. Carbone also challenged CDCR's "new" policies as being even worse than their former practices. Prisoners are still being held indefinitely in solitary confinement for their political and cultural tattoos, artwork, and written material that prison officials deem "gang activity,” without any evidence of violent or threatening behavior, and with no meaningful opportunity for release.

Steven Czifra and Jose "Danny" Murillo, UC Berkeley students who have both been incarcerated for years in the SHU, went on to describe their experience of long-term extreme isolation in the SHU. We were haunted by Steven’s analogy that the SHU is just like “a bunch of ghosts trying to cheer each other up." He repeatedly mentioned how kind and humane people in the SHU acted towards each other. "It only took one person who believed in me," said Stephen. Stephen is now studying English at UC Berkeley and has a wonderful family life. Danny said that growing up, he struggled with anger issues and was never the best student. During his time in the SHU, he was inspired by the help and encouragement of his fellow inmates who believed in him. He earned his GED and took some college classes through the educational programming CDCR has since eliminated from the SHUs. Danny is now an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley in the Ethnic Studies Department. And to think that these two were labeled the "worst of the worst!"

The next speaker Terry Kupers, is a clinical psychiatrist and expert on the mental health impacts of long-term solitary confinement. Terry testifies in a lot of litigation involving jail and prison conditions and how those conditions affect prisoners' mental health. He was right on the money with everything he said last night. Terry emphasized the important fact that locking people up in solitary confinement does not reduce the violence rate in prisons. In fact, research has proven the opposite. He also emphasized how the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual" punishment and "torture" were essentially the same; the only difference is that we don't like to talk about torture here in the United States. We like to think of torture as something that goes on in distant "less civilized" countries. We are uncomfortable with the idea that our government tortures its citizens, but until we acknowledge that this is happening, there will be no change. If the only way to escape solitary confinement is to "parole, debrief, or die," how is that anything but torture?

Marie Levin spoke about how solitary confinement hurts other people besides just the prisoners in solitary; in particular, their family members and the communities they have been removed from. Marie is the sister of Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, who has been in the SHU at Pelican Bay since 1990. She has not hugged her brother in over two decades and has only been able to see him 10 times since he's been at Pelican Bay. She told the heartbreaking story of their sister Carol's death in 2010. Carol had kidney failure in 2001 and after discovering this, Sitawa wanted to donate a kidney to save his sister's life. The prison would not allow him to make the donation, and after years of fighting this, Carol died in a puddle of blood after a dialysis treatment. This is just one of the many horrifying stories brought to you by California’s solitary confinement regime. Ashley, co-author of this article, had the privilege of meeting Sitawa last week on our visit to Pelican Bay, and when he told this same story, she had to fight back tears.

Azadeh Zohrabi, a Soros Justice Fellow, Hastings alum, and the brilliant woman who is spearheading the Stop the Torture campaign to end solitary confinement in California spoke next. She focused her comments on the 2011 hunger strikes and how the prisoners' demands are still not being met by CDCR, despite their promises of reform that ended the strike. Although they have new regulations, they do not meet the prisoner's very reasonable demands, and the prisoners have announced that the strike is set to resume July 8th of this year. She spoke about the importance of the Stop the Torture campaign and raising awareness around this issue. She remarked that perhaps the dangerous and painful hunger strike could be avoided if this issue gets enough attention before July 8th. She said that people don't just go on hunger strike for fun. Lives were lost during the last hunger strikes and people lost a lot of weight and had significant medical complications resulting from the strike. The fact that prisoners would risk their lives to bring attention to the conditions of their confinement is a testament to how dire the situation is. During our visits to Pelican Bay last week, many men indicated their commitment to see this strike through if the results they were already promised are not reached. One inmate, in describing why he would risk his life in a hunger strike, said, “It’s no life in here.”

In total, approximately sixty guests attended the event and we are hoping a lot of them will trickle in to the State Building over the next couple days for the "California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform" symposium! There will be ample opportunity at the symposium to delve deeper into the issues California faces in its multi-faceted correctional crisis. To stay plugged into this issue, visit Stop Torture CA and follow us on Twitter @StopTortureCA. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Riverside Jail Inmates Sue over Conditions

Breaking news from the Prison Law Office: Three inmates at the Riverside jail have just served a federal action suit over their conditions, particularly the appalling health care. The press release provides two poignant examples:

Angela Patterson, a plaintiff in the case, suffered nearly a year of delays,  cancellations, and inadequate medical care for severe injuries she sustained in a car  accident prior to entering the jail. As a result, a temporary filter implanted near her  heart cannot be removed, and she will suffer a lifetime of anticoagulation  medications and frequent laboratory monitoring, with significant risk of fatal bleeds and other complications. 

Quinton Gray, another plaintiff, was given potent psychotropic medication without  appropriate evaluation or follow-up, placing him at risk for life-threatening  consequences. As a result of the medication mismanagement and treatment  failures, he lives with agonizing side effects: twitching, tongue-biting, increased  seizures and tongue swelling, racing thoughts, disorientation, depression, and  chronic sleep loss. 

The inmates complain that the slashing of medical care budgets in Riverside have yielded unacceptable practices. They are represented by the Prison Law Office and by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP.

Before Realignment, one of the arguments in favor of shifting inmates from prisons to jails was that surely the counties would do a better job than the overcrowded state institutions. This is not the case in several jails, and we might see an increasing number of lawsuits focused on unacceptable jail conditions.

Join us for California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform for a conversation about county jail conditions.

TODAY! Join us to reignite struggle against solitary confinement!

Today's panel will feature people who have done time in the SHU, family members of current SHU inmates, doctors, lawyers, activists... a real opportunity to hear insiders' accounts of the experience and the struggle.

When: Tours of life-sized model of a SHU cell from 1:30pm; panel at 6:00pm.
Where: Louis B. Mayer Lounge, UC Hastings, 198 McAllister Street (cross street Hyde), San Francisco.

Hope to see you with us!

And, of course, please plan to join us later this week for California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Solitary Confinement Punishes Families, Too

The Huff Post published a beautiful piece by Marie Levin, whose brother Ronnie (Sitawa) has been held in solitary confinement for the last twenty-three years.

Marie's piece is a reminder that solitary confinement is punishment not only for the segregated party, but for his/her family as well.

I have only seen my brother ten times since he has been at Pelican Bay. The drive is almost eight hours, I don't own a car, and travel and lodging are very expensive. There is so much time between visits that each time I see him, Ronnie looks much older. We're not allowed any contact at all during visits, and the prison only allows us visits of one-to-two hours.

But this is hardly the worst our family has suffered while Ronnie has been in the SHU. In 2001, our sister Carol suffered kidney failure. Ronnie was a compatible kidney donor, but the prison would not allow him to make the donation. For years, Ronnie fought for permission to save his sister. Carol died in 2010, in a puddle of blood, bleeding out after a dialysis treatment.

Now, our mother is seriously ill. She has had several strokes, is paralyzed on her right side, has trouble speaking, and suffers from cognitive difficulties. She longs to see her only son, but she is no longer able to make the long, difficult trip. I am faced with the heartbreaking realization that she may never see her son again solely because of his writing and reading material - his unjust imprisonment in the SHU that has kept him from being paroled for almost two decades.

This is an extreme example of the multiple ways in which mass incarceration destroys families and communities, invading and harming countless lives beyond those behind bars.

Marie will be one of our speakers at tomorrow's panel on solitary confinement. The event is at 6pm, at UC Hastings, 198 McAllister Street. We will have a life-sized model of a SHU cell and hear from people formerly incarcerated in the SHU, family members, doctors, lawyers, and activists. Please join us for all-day tours of the SHU and for the evening panel.

And of course, if you have not already done so, please plan to join us Thursday and Friday for California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Why Civil Representation Matters

For the most part, this blog covers criminal and correctional matters. But this New York Times story makes me think that the distinction between criminal and civil law isn't all that clear-cut.

As it turns out, the economic downturn has worsened a situation in which poor people don't have access to lawyers and have to represent themselves in matters such as home foreclosures, child custody, job loss and spousal abuse. Without the knowledge and connections that an attorney can provide, and unshielded from the power of the law, the quality of justice poor people receive is reduced. The article reports:

The Legal Services Corporation, the Congressionally financed organization that provides lawyers to the poor in civil matters, says there are more than 60 million Americans — 35 percent more than in 2005 — who qualify for its services. But it calculates that 80 percent of the legal needs of the poor go unmet. In state after state, according to a survey of trial judges, more people are now representing themselves in court and they are failing to present necessary evidence, committing procedural errors and poorly examining witnesses, all while new lawyers remain unemployed. 

. . . 

According to the World Justice Project, a nonprofit group promoting the rule of law that got its start through the American Bar Association, the United States ranks 66th out of 98 countries in access to and affordability of civil legal services.

In April, thanks to a city ordinance championed by civil rights lawyer Robert Rubin and big firm partners James Donato and James Brosnahan, San Francisco became the first city to offer a "civil Gideon" pilot program, guaranteeing representation to the indigent in civil matters as well.  A 2009 California law funneling funds to legal aid groups to provide representation was bitterly contested, as was the San Francisco ordinance.

Why does all this matter? Because formerly incarcerated people rebuilding their lives on the outside may find that their brushes with the law happen outside the criminal realm, as well. Having to deal with the side effects of poverty and discrimination against felons (jobs and housing) and with the disintegration of family so commonly associated with incarceration, one might find oneself in dire need of an attorney, finding that outside of criminal matters, representation is difficult. "Civil Gideon" projects are, therefore, as important to reentering folks as criminal representation - perhaps more so.

But high caseloads, both civil and criminal, mean that even laws guaranteeing representation may find it difficult to offer quality representation. This is what I've referred to elsewhere as "the dark side of Gideon."More funding means better representation, and this is one area in which humonetarianism will not be of much help.

Finally, apropos Gideon, this flick has just been released and should be worth seeing when it comes to California. Here's a Democracy Now segment devoted to the film:

Robert Rubin, whose main area of litigation in the last ten years is voting rights, will be speaking at our conference on Friday about felon disenfranchisement and barriers to reentry.

Friday, March 15, 2013

U.N. Expert on Torture Calls for Investigation of Use of Solitary Confinement

Today's International Law Prof Blog reports:

The United Nations expert on torture has called on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate the practise of solitary confinement and its harmful effects in the Americas, particularly in Latin America, and urged stronger regulation of its use. “I am concerned about the general lack of official information and statistics on the use of solitary confinement,” the Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in its first-ever briefing on solitary confinement in the Americas. “The use of solitary confinement can only be accepted under exceptional circumstances, and should only be applied as a last resort measure in which its length must be as short as possible,” the Special Rapporteur added at the meeting in Washington D.C. 

 Mr. Méndez warned that there are insufficient safeguard mechanisms in the region for preventing, detecting, and responding to the use of solitary confinement, such as making sure that the prisoners held in solitary confinement retain access to legal counsel and medical assistance. He also called for the absolute prohibition of solitary confinement for juveniles and persons with mental disabilities and for an equally absolute prohibition on indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement lasting longer than 15 days.

 “It is important for States to advance in modifying their legislation, policies and practices that are not in accordance with these standards,” he urged. Mr. Méndez spoke to the Commission, which is part of the Organization of American States, in his capacity as an unpaid independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on thematic issues. In a 2011 global report to the UN General Assembly, Mr. Méndez called solitary confinement a “harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.”

While getting U.N. attention is never a bad thing when human rights violations are involved, I am dubious that any sort of international censure is going to improve matters. American exceptionalism seems to have resisted it for many years with the death penalty. I wonder what sort of international pressure would make the U.S. receptive to critique - thoughts?

For more information on solitary confinement and its overuse/misuse in the California context, please join us this Tue for a viewing of a life-sized model of a SHU cell as well as a panel at 6:00pm. And of course, save some intellectual energy for our upcoming conference, California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform.

Props to colleague Chimène Keitner for the link.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

More From Jerry: Federal Prison Oversight a Waste of Money?

Photo credit Randall Benton for the Sac Bee.
After Governor Brown's public comments about attorney's fees for inmate rights' litigators - on which we had plenty to say here and on The Recorder - he's back to it this morning. The Sac Bee reports:

"During the life of these lawsuits, the prison health care budget has gone from $700 million to $2 billion," Brown said in an interview with The Bee, his first on the issue since the state filed court documents in January seeking to regain control of its prisons. 

"That money is coming out of the university, it's coming out of child care. It's a situation you wouldn't dream anyone would want." 

The governor's comments came as lawyers prepare for a battle in Sacramento federal court later this month over whether the state is providing a constitutional level of mental health and medical care for inmates. Oral arguments are scheduled for March 27 on California's motion to terminate oversight of mental health care by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton. 

Another motion by the state, also filed in January, seeks to vacate or modify an order by a specially convened three-judge court to reduce inmate population. Oral arguments on that motion have not yet been scheduled. 

Really, Jerry? Really? You reap what you sow. Why is the prison health care budget so costly? It's true that mistreating and ignoring people's medical plight is cheaper than actually treating them, but perhaps if treating them is so expensive then one should have considered whether so many of them should have been in prison in the first place. And whose fault is it that prison expenditures are higher than what we spend on education and child care? Complaining about this given that the government is the culprit is absurd, offensive, and inflammatory.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Conservative Case Against More Prisons

I recommend reading this article recently published in The American Conservative: "The Conservative Case Against More Prisons," by Vikrant Reddy and Marc Levin of Right on Crime.

For its arguably humonetarian overtones, my favorite passage is this quote from the governor of Georgia:
Texas is just the beginning. In 2012, Georgia, under Republican Governor Nathan Deal, passed the nation’s most sweeping corrections reform bill. Deal has shown a particular interest in rehabilitating drug offenders, and he has framed his arguments in recognizably conservative language on taxes: “If we fail to treat the addict’s drug addiction, we haven’t taken the first step in breaking the cycle of crime—a cycle that destroys lives and wastes taxpayer resources.”

Personal Invitation to California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform

A personal invitation to all blog readers to our upcoming conference.

Book Review: Life After Death by Damien Echols

The West Memphis Three case, which attracted much public attention due to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's HBO series Paradise Lost, Revelations, and Purgatory, resulted in an Alford plea in 2011. The aftermath of the case, and many details previously unrevealed, were told in the recently released West of Memphis. And now, there is an opportunity to get the personal perspective of the major protagonist in this riveting epic miscarriage of justice: Damien Echols, author of Life After Death.

The book offers very little information on the trial itself, which has been extensively covered elsewhere. Instead, Echols offers a rich account of his family background and personal history. Born to an unstable home, frequently on the road, and labeled a troublemaker, Echols befriended to-be codefendant Jason Baldwin. Some context for his arrest is provided by his interactions with overzealous police officers obsessed with Satanism and eager to label and stigmatize misfits they associated with occult practices. And, we hear a bit more about the birth of his son during the course of the trial.

The book's chronology leaps back and forth between memories of these events and current writings of prison experience, deliberately undated because of the harmful psychological effect the passage of time had on Echols on Death Row. But we do get descriptions of the other inmates, many of which are incredibly disconcerting. We have rules against executing the mentally defective, Echols says, but segregation and Death Row are not only a home, but a catalyst for mental disorders and defects.

These stories ring authentic, but they are not unnecessarily sensationalized; Echols' focus is directed inward, into his personal growth and enrichment experience behind bars. In an effort to avoid going mad or stifled, he turns his cell, as some inmates advise him, into "a school and a monastery", becoming a voracious reader and immersing himself in spiritual practices, primarily Catholicism and Zen Buddhism. This inner journey is the focus for much of the book, as it drives not only the memories of the past, but also a way to handle and manage the expectations and hopes for the future. It is particularly poignant to read of this inner journey on a week in which we are holding an event to reignite the struggle against solitary confinement in CA, in which we expect to host people who have spent time in the SHU, as well as a life-size model of a SHU cell.

The book does offer a suspenful, blow-by-blow account of the events leading to the Alford plea, and some of Echols' experiences post-exoneration, which will be of interest to those who have followed the case. And much of the book is a love letter to Echols' devoted wife Lorri, as well as a recognition of friendship and gratitude to the many people on the outside who worked tirelessly for his exoneration. Those of you who have seen the movies and read about the case will find Life After Death a reflective companion to the facts and procedures, and appreciate the unique window into Echols' inner life.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Reviving the Fight Against Solitary Confinement

It's going to be a momentous week: On Tue, March 19, we'll hold an event to reignite the struggle to end long-term solitary confinement in California.

The Louis B. Mayer Lounge at UC Hastings, at the ground floor of 198 McAllister Street, will host a life-size model of a SHU cell. Everyone is invited to come and take a tour of the SHU throughout the day. And when you do, think of what it's like to live in a cell like that... not for a five-minute tour, but for years, 22.5 hours a day.

And at 6pm, we'll be holding a panel featuring people who have done time at the SHU, activists, lawyers, and family members. 

The event is free and open to the public. More information on the event's Facebook page.

And of course, two days later, on Thu, March 21, we'll hold our big conference, California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform. Please register, come, and bring friends.

Film Review: Life With Murder

A gentle, quiet, middle-aged Canadian couple is faced with one of the most horrific dilemmas imaginable: How do you cope with having your child been murdered... by your other child?

The excellent 2010 documentary Life With Murder follows Brian and Leslie Jenkins from Chatham in this horrific ordeal. A short driving distance from Detroit, where a murder occurs every day, in Chatham a murder occurs every year. "Unfortunately," says Leslie, "1999 was our year."

Jennifer Jenkins, 18, was a much-beloved and popular girl, and the town was stricken with grief when she was found shot to death in her home. Suspicion quickly fell on her brother, Mason (20 years old at the time), who tried to escape the house... on a horse.

Mason, Brian and Leslie's interviews at the police station are shown on camera, as is the original 911 call from the parents who discovered the body. Mason insisted, against a mountain of condemning evidence, on his innocence and filed numerous appeals. His parents stood squarely behind him, not speaking about the events of the night of the murder for many long years, until Mason exhausted his appeals... and changed his story. And after these developments, their choices as a family are nothing short of remarkable.

Of special interest to readers of this blog is the incredible footage from Canadian prison. Mason is on friendly terms with a correctional officer, with whom he comfortably and amiably shares details of the night of the murder. Visitation happens in a natural, home-like setting: Mason's parents grill meat with him in a yard with lawn around the cottage in which they visit; they get to spend visiting weekends with him in the little cottage. In one scene that will stun U.S. viewers, Mason and his mother cook a meal in a kitchen with knives on the wall. The contrast to the visitation experience in U.S. institutions is palpable.

But the most interesting aspect of the film is its gentle, and yet painfully honest, treatment of denial and detachment, and its subtle probing into the psyche of loving, introverted people gradually uncovering untold horror and coming to terms with it in their own way. In his insightful commentary about the film, director John Kastner talks about the difficulty of conducting "a major investigation of a subject when the participants don't want to discuss it." He writes:

Brian and Leslie were generous with their time, but would they open up to us? Or were they living – as some suggested -- in a kind of Never-Never land, refusing to face facts about Mason? And how to explain their steadfast support of him, visiting him in prison regularly? (How could they talk to him? Look at him? Have anything to do with him?) 

A colleague and I began meeting them in Chatham for well over a year, often twice a month, gradually peeling back the layers of their psychological armour. At first they revealed very little. But it became apparent they were more aware of the awful details of the murder than they had initially let on. They parked the information in a mental drawer, so to speak, as a survival mechanism to help get them through the day. 

Eventually they decided they had bottled up their story for too long; it would be therapeutic to discuss it with someone besides a shrink who was sympathetic and who was familiar with the criminal justice system. Important to them, too, was helping other families learn from observing their own tortured efforts at healing and reconciliation. 

I think the Jenkins are wonderful people. I so admire their great character and integrity. Many in their shoes would have tried to protect their son by fudging the facts to the authorities. But the Jenkins’ remarkable, often painful, honesty is apparent in their videotaped interviews with the police – not to mention in their interviews with us.

Life With Murder streams on YouTube and on Netflix.

Props to Katie Morrison for the recommendation.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Realignment and Long Jail Terms

An inmate in the Madera County Jail is taken to the inmate
housing unit. Photo courtesy The Press Enterprise.
Realignment was initiated, in part, as a reaction to the ruling in Brown v. Plata and the belief that, whatever the conditions in local jails, surely nothing could be worse than state prisons. But is that true? The Press Enterprise reports that more than 1,100 people are serving terms between 5 and 10 years in county jails, some of which are seriously ill equipped to handle such long sentences.

Authorities originally believed that the maximum jail sentence under realignment would be three years, and anyone with a lengthier sentence would go to prison.

But judges found no legal grounds to send convicted inmates to state prison for most violations detailed under realignment. The number of inmates getting lengthy sentences to county jails has been rising ever since.

County law-enforcement officials are concerned that increasing the number of long-term jail inmates will lead to a new round of prisoner rights-violation lawsuits. Jails originally were meant to hold sentenced inmates for no more than a year. They don’t have the medical, mental health, disability and work-program facilities found at state prisons

Fresno County already has been sued by inmates claiming mental health and medical care in its jails is inadequate. A prison-rights law firm has been reviewing Riverside County’s facilities.

The piece goes on to document some anti-Realignment bills aimed at minimizing its effects by excluding more categories of offenders or setting a sentencing limit. The fact that there is now one person sentenced to 42 (!) years in L.A. County Jail (presumably for a nonserious, nonviolent, nonsexual offense) should be an indication that reform is being done in a horribly wrong fashion.

Props to Josh Page for the link. Come talk to us about realignment at our conference, California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform, on March 21-22.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Book Review: Jumped In by Jorja Leap

Jumped In, by UCLA gang anthropologist, educator, and activist Jorja Leap, follows her professional footsteps in researching gangs and establishing contacts with current and former gang members. Along the way, it weaves narratives from gang members' lives with the story of Leap's professional and personal development and struggle in conducting the research.

For many, Los Angeles gangs primarily mean bloods and crips (and the stories of those gangs are fascinating and important), but Leap walks us through neighborhoods and projects that are home to many hundreds of latino gangs, a geography that changes weekly on the streets. Making connections with gang interventionists who can provide her with introductions as well as safety, Leap interviews gang members, trying to assure them early on of her confidentiality (except in child abuse cases, which she is obliged to report.)

Her conversations with homies and homegirls reveal a wealth of details about gang life. For example, an entire chapter is devoted to gang tattoos and their significance, as well as the importance of tattoo removal for those interested in leaving gang life. Other chapters examine drug abuse, mental illness, personal histories of poverty and abuse, and the difficulties of changing one's life around.

Among these chapters, Leap's stories on women's role in gang life, informed by intimate conversations with women on the ground, stand out. Her empathy for the women she interviews, and her genuine attempt to understand and help, are particularly touching, and she does a great job exposing domestic violence, which she considers the one unaddressed problem in gang intervention. Her narrative is nuanced enough to accommodate battering that victimizes men (a phenomenon often underreported and misunderstood). She handles the parallels to the abusive aspects of her own first marriage with subtlety and grace, understanding the class difference and respecting the common and unique features of the experience.

Another theme in the book is the strength of gang connections and the pull of street life. Here, the narrative is somewhat less successful. Leap rejects the oversimplification of the popular notion that "you can never leave the gang", but her own interviews and examples confirm the immense difficulty of doing so, as people derive so much of their identity and community from the gang. Her upset at juries and district attorneys disbelieving change is therefore left empty, and the reasons behind it (beyond belief in this or that person's innocence) unpacked.

Leap also speaks to the complex relationship between gangs and drugs, rejecting the notion that drugs are sold in corporate-like hierarchies, and instead revealing a less structured drug trade stemming out of poverty and lack of opportunity.

The book is on shakier ground where policy prescriptions are concerned, and when thrown together at the end of the book, they read a bit disjointed. Leap's overall preference for long-term holistic solutions over emergency interventionism, of which she is ambivalent. The book oozes contempt for David Kennedy's slick marketing of his "ceasefire" plan ("give me 50 million dollars and I'll solve the gang problem"), but not a lot of actual arguments against it. In fact, Leap has respect for some forms of interventionism as heroic and important in acute situations. Where the book takes an unequivocal stance is in its justified support for the incredible work of Homeboy Industries and the relentless work of Father Greg Boyle.

This is not an academic book, and as such it offers a dimension seldom explored in academic texts - the experience of the researcher herself. Leap weaves her gang research journey with her personal life, including her candid examination of her second marriage to a widowed LAPD officer and adoption of his daughter. The account of the marriage unflinchingly explores the frictions between Leap and her husband over professional approaches to gang violence and danger on the job. Far from another self-serving "women can't have it all" essay, this is an expose of a professional woman's struggle to be respected, not only on the streets but at home, for what she does. There is also hope offered, for after Leap's husband's retirement from the LAPD, his approach becomes more flexible and he finds himself joining the efforts to rehabilitate gang members. Another way in which this personal approach might speak to researcher is its gentle exploration of the thin line between researcher and activist. Leap's description of her subjects is refreshingly empathetic; she is deeply involved in their lives and spends her time not only evaluating projects, but writing grants and actually teaching life skills. At times, the contrast between her values and those of her subjects is jarring, but she handles it with grace and tact, honestly exposing her internal conflict for the readers.

All in all, Jumped In is an engaging read that makes you care about Leap's friends and acquaintances on the street and confront our ignorance about gangs, but for rigorous, in-depth understanding of gangs we should read her academic publications.

Friday, March 1, 2013

California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform!

We're very excited about the upcoming California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform conference! Our conference preparations are well under way and we have terrific speakers and panels. Please check our program to the left!

The conference is free and open to the public, and we offer MCLE credits for lawyers. Registration is through the conference website.

When: Thu-Fri, March 21-22, 2013

Where: California State Building, 350 McAllister Street, San Francisco, CA

What: An up-to-date conversation about the politics, economics, and day-to-day practice of corrections in California, in light of Plata, the Realignment, the recent election, and more!

Who: Senators Mark Leno and Leland Yee, Death Penalty Focus chair Jeanne Woodford, Federal Receiver Clark Kelso, Michael Bien of Rosen, Bien, Galvan and Grunfeld, CDCR General Counsel Benjamin Rice, Judges Richard Couzens and Elizabeth Lee, and various academics, activists, and policymakers.

This is a two-day conversation you don't want to miss - so please join us!