Friday, October 25, 2013

Book Review: Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

For ten years, between 1993 and 2003, Adrian LeBlanc followed the lives of four young people living in the Bronx, their trials and tribulations, their families, love affairs, and friendships, their struggles and moments of happiness and despair. Random Family is a remarkable work of nonfiction, of special interest to those who see prison as part and parcel of the American social fabric.

The book follows Jessica, a beautiful and charismatic young woman who becomes a love interest of "Boy" George Rivera, a successful heroin dealer, from her early teenage years, through her tumultuous relationship with George, through the fall of his heroin empire and the eventual incarceration of both of them. Jessica, who worked in George's heroin mill, was sentenced to ten years in prison when George was sentenced to life without parole. A life of high excitement, sex, and three children, whom Jessica was too young and distracted to mother by herself, gave way to years of incarceration, away from her children and her familial support system. Jessica navigates the complex experience of out-of-state incarceration; becomes romantically involved with a guard, bears his children, and eventually sues the prison system for sexual abuse; and finally, in her early thirties, is released from prison and starts putting her life together and mending her relationship with her teenage daughter.

The other couple at the focus of the narrative are Cesar, Jessica's young brother, and Coco, his girlfriend and mother of two of his children. Coco's love for Cesar endures throughout his nine years in prison for offenses related to the death of a friend, and she struggles hard to maintain her optimism through several apartment moves, immense poverty, and the need to provide for five children from four largely-absent fathers. Cesar's time in prison, including stints in solitary, efforts to improve his education and visits from family members and the four mothers of his children, sees him grow and develop wisdom and some understanding of the bigger set of circumstances faced by his family.

An array of mothers, absent fathers, aunties and uncles, friends of the family, and kin-of-choice surround the characters in their adventures and misventures. Thirtysomething year-old grandmothers Foxy (Coco's mother) and Lourdes (Jessica and Cesar's mothers) confront the choices made by their children replicating the choices they made, under similar circumstances. I found Milagros--a neighborhood friend who volunteers to raise a small army of children born by her friends, and whose possibly-queer sexuality is never explored in depth--particularly engaging and intriguing.

The narrative itself is as engrossing as a soap opera or a good thriller, but it is extremely valuable because of the overarching themes. The first one that struck me as immensely important is the ubiquity of sexual abuse in the lives of girls and young women. Virtually all protagonists of the book experienced sexual abuse, most of them as victims of family members and acquaintances parading through perennially unstable households. Men are held on to and fantasized upon, but cannot be fully trusted even when they are fathers, brothers and lovers. This shared experience makes the illusion of sexual freedom and agency that Jessica, Coco, and their family members seek problematic and somber.

A large number of children are born in the ten years spanned by the book, and virtually all women become mothers in their teenage years. Children are a source of pride and love, but also of anguish; their needs are impossible to address in overwhelming poverty, and they are consistently used--as symbols of love, as reminders of former love, as weapons to wield against sexual rivals, as instruments of hope for parents behind bars. The incarcerated parents--Serena, Stephanie and Brittany's mother; Mercedes and Nautica's father--leave gaping holes in their children's hearts, and the letter exchanges and visits gain immense importance. The inability to count on any man--in prison or outside--for paternal stability saddles the mothers in the book with responsibilities that tax their young age and lack of experience. And the intricacies of love and family relationships are fascinating; nonmonogamies of various kinds are built and broken; protagonists alternate between tolerance, friendship, and hatred of their sexual and romantic rivals, acknowledging the fragility of the family unit; and the double standard, allowing for men's multiple partnerships and families while begrudgingly accepting (and condemning) women's, is present throughout the narrative.

The deep involvement in drugs, as users and sellers, permeates the lives of everyone in the book. They approach the world of narcotics as the only one available; in the words of David Simon in The House I Live In, it's like working for the company in a company town. Incarceration is an inevitable way of life; many characters cycle in and out of prison, for crimes they committed and did not commit. They continue living, in their own experiences, and for their family outside; the weight of visits to distance prisons and expensive collect phone calls lies on the shoulders of twenty-year-old mothers and their multiple children. The struggles within prison are mirrored by the struggles of the family outside; economic difficulties, rivalries, the price of misplaced trust and generosity, all need to be handled in a reality that is oppressive outside as well as in.

We also see the protagonists constantly battling their crippling poverty and navigating the institutional world. Changes in welfare and educational policy (food stamps, HeadStart) transform the everyday lives of Coco and her family. New living situations, supervised and paternalized, require compliance to different forms of discipline. Every time a character seems to get ahead a bit, a new institutional issue pops up and needs to be urgently addressed.

One of the wonderful things about the book is that it doesn't attempt to reduce the realities it describes to one of two frameworks: self-agency, which blames its subjects for their fate, or environmental factors, which absolve them of responsibility for their choices. LeBlanc herself, reflecting on her book ten years after its publication, speaks to some of this complexity in the context of female sexuality and its construction in the lives of her subjects:

From the distance of a decade, one thing that was operative—and it’s an ongoing interest—is the ways in which gender inequality, and the stigma of women’s sexual agency, narrows the road for female development. Teen-agers rightly fight the assumptions we place on them—many due to the fears in the adults around them, or the unlived lives of those adults, or the lies the culture tells. But, too often, consequences of attempts to explore freedom are attributed solely to sexual agency, or painted solely as victimization, and it’s much more complicated than that. Serena was keenly aware of how little all of it had to do with her, and that was something I felt was important to note.

This is something that is important to note not only with regard to the women's sexual agency in the book. It's true about criminal career paths, opportunities for financial development, and other issues. There are conscious choices being made by people who weigh the options in front of them to the best of their abilities. But the menu of choices is severely circumscribed by culture, class, locale, ethnicity, and gender.

This book, in its remarkable objectivity, in the narrator's removal of herself from the narrative, in its perceptive insights into the lives of the people that inhabit its pages, is a must-read for anyone, regardless of political beliefs or interest in the prison system.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Criminal Justice Bills Vetoed by Gov. Brown in 2013

Image courtesy the Los Angeles Times.
Our first post in this series reviewed the bills signed into law by Gov. Brown in 2013. This edition examines some of the bills vetoed by the Governor, complete with veto memos and some thoughts about the future of the ideas behind the bills.

We all heard, of course, with great disappointment about the vetoing of SB 649, which would have reclassified simple drug possession offenses as "wobblers", thus allowing their prosecution as either felonies or misdemeanors. The passage of the bill would have put California on par with several other states. Not all, however, is lost. Gov. Brown's veto message indicated that, while he wasn't comfortable with this change, he might be open to other drug law reform (a good example is his signing of AB 721, which effectively decriminalizes drug transportation for personal use.)

There were other disappointments, and they were for the most part along the lines of failed attempts to create broad health-care and rehabilitation reforms or to curb police power. Examples of the former are AB 994, which proposed creating a postplea misdemeanor diversion program in each county; AB 1263, addressing Medi-Cal for low-income people, which would have had important implications for formerly incarcerated folks and their families, as it would establish CommuniCal, which would dispense information to folks with low proficiency in English; and AB 999, which would require CDCR to develop a 5-year plan to extend the availability of condoms in all CA prisons. An example of the latter is the veto on SB 467, which would prohibit a governmental entity from obtaining information from an electronic communication service provider without a warrant, and require that the subscriber/customer receive a copy of the warrant.

Some of these vetoes are deeply disappointing, but it is important to observe that they addressed extensive medical reforms, which the Governor may believe he is solving with his proposition to spend an enormous sum of money on privatizing prisons and thus reducing overcrowding.

Criminal Justice Bills Signed Into Law by Gov. Brown, 2013 Season

Image courtesy NBC San Diego.
A month ago we provided a brief overview of the criminal justice bills on Gov. Brown's desk. With the end of the legislative session, we have some important updates on some of these bills. This is the first of two posts, reporting on bills signed into law; the second post reviews vetoed bills.

We've all heard the news about the passage of AB 4, otherwise known as the TRUST Act. Federal law authorizes federal immigration officers to advise state and local law enforcement agents that a given person under custody has to be held for deportation. Under the new bill, CA law enforcement officials are not allowed to detain someone based on an ICE hold after the person is eligible for release from custody, unless certain conditions apply, such as a conviction for specified crimes.

Regular readers may recall our failed attempt to restore voting rights to non-serious, non-sexual, non-violent offenders in jail or on community supervision. AB 149 requires each county probation department to maintain a link to the Secretary of State's voting rights guide, explaining clearly people's rights to vote, which is particularly important in the case of probationers, who are eligible to vote in California and may not know that.

And we all remember the happy announcement that AB 218, otherwise known as Ban the Box, passed and was signed into law. The bill prohibits state or local agencies from asking an applicant to disclose information regarding a criminal conviction until the agency has determined the applicant meets the minimum qualifications for the position. From the reentry perspective, it is a laudable initiative that gives formerly incarcerated people a fair shot at being considered for a position on their merits and qualifications. Fewer people are aware of SB 530, which prohibit employers from asking about convictions that have been judicially dismissed or ordered sealed, except in special circumstances.

There were a multitude of gun bills on the Governor's desk, and the end result on those was fairly mixed. The higher-profile bills were vetoed, such as SB 374, which would have banned semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines and require registration of even low-capacity rifles, and SB 567, which would have defined some rifles and shotguns as assault weapons. However, AB 231, which makes it a misdemeanor to store loaded weapons where children might have access to them, passed, and so did bills creating prohibitions for businesses from applying for assault weapons permits and two bills restricting firearms for mentally ill patients.

AB 494 increases CDCR's accountability for literacy programs for inmates. Current law requires CDCR to implement literacy programs that would bring inmates, upon parole, to a 9th grade reading level. ABA 494 requires CDCR to implement literacy programs that allow inmates who already have that level of literacy to acquire a GED certificate or its equivalent, as well as offer college programs through voluntary education programs. It also lists priorities. AB 624 is also a source of similar good news for inmate advocates. The bill allows sheriffs and other county directors of corrections to increase the number of programs that provide inmates with good credits toward release. Along the same lines, AB 1019 requires that the Superintendent of Education set goals for technical education programs in prison.

In helping folks reintegrate into their communities, record-cleaning and expungement issues are incredibly important. Now that AB 651 has been signed into law, defendants who did jail time for felonies may apply for expungement (withdraw their plea of guilty) after one or two years following the completion of the sentence, if they have an otherwise clean record; this makes their situation vis-a-vis expungements similar to that of defendants on probation. Defendants who completed prefiling diversion programs may also petition to seal the arrest records, under newly enacted SB 513. There are special rules about expungement of juvenile records, and AB 1006 creates an obligation to notify juvenile defendants of their rights to petition for sealing and destruction of the records.

There are other bills specifically geared toward juvenile defendants. SB 569 requires recording all interrogations of juveniles accused of murder (why only juveniles? why only murder? I suppose someone thought an incremental approach would be best.) And, of course, there's SB 260, which, as we pointed out in the past, extends SB 9 to allow resentencing petitions for juveniles sentences to lengthy periods of time.

And more good news on the health care front: AB 720 requires the board of supervisors in each county to designate an entity to assist certain jail inmates to apply for a health insurance affordability program, and will prohibit county jail inmates who are currently enrolled in the Medi-Cal from being terminated from the program due to their detention, unless required by federal law or they become otherwise ineligible.

While SB 649, intended to reclassify simple drug possession as a "wobbler" (in order to allow it to be prosecuted as a misdemeanor) was vetoed (and more on that on the next post), there are some developments. AB 721 redefines drug transportation as transportation for sale purposes, effectively decriminalizing transportation for personal use.

There are also some expansions to police authority and some new criminal offenses, but at least from my perspective they seem fairly reasonable--a far cry from the super-punitive voter initiatives of elections past. SB 255 prohibits "revenge porn", that is, distributing someone's nude photo to cause them distress. [EDITED TO ADD: Notably, the law does not cover "sexting" situations, that is, redistribution of photos the victim took him/herself.] SB 717 allows issuing a search warrant to authorized a blood draw from a pesron in a "reasonable, medically approved manner, for DUI suspects who refuse to comply with police request for a blood draw. There's also SB 57, which prohibits registered sex offenders from tampering with their GPS devices, which I suppose is good news for folks who think these devices are good tools for recidivism prevention (I have doubts.)

SB 458 tempers the legal requirements for including people's name in gang databases. Under the new law, a person, or his/her parent/guardian in case of a minor, now gets notified that there's an intention to include him/her in the gang member registry, and the person may contest, with written materials, said designation. Local law enforcement has to prove verification of the designation, with written materials, within 60 days.

And finally, SB 618 extends the ability to receive compensation for wrongful conviction to felons serving jail time. Also, the bill extends the time to apply for compensation to two years, requiring the Attorney General to respond within 60 days, and also removes the burden on the exoneree or pardoned person to prove that they did not intentionally contribute to bringing about the arrest or conviction.

Some important themes emerge. First, note the emphasis on reentry and reintegration in the job market, which is a healthy recession-era policy to allow formerly incarcerated folks at least a fighting chance finding employment and rebuilding their lives. We're also seeing particular care with regard to juvenile offenders, especially those charged with or convicted of serious offenses. There isn't a lot of hyperpunitive legislation, and the few new offenses seem tempered and reasonable. The next post deals with the vetoed bills.


Monday, October 21, 2013

CCA Signs Lease of California City Prison

The prison in California City.
Photo courtesy the Tehachapi News.
Your $315 million, gentle readers, are hard at work. The Tehachapi News reports:

Plans to ameliorate the state's prison overcrowding moved forward Oct. 15 when Corrections Corporation of America announced it struck a deal with California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to lease out its correctional center in California City to house state inmates.

The state will lease CCCC for a three-year term, with unlimited two-year renewal options, at a rate of $28.5 million annually, according to CCA's press release.

The alliance was originally outlined in Senate Bill 105, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown Sept. 12, and which allocates $315 million for the "prison fix" through June 30, 2014.

Of the allocation, CDCR will spend $28.5 million per year on leasing the facility and another $93.5 million on operating costs, said CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas. The sum amounts to nearly 40 percent of the $315 million budget.

"It is a good chunk," Simas said of the spending.

She contrasted the operating cost with that of a similar state-run facility, which would be $108 million per year.

As an interesting twist, CCA employees who want to be guards are now testing to be peace officers (and, obviously, join the CCPOA.)

But wait! There's more!

With the Jan. 27, 2014, deadline looming for reducing state-wide inmate populations to 137.5 percent of capacity, CDCR is in a crunch to relocate about 9,600 inmates. Simas said once the inmates are moved to CCCC, the state will still need to transfer about 4,000 more to meet the court-ordered capacity cap.

The state expects to transfer 2,381 low to medium Level 2 adult male inmates who are currently in California state prisons to CCCC. Per the prison's website, the facility is of medium/maximum security caliber and has 2,304 beds. Simas said the state plans to double-cell the inmates, which CCA was not previously doing with its federal inmates.

As an aside: I don't usually read the Tehachapi News, but maybe I should. Great piece of reporting by Emily Brunett. All the information you need, none of the information you don't need, all the numbers check out, and all angles objectively covered.

Props to Josh Page for the link.

TODAY! Assembly Select Committee on Justice Reinvestment Hearing Live!

Humonetarianism and cost-centered criminal justice policies in action: In half an hour, the Assembly Select Committee on Justice Reinvestment will hold a hearing, which you can watch live by clicking here at 10am.

A few words of background: This committee was mentioned a week ago at the hearings about solitary confinement, and it will be examining Gov. Brown's bill to invest $315 billion of my money and yours in private prisons to alleviate overcrowding. Anyone paying taxes in California should pay close attention to these proceedings.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Bail: Freedom, Capitalized

This video, produced by the ACLU and Beyond Bars, was posted in a story that appeared this week on The Nation, titled, Should It Cost Less to Get Out of Jail If You're Rich?  It is an introduction to the bail bonds industry, its budgetary backing, and the way it affects people of different economic backgrounds.

Bail research is fascinating. In the late 1980s, Michele Sviridoff found out that judges gave a "discount" to defendants making bail in cash. G.P. Monks found that the police was ineffective in assuring that people showed up for trial. But research from 2011 shows the extent to which the bond industry has been privatized. Mary Phillips, doing research in New York, finds that bail bondsmen's share of the industry has significantly grown, and that their actions magnify the alredy-existing socioeconomic gaps.  Brian Johnson and Ruth Stevens find that states place very few regulations on the bonds industry and on licensing to become a bail bondsman. According to this Justice Policy Institute report, the bail industry is not cheaper than the alternatives, and it is incredibly prone to overcharging and corruption. It is also backed by powerful profiteers. Shadd Maruna and colleagues even predict that people will be able to leave prison on parole after posting "post-conviction bail."

Conversations about prison privatization often ignore bail bonds, which are one of the first stops on the criminal justice train. It is worthwhile to take a look at costs, incentives, and class disparities even in these early stages of the criminal process.

Props to Amir Paz-Fuchs for The Nation link.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Community Mobilizing Against San Francisco Jail Expansion

Next Tuesday, San Francisco County Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi will be addressing the Board of Supervisors with a request for $80 million to fund construction of a new San Francisco jail. Construction costs are estimated to be at least $300 million--$700 with debt service--altogether.

Mirkarimi, who faces reelection in 2015 after a controversial arrest and reinstatement, argues that the new jail will be necessary when the seismically vulnerable Hall of Justice, which houses 828 arrestees, will be demolished. But opponents believe that existing facilities are underused, and that not all detainees awaiting trial need to be behind bars. Even law enforcement officials question the need for new construction.

If you are concerned about spending public money to build more jail space, call your supervisor and email to express your concerns.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

California Prison Overcrowding: State of the State, October 2013

And now, this is how things stood: the cat was sitting on one branch, the bird on another… not too close to the cat... and the wolf walked around and around the tree looking at them with greedy eyes.

                                                                           --Sergei Prokofiev, Peter and the Wolf (1936)

Developments in the last few months raise grim questions about the wisdom of leaving California to its own devices in trying to solve its overcrowding problem. Since the initial three-judge panel order in Plata v. Schwarzenengger (2009), the state has fought tooth and nail against the order to reduce population, and the struggle against the court mandate continued even after the Supreme Court confirmed the order, 5-4, in Brown v. Plata (2011). Numerous state appeals and motions to change the order and delay the timeline for population reduction (some of them bordering on contempt of court) have been thwarted. The last of these is the Supreme Court's rejection of the state's appeal yesterday. The Chron reports:

The high court's one-line dismissal - which said only that the court lacked jurisdiction to step in - leaves intact a three-judge federal panel's directive to the state to slash its population of 120,000 inmates in 33 prisons.

. . . 

Brown has been fighting for years the prospect of releasing some prisoners early, saying he was worried it could increase crime. Advocates and attorneys for prisoners have pushed for reforms in sentencing that they say would safely shrink the prison system.

Through a spokeswoman, Brown referred Tuesday to a statement released by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman, which said officials were "disappointed the state's case won't be heard."

But this rejection is far from being the big victory that inmate rights advocates are seeking. The original order in Plata was to reduce overcrowding in prison to 137.5% capacity, but it famously left it up to the state to find the means to do so. Moreover, Justice Kennedy's celebrated opinion of the court in 2011 explicitly stated that one way of doing so could be via more prison construction. In 2011, activists and advocates felt comfortable in the knowledge that prison construction was impossible; the state was broke and public sentiment was that correctional expenditures were already excessive, to the point that former Governor Schwarzenegger suggested enacting a law that would prohibit correctional expenditures to exceed educational expenditures. It now, however, appears that "the money is there" to start privatizing California's prisons en mass, via lucrative contracts with Correctional Corporation of America and the GEO Group.

California never had dealings with private prison providers on its own soil, though it did send 10,000 of its inmates to CCA institutions out of state and was a significant source of income for the company. This was not because of some principled objection to privatization; rather, it was because the California Correctional Peace Officer Association (CCPOA) actively resisted privatization out of concern for the guards' employment. As Josh Page reveals in The Toughest Beat, CCPOA is so powerful in California that even a prison built in CA by CCA entirely on speculation was left empty. But these difficulties have been resolved: Governor Brown, historically a good friend and ally of the prison guards union, has promised them that they would be employed in these newly-constructed private prisons. This promise made old enemies - state prison guards and private prison providers - into allies, and sealed the deal toward a projected expenditure of $315 million of my money and yours on prison construction.

Obviously CCA is laughing all the way to the bank - a rare and enviable position for a corporation at the end of a recession and during a government shutdown. Here's how this lucrative contract looks from Tennessee, home of CCA. The Nashville post reports:

The lease agreement between CCA and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation calls for the state — which is under a court order to reduce overcrowding in its jails — to pay Nashville-based CCA $28.5 million per year starting Dec. 1. If the two sides agree to two-year extensions after three years, the rent will begin to increase gradually. CCA also has committed to spending $10 million on improvements at its 2,304-bed California City Correctional Center; renovations beyond that will be paid for by California.

"We appreciate the opportunity to expand upon our longstanding relationship with the CDCR and the state of California," said CCA CEO Damon Hininger. "Our ability to react quickly to our partners' needs with innovative solutions that make the best use of taxpayer dollars exemplifies the flexibility that CCA is able to provide."

In conjunction with its California contract news — which had been expected since August — Hininger and his team also said CCA's fourth-quarter profits will be hurt by a number of factors, including the spending needed to reopen its California City complex. Among them: Lower inmate counts related to its contracts with the U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which are believed to be "due to the furlough of government employees and other consequences of the federal government shutdown."

On top of that, CCA's leadership has begun spending money to prepare vacant prisons in anticipation of more business from California late this year. The total impact of those factors on Q4 numbers isn't yet clear, the company said. Analysts are expecting the company to earn 49 cents per share during the fourth quarter.

Investors chose to put more emphasis on the new California cash that will start arriving in December. As of about 1:35 p.m., shares of CCA (Ticker: CXW) were up about 1.5 percent to $35.81, putting them back in positive territory for the year.

If you're still capable of keeping your breakfast down, you didn't read carefully enough.

Governor Brown essentially put the ball in the hands of the federal courts, by saying - if you don't give us some time to cope with the expected releases, we'll have to recur to privatization and high-expense construction. This option was produced, as if out of a magician's hat, in the height of the California Criminal Justice Realignment, which presumably redistributes overcrowding and internalizes its expenses by making counties, who are responsible for charging and sentencing, think about incarceration alternatives and manage their own convict population. One has to wonder what good this experiment is if, suddenly, we're building private prisons in three counties and contributing $28.5 million per annum, to the foreseeable future and beyond, to CCA's bottom line.

We will continue following up on developments and reporting as we have for the last five years.

Props to David Takacs and to Jim Parker.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

BREAKING NEWS: Ban The Box Signed Into Law

Thank you all for your civic energy a few weeks ago, making phone calls and Facebook noise on behalf of Assembly Bill 218 (Ban the Box). Governor Brown has just signed the bill into law.

The bill prohibits a state or local agency from asking an applicant to disclose information regarding a criminal conviction until the agency has determined the applicant meets the minimum employment qualifications for the position, giving formerly incarcerated or convicted folks a fighting chance in getting their lives back on track as law-abiding, taxpaying citizens.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

RIGHT NOW! Solitary Confinement Hearings Livestream

The California Legislative Hearings on solitary confinement are streaming live, starting 1pm and ending at 3:30pm, at this link.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Gov. Brown Signs Bill Promoting Health Access to Inmates

Assembly Bill 720, authored by Assemblymember Skinner, was signed by Governor Brown today. This bill allows the board of supervisors in each county to designate an entity to assist certain jail inmates to apply for a health insurance affordability program, and will prohibit county jail inmates who are currently enrolled in the Medi-Cal from being terminated from the program due to their detention, unless required by federal law or they become otherwise ineligible.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Solitary Confinement Hearings at Senate, Oct. 9

Next week, the California Senate Committee on Public Safety will hold hearings on solitary confinement. The promise to hold hearings was one of the reasons for the end of the third Pelican Bay hunger strike.

  1 p.m. - John L. Burton Hearing Room (4203)
                               INFORMATIONAL HEARING 
SUBJECT: Segregation Policies in California Prisons:
 Current Conditions and Implications on Prison
 Management and Human Rights