Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘us prison system’

“In 2014, amid mounting criticism and legal pressure, the Federal Bureau of Prisons imposed a new policy promising better care and oversight for inmates with mental-health issues. But data obtained by The Marshall Project through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that instead of expanding treatment, the bureau has lowered the number of inmates designated for higher care levels by more than 35 percent. Increasingly, prison staff are determining that prisoners—some with long histories of psychiatric problems—don’t require any routine care at all.

As of February, the Bureau of Prisons classified just 3 percent of inmates as having a mental illness serious enough to require regular treatment. By comparison, more than 30 percent of those incarcerated in California state prisons receive care for a “serious mental disorder.” In New York, 21 percent of inmates are on the mental-health caseload. Texas prisons provide treatment for roughly 20 percent.

A review of court documents and inmates’ medical records, along with interviews of former prison psychologists, revealed that although the Bureau of Prisons changed its rules, officials did not add the resources needed to implement them, creating an incentive for employees to downgrade inmates to lower care levels.

In an email, the bureau confirmed that mental-health staffing has not increased since the policy took effect. The bureau responded to questions from a public information office email account and declined to identify any spokesperson for this article.

“You doubled the workload and kept the resources the same. You don’t have to be Einstein to see how that’s going to work,” said a former Bureau of Prisons psychologist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a pending lawsuit regarding his time at the agency.

The bureau said it is “developing a strategy” to analyze this drop in mental-health care, consistent with a Justice Department inspector general’s recommendation last year. Although only a small fraction of federal inmates are deemed ill enough to merit regular therapy, officials acknowledged that 23 percent have been diagnosed with some mental illness.

Data shows the reduction in care varies widely depending on location. At the high-security penitentiary near Hazelton, for instance, which is near the medium-security facility where Rudd was housed, the number of inmates receiving regular mental-health care has dropped by 80 percent since May 2014. At the federal prison near Beckley, West Virginia, the number fell 86 percent.

Although hiring and retaining mental-health staff is a challenge for all prisons, it can be especially difficult for remote facilities. A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that about half of rural communities in the United States don’t have access to a psychologist, and 65 percent don’t have a psychiatrist.

“Most people who have gone through the time and expense to become a psychologist … do not want to live in a really rural area,” said Doug Lemon, a former chief psychologist at two federal prisons in Kentucky. “You can say, ‘Doug Lemon’s lab [should have] five psychologists,’ but if he can only hire three because he can’t get anyone else to work there, guess what? He’s stuck meeting the same mission with three instead of five.”

Staffing shortages elsewhere in the federal prison system have forced the bureau to require some counselors to serve as corrections officers, a situation that worsened under the Trump administration after a lengthy hiring freeze designed to cut spending. In 2016, the bureau had instructed wardens to stop using psychologists for tasks not related to mental health, except in emergencies. But media reports illustrate how counselors and case managers are still being asked to do odd jobs.

“The catchphrase in the bureau was ‘Do more with less,’ ” said Russ Wood, a psychologist in federal prisons for 24 years. “The psychologists were getting pulled off to work gun towers and do prisoner escorts. We’re not really devoted to treating.”

A bureau spokesperson said that all staff are “professional law enforcement officers first” and that the agency does not consider mental-health care to be the primary role of counselors or social workers.”

– Christie Thompson & Taylor Elizabeth Eldridge, “Treatment Denied: The Mental Health Crisis in Federal Prisons.” The Marshall Project. November 21, 2018.

Art by Owen Gent.

Read Full Post »

“In 1963 Carl Heller was an internationally renowned medical scientist, a winner of the important Ciba Prize. In the field of endocrinology, he was a preeminent researcher, so it is not surprising that when the AEC decided to fund work on how radiation affects male reproductive function, they would turn to him. He designed a study to test the effects of radiation on the somatic and germinal cells of the testes, the doses of radiation that would produce changes or induce damage in spermatogenic cells, the amount of time it would take for cell production to recover, and the effects of radiation on hormone excretion.

To accomplish this he had a machine designed and built that would give a carefully calibrated, uniform dose of radiation from two sides. The subject lay face down with his scrotum in a small plastic box filled with warm water to encourage the testes to descend. On either side of the box were a matched set of x-ray tubes. The alignment of the x-ray beams could be checked through a system of peepholes and mirrors. Subjects were required to agree to be vasectomized because of a perceived small risk of chromosomal damage that could lead to their fathering genetically damaged children. To carry out this work Dr. Heller was to receive grants totaling $1.12 million over ten years.

Mavis Rowley, Dr. Heller’s former laboratory assistant, who was interviewed by Advisory Committee staff in 1994, said that the AEC “was looking for a mechanism to measure the effect of ionizing radiation on the human body… .” She said testicular irradiation was promising because the testes have “a cell cycle and physiology which allows you to make objective measurements of dosimetry and effect without having to expose the whole body to radiation.”

Although official documentation is fragmentary, it is clear from other evidence such as interviews and contemporary newspaper articles that the concerns cited above–worker exposures, potential exposures of the general population as a result of accidents or bomb blasts, and exposures of astronauts in space–were of interest to the AEC.

In the case of the astronauts, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been able to find no evidence of direct involvement in Dr. Heller’s project. Yet Ms. Rowley remembers with clarity that NASA representatives, even astronauts themselves, attended meetings with their research team. In her 1994 interview, she said, “NASA was also very interested in this… . There was a section of activity which was devoted to what effect would the sun flares and so forth, which give out significant radiation have on the astronauts. And so there were meetings that went on which actually included some of the astronauts attending them… .” Rowley explained that the astronauts were concerned that reduced testosterone production might make them lose muscle function, which could compromise their mission, but, belying the comment of the colonel in the 1949 nuclear-powered airplane meeting who said that crewmen were concerned about anything physically harmful, she said they seemed altogether unconcerned “about their own health." During his 1976 deposition, Dr. Heller remarked: "What we would like to supply the medical community with is what happens when you give continual very small doses such as might be given to an astronaut." Moreover, in 1965, Dr. Heller served as a consultant to a Space Radiation Panel of the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council. And finally, Harold Bibeau, an Oregon subject, recalls that Dr. Heller told him when he signed up for the program that NASA was interested in the results.

At the time the Oregon experiment got under way, using prisoners as research subjects was an accepted practice in the United States. And in this particular study Oregon law was interpreted by state officials as permitting an inmate to give his consent to a vasectomy, which they appear to have seen as analogous to consenting to becoming an experimental subject. However, important ethical concerns of today such as balancing risks and benefits, the quality of informed consent, and subject-selection criteria appear, on the whole, not to have been carefully addressed or not addressed at all by the investigators or those responsible for oversight.

With respect to the health risks associated with the testicular irradiations, there was very little reliable "human” information at the time about the long-term effects of organ-specific testicular exposure to radiation. Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb data, however, which of course were not organ specific, suggested that the likelihood of inducing cancers with the amount of radiation Dr. Heller planned to use was small. By way of comparison, today’s standard radiotherapy of the pelvis, for prostate cancer for example, often results in doses to the testicles in the ranges encountered in these experiments.

So what did Dr. Heller tell subjects about the chronic risk? The answer appears to have been nothing in the early years and, later on, perhaps a vague reference to the possibility of “tumors” but not cancer. In a deposition taken in 1976 a subject named John Henry Atkinson said he was never told there was a possibility of getting cancer or any kind of tumors as a result of the testicular irradiation experiments. Other subjects deposed in 1976 also said they had not been warned of cancer risk, and when asked by one subject about the potential for “bad effects,” Dr. Heller was reported to have said, “one chance in a million.” When asked in his own deposition what the potential risks were, Dr. Heller said, “The possibility of tumors of the testes.” In response to the question “Are you talking about cancer?” Dr. Heller responded, “I didn’t want to frighten them so I said tumor; I may have on occasion said cancer.”

The acute risks of the exposures included skin burns, pain from the biopsies, orchitis (testicular inflammation) induced by repeated biopsies, and bleeding into the scrotum from the biopsies. Using consent forms and depositions as a basis for determining what the subjects were told, it appears that they were adequately informed about the possibility of skin burns; sometimes informed, but perhaps inadequately, about the possibility of pain; informed about the possibility of bleeding only from 1970 on; and never informed of the possibility of orchitis. As far as the quality of consent is concerned, the evidence suggests that many if not most of the subjects might not have appreciated that some small risk of testicular cancer was involved. It is also not clear that all subjects understood that there could be significant pain associated with the biopsies and possible long-term effects.

In selecting subjects, Dr. Heller appears to have relied on the prison grapevine to get out the word about a project he apparently believed the Atomic Energy Commission did not want publicized. In a 1964 memorandum he was paraphrased as saying “at Oregon State Penitentiary, the existence of the project is practically unknown.” In a 1966 letter to the National Institutes of Health describing the review process at the Pacific Northwest Research Foundation, a respected, free-standing research center, Dr. Heller and two colleagues wrote that “the inmates are well informed by fellow inmates regarding the general procedures concerned (i.e., collecting seminal samples, collecting urines for hormone studies, submitting to testicular biopsies, receiving medication orally or by injection, and having vasectomies … )." If the volunteers were healthy and normal they were accepted for a trial period during which they donated semen samples. If all went well, in a matter of weeks they were accepted into the radiation program, as long as the prison’s Roman Catholic chaplain certified that they were not Roman Catholics–because of the church’s objection to their providing masturbated semen samples–and they could pass what appears to have been a cursory psychological screening designed to ensure they had no underlying objections to the required vasectomy. A copy of a form titled "Psychiatric Examination” provided by Harold Bibeau and signed with the initials of the examining psychiatrist, WHC for William Harold Cloyd, says in full:

11-4-64 Seen for Dr. Heller —- Never married, quite vague about future. Feels he doesn’t want children —- shouldn’t have any. I agree. No contraindication to sterilization.

As far as potential health benefits to the subjects are concerned, there were none, and the inmates who volunteered for the research were told so. The benefits were in the form of financial incentives. A review of applications for Dr. Heller’s program, and depositions of prisoners who sued Dr. Heller, various other individuals, and the state and federal governments for violation of their rights, clearly indicates that money was in most cases the most important consideration in deciding to volunteer. In prison industry inmates were typically paid 25 cents a day. For participating in the Heller program they received $25 for each testicular biopsy, of which most inmates had five or more, plus a bonus when they were vasectomized at the end of the program, which appears to have been an additional $25. Some inmates indicated that they were grateful for an opportunity to perform a service to society. An obvious ethical question is whether the money constituted a coercive offer to prisoners.

During the course of his study between 1963 and 1973, Dr. Heller irradiated sixty-seven inmates of the Oregon State Prison. Nominally, three institutions had some oversight responsibility for Dr. Heller’s work–the Oregon Department of Corrections, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Pacific Northwest Research Foundation, where Dr. Heller was employed. Practically speaking, however, it appears that Dr. Heller conducted his research independently. As an example of his independence, as recounted by Ms. Rowley, the AEC requested that Dr. Heller begin irradiating subjects at 600 rad and work upward, but he refused and in the end set 600 rad as an upper limit. (It is not clear whether Dr. Heller was concerned about risk to the subjects’ health or other research criteria.) Dr. Heller also was a member of the committee at Pacific Northwest Research Foundation that had responsibility for overseeing his research, giving him a voice in the oversight process. This committee was authorized under a foundation regulation titled “Policy and Procedures of the Pacific Northwest Research Foundation With Regard to Investigations Involving Human Subjects.” In a section on ethical policy, the document says: “Since 1958 the investigators of this Foundation have conducted all research under the ethical provisions of the Nuremburg [sic] Code, modified to permit consent by parents or legal guardians.”[

In January 1973, in a rapidly changing research ethics environment, the Oregon irradiations were terminated when Amos Reed, administrator of the Corrections Division, ordered all medical experimentation programs shut down essentially because he concluded that prisoners could not consent freely to participate as subjects. It is not known exactly what was behind the timing of Reed’s decision, but according to Oregon Times Magazine, he had recently read Jessica Mitford’s article in the Atlantic Monthly titled “Experiments Behind Bars” and an article in The (Portland) Oregonian headlined “Medical Research Provides Source of Income for Prisoners.”

In 1976, a number of subjects filed lawsuits effectively alleging poorly supervised research and lack of informed consent. In their depositions they alleged among other things that prisoners had sometimes controlled the radiation dose to which they were exposed, that an inmate with a grudge against a subject filled a syringe with water instead of Novocain, resulting in a vasectomy performed without anesthetic, and that the experimental procedures resulted in considerable pain and discomfort for which they were not prepared. These suits were settled out of court in 1979. Nine plaintiffs shared $2,215 in damages.

For the last twenty years all efforts to put in place a medical follow-up program for the Oregon subjects have been unsuccessful. Dr. Heller and Ms. Rowley explicitly favored regular medical follow-up. During the period between 1976 and 1979, the pending lawsuits might have been the reason for the state’s reluctance to initiate a follow-up program, but it is less clear why during other periods such efforts have also failed. Two possible reasons suggested by state officials are the cost of such a program and the difficulty of finding released convicts. Other possible reasons are that a follow-up program would not provide a significant health benefit to former subjects and that it would not provide significant new scientific knowledge. According to Tom Toombs, administrator of the Corrections Division of the State of Oregon at the time of the lawsuits, the Corrections Division wrote to the AEC’s successor (the Energy Research and Development Administration) in early 1976 recommending medical follow-up for the subjects. Mr. Toombs said there was no record of a response to this request. In 1990, James Ruttenber, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control, designed a follow-up program for Oregon, but it has not been implemented. In an interview with Advisory Committee staff, Dr. Ruttenber said state officials told him that Oregon does not have sufficient funds to carry out his plan.”

– “Chapter 9.2: The Oregon and Washington Experiments,” Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, Final Report. US Department of Energy Office of Environment, Health, Safety and Security Search, 1994.

Read Full Post »

“Isolated incidents of prison-based research before World War II formed the foundation for a practice that would become firmly embedded in the structure of American clinical research during World War II. Perhaps the most significant wartime medical research project in which American scientists employed prisoners as research subjects was centered in Illinois’s Stateville Prison. Beginning in 1944, hundreds of Illinois prisoners submitted to experimental cases of malaria as researchers attempted to find more effective means to prevent and cure tropical diseases that ravaged Allied forces in the Pacific Theater. 

In 1947, a committee was established by the governor of Illinois to examine the ethics of using state prisoners as research subjects. The committee was chaired by Andrew Ivy, a prominent University of Illinois physiologist and the chief expert witness on medical ethics for the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Medical Trial, where prison research was a salient topic. The committee pronounced the wartime experiments at Stateville Prison “ideal” in their conformity with the newly adopted rules of the American Medical Association concerning human experimentation. The AMA rules, which Ivy had played a key role in developing, included provisions stipulating voluntary consent from subjects, prior animal experimentation, and carefully managed research under the authority of properly qualified clinical researchers. Perhaps most significantly, the findings of Ivy’s committee were announced to the American medical community when the group’s final report was reproduced in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The appearance of this report in the nation’s leading medical journal both represented and reinforced the sentiment that prison research was ethically acceptable.

Publicly aired assertions that experimentation on prisoners relied on exploitation or coercion were extremely rare in the United States before the late 1960s. One criticism of medical research behind bars did, however, emerge with some frequency: prisoners who participated in research were somehow escaping from their just measures of punishment. Inmates were usually offered rewards in exchange for their scientific services, ranging from more comfortable surroundings, to cash, to early release. Perhaps the most powerful statement of the concern that convicts should not receive special treatment because they had participated in an experiment came from the AMA. In 1952, this organization formally approved a resolution stating its “disapproval of the participation in scientific experiments of persons convicted of murder, rape, arson, kidnapping, treason, or other heinous crimes.” The AMA was alarmed that some such criminals “have not only received citations, but have in some instances been granted parole much sooner than would otherwise have occurred." 

It should be noted that the use of prisoners as research subjects seems to have been a uniquely American practice in the years following World War II. The large-scale successes of prison experimentation during World War II–and the authoritative pronouncement of the Ivy Committee that prison research could be conducted in an ethical fashion–seem to have given the practice a kind of momentum in this country that it did not have elsewhere. In other countries it seems that the first clause of the Nuremberg Code was interpreted to preclude the use of prisoners in experimentation. This clause begins with the assertion that the only acceptable experimental subjects are those who are "so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice.”

It is difficult to overemphasize just how common the practice became in the United States during the postwar years. Researchers employed prisoners as subjects in a multitude of experiments that ranged in purpose from a desire to understand the cause of cancer to a need to test the effects of a new cosmetic. After the Food and Drug Administration’s restructuring of drug-testing regulations in 1962, prisoners became almost the exclusive subjects in nonfederally funded Phase I pharmaceutical trials designed to test the toxicity of new drugs. By 1972, FDA officials estimated that more than 90 percent of all investigational drugs were first tested on prisoners.

It appears that throughout the history of medical experimentation on American prisoners many inmates have valued the opportunity to participate in medical research. One must quickly add that such an observation points to the paucity of opportunities open to most prisoners. The common perception among inmates that participating in a medical experiment was a good opportunity has had an important impact on the racial aspects of prison experimentation. Because of the large numbers of African-Americans in prison (and the overt racial exploitation of the notorious Tuskegee syphilis study, in which black men with syphilis were observed but not treated), it might be assumed that minorities predominated as research subjects in prisons. The opposite has generally been true; white prisoners have usually been overrepresented in the “privileged” role of research subject. In most prison studies before and during World War II, it seems that all of the research subjects were white. In 1975, the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research carefully examined the racial composition of the research subjects at a prison with a major drug-testing program. The commission found that African-Americans made up only 31 percent of the subject population, while this racial “minority” formed 68 percent of the general prison population.

The shift in public opinion against the use of prisoners as research subjects, which began in the late 1960s, was no doubt tied to many other social and political changes sweeping the country: the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the patients’ rights movement, the prisoners’ rights movement, and the general questioning of authority associated with the anti-Vietnam War protests. But, as has been common in the history of human experimentation, scandal galvanized public attention, brought official inquiry, and resulted in significant change. A major scandal in prison experimentation came when the New York Times published a front-page article on July 29, 1969, detailing an ethically and scientifically sloppy drug-testing program that a physician had established in the state prisons of Alabama. Even more sensational was Jessica Mitford’s January 1973 Atlantic Monthly article. In this article, Mitford portrayed experimentation on prisoners as a practice built on exploitation and coercion of an extremely disadvantaged class.[66] When the article reappeared later in 1973 as a chapter in her widely read book critiquing American prisons, she had come up with an especially provocative and suggestive title for this section of the book: “Cheaper than Chimpanzees." Mitford, and most of the growing number who condemned experimentation on prisoners during the 1970s (and after), offered two arguments against the practice. First, prisoners were identified as incapable of offering voluntary consent because of a belief that most (some argued, all) prisons are inherently coercive environments. Another line of argument was based on a principle of justice that stipulated that one class–especially a disadvantaged class such as prisoners–should not be expected to carry an undue burden of service in the realm of medical research.”

– “Chapter 9.4 History of Prison Research Regulation,” Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, Final Report. US Department of Energy Office of Environment, Health, Safety and Security Search, 1994.

Read Full Post »

“At midnight on Oct. 1, 2018, New York’s Raise the Age law went into effect, ending the state’s practice of automatically charging young people as adults at age 16. It also required New York City to move all 16- and 17-year-olds out of the infamously brutal Rikers Island jail complex and into the Horizon juvenile detention center in the Bronx.

Mayor Bill de Blasio heralded the move as a significant victory. “Beginning today,” he said, “no one under 18 will go to Rikers Island. Kids will be treated like kids instead of adults.”

Yet from the start, that mission was subverted. When fights broke out the very first week among detainees, injuring correction officers, their union was adamant that they could only restore order by using the same level of force they were authorized to use at Rikers. Surveillance video of brawling adolescents was released to the media, and correction officers told reporters they feared for their lives. On Oct. 10, the state granted a waiver allowing guards to use OC pepper spray on youth. (That plan has since been delayed while city and state officials negotiate its use, which is prohibited in juvenile facilities.)

Raise the Age was intended to shield children from the horrors of the adult criminal justice system. Yet, New York’s implementation of the plan seems to have merely transported the culture of violence from Rikers Island to Horizon.

There are reasons for that. The law mandated that young people be removed from Rikers, but authorized the same agency—the city’s Department of Correction—to help run the adolescent detention centers where they were moved, alongside program staff from the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). And because ACS could not hire enough “youth development specialists” by the Oct. 1 deadline, correction officers—whose horrific abuse of teenagers brought a federal lawsuit and consent decree to Rikers—are still guarding them in juvenile detention.

These correction officers and their union have painted the teens as dangerous, violent, and predatory criminals who can only be controlled by force. But the city itself seems to have bought into the logic that the adolescents from Rikers would bring with them a culture of violence too intense for ACS alone to handle.

To prepare for their arrival, the city relocated youth charged as juvenile delinquents to its Crossroads facility in Brooklyn, fearing the adolescents from Rikers would victimize them. It renovated Horizon to make it even more secure: reinforced cells, a larger control room, an arsenal of riot control gear, and plexiglass barriers in the cafeteria to keep youth from having contact with kitchen staff. New York City achieved getting the youth off Rikers, but in the process it has “Rikerized” Horizon.

These changes reflect a lack of faith in New York’s young people and the city’s ability to serve them. Teens are remarkably adept at living up to exactly what we expect of them. If we create an environment that anticipates violence, they will behave as expected. But research shows that if we treat them with love and respect, then young people—even the most traumatized, difficult, and challenging among them—will respond in kind.

I know that from my own experience running a mentoring program for court-involved youth in the South Bronx. But I’ve also seen a different approach to the same challenge playing out in the nation’s capital.

On the same day that New York’s Raise the Age law went into effect, the District of Columbia hit a deadline for removing youth charged as adults from the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility. Prior to the transfer, they had been subject to the same conditions as the youth on Rikers. Correction officers were authorized to use brute force, OC pepper spray, mechanical restraints, and 23-hour lockdown as tools of control.

At the New Beginnings facility run by the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), they were met by youth development specialists instead of corrections officers. These adolescents look no different than the youth coming from Rikers. They are also 16- and 17-year-olds and have been charged with serious and violent felony offenses. But since they arrived at New Beginnings, there have been no outbreaks of violence, no physical restraints, and no need for pepper spray. They sleep in their own housing unit, but are otherwise fully integrated with their peers during school, meals, and recreational time. I asked one of the staff members if the youth they call “Title 16” (after the statute that lets them be charged as adults) were different from their delinquency cases. “Nah,” he said, “they’re all just kids.””

– Rubén Austria, “MOVING TEENS OFF RIKERS ISLAND WAS A GOOD FIRST STEP. NOW COMES THE HARD PART.” The Appeal. November 1, 2018.

Read Full Post »

“Chicago Courts Drive Back The Mounting Wave of Crime,” Chicago Sunday Tribune. October 15, 1933. Pages 4 & 5.

The ‘War on Crime’ – frequent arrests, violent shoot-outs, harsh sentences, anti-corruption drives, mass incarceration – to break ‘commercialized crime’ in Chicago.

Read Full Post »

‘Our great embarrassment as a civilized nation’

In the purported “land of the free” and “home of the brave,” we have to end our horribly destructive, dysfunctional reliance on physically and psychologically ripping our people apart from their friends, family, and communities – often setting them up to return to prison again, later, in a maddening, self-perpetuating, defeating cycle, to serve even harsher, more punitive sentences.

(Federal judge Raymond J. Dearie, formerly the United States Attorney in Brooklyn, once aptly lamented: “Why this love affair in this country with lengthy incarceration, to our great embarrassment as a civilized nation?”)  

No longer can we tolerate the pervasive rehabilitative deprivations and despicably inhumane living conditions that define our penal system.

As a Norwegian prison “governor” and clinical psychologist eloquently and pragmatically cautioned in a 2014 piece exploring “Why Norway’s prison system is so successful”: “In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer.

The punishment is that you lose your freedom.

If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.”

We must follow the sage advice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in demanding an end to racial discrimination in 1963, famously articulated the “fierce urgency of now”; for it is that same unrelenting, unquelled urgency that no less characterizes our nation’s long-lagging need for meaningful, far-reaching prison reform.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Reverend King poignantly observed that “[t]here comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men [and women] are no longer willing to be plunged in the abyss of despair.”

It is this dark and ominous feeling that currently dominates morale inside America’s prisons today; danger is the foreseeable consequence.  

Outside of our too numerous prisons, with their too crowded confines, the need for people with integrity to speak up and to act out on behalf of achieving prison reform is every bit as pressing.

For as Dr. King elegantly concluded in his book “Why we can’t wait”: “The bell of man’s inhumanity to man does not toll for any one man, it tolls for you, for me, for all of us.”

– Stephen Cooper, “America must face and fix its unjust prison system.” Tennessean. September 8, 2018.

Read Full Post »

“Dale Pughsley turned 39 this summer but it wasn’t a happy birthday.  He’s spent more than half of his life in Virginia prisons and could very well die there for something he did when he was a kid.

“I was 18 years old, and it was a crack deal.  I was selling drugs,“ he recalls. ” I grew up selling drugs to my father.  I was in a real dysfunctional household.  I’m not making excuses, but that was my life.  That’s what I knew.   I had been in and out of juvie since I was 14 years old. I mean I was a career criminal by the time I was 14 ”

And that meant being able to protect himself.

“I had a gun – a 25 automatic.  Me and a guy got to arguing over crack,“ he explains. "He was refusing to pay me.  I pulled out the gun really to intimidate him, and he tried to take it, and I shot him and killed him.  I say accidentally, because it wasn’t my intention to kill him.”

Pughsley was charged with second-degree murder.  Sentencing guidelines for the crime dictate a prison term of 5 to 40 years, but Pughsley got 58.  The jury might have assumed he would be eligible for parole, but it had just been abolished in Virginia, and courts were not telling juries about the change.

Pughsley settled in at Red Onion Prison in Wise County and began the education he didn’t get outside.  

“I came at a time where older guys were giving you books.  Conversations were happening back then.  What does it mean to be a black man in America?  What does it mean to be a prisoner in America?  How much should you be held accountable for being a victim of certain circumstances?  Does society owe us anything?”

One of them lent him the Selected Works of Vladimir Lenin, but Pughsley wasn’t much of a reader.  He asked his mentor for a simple explanation – a summary.

“He’s like, ‘Hell no!  Take my dictionary.  I don’t give a damn if it takes you three days to read three pages.  You read it, and you come back and tell me what it means to you, man.’ Now I read and study all the time by myself, and I try to pay it forward to some of the younger guys.”

He was transferred to a lower security prison in Buckingham County, where he worked with professional counselors to help fellow inmates manage anger and address substance abuse, and he talked to them about the way Virginia handles people convicted of crimes.  A 2012 study by the Pew Charitable Trust found on average this state has the fourth longest prison sentences in the nation.

“There’s something wrong where you only have 9% of the general public that’s African-American male, but 65% of the system is African-American male.”

After he started organizing other prisoners around these issues, Pughsley was transferred to the Augusta Correctional Center. There he continued his work – pointing out that inmates make less than a dollar an hour to manufacture license plates, furniture and clothing  for a state-run corporation.

“They’re able to exploit our labor, because we’re not protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act, and we’re not protected by Virginia’s minimum wage act, and we’re talking about an agency that makes nearly $100 million a year from prison labor.”

The state was spending less than two dollars a day to feed each inmate, it had been sued and lost in court for providing inadequate medical care, and Pughsley said the staff was not large enough to ensure prisoner safety. The Department of Corrections refused to discuss Pughsley or his complaints with us – his claim of understaffing, but it recently offered to pay prison guards an $8,000 bonus if they would transfer to a job in Augusta.  As for Pughsley, he’s been transferred five times in the last 20 months, and he claims to be stuck in solitary confinement for speaking out.”

– Sandy Hausman, “Prisoner Fighting for Reform From The Inside Placed in Solitary Confinement.” Radio IQ / WVTV. September 5, 2018.

Read Full Post »

“PHILADELPHIA – On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) continued its near-total lockdown of state prisons, confining most people in the department’s facilities to their cells 24 hours per day and prohibiting mail and visitation. According to the DOC, some facilities had some restrictions lifted over the weekend, and more facilities will lift restrictions throughout this week.

As the lockdown entered its seventh day, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania responded to the ongoing situation. The following can be attributed to Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania:

“The continuing lockdown at the Department of Corrections is gravely serious. We share the department’s concern about the health of the staff. The health of the people who are incarcerated is also of utmost priority.

“Unfortunately, the DOC has failed to provide meaningful transparency in this situation, leaving loved ones of people who are incarcerated uninformed and anxious about what is happening. And the public statements on the DOC’s own website talk only about the health of staff, with no mention of how many prisoners have become ill. If staff have been ill, it’s reasonable to conclude that prisoners have been sick, too, although the lack of information makes that impossible to confirm. Either way, the department has left prisoners’ families and the public in the dark on the health of the people who are incarcerated.

“The DOC should immediately provide public information about how many prisoners, if any, have become ill and how families can check on the status of their loved ones.

“The department must also reinstate mail and visitation privileges as soon as possible, as mail and visitation are constitutionally protected rights for people who are incarcerated.

“In a radio interview today, Secretary Wetzel stated that facilities will be back to normal operations by next week if there are no more illnesses. If there are more illnesses, he simply stated that the department will ‘revisit’ the situation. That response is inadequate. We do not accept the notion that the DOC can hold prisoners in their cells 24 hours per day, stop mail, and end visitations and phone calls in every state facility every time a staff person becomes ill. The health of the DOC staff is certainly critical, as is the health and well-being of prisoners. A statewide lockdown is a heavy-handed response that is detrimental to the long-term health of people who are incarcerated.”

– 

ACLU-PA Statement on Continuing Lockdown of Pennsylvania Prisons, September 4, 2018.

Read Full Post »

“There is hope, though. For centuries, a worker’s most potent weapon against exploitation from capitalism and oppression from the powers that be has been direct action: the strike. And right now, America’s prisoners are on strike. Incarcerated workers across the nation are standing up to protest their inhumane living conditions and buck the horrific yoke of prison slavery with organized labor’s strongest weapons—solidarity and collective action.

The prison strike was organized by workers both inside and outside detention facilities, spearheaded by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), and supported by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) and the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), and sparked by [deadly uprisings at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina earlier this year that cost seven prisoners’ lives. The strike began on August 21 and ends on September 9, dates that reflect the legacy of rebellion in American prisons: on August 21, 1971, George Jackson was killed by prison guards in San Quentin, and his death was met by protests from other prisoners across the country, culminating in the famed September 9 uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. By choosing these dates, participants in the prison strike of 2018 are drawing a direct line between their current struggle and the struggles of those who have come before, emphasizing the stark fact that very little has changed in terms of conditions or opportunities for those who are locked up and held by the state since the birth of the modern prison system.

The striking prisoners of today have released a list of ten demands, which calls for improvements to the current living conditions in prisons, increased rehabilitation programs, educational opportunities, and specific policy goals. This essentially articulates the idea of non-reformist reforms, a central plank of prison abolition. By illuminating the barbarity of the current prison system and calling for its abolishment while advocating for an improvement in current conditions, they are—to paraphraseFrench socialist André Gorz—asking not for what can be achieved within a current system, but for what should be possible.

As of August 21, across 17 states (and one Canadian province), these incarcerated workers are demanding real, tangible prison reform, and the abolition of one of America’s great enduring shames—the loophole enacted by the 13th amendment that decrees slavery can be used to penalize those convicted of a crime. This is where the term “prison slavery” originates, as director Ava DuVernay laid out in her groundbreaking 2016 documentary 13th, which argues that slavery never ended — it was just repurposed by the prison industrial complex and blossomed as mass incarceration. Her documentary argued that the new American plantations don’t grow cotton, they work prison jobs churning out license plates and other cheap goods, for which prisoners are paid mere pennies on the hour—if at all. Meanwhile, prison labor generates an estimated $1 billion per year, proving to be quite a profitable business for the private companies and corporations who benefit from prisoners’ work.

Prison labor is used to manufacture a vast array of consumer goods, from Christmas toys and blue jeans to military equipment, lingerie, and car parts. Incarcerated people also frequently serve as a captive labor force for prisons themselves as kitchen and maintenance workers, and for a variety of other services, from shoveling snow after a Boston blizzard to harvesting oranges in Florida. (California recently made headlines when it was revealed that it was using prison labor to fight its deadly wildfires, which it has done since the 1940s; the prisoners (which included some juvenile offenders) were reportedly paid $1 per hour plus $2 per day to risk their lives, and are barred from becoming firefighters after their release.) Prisoners are paid very little for their work; the average wage in state prisons ranges, on average, from 14 cents to 63 cents per hour for “regular” prison jobs, and between 33 cents and $1.41 per hour for those who work for state-owned businesses, and while they are working full-time jobs, prisoners do not always have the benefit of basic labor protections, such as minimum wage, sick leave, or overtime pay. Given that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 2.3 million people currently behind bars, the prison industrial complex would collapse were it to pay incarcerated workers the minimum wage—which creates further incentive for them to keep locking people up.

Many prisoners welcome the chance to work during their incarceration, because it gets them out of their cells, allows them to make purchases from commissary, and gives them the opportunity to send money home to their loved ones, but not everyone is given a choice: according to Newsweek, some prisoners in eight states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas—are not paid at all for their labor in government-run facilities.

Unlike most other workers, prisoners cannot simply walk off the job; they are forced to get more creative. Participants in the strike have several options available to them, according to Mother Jones, including commissary boycotts, work stoppages, sit-ins, and hunger strikes, and reports of participation are continually coming in from different facilities. In addition, these workers also have much more to fear in terms of retaliation, and several organizers say that they have already endured punitive measures.

Participating in a prison strike is a matter of life or death, but for prisoners seeking justice, if not freedom, there is really no other option.”

– Kim Kelly, “How the Ongoing Prison Strike is Connected to the Labor Movement.” Teen Vogue, September 4, 2018.

Read Full Post »

“Every day at about 5pm, 60-year-old Willard Birts has to find a power outlet. Then he has to wait two hours next to it while the battery on his ankle monitor recharges. If he lets the battery drain, or enters San Mateo county, he risks being sent back to jail while he awaits trial.

Birts pays $30 per day – that’s $840 per month – for the privilege of wearing the bulky device. It sucks up all his income, leaving him homeless and sleeping in his Ford Escape in Oakland.

“It’s like a rope around my neck,” he told the Guardian, a cable snaking across the floor from his ankle to the wall. “I can’t get my feet back on the ground.”

The use of GPS ankle monitors in the American criminal justice system is on the rise – up 140% between 2005 and 2015, says the latest data available. The government uses these devices to track the location of individuals to make sure they are complying with the terms of their release, whether that’s being at home every night after a certain time or avoiding specific places. They appear to offer a tantalising alternative to jail and the chance to be with family on the outside.

It pretends to be an alternative but it’s actually a form of incarceration

But wearers described them as digital shackles that deprive them of their liberties in cruel and unexpected ways.

“It pretends to be an alternative to incarceration but it’s actually a form of incarceration,” said James Kilgore, who runs the Challenging E-Carceration project at the Center for Media Justice.

The rules for electronic monitors differ depending on the county and the offence. They are used both pre-trial and during parole and probation. In some cases the county covers the total cost of the technology – after all, it’s saving money on extra beds in prison – while in others fees for the wearer range anywhere from $10 to $35 per day.

Beyond the financial costs, ankle monitors introduce new ways for the wearer – disproportionately, people from impoverished and socially marginalised communities – to end up back in prison.

“The minute you have a device on you you can go back to prison because your bus is late, or the battery dies or there is a power outage,” Kilgore said.

Private companies will sometimes offer their surveillance technology at no cost to cash-strapped counties, instead pushing the cost on to the wearers.

William Edwards, a 38-year-old former office clerk, was made to pay $25 a day to wear a GPS-tracking ankle monitor between January and April 2017.

He had been driving an acquaintance’s car with the owner in the vehicle when police pulled them over in November 2016. Police found drugs in the owner’s bag and a gun in the glove compartment and arrested both men.

Edwards, who suffers from chronic myeloid leukemia, spent December 2016 in Alameda county jail in California, where his health began to deteriorate. He was released on the condition that he wore a GPS monitor.

“You just think about the opportunity of being home with the people who care about you,” he said. “But it was horrible. A living nightmare.”

Although Edwards had no convictions – and the charges were later dropped – he spent months as a prisoner in his own home, constantly harassed for money by LCA, the company that provided the tracking service. LCA demanded to know what his girlfriend earned so they could base their “means-tested” fees on his household income.

“I felt like I was dealing with a mafia loan shark,” he said.

Edwards is using the legal system to fight back. He is part of a class-action lawsuit against LCA and Alameda county, filed in early August, which accuses the county of allowing a private company to make profit-driven decisions about people’s freedoms, denying them due process. It accuses LCA of extorting fees from people through the threat of incarceration, in violation of federal racketeering laws.

The restriction of liberty is a government function, but when that service is provided by a private company there’s no public oversight of decision-making. In the case of LCA there’s no transparency over how it decides the fees to charge nor the techniques it users to ensure people cough up.

“You would never let a public probation officer threaten someone with jail if they can’t pay a fee,” said Phil Telfeyan, the founding director of Equal Justice Under Law, which is bringing the suit. “We’re not going to let a private company do that either.”

LCA declined to comment.

‘These are not silver bullets’
Despite the surge in use of ankle monitors, there’s not much rigorous research to suggest they are effective at preventing people from absconding or re-offending or at keeping the public safe. Some studies have, though, shown they can be useful for ensuring that sex and drug offenders comply with the terms of their parole, such as home confinement orders.

In many cases they add an administrative burden on probation and parole officers who have to deal with thousands of daily alerts, errors and false positives. This “crying wolf” aspect has caused officers to miss or ignore important alerts, meaning the public is lulled into a false sense of security.

In Colorado, a parolee called Evan Ebel cut off his ankle monitor before murdering a Denver pizza delivery man. He then tracked down Colorado’s prisons chief and shot him dead at his home. Parole officers didn’t realise he had gone awol for several days.

In California, the sex offender Phillip Garrido wore a GPS monitor and was visited at his home by parole agents at least twice a month. It took 18 years for agents to discover that he had been keeping Jaycee Dugard captive in his garden, having kidnapped her as a child. During that time Garrido repeatedly raped Dugard, fathering two children.

– 

Olivia Solon, in Oakland, “‘Digital shackles’: the unexpected cruelty of ankle monitors.” The Guardian, August 28, 2018. 

Read Full Post »

On the website for Unicor, the newly renamed Federal Prison Industries — the 84-year-old government-run corporation that utilizes incarcerated people for labor — there’s a section called “Shopping.” There, you can benefit from the fruits of the company’s “Factories With Fences” program, which produces items manufactured by the 182,797 inmates of the nation’s federal prisons: socks, solar panels, goggles, shelving, license plates, office furniture. For $139, you can buy the Chrome Frame Matrix HD Chair for your office or home in ebony, wine, sapphire, or indigo, knowing it was made by prisoners who serve Unicor at dozens of facilitiesfrom Canaan, Pennsylvania, to Atwater, California. If you are looking for labor, prisoners can also be contracted for your company, for services ranging from manufacturing to call center duties. After all, it’s a fantastic deal: The pay rate for inmates ranges from 23 cents to $1.15 an hour. This, partners are told, offers companies “minimized overhead costs to help drive bottom-line improvements. (Seeing this bargain laid out in the crisp, airless language of convenience capitalism both elides the skin-crawling horror of incarceration and somehow underscores it.) Unicor has a capsule history of the federal U.S. prison labor program on its website, which notes that prison work programs originated in the United States with the nation’s founding in the 1700s, and that “despite periods of criticism from detractors, increasingly constrictive procurement laws, misinformation and stigma,” they have “endured.”

The latest “test” to prison labor comes not from outside detractors or procurement laws, but from within the prisons themselves. On August 21, a loosely connected network of incarcerated activists, led by the group Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, announced a nationwide prison strike. One of the ten demands released by the protesters is an end to prison slavery – a demand for a full and fair wage just noting it specifies as based on the prevailing wage in their state or territory for any labor performed while incarcerated.

The strike was inspired by a riot at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina, on April 15, which left seven inmates — Corey Scott, Eddie Casey Gaskins, Raymond Angelo Scott, Damonte Rivera, Michael Milledge, Cornelius McClary, and Joshua Jenkins — dead. Prisoners stated that the surge of violence was due to inhumane living conditions, punitive sentences, and the prison warehousing rival gangs in the same units.

The date was set for August 21, the day Nat Turner’s slave revolt began in 1831. It’s meant to last until September 9, the anniversary of the Attica State Peniteniary uprising, a mass prisoner takeover of an upstate New York prison in 1971 that ultimately led to significant reforms in the New York carceral system.

“We are men! We are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such,” said Attica inmate Elliot “L.D.” Barkley, in one of the first public statements made by the protesting prisoners in 1971. Barkley, the most visible face of the Attica uprising, was shot in the back and killed when authorities stormed the prison to quell the uprising, leaving thirty prisoners and ten prison guards dead.

The first demand of the 2018 strike echoes Barkley’s words across decades: It is a call for “immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.” The rest are concretizations of this demand: that the label of “violent offender” should not result in anyone being barred from rehabilitation programs; that current and former prisoners regain their voting rights; an end to racist over-charging of black and brown people; and an end to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which severely restricts the ability of prisoners to file federal lawsuits, among others.

The strike is as sprawling and difficult to track as America’s prison state itself, a system that encompasses some 2.3 million people. Its participants are largely anonymized by the activists who publicize their resistance, for fear of retaliation by prison authorities. By its very nature, it vexes publications, as the incarcerated individuals taking part are purposefully tucked out of sight and kept from communicating with the press. But reports have trickled out — particularly in activist-aligned outlets like Democracy Now! and It’s Going Down — of ICE detainees hunger-striking in Washington State; prison work stoppages in South Carolina; boycotts of commissaries in Florida; and more hunger strikers, in Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia, and California. Many groups of strikers have released local demands. These reports are smuggled out like the contraband they are, to whichever ears on the outside are willing to receive them.

At New Folsom Prison in California, 26-year-old Heriberto Garcia, in the tenth year of a fifteen-years-to-life sentence for voluntary manslaughter, recorded himself refusing food in his cell and smuggled the video to a revolutionary press in Chicago, which posted the video to Twitter. “I was introduced to the gang life at the age of 11. I ended incarcerated at the age of 16 and have been down ever since,” he wrote to correspondents at True Leap Press last year. “I’m still evolving with the struggle and will continue as long as I’m alive.”

Sympathizers on the outside have staged a variety of actions to show solidarity to incarcerated strikers. In Minneapolis, protesters set off fireworks outside one of the city’s juvenile detention centers, accompanied by music by the anarchist marching band Unlawful Assembly. In Brooklyn, marchers banged drums while Metropolitan Detention Center inmates flashed contraband cellphones through narrow windows; in other states, activists have participated in banner drops, created solidarity graffiti, and clashed with police in marches.

Inside prison walls, incarcerated individuals who engage in active resistance must contend with a system designed to impose punishment and tighten the vice of privation. Activists have reported retaliatory solitary confinement, transfers, and the deprivation of clean clothes and showers for prisoners who have helped to organize hunger strikes and work stoppages. In America’s prisons — the gray archipelago of warehoused men and women tucked in towns, behind great casements of cement — a great shadow economy moves forward. Every consumer annoyance in the outside world — phone-company fees, health insurance premiums — has a parallel that exists in the prison economy, only contractors are free to exploit a captive audience. Prisoners stripped of their liberty have to further contend with exorbitant fees for outside phone calls; charges for medical care; erratic or extortionate prices in prison commissaries; and perhaps most grotesquely, in 43 states, “room and board fees” for incarceration itself.

Imprisoned men and women are the drivers of this multibillion-dollar shadow economy: its laborers and its prey. The work stoppages and hunger strikes are the weapons of those from whom all others have been stripped. The hands that assemble thousands of chairs and tables and solar panels, that sew socks and table linens, that print and bind books for pennies, have no recourse beyond stilling themselves from that work, in the face of fearful punishment. Over the past decades, prisoners have packaged holiday coffees for Starbucks, stitched lingerie for Victoria’s Secret, and answered calls for AT&T, and farmed tilapia for Whole Foods, among dozens of other blue-chip brands. The small luxuries — cheese, chocolate, soap — of the commissary are all they have to boycott, and those who can are doing so. Hunger itself is the last offensive of the incarcerated person, when the only freedom left for a body is the freedom to devour itself. It’s the freedom once expressed by the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who wrote, after her husband was shot and her daughter imprisoned by Stalin:

In this madhouse of the inhuman
I refuse to live. With the wolves of the marketplace
I refuse to be. I refuse to swim
with the sharks, on a current of human spines.

In America, our gulags are run not just to punish, but for private companies’ profit, for the sake of the smooth and ugly Chrome Frame Matrix HD Office Chair and its buyers, made in prison. The act of striking is a rebuke not just of individual prison conditions, but of the grinding, predatory march of the prison economy itself. America is punitive — we have the largest number of incarcerated individuals in the world — and it is harsh to those it punishes. It is not a coincidence that those subject to the abysmal conditions of the carceral state are disproportionately racial minorities. Black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites across the country, and at ten times the rate of whites in some states. Modern prison slavery, as criminal-justice reform advocates have pointed out again and again, is an extension of our nation’s original sin, the forced labor of black bodies. The acts of defiance smuggled to our eyes and ears from within the system are necessarily small, necessarily isolated from one another, necessarily borne of the cramped and violent framework in which they are contained. It is on us to amplify them to their appropriate enormity, to let the fire of that fierce, noble hunger rise in us, and turn insatiably to justice.

– Talia Lavin, “#Prisonstrike: A Rebellion Inside America’s Profitable Gulag Archipelago.” Village Voice, August 31, 2018.

Read Full Post »

“Months ago, inmates across the U.S. began planning a strike over prison conditions, including low or nonexistent wages. To start getting the word out, they didn’t target big news organizations. Instead, organizers posted about the imminent strikes to their own social-media followers. And they contacted publications with an activist bent, like Shadowproof, a press organization focused on marginalized communities, and the San Francisco Bay View, a black-liberation newspaper.

They worried, based on past experience, that mainstream outlets would emphasize that prisoners’ often anonymous accounts of the strike couldn’t be verified and the fact that the impact of the strike was hard to predict. But more radical publications, they believed, would focus on the strikers’ message, about unjust prison conditions and what should be done about them. That message could be amplified online, and picked up by bigger publications. “We intentionally went from the bottom up,” Brooke Terpstra, an organizer in Oakland with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a group that has been supporting the strike, told me.

The strike began on August 21 and is set to last through September 9, the anniversary of the Attica prison uprising of 1971. In addition to calling for prisoners to be paid the prevailing wage where they live (under the current regime, they can be paid a couple of dollars an hour, or, in some states, nothing at all), the strikers’ list of 10 demands includes voting rights for “ex-felons” and better funding for rehabilitation services. Thus far, it’s not clear how widespread the protest has been. Organizers report that prisoners are striking in Washington, Georgia, South Carolina, and California, among several other states, where prisoners are refusing to work and eat. That’s a conservative estimate, Terpstra told me, as organizers want to remain cautious in order to maintain credibility. Early on, one organizer suggested in an interview that non-prisoners should demonstrate their solidarity by protesting outside prison gates, which appears to have happened at some facilities. In general, prison officials have largely countered the organizers’ claims, saying they’re not aware of any strikes at their facilities.*

Still, the strikers’ strategy, designed for the current media moment, has proved extraordinarily successful by the measures set by the strikers themselves. Following initial pieces in publications like Shadowproof and the Bay View, mainstream outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR started covering the protest. Social-media posts from the strike organizers and their supporters have gone viral. People are talking about the strike and, by extension, about poor prison conditions across the U.S. and prisoners’ demands to see them changed. In an era in which most people experience public events by reading, hearing, and watching videos about them online, the inability to get an inside look at the current prison protest doesn’t seem to have hampered its reach.

“Just as the men in Attica knew that it was important to reach out to the media when they protested inhumane prison conditions in 1971, so too do the folks inside today,” Heather Ann Thompson, a historian and the author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, told me in an email. “Prisons are allowed to be the terrible places they are because, despite being public institutions that we fund and are run in our name, we are allowed no look at what goes on inside.”

For all the public attention, Terpstra pointed out that mainstream lawmakers and political organizations, including labor unions, haven’t said much. A day after the strike began, Ro Khanna, a Democratic congressman representing Silicon Valley, tweeted his support. “Instead of focusing on rehabilitation, inmates are exploited for cheap labor,” he wrote, noting that prisoners working for a dollar an hour are fighting wildfires in his home state. “That is simply inexcusable.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic congressional candidate from New York, wrote, “I don’t believe slavery should exist anywhere in the United States. Including in our prison system.” But many higher-profile politicians have remained silent.”

– Vauhini Vara, “The Viral Success of a Strike No One Can See.” The Atlantic, August 30, 2018.

Read Full Post »

Piper Kerman spent several hours in the Old Capitol Inn Thursday first talking about her life and her bestselling memoir about her year in a federal women’s prison, “Orange is the New Black.” Soon after the luncheon, she joined a panel on “Correcting Corrections: A Deep Dive on Prison Education” that was interrupted in the middle by protesters supporting a prison strike in the state’s prisons.

The mood of the panel, moderated by 5th U.S. Court of Appeals Judge James E. Graves, was somber as the participants talked about the link between a lack of education, dropping out of high school, and the likelihood of being incarcerated. Kerman, who attended Smith College in Massachusetts in the 1990s, talked about how her education, something she emphasized cannot be taken away in a strip search, helped her to cope with her sentence. She now teaches at a women’s prison in Ohio.

“It’s not just about the facts—it’s about the habits of mind,” Kerman said, adding that her critical thinking skills and ability to “seek objectivity around information and try to put that in place as opposed to being completely reactive,” helped her cope.

Betty Lou Jones of the Mississippi Parole Board painted a grim picture of just how a lack of education manifests in the courtroom.

“The fact that some inmates when they are sentenced haven’t an idea of the terminology or the language, and have no ability to incorporate that into their thinking, (and) the inability for them to have a conversation because of the lack of language skills is devastating,” Jones said.

‘Get Those People Out of Here’
Near the cusp of the panel’s second hour, a group of protesters barged into the overly air-conditioned room, listing the 10 demands of the Nationwide Prison Strike, running from Aug 21-Sept 9.

The audience stirred, but sat somewhat quietly as a fired-up protester walked toward the stage announcing the exigencies, while others passed out handouts. He got to the ninth demand when Judge Graves interrupted.

“Sir, how long is your list?” Graves asked. “We are not going to listen to the entire list…”

“We’re going to do it all over again,” another protester yelled over Graves.

The first man finished the final demand on the list. Kerman leaned in, saying nothing, but watching on.

“Get those people out of here,” a woman in the audience said.

“Call law enforcement,” another said.

Several people forcibly removed the protesters who did not go quietly. After firing off more statistics about the justice system, and accusing the room of not doing anything to help improve prisons, the group left out the back door of the inn. A hotel manager stood on the back steps and saw that they left the grounds as she called police, describing the group of less than a dozen as both “black and white.”

Some white women from the audience who had left were fearful to walk to their cars, one asking a black man with a severe limp to escort her across the street although her car was in plain sight.

“Oh, you’re good ma’am,” he said to her as he walked to the JATRAN bus stop nearby.

– Ko Bragg, “Protesters Interrupt Piper Kerman’s Talk on Incarceration, Education.” Jackson Free Press, August 24, 2018.

Read Full Post »

Strike Statement to the Press; August 22, 2018

Statement regarding the ongoing Nationwide Prison Strike, 
issued August 22, 2018, Day 2 of the strike.

Issued by the Prison Strike Media Team

Amani Sawari
official outside media representative of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak
prisonstrikemedia@gmail.com

Jared Ware
Freelance Journalist covering prisoner movements
jaybeware@gmail.com
@jaybeware on Twitter

Brooke Terpstra
Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC)
National Media Committee
brooke@incarceratedworkers.org
@IWW_IWOC on twitter

Statement
August 22, 2018

So the prisoner strike has been underway for more than 24 hours now. In the first day we got word of actions coming out from the prisons from Halifax, Nova Scotia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington and Folsom Prison in California reported strike action.

We saw outside solidarity actions in at least 21 cities around the US and as far abroad as Leipzig, Germany. We saw Palestinian political prisoners give a statement of solidarity from their prisons in occupied Palestine.

We called this conference call because those of us who have been coordinating media relations on the outside have been overwhelmed by the number of reporters and outlets who are covering the strike. Some of us who were involved with media relations in 2016 can say that the difference is dramatic and we thank you for your interest in this prisoner-led movement. Many of you have the same questions and so we want to give you all an opportunity to hear our responses in one place.

We want to note that although there aren’t widespread reports of actions coming out of prisons that people need to understand that the tactics being used in this strike are not always visible. Prisoners are boycotting commissaries, they are engaging in hunger strikes which can take days for the state to acknowledge, and they will be engaging in sit-ins and work strikes which are not always reported to the outside. As we saw in 2016, Departments of Corrections are not reliable sources of information for these actions and will deny them and seek to repress those who are engaged in them.

We have spoken with family members who have suggested that cell phone lines may be being jammed at multiple prisons in South Carolina, New Mexico had a statewide lockdown yesterday. The Departments of Corrections in this country are working overtime to try and prevent strike action and to try and prevent word from getting out about actions that are taking place.

As you report the strike, we encourage you to uplift the actions that we do know about, but also acknowledge that strikers may be resisting in ways that are tougher to quantify and view. We encourage outlets to issue FOIA requests to prisons that we believe will show attempts to quell the strike and also evidence of boycotts and other strike activity.

We also really want to remind the media that this strike is about ten different demands. While prison slavery has become a galvanizing force in the public eye, and it is a key element that prisoners are protesting against, they have given you ten specific demands and it is important to talk about all of them or report on them individually. People need to understand how truth in sentencing laws function, how gang enhancement laws function, and how the prison litigation reform act works and why these are things that prisoners are targeting their protest around. We need to be talking about the lack of rehabilitation programs, mental health care, and the lack of education programs and how this undermines the ostensibly rehabilitative nature of the prison system itself.

Prisoners crafted these demands carefully through national organizing, based on the circumstances of the Lee Prison violence that occurred earlier this year, in an understanding of how the state brings about the conditions of violence like that, and the types of changes that are necessary to prevent that sort of violence from recurring. This is a human rights campaign and each of these demands should be understood through a human rights lens.

Read Full Post »

“Kickin’ off the nationwide prison strike with a banner drop in
solidarity with prison rebels. The banner reads “NO BORDERS NO PRISONS!
DESTROY ‘EM ALL!!! (circle A)”” from Philadelphia. (It’s Going Down)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »