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 »

Older Posts »