Reckoning With Violence
The New York Times by Michelle Alexander
March 3, 2019
We must face violent crime honestly and courageously if we are ever to end mass incarceration and provide survivors what they truly want and need to heal.
When Chicago’s police chief, Eddie Johnson, looked out at the sea of journalists to share the breaking news that Jussie Smollett, a well-known and beloved actor, had allegedly staged a violent racist and homophobic attack against himself, he said with great emotion: “Guys, I look out into the crowd, I just wish that the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention.”
Chicago is besieged by horrific levels of violence, including thousands of shootings and hundreds of homicides each year. More than 500 people were killed in 2018, down from 664 in 2017. This ongoing tragedy cannot be blamed on any lack of aggressiveness on the part of law enforcement. Indeed, if wars on crime and drugs, militarized policing, “get tough” sentencing policies, torture of suspects, and perpetual monitoring and surveillance of the poorest, most crime-ridden communities actually worked to keep people safe, Chicago would be one of the safest cities in the world.
Despite the abysmal failure of “get tough” strategies to break cycles of violence in cities like Chicago, reformers of our criminal justice system in recent years have largely avoided the subject of violence, instead focusing their energy and resources on overhauling our nation’s drug laws and reducing penalties for nonviolent offenses.
If Illinois defendants never told jury of their own abuse, now a second chance
Injustice Watch by Olivia Stovicek
Willette Benford spent 24 years in prison, convicted of murder after she ran over Patricia Phillips in 1995.
Benford said the crime occurred as she fled the anger of her girlfriend, whom she contended had abused her for most of the previous two years. But based on her trial attorney’s advice that it might prejudice the jurors, the defense never presented evidence of the many months of domestic violence she experienced.
“Back then, homophobia was more prevalent than it is now,” Benford said in a recent interview. “He said there were certain things that we shouldn’t talk about. So we didn’t talk about it.”
But on Feb. 6, Benford walked out of prison, decades shaved from her 50-year sentence, the first person granted a new sentencing hearing following a recent change in Illinois law that establishes domestic violence as a mitigating factor to be considered in sentencing.
Dear Governor Pritzker,
We applaud the interest you have shown in reforming the Illinois prison system. You have said that you place much of your focus on “not just avoiding recidivism and reducing the prison population by perhaps having different sentences, but also keeping people out of prison in the first place.” We implore you to remember that these are deeply related; the welfare of people currently incarcerated impacts their loved ones who remain at home both in their absence and their eventual return to their communities. How people are treated while in prison has human repercussions that powerfully impact recidivism rates and also the opportunities of those close to them, most importantly, their children.
As you move to appoint the next Director of Corrections, we urge you to consider candidates who are skeptical about current uses of segregation (also called solitary confinement) for adult prisoners. It is inspiring to realize that heads of correction in three states have spearheaded and effectively implemented strict limits on segregation. Significantly, such efforts have indeed often been led by prison officials themselves, giving the lie to those who maintain that curbing solitary endangers prison staff or removes a necessary disciplinary option. A limit of 15 consecutive days on segregation has been adopted by legislators in New Jersey and Canada; that would be a laudable goal for Illinois.
Members of the Unitarian Universalist Prison Ministry of IL : Steering Committee
CC: Lieutenant Governor Stratton
The following is supplemental and anecdotal evidence of the success other states have achieved in this matter:
In 2015, the Association of State Correctional Administrators, the leading organization for the nation’s prison and jail administrators, called for sharply limiting or even ending solitary confinement for extended periods. Since the ASCA was largely responsible for past increases in the use of solitary confinement, this represents a significant change of course. Colorado, Mississippi, and Maine serve as successful examples where changes launched by the executive branch of state government, with the help of progressive Directors of Corrections.
Colorado, under the supervision of their director of corrections Rick Raemisch, has led the way nationally in implementing the most aggressive limits on solitary confinement. Raemisch’s agency has limited the use of solitary confinement in Colorado to 15 days at a time. As Raemisch writes, “The problem is that [solitary confinement] was not corrective at all. It was indiscriminate punishment that too often amounted to torture and did not make anyone safer.” Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2012, noted what his department had accomplished: “The Mississippi Department of Corrections administrative segregation reforms resulted in a 75.6% reduction in the administrative segregation population from over 1,300 in 2007 to 316 by June 2012.” Commissioner Joseph Ponte of Maine was inspired by Mississippi’s solitary reform efforts. Once he heard the story of Epps’s success, he felt, “if he can do that in Mississippi I know we can do that in Maine.” The Department of Corrections in Maine overhauled its use of long-term isolation without being ordered to by a judge or a piece of legislation. Maine, too, can serve as an example for what is possible in solitary confinement reform.
As you know, the 2015 settlement of the federal lawsuit concerning the use of segregation in Illinois juvenile prisons requires that the juvenile prisoners spend at least eight hours per day outside their cells and that young people in isolation continue to receive education and mental health services. Adults in prison, many of whom are young themselves, deserve the same opportunities for growth and healing. When changes in segregation policy can be enacted by Directors of Corrections, as has been accomplished in Colorado, Maine and Mississippi, Illinois should not have to wait for another lawsuit to do what is right, and what is most effective for rehabilitation purposes—by limiting the use of solitary confinement.
This session there is a bill, HB 182, that would limit solitary confinement to not more than 10 days in any 180 day period while also guaranteeing prisoners in solitary access to classes, recreation, visits and group therapy. Whether or not this bill becomes law, the support of the new head of IDOC and of you, Governor Pritzker, is crucial to getting Corrections staff trained and on board for significant prison reform and for success in implementing any changes in corrections policies.
International law also recognizes the importance of limiting solitary confinement. In 2014, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) released a report reviewing U.S. compliance with the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. That report cites the excessive use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails as a violation of the Convention Against Torture and suggests major reforms. Meanwhile, in New Jersey and in Canada, officials have decided to abide by the UN Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners (also known as the “Nelson Mandela Rules”). These rules prohibit solitary confinement (defined as isolation of a prisoner for more than 22 hours per day without meaningful human contact) that is longer than 15 consecutive days (Rule 43 and 44). In 2016, New Jersey lawmakers voted to stop isolating prisoners for as long as 23 hours a day for months or years on end after deciding it was abusive and it hampered their return to society. Now, use of solitary confinement is a last resort in New Jersey, limited to no more than 15 days at a time. In addition, a physician, clinical psychologist or psychiatric nurse monitors anyone subject to solitary confinement. In 2017 the Canadian federal government decided to phase in a cap of 15 days of solitary confinement.
As the Vera Institute of Justice noted in its 2018 annual report: “Every day, approximately 60,000 people are held in solitary confinement in America’s prisons, and since the 1980s, our prisons and jails have increasingly relied on this cruel practice to maintain order. But solitary can damage, sometimes irreparably, people who experience it for even brief periods of time, and it stops incarcerated people from developing the skills they need to successfully return to their communities.”
On a practical level, segregation is also expensive to administer. Solitary confinement has been shown to exacerbate mental illness and incite inmates to repeated self-harm, including suicide attempts. It should not greatly surprise anyone that when people are isolated in small cells for 23 hours per day, they begin to behave like animals. “If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they’ll behave,” said Mississippi DOC Commissioner Epps, in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He added that transitioning prisoners in Mississippi’s Unit 32 out of solitary confinement “...worked out just fine. We didn’t have a single incident.” As the ACLU noted, “solitary confinement jeopardizes our public safety, is fundamentally inhumane and wastes taxpayer dollars. We must insist on humane and more cost-effective methods of punishment and prison management.”
In sum, changing how solitary confinement is used is imperative for the mental and physical health of prisoners, for the well- being of their families and the communities they will re-enter, and for the safety of all prisoners and correctional staff. Whatever the eventual fate may be of HB 182, we urge you to be inspired by states from Colorado to Maine and to appoint a Director of Corrections for our state who has demonstrated a commitment to prison reform, specifically enforcing a maximum of 15 days in solitary confinement per year, or, as Representative Ford's legislation mandates, a maximum of 10 days in solitary confinement per 180 days."
***** References ******
Brian Mackey, Here and Now, “J.B. Pritzker Interview – On Criminal Justice, Higher Ed, Taxes, And Legislative Ethics,” npr Illinois, Jan 13, 2019, Feb 20, 2019, http://www.nprillinois.org/post/jb-pritzker-interview-criminal-justice-higher-ed-taxes-and-legislative-ethics#stream/0
Timothy Williams, The New York Times, “Prison Officials Join Movement to Curb Solitary Confinement,” Sept, 2, 2018, Feb 20, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/03/us/prison-directors-group-calls-for-limiting-solitary-confinement.html
Rick Raemisch, Speak Freely, “Why I Ended the Horror of Long-Term Solitary in Colorado’s Prisons,” ACLU, December 5, 2018, Feb 20, 2019, https://www.aclu.org/blog/prisoners-rights/solitary-confinement/why-i-ended-horror-long-term-solitary-colorados-prisons
Vera Annual Report, “Embracing Human Dignity,” Vera Institute of Justice, 2018, Feb 20, 2019, https://storage.googleapis.com/vera-web-assets/downloads/Publications/annual-report-2018-embracing-human-dignity/legacy_downloads/embracing-human-dignity-annual-report-2018-2.pdf
Alex Friedmann, Prison Legal News, “Solitary Confinement Subject of Unprecedented Congressional Hearing,” Prison Legal News, Oct 15, 2015, Feb 20, 2019, https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2012/oct/15/solitary-confinement-subject-of-unprecedented-congressional-hearing/
ACLU, “We Can Stop Solitary,” ACLU, Feb 20, 2019, https://www.aclu.org/issues/prisoners-rights/solitary-confinement/we-can-stop-solitary
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