Lawsuit: Conditions horrific for women at south Fulton County jail
Atlanta Journal - Constitution by Bill Rankin
Mentally ill women are being held in isolation at a jail in south Fulton County under horrific conditions that increase their risk of serious psychological harm and strip away their human dignity, a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges.
The unsanitary and degrading conditions “can result in dramatic worsening of symptoms, decompensation, psychosis, self-mutilation and suicide,” the suit said. The women are being denied necessary health care and are kept in “an environment that deprives them of meaningful social interaction and therapeutic activities.”
The lawsuit was filed by the Georgia Advocacy Office, which protects the legal and human rights of people with disabilities, and two women being held at the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail in Union City. The lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of all mentally ill women being held under similar conditions.
Neil Gorsuch: Eighth Amendment “Does Not Guarantee a Prisoner a Painless Death”
Intelligencer by Matt Steib
On Monday, the conservative judges of the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the state of Missouri may execute a death-row inmate whose rare medical condition would cause “excruciating pain” during lethal injection.
Russell Bucklew — convicted for kidnapping and raping his former girlfriend in 1996, and for killing the man who was seeing her — has a condition called cavernous hemangioma, in which tumors grow on his head, neck, and throat. In his request to seek an alternative method to lethal injection by pentobarbital, Bucklew provided medical evidence that the tumors in his throat would rupture during the execution, and cause him to choke on his own blood for minutes before his death. Bucklew argued that his execution would violate the Eighth Amendment, which bars “cruel and unusual punishments,” citing two Supreme Court precedents involving inmates allowed to provide an “available alternative” that would cause less pain. Bucklew proposed nitrogen gas, a form of execution authorized for use in three states, arguing that his death from hypoxia, a lack of oxygen, would be faster and less painful for him than death by lethal injection.
However, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority disagreed with Bucklew, as well as the decision by the Eighth Circuit Court to allow him to present an “available alternative” method of execution. Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority, determined that “the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death — something that, of course, isn’t guaranteed to many people, including most victims of capital crimes.” Justice Gorsuch justified the position by arguing that Bucklew did not submit his request to avoid “needless suffering” in a timely manner. In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the Eighth Amendment bars the deliberate infliction of pain; because there was no evidence that the state of Missouri intended to cause Bucklew to choke on his own blood during his execution, the amendment does not apply.
Who Belongs In Prison?
New Yorker by Adam Gopnik
April 8, 2019
Nothing has changed more in the past couple of decades than attitudes toward the crisis of incarceration in America. What was largely an invisible civilization of confinement—millions of men and women locked up for, cumulatively, millions of years—is now a commonplace concern. Everyone running for the Democratic nomination pays lip service to the need to address mass incarceration, and what were once essential political instincts—to side with the police and the prosecutors in every instance, to “get tough on crime”—have become, at the very least, negotiable. We have gone from “Lock ’em up!” to “Lock ’em up?” to “Set ’em loose!,” all in a relatively short time.
One reason for these changed attitudes is the great crime decline, a falling arc that meant that, for the first time in decades, ordinary citizens could care more about the consequences of imprisonment than they did about the threat of violent crime. Circles of compassion can grow in the absence of everyday fear: safer subways make for an expanded conscience. But there has been an ongoing argument about what, exactly, is responsible for the surge in incarceration. For a long time, the consensus blamed three-strike laws, mandatory minimum sentences, stop-and-frisk, and the rest of the oppressive apparatus of panicked anti-crime policy. Then, just two years ago, the law professor John Pfaff made the argument, persuasively, that the key factor was simply prosecutorial overreach.
There were too many prosecutors who had the astounding freedom to indict anyone more or less as they chose, and who could so overcharge the indicted that plea bargains were forced upon good and bad alike, as confessions were once forced by the Inquisition. By handing enormous discretion to prosecutors—some of them, by the standards of the rest of the world, properly described as politicians, elected to their office and sensitive to voters’ needs, including a metric of success linked to putting people in jail—we had given them the freedom to imprison whomever they wished for as long as they liked. All but about five per cent of criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains, and never go to trial. In the vast majority of cases, Pfaff observed, in his book “Locked In,” inmates ended up behind bars “by signing a piece of paper in a dingy conference room in a county office building.” After 1990, as the crime rate began to fall, the number of line prosecutors soared, and so did the number of the incarcerated. Fewer offenses, more designated offenders.
The Study Group Bringing bell hooks to Prisons
Next City by Emily Nonko
In a bare, brightly lit classroom inside the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, California, Richie ‘Reseda’ Edmond-Vargas taught one of his last lessons on patriarchy and toxic masculinity to a group of men who, like him, were incarcerated there. Several years after developing this curriculum, Edmond-Vargas was preparing to transfer to one last facility before ultimately returning to society.
On long sheets of brown paper he broke down tenets of toxic masculinity, asking men to consider the payoffs and costs of buying into values like violence, objectifying women and having money. Men threw out suggestions relating to the costs: bad relationships, loneliness, life in prison.
“We’re all pretty clear on the problem,” Edmond-Vargas says, “What’s the solution?” In response, a facilitator with the group, also incarcerated, stood up to read a passage from bell hooks’ book on toxic masculinity, The Will to Change.
In US Prisons, Women Disciplined More than Men for Minor Offenses
WTTW by Evan Garcia
March 28, 2019
Women in prison are disciplined more frequently for minor offenses than their male counterparts in some state prison systems, including those in Illinois, according to an investigation published by NPR and the Chicago Reporter.
The yearlong investigation by Jessica Pupovac, a digital content producer at WTTW who served as lead reporter, and Kari Lydersen of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, included interviews with formerly incarcerated women, past and present corrections officials, experts and academics. The reporting team also analyzed data from prison systems in 15 states.
Pupovac said they found “overwhelming” evidence that “women are disproportionately disciplined for lower-level offenses” such as “talking back or having attitude, being disruptive or disrespectful.”
My jail stopped using solitary confinement. Here's why.
The Washington Post by Tom Dart
April 4, 2019
Tom Dart is sheriff of Cook County, Ill.
Recent criminal-justice reform ended the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons. Now a group of lawmakers including Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are pushing to limit solitary confinement in federal prisons more broadly.
However, the realities of solitary confinement playing out in other correctional institutions across the country — including county jails, like the one I run — remain unaddressed and misunderstood.
Whether termed solitary confinement, disciplinary segregation or something else, it is almost always the same thing and produces the same disturbing and, too often, grave consequences. Individuals are confined alone in roughly 7-by-11-foot concrete cells for up to 23 hours a day with little human contact and no access to natural light. For as few as 60 minutes a day, they are allowed out of their cells to pace about another concrete area no larger than a dog run. In some cases, it’s outdoors; in others, not. This punishment is meted out for reasons ranging from disobeying an officer’s order to violent assaults on staff, and it can last anywhere from 24 hours to years. Most facilities make no accommodation for detainees suffering from severe mental illness.
And the damage solitary inflicts on people is indisputable. Years of research have demonstrated that the effects include mental illness, anger, despondency and self-harm; psychiatrist Stuart Grassian concluded that solitary can cause a specific psychiatric syndrome that includes hallucinations, panic attacks and paranoia.
Of course, some kind of disciplinary mechanism is needed, because jails are inherently volatile. Unlike prisons, jails generally don’t house people who have been convicted and sentenced — the population is overwhelmingly made up of people awaiting trial. At my jail in Cook County, Ill. — one of the nation’s largest, with about 5,500 detainees — we have seen an increasing length of stay for individuals in our custody, for many reasons including a painfully slow-moving criminal-justice system. Several of our current detainees have been here nearly 10 years without adjudication. Add to that frustration, the presence of members of fractious Chicago street gangs and society’s de facto decision to jail the mentally ill, and it’s easy to see how jails can become violent places. However, the solution to that violence is not solitary confinement.
I know there is a better way. I know because we have been doing it differently here in Chicago for nearly three years now. After years of handling violence just like most other jails, we realized that solitary was not solving the problem. It was contributing to it. And so, since May 2016, we have not housed any detainee in a solitary setting, not for even one hour.
Instead, we created a new place in the jail called the Special Management Unit (SMU) to house detainees who resort to violence and/or break the rules. There they can spend time in open rooms or yards with other detainees — as many as six or eight at a time — under direct supervision by staff members trained in conflict deescalation and resolution techniques and with precautions in place to ensure safety. Mental-health professionals provide weekly sessions on anger management, coping skills and conflict resolution. We also changed the disciplinary process for infractions to include other programming including thoughtful hearings and increased classes and activities .
Staffers, though skeptical at first, have been amazing. They have bought into this alternative to using isolation as a cudgel. After all, these new practices have not just benefited our detainees, they have also improved our working conditions. Since we introduced this model to our jail, detainee-on-detainee assaults have dropped significantly and assaults on staff plummeted. Last year we recorded the lowest number of total assaults since the SMU was established.
While the national discussion on criminal-justice reform tends to focus on sentencing, we must also reexamine the conditions of confinement we employ in jails, particularly the use of solitary. No reputable study has ever documented any positive effects from solitary confinement.
Regardless of your position on criminal-justice reform, you should realize that more than 70 percent of our jail detainees do not spend the rest of their days in prison — rather, they are released and return to their communities. This may be because charges against them are dropped, bonds are paid, plea agreements are signed, or they go to trial and are found not guilty. In all those cases, the result is the same — they are released from jail. What are we doing to our communities when we send them people, suddenly unmonitored, who have spent the past few months of their lives in a concrete room, devoid of any human contact?
The results often involve violence, volatility and recidivism. It is time solitary is addressed and eliminated in jails around the country.
Should a pregnant person ever go to prison?
Quartz by Zoe Schlanger
April 6, 2019
Siwatu-Salama Ra knew it was time to go to the hospital. As the early stages of her labor began on a day in late May 2018, officers placed handcuffs on her wrists and lead her into the transport van. She arrived to the hospital and to a delivery room where, inside, armed guards would wait all day and night and watch her give birth.
It was awful, but not as bad as it could be. Many other women in her position are taken to the hospital with handcuffs, chains across their waists, and shackled to the floor of the transport vehicle. Then they are shackled to the bed by their ankles while they give birth. Ra on the other hand was not cuffed in the delivery room.
The doctors and nurses in the maternity ward at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan, an hour west of Detroit, were used to taking patients from the nearby Huron Valley Correctional Facility, Michigan’s only women’s prison. But Ra’s arrival was a little different; her incarceration a few months earlier was covered by the local news. Hospital staff kept coming into her room to see her, to ask if she needed anything. One nurse said she just wanted to hug her.
There was a trade-off for the lack of restraints, though, she thinks today: increased security once she got to the hospital. Those armed guards—sometimes four, never less than two, always armed and wearing bullet-proof vests—stayed in her delivery room the whole time.
“She was my ultimate punishment.”One of the officers in the hospital room was particularly jumpy. She would clutch her gun every time the doctor or nurse walked in, Ra says. “When she heard the door opening, she would jump up and have her hand on her gun,” Ra remembers. “And I’m sitting in my bed, holding my stomach, you know?” What was the officer worried about, she wondered—that she was going to run away while in labor? It was a bigger insult than the handcuffs in the van, to have that woman with that gun in the room. “She was my ultimate punishment,” Ra says.
Ra, now 27, went to prison on March 1, 2018, when she was six-and-a-half months pregnant with her second child. Her first child, Zala, was two, and up until that day the mother-daughter pair were attached at the hip. Before prison, Ra worked as an organizer for a local environmental non-profit in her hometown of Detroit, where she and her mother, Rhonda Anderson, are both well known in the tight-knit activist community. Detroit is a city where families in majority-black neighborhoods are inundated by a constant mist of industrial pollution and where water shutoffs are so frequent the UN has called it a human rights violation; the circumstances have birthed a vibrant environmental activism community with Ra’s family more or less at the center.
The Next Step: Ending Excessive Punishment for Violent Crimes,
by Senior Research Analyst Nazgol Ghandnoosh,
The Sentencing Project
As President Trump and Congress celebrate their criminal justice reform achievement, passage of the First Step Act, a new report from The Sentencing Project points to limits on excessive punishments for violent offenses as the critical next step in ending mass incarceration.
[This report] highlights 15 reforms in 19 states implemented over the past two decades that have produced more effective, fiscally sound, and humane policies for people convicted of violent crimes. These reforms include: shortening excessive prison terms for violent convictions, scaling back collateral consequences, narrowing overly broad definitions of violence, ending long term solitary confinement, and rejecting the death penalty.
Recent reforms in Mississippi and California exemplify this next step in criminal justice reform. Mississippi legislators reformed the state's truth-in-sentencing requirement for violent crimes in 2014, reducing the proportion of a sentence that individuals with certain violent convictions have to serve before becoming eligible for parole from 85% to 50%. In 2018, California expanded specialized parole hearings that account for immature brain development to young adults under age 26.
Nationwide criminal justice reforms have reduced the number of people imprisoned for drug crimes by 22% between 2007 and 2015. But they have yet to meaningfully reduce excessive penalties for violent crimes. Nearly half of the U.S. prison population is now serving time for a violent offense, including assault and robbery. Although the violent crime rate has plummeted to half of its early-1990s level, the number of people imprisoned for a violent offense grew until 2009, and has since declined by just 3%.
We hope you will help us spread the word about this new report on social media. You can use the sample social media posts below:
#TheNextStep in ending mass incarceration must focus on reducing excessive penalties for violent crimes. Learn more in the @SentencingProj's new report: sent.pr/2FJoYjt
It is possible to undo excessive penalties for violent crimes while also promoting public safety. 19 states are already taking #TheNextStep in ending mass incarceration. sent.pr/2FJoYjt @SentencingProj
While the First Step Act and other criminal justice reforms have limited the number of people imprisoned for drug crimes, they have yet to meaningfully reduce excessive penalties for violent crimes. The Sentencing Project's new report highlights 15 reforms over the past two decades that have scaled back penalties for violent crimes while also promoting public safety. This is #TheNextStep in ending mass incarceration. sent.pr/2FJoYjt
Supreme Court Sees 2 Similar Death Penalty Questions Very Differently
NPR by Nina Totenberg
March 30, 2019
Two Supreme Court decisions just hours before a scheduled execution. Two decisions just seven weeks apart. Two decisions on the same issue. Except that in one, a Muslim was put to death without his imam allowed with him in the execution chamber, and in the other, a Buddhist's execution was temporarily halted because his Buddhist minister was denied the same right.
The two apparently conflicting decisions are so puzzling that even the lawyers are scratching their heads and offering explanations that they candidly admit are only speculative.
On Feb. 7, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, ruled that Alabama could go ahead with its execution of Domineque Hakim Ray, a Muslim man convicted of murder. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals had temporarily blocked the execution because the state barred the condemned man from having a Muslim imam at his side in the death chamber. Alabama said only the prison's Christian minister would be allowed in.
Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019
Prison Policy Initiative by Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner
March 19, 2019
Can it really be true that most people in jail are being held before trial? And how much of mass incarceration is a result of the war on drugs? These questions are harder to answer than you might think, because our country’s systems of confinement are so fragmented. The various government agencies involved in the justice system collect a lot of critical data, but it is not designed to help policymakers or the public understand what’s going on. As public support for criminal justice reform continues to build, however, it’s more important than ever that we get the facts straight and understand the big picture.
This report offers some much needed clarity by piecing together this country’s disparate systems of confinement. The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories. This report provides a detailed look at where and why people are locked up in the U.S., and dispels some modern myths to focus attention on the real drivers of mass incarceration.
What this is about
Learning asks us to change – so that the world might be a place for all are free to thrive