Test your knowledge of American Incarceration
The New York Times by Sahil Chinoy and Ask Ngu
December 21, 2018
The criminal justice reform bill known as the First Step Act, which President Trump signed into law on Friday, has been lauded as a sorely needed instance of bipartisan lawmaking. The law will reduce sentences for federal prisoners while seeking to balance public safety needs.
Here, you can check your knowledge of the American criminal justice system and how the First Step Act fits in.
Read More & take the test
The Love Story that Upended the Texas Prison System
Texas Monthly by Ethan Watters
October 11, 2018
In 1967, a 56-year-old lawyer met a young inmate with a brilliant mind and horrifying stories about life inside. Their complicated alliance—and even more complicated romance—would shed light on a nationwide scandal, disrupt a system of abuse and virtual slavery across the state, and change incarceration in Texas forever.
On November 9, 1967, Fred Cruz was in his sixth year of a fifteen-year robbery sentence and starting yet another stint in the hole. Of the many punishments the Texas prison system doled out to inmates, solitary confinement was one of the most brutal on the body and the soul. It wasn’t Cruz’s first time there, but it wasn’t something one got used to. The Ellis Unit, about fourteen miles north of Huntsville in a boggy lowland area of East Texas, was known as the toughest prison in the system, and there was no worse place to be in Ellis than solitary.
The cell’s darkness was so complete it made the eyes ache. On some occasions, Cruz was given a thin blanket and nothing else—no clothes and no mattress for the steel bunk. His toilet was a hole in the floor. He’d receive only three slices of bread a day with a full meal twice a week, and had shed multiple pounds from his already thin frame. After two weeks, an outer door to the cell would be opened, allowing in light from the hallway. This would be considered a “release” from solitary. Then the warden or an officer would come by and assess the sincerity of Cruz’s contrition. If he failed that yes-sir-no-sir encounter, the solid steel door would be shut again and the days of darkness would recommence.
No Place to Call Home
BPI & Roosevelt University: Policy Research Collaborative : 2018
Click here to find out more about the collaboration
For individuals with criminal records, finding a place to live in Chicago can be extremely challenging.
Through interviews with 81 individuals with criminal records, this study shows how the presence of a
criminal record creates barriers for individuals on the private housing rental market regardless of the
individual’s age or the age of the individual’s record.
Participants were asked to sketch on a map where they think they could find a place to live. This
report juxtaposes their answers with information about where they have experienced rental rejection
in the past. The presence of a criminal record can multiply other forms of disadvantage, deepening
racial, class, and gender divides. By discriminating against individuals with criminal records, landlords
not only undermine individuals’ attempts to build stable lives, but also reproduce and multiply large-
scale social inequities.
Nationally, 95% of state prisoners will be released from prison at some point, while an estimated one
in three Americans has a criminal record.
In Chicago alone, approximately 11,000 individuals return
from Illinois prisons each year, so the challenges experienced by people with criminal records are
Moreover, in Illinois, about 48% of individuals released from prison will return within
three years—a figure that reveals the pressing need for improved reentry opportunities and
Housing, in particular, comprises a crucial component of successful reentry—a key
building block that promotes steady employment, fosters mental and physical health, supports
individuals in their recovery from substance abuse, and provides the other advantages of stable
shelter that are vital to basic human wellbeing.
No Place to Call Home proposes policy solutions to help overcome systemic discrimination against
renters with criminal records and mitigate the ripple effects of that discrimination. Through a
combination of reforms, this report proposes a pathway to expand housing access to those with
criminal records in order to make Chicago and other cities more equitable and hospitable places for
all residents to call home. This study was approved by the Roosevelt University Institutional Review
Board: IRB No. 2018-028.
Education Opportunities in Prison Are Key to Reducing Crime
Center for American Progress
Education can be a gateway to social and economic mobility. This vital opportunity, however, is currently being denied to a significant portion of the more than 2.3 million individuals currently incarcerated in the United States. Compared with 18 percent of the general population, approximately 41 percent of incarcerated individuals do not hold a high school diploma. Similarly, while 48 percent of general population has received any postsecondary or college education, only 24 percent of people in federal prisons have received the same level of education. In 2016, the Vera Institute of Justice reported that only 35 percent of state prisons provide college-level courses, and these programs only serve 6 percent of incarcerated individuals nationwide. In 2015, the Obama administration announced the Second Chance Pell Pilot program—an experimental program allowing 12,000 qualifying incarcerated students to take college-level courses while in prison. The future of this program is uncertain as Congress decides whether to include Pell Grants for prisons—which currently receives less than 1 percent of total Pell program funding—in their reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Receiving a quality education continues to be out of reach for much of the prison population due to a lack of funding for, and access to, the materials needed for the success of these programs.
Transgender inmate gets rare transfer to female prison
A transgender woman serving a 10-year sentence in Illinois for burglary has been moved from a men's to a women's prison in what could be a first for the state, her lawyers announced Thursday.
Deon "Strawberry" Hampton , 27, was moved after a yearlong legal battle and resistance from the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Hampton, of Chicago, requested the transfer in 2017 on grounds she'd be less vulnerable to the sexual assault, taunting and beatings she was subjected to in male prisons, according to federal lawsuits filed on her behalf by the MacArthur Justice Center and the Uptown People's Law Center in Chicago.
She was moved within the past week from an all-male prison in Dixon, in northern Illinois, to the women's Logan Correctional Center more than 100 miles away in central Illinois, her lawyers said.
I'm 13 and I Write Holiday Cards to People in Prison
New York Times by Sofia Robinson (8th grader)
LOS ANGELES — When I was 5, my mom asked me if I wanted to help her write holiday cards to people in prison who had been raped behind bars. She didn’t say it like that, of course, because I didn’t know what prison or rape was.
Instead, she told me that there were thousands of ladies and gentlemen who were spending Christmas alone, unable to leave their rooms as they pleased, and that other people had been really mean to them.
I can’t remember which I thought was worse — to be forced to stay in my room or to be mistreated. But either way, I agreed to help my mom.
I am 13 now, and I still write holiday cards to people in prison. It’s really fun to think of nice things to say to people you’ve never met. I always try to imagine what I would want to hear if I was forced to be away from my family and was being treated poorly. I would be terrified, sad and worried that nobody remembered that I existed.
#NoMoreShackles: Why Electronic Monitoring Devices Are Another Form of Prison [OP-ED]
In his recent New York Times video essay “Prisoners Deserve a New Set of Rights,” rapper Meek Mill lists the many ways that the criminal legal system fails to protect and uphold the rights of the accused—from arrest, through sentencing and all the way up to release. Mill says, “We had the right to be silent. Now it’s our right to speak up,” as he goes on to describe how formerly incarcerated people are systemically barred from a range of resources.
One thing to add to Mill’s powerful set of demands though is the right to return home freely without being digitally imprisoned.
It is well known that the United States has the highest prison population in the world, however our system of mass incarceration extends beyond the lives of those who are locked away. At this time, there are 5 million people under some version of correctional control—usually within the form of probation or parole. This expansion of parole in particular is ushering in a new wave of technological incarceration with a heavy reliance on electronic monitors.
As with any attempts to transform the criminal justice system, the First Step Act is complicated. While we rejoice that several thousand people will likely be treated more humanely, and some released slightly sooner, because of this legislation, we also stand in solidarity with those opposed to this act. We wonder with them if this will actually be a first, or last, step? Will we congratulate ourselves on having an impact on ~10 % of the prison industrial complex population while 2 million people, their families and friends still wait to be treated with dignity and respect?
Please read some of the articles and statements below to begin understanding the response to this current work.
Congress just passed the most significant criminal justice reform bill in decades - Vox News
First Step Act has Sinister Implications for the Poor and Marginalized - Truth Out
Movement for Black Lives Statement
JustLeadershipUSA statement - signed by the UUA
November post of several articles on the First Step Act
We will continue to work for more radical and complete change and hope you will join us in the struggle.
He Was Sentenced to Life for Selling Crack. Now Congress Wants to Reconsider.
The New York Times
Alan Blinder and Jennifer Medina
Edward Douglas is serving a life sentence for selling crack cocaine. He cannot go to church with his mother, a pastor in Chicago. He cannot take his grandchildren to the park. He dreams of working as a mechanic again.
It’s a possibility that seems increasingly likely.
Under bipartisan criminal justice legislation that won final approval by Congress on Thursday, Mr. Douglas, 55, could have his sentence reduced to less time than he has already served. He was convicted at a time when crack cocaine offenses were handled far more harshly than those involving powder cocaine.
The Movement for Black Lives Position on the First Step Act
Statement - December 2018
The Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 150 Black-led organizations, opposes the First Step Act. Despite a few positive measures, the First Step Act further harms incarcerated people and does little to stop or correct the state-sponsored intergenerational violence our communities experience.
Since the First Step Act was passed in the US House of Representatives, the Movement for Black Lives leadership has engaged in internal discussion, debate, and exploration of the bill’s proposed and potential impact to deepen our understanding about how the bill would advance or deter the objectives articulated in the Vision for Black Lives Policy Platform, a foundational 21st-century proposal for how to pass legislation that liberates, not further denigrates Black people. Through this process we have determined that the First Step Act, despite the few positive reforms, is a dangerous bill that if passed will cause further harm to many people currently incarcerated, continue the long history of violence against our communities, and introduce new ways to rob our people of the freedom and justice we deserve.
We recognize that the positive aspects of this bill are the product of the tireless work of advocates who have worked to create inroads for meaningful reforms in a moment of heightened attacks on ALL Black people. Our opposition to the First Step Act is not directed at those who support this bill and whose hopes are rooted in seeing their loved ones free. Our opposition is directed towards a bill that we believe will do more harm than good. We believe that in addition to not reaching far enough to ensure our peoples’ freedom from all forms of incarceration, the First Step Act is an intentionally divisive bill that authors a dangerous future for all of our families and communities.
What this is about
Learning asks us to change – so that the world might be a place for all are free to thrive