Category Archives: Uncategorized

Disenfranchisement Perpetuates Inequality, Skews Elections to the Right

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 8.12.47 PM5.85 million people, including 1 in every 13 Black persons, can’t vote. This sounds like some classic Civil Rights shit to me (and, in fact, this is vintage Jim Crow that just won’t stop), but somehow we’ve persisted with the idea that the right to vote is negotiable for people in prison or with a criminal record.

As the beautiful graphic (courtesy of the Sentencing Project) illustrates, the only states in the nation with no felony disenfranchisement laws also happen to be two of the three whitest states in the U.S. (they’re tied with New Hampshire, each 96% white). On the other end of the spectrum, in states with harsh disenfranchisement laws like Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia 1 in 5 Black men can’t vote.

Disenfranchisement is a huge problem for three reasons:

1. It presents a completely unnecessary barrier to successful reentry and sends the message – particularly in lifetime disenfranchisement states – that you’ll never be able to “do your time” and return to full citizenship. It’s just one more way that we set aside a group of people, predominantly poor, Black people, as “less-than” and call it something other than racism.

2. It delegitimizes our democracy. Our system of governance, flawed though it is, relies on the idea that if representatives aren’t doing their jobs “We the People” will vote them out. For the 2.5% of Americans who have been stripped of their voting rights, this premise is baseless.

3. It changes election outcomes. Based on voter demographics, at least 60-70% of the disenfranchised population would likely vote blue if they had the right to vote and acted on it. If Florida allowed people with felony convictions to vote at any time after conviction, Al Gore would have won Florida and, therefore, the presidency. And because many races are won on such tight margins, studies have predicted that without felony disenfranchisement at least 7 senatorial races since 1978 would have gone to democrats instead of republicans, likely giving democrats control of the senate through the 1990s (and preventing Mitch McConnell‘s election… sigh).

There’s a trickling tide toward reform in the works, including federal legislation proposed by Rand Paul that would give people convicted of non-violent felonies the right to vote after being released from probation or incarceration. It’s time to face up to the reality that these laws are the surviving party of the Jim Crow laws that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was intended to wipe out and return this fundamental democratic right to all citizens.

Exhibit Reproduces Solitary Confinement

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 8.02.33 PMA replica of a 6×12 solitary confinement cell was on display at Marquette University in Milwaukee last week. The cell, which comes with a recording of shouting and banging on walls similar to what would be heard in prison, was built at Edgewood College in Madison and has made several appearances around Wisconsin. Its purpose is to give people a realistic sense of what it’s like to be solitary, though of course it’s fundamentally different to be able to walk away at any time. Although visitors can stay inside for as long as 45 minutes, few last longer than 10.

Abolition, Seriously

Prison abolitionists get a lot of blank looks. Get rid of prisons? But – the bad guys! Didn’t you watch True Detective? To which I have three responses:

1) Remember that most people in prison are more like this guy:

Than this guy:

2) Incarceration rates have almost no relationship to crime rates. I know that’s difficult to accept if you believe that prisons are about preventing crime (and if you think that, read The New Jim Crow), but trust me on this: our prison population is the result of a series of choices, not a result of bad behavior.

  • Politicians make choices about what to criminalize.
  • Police make choices about where to hang out and who to search, arrest, etc.
  • Prosecutors make choices about what (and whether) to charge and how many years to demand.
  • Parole commissioners make choices about who to release.

All of these choices in the U.S. have been increasingly punitive (not to mention racist) for decades regardless of the crime rate at the time. And countries with rates of crime similar to our own have made different choices. For instance, with very similar crime rates during the time the U.S. prison population grew 500%, Germany’s prison population stayed the same and Finland’s decreased by 60% (per The New Jim Crow). State to state incarceration rates and crime rates do not line up (in fact, it looks like lower incarceration rates reduce crime – more on that later).

3) For the fringe cases (see guy in underwear, above), confinement may be necessary. When I say “abolition” I do not, actually, mean abolition of consequences for wrongdoing, nor do I mean abolition of confinement when someone is truly, clearly a threat to society. But confinement doesn’t have to look a thing like prisons in the U.S., either. The violent, oppressive, demeaning, and miserable conditions of our jails and maximum security facilities in particular are totally gratuitous. They are evidence that we don’t view the people in prison as humans. If we actually limited confinement to people who were dangerous, and then viewed the top priority of confinement as changing that fact so that those people could safely return to their communities as soon as possible, we might take a leaf out of Scandanavia’s book, and create economically efficient but comfortable, relatively autonomous spaces where people would suffer the loss of liberty and be separated from society without also being systematically degraded and institutionalized.

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So – here’s my take on prison abolition:

  • A small percentage of the people in prison are actually there because they’re a threat to public safety and must be removed from society.
  • That small percentage should be confined, but should also be treated as humans, which means being reasonably comfortable and as autonomous as possible, and returning to society if possible.
  • Prisons as we know them – and use them – must be abolished.

Mainstream Dehumanization, or, What John Oliver Taught Me About Mass Incarceration

Here’s one sign that the “common sense” about people in prison is totally dehumanizing: prison rape jokes. I struggle to wrap my brain around how rape jokes of any kind could be so mainstream, and yet it took John Oliver to get me to think about it, and I write this blog! So if it never occurred to you to question these not-so-subtle forms of social disdain, please don’t find yourself paralyzed by guilt (that’s tiresome) and also please watch John Oliver’s rant on prisons. This is seriously worthwhile even if you’re a better person than I and already knew prison rape wasn’t funny; he covers a lot (and there are muppets).

Mandatory Maximums? Marc Mauer recommends 20-yr cap on federal sentencing

Sentences in the U.S. are out of control. This would be easier to ignore if the U.S. was the only country in the world but, thank goodness, it isn’t. So chew on this for a second: the U.S. is one of the only industrialized nations in the world that still uses the death penalty (we have more than 3,000 people on death row right now, and a shortage of lethal injection drugs have compelled states to consider bringing back the electric chair and firing squads).

Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project

On top of our relatively unique approach to the death penalty, we also play fast and loose with life sentences, life without parole, and exorbitantly long sentences for relatively minor offenses (drug offenses in particular) in the U.S. In his recent testimony to the Charles Colson Taskforce on Federal Corrections, Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project drove this point home as he argued for capping sentences at 20 years except in “extraordinary circumstances.”

The nation’s use of life sentences has expanded exponentially in recent decades, with nearly 160,000 people sentenced to life in prison, or one of every nine people in prison. Of this group, almost 50,000 are serving life without parole sentences. Such whole-life sentences are exceedingly rare in other countries. For example, in the United Kingdom, only 49 individuals are serving life sentences with no opportunity for release.

Although Congress and the federal sentencing commission have made efforts to rein in some of the most outrageous sentences, sentences remain long, and often lack logical proportionality (you can see what you think by playing around with the federal sentencing calculator, here). The most famous example of this is the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 established a 100 to 1 disparity in terms of sentencing by volume of drug, despite the fact that (as the government learned shortly thereafter) the two substances are pharmacologically identical. Think about 100:1 – that’s the difference between six months and fifty years. And guess who got those longer sentences? Under this regime, Black, nonviolent offenders received sentences roughly as long as those received by white, violent offenders.

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 10.45.05 AMIn 2010, Congress finally passed the “Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.” With 34 years to perfect the damn thing, “fair” should’ve been an appropriate description, but unfortunately they retained an 18:1 disparity – this time fully informed by government experts that the drugs vary only in price and (largely because of price) in the demographics selling and buying them. Ugh.

In addition to comparing similar offenses, or looking to international standards, it’s also illustrative to look at sentences over time. Mauer points out in his testimony that sentences for murder more than doubled in the ’80’s and 90’s. The dramatic increase in sentences for murder is relevant to the sentencing regime overall, because (although we’ve made a mockery of it in terms of absolute scale) we do sentence proportionately. In other words, we look to the worst crimes and subtract from there for lower offenses – assault below murder, sexual assault below rape, robbery below armed robbery. When you routinely sentence murderers to life without parole, or the death penalty, you make it possible – even “reasonable” – to sentence lower level offenders to decades behind bars. On the other hand, if murderers receive fifteen or twenty years, then manslaughter must be lower, assault below that, etc.

Mauer’s proposal to cap sentences at 20 years barring significant public safety risks is a beautiful inversion of the concept of mandatory minimum sentencing. High sentences, often coming from mandatory minimums, are the single greatest contributor to the sheer size of our incarcerated population. 20 years is a terrible price to pay for any crime, and sentences longer than that have not shown any deterrent effect or effect on the crime rate overall. And in contrast to the debacle of mandatory minimums, this is a vastly better model for racially just reform. Many liberal reformers argued for mandatory minimum sentences to address the disparities in sentencing across races, but the effect was simply that the baseline increased and the disparity was preserved. Mandatory maximums do not present the same risk: though racial disparities will no doubt persist, the effect of maximums will create a ceiling, not a floor.

This is a logical, humane reform that would have massive impact on people who are currently incarcerated, as well as people being sentenced for any level of offense (and their families, and their communities). Implementation would necessitate creative, effective alternative responses to crime. It would strip prosecutors of their most deadly weapons for coercing plea agreements, which would likely empower defendants to take their cases to trial, revitalizing a system of justice that is as rare in reality as it is popular in entertainment (and also putting a huge amount of pressure on courts to discourage unnecessary arrests). Unlike many reforms, a maximum sentence opens the door to further decarceration by humanizing those in the system, motivating the creation of alternatives, and reducing the prison population overall.

Intro to Mass Incarceration

So, I realize that the average reader of a blog entitled “abolishprisons.org” probably doesn’t need a mass incarceration primer. That said, personally I like going back to basics from time to time so that I don’t get my blinders on and miss the big picture when I’m diving into any one of the multitude of problems related to large-scale imprisonment. I also like to have some good intro-level material to share with those who are just beginning to think about imprisonment not as a natural and necessary component of a civilized society, but as a human rights crisis in the U.S.

So – whether you’ve never thought seriously about prisons before, or you’ve spent years in prison, or you’re a prison studies professor – check out this short, pointed video by Hank Green of the Vlog Brothers in collaboration with the Prison Policy Institute. For that matter, check out the Prison Policy Institute, too (looks like a great resource for prison gerrymandering information, among other things). And if you have go-to intro materials that got you fired up about prisons, or that you discovered later and have used to spread the word, please share!

Right on Crime: The good, the bad, and the ugly

There’s a new sheriff in town. Thanks to a growing libertarian constituency, the great recession, and the physical limitations of “total incapacitation” crime control, a conservative voice has begun speaking up (and often) about prisons.

Let me introduce you to Right on Crime: self-styled a “one-stop source for conservative ideas on criminal justice,” Right on Crime has mobilized a number of heavy-hitting Republicans (primarily of a libertarian ilk) in an effort to reduce our reliance on unnecessarily expensive forms of punishment. Rick Perry, Rand Paul, and Newt Gingrich are just a few of their most prominent supporters.

Rand Paul and Newt GingrichAnd what do they want? They want change, couched in a rhetorical ballet of traditionalism: public safety, right-sizing government, fiscal discipline, victim support, personal responsibility, governmental accountability, family preservation, and free enterprise are the priorities listed on their website.

THE GOOD:

I’ll get to my critique in a second here, don’t worry, but before I do: holy shit is this some good stuff. To have these guys, many of them the same people who literally made the argument that the nation should “build enough prisons so that there are enough beds that every violent criminal in America is locked up, and they will serve real time and they will serve their full sentence and they do not get out on good behavior” (Newt Gingrich to NYT, 1992) now turning around and arguing against imprisonment is cause for celebration. Gingrich himself (along with fellow conservative Pat Nolan) recently urged conservatives to “lead the way in addressing an issue often considered off-limits to reform: prisons.” Never mind that it was basically you who put them “off-limits,” Mr. Gingrich – I’ll take it.

And they’re doing work. For a relatively small organization, Right on Crime has an impressive presence in state politics and the mainstream media (check out their state legislation tracker here). They lose absolutely zero opportunities to tout their conservatism, but their message of “less, less, less” is a welcome change from a long reigning and still prevalent message of “more, more more.”

THE BAD:

I’ve already alluded to a couple of my complaints with Right on Crime: their highly partisan, divisive messaging (transparently designed to give conservatives credit for any reforms, potentially at the cost of more reform), and the hypocrisy inherent in a conservative push against “tough on crime” politics that conservatives forced onto the agenda almost fifty years ago now.

But far worse than either of those flaws is the short-sighted emphasis on “low-hanging fruit.” Budgetary restrictions and/or burdens on the American taxpayer are consistently cited as the impetus for change, while change itself is virtually only described as affecting “low-level, non-violent offenders.” The role of race and class that is vividly apparent to anyone looking at the system is seldom mentioned, only occasionally thrown in as an afterthought. Solutions that address racism or the other social problems that lead to crime and incarceration are not being proposed by Right on Crime.

Don’t get me wrong – prisons are ridiculously expensive; I would love to see that money channeled into more humane and useful government programs. And yes, non-violent, low-level offenders don’t belong in prison. But, if left alone, the message sent is “stop there.” Don’t do anything that seriously throws into question the rights of the perceived “victim class” (read: white people) compared to the perceived “offender class” (read: Black people).

If allowed to persist uncontested, the Right on Crime crew and their conservative brethren will almost certainly make incremental change and get a lot of credit for it. Reducing a handful of felony charges to misdemeanors and relying on traditional alternatives to incarceration like probation and tracking devices may drive down incarceration rates five or ten percent; maybe even twenty. But in order to return to the rate of incarceration we had in the 1970’s (much less be better than that), we’d have to release eighty percent of the people currently in prison. So don’t mistake Right on Crime for a movement that can end or even seriously injure mass incarceration.

THE UGLY:

Most dangerously, this movement may entrench the very ideas that allowed prisons to profligate over the last forty years. As Jonathan Simon describes in his new book, Mass Incarceration on Trial, mass incarceration grew out of a “new common sense” about criminals. Thanks to rising crime rights, highly publicized serial murders, militant civil rights activists like the Black Panthers, and a couple of power struggles within prisons, most Americans began to talk about people in prison as having “high and unchanging potential for criminal activity” who can’t be helped and thus must be incapacitated.

The Right on Crime messaging chips away at the notion that all people convicted of crimes are violent animals who must be segregated from society. But in doing so, it consistently gains “conservative cred” on the backs of those who are in prison for violent offenses.

We’ve run out of space and money to keep ramping up offenses and sentences. We’ve also created such a ridiculous behemoth of a system that it’s almost too easy to argue that something needs to change. That change can be a radical rethinking of crime and punishment that takes seriously the value of the people we’re potentially locking up, or it can be minor tinkering that leaves the substance of our system in place. The Right on Crime movement is pushing a series of reforms that may effectively save mass incarceration – imprisonment rates will go down, the U.S. will no longer lead the world in incarceration, and state budgets will experience enough relief to keep going.

Right on Crime is already making impressive headway in getting conservative politicians to seriously doubt the efficacy of blind momentum toward harsher responses to crime. Liberal and radical groups need to speak as loudly and push further, arguing not for state budgets but for humans, and pointing not to “big government” but to racism and an unwillingness to address social problems with anything more meaningful than a warehouse.

A debt for society: phone charges extort loved ones

If you pay any attention to prison issues, you’ve probably heard folks complain about the high cost of making a phone call while incarcerated. Here’s a snapshot of the situation:

Rates vary by state, but range from $.048/minute in New York to $3.95 + $.69/minute in Oregon (intrastate). That’s 72 cents for a fifteen minute call in New York versus $14.30 for a fifteen minute call in Oregon. Unfortunately Oregon inmates can’t request New York rates.

The higher rates are the result of kickbacks to state contracting agencies. Some states have no such “commissions,” while others charge up to 60% of revenues – raking in $152 million per year at an average of 42% of overall revenues nationwide.

Oddly enough, a CCA (private) prison in Oklahoma actually closed because of a binding contract with AT&T. The prison, located in Sayre, was home to about 1,000 Wisconsin prisoners who were getting charged such high rates for long distance phone calls that Wisconsin insisted AT&T lower the rates. When AT&T refused, the state of Wisconsin transferred all its prisoners to a different CCA facility with better rates, shutting down the Sayre prison and resulting in the loss of 225 jobs for Sayre residents.

While some people seem to think that this is a “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” kind of thing, this is not a price paid by incarcerated people. This is a price paid by their – disproportionately poor, disproportionately female – loved ones.

Positive relationships with family members is the number one indication of success upon re-entry for folks getting out of prison. A huge number of people in prison never receive a visit, especially if they’re sent to a private facility out of state. In light of that information, we should be paying people to make phone calls, not gouging them with rates when they do. When we make it harder for people to keep in touch with family, we increase the odds that we’ll be paying for their incarceration again shortly after their release.

See the Prison Legal News article here.

357 die in Honduras prison fire

357 people are dead in the wake of a fire that broke out in the prison in Comayagua, Honduras.

The prison housed over 800 people, which is well beyond its capacity. Officials believe the fire was either started by a short circuit in the electrical system, or by an incarcerated man setting fire to his mattress.

Can you imagine anything worse than being helpless, locked in a cell, as the prison fills with smoke? Maybe having your husband, brother, son, or father die that way.

Read more here.

 

 

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Black men in this country have a 32% chance of spending time in prison. Latino men have a 17% chance. White men have a 6% chance. Women as a whole are vastly less likely to go to prison than men, but women of color make up the overwhelming majority of women who do. (For these and more solid basic facts, check out the Sentencing Project’s fact sheet.)

It is tempting to assume that that’s because people of color are the ones committing all the crimes. But what if it had more to do with the fact that when people of color break the law – especially Black people – we notice, and we call the cops. When white people break the law, we give them the benefit of the doubt, or decide not to call the cops even though we know what they’re doing is wrong.

Think that’s unlikely? Or perhaps true to a limited extent, but only a little and certainly not enough to explain the differences?

Please, please watch this segment of NBC’s “What Would You Do?” I promise you it will be one of those things you bring up in casual conversation all the time.

Watch the video here.

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