Monthly Archives: April 2015

Martial State Declared in Baltimore

On April 12, Freddie Gray took off running after making eye contact with a police officer near at Gilmor Homes, a public housing project in northwest Baltimore. Apparently in response to this suspicious behavior, Gray was pursued and stopped by police. While an investigation is currently underway to determine the precise order of events, it appears that at some point during the struggle or during the ride to the police station, his spinal cord was severed. Gray was taken into police custody, at which time medics rushed him to a hospital. Shortly thereafter he slipped into a coma, and he passed away on April 19.

Today, Mr. Gray’s family and thousands of mourners gathered to memorialize his life and to reflect on the challenges facing young, Black men from poor neighborhoods more generally. As Reverend Jamal Bryant articulated in described in his eulogy, men like Gray are “confined to a box” made up of poor education, lack of job opportunities, and racial stereotypes. He pointed to the wealth disparity apparent within the city of Baltimore.

Sixteen thousand abandoned or vacant homes, 25 percent unemployment — we don’t need more police, we need more jobs. Why can’t the west side get the same things downtown gets?

Protests in Baltimore since Gray’s death have been more violent than most of the protests that are sweeping the U.S. in response to police violence against Black people. Over the weekend, seven officers were allegedly injured and 35 protesters were arrested. But today things took an especially dark turn: school-age protestors started lobbing bricks and other objects at police officers, injuring 15, two of whom are in the hospital. 27 protesters have been arrested today. Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency in the city of Baltimore. The National Guard has been called in (about 1,500 members have been deployed), and a 10 pm – 5 am curfew has been imposed through May 4.

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 11.52.18 PMStephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore’s mayor, expressed frustration at the approach taken by rioters, accusing them of “trying to tear down what so many have fought for.”

“It is idiotic,” she said, “to think that by destroying your city you’re going to make life better for anyone.”

Loretta Lynch, who was sworn in today as Attorney General, urged protestors to take choose nonviolence. She also promised “to work with leaders throughout Baltimore to ensure that we can protect the security and civil rights of all residents” and “bring the full resources of the Department of Justice to bear in protecting those under threat, investigating wrongdoing, and securing an end to violence.”

Does “all violence” mean, I wonder, ending police violence against Black men in Baltimore, too?

Many of the people taking to the streets in Baltimore today were there to prevent violence, not promote it. The New York Times spoke with Malcolm Taylor, a 39-year-old bus driver who saw students he coaches in youth football among the rioters and decided to rally a “calming force” and try to deescalate the situation. “We converged, we prayed, we sang, we stopped some fights, we stopped some rioting,” Mr. Taylor said. “We just held them by the hand and talked to them, and told them to calm down.” Other peaceful protesters include members of the 300 Men March, an activist group committed to reducing gun violence.

What Solitary Confinement Can Tell Us About Prison

Yesterday I wrote a post about Ismael Nazario who spent 300 days in solitary confinement at Riker’s before turning 18. In 2014, Riker’s made a rather dramatic shift in policy and decided to stop putting people under the age of 18 in solitary confinement altogether. Nazario spoke with NPR about his experience in solitary confinement, the effects of being locked in a 6-by-8-foot cell for 23 hours per day.

Solitary confinement is prison-within-prison. It’s the punishment of last resort in a setting where there are so few ways to make life worse that the inhumanity of maximum confinement and sensory and social deprivation seems like a reasonable incremental step. But it is used far more liberally than you might imagine. For a fist-fight, possession of contraband, or getting a prison tattoo, it’s not uncommon for prisoners to be thrown in solitary confinement for thirty, sixty, or a hundred days.

It’s great that New York City has made the decision not to use solitary confinement for adolescents, but while young people do have unique psychological needs, the use of solitary is torture for prisoners of all ages. The egregious over-use of solitary confinement at prisons and jails in New York and nationwide sends a message, if you’re willing to listen: when prison is so horrible that only solitary confinement is noticeably worse, the problem won’t be solved by more punishment.

Go to the Source: The experts are the ones who have lived through it

For all you can learn about prison reading the New York Times, the Atlantic, or (har har), there is no substitute from hearing about prison from someone who has been – or is – in prison. This brief TED Talk by Ismael Nazario provides a window into his experience in jail and prison in New York state, including glimpses of the dynamic among Corrections Officers and incarcerated people.

Nazario is a reentry counselor with the Fortune Society, a completely fabulous reentry services and prisoner rights activism organization in New York City. What the Fortune Society does so damn well is walk their talk: they aren’t just an organization for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, they are primarily staffed by formerly incarcerated people. There is no population better qualified to coach people through reentry than people who have met that challenge and succeeded, and there’s no better way for the Fortune Society to empower former prisoners than to hire them. This is a win-win that more organizations should take advantage of.

Many of America’s “Missing” Black Men Are in Prison

There are 1.5 million Black men “missing” from cities in America. A recent study by the New York Times shows that for every 100 Black women not in jail in America, there are 83 Black men. 600,000 of the people “missing” in this gap are incarcerated, while another 900,000 are estimated to have died prematurely (the study focused on people ages 25 – 54). 1.5 million equates to 1 in 6 Black men in this age range who have aren’t around – they’re dead, or hidden from the general population’s view.

The largest gap in the U.S. is in Ferguson, MO, where there are 40% more Black women than men.

In a Letter to the Editor, Marc Mauer points to inadequate welfare spending to explain both primary drivers of the “missing” population. He cites research demonstrating that welfare spending reduces the risk of incarceration (and, no surprise, premature death). Reducing the size and expense of the prison system is a cause that policy makers across the aisle have advocated; a significant proportion of the government savings that would result should be redirected to non-punitive crime reduction measures: welfare programs.

No More Tolerance of Sexual Violence in Prison

According to a recent op ed from the New York Times, prison rape costs the government roughly $51.6 billion per year (from victim compensation and increased recidivism), while full compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act would cost about $480 million per year. These numbers, of course, don’t include the immeasurable emotional cost of being sexually assaulted or raped, nor the cost to society when we normalize and even leverage sexual violence against people who are in the “care” of the state. The ACLU has estimated that between George W. Bush’s signing the Act into law and the DOJ’s finalizing the standards in 2012, 2,000,000 incarcerated people were raped. About half of the complaints that are filed are against staff.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act isn’t the end-all be-all answer, and it’s in no way equipped to address what I see as the root problems of sexual violence in prison: sexual violence has long been used to assert dominance and the structure of prison ensures that dominance is the name of the game, while the close quarters and lack of autonomy in prison make protecting oneself extremely difficult and staff prejudice (or loyalty to staff offenders) leaves victims without recourse. But although the Act should certainly be adopted and enforced widely, in particular against the handful of corrections officers who routinely commit violence with impunity, as well as their colleagues and unions who turn a blind eye to the abuses.

The Future of Fulton: A former prison gets a second chance

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In the Bronx, people who have recently been released from prison may soon voluntarily head to a (former) correctional facility. In January, the New York-based reentry services organization The Osborne Association took title to the building formerly known as Fulton Correctional Facility, which operated as a minimum security prison in the Bronx for four decades.

Irony isn’t new to the Fulton Avenue property, which began as an Episcopal church house in 1907 and became a Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA?) in the 1920s. But this latest transition is perhaps its greatest contradiction.

On the one hand, the reentry services that will be provided – including emergency and interim housing and workforce development – are desperately needed. Housing is a particular challenge in the Bronx because so many residents live in public housing and former prisoners are, by and large, banned from living there. Finding employment is also a struggle: the unemployment rate in the Bronx is a staggering 9.3%. By comparison, the national unemployment rate has returned to a pre-recession level of 5.5%, and the peak national unemployment rate during the recession was only slightly higher than what the Bronx is currently experiencing. Unsurprisingly, people who are reentering society are at a disadvantage both because of their criminal convictions and because of gaps in their employment history or a lack of transferrable job skills.

For those reasons, I want to be excited about this resource for Osborne. I have nothing but admiration for their work, and I’m optimistic that they’ll use the facility formerly known as Fulton in the best conceivable ways. But I can’t help but feel that the message being sent here is problematic – you’ve done your time, but the only place left for you – on the outside – is a prison; this cinderblock building full of cells and bars is literally an improvement on where you will end up without it (likely the streets).

My hesitation is reflected in the reaction of one former Fulton resident who attended the ceremony at which Osborne received the key to the building:

Stanley Richards stood hunched by a wall in a suit and tie, remembering his days as an involuntary resident of 1511 Fulton. “You see I’m sweating?” Mr. Richards said. “My gut is going up and down. When I walked in that door, I remembered when I first walked in that door, not knowing if I was coming back out.”

The idea of using a prison to house and train people getting out of prison reminds me of another repurposed facility from a different era. The Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, was a slave plantation (named for the country from which its slaves were taken) until the Civil War. Today it is the largest maximum security prison in the nation, with 6,300 prisoners and 1,800 staff members. It bears a striking resemblance to the slave plantation it once was, complete with working farm. It is a walking monument to the notion that mass incarceration is the latest edition of race-based oppression in the U.S.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ll reiterate that I think Osborne is a terrific organization and that the work they are doing is sorely needed by formerly incarcerated people returning to the Bronx – I don’t think that they’re the next incarnation of Angola Prison. Osborne is hemmed in by limited resources, and taking advantage of what they can get. And perhaps there’s some kind of poetic justice here, people who encountered the brute force of mass incarceration rising like phoenixes from the ashes of a system that (in New York, at least) is declining. But I do think it’s troubling that the situation is so desperate that sending formerly incarcerated people back into a (former) prison is something advocates are excited about.

Life on the outside simply should not be so blatantly analogous to life on the inside. The ease with which they can be equated, like the connection between Angola as a slave plantation and as a prison, should be a cause for alarm.


Rethinking the Police

Can the police be fixed? Scrutiny on police in the last year or so has generated much discussion of police reform, from great ideas like changing departmental culture to encourage building multidimensional relationships between officers and the communities they police, to superficial but potentially helpful changes like body cams, to misguided fixes like the “triple defender” less-lethal weapon.

But what if the very role of police is inherently off the mark? An interesting article from the Atlantic suggests that policing relies on “power” – an external, force-oriented approach to social control, rather than “authority,” which relies on relationships and consent from those being led. For African American communities in particular, the U.S. has relied on the police “hammer” to respond to social ills like drug addiction, poverty, and mental illness.

We ask ourselves, “Were they justified in shooting?” But, in this time of heightened concern around the policing, a more essential question might be, “Were we justified in sending them?”

The best police departments in the nation will still fall short of being able to fix the kind of problems that police are currently expected to “deal with.” While there are changes that can and must take place, broader and more substantial change isn’t going to come from within police departments, but from public pressure to create positive responses to social needs and rely less (or not at all) on punitive ones.

Employing the Dangerous Class

Apple’s employment practices made headlines recently when it came to light that they imposed a blanket ban on hiring construction workers who had been convicted of a felony in the last 7 years. Luckily, responses of surprise and outrage resulted in Apple lifting the ban from their screening process. But many companies continue to outright bar convicted felons from employment, and most states don’t consider it discrimination (even where the conviction has nothing to do with the position in question). And, of course, hiring is a deeply subjective process even at its most systematic.

I know: I was a corporate recruiter for a tech company for several years, and although we used rigorous tests and well-established standards to hire thousands of people every year, there was ample room for subjective factors to come into play, particularly where any objective doubts existed about a candidate – which was virtually always. We were instructed not to consider felony convictions unless they were relevant to the position (as in: better than the controversial Apple policy), but the stereotypes that accompany convictions along with the practical implications – career gaps, periods of unemployment resulting from prejudicial hiring practices, lack of formal education or correspondence-school degrees that we valued less highly, etc. – worked against the applicant at each stage of the process.

I argued in favor of overlooking serious (but irrelevant) convictions, and it was obvious that my coworkers generally had not seriously thought of doing so until I pushed back. These coworkers, by the way, were overwhelming young, highly educated, and liberal. In other words, the same demographic who got so mad about Apple’s outright ban, and folks who one might imagine would be particularly sympathetic.

Why the resistance to hiring people who have irrelevant felony convictions? In an economy with an uncomfortably high unemployment rate, employers often have a lot of options and may benefit from culling the herd a little bit outright. And when you’re turning away many qualified applicants, perhaps employers feel justified in giving folks who’ve never been convicted of a felony a leg up – maybe it feels like a merit-based decision. But I think the most compelling explanation for both de jure and de facto bans on hiring people with felony convictions is simply prejudice: thanks to rhetoric about “career criminals” and “super predators” – what I’ve described as the “dangerous class” – individual convictions have come to stand for a criminal identity overall.

It should be noted, though, that this is not a race-neutral prejudice. One particularly distressing study from Arizona State University showed that our broad prejudice against people with criminal convictions still isn’t as strong as our prejudice against Black people: white men with criminal convictions were more likely to be hired than equally qualified Black men with no criminal history.

Getting rid of the screening question altogether (the “Ban the Box” movement) will go a long way to prevent the kind of de facto discrimination I witnessed, and applying civil-rights-style anti-discrimination principles to those with criminal records will help as well. But, as the Arizona State University study demonstrates, the prejudices at work here are layered and will likely need to be addressed simultaneously to effectuate change.

Chicago Police Stops Outpace New York at Its Worst

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Police stops in Chicago outpace stop-and-frisks at their peak in New York according to a ACLU of Illinois. Not surprisingly, the ACLU found that people of color were being targeted.

The Most Human Thing In Prison May Not Be Human At All

A new program at Pendleton Maximum Security Prison in Indiana brings rescued cats into the facility. Incarcerated men at Pendleton are charged with providing care, keeping their space clean, and socializing the cats, many of whom have been abused or abandoned. Of course, the cats aren’t the only ones with trauma in their past and cages in their present: in the video linked above, they really could’ve used “cats” and “prisoners” interchangeably.

“It’s helped me calm down and lot, and grow up,” says Lamar Hall, one of the cat caretakers. “It feels good just to help.”

One of the things I’ve heard a lot from incarcerated people is how degrading it is to be constantly identified with your past mistakes, viewed as an inherently bad person. Being able to spend time with animals and do positive work is a relief from the exhausting barrage of negativity, both because the cats don’t know you’re part of a prisoner caste and because you can feel good about what you’re doing.

Pendleton also has a dog training program, one of several programs that exist across the U.S. I met one trainer/trainee pair at Otisville Correctional Facility, part of Puppies Behind Bars, and I was blown away: Hannah, the trainee, could respond to more than fifty commands in both English and Spanish, conducting helpful tasks like flipping light-switches and retrieving a ringing telephone. Her trainer was so passionate about the program that he had actually requested a move from a minimum security facility to a medium because the program was only available there.

In an environment of distrust, violence, and prejudice, sometimes contact with non-humans can be the most humanizing experience available.

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