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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Louisiana Won’t Compensate Dying Man for Thirty Lost Years

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Glenn Ford has gotten two death sentences. The first one landed him on Louisiana’s death row at Angola Prison for 30 years before his conviction was vacated. The second came this February, just under a year after he was released: with Stage 4 lung cancer, Mr. Ford has four to eight months to live.

“Can you imagine going more than twenty years without no human contact?” Mr. Ford asks in response to a question about the emotional impact of death row. “Without seeing your family? And then one day after thirty year with no new contact, one night you’re sleeping on death row, and the next day you’re in the free world. That’s how overwhelmed I still am.”

He envies the lives he’s seen others develop, growing in ways he never had the chance to. “I’m still a spectator,” Mr. Ford explains.

But despite having been wrongfully convicted, a conviction that can be attributed to prosecutorial misconduct and inadequate defense, the state has denied Mr. Ford’s request for compensation. This denial is based on prosecutors’ insistence than Mr. Ford knew of the robbery that culminated in the accidental killing of the victim, and that he pawned items from the store that was robbed. On this basis he is not “factually innocent” within the requirements of the Louisiana compensation law.

But Mr. Ford was convicted of a crime he did not commit on an inaccurate set of facts. He was not convicted of the crimes that are now being alleged against him. Furthermore, the crimes that are preventing his compensation would almost certainly not have earned him 30 years in prison, and they definitely would not have put him on death row. That he allegedly committed crimes related to this set of facts and not different crimes seems like such an arbitrary reason to deny someone a sliver of justice after you’ve robbed them of a much more valuable commodity: liberty.

There is no indication that the police officers who coached witnesses or the prosecutors who suppressed evidence of Mr. Ford’s innocence will be held accountable for their malpractice (one prosecutor did write a heartfelt letter of apology, but failed to explain why he never acted on the doubts he harbored about the case for decades after its conclusion). Without compensating Mr. Ford (capped at $330,000 in Louisiana, by the way, which would be $11,000 for each year of his life spent in a 12 x 12 box), the state of Louisiana will not be held accountable either. And Mr. Ford, who is currently in hospice care, has no money to make his life easier, compensate the hospice workers who are taking care of him, or leave to his many grandchildren when he dies.

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Falsified Training Records Show Law Enforcement’s Disregard for Human Life

Sources from inside the Tulsa Sheriff’s Department have indicated that the training records for Bob Bates, the 73-year-old “pay to play” volunteer deputy who accidentally shot and killed Eric Harris, were falsified. Bates was classified as a “advanced reserve,” which requires 480 hours of training. A number of actors have questioned whether Bates actually completed the training, including a representative for Harris’ family and sources inside the Sheriff’s Department. Bates himself released a statement claiming that he received training from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona, which that office has denied.

Does it really matter? Yes. The training in question was a prerequisite to Bates carrying a gun, meaning that if he was actually expected to complete the training, he might not have been in the field, he might not have been carrying a gun, or he might have had training that guided him away from the tragic error in question. In any event, there’s a good chance that Eric Harris would still be alive. And while I have no idea what the training actually entails, law enforcement officers who do carry lethal weapons should receive extensive (extensive) training before going into the field to guide them away from using guns – accidentally or intentionally – as much as possible.

I’ll repeat what I said a few days ago, which is that Mr. Bates never should have been on that sting operation, much less carrying a gun while there. The risks are simply too high: lethal weapons cause accidental or unnecessary deaths with alarming frequency. But to have such a terrible policy regarding volunteer deputies and then also be negligent with regard to training demonstrates an appalling disregard for the lives of the people who will come in contact with your deputies.

Anthony Ray Hinton’s Exoneration Won Despite Prosecutors’ Resistance

Anthony Ray Hinton was exonerated on April 3rd after spending 30 years – his 30s, 40s, and 50s – on death row in Alabama. Hinton is one of 1,583 people who have been exonerated for serious crimes in the U.S., according to the National Registry of Exonerations. He is one of 152 people exonerated after being sentenced to die (experts estimate that about 4% of death row prisoners are innocent). His exoneration concludes 15 years of work on the part of the Equal Justice Initiative, led by Bryan Stevenson.

Hinton was convicted of killing two restaurant managers, despite evidence that he was locked in a warehouse working overnight. The only physical evidence linking him to the murders was a .38 police found under his mother’s mattress, which a state expert testified matched the bullets fired in the two murders. His defense attorney was inaccurately informed that he could have only $1,000 to hire his own expert, and, unable to find a qualified expert available at that sum (and unwilling to ask for more), hired a retired civil engineer with one eye.

Although the Equal Justice Initiative took the case in 2000 and hired three experts who all found that the gun did not match the bullets (nor did the bullets match a single gun more generally), current and former prosecutors resisted reconsidering the evidence for more than a decade. Anthony Ray Hinton paid the price of an inadequate defense attorney, a complicit judge, and a negligent prosecutor, and then continued paying it as prosecutors blocked a much-needed review.

After 30 years on death row, Mr. Hinton has a long road of adjustment ahead of him. He told the Marshall Project about several of these challenges:

It took me a little while to remember how to use a fork. You know we don’t use forks in the penitentiary. You get a spoon. And the spoon is plastic, so I haven’t used a fork in 30 years. I just really tried to order something that didn’t make me look like I didn’t have any home training. It’s like learning everything over again.

No one has apologized on the part of the state, nor have individual prosecutors acknowledged their mistakes. Here’s hoping Mr. Hinton and his attorneys win a great big award for damages, both for his sake (he hasn’t been in the traditional workforce for thirty years, for example) and in order to hold Alabama accountable to the greatest degree possible for this injustice.

John Legend Launches Campaign to End Mass Incarceration

John Legend has decided to put his fame to good use. On Monday he announced the FREE AMERICA campaign to end mass incarceration.

“We have a serious problem with incarceration in this country,” Legend has said. “It’s destroying families, it’s destroying communities and we’re the most incarcerated country in the world, and when you look deeper and look at the reasons we got to this place, we as a society made some choices politically and legislatively, culturally to deal with poverty, deal with mental illness in a certain way and that way usually involves using incarceration.”

This isn’t Legend’s first public statement about mass incarceration – he voiced similar concerns in his Oscar acceptance speech this year, while accepting an award for the song he and Common collaborated on for Selma.

Volunteer Deputy’s Tragic Mistake Is a Sign of a Broken System

Eric Harris died in the hospital on April 2, 2015, after a volunteer deputy with the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department accidentally discharged his gun instead of his taser while subduing Harris during an arrest after a sting operation. The video linked above was made available to the public by request of Harris’ family. It shows a disturbing scene, not just because a man who is already on the ground and surrounded by law enforcement is fatally shot, but because he continues to be held to the ground and ridiculed after the shooting occurs – when he tells officers he can’t breathe, one responds “Fuck your breath.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 10.03.46 AMHarris is another victim in a shocking number of police killings so far this year. I couldn’t find an exact number for 2015 (it changes every day, of course) but in January and February alone 176 people were killed by police officers (you can see a continuously updated list of all 2015 victims here). Now, it’s possible that some of those really were dire, my-life-or-yours situations where the officer had to use lethal force for the good of the nation. But if lethal force is so important, why is the U.S. dramatically out of line with the rest of the industrialized world in needing it? And why is it that police officers are so much better at avoiding lethal force with white people than with black people?

All of this is relevant to mass incarceration not just because it’s another element of the criminal justice system but because it displays the same disregard for Black lives that our approach to imprisonment does. Whether you’re incarcerating 1 in 3 Black men or shooting Black teenagers at 21 times the rate you’re shooting white teenagers, you’re acting on the same underlying prejudice: that young, poor people of color are a part of the dangerous class, are worth less than their white counterparts, and therefore taking care or avoiding risk is not as important. Wrongful conviction? They’re probably guilty of something. Taser or gun? Shoot first, figure that out later. Sentence a kid to life without parole? It’s not like they’re going to amount to much anyway.

This conception of the “dangerous class,” the new face of racism, is not unique to police, and it would be grossly underestimating its power to chalk it up to racist cops and limit our thinking to that arena. But police officers are very much a part of it, and the media attention that these senseless deaths have been drawing is as important as it is unusual.

So what do we do? We need to recognize the way that racism has been reframed as criminal justice, and effect radical change throughout our system in response. But in the interim, the American approach to policing should be overhauled in the image of many European countries. In Germany, for example, police officers receive extensive training discouraging the use of force (8 Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 9.10.21 AMpeople were killed by German police officers in 2014, compared to 458 in the U.S.). In Iceland, few police officers carry guns and they are strongly encouraged against it – only one person has been fatally shot by a police officer since the country’s independence in 1944. In Eric Harris’ case, arming a volunteer deputy (who has been described as “pay to play” since he’s donated thousands of dollars worth of gifts to the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department) is a completely unnecessary and dangerous thing to do, and absolutely a policy that should be changed immediately.

Some police departments are considering a different solution: the less lethal “triple defender” gun that can stun, shoot pepper spray, and disorient you with a strobe light, all in one handy implement (does this sound like something out of Brave New World to anyone else?). While I’m all for more people living to tell the tale, it sounds to me like it would enable unnecessary use of force more than it would curtail it. Let’s focus on reforms that reduce harm altogether rather than merely improving our survival rate.

Crime and Age: The gap between what science shows and how prisons operate

Crime is for young people. Homicide and drug arrests peak at 19, arrests for forcible rape peak at 18, vandalism at 16, and forgery, fraud and embezzlement in the early 20s.

This may be because young people are typically more poor than older people (inspiring property crimes), or because they have fewer responsibilities and can therefore take more risks. It’s probably true that physical abilities play a role – if you’re pretty sure you can’t outrun a police officer, you might keep the lid on that spray paint. But dollars to donuts that one major factor is frontal lobe development.

Neuroscientists have conclusively shown that connections to the frontal lobe continue developing through our 20s, and goes a little slower in men than women. So until women are about 23 and men are about 25, access to the part of the brain that influences judgement and insight is slow relative to older people.

Despite ample scientific evidence demonstrating that young people who make poor choices are very likely to grow up to be adults who are perfectly capable of making better ones, sentences in the U.S. are out of step with this reality in three ways: we frequently sentence minors (sometimes as young as 13 or 14) as though they have the culpability of an adult, we sentence people to stints far longer than what is likely necessary from a public safety standpoint (given that for most crimes the average “career length” is 5 – 10 years), and our increasingly use of life without parole sentences means a growing elderly population in prison, often with substantial healthcare needs that the prison system is ill-equipped to meet.

It’s crazy that America’s massive criminal justice system, which affects so many lives so deeply and costs such a huge amount of money, is allowed to carry on in ways that are divorced from what we know about how people – and crime – operate.

Housing Plays a Critical Role in Reentry

One of the biggest problems facing people who are released from prison or jail is finding a place to live. But housing is, of course, crucial, not only because it’s a basic need but also because failure to secure approved housing may actually lengthen your sentence.

In New York, for example, sex offenders returning to New York City cannot rely on homeless shelters because only 14 of the 270 homeless shelters in the city are not within 1,000 feet of a school or daycare center, as required by state law. When it was brought to lawmakers’ attention that sex offenders were living in these shelters, they responded by keeping sex offenders without approved housing in prison beyond their release date. In Vermont, the state’s unique approach to parole means that rather than facing a parole board when prisoners become eligible, they’re automatically released – as long as they have approved housing. Unsurprisingly, this is a difficult thing to both find and keep, so in addition to staying in prison longer than necessary, many parolees find themselves back in jail if they can’t pay rent or lose their housing for some other reason.

L.A. County took a step in the right direction this week by making it easier for people with (non-violent) convictions to access subsidized “Section 8” housing. In a 3-2 vote, the County Supervisors decided to lift their across-the-board bar on awarding subsidies to people on probation or parole. Of course, people with convictions won’t have a priority over others, and the line is long: 43,000 applications are pending, with 1,200 spots predicted to open up over the next year.

The federal government has their own regulations in this arena, and each housing authority then adds its own screening process, and you can imagine how well that goes for people with convictions (drug convictions and sex offenses are particularly damaging). The really shitty thing about this is that the restrictions don’t just apply to applicants – you can’t even move in with a family member in Section 8 housing in many cases. Because so many people in prison come from poor families, this is frequently a barrier to successful reentry.

On a personal note, I had my own housing crisis in December – my apartment was vacated because my sleazy property management company evidently took a “no rules” approach to renovating the building (skipping minor conveniences like proper wiring and fire egress). I was very suddenly out, locks changed, no home, comically toting clothes, books, two cats, and a litter box around the city.

This was not a high point in my life, and in addition to the fact of homelessness it also coincided with my roommate being away on a silent meditation retreat (seriously) and finals week. But it did bring into focus just how lucky I had to be in order to survive relatively unscathed.

    • I had several friends who let me – and my cats – crash with them. (Meaning that I also had several friends with the physical space to take me in.)
    • At one point I needed to rent a car, and I was able to do so – driver’s license intact, etc.
    • My property management company paid for my moving expenses, probably at least in part because I suppressed my Midwestern friendliness more than I ever have before and threatened them with a lawsuit.
    • My parents were willing to be guarantors for me, and my parents also make excellent guarantors.
    • I didn’t have to check box next to “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” on my apartment application.
    • I was able to scrounge up the $6,000 my roommate and I needed to get into the new apartment (and this for a place that doesn’t have a fee – don’t get me started on broker’s fees).
    • I can’t say for sure what kind of credit I got for my race and class, but I’m confident that being white and well-educated didn’t hurt my prospects for the apartment.

10 days after being summarily ousted from apartment #1, I was safely ensconced in apartment #2. So what if I had been in the exact same situation, except that I had a criminal record and zero money and terrible credit and since I’d been away for 2, or 5, or 10, or 30 years my relationships were a bit strained, or perhaps I had people who would take me in but would risk their precious Section 8 benefits by doing so, and no one I knew could or would lend me $6,000 at the drop of a hat?

When you’re privileged, these awful situations turn into memorable blips, stories you tell your friends and someday your kids, but they don’t ruin your life. For people getting out of prison, not only is the safety net missing but additional burdens are imposed. Good for L.A. County for eliminating one of their own barriers to housing, and here’s hoping that more lawmakers will recognize how onerous housing restrictions are for people already facing many other challenges.

Criminalizing Poverty Directly: How debt fuels mass incarceration

Walter Scott and his children, courtesy of The Guardian

Walter Scott’s tragic death in South Carolina this last week has brought attention to a troubling reality: in South Carolina, 1 in 8 people in jail are there because they couldn’t meet their child support obligations. Because this is a civil, not a criminal, offense, this means that at least 12.5% of incarcerated people in South Carolina aren’t there because of a crime, but (almost always) because of their poverty. It also means that people are jailed without a right to counsel.

In Scott’s case, it’s widely speculated that he was running from the police officer because there was a warrant out for his arrest due to the thousands he owed in child support. He served six months in jail and several other overnight stays for falling far behind previously.

South Carolina has particularly harsh penalties in this regard: a civil contempt hearing can be triggered when payments are just five days late. And although they’re cracking down in this especially punitive way, their compliance rate is actually below the national average. This may reflect the fact that people who are in and out of jail have a harder time holding down a steady job, are less likely to be given a new one, and are further behind in both child support payments and other trivial financial concerns such as rent and utility payments. (The relationship between incarceration and poverty is so well recognized, one of the Koch brothers wrote an article about it.)

Don’t get me wrong – I’m fully in support of the general concept of child support. But jailing people to enforce compliance is both counterproductive and legally questionable. When someone can’t pay child support and ends up being jailed for it, we’re effectively putting them in an (illegal) debtor’s prison. This idea has been under attack in both popular media and in the courts recently, partly as a result of activism in Ferguson and the #blacklivesmatter campaign nationwide. The DOJ report documenting civil rights abuses in Ferguson highlighted the abusive use of municipal fines, applied and enforced disproportionately against people of color.

According to civil rights lawyer and activist Alec Karakatsanis who has successfully represented clients in debtor’s prison cases in Montgomery, AL, and Ferguson, MO, both the fees and fines imposed on citizens and the system’s willingness to use jail as an enforcement mechanism have risen alongside mass incarceration.

“In the 1970s and 1980s,” he says, “we started to imprison more people for lesser crimes. In the process, we were lowering our standards for what constituted an offense deserving of imprisonment, and, more broadly, we were losing our sense of how serious, how truly serious, it is to incarcerate. If we can imprison for possession of marijuana, why can’t we imprison for not paying back a loan?”

It’s not a novel concept that most people in prison are poor, and the relationship between the underlying offense and poverty is often a close one. But in this case, poverty itself is the offense. As Karakatsanis suggests, we have lost our comprehension of just how devastating incarceration is, and as a result are comfortable resorting to it with alarming frequency when the transgressor in question happens to be poor, or a person of color, or both. We’ve seen this recently in the first-ever conviction for feticide and the application of racketeering charges to schoolteachers.

We need to stop pretending that prison will solve all our problems. It’s an affront to the dignity of the people we’re reflexively locking up, and it doesn’t work. Not mad enough yet? Watch this terrific segment of Last Week Tonight by John Oliver:

Police Brutality, SoCal Edition

Half a dozen deputies spent minutes kicking, punching, and bludgeoning robbery suspect Francis Pusok in Southern California today, all of which was caught on video by NBC Channel 4 Southern California (whoops). San Berdino County Sheriff John McMahon said he wouldn’t “jump to conclusions at this point,” but will undertake a thorough internal review. “If our deputy sheriffs did something wrong,” he said, “they’ll be put off work and they’ll be dealt with appropriately, all in accordance with the law as well as our department policy.”

Mr. McMahon: “If” has nothing to do with it.