Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘mass incarceration

Downsizing the Prison Population, in California and Beyond

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As we begin 2012, it looks like California is on track to meet its court-ordered benchmarks for reducing the state prison population. KALW/The Informant notes:

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, readying its January 10 report to the federal court in the Northern District of California, announced it’s currently operating at 169.2 percent of its designed capacity. That number nearly hits the 167-percent figure the court demanded California meet by December 27, 2011.

In actual numbers, that means that the prison population has fallen by about 8,000 inmates since October–and should continue to drop at its current rate of about 900 a week.

The population decline is enabling CDCR to shut down “ugly beds” — the double- and even triple-bunk beds crammed into gymnasiums that became notorious through widely circulated photographs and video footage at the height of California’s overcrowding crisis. (Here are some photos of gyms and day rooms in the process of being converted back to recreational use.) Read the rest of this entry »

Written by sara

January 3, 2012 at 7:25 am

Sociologist Megan Comfort Studies How Mass Incarceration Affects Families

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Here’s a podcast with sociologist Megan Comfort on her book, Doing Time Together: Love and Family in the Shadow of Prison (UChicago Press, 2007). Here’s what the book’s about:

Megan Comfort spent years getting to know women visiting men at San Quentin State Prison, observing how their romantic relationships drew them into contact with the penitentiary. Tangling with the prison’s intrusive scrutiny and rigid rules turns these women into “quasi-inmates,” eroding the boundary between home and prison and altering their sense of intimacy, love, and justice. Yet Comfort also finds that with social welfare weakened, prisons are the most powerful public institutions available to women struggling to overcome untreated social ills and sustain relationships with marginalized men. As a result, they express great ambivalence about the prison and the control it exerts over their daily lives.

Written by sara

August 29, 2011 at 10:19 am

Rikers Island and Irene

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A flurry of concern on Twitter yesterday & today about Bloomberg’s announcement that Rikers Island would not be evacuated as Hurricane Irene headed towards NYC. [Full story after the jump.] Read the rest of this entry »

Historian Rebecca McLennan on “When Felons Were Human”

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Thanks to a reader who sent me this article by Berkeley historian Rebecca McLennan, which traces the nineteenth-century legal and political changes that have enabled twentieth-century Americans to write prisoners out of the categories of “human” and “citizen.” McLennan writes:

Why do the courts, lawmakers, and majority opinion ignore the mounting evidence that a large-scale human rights crisis is underway in the United States? Why, on those occasions when news media document the most extreme prison abuses, do few of us conceptualize them as human rights abuses? Why, in a country where mass movements mobilized in both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries to protest and change prison conditions, is there so little public concern over prison violence, overcrowding, the long term use of indefinite isolation, and the de jure and de facto erosion of prisoners’ civil rights?

In the course of my work as a historian of American law and society, I have pondered these questions frequently—enough to realize that, as formulated here, they’re in need of considerable refinement. But the history of America’s various modes of legal punishment leads me to suspect that our general failure to recognize certain prison abuses as human rights abuses is largely a consequence of the exceptional and degraded legal and moral status of convicted offenders. If we understand human rights as inalienable rights that flow from the mere fact of being human, it is hard to escape the conclusion that here in the United States prisoners and convicted offenders more generally do not count, at least in the eyes of the law and a vocal minority of opinion-shapers, as fully human. This drastic erosion of prisoners’ status transpired in the last twenty years of the 20th century and is the result of complex social, economic, and political forces. But, as I’ll suggest here, the courts and lawmakers of the nineteenth century helped lay the legal pathway to this dismal state of affairs by reviving and modernizing the early medieval legal fiction of the convict’s civiliter mortuus (civil death).

The article is well worth a read. McLennan is the author of a history of nineteenth-century punishment, The Crisis of Imprisonment, which I also highly recommend to anyone interested in the deep past of the American criminal justice system. A theme of that book is how widespread popular dissent led to the dismantling of systems of imprisonment at several moments in American history.

Written by sara

August 19, 2011 at 7:20 am

String of Lawsuits Isn’t Scaring States Away from Corrections Corp. of America

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Bob Ortega of the Arizona Republic has been reporting an excellent series on the private prison business. This article is a must-read for summarizing the many connections between Arizona local and state officials and the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America. Definitely go read the article, and the “Price of Prisons” series it’s part of, in full. For the purposes of this blog, the highlight of the article is the litany of lawsuits that CCA is facing all over the country. Several stem from the Arizona CCA facilities where Hawaii ships a large number of its prisoners. One Hawaii inmate alleges he was forced to give oral sex to a guard at an Arizona CCA prison; 18 Hawaiian inmates say they were stripped, beaten, and threatened by guards in retaliation for a fight; two other Hawaii inmates were killed by other inmates and their families are alleging that prison security was inadequate. Elsewhere around the country, three female inmates claim they were sexually assaulted at a Kentucky CCA facility; after a series of sexual assault cases nationwide, both Kentucky and Hawaii have removed all their female prisoners from CCA institutions. The most notorious CCA lawsuit, though, is the Idaho “Gladiator School” suit, which alleges 13 instances in which CCA officers opened doors to let violent inmates attack other prisoners and did not intervene during the beatings.

Here, as reported by Ortega, is CCA’s response:

Asked about the suits, CCA’s Owen said, “These are allegations that have not yet been proven in a court of law. These are not established facts, and we respond in court, so I’m not at liberty to respond.”

He said that in June, Hawaii awarded CCA a three-year, $136.5 million contract to continue housing that state’s inmates in Arizona.

“That was a competitive-bid process,” Owen said.

CCA was the only bidder.

“There isn’t a corrections system in the country that’s immune to lawsuits or incidents,” Owen said. “Those don’t necessarily tell the whole story. You have to look at our overall track record. . . . Do incidents occur? Yes. Are we responsive when things happen? Do our partners continue to trust and work with us? Yes.”

The article also notes the troubling lack of security at the Arizona private prisons where many California prisoners are transferred. I’ve heard from prisoners who’ve done time in private prisons that they did not feel safe there. Paid a low hourly wage, private prison guards have little incentive to risk physical harm by intervening in violent situations. In addition, Ortega’s article points out that CCA does not perform full background checks on guards or check whether they have relationships with inmates.

Realignment in California: The Basics, Plus How Counties Are Preparing

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On October 1, California will start diverting low-level felony offenders and parole violators to county jail, rather than state prison, when a new law, known as “realignment,” goes into effect. The law was proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown as a way to bring the California prison system into compliance with the Supreme Court’s order to alleviate overcrowding, and was enacted by the Legislature in March as AB 109. I thought I’d run through a few basics of how the law will work and round up some recent news coverage from around the state. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive resource, the ACLU of Northern California has produced a helpful guide (PDF) to the law and how counties can plan for the changes.

The Mechanics

  • How will AB 109 change California sentencing practices? As of October 1, the law transfers responsibility for punishing non-serious, non-violent, non-sex felony offenses to the county level, where misdemeanors are already handled. So rather than being sent to state prison, these low-level offenders will now be punished with a term in county jail or whatever alternative sanction the county comes up with. (For those familiar with the California Penal Code, generally we’re talking about felonies punishable by the “16 months/2 years/3 years” triad.)  Read the rest of this entry »

New Study: Prosecutors, Not Police, Have Driven Prison Population Growth

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The United States prison population has exploded over the past 40 years. But why? Have police been making more arrests? Have prosecutors been charging more people with crimes? Have judges been issuing longer sentences? Have parole boards become stricter? (All of the above?) Since many accounts of mass incarceration collapse “the criminal justice system” into a single monolith, it can be hard to know exactly what part of the system has driven the growth in the prison population.

A new empirical study by Fordham law professor John Pfaff aims to provide a more granular explanation of the causes of mass incarceration. Pfaff concludes that only one other relevant number has changed as dramatically as the prison population has: the number of felony case filings per arrest. In other words, police haven’t been arresting more people:

[B]etween 1982 and 1995, arrests rose by 26% (from 3,261,613 to 4,118,039) while mean [prison] admissions rose by 149% (from 212,415 to 530,642); between 1995 and 2007, arrests fell by 28.6% while admissions rose by another 31.9%. It is thus clear that arrests are not driving the growth in incarceration—and by extension neither are trends in crime levels, since their effect is wholly mediated by these arrest rates. 

Rather, prosecutors have become more likely to charge those arrested with crimes:  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by sara

July 18, 2011 at 7:18 am

Are “Certificates of Rehabilitation” the Solution to Prisoner Reentry?

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Should more states join the seven that offer ex-prisoners the opportunity to earn “certificates of rehabilitation”? In a new paper, NYU law professor Joy Radice draws lessons from the 50-year history of these certificates in New York, the first state to introduce a program of this type. Here’s the abstract:

After years of swelling prison populations, the reentry into society of people with criminal convictions has become a central criminal justice issue. Scholars, advocates, judges, and lawmakers have repeatedly emphasized that, even after prison, punishment continues from severe civil penalties that are imposed by federal and state statutes on anyone with a conviction. To alleviate the impact of these punishments, they have increasingly endorsed state legislation that creates certificates of rehabilitation. Seven states offer these postconviction certificates, and six others proposed such legislation in 2011. Many look to New York’s statute as the best model because it is the oldest and most robust. Yet no article has examined New York’s experience with Certificates of Rehabilitation.

This Article draws lessons from the fifty-year history of New York’s Certificates of Rehabilitation to describe features of an ideal administrative mechanism that removes statutory barriers to reentry. I argue that a model Certificate of Rehabilitation statute will have a strong enforcement mechanism and clear directives for administering authorities. Successful implementation also requires committed administrative leadership and an effective means for making certificates accessible to the population they serve. Certificates of Rehabilitation do not erase a person’s criminal history, but they offer legal and social recognition that after a criminal conviction, a person deserves a second chance.

Written by sara

July 14, 2011 at 11:15 am

Summer Reading: YES! Magazine and Reason Magazine

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At my local Borders yesterday I noticed not just one but two magazines on the newsstand featuring criminal justice topics this month:

  • YES! Magazine‘s Beyond Prisons issue features articles on Washington State’s prison university program, Maori responses to youth crime, Hawaii’s women’s prison, and more. For activists, organizers, etc.: YES! licenses all its content through Creative Commons, so you can reprint the articles in your own publications without worrying about copyright. Just make sure you follow the magazine’s reprint guidelines here.
  • Reason Magazine‘s Criminal Injustice issue includes pieces on the California prison guards’ union, the relationship between incarceration and the crime rate, sexual assault behind bars, the immigration detention system, and more.
I’m glad to see publications from across the political spectrum taking up the cause of criminal justice reform.

Written by sara

June 24, 2011 at 11:08 am

America’s Prison System as a System of “Permanent Exclusion”

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Continuing what seems to be this week’s theme of LWOP here at the Prison Law Blog, here’s UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich:

Of the 2.3 million people currently behind bars in the United States, only 41,000 – a mere 1.7% – are doing LWOP. Based on these numbers, one might well regard LWOP as the anomaly, and certainly not emblematic of the system as a whole. … I argue that it is LWOP that most effectively captures the central motivating aim of the contemporary American carceral system: the permanent exclusion from the shared social space of the people marked as prisoners. This exclusionist system has no real investment in successful reentry. … If this project is to be abandoned and its destructive effects reversed, the implicit assumption that individuals who have been subject to criminal punishment have thereby forfeited their status as fellow citizens and fellow human beings must be confronted and rejected.

That’s from the abstract to Dolovich’s new paper, “Creating the Permanent Prisoner,” available on SSRN. It’s from the compilation Life without Parole: America’s New Death Penalty?, forthcoming from NYU Press.

Written by sara

June 24, 2011 at 9:11 am

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