Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘mass incarceration

New Book: When American Religion Meets American Mass Incarceration

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Insofar as America is (descriptively) exceptional,* two key differences setting America apart from its peer nations are mass incarceration and popular religiosity. Assuming the U.S. is most usefully compared with Canada, Australia, and Western Europe (I acknowledge not all will share this assumption), none of these peer nations match the U.S. imprisonment rate and few come close to American levels of church membership, church-going, or public professions of faith. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, many American prisons offer a wide array of faith-based programming (even, or especially, prisons where secular education and rehabilitation programming is meager: for instance, in Louisiana’s Angola State Prison, you can earn a BA from a Baptist theological seminary, but no non-Christian college courses are offered). An evangelical group, Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries, is among the most prominent national organizations sending volunteers into prisons and advocating for criminal justice reform.

How does this convergence of American religiosity with American imprisonment fit with the First Amendment’s ban on state-established religion? In her book Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution (Princeton UP, 2009), Buffalo law professor Winifred Sullivan uses a recent lawsuit as a case study for considering this question. From the book’s introduction: Read the rest of this entry »

Will Alabama Be Sued Over Prison Overcrowding?

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That’s the dire prediction made in this editorial from the Birmingham News:

Actually, it’s surprising someone hasn’t sued already. We’ve known since May the U.S. Supreme Court’s dim view of California’s overcrowded prisons. The high court ordered California to get rid of 30,000 of the prison system’s 140,000 inmates after inmates’ lawsuits contended the overcrowding violated their rights and kept them from getting needed medical care and other services.

Alabama’s prisons are even more jam-packed than California’s, with our state’s 30,970 inmates exceeding the prisons’ designed capacity by 190 percent, according to state data. California’s prisons were at 175 percent capacity at the time of the Supreme Court ruling. While Alabama’s prison conditions aren’t nearly as bad as California’s, Lauderdale Circuit Court Judge Mike Jones expressed the obvious concern.

“California’s prisons are not as overcrowded as Alabama’s are right now,” Jones told the TimesDaily of Florence in a story published Tuesday in The Birmingham News. “I’m afraid that all it’s going to take is for someone to take some of the California lawsuits and change the names of the defendants to Alabama officials instead of California officials and a group of federal judges is going to order that Alabama reduce a bunch of prisoners to reduce overcrowding.”

The California case referred to is, of course, Brown v. Plata, last year’s Supreme Court decision upholding a federal court order requiring the Golden State to reduce its prison population. At the time, for all its importance as a moral statement, I didn’t think Plata would have much practical effect for other states since no other state has prisons as overcrowded as California’s — no other state, that is, except for Alabama. So, it’s not surprising to me that officials there are worried.

I don’t think Alabama has as much to fear from federal judges as this editorial implies. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by sara

January 5, 2012 at 8:07 am

The Fiscal Crisis and Criminal Justice Reform

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Does fiscal crisis promote criminal justice reform? From reading newspapers and magazines, one would certainly think so. State efforts to cut costs by downsizing prisons have been one of the biggest criminal justice stories in recent years — with articles like this one (on California) and this one (on Oregon and… (the list could go on) now a recurring feature in both national and local newspapers. UC-Hastings law professor Hadar Aviram has coined a term for this convergence of fiscal woes with prison reform: “humonetarianism.” And one of the more intriguing political developments of the Obama era — the sudden reversal of many right-wing politicians from their Bush/Clinton/Bush era “tough on crime” stance — can be explained in part by concerns about the runaway costs to taxpayers of mass incarceration. Yet as Malcolm C. Young notes at The Crime Report, state budget woes can also be “double-edged swords” if they lead states to slash social programs that can help keep people out of prison.

In a (relatively) new paper, UW law professor Mary D. Fan provides some timely scholarly analysis of this seeming trend of “budget-cut criminal justice,” and offers suggestions for how states might move beyond expedient cost-cutting to lasting penal reform. In turn, here’s UC-Davis law professor Elizabeth Joh, writing at the legal blog Jotwell, discussing Fan’s findings:

Some of [the recent state-level prison reform] measures are decidedly modest; about half of the states have introduced “back-end” sentence reductions in their early release and parole programs so that individual prisoners receive small adjustments in their sentences in the interest of collective fiscal savings. Wisconsin has introduced “Taco Tuesdays” to save $2 million dollars a year by shaving off ten cents per inmate meal. Other measures, though, are decidedly more ambitious. Fan draws upon many examples. In 2008, Mississippi amended a law requiring prisoners to serve 85 percent of their sentences, so that parole boards could decide to release prisoners after serving 25 percent of their sentences. In 2009, New York amended its law to give counties the discretion to establish “local conditional release committees” to review applicants for early release. In 2010, the Colorado House of Representatives passed a bill with bipartisan support that lowers the penalties for several drug possession and use crimes.

Fan suggests public officials consciously embrace a fiscally responsible, evidence-based approach to penal policies that focuses on alternatives to automatically increasing sentences and warehousing prisoners. Unlike the rehabilitative ideal of the first half of the twentieth century, this rehabilitation pragmatism is less interested in the moral transformation of the prisoner and more concerned with cost-effective measures that nevertheless assure the public of its safety. Fan draws our attention to a moment in our history that may well be a turning point for prison policies that desperately need political will and legislative attention.

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

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