Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘mississippi

New York Times: “Prisons Rethink Isolation”

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In light of the recently filed lawsuit against Arizona alleging overuse of solitary confinement, the New York Times has some timely reporting on other states that have decided to reduce their use of isolation as punishment — including Mississippi, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Washington State, and most recently, California:

The efforts represent an about-face to an approach that began three decades ago, when corrections departments — responding to increasing problems with prison gangs, stiffer sentencing policies that led to overcrowding and the “get tough on crime” demands of legislators — began removing ever larger numbers of inmates from the general population. They placed them in special prisons designed to house inmates in long-term isolation or in other types of segregation.

At least 25,000 prisoners — and probably tens of thousands more, criminal justice experts say — are still in solitary confinement in the United States. Some remain there for weeks or months; others for years or even decades. More inmates are held in solitary confinement here than in any other democratic nation, a fact highlighted in a United Nations report last week.

In particular, the article discusses the evidence that prolonged isolation can cause and/or exacerbate mental illness:  Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Lawsuit Alleges “Barbaric Conditions” at Mississippi’s Privately-run Youth Prison

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The private prison company GEO Group will face a lawsuit over conditions at Mississippi’s Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, and Mississippi lawyer Robert McDuff representing the plaintiffs. Walnut Grove was already under investigation by the federal Department of Justice. The Clarion-Ledger reports:

Some prison staff exploit youth by selling drugs inside the facility and engaging in sexual relationships with youth in their care, the suit alleges. Many youth have suffered physical injuries, some permanent as a result of dangerously deficient security policies. …

In 2007, Dennis Earl Holmes died after a lawsuit claimed he was denied adequate medical care. He suffered from treatable diabetes, according to a lawsuit his family filed on Oct. 29 in federal court. …

Michael McIntosh of Hazlehurst alleges that because of the abuse his 21-year-old son suffered in the Walnut Grove prison, “he will live with permanent brain damage for the rest of his life.”

More information, including the full complaint, available here from SPLC.

Poet Natasha Tretheway on Having a Brother in Prison

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As the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, Terry Gross at NPR’s Fresh Air has this affecting interview with poet Natasha Tretheway, whose new book is Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (UGA Press, 2010). Among other subjects, Tretheway reflects upon her brother’s year in a Mississippi prison after he was caught transporting 4 oz. cocaine for a friend in exchange for $4,000 (having lost all his sources of income and fallen into debt when the family rental property business went under after most of the houses were destroyed in the hurricane). The interview is worth listening to in full and hard to excerpt but here is one passage:

Prof. TRETHEWAY: … I worried very much about whether or not people would judge my brother for that. And even when I started writing this book, or writing at least the finishing, the second half when everything changed, when I found out that he was going to prison, I had a hard time writing it because I felt that I needed to explain to someone, to this imaginary reader, the entire story – from the moment he was born – so that people would empathize with him. And so that really kept me from being able to write for a long time.

I don’t worry about that as much now. I think that there are so many people who have difficult stories like this in families, and that people are not simply waiting to sit in judgment, but instead are open to trying – understand how people feel despair and pushed to make difficult decisions that may not be the best ones.

GROSS: So what convinced you to tell his story in your book?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, it took so long for me to be able to see that telling his story would be useful, not only to give voice to his own experience, but actually, as a way of allowing his story to speak for the countless people whose stories aren’t being told. My fear was that he would be judged and that people would simply think well, you know, this is a drug dealer, this is just who this guy is. And I even said, I said this to my agent and I said this to my editor, and finally, one of them said to me, you’re trying to convince people who can’t be convinced. And then the people who are going to think he’s just a drug dealer aren’t going to be changed by anything you have to say, nor are they going to read the book.

Written by sara

August 19, 2010 at 7:17 am

Supermax Prisons and the “Field of Dreams” Problem: If You Build It, They Will Come

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David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, has an op-ed at Huffington Post on whether America’s supermax prisons violate international human rights law. The fact that extended isolation produces psychosis in humans has been recognized since America’s first (failed) experiments with solitary confinement at Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary in the 1830s. The idea was that prisoners kept in cells by themselves would have nothing to do but think about what they’d done wrong. In reality, as quickly became apparent to prison wardens, they simply went crazy. Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article remains the best general-audience summary of the case for defining solitary confinement as torture.

Fathi’s op-ed provides some essential historical background on just how the U.S. came to have tens of thousands of inmates in extended solitary confinement. As won’t surprise students of the past 30 years in criminal justice policy, it’s a story that combines “tough-on-crime” demagoguery, the criminalization of mental illness, distorted legislative and executive incentives, and a heavy dose of path dependence:

In the 1990s [supermax prisons] were a raging fad, yet another round in the perpetual “tough on crime” political bidding war. Suddenly every state had to build one — Virginia was so tough it built two. By the end of the decade, more than 30 states, as well as the federal government, were operating a supermax facility or unit. …

The official line is that these prisons are reserved for the “worst of the worst” — the most dangerous and incorrigibly violent — but most states have only a few such prisoners. In overcrowded prison systems, the typical response has been to fill the remaining supermax cells with “nuisance prisoners” — those who file lawsuits, violate minor prison rules, or otherwise annoy staff, but by no stretch of the imagination require the extremely high security of a supermax facility. Thus in Wisconsin’s supermax, one of the “worst of the worst” was a 16-year-old car thief. Twenty-year-old David Tracy hanged himself in a Virginia supermax; he had been sent there at age 19, with a 2 ½ year sentence for selling drugs.

The mentally ill are vastly overrepresented in supermax prisons, and once subjected to the stress of isolated confinement, many of them deteriorate dramatically. Some engage in bizarre and extreme acts of self-injury and even suicide. In an Indiana supermax, a 21-year-old mentally ill prisoner set himself on fire in his cell and died from his burns; another man in the same unit choked himself to death with a washcloth. It’s not unusual to find supermax prisoners who swallow razors and other objects, smash their heads into the wall, compulsively cut their flesh, try to hang themselves, and otherwise attempt to harm or kill themselves.

The good news is that it’s quite possible for states to turn back from this path. Between 2006 and 2007 alone, Mississippi slashed the number of inmates in solitary confinement from 1,500 to 150.

Mississippi to Close Its Notorious “Unit 32,” in Agreement with ACLU

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Mississippi inmates in an auto repair vocational program (courtesy MDOC)

As the inestimable V. O. Key, Jr., once wrote, “Northerners, provincials that they are, regard the South as one large Mississippi. Southerners, with their eye for distinction, place Mississippi in a class by itself.” (Though I live in California at the moment, I’m a Southerner by birth and upbringing, so I think I’m allowed to quote that.) For decades, Mississippi’s Parchman Farm penitentiary has been home to a prison wing “in a class by itself” — the infamous “Unit 32,” a place defined by incessant howling, recurrent violence, broken plumbing, and 120-degree heat (indoors). And who, you might ask, was housed in this unit? As the ACLU found:

Though characterized as being the “worst of the worst,” a significant percentage of Unit 32’s prisoners were held there only because they had HIV, were seriously mentally ill or needed protective custody. They were permanently locked down in solitary confinement with no possibility of earning their way to a less restrictive environment through good behavior.

In response to litigation pressure from the ACLU, the Magnolia State has now agreed to shutter this unit for good (or at least for now). Since the ACLU filed suit in 2002, the Mississippi Department of Corrections has reduced the population in Unit 32 from over 1,000 to just 150. As reported by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the remaining prisoners will now be transferred to other divisions of Parchman or, in the case of seriously mentally ill prisoners, to a private psychiatric facility in Meridian. Prison reform is not often a happy topic, but I think we can all celebrate the closure of Unit 32.

Key downloads:

Mississippi Ends Policy of Segregating Prisoners with HIV

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Beginning this May, the Mississippi Department of Corrections will end its longstanding policy of segregating male prisoners with HIV (see this ACLU press release). Expected to affect about 150 prisoners in the Mississippi system, the change will allow HIV-positive prisoners to participate in job training and education programs formerly denied to them because they were in segregated custody. Mississippi’s decision leaves Alabama and South Carolina as the only remaining states that still segregate HIV-positive prisoners. The decision was spurred by recent requests from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, though after a complicated history of ACLU involvement. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger reports:

The ACLU brought suit against the state in 1990 on behalf of HIV-positive prisoners housed at Parchman to force the state to provide proper medical care. In 2005, U.S. District Court Judge Jerry Davis ruled MDOC had addressed problems with prisoner conditions, bringing the suit to an end.

[Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher] Epps said he would have ended segregation of the prisoners then, but the ACLU asked they be kept separate.

“The ACLU asked us not to (move the prisoners) because they were concerned about the inmates going out into general population as it relates to their safety,” he said. “After they contacted me and asked me about it, I said, ‘Well, this would have been done if you hadn’t asked me not to do it.'”

ACLU spokesman Will Matthews said the organization initially was concerned prisoners held in the unit would be ostracized and subject to possible violence if they were immediately introduced into the general population because other prisoners would know they were HIV positive.

Epps has taken a “nuanced” approach to the problem, by phasing out the policy, Matthews said.

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