Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Archive for the ‘Friday Roundups’ Category

Sunday Reading, and a Programming Note

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Here’s a roundup of some recent scholarship and online commentary about prison-related issues:

Also, via Doug Berman, I noticed that the Yale Law Journal is running a prison law writing contest. If you are or have been in prison or jail, you may be eligible to enter.

A programming note: the blog has been slow this spring. This has been my way of “winding down.” I’ll actually be moving on to some new endeavors soon where for various reasons I won’t be able to blog, so I will be putting the blog on indefinite hiatus as of June 2012. I will leave the site up for archival purposes as long as WordPress will have it.

Written by sara

May 6, 2012 at 9:27 am

Posted in Friday Roundups

Friday Roundup, Gopnik Edition

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In lieu of a proper Friday Roundup, I’ll refer you to this week’s widely-discussed article in the New Yorker: Adam Gopnik’s “The Caging of America.” The article asks, “Why do we lock up so many people?” and works its way to an answer by way of reviewing several recent tours-de-force on crime and punishment in America: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough, Bill Stuntz’s The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, and Franklin Zimring’s The City That Became Safe.

A few quick thoughts (forgive the bullet-point form):

  • Overall this is a successful article: timely, thought-provoking, humane; it considers both the crime and punishment sides of the equation; most importantly it’s a handy one-stop read summarizing a lot of the recent writing and research on the topic of mass incarceration (destined for college classes around the nation, and a great link to share with your friends/family who don’t know much about the issue). Hopefully it’ll find a wide readership. A well-timed New Yorker article can sometimes change the national conversation on an issue (see, e.g., the influence of Atul Gawande on framing Obama’s health care agenda, or how that Jane Mayer article made the Koch brothers a household name).
  • That said, nothing Gopnik says is news to anyone who already follows these issues. America currently incarcerates more people, as a percentage of its population, than does any peer nation and than did America at any previous point in its history. Even states we might think of as very liberal — Massachusetts, Connecticut, etc. — have incarceration rates that would be very high by European standards. I broke down the data state-by-state here.
  • On a first quick read (I’ll have to return to the article when I have more time), I think that Gopnik, like his sources, too easily assigns a lot of causal significance to 19th-c. developments (the penitentiary movement, slavery, etc.) to explain a phenomenon — the boom in prison construction and the massive explosion in the incarcerated population — that really only began in the 1970s, and began rather suddenly. What’s the mechanism of continuity? But, this is perhaps an academic historical debate; I don’t have strong reservations with Gopnik’s account overall, and for better or worse, it’s certainly an effective summary of the literature. (Gopnik has a real talent for synthetic criticism, as evidenced earlier this month by his essay on the Spanish Inquisition.)
  • Along those lines, I’m increasingly not sure I’m comfortable with how much of the rhetoric and commentary on mass incarceration uses statistical comparisons to slavery and the Gulag. I think there are a lot of methodological issues there (for one thing, there’s a constant slippage back-and-forth in these discussions between per capita and absolute numbers that I don’t think is fully theorized — this has also been a major critique of Steven Pinker’s recent book on violence) and I think the scale of American incarceration is enough of an evident problem on its own without needing to bring in historical analogies that are less than analytically rigorous. Moreover, the comparison to slavery actually undermines what ends up being Gopnik’s ultimate point. With slavery, we really did need to dismantle the entire social-political-economic system to end it. Gopnik’s conclusion in this piece is that, with mass incarceration, it’s precisely the opposite: we don’t need a revolution; “the intercession of a thousand smaller sanities” would be enough. (On the other hand, maybe the provocative historical comparisons are needed to force people to pay attention. Would be curious to hear what readers think. I guess this is a subset of a bigger set of questions about how useful historical analogies ever are, and for what purposes. For instance, James Forman makes some useful critiques of Michelle Alexander’s Jim Crow frame in a recent NYU Law Review article, and in a shorter piece at the Boston Review.)
  • All that said, certainly I think you should read the article, pass it along to friends and family, and discuss it in the comments here or elsewhere. I’m glad these issues are finally on the radar of the intelligentsia.

Written by sara

January 27, 2012 at 7:25 am

Posted in Friday Roundups

Friday Roundup

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Some reading for the weekend:

Written by sara

January 6, 2012 at 11:19 am

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Some Year-end Reading on Prison Reform, Prisoners’ Rights, and Criminal Justice

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Hi all – I will have the blog up and running again after the new year, but in the meantime, I wanted to highlight some valuable reading on prison law and policy issues from the past year. This isn’t a comprehensive best-of list since I’m sure I missed some good reads during my fall hiatus from prison blogging, just a quick round-up of some of the most important prison-related reads for me in 2011. Perhaps they will be useful reads for you as well. And please do add your own suggestions in the comments!

  • Reason‘s criminal justice issue: A stellar line-up of articles on prosecutorial misconduct, alternatives to jailing juveniles, the drug war, and more from the libertarian magazine.
  • Daedalus‘s mass incarceration issue: OK, this is actually from 2010 but if you are of a more academic bent, this special issue of the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is effectively a short one-volume anthology of the leading scholarship on America’s mass incarceration crisis.
  • Brown v. Plata: In this year’s blockbuster prison law decision, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower federal court’s order that California must reduce the level of overcrowding in its state prisons from almost 200% of design capacity down to 137.5% of design capacity. The Court affirmed the lower court’s findings that the severe overcrowding in California’s prisons made it impossible to provide basic medical and mental health care to prisoners, thus causing California to systematically violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. If you didn’t get a chance to read the full opinions back in May, I recommend taking a look.
  • ‘Realigning’ Criminal Justice in California” by Elliott Currie: Partly in response to Plata, California embarked this year upon a “realignment” of its criminal justice system that shifts responsibility for punishing low-level criminal offenders down to the county level. (Many news outlets have misleadingly described the realignment law as transferring state prisoners to county jails, which isn’t quite what’s happening. Rather, as of October 1, individuals convicted of certain state crimes are now punished at the county level — whether through a county jail term or whatever alternatives to incarceration the county comes up with.) The law is complex, and it’s too soon to start measuring its effects, which in any case will vary dramatically by county. There’s been lots of local reporting on the law’s effects in the California press, but unfortunately much of it has been misleading, fear-mongering, or incomplete. This article by UC-Irvine criminologist Elliott Currie does the best job of any single article I’ve seen of providing a brief but balanced overview of realignment’s pitfalls and possibilities.
  • Creating the Permanent Prisoner,” by Sharon Dolovich: Only a tiny percentage of prisoners are serving LWOP (life-without-parole) terms. But Dolovich, a UCLA law professor, argues that LWOP is simply the most extreme expression of the general motivating aim behind America’s criminal justice policies: to exclude prisoners permanently from society. She argues for abandoning “the implicit assumption that individuals who have been subject to criminal punishment have thereby forfeited their status as fellow citizens and fellow human beings.”
  • When Felons Were Human,” by Rebecca McLennan: This essay can be usefully read alongside Dolovich’s article. McLennan, a Berkeley history professor, traces the origins of the idea, which Dolovich sees as central to today’s American criminal justice system, that felons forfeit their human rights. McLennan reminds us that “Americans haven’t always perceived prisoners and convicts as exceptional categories of human or even an exceptional category of citizen, undeserving of most or all rights.”
  • Why Mass Incarceration Matters,” by Heather Ann Thompson: This article in the Journal of American History came out in 2010, but I got to it in early 2011, so I’ll include it here. Thompson, a historian, argues that we need to incorporate mass incarceration into our understanding of post-World War II deindustrialization and urban decline. She also calls for revising the received narrative that mass incarceration was an understandable response to the high crime rates of the 1960s. If you can’t track down the journal, Thompson also recorded a podcast that’s worth a listen, which I wrote about here.
  • The Toughest Beat, by Josh Page: The first thorough study of the rise and political clout of the California prison guards’ union, valuable not just for understanding the broken politics of criminal justice in California but also a useful entrant into the national discussion over public sector unions more generally.
  • Our ‘Broken System’ of Criminal Justice,” by John Paul Stevens: The former Supreme Court justice reviews the late Harvard law professor William Stuntz’s book, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice (which is also worth a read). Stevens takes issue with some of Stuntz’s specific claims, but praises the book for its clear account of “the twin problems that pervade American criminal justice today—its overall severity and its disparate treatment of African-Americans.”
  • Federal Judges uphold Maryland law ending prison-based gerrymandering,” at the Prisoners of the Census blog: In this redistricting year, the Prison Policy Initiative continues its noble quest to eliminate prison-based gerrymandering, which distorts electoral districts around the country. This article will introduce you to some of the issues involved, but the entire  blog is worth a bookmark.
  • Prison Rape and the Government,” by David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow: One of several entries in Kaiser and Stannow’s pathbreaking series of New York Review of Books articles exposing the scandal of prison rape and explaining how we could better protect those in government detention.

Written by sara

December 30, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Posted in Friday Roundups

Friday Links, and a Programming Note

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So the blog has been a little quiet lately and will likely continue to be quiet through the fall, as unlike previous terms, I have almost no time for extracurricular pursuits this academic quarter. But I’ll try to keep checking in from time to time. Meanwhile lots of stuff is happening:

  • Strikes and big changes in California: In California, there’s a renewed hunger strike in the prison system and the implementation of “realignment,” Gov. Jerry Brown’s policy to shift responsibility for low-level criminal offenders down to the county level. Luckily “realignment” is a unique enough term that you can type “california realignment” into Google News and get all the latest coverage.
  • Incidentally, here’s a needlessly inflammatory Mother Jones post whose headline announces that realignment has downgraded “participating in a lynching” to a “nonserious” crime. As a commenter there notes, “lynching” is statutorily defined in California “as an aggressive group removing a person from police custody.” It previously carried 2 to 4 years of prison time, so that’s why it now falls into the category of crimes shifted down to the county level. In any event, it is rarely charged by prosecutors.
  • Prison-based gerrymandering in New York: The Prison Policy Initiative is litigating a case in New York over the issue of prison-based gerrymandering. Entitled Little v. LATFOR, the case went to hearing earlier this week. You can read more about it here. At issue is a challenge to New York’s new law “requiring that incarcerated persons be counted as residents of their home communities” for Census purposes, rather than counted in the counties where they are imprisoned, which inflates the political clout of constituents who live in those counties. Recently, Prison Policy Initiative’s Leah Sakala explained how this practice relates to the “three-fifths clause” that inflated slaveowners’ political clout.
  • Women shackled while giving birth: Colorlines reports on the growing movement to stop prisons from shackling pregnant women while they are giving birth. Yes, this is actually a practice that happens. One might think a movement would not be required to prevent law enforcement officers from doing something that is not only degrading to the mother but also dangerous to the baby, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecology.
  • Incarcerating kids doesn’t work: So shows the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s new report, No Place for Kids, which you can download here. The report aggregates a range of data to show: “Youth prisons do not reduce future offending, they waste taxpayer dollars, and they frequently expose youth to dangerous and abusive conditions. The report also shows that many states have substantially reduced their juvenile correctional facility populations in recent years, and it finds that these states have seen no resulting increase in juvenile crime or violence.”

Written by sara

October 7, 2011 at 11:37 am

Posted in Friday Roundups

Friday Roundup

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Not many links have come across the transom this week, but to take you into the weekend:

  • Heather Ann Thompson reflects on Attica, 40 years later.
  • Doug Berman asks if prison-friendly cell phones would be a good idea.
  • If you’re in or near NYC, visit Think Outside the Cell to register for their free symposium on issues affecting those who are incarcerated and their families, scheduled for September 24 at Riverside Church, and featuring Newark mayor Cory Booker, criminal justice scholars Jeremy Travis and Michelle Alexander, and others.

Written by sara

September 9, 2011 at 7:51 am

Posted in Friday Roundups

Post Labor Day Roundup

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California spends 11% of its budget on prisons and 6% on higher education. Thirty years ago, those numbers were 3% on prisons and 10% on higher ed. That and more from the Bay Citizen’s interactive tool.

In 36 states, it is legal to bind women in handcuffs and leg shackles while they are giving birth.

County jails remain, by default, the nation’s largest mental health hospitals.

And here’s some law and policy news you may have missed over the long weekend:

  • Arizona has passed a law to charge $25 for prison visits to family and friends; the ACLU National Prison Project is suing, calling the fee an “illegal tax.” While described as a background check fee, the prison system admits that the money won’t actually fund background checks but will be used for prison maintenance. The same law will also deduct 1% from deposits to prisoners’ spending accounts; that provision is also being challenged, by the Middle Ground prison reform group.
  • Ohio: Lots of changes in the works for the Ohio prison system. Director Gary Mohr is proposing to break the system down into three “tiers”; the lowest tier, “reintegration prisons,” will (in Mohr’s words) “put inmates to work” for eight hours a day. In a nationwide first, Ohio just sold a prison to Corrections Corporation of America for $72 million, which prison Ohio will now start paying CCA to operate. (Originally, the plan was to sell five prisons to CCA.)
  • Texas went on a prison-building binge in the 1990s. While the good news is that the Texas prison population has been declining in recent years, now there are many unused prisons throughout the state, which local agencies took on lots of debt to build and are now scrambling to pay for.
  • Alabama: Federal lawsuit filed against the Jefferson County (Birmingham) jail, alleging overcrowding, inadequate food and health care, and RLUIPA violations — specifically that Christianity is effectively the only religion that inmates are allowed to practice. The deputy sheriff says they “are not surprised” and are “in a very poor position to defend such a suit.”
  • Georgia: The legal tangle between Fulton County, the City of Atlanta, and federal judge Martin Shoob keeps getting more tangled. Basically, Shoob had ordered Fulton County to buy a jail from Atlanta to alleviate overcrowding in the county’s facilities (on pain of criminal contempt proceedings for county officials); Fulton County says it doesn’t have the money; and now Atlanta has more than doubled its original asking price (from $40 million to $85 million), which Fulton County says it *really* doesn’t have.

Written by sara

September 6, 2011 at 7:40 am

Posted in Friday Roundups


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