Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

Of Taxpayers, Tea Partiers, and Lock-em-up Politics

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Dana Walters comments on poll findings that prisons are California taxpayers’ least favorite government expense (in other words, I’m not the only one!):

When PPIC asked voters which major areas should be hit with cuts, just 24% named K-12 education, 35% said higher education, 37% suggested health and welfare programs and 70% singled out prisons. The results were similar when voters were asked what they were willing to underwrite with higher taxes.

Interestingly, the disdain for prison spending was virtually identical among all subcategories of voters — Democrats and Republicans, liberal San Franciscans and conservative Central Valley residents, rich, poor and middle-class.

From one perspective, it’s heartening that voters are willing to countenance a smaller prison system. And it fits with a broader trend in American life: the apparent decline of tough-on-crime politics. Yesterday, I heard Mark Earley give a talk at Stanford. He spoke about having gleefully participated in the tough-on-crime wave of legislation in the 1980s and ’90s as a Virginia state legislator, not really viewing prisoners “as human beings.” Only later did he have a Road-to-Damascus moment, or series of moments, through his work with Prison Fellowship, which brings Christian ministries into prisons around the country.

One of Earley’s points was that we may have reached a tipping point on mass incarceration: tough-on-crime rhetoric simply doesn’t work so well when you get to a point where 1 in 100 adults is in prison. Read the rest of this entry »


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February 9, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Criminal Defense and Prison Conditions

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Criminal defense attorneys are often asked “How can you defend those people?” Here’s one attorney’s answer (from 1980):

Those guilty of serious crimes merit the wrath of our society. But almost no one deserves the hell holes that we call jails and prisons. There is almost no case I would not defend if that meant keeping a human being, as condemnable as he or she may be, from suffering the total, brutal inhumanity of our jails and prisons…

— John B. Mitchell, “The Ethics of the Criminal Defense Attorney–New Answers to Old Questions,” 32 Stanford Law Review 293, 320-21 (1980). Reprinted in Rhode & Luban, Legal Ethics, 5th ed. (Foundation Press), 305-6. Link here for those with HeinOnline access.

Written by sara

February 4, 2011 at 10:41 am

Posted in Reflections

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Prison Higher Education Programs: An Unfunded Unmandate

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A letter in today’s New York Times, from Vivian Nixon of the College and Community Fellowship, relates the Georgia prison strike to a broader problem — the dearth of funding for prison higher education programs:

Georgia inmates contend that access to educational opportunities beyond the G.E.D. will better prepare them for re-entry and decrease crime and recidivism. They’re not the only ones who know this to be true.

Reports released by the United States Education Department, the Justice Department and state correction departments all recognize the myriad benefits of educating prisoners. Since 1994, incarcerated students have been barred from receiving Pell grants despite the fact that prisoners received less than 1 percent of all Pell grant dollars awarded and that postsecondary education has proved to be the most successful and cost-effective way to reduce recidivism and increase public safety.

It’s worth keeping in mind exactly what happened when President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which authorized almost $10 billion of federal grants for state prison construction while in the same stroke cutting off the $200 million of annual Pell grants that had been going to prisoners because God forbid we allocate 3/5 of 1 percent of the annual outlays of a relatively modest federal program to prisons! In 1994, there were over 350 higher education programs in prisons around the country, with about 40,000 inmates enrolled. (Note that there were also only about a million prisoners, compared with about 2 million now.) Within a year of the act’s passage, as well as copycat acts at the state level, there were fewer than a dozen. Congress and President Clinton collaborated to all but eliminate higher education programs in American prisons. Few federal statutes have so thoroughly and immediately achieved their aim.

It’s also worth keeping in mind the inanity of the rhetoric that got this measure passed. Senator Pell himself supported the use of his namesake grants by prisoners. But Kay Bailey Hutchison claimed that “Pell Grants are a great scam: rob a store, go to jail, and get your degree.” Let’s take a moment to think this through. Even if it were true, in 1994, that a person contemplating enrolling in college would find committing a robbery an easier way to do that than simply filling out an application to college, wouldn’t that have been a pretty glaring indicator that something had gone terribly awry, not with prison policy, but with the education system? But of course, Hutchison wasn’t really trading in facts and logic but in the general demonization of “criminals” that drove so much policymaking in the early 1990s.

The irony, of course, or maybe this was just the point all along, is that Hutchison was right: Hundreds of thousands of would-be college students have been denied access to higher education because of money spent on prisoners, but not because prisoners have been sucking up all the college grants. In many states prisons now receive far more government funding than colleges and universities do — even though all that government funding mostly goes to keeping prisoners idle. As California struggles to keep not just its once-legendary state university system but also the state itself afloat, it’s worth noting, as UCLA professor Chan Noriega recently calculated, that “California could send every last prisoner to a UC campus, covering all expenses, and still save nearly $2.3 billion per year.” Read the rest of this entry »

Will Future Generations Condemn Us for Our Prison System?

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Kwame Anthony Appiah. Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2005)

Slavery, book-burning, waterboarding. In this Washington Post op-ed, which has been been making the rounds of the blogosphere, Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah asks what from today’s society will go the way of these once widely accepted, now universally discredited institutions and practices. OK, so one might quibble with Appiah’s examples since waterboarding has turned out not to be so universally discredited after all. And while the antebellum American plantation variant of slavery may be a thing of the past, other forms of slavery persist around the world.

Nevertheless: it’s worth noting that in contemplating what institutions might earn our grandchildren’s opprobrium, Appiah lists the prison system first among them:

Roughly 1 percent of adults in this country are incarcerated. We have 4 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. No other nation has as large a proportion of its population in prison; even China’s rate is less than half of ours. What’s more, the majority of our prisoners are non-violent offenders, many of them detained on drug charges. (Whether a country that was truly free would criminalize recreational drug use is a related question worth pondering.)

And the full extent of the punishment prisoners face isn’t detailed in any judge’s sentence. More than 100,000 inmates suffer sexual abuse, including rape, each year; some contract HIV as a result. Our country holds at least 25,000 prisoners in isolation in so-called supermax facilities, under conditions that many psychologists say amount to torture.

Of course, the irony is that the modern penitentiary was invented as a humane alternative to corporal and capital punishment. Read the rest of this entry »

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September 30, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Interview with a Prisoners’ Rights Attorney

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StoryCorps Atlanta has an interview between two staff members at the Southern Center for Human Rights: staff attorney Melanie Velez, who has worked on prison overcrowding and abuse cases in Georgia and Alabama, and social worker Vivianne Guevara. It’s only about 3 minutes — worth a quick listen!

Written by sara

September 29, 2010 at 8:12 am

Is It Time to Retire the Phrase “Mass Incarceration”?

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Loic Wacquant:

Mass incarceration is a mischaracterization of what is better termed hyperincarceration. … Mass incarceration suggests that confinement concerns large swaths of the citizenry (as with the mass media, mass culture, and mass unemployment), implying that the penal net has been flung far and wide across social space. This is triply inaccurate. First, the prevalence of penal confinement in the United States, while extreme by international standards, can hardly be said to concern the masses. Indeed, a rate of 0.75 percent compares quite favorably with the incidence of such woes as latent tuberculosis infection (estimated at 4.2 percent) and severe alcohol dependency (3.81 percent), ailments which no one would seriously contend have reached mass proportions in the United States. Next, the expansion and intensification of the activities of the police, courts, and prison over the past quarter-century have been anything but broad and indiscriminate. They have been finely targeted, first by class, second by that disguised brand of ethnicity called race, and third by place. This cumulative targeting has led to the hyperincarceration of one particular category, lower-class African American men trapped in the crumbling ghetto, while leaving the rest of society — including, most remarkably, middle- and upper-class African Americans — practically untouched. Third, and more important still, this triple selectivity is a constitutive property of the phenomenon: had the penal state been rolled out indiscriminately by policies resulting in the capture of vast numbers of whites and well-to-do citizens, capsizing their families and decimating their neighborhoods as it has for inner-city African Americans, its growth would have been speedily derailed and eventually stopped by political counteraction.

Bob Weisberg & Joan Petersilia: Read the rest of this entry »

NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” on Disproportionate Incarceration of Black Men

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Today NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” had a panel on the disproportionate incarceration of black men, featuring Charles Blow of the New York Times, journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, poet Dwayne Betts, and Ohio State professor Michelle Alexander. It’s probably nothing readers of this blog don’t know, but nonetheless worth listening to — Alexander is always good at dismantling the canard that the caste system we’ve created can be chalked up to higher crime rates among blacks — and I wanted to highlight the remarks of Dwayne Betts, on both the hazards of incarcerating youth alongside adults and the difficulties of prisoner reentry: Read the rest of this entry »

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