Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘colorado

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 »


Ghailani May Spend Life in Florence Supermax

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As I’ve noted before, the War on Crime and the War on Terror have a lot of overlap. So, for students of mass incarceration, I wanted to highlight some particularly relevant snippets from the past few days’ coverage of the Ghailani verdict.

(1) Supermax, solitary confinement, and the politics of terror trials. Guantanamo military prosecutor Morris Davis has published this op-ed defending the verdict as just. Although his argument focuses mainly on procedural issues having to do with the trial itself, he also addresses Ghailani’s likely punishment:

Mr. Ghailani may well serve his sentence at the “supermax” federal prison in Florence, Colo., where others convicted in the embassy bombings are confined. If so, he will spend more time in solitary and enjoy fewer privileges than those under the most restrictive measures at Guantánamo.

Of course, this is the same supermax that proponents of keeping Guantanamo open (most of whom aren’t exactly prison experts) have claimed is incapable of holding terror detainees. At least one prisoner has been held there in solitary confinement for decades, conditions that many psychologists don’t hesitate to call torture.

(2) The devalued currency of the life sentence? Here’s Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution: Read the rest of this entry »

Denver DA Won’t File Charges against Corrections Deputies Responsible for Inmate’s Death

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The indispensable Solitary Watch has been reporting from/on Colorado lately. Here’s their latest story:

As we were preparing to make our recent trip to Colorado, the district attorney in Denver decided not to file criminal charges against the group of corrections deputies who, according to the coroner, were responsible for the death of an inmate in a local jail.

Marvin Booker, who was preacher and homeless, was 56 years old. He was 5-foot-5 and weighed 135 pounds, and suffered from emphysema and an enlarged heart. Back in July, Booker was arrested on the misdemeanor charge of possession of drug paraphernalia, and he was waiting to be booked when a conflict arose. All of it was caught on video, which the state refuses to make public. DA Mitch Morrissey said in a statement that Booker refused to follow an order from a female deputy, then cursed her and “violently resisted.” …

But DA Morrissey insists that Booker alone was responsible for his own demise. “Mr. Booker’s actions and choices resulted in his death,” he said in a statement, suggesting that unruly behavior by a prisoner justifies a use of force sufficient to kill him. “Had he complied, had he given them his arms, had he gone to the holding cell when he was asked to,” Morrissey said, ”this never would have happened.”

So, here’s one reason of many to end the War on Drugs: police wouldn’t be able to arrest and book people on charges like “misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia.” In the meantime, take note: if you’re ever arrested in Denver, show anything less than total physical submission to the guards who are booking you, and apparently it’s your own fault if four guards lay on top of you and a fifth Tasers you, and you stop breathing and die. More from DA Morrissey: “Arrestee compliance is not optional, it is mandatory.” Combine that stance on the part of state officials with the Supreme Court’s position that pretextual or spiteful arrests on petty charges don’t violate the Constitution, and you have a pretty terrifying state of affairs.

Leaders from Denver’s black community have called for an FBI investigation.

Written by sara

October 18, 2010 at 9:30 am

ACLU Sues (Another) Colorado Jail over Postcard-only Policy

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Back in August, the ACLU of Colorado filed suit against the Boulder County Jail over its postcard-only policy for inmates. This week, the same organization announced a second lawsuit against the El Paso County Jail in Colorado Springs over a similar policy. While the Boulder sheriff defended his policy on safety grounds — as a response to an incident in which two inmates sent letters to area children — the El Paso sheriff has appealed to more of a cost-benefit explanation. From the Gazette:

The policy, implemented last month, says prisoners can only use the small cards sold for 50 cents by the jail. [Sheriff Terry] Maketa has described the new policy as a money-saving move that makes the overloaded jail mail room more efficient.

It also makes it easier for jailers to screen inmate mail for illegal plots, including escape plans. Inmate letters dealing with legal matters are still allowed.

Ultimately, both policies might be traced to the example of neighboring Arizona, and specifically to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was among the first sheriffs in the country to require jail inmates to use postcards — namely, postcards bearing his picture. Whatever the motivation, jails in several states have recently issued postcard-only policies, including Florida (as I noted here), Oregon, and most recently, Washington State (as noted in this editorial, praising the change, from Spokane’s local newspaper).

Written by sara

September 15, 2010 at 7:17 am

Aging Inmates, Part II: Elderly Parolees and Reentry

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Imagine you’ve just been released from prison after 20 or 30 years: The last time you were free, personal computers and the Internet were the stuff of science fiction, Jimmy Carter or maybe Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and folks kept in touch with letters and long-distance telephone calls rather than cell phones or Facebook or Skype. Bus and subway systems ran on tokens, and no one would think of paying for groceries or a burger and fries with a credit card. Cash was procured from a bank teller, not a machine. Maybe you’ve kept up with the changes from afar through TV or radio or newspapers, but you’ve never personally sent an e-mail or typed a PIN into an ATM. Not to mention, back then, you were a young, healthy person, who didn’t need to worry too much about medical care or how to get around safely. How are you supposed to support yourself in this seemingly brand-new world, much less reconnect with your family and community?

Last week I blogged about the looming crisis of aging inmates. Of course, another effect of the trend towards lengthier sentences is that even those prisoners who are released or paroled are increasingly likely to be elderly. The Denver Post recently reported on Colorado’s efforts to help parolees like Habe Lawson, 73, reintegrate into their communities (h/t: Think Outside the Cage):

By the time Habe Lawson was released from prison in 2002, he had spent 50 years incarcerated. He was too old to start over but too young to just fade away.

“It can be a living hell living on the streets,” said Lawson, now 73. “You feel alone. At one point, I asked my parole officer to send me back to prison.”

As the population of incarcerated Coloradans ages, elderly parolees such as Lawson are increasingly common, and they have special needs.

To address such needs, the Department of Corrections funnels most of the seniors to parole officers with special skills. … “It’s really become a specialty type of job,” [Colorado deputy director of parole Tim] Hand said, adding that the Denver area has 144 parolees over the age of 60.

Older parolees often have extensive medical problems — some, such as hepatitis C, acquired from a lifetime of risky behavior. In addition to the fact that they’re ex-cons, their age and physical condition limit employment options. They have limited experience with technology such as e-mail and the Internet. Transportation and housing offer additional challenges.

Written by sara

August 9, 2010 at 12:33 pm

ACLU Files Suit Over Colorado Jail’s Postcard-only Policy

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The ACLU of Colorado has filed suit against the Boulder County Jail, challenging its recently implemented postcard-only policy for inmate correspondence as a violation of inmates’ First Amendment rights:

According to the class action lawsuit filed in federal district court in Denver, the postcard-only policy has forced prisoners to either abandon important correspondence or risk divulging highly confidential, sensitive information to anyone who will handle or see a postcard. As a result, gay prisoners have been chilled from expressing themselves when writing to their intimate partners. Prisoners with HIV or Hepatitis C have refrained from corresponding with family members about their medical conditions. Prisoners who express themselves through drawings or cartoons cannot enclose their art.  Those who wish to share an inspirational religious tract, or a clipping from a newspaper or magazine, are forbidden from doing so. When children may have access to the mailbox, parents are chilled from writing to their spouses about marital problems, child-raising issues, and other matters they do not wish to disclose to their children. The policy also prevents prisoners from using envelopes to send letters that seek spiritual guidance from clergy, provide sensitive information to investigative reporters, or to submit articles or letters to newspapers or other periodicals for publication.

The policy was adopted after an incident in which two inmates sent letters to Boulder-area children by forwarding the letters through a third party. David Fathi of the ACLU National Prison Project said that he understands the jail’s need to respond to this situation, but that the policy adopted “is an over-reaction” and the jail could have come up with a less restrictive alternative. The plaintiffs’ complaint and other court documents can be downloaded here.

Written by sara

August 3, 2010 at 12:46 pm

What If the State Locked Up Your Kid in Solitary for Months — No School, No Education of Any Kind?

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Since states spend so much money and manpower trying to get kids into school through the enforcement of truancy laws, it’s all the more remarkable that when the very same at-risk youth likely to be truant get into bigger trouble and wind up in the criminal justice system, many states expend even greater amounts of money and manpower to keep those same kids out of school. As I noted a few months ago in a post on the New York juvenile justice system, at the troubled Tryon youth prison, what educational programs are available are not accredited and as such, don’t count toward a high school diploma. In Colorado, youth awaiting trial in adult prisons (and note that Colorado law makes it relatively easy to try juveniles as adults) don’t have access to any educational programming at all. Keep in mind the education component is only a small piece of the problem in Colorado as these are untried, unconvicted youth being held in solitary confinement for months or even years.

The Colorado Independent reports on a reform proposal that, although only a small step towards dismantling this unjust system, would be an important step:

The current status quo sees un-convicted teenagers languishing for months and years in adult prisons ill-equipped to provide even constitutionally mandated services such as education.

Senate Bill 54, sponsored by Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, that has been fighting its way through the Senate passed a second reading this week. The proposed law would require the state to provide four hours of education per week to juveniles awaiting trial and also require sheriffs to register information about the juveniles being held in their facilities in a central database. As the Colorado Independent has reported, information on the numbers, demographics, charges and conditions of incarceration regarding imprisoned un-convicted youth is at best spotty, compromising efforts to assess and reform a system almost everyone involved, including sheriffs, readily admits is inadequate.

“These kids are in solitary confinement for [an average of] seven months and as a result have a poorer future,” Hudak told lawmakers from the floor of the Senate Tuesday. She said that 25 percent of these cases are either dismissed or come back as not guilty. The effect is that we have young people living for months in adult prisons and missing schooling for no good reason. Youth held in such conditions, she said, become depressed and fall into a downward spiral. Hudak’s bill would reduce jail suicides and fight recidivism.

DOJ Plans to Buy Illinois Prison Whether or Not It’s Approved for Terror Detainees

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According to Assistant Attorney General Ronald Welch, the Obama Administration will move forward with plans to purchase a prison facility in rural Thomson, Ill., whether or not Congress approves the transfer of Guantanamo detainees there. The DOJ has asked for $237 million in appropriations in next year’s budget to buy and begin using the facility to hold high-security federal inmates. Rep. Don Manzullo (R – IL), who represents northern Illinois in Congress, publicly supports the new federal prison as a way of creating jobs, but has been critical of plans to transfer Guantanamo detainees there, ostensibly for safety reasons.

Here I’ll just note a few related points; make of them what you will: 1) As I noted the other day, prisons actually haven’t been found to boost local economies, or to create as many jobs as hoped; 2) I’ve never quite understood why people are so worried about bringing the remaining Guantanamo detainees into the U.S., considering that the federal supermax in Colorado already holds some pretty dangerous folks; 3) Is this the start of a federal prison mini-boom? As the Pew Center on the States reported this week, although state prison populations have fallen in over half the states, the federal prison population is growing:

The survey found that the federal prison population continued to grow, rising by 6,838 prisoners, or 3.4 percent, to an all-time high of 208,118. Expanded federal jurisdiction over certain crimes and increased prosecution of immigration cases account for much of the increase.

Colorado Doesn’t Know How Many Kids Are In Its Adult Jails

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Colorado has what’s known as a “direct-file” law: prosecutors can decide single-handedly to charge juvenile defendants as young as 14 years old as adults, without having to go through a judge. And once a juvenile is charged as an adult, under Colorado law, he (or she) is removed to adult jail, where he can’t go to school, and is unlikely to receive any mental health treatment he might need. Out of concern for their safety, juveniles in Colorado’s adult facilities are often kept in solitary confinement — which is not really a solution, given that solitary confinement has been proven to cause all kinds of mental health problems. So, how many juveniles are being treated this way? Well, no one really knows. The Colorado Independent reports:

People involved in the system admit to not knowing how many young people charged as adults are presently being held by the state and in which prisons. Colorado sheriffs frankly admitted to the Colorado Independent that their adult facilities are inappropriate for managing juvenile detention. …

Jeanne Smith, director of the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, said a large part of the problem is a lack of data. She told the Independent that the state doesn’t conduct the most rudimentary research on minors being held in adult prisons …

“It takes money to do evaluation and research and right now Colorado doesn’t have it,” Smith said. “I don’t know that there is anybody in the state who has done a study of the county jails and what they are doing,” Smith said. “The state judiciary has the numbers on how many [juveniles] get filed on but they don’t know how many are being held in juvenile facilities or in county jails.”

Written by sara

March 11, 2010 at 7:35 am

A SHU By Any Other Name…

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CNN has this report today on Tommy Silverstein, who murdered a federal prison guard in 1983 and has been held in solitary confinement in Colorado’s federal supermax prison ever since — i.e., for 27 years. (So another way of putting it is that Tommy Silverstein has been held in solitary confinement for the exact number of years that your humble blogger has been on this Earth.) With the help of attorneys from the University of Denver’s Civil Rights Clinic, Silverstein is suing the federal government for violating his rights under the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Anyway, the more chilling part of the article is the Bureau of Prisons‘ somewhat Orwellian insistence on word choice:

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons says “solitary confinement,” a term widely used by prison advocacy groups and attorneys, doesn’t exist in federal prisons. Instead, authorities call the isolated cells where inmates are housed the SHU: special housing units.

U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokesman Edmond Ross estimates that on any given day, 11,150 of the 200,000 federal inmates are kept in special housing units. The reasons for confinement vary from protecting a witness to disciplinary measures.

It seems to me that if the BOP wants to defend the practice, that’s one thing, but it’s somewhat bizarre to deny that a person who is being held in a cell by himself, without contact with other people, is well within the dictionary meaning of “solitary confinement,” regardless of what term the BOP prefers to use for its own internal purposes. By the way, if you missed Atul Gawande’s must-read New Yorker article on the psychological ramifications of solitary confinement, you can download it here.

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