Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘federal justice system

Mexico’s Prisons Rife with Corruption, U.S. Prisons Step into the Breach

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You’ll want to read this New York Times article for the salacious lede:

MEXICO CITY — Prisoners in a northern Mexico jail were allowed out at night to carry out murder-for-hire jobs using jail guards’ weapons and vehicles, officials said Sunday, revealing a level of corruption that is stunning even in a country where prison breakouts are common as guards look the other way.

But for students of the U.S. prison system, the real lede is buried at the end:

Mexico’s prisons are known as havens for many criminal groups that operate from behind bars. Prisoners run telephone extortion rings from jail, and drug lords issue orders.

In response, the administration of President Felipe Calderón has extradited a record number of top drug suspects to the United States …

The War on Drugs generates profits for organized crime in Mexico, and it fills prisons in the United States. Sometimes, as here (and and see also this earlier post of mine), it does both of those things at once. Here we have another example of how the War on Drugs can’t be described as a purely American phenomenon, nor can it be separated from Mexico’s struggle to contain drug-related violence; the two nations have become allies in a single, ongoing, and seemingly unwinnable war.

Written by sara

July 26, 2010 at 8:20 am

Inspector General: DOJ Not Effectively Monitoring Reentry Programs

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The Department of Justice has distributed tens of millions of dollars to state and local prisoner reentry programs around the country in recent years, but has done a poor job of tracking whether those programs have been successful, according to a recently released audit from the DOJ’s Inspector General. Reviewing federal reentry grants made between 2002 and 2010, the audit found little evidence of DOJ monitoring or follow-up with grant recipients. Because the DOJ did not establish clear standards for data collection, it is difficult to know whether the programs it has funded have reduced recidivism rates. DOJ officials say they have already begun to implement some of the reforms called for by the audit and that future grants will be better monitored. The full report is available via Main Justice at the above link, or as a PDF from the DOJ here.

Federal funding for reentry programs is made under three umbrellas. The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) was established in 2002 as a collaboration between several federal agencies, and has awarded over $100 million in grants. The DOJ’s Reentry Initiative was introduced in President Bush’s 2004 State of the Union address as “a four-year, $300 million” grants program “to expand job training and placement services, to provide transitional housing, and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups.” This program awarded about $33 million in grants between 2006 and 2008. Finally, the Second Chance Act, which was signed into law in April 2008, also provides funding for prisoner reentry programs, though so far only about $11 million of SCA grants have been awarded.

European High Court: U.S. Prisons Could Violate European Convention on Human Rights

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UPDATE: Lots more details on this case available over at Solitary Watch.

The European Court of Human Rights has issued a preliminary ruling barring the extradition of three terror suspects from the U.K. to the United States, on the grounds that confinement in a federal supermax could violate Article Three of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court has requested further submissions before it issues a final decision; the preliminary ruling can be downloaded here. Note that the court rejected the suspects’ arguments that they would not receive a fair trial in the U.S.; it focused entirely on post-trial conditions of confinement, specifically the prospect of long-term solitary confinement and a life sentence without possibility of parole.

Here are the questions on which the court has requested further briefing:

  • Given the length of the sentences faced by Mr Ahmad, Mr Aswat and Mr Ahsan if convicted, would the time spent at a “supermax” prison, the US Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum, Florence, Colorado (“ADX Florence”), amount to a violation of Article 3? Would they have any real prospect of entering the “step-down programme” whereby they would move through different levels of contact with others until they would be suitable for transfer to a normal prison?
  • Does the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution (prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment”), as interpreted by the federal courts, provide protection equivalent to Article 3 of the Convention?
  • If convicted, would the applicants’ sentences be de facto reducible?

“Illinois inmate died in agony while pleading for help”

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That’s the headline of this AP report on a 36-year-old federal inmate who bled internally to death from a burst spleen — caused by complications with cancer, though he also suffered from hepatitis and HIV — just 18 days after arriving at FCI Pekin. Here’s the crux of the article: according to the coroner, the only medication in Adam Montoya’s system at the time of death was “a trace of over-the-counter pain killer.”

That means Montoya, imprisoned for a passing counterfeit checks, had been given nothing to ease the excruciating pain that no doubt wracked his body for days or weeks before death.

“He shouldn’t have died in agony like that,” Coroner Dennis Conover said. “He had been out there long enough that he should have at least died in the hospital.”

The FBI recently completed an investigation into Montoya’s death and gave its findings to the Justice Department, which is reviewing the case. If federal prosecutors conclude that Montoya’s civil rights were violated, they could take action against the prison, its guards, or both. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment, saying that the matter was still being investigated.

The coroner said guards should have been aware that something was seriously wrong with the inmate. And outside experts agree that the symptoms of cancer and hepatitis would have been hard to miss: dramatic weight loss, a swollen abdomen, yellow eyes.

During Montoya’s final days, he “consistently made requests to the prison for medical attention, and they wouldn’t give it to him,” said his father, Juan Montoya, who described how his son repeatedly punched the panic button. Three inmates corroborated that account in interviews with The Associated Press.

Is the War on Crime Nearing Detente?

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In The Nation this week, Sasha Abramsky asks: “Is This the End of the War on Crime?” Abramsky argues that the decline in violent crime in recent years, combined with the current fiscal crisis, has opened up ideological and political space for reform. Here are just a few of the many examples Abramsky recounts:

In Texas a $600 million prison-expansion plan was shelved in 2007 in favor of a $241 million plan expanding community-based drug and alcohol treatment services, after researchers convinced legislators that the latter would lower crime rates more than expanding the state’s penal infrastructure. …

In Kansas legislators approved a large investment in drug treatment programs and services for parolees designed to stop so many offenders from simply cycling back into prison after their release. The result was a drop in Kansas’s prison population significant enough to allow the state to close several facilities.

Michigan recently reformed its prisoner-release process to allow for shorter sentences … . The state closed eight prisons as a result and invested some of the $250 million savings expected to be generated over a five-year period in an expanded network of mental health and job training services, as well as drug treatment programs.

Since I can’t imagine any politician will ever announce that the war on crime is over — surrender not being an option and victory being difficult to define, if not imagine — I think the metaphor of detente may be a helpful way to frame the seeming thaw in the heated tough-on-crime rhetoric of decades past. And detente only goes so far; after decades of a war mindset, permanent disarmament is difficult to achieve, both practically and politically. Now that states have built such a massive carceral infrastructure, which many citizens have come to take for granted, how far can they really go in abandoning it? If the economic climate improves, or crime rates rise, will states simply remobilize? Notably, while state prison populations declined last year for the first time in decades, the federal prison population keeps rising. As Doug Berman points out, it’s not surprising that “that jurisdictions that generally have to balance their budgets saw a decline in incarceration in 2009, while the one jurisdiction that just prints money went in the other direction.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Poll: Most Americans See Prison System as a Failure, Would Support Alternatives to Incarceration

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Some interesting polling data out from Angus Reid (download the full poll at this PDF link):

  • 75% of Americans polled disagree with the statement that “the prison system in the U.S. does a good job at helping prisoners become law-abiding”
  • 72% support alternative penalties other than prison for non-violent offenders — interestingly, this figure is highest in the South (76%) and lowest in the West (65%)
  • 67% disagree with the statement that “the justice system in the U.S. treats every person fairly”
  • 42% disagree with the statement that “the criminal courts in the U.S. do a good job in determining whether or not an accused person is guilty”
  • 36% express “complete confidence” or “a lot of confidence” in their state and local police. For federal agencies, that figure is 35% for the FBI, 26% for the ATF and DEA
  • 22% express “complete confidence” in their local criminal courts; 25% in the Supreme Court
  • 41% say they fear being a victim of violent crime “not too much”; 11% say they fear it “to a great extent”

Readers who can identify any shortcomings in the polling method or pollster are invited to comment, but on the face of it, these numbers suggest a pretty widespread sentiment that the criminal justice system is a failure. Of course, the prison system could fail at “helping prisoners become law-abiding” while succeeding at other goals, like retribution. But the fact that so many poll respondents say they’d support alternatives to incarceration suggests that maybe retribution for its own sake is not their top priority, or maybe that they think we’re using prison on offenders for whom it’s an excessive sanction under a retributive theory.

Federal Court Allows Transgender Inmate’s Lawsuit over Medical Treatment to Go Forward

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Above: Trailer for the 2006 Outcast Films documentary “Cruel and Unusual

A U.S. district court judge in Massachusetts has denied the government’s motion to dismiss a transgender inmate’s lawsuit alleging she was denied appropriate treatment for Gender Identity Disorder (GID). The case will now proceed towards trial. The plaintiff, Vanessa Adams, is a federal inmate who was diagnosed with GID in 2005, and thereafter made repeated requests to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that she be provided with treatment, including psychological treatment and hormone therapy. After her requests were denied, she attempted suicide several times and eventually removed her own genitals. She is being represented by three nonprofit legal organizations — the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Florida Institutional Legal Services, and Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders — along with the national law firm Bingham McCutchen. You can read more about the case and download the plaintiff’s complaint here. The decision is available as a PDF here.

The specific policy Adams challenges is the BOP’s so-called “freeze-frame” policy. Under this policy, the BOP will provide treatment for inmates with GID but only at the level they were receiving prior to their incarceration. That means inmates like Adams, who was only diagnosed after she got to prison, are ineligible for any treatment. (See BOP Program Statement BOP P6031.01(30) — PDF p. 43.) At the motion-to-dismiss stage, the legal issues were mootness and venue. Notably, the judge denied the government’s argument that because the BOP is now providing Adams with hormone therapy, the case is moot: “If this court were to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims at this juncture, based on nothing more than Defendants voluntary cessation of the challenged conduct, without even so much as an assurance from Defendants that the challenged conduct will not recur, it would ‘leave the defendant[s] . . . free to return to [their] old ways’” (PDF p. 10).

Upcoming Event: Prison-related Panels at ACS 2010

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This weekend, the American Constitution Society will hold its national convention in Washington, D.C. Almost all the panels could bear on prison/jail issues in some way, and certainly on broader concerns of criminal law, procedure, and punishment. That said, if you’re planning to attend and are especially interested in prison/jail issues, watch out for these panels:

Friday, June 18

  • 2010 Census and Redistricting — perhaps the discussion will touch on prison-based gerrymandering?
  • Access to Federal Courts after Iqbal and Twombly
  • Immigration Reform: Congress and the States

Saturday, June 19

  • Detainees and Justice: Military Commissions vs. Trials within the Federal Court System
  • The Federal Role in Improving Indigent Criminal Defense

Federal Prisons More Crowded, Less Funded; DOJ Lagging on Prison Rape Standards; and More

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Although I said I wouldn’t be blogging this week, there have been a few must-read news items in the past few days for those interested in prison/jail issues:

  • The Crunch in Federal Prisons“: The Crime Report notes that federal prisons are now at 34% above capacity, but Congress isn’t keeping up with the growth by allocating more funding. The federal prison system now holds over 200,000 inmates, i.e., more than California. Slightly over half of federal prisoners are doing time for drug-related crimes, and most of them are subject to tough mandatory minimum sentences.
  • U.S. Likely to Miss Deadline on Prison Rape Rules“: Attorney General Eric Holder is likely to miss an upcoming deadline to promulgate regulations requiring jails and prisons to adopt best practices for preventing prison rape. Holder says local wardens worry the required changes would be too costly.
  • Delaware House passes bill to count incarcerated people at home“: The Delaware House unanimously passed legislation to count incarcerated people at their home addresses for redistricting purposes. The bill now goes to the Senate. If it passes there, Delaware will be the second state — after Maryland — to eliminate prison-based gerrymandering.

Supreme Court Rules on Juvenile LWOP, Federal Civil Commitment of Sex Offenders

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The Supreme Court issued two rulings today in cases whose facts implicate big-picture questions about crime and punishment, although the precise legal questions at issue in both — and therefore the import of these opinions — are narrower than those big-picture questions. In Graham v. Florida, a divided court held that a life-without-parole (LWOP) sentence for a juvenile convicted of burglary violates the Eighth Amendment. In United States v. Comstock, the court held 7-2 (with Scalia and Thomas dissenting) that the federal government’s civil commitment program for “sexually dangerous” offenders does not exceed Congress’s constitutional authority. You can access links to the opinions and related documents at How Appealing, legal analysis at SCOTUSblog, and an interesting perspective on how PR concerns may have driven the Court’s treatment of these cases over at Sentencing Law & Policy (where you can also find lots more commentary from Doug Berman on these opinions, including several posts on Graham).

Note that, as Lyle Denniston observes at SCOTUSblog, Graham does not require or even necessarily contemplate the actual release of juvenile LWOP prisoners. Rather, Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court holds merely that these prisoners must be afforded “some meaningful opportunity” to present a case that they have matured and are fit to re-enter society. However, Justice Kennedy was quick to make clear, “[t]hose who commit truly horrifying crimes as juveniles may turn out to be irredeemable, and thus deserving of incarceration for the duration of their lives.” There is a lot going on in this sentence alone — a lot of assumptions and value judgments — that merits further unpacking.

I’d also note that insofar as juveniles have now won a right to a parole hearing, we might question how meaningful of a right that really is (notwithstanding the “some meaningful opportunity” language) given that in many states, parole hearings have become a sort of charade in which the prisoner can never actually win release, because the parole board routinely denies parole eligbility based solely upon the facts of the underlying crime, which is the one thing that the prisoner, of course, can never change. I am not too familiar with how parole works in Florida, which is home to most of the country’s juvenile LWOP prisoners, but I’ve blogged previously about challenges to rubber-stamp parole boards in Virginia and Michigan. After I’ve had a chance to read the opinions more closely, I’ll blog again about any notable prison implications I see, but for now, hopefully the above links and impressions will get readers started in learning and thinking about these opinions.

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