Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘virginia

“The least transparent institution in our society”

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The Charlottesville Daily Progress has an interesting Q&A with Virginia prisoners’ rights lawyers Jeffrey Fogel and Steven Rosenfield. Worth reading in full, but here are excerpts:

Q. Have you seen any changes to the DOC as a result of your litigation?

R. The changes are miniscule, when they come at all. But some of this is an opportunity for us to speak to the public and to ask the public to be looking at what is happening in prisons. This is the least transparent institution in our society.

We’ve made an offer on many occasions to sit down with them and say, ‘We can tell you all of the things we think are unconstitutional about what you’re doing, for example, with periodicals. We don’t need to litigate all of it.’ So far, they have expressed no interest in sitting down with us. …

F. Both Steve and I respect the fact that it is not an easy job, either running a prison system or working in a prison system. But there is no call for the kind of arbitrary conduct that we have been challenging. In fact, some of these things, like the censorship, … run directly contrary to every penological concern you could have about prisoners. Everything says that the best thing you can do is educate prisoners, and the more educational programs, the less likely they are to recommit crimes, which is a concern that everybody should have.


Written by sara

January 11, 2011 at 8:15 am

Web Resources: Stories of Immigration Detention and More from Deportation Nation

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Deportation Nation, which produces original reporting on ICE’s Secure Communities program, is collecting stories about people’s experiences in immigration detention. You can listen to stories or share your own at this link. DN also provides a library of statistics and other primary sources about how Secure Communities works.

Meanwhile, DN currently has several stories worth reading about developments in counties’ ability to opt out of Secure Communities. Although there has been some confusion about whether counties can do this, federal officials recently confirmed that it is possible and outlined the process for doing so. Already, California’s San Francisco and Santa Clara counties and Virginia’s Arlington County have voted to do so.

Secure Communities is an ICE initiative to partner with local jails to cross-check arrest data with immigration status, allowing ICE officials to begin deportation proceedings if there is a match. The program has been promoted as a way to identify “truly dangerous people” (those words are from Rep. David Price, D-NC), and ICE hopes to expand it to all of the nation’s county jails by 2013. However, as DN notes,

the vast majority of immigrants deported through Secure Communities committed low-level offenses like trespassing, disorderly conduct and traffic offenses. Others simply face charges and have yet to be convicted.

The Virginia NAACP’s (Mobile) Case for Criminal Justice Reform

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The Virginia NAACP is sending mobile billboards around downtown Richmond, highlighting America’s high rate of incarceration and the disparity between spending on prisons and schools. The billboards are intended to drum up support for Sen. Jim Webb’s National Criminal Justice Commission Act. Local TV coverage here (also the source of these screen shots). Another after the jump: Read the rest of this entry »

Stories You May Have Missed

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A few notable news stories from the past couple of days:

With 8th suicide, appeals for change in prison system“–Boston Globe. The article begins:

Suicides in Massachusetts state prisons are occurring at a rate more than four times the national average this year, prompting advocates and inmates’ relatives to call for an urgent response from state officials — and spurring the Patrick administration yesterday to hire a suicide prevention specialist.

With the discovery of an eighth inmate found hanging in his cell at Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater yesterday morning, Massachusetts prisons have reached a suicide rate of about 71 per 100,000 inmates so far this year, more than quadruple the average annual national rate of 16 per 100,000 inmates reported by the US Bureau for Justice Statistics.

N.J.’s prison population declines, officials credit less crime, prisoner re-entry programs”–Newark Star-Ledger. Highlights:

With 25,263 inmates in the system as of this month, state prisons still hold more people than they were designed for. And 600 additional inmates will be double-bunked this year to save money. But officials say the overall population shrank because crime was cut, drug courts diverted many people from jail, and programs helped inmates prepare for life on the outside.

“It’s a pretty impressive reduction,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization. “We’re not just talking about a tinkering. It comes about through conscious changes in criminal justice policy.”

Groups sue over banned handbook at Virginia prisons“–Washington Post. Download the complaint PDF here. The basics:

Two civil rights groups have sued the Virginia Department of Corrections for banning a handbook from state prisons that explains the court system, methods for legal research and constitutional rights.

The Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild filed suit Wednesday morning in the Western District of Virginia, claiming that the state violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

Congress moves to crack down on prison cellphones“–Salon.

“Rasta inmates spend decade in isolation for dreadlock hair”

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That’s the headline of this recent USA Today report on an ongoing conflict over a Virginia Department of Corrections policy that bars inmates from growing long hair. Inmates who don’t comply are kept in solitary confinement. Here’s an excerpt on the legal context:

Virginia is among only about a dozen states, mostly in the South, that limit the length of inmates’ hair and beards, according to the American Correctional Chaplains Association. A handful of those allow religious accommodations for Rastafarians, Muslims, Sikhs, native Americans and others whose religious beliefs prohibit shaving or cutting their hair.

There is no hair policy for federal prisoners.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that constitutional protections, like the right to practice religion, do not end at the prison gates. Congress has said institutions can restrict religious liberties only for compelling reasons, like security, but the policies must be the least restrictive means to accomplish that.

Still, inmates have rarely been successful in challenging prison grooming policies.

A native American inmate spent a year in his cell and lost other privileges before a federal appeals court ruled in 2005 that the California prison system’s ban on long hair violated his religious freedom.

In a 2002 case, a group of Rastafarian and Muslim federal inmates who were housed in Virginia prisons challenged the grooming policy and a federal court ordered the Bureau of Prisons to transfer them to other facilities that did not have such policies. The court also required the federal prison system to evaluate inmates’ religious beliefs and refrain from sending them to Virginia or other states with burdensome grooming policies.

But in the case filed by the Virginia state prisoners, a federal appeals court ruled in 2008 that the Department of Corrections’ argument that inmates could hide weapons and other contraband in long hair or easily change their appearance upon escape was compelling enough reason to require trimmed hair.

Written by sara

May 9, 2010 at 1:13 pm

The Local Law Enforcement Case for Criminal Justice Reform

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We do our best with the limited resources that are given to us by state and local government. However, since the mid 1980s politicians seeking election or re-election have held the criminal justice system hostage to sound bites. Politicians talk about getting tough on crime and they pass many draconian laws without regard to the data and evidence-based practices. As a practitioner and a taxpayer, I would submit that we must be smarter on crime. We must begin to focus more on prevention, rehabilitation, and reintegration. We cannot afford to continue in this manner. We are wasting human capital along with monies that could provide greater returns on our investment.

— Sheriff Gabriel A. Morgan, Newport News, Va., prepared testimony for House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, Feb. 23, 2010.

Written by sara

February 24, 2010 at 2:37 pm

House Holds Hearings on Prison Sexual Abuse

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And if the statistics in the BJS reports are not enough, I ask you to consider one of these children, who have been beaten, assaulted and raped with no recourse or power to stop it, what if that child was the child’s picture you carry in your pocketbook or wallet? … Perhaps then we would not continue to hold hearings, create another commission or issue more reports.

— Grace Bauer, prepared testimony for House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, Feb. 23, 2010.

Last month, the Bureau of Justice Statistics issued a troubling report showing that 12% of youth held in juvenile detention facilities report being the victim of sexual abuse, whether by other youth or staff. (New York Times columnist Ross Douthat covered this issue last week; the New York Review of Books published a lengthy discussion of the report here, and Public Criminology crunched the numbers here.) As I’ve blogged about before, the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 exacerbates the problem by making it very hard for juveniles who’ve been abused to seek judicial relief. The Prison Abuse Remedies Act (H.R. 4335), sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and supported by the ACLU, would remove the PLRA’s procedural hurdles for juveniles under 18.

Yesterday, the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held hearings on preventing sexual assault in juvenile and adult prisons. The witness list included American University law professor Brenda Smith; Troy Erik Isaac, who was raped while in juvenile custody in California (NPR interviewed him here); Bernard Warner, head of California’s juvenile justice system; Sheriff Gabriel Morgan of Newport News, Va.; and Grace Bauer, whose son was adjudicated delinquent and who works with the Campaign for Youth Justice. After the jump I’ll provide some highlights from their prepared testimony.

Read the rest of this entry »

Virginia Inmates: Parole-Eligible in Name Only?

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Virginia abolished parole in 1995, but thousands of inmates remain incarcerated who are eligible for parole under the old rules. In reality, inmates claim, the Virginia parole board summarily denies parole to everyone who comes before it. In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday by the Legal Aid Justice Center, inmates are seeking a court order that the parole board must conduct a “careful and thorough consideration” of parole eligibility in every case. The AP reports:

“By any reasonable measure, you would look at these people and you would say, ‘What are they still doing in prison?’ and yet year after year after year they get a letter from the parole board saying parole has been denied,” said Steve Northup, a Richmond attorney who is working with the Legal Aid Justice Center on the suit.

Nearly half of the board’s denials in 2006 and 2007 were boiled down to six words: “nature and circumstances of the crime.”

The nature of the crime is only one of several considerations outlined in the law for the board to consider. Others include the inmate’s prior record, prison conduct, whether the inmate has been rehabilitated and whether release would be an acceptable risk.

“This is a false hope that’s being held out to them by Virginia law, because they can’t change the crime, there’s nothing they can ever do to change the crime, and many of them have stopped getting their hopes up,” Northup said.

The law requires parole be granted to those deemed suitable following a “thorough investigation … into the prisoner’s history, physical and mental condition and character and his conduct, employment and attitude while in prison.”

Yet the attorneys said the parole board no longer personally interviews inmates and has abandoned the use of risk assessment guidelines. The board no longer meets regularly, but votes by computer based on review of an electronic file.

By the end of the year, the lawyers said, nearly a quarter of parole-eligible inmates will already have served longer than they would under the sentencing guidelines that apply to crimes committed after parole was abolished.

They estimate Virginia is spending more than $150 million each year to house parole-eligible inmates, which burdens taxpayers “who must bear the cost of warehousing thousands of men and women who by any reasonable measure have rehabilitated themselves and no longer belong in prison,” said William Richardson, an Arlington attorney who is helping with the case.

The Roanoke Times has more coverage of the lawsuit here.

Written by sara

February 4, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Virginia Prisons Experiment with Visits by Videoconference

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The Richmond Times-Dispatch has this report on a videoconferencing program that allows families to visit virtually with relatives incarcerated in Virginia prisons. Piloted at the Wallens Ridge State Prison, the program will be expanding to nine additional prisons this year and is run at no taxpayer expense by the New Canaan International Church:

The church has been using donated equipment and charging $30 for a one-hour visit and $15 for 30 minutes to help cover the costs.

In a high-security prison such as Wallens Ridge, using a live video connection enables inmates and “visitors” to see and hear one another as well as — if not better than — during in-person visits conducted through clear, but solid, plexiglass windows using phones.

Since starting the program 3½ years ago, New Canaan and two other churches now involved have arranged 650 video visits between Wallens Ridge inmates and their families.

The cost for the video visits is considerably less than that of daylong drives and overnight stays often needed to visit some of Virginia’s more remote, high-security prisons.

Written by sara

February 2, 2010 at 12:10 pm

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