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Landmark Settlement on Solitary Confinement in California Prisons

September 3rd, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


“Today is a historic day,” said Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), on Tuesday morning.

And so it was.

Lobel was referring to Tuesday’s announcement of the settlement of Ashker v. Governor, the class action suit brought by the CCR in 2012, that now will result in sweeping changes in the way that California prisons use solitary confinement. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of a group of ten Pelican Bay State Prison inmates who had each spent at least 10 years in solitary confinement, several of them far longer.

(This same group of plaintiffs were the primary organizers of the prison hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013, to protest the conditions of those held in solitary. The 2013 strike resulted in 30,000 prisoners refusing food during its first five days.)

When the Center for Constitutional Rights first filed Ashker on May 31, 2012, in Pelican Bay alone, more than 500 of the 1100 prisoners residing in the SHU—as solitary housing units are known—had been there for over 10 years. An additional 78 prisoners had been in Pelican Bay’s SHU for more than 20 years.

As of Monday, across the state as a whole, a total of 2,858 prisoners were reportedly locked in SHUs. In Pelican Bay, which has the largest SHU program in the state, this means they spend 22 ½ hours a day in cramped, concrete, windowless cells. They are denied telephone calls, contact visits, or any kind of programming whatsoever.

Under Tuesday’s agreement, the number of prisoners kept in solitary could fall by more than half, or as many as 1,800 inmates, according to Jeffrey Beard, the secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, who talked with reporters by conference call on Tuesday.

The far-reaching agreement, as described by the Center for Constitutional Rights, in their summary of settlement terms “…fundamentally alters all aspects of this cruel and unconstitutional regime. The agreement will dramatically reduce the current solitary confinement population and should have a lasting impact on the population going forward; end the practice of isolating prisoners who have not violated prison rules; cap the length of time a prisoner can spend in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay; and provide a restrictive but not isolating alternative for the minority of prisoners who continue to violate prison rules on behalf of a gang.”

Among the most important terms of the settlement is the fact that now California will no longer impose indeterminate SHU sentences. Instead, after serving a determinate sentence for a SHU-eligible offense, validated gang affiliates whose offense was proven to be related to gang activities will be transferred to a two-year, four-step program—knowns as a step-down program. When those two years are up, if the inmates do not commit another SHU-eligible offense while in the program, they will be released to a general population prison setting. Even during the two years, although “conditions at the steps remain harsh,” explains the CCR, prisoners will be allowed some telephone calls, plus rehabilitative programming at each step.

The day after the settlement, the New York Times ran an editorial explaining the importance of the lawsuit:

Here’s a clip:

If mass incarceration is one of modern America’s deepest pathologies, solitary confinement is the concentrated version of it: far too many people locked up for far too long for no good reason, at no clear benefit to anyone.

The practice “literally drives men mad,” Justice Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court said in an appearance before Congress last March, highlighting the case of a California man isolated for 25 years. In July, President Obama became the first president to denounce the use of solitary. Locking people up alone for years or decades, he said, “is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt?”

These remarks are notable only because they come from the highest levels of government.
Many Americans have been aware of the horror of indefinite solitary confinement for years.

On Tuesday, the slow push for meaningful reform got a big shove in the right direction. In a sweeping, unprecedented class-action settlement, California officials agreed to a drastic overhaul of the state’s solitary confinement system, the largest, most indiscriminate and most brutal in the country.

The settlement — which ends a lawsuit brought on behalf of a number of long-serving inmates — will mean the immediate release of more than 1,000 isolated inmates back into the general prison population. When the suit was filed in 2012, 500 of these inmates had been held for more than 10 years in tiny, windowless cells with virtually no human contact. At most, they had 90 minutes a day to take a shower or stand alone in a concrete “yard.” (A 2011 United Nations report said that stays longer than 15 days could amount to torture.)

The offenses that landed them in solitary? Most often, it was evidence that they were “affiliated” with a prison gang, whether or not they had broken any rules. The risk they posed to other inmates was rarely a factor. Still, they had to wait six years for a chance at review. Any evidence of continuing gang ties meant at least six more years.

By coincidence, a study on solitary was released Wednesday by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and researchers at Yale Law School, which reported that state and federal prisons are holding as many as 100,000 inmates in solitary confinement, a figure that poses a “grave problem” for the criminal justice system, said the researchers.

Jess Bravin of the Wall Street Journal, who reports on the research, notes that Colorado corrections director Rick Raemisch, who helped oversee the study, said use of solitary confinement had gotten out of control, as officials found it a convenient way to maintain order in their prisons.

“The original purpose was to take those who were deemed too violent or too dangerous in the institution and to isolate them so no one got hurt,” he said. “But as it evolved, if you didn’t follow the rules in a particular area—no violence but you didn’t act the way you were supposed to act—you were placed in solitary confinement.”

For inmates with mental illness or emotional disorders, such isolation only exacerbates their problems, making them a greater safety risk when eventually released, Mr. Raemisch said.

Solitary confinement has a long history in the U.S. and was originally instituted by Quakers and Anglicans, not as punishment, but as a time for contemplation and to seek forgiveness from God, all of which it was hoped would be corrective. Yet, when political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville came from France to investigate the U.S. penitentiary system in 1831, de Tocqueville examined the use of solitary confinement and quickly perceived the wrong-headedness of the strategy. He wrote:

“Nowhere was this system of imprisonment crowned with the hoped-for success. In general it was ruinous to the public treasury; it never effected the reformation of the prisoners.

“In order to reform them, they had been submitted to complete isolation; but this absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.”

Posted in solitary | No Comments »

The LA Jail Construction Re-Vote

September 2nd, 2015 by Taylor Walker


LA COUNTY SUPERVISORS VOTE, THIS TIME LEGALLY, ON A REPLACEMENT FOR MEN’S CENTRAL JAIL

On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors once again voted to approve the construction of a 3,885-bed facility to replace the aging Men’s Central Jail as well as a women’s facility at Mira Loma detention center.

The Supervisors did not veer from their original jail vote on Aug. 11, which was found to be in violation of CA’s open meetings law.

Because the jail proposal was attached to a major plan to divert the mentally ill from county jails, the Supes also replicated their original vote on the diversion program, but not without first hearing from advocates and others calling for a smaller (or in some cases, larger) jail.

LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell urged the board to bump the capacity to a flexible range of 3900-4900 beds, saying, “We have now received three independent sets of population projections that all show the jail population is trending upward…and they have come back, by and large, with the same projections, the same calculated bed needs, and the same recommendations.”

The SoCal ACLU’s legal director, Peter Eliasberg, said, “If you want to improve public safety, building jails is not really the way to do it for people with mental illness and co-occurring disorders.” Eliasberg still calls 3,885 too large, but says it’s far better than a 4,600-bed jail. (The 4,600 was recommended by Health Management Associates. Read more about their problematic report and about the jail size debate: here.)

The board also unanimously approved an amendment by Supes Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl to create a gender-responsive committee to look into how to best reduce the negative impact of housing women in the very remote Mira Loma jail, far from their families and communities.

“The Mira Loma jail will be a four-hour one-way trip for a family that lives in Lynwood,” Supervisor Solis said. “It is hard to see how these women will have sufficient access to visitors, programs and medical care.”

Posted in LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LASD, women's issues | 2 Comments »

Report Recommends Continuing Effective Women’s Diversion Court in LA

September 1st, 2015 by Taylor Walker

PUBLIC HEALTH DEPT. SAYS RENEW FUNDING FOR WOMEN’S RE-ENTRY COURT, WHICH LOWERS RECIDIVISM AND SAVES LA MONEY

An important LA County diversion program, the Second Chance Women’s Reentry Court (WRC), is slated to be defunded in December 2015, after receiving a six-month extension in June.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has conducted an assessment on whether to keep the program funded past its scheduled end-date in December.

After running the numbers, the Department of Public Health recommends extending the program, which according to DPH, saves the county money, keeps women out of lock-up, and helps women build better lives for themselves and their families. (We at WLA agree, and hope that the program will be saved.)


HOW THE WOMEN’S RE-ENTRY COURT WORKS

The program, which has helped more than 300 women since its inception, is a multi-agency effort between the District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, Department of Probation, LA County Superior Court, California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, County Criminal Justice Coordination Committee, and the Department of Public Health’s Substance Abuse and Prevention Control Program.

By participating in the WRC, women charged with non-serious felonies or probation violations take part in at least a six-month residential program and then up to a year of outpatient care instead of serving a jail sentence. The alternative court program relies on evidence-based, trauma-informed, and gender-specific strategies to treat women’s underlying issues, rather than punish alleged offenses.

Women in the program receive mental health services and substance abuse treatment, as well as help with housing and employment and family reunification services, when needed.


THE FINDINGS

In the three years after graduating from the program in 2011-2012, 18% of WRC participants had come back into contact with the criminal justice system, compared with a recidivism rate of nearly 50% for women released from CA prisons in 2008-2009.

The rate of homelessness was cut in half for women coming out of the court program than when they were admitted. Women also built better relationships with their families and kids, and had significantly higher rates of employment and school enrollment.

The assessment also found that women who received the gender-specific treatment were one-fifth as likely to exhibit signs of PTSD a year after the end of the program, as compared with women who did not receive gender-specific help.

“Women constitute the fastest-growing segment of people in U.S. jails and prisons,” said LA County’s Interim Health Officer Jeffrey Gunzenhauser. “Women in the criminal justice system often suffer from mental health problems, chronic drug and alcohol addictions, and trauma histories, and are more likely than men to be the primary caretaker of children prior to incarceration.”


THE RECOMMENDATIONS

Besides extending the program, the Public Health Department also recommends boosting the number of programs like WRC that serve women with co-occurring substance abuse and mental health issues.

The assessment also calls for increased staff numbers to provide more help for women transitioning between residential and outpatient treatment through WRC, and for those graduating from the WRC.


UPDATE ON YESTERDAY’S POST ABOUT TODAY’S RE-VOTE ON THE LA COUNTY JAIL PLAN

Be sure to check our updated version of last night’s story.

Posted in Courts, PTSD, Reentry, Rehabilitation, Trauma, women's issues | No Comments »

WitnessLA is Going on Vacation This Week—-Sort Of

August 31st, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

We’re taking this week off—or mostly off.

We’ll still post a mini-story or two most days, so check back. But, the volume will be far lighter.

WitnessLA will be back in full after Labor Day. And, in the days and weeks to follow, we’ll have some important coverage on juvenile justice issues, plus a brand new story relating to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department that we promise you’ll want to see.

So stay tuned.

And enjoy the last days of summer.

Celeste & Taylor

Posted in Life in general | 2 Comments »

Recalculating the Size of the Men’s Central Jail Replacement – UPDATED

August 31st, 2015 by Taylor Walker



By Taylor Walker and Celeste Fremon.



IF THE LA SUPES WANT A SMALLER JAIL, THEY MUST AUTHORIZE PRETRIAL RELEASE, AND SHOW HOW THE NEW LOWER NUMBERS WILL WORK

On Tuesday, Sept. 1, the LA County Board of Supervisors is slated to re-vote on a $2 billion jail building plan, after the original vote was found to be in violation of the state’s open meetings law. The Supes’ first attempt at a vote, on Aug. 11, approved construction of a 3,885-bed facility to replace the horrifically decrepit Men’s Central Jail, which has a 5,276-bed capacity. The jail replacement was attached to a large-scale plan to divert a significant percentage of the mentally ill who wind up in the county’s jails to community-based treatment. The Supes will have to re-approve this plan, as well. (Read more of the backstory: here.)

A new LA Times editorial urges the LA County Board of Supervisors not to just perform a “quick and dirty” duplicate of their previous vote, but to carefully consider all the moving parts. If three out of five of the Supes want a jail with fewer beds than are presently to be found in the existing Men’s Central Jail, they will have to increase alternatives to incarceration. They should, for example, begin by authorizing and encouraging the sheriff to implement a well-thought-out system of pretrial release, as state law permits.

The board of supervisors, advocates, and others (including WLA) had hoped that the projected implementation of a robust mental health diversion program would substantially reduce the number of beds needed in the new jail. (LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell and Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald recommended a 4,900-bed facility.) But, after considering Prop. 47, mental health diversion (to a limited degree)**, and other population-affecting factors, Health Management Associates—a group that was hired by the board to re-crunch the jail population numbers—unexpectedly recommended a 4,600 to 5,060-bed facility. In other words, HMA, the boards own consultant, came up with a number that was much larger than the 3885 the board approved on Aug. 11.

If the county chose not to fully implement the mental health diversion efforts, the projected number went even higher—to 6,773. HMA’s proposed capacity was not far from that of a controversial jail plan tabled by the Supes in July in order to explore the feasibility of a smaller jail.

We at WLA have also been pushing for a smaller jail, so we took note but when HMA came back with larger numbers than expected. Earlier this month, when we did our own tour of Twin Towers & MCJ, we started to better understand why Sheriff McDonnell, and Assistant Sheriff Terry McDonald, are pushing for a larger facility.

Yet it is also important to note** that, in certain crucial ways, HMA’s numbers are misleading. A coalition of advocates knowledgable about the issue of mental health diversion in LA—including the So Cal ACLU, Public Counsel, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and a lot more—wrote a fact-laden letter to the board pointing out that HMA didn’t really look hard into how many mentally ill inmates now cycling in and out of LA’s jails could be safely and successfully served in community settings, even though they were asked to do so. Instead of the detailed analysis that HMA admitted was needed, they took only a general, low-ball swipe at the affect on LA’s jail population that a rigorous program of health diversion was likely to produce.

So the bottom line is this: in order for a lower-capacity jail to be realistic, there must be a fully articulated and practical commitment to shifting the balance further away from incarceration and toward community alternatives. And somebody needs to demonstrate with real math that HMA has it wrong, and that the new lower numbers will work, if the proper fiscal investments are made in community treatment, along with a serious pre-trial release program.

The Times’ editorial board has a lot more to say about the jail plan, which includes a women’s jail renovation at the remote Mira Loma Detention Facility. Here’s a clip:

We hold firm to the conviction that the county must rely more on alternatives, and less on incarceration, than it has, and that less capacious jails create a healthy incentive to invest more in the community-based treatment and reentry services that are so desperately needed. We also hold firm, though, to the conviction that public safety planning and public spending must be based on facts and expertise, not wishful thinking or ideology.

As the board prepares for its do-over, then, we’re looking for something more substantive than a quick-and-dirty repeat of the supervisors’ previous discussion and vote.

Supervisors who support a smaller replacement for the Men’s Central Jail, configured to provide humane and first-rate treatment to mentally ill inmates who are too dangerous for community treatment, should lay out whatever deficiencies in the study led them to reject the consultant’s recommendations. Some disappointed advocates have argued that the consultant didn’t consider the aggressive diversion program offered by Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey and adopted in part by the board at the same Aug. 11 meeting, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Any supervisor who might want to delay the decision further should explain why it makes sense to keep inmates in the outdated and inhumane the Men’s Central Jail, or the similarly decrepit women’s jail — the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood — any longer than absolutely necessary. The men’s jail, because of its outdated design and deteriorating conditions, contributes to tension between inmates and sheriff’s deputies, which in the past likely led to suicides, injuries and abuse of visitors as well as inmates. The women’s jail is plagued by plumbing and other problems that require periodic building evacuations.

The supervisors should explain as well why they have not reduced the need for jail bed space even further by authorizing the sheriff — as state law permits — to release people who have not been convicted of any crime but are being held, pending trial, merely because they cannot afford bail. Pretrial detainees make up the largest segment of the county’s jail inmates, and although many are accused of violent crimes and are potentially too dangerous to be released, many others should be out.

If they again adopt a plan to move forward with a replacement women’s jail in Lancaster, on the site of the former immigration detention center known as Mira Loma, the supervisors should also include plans for daily transportation to and from that far corner of the county for the inmates’ lawyers, counselors and family members.

Read the rest.


**UPDATE, Monday, 10:30 pm: In our earlier version of this story, we wrote that HMA had taken into consideration the affect of mental health diversion on LA County’s future jail population. But, we have since noted that, although HMA wrote that “expansion of diversion programs certainly has the potential to reduce the number of mental health beds…over the longer term,” they admitted that, in order to estimate this impact, “a more detailed analysis… would be required.” HMA, however, didn’t include such an analysis in their report, and their numbers reflect that lack—-which is a problem. The text has been updated to reflect these important nuances.

Posted in LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LASD, pretrial detention/release | No Comments »

Youth Solitary Bill Shot Down in Last Committee… LA to Push for Harsher Penalties for Buyers of Child Sex…..Analyzing LA’s Crime Rise

August 28th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

CALIFORNIA BILL TO CURTAIL USE OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT FOR KID GETS SHOT DOWN IN LAST COMMITTEE

California’s SB 124, which would have greatly reduced the use of solitary confinement for kids, was defeated in a state assembly committee on Thursday. The bill, sponsored by Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) had already been passed by the California senate, and the crucial Assembly Public Safety Committee. It had one more committee hearing left—namely in the Assembly Appropriations Committee—before heading to the Assembly floor.

SB 124 never made it out of that second committee.

An impressive list of supporters, including the LA County Board of Supervisors, had gotten behind the passage of SB 124.

At the same time, SB 124 faced opposition by law enforcement, and particularly strong opposition from organizations representing county probation officers, who run most juvenile facilities in California.

The bill was amended several time to try to placate its primary opponents.

SB 124 would have established important guidelines aimed at keeping youth in the classroom, programs, and counseling, and out of long-term isolation.

Thursday afternoon, some advocates were pointing fingers at Appropriations Committee chair, Jimmy Gomez (D).

We will know more in the next few days about why the bill was defeated.

The video below features young activists who experienced solitary in their youth, and who now work to end or drastically limit the use of the practice for kids.


LA COUNTY SHERIFF & OTHERS PUSH FOR REAL PENALTIES FOR BUYERS of CHILD SEX, INSTEAD OF THE WRIST SLAPS THEY NOW RECEIVE

In LA County, men who buy favors from under-age girls who are sex-trafficked into prostitution now are typically charged with misdemeanors and hit with fines in LA County.

All that may change as a Los Angeles task force looks at ways to use existing California laws to hit johns with felonies that result in prison time and possible registration as a sex offenders.

LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell is one of those county officials who strongly favors the push for real punishment, not just a minor slap on the wrist.

The AP’s Tami Abdollah has the story.

Here’s a clip:

“What are johns? They’re pedophiles, they’re child molesters,” LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell told The Associated Press. “If we can take away the demand and very clearly let people know this is going to ruin their life … We’re hoping that’s going to be a disincentive.”

The county is the nation’s most populous, with more than 10 million residents. A taskforce that’s expected to be in place this fall will pursue the stiffer charges, a push that puts Los Angeles at the national forefront of “appropriately going after the buyers” of child sex workers, according to Malika Saada Saar, head of the Washington D.C.-based Human Rights Project for Girls.

For about a decade, Scandinavian countries have pioneered the so-called Nordic model, which aims to attack sex trafficking by targeting customers to decrease demand. The concept has gained traction in the United States in recent years with states including Massachusetts, New York and Colorado increasing fines and penalties. And law enforcement has started to move away from arresting women for prostitution and treating them like criminals.

California is one of the nation’s top four destinations for trafficking human beings, according to the state attorney general’s office, and transnational gangs are increasingly trafficking humans because it’s low risk and highly profitable.

Five girls working for a trafficker seven days a week brings in an estimated $600,000 to $800,000 annually.
The average age in California for a girl who is sex trafficked is 12 years old and some are as young as 9 years old, McDonnell said. The average age of entry into sex work nationally is 15 years old, said Ziba Cranmer, executive director of Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Demand Abolition.

California doesn’t have a specific law treating johns as traffickers, so jurisdictions such as Los Angeles and Alameda counties are trying to use existing sex laws against buyers.


WHY IS THERE A RISE IN LA’S CRIME? FOR LOTS OF DIFFERENT REASONS, SAYS AUTHOR AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE ANALYST JOE DOMANICK

Crime in LA has been diving for more than a decade. So why did it rise more than 20% during the first half of 2015— with felony assaults up 26% and robberies up 19%.

In an Joe Domanick in an LA Times Op Ed, author and analyst Joe Domanick points to an interweave of probable causes. (Domanick is the associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and author of “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing.)

Here’s a clip from his essay:

Here in Los Angeles, the rise might also be attributable in part to the Los Angeles Police Department crime stats simply being reported more honestly. An irrefutable Los Angeles Times investigation of the department’s crime numbers for the first half of 2014, for example, discovered the misclassification of 1,200 violent felony assaults as misdemeanors, thus making it appear that serious violent crime was going down when in fact it went up by 14%.

There are also broader national trends that might be affecting L.A.’s crime rate. According to Ron Noblet, the dean of gang interventionists at the Los Angeles Urban Peace Institute, the heroin epidemic plaguing the Northeast has finally started to hit Los Angeles.

“It’s moving now from middle-class kids in the west San Fernando Valley to Chicano and African American areas such as South Los Angeles and East L.A.,” says Noblet. Thus we might be seeing heroin become a crime-rise factor like crack was in the 1980s, both in terms of strung-out users committing crimes to feed their addiction and gangs fighting turf wars over drug distribution rights.

But I’d like to take an educated guess on what might be the key factor causing L.A. crime to rise: Something may be happening akin to the eras of the Watts riots of 1965, the high-crime crack war years of the 1980s and early ’90s, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. And it’s this: a new Gilded Age of obscene wealth, stunning, low-wage income disparity and grinding poverty have come together to make ghetto and barrio life ever more desperate. As a result, the steam is once again pressing against the engine cap, just as it did during those infamous times.

Posted in Contemplating Crime & Consequence, Sex trafficking, solitary | 9 Comments »

When Relatives Take in Out-of County Foster Kids, the Bureaucratic Snafus Double – by Melinda Clemmons

August 28th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



EDITOR’S NOTE:
Earlier this month, we co-produced a story with The Chronicle of Social Change about the difficulties that arise when California foster children wind up in what is known as: out-of-county placement.

The story, by Daniel Heimpel, looked at the problems faced by one bright and active teenager who was taken into foster care and subsequently placed with a family that lived a county or two away.

The story below, by Melinda Clemmons (also co-produced with CRC) looks at the problems faced by a husband and wife who took in another family member’s the out-of-county child (or, in this case, children), and thus found themselves dealing with the bureaucratic systems of not one, but two different counties.



The Two-County Headache of Becoming Out-of County Foster Kin

by Melinda Clemmons


Mariana Rivera* had her hands full.

Holding her newborn niece, she filled out the paperwork for the infant’s first medical appointment while her four other nieces and nephews, all under the age of 10, ran around the clinic’s waiting room.

“We had just gotten two of the kids earlier that day, and the other two a couple days before that,” Rivera said. “They weren’t used to us yet, and they were confused about why they were with us, so they couldn’t sit still.”

It was the spring of 2014 and, after nine months waiting for their home to be approved, Rivera and her husband had just become relative caregivers to her brother’s five children. The children, and now the baby, had been removed from her brother and his girlfriend, their mother, and placed in foster care by child protective services in Solano County, the eastern-most county in the North Bay area of California.

Knowing that the siblings would likely be separated if they went into non-relative foster care, the Riveras agreed to take them all into their home in neighboring Yolo County when asked by her brother, even though that meant their own 18-year-old son had to move out to make room in their small house.

“We wanted the kids to stay together,” Rivera said. “So we started the process of getting approved right away.”

Over one-third of the children in California who have been removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect are placed with relatives. The Riveras’ nieces and nephews are among the 20 percent of foster children in the state who are placed in a different county from the one in which they were removed, a circumstance that, as the Riveras would find out, brings complications in terms of support services, funding streams and the sheer logistics involved in taking care of children in foster care.

According to Aaron Crutison, deputy director of Solano County Child Welfare Services, relative caregivers are crucial to the department’s focus on permanency for children and strengthening families.

“When we remove a child,” said Crutison, “we’re placing that child in the least restrictive environment while we work with the family and their issues. A relative placement is someone they’re familiar with…so we minimize the trauma to the child when a relative steps in while we work with the family.”

Juggling paperwork, a newborn and four restless children at the clinic, Rivera was quickly finding out that all it takes is a little bureaucratic foul-up to make the already challenging job of caring for traumatized children even harder.

She had driven from her own home in Yolo County to the clinic in Solano County for the baby’s appointment, which had been scheduled by the Solano County hospital where she was born just three days earlier. But after she completed the registration forms at the Solano clinic, she was told that the baby could not be seen in that clinic since she and her siblings now resided in Yolo County with the Riveras.

A frustrated Rivera was advised to go to a clinic in her county of residence, which she did the next day. There she was told that the Yolo clinic could not see the baby either, since as a newborn, she was still on her mother’s MediCal health insurance in Solano County. According to the intake staff at the clinic, Rivera would need to visit a clinic back in Solano County.

When handing over the baby two days after her birth at the hospital in Solano County, the infant’s social worker gave the Riveras her essential paperwork, including the relative foster care placement papers, which they signed. The mother’s MediCal information was absent from the file, a fact the Riveras didn’t learn until they needed it for the Yolo clinic visit.

“The worker should have known that since we lived in a different county, there might be trouble with [the MediCal card] but I don’t know if she knew,” Rivera said.

When she called the worker to untangle the mess, the worker said she did not know how to resolve the problem, and would have to check with her supervisor and get back to her.

“We kept going back and forth to the clinics,” Rivera said. “I called and called the worker until she fixed it.”

The baby was finally seen by a doctor at the clinic in Yolo County, a week after her original appointment.


OUT-OF-COUNTY KIN CARE

As the Riveras discovered when they were ping-ponged between clinics, living in a different county than the one in which your foster children originally resided means an array of complications that go well beyond the expected difficulties of dealing with the state’s overwhelmed foster care system.

While Aaron Crutison of Solano County Child Welfare could not speak about a particular case, when told of the Riveras’ frustration in trying to navigate the two county health care systems, he acknowledged the system has challenges.

“We do all we can to make sure that does not happen,” Crutison said.

Waiting nine months for their home to be approved to receive the children was difficult for the Riveras, as they felt the children needed to be with family after what they had been through. While they did not know the details, they understood that the cause of removal was neglect.

“My brother had told me some things, but I didn’t know the whole story,” Rivera said. “But I knew it wasn’t a good environment.”

In addition to the bureaucratic mix-up at the clinics, the Riveras have faced multiple challenges imposed by the distance between their home in Yolo County and the children’s home county of Solano, both during the nine-month-long relative caregiver approval process, and now while they have the children in their care.

For instance, while the Riveras waited for the wheels to turn so the children could be placed with them, the siblings were split up into two different foster homes in Solano County. Anxious to provide their nieces and nephews with some sort of emotional continuity, they traveled over an hour each way to visit the children as often as they were allowed to visit and could manage with their own schedules.

Now that the four children, and the baby, are finally living with them, Rivera drives the same distance once a week to deliver her nieces and nephews for visits with their parents.

In addition, after the children were placed in their home, the kids’ social worker told the Riveras about something called the Foster and Kinship Care Education program in Solano County. Sensing she needed some kind of support, Rivera went to one of the meetings. “It took me an hour to get there, and the meeting was a couple hours, then I had to drive home. It took up the whole day.”

When the children were assigned to a new social worker this past May, she told the Riveras about the Foster and Kinship Care Education program at Woodland Community College near their home in Yolo County. Rivera attends as often as she can, and says that she wishes she had known about it earlier as she gets a lot of support from the staff and fellow relative caregivers who attend the program.


UNEQUAL FOSTER CARE FUNDING FOR RELATIVES

In the spring of 2014, when the children and the baby were placed with the Riveras, relative caregivers did not receive the same level of funding that non-relative foster parents received. The state provided no foster care support to relatives of children who were not eligible for federal foster care support, which accounts for one-third of California’s foster children.

Relatives caring for children who were not eligible for federal foster care support were told to apply on their own for CalWorks and food stamps.

The Riveras did so, and found the process “very frustrating and confusing.” Moreover, as they live “more or less paycheck to paycheck,” the couple hundred dollars per month they received for each child left them struggling to pay for the children’s needs.

Things improved in June 2014 when, thanks in large part to a statewide advocacy effort led by the Step Up for Kin coalition, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the Approved Relative Caregiver Funding Option Program. Also known as ARC, the program provides relative caregivers financial support equal to the basic foster care benefits. (It does not pay for specialized care, something that the coalition is working to change.)

“I am very happy that Solano County opted in to this program,” Rivera said. The Riveras finally began receiving the basic foster care rate for each child earlier this summer after the children had been in their home for more than a year.

Inequities still exist, however, as not all counties have opted into the program. Relative caregivers whose foster children originate from one of the 15 counties that have not opted in do not get the ARC dollars even if they themselves live in a county that has accepted the ARC option.


REUNIFICATION AND PERMANENCY

Rivera’s brother and his girlfriend are attending counseling, working to reunify with their children, and have recently asked Rivera to be their “support person” if the children are returned to them.

She was very glad to agree to do that since she wants to remain involved in the children’s lives. As a relative who stepped in during a time of crisis, she does not feel prepared for the children to leave her home.

“When you’re a foster parent, you’re more mentally prepared for it when the children come to you and when they go back home,” Rivera said. “But when you’re family, you can’t believe it when it happens. It’s a shock. It’s like they’re your own children.”

“I love them” she said, “and I’m going to miss them.”

For now, Rivera enjoys watching the younger children run to the older ones when they come home from preschool.

“They need each other,” she said. “We wanted to keep them together, in spite of the struggles, and we have.”


Melinda Clemmons is a reporter and the Marketing Manager for The Chronicle of Social Change.

* The names of the relative caregivers and a few details in this story have been changed to protect the identity of the children in their care.

Meiling Bedard and Maria Akhter contributed to the data visualization for this story.

Posted in Foster Care | No Comments »

The Lost Boys, the Roanoke Shooting, Lawsuits Against LASD Members, San Bernardino DA’s Office Swears in Two K-9s

August 27th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

UNDOCUMENTED BOYS AND THE JUSTICE SYSTEM

A CA bill would protect juvenile justice system-involved immigrant children from being deported by banning the unauthorized disclosure of kids’ records to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement without a court order.

The bill, AB-899, authored by CA Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael), awaits Governor Jerry Brown’s signature.

While county probation departments have been cutting back on how many undocumented kids they refer to ICE, advocates and immigration attorneys say this practice of reporting minors violates children’s civil rights, and contradicts the state juvenile justice system’s rehabilitative objectives of keeping kids in their communities, connected with their families, and acting in the best interest of children.

In Orange County, kids in juvenile hall who are suspected of being undocumented, can be interrogated by ICE agents without their parents of legal representation. The kids are not told of their right to a lawyer, phone call, or trial by judge before they are subjected to the interrogation.
Then, the children’s statements are often used against them during deportation hearings.

During deportation proceedings, kids are taken from their families and communities and sent to group homes and federal detention facilities across the nation.

Part one of four-part series by the Voice of the OC’s Yvette Cabrera about undocumented boys’ contact with the criminal justice system, tells the story of a 14-year-old referred to ICE and taken from the OC all the way to Texas, without informing his mother of his location. Here’s a clip:

One young man who is part of this generation of boys agreed to share his story, and with his mother’s consent and participation allowed a Voice of OC reporter to follow his case over nearly a three-year-period as it proceeded in immigration court. Since he is a minor in the juvenile justice system, the Voice of OC is using the pseudonym of Alex, for the minor, and Marisa for his mother to protect the minor’s privacy.

In the summer of 2012, immigration authorities entered Orange County’s juvenile hall and took Alex, then a 14-year-old, into federal custody and allowed him to make one phone call to his mother, Marisa.

The ICE agents told him he might be sent to a Texas facility, but Alex told Marisa over the phone that he knew little else about where he was headed.

She was in disbelief.

Her son had landed in juvenile hall after bringing a pocket knife to school, but she couldn’t understand how Alex ended up in the hands of immigration authorities.

She feared the worst — that Alex would be immediately deported to Mexico, where he was born.

A native of Mexico, Marisa, who is now 36, was 17 when she became pregnant with Alex. But at the time her relationship with her boyfriend had turned so violent, she almost miscarried. When Alex was nearly three-years-old, she took him and fled her physically abusive partner and crossed illegally into the United States.

She was determined to create a new life in California, but ended up falling into two other abusive relationships.

Alex witnessed his mother being abused, and experienced physical abuse at the hands of his mother’s partners as well. The consequences of his turbulent childhood would emerge early on, but Marisa never imagined when Alex began acting out in school that it would one day lead to his possible deportation.

When ICE agents placed Alex in custody in August 2012, Marisa was still undocumented, without a driver’s license and fearful that any contact with federal immigration authorities would lead to her own deportation.

“I felt awful,” she said in Spanish, pausing to catch her breath as the upsetting memory of that day washed over her. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to go see him in Texas.”

Immediately after the call from Alex, Marisa began to scour the Internet, searching for group homes that house refugee immigrant children and those in deportation proceedings. But she could not find him. She called an ICE facility in Los Angeles – only to learn that Alex was no longer there.

“Nobody would tell me where my son was,” said Marisa, wiping away tears. “It was horrible. I stayed up all night asking myself, ‘Where can he be?’”

Marisa’s struggle to find her son was the beginning of a much more difficult ordeal: Trying to keep federal immigration authorities from deporting him so that he could return home to Orange County, where he had spent the majority of his childhood.

Read on.

In part two of the series, Cabrera zeros in on the debate about whether federal immigration law and policy trumps state and local law meant to protect kids and their juvenile records, and the groups that are wading into the battle. Here’s a clip:

The law, California’s Welfare and Institution Code section 827, states that unless special permission from a juvenile court is granted, only a limited and specified group of individuals from the state’s juvenile justice system is given authority to inspect a minor’s case files. Among those authorized are the district attorney, child protective agencies, or law enforcement officers who are “actively participating in criminal or juvenile proceedings involving the minor.”

Section 827 does not include ICE or any other federal immigration authorities.

The Orange County Probation Department cites the federal law, Section 1373 of Title 8 in the U.S. Code, as its legal authority to communicate with immigration authorities.

According to the law, state and local entities can’t prohibit or restrict communication with ICE, nor prohibit or restrict any government entity or official from sending information to ICE or receiving information from ICE regarding the citizenship or immigration status of an individual.

Catherine E. Stiver, Orange County Probation Department’s division director for juvenile court services, oversaw the most recent revisions to the department’s ICE referrals, including changes in 2012 that cited the federal law for the first time.

Under the authority of Section 1373, Stiver said there is no need for immigration authorities to request a special juvenile court order to grant ICE access to a juvenile’s court files or personal information.

“The [juvenile] court cannot dictate what we release and receive from ICE,” said Stiver.

Probation spokesman Edward Harrison added that the federal law supersedes state laws, including the provisions in the Welfare and Institutions Code regarding juvenile confidentiality.

“The U.S. code, like the Constitution, supersedes state code and local ordinances. That’s the law over the land,” said Harrison, who also serves as the agency’s director of communications and research.

But some legal scholars and immigration attorneys throughout California disagree that federal immigration law preempts California’s juvenile confidentiality laws. On the contrary, they say, federal law recognizes the importance of protecting the privacy of juvenile court records, including from other federal agencies.

“Neither Congress nor the Supreme Court has ever recognized any broad exception that would allow state and local agencies to breach confidentiality to share information with federal immigration authorities, particularly when such information sharing would pose a detriment to the child,” stated a 2013 report published by UC Irvine School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic on this issue.

[SNIP]

Los Angeles immigration attorney Kristen Jackson of the Public Counsel pro bono law firm said she discovered in some of her Orange County cases that her clients’ immigration court files were “chock full” of confidential juvenile court documents.

In those cases, Jackson sent ICE letters warning the agency that the documents were released in violation of California law, and as result the government did not submit the documents in immigration court. The issue, she pointed out, is that the documents will remain a part of the individual’s immigration file for the rest of his or her life.

“So it may start with this, but it doesn’t end with this,” said Jackson.


SHOULD THE MEDIA SHARE GRAPHIC KILLINGS LIKE THAT OF JOURNALIST ALISON PARKER AND VIDEOGRAPHER ADAM WARD IN VIRGINIA?

On Wednesday Vester Lee Flanagan II, a one-time WDBJ-TV reporter in Roanoke, VA, shot and killed former journalist colleague Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, during an interview on live television. The woman Parker was interviewing, Vicki Gardner, was also shot, but underwent emergency surgery and is expected to survive.

Flanagan led police on a chase, at the end of which, he shot himself.

Flanagan, who went by the name Bryce Williams, recorded the horrific shooting from several different angles and reportedly posted the footage on Facebook. Many others, including the media, started circulating the graphic videos. But should TV stations, news sites, and other media members continue to show the disturbing footage?

NPR’s David Folkenflik has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Viewers of the morning show for WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Va., actually watched the deadly shootings of reporter Alison Parker and videographer Adam Ward. And they watched it live, unexpectedly, without warning. So did the program’s anchors, who were themselves shocked, initially uncomprehending, appalled.

Others quickly grabbed that footage from WDBJ-TV and posted it online and on the air. CNN, for example, rebroadcast a portion of the station’s video, including the shootings and a fleeting glimpse of the shooter. Anchors told viewers the network would only show it once an hour. MSNBC and Fox News do not appear to have aired the actual shots. By the middle of the day, CNN said it would hold off on showing the footage again.

The decision to air or share such material has to be a conscious choice. Often it is not. So do we, as viewers, have to think hard about what we choose to consume.

The Roanoke station where Parker and Ward worked has decided not to rebroadcast it.

“We are choosing not to run the video of that right now because, frankly, we don’t need to see it again,” Jeffrey Marks, WDBJ’s station manager, said on the air Wednesday morning. Marks’ rending observations, and those of his colleagues processing the deaths in public view, admirably sought to present well-rounded pictures of the two journalists. The station and its staffers tweeted out tributes, even as they continued to report the story.

And, the NY Times’ has a thorough report on the incident. Here’s a clip:

The shooting and the horrifying images it produced marked a new chapter in the intersection of video, violence and social media.

The day began with the most mundane of early-morning interviews. Ms. Parker and Mr. Ward were working on a story for WDBJ about the 50th anniversary of Smith Mountain Lake, a reservoir tucked among farms and rolling mountains that is popular with anglers, kayakers and sunbathers. They stood on a balcony of Bridgewater Plaza, a shopping and office complex on the lakeshore, talking with Vicki Gardner, executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Around 6:45 a.m., the shooting began.

The station’s own disturbing video shows Ms. Parker screaming and stumbling backward as the shots ring out and a set of jumbled images as the camera falls to the floor. Eight shots can be heard before the broadcast cut back to the stunned anchor at the station, Kimberly McBroom.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Flanagan wrote on Twitter, “I filmed the shooting see Facebook,” and a shocking 56-second video recording, which appeared to be taken by a body camera worn by the gunman, was posted to his Facebook page. It showed him waiting until the journalists were on air before raising a handgun and firing at point-blank range, ensuring that it would be seen, live or recorded, by thousands.

Both social media accounts used the name he was known by on television, Bryce Williams, and both were shut down within hours of the shooting.

Ms. Parker, 24, a reporter, and Mr. Ward, 27, a cameraman, both white, were pronounced dead at the scene. Ms. Gardner was wounded and underwent emergency surgery, but was expected to survive. Mr. Flanagan shot and killed himself hours later after being cornered by the police on a highway about 200 miles away.


LAWSUITS AGAINST LASD MEMBERS CAN MOVE FORWARD, SAYS APPEALS COURT

On Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that three LA County Sheriff’s Department members can be held liable in two separate lawsuits brought by Francisco Carillo and Frank O’Connell whose wrongful murder convictions cost them 20 and 27 years behind bars, respectively.

Carillo is suing former deputy Craig Ditsch, for pressuring a witness to falsely identify Carillo, who was 16 at the time, as the drive-by shooter who killed Donald Sarpy.

O’Connell, who was convicted of killing Jay French in 1984, is suing former homicide detectives J.D. Smith and Gilbert Parra for allegedly withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense.

Carillo’s attorney, Ron Kaye told the LA Times that he didn’t believe any of the three LASD employees were ever disciplined.

The LA Times’ Maura Dolan has the story. Here’s a clip:

Frank O’Connell, convicted of killing Jay French in 1984, won his release in 2012 after spending 27 years behind bars. L.A. County Superior Court Judge Suzette Clover found that sheriff’s detectives had failed to disclose exonerating information to either the prosecution or the defense.

O’Connell later sued former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department homicide detectives J.D. Smith and Gilbert Parra, alleging that they had refused to reveal evidence impeaching the statements of three eyewitnesses as well as information about a previous attempt on the victim’s life.

Francisco Carrillo Jr., in a separate lawsuit, also said the department failed to disclose information about the reliability of an eyewitness in his case. Eyewitness testimony is a leading cause of wrongful convictions.

Carrillo was convicted of killing Donald Sarpy in a 1991 drive-by shooting. Carrillo was 16 at the time and served 20 years in prison.

In his lawsuit, Carrillo charged that former Deputy Craig Ditsch knew that an eyewitness had trouble identifying Carrillo and tried to pressure the witness when he decided to recant.

L.A. County Superior Court Judge Paul A. Bacigalupo ordered Carrillo’s release in 2011 after concluding the eyewitness testimony against him was false, tainted or both.

Attorneys for the sheriff’s employees argued that the lawsuits should be dismissed because the law was unclear in 1984 and 1991 as to whether police had to disclose evidence exonerating innocence.

Members of law enforcement have immunity from lawsuits when their actions did not violate an established law.

The 9th Circuit, citing Brady vs. Maryland, the 1963 Supreme Court decision that required disclosure of exculpatory evidence, said the authorities should have known of the requirement.


SAN BERNARDINO DA’S OFFICER SWEARS IN TWO DOGS TO COMFORT VICTIMIZED KIDS TAKING THE WITNESS STAND

The San Bernardino District Attorney’s Office has sworn in its first two K-9s as part of the Special Victims Unit. The two black Labradors, Lupe and Dozer, are specifically trained to comfort kids who have witnessed or been victims of violence while they give testimony or take the witness stand.

The San Bernardino Press-Enterprise’s Gail Wesson has the story. Here’s a clip:

With a paw atop a state Penal Code book and a black, hairy chin on another copy, the first two K-9s were sworn in and received their star badges as members of San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos’ Special Victims Unit in a Friday ceremony.

The four-legged so-called facility dogs will enhance his office’s ability to “see justice for the most vulnerable victims, our children,” Ramos said during the event where K-9s, Dozer and Lupe, mostly sprawled out comfortably on the floor, while keeping an eye on the cameras and their victim advocate handlers.

More than two years in development, the district attorney’s office is partnering with nonprofit New Mexico-based Assistance Dogs of the West, which supplied K-9s and handler training, and Washington state-based Courthouse Dogs Foundation for educating the legal community.

[SNIP]

They will be called upon to help in interview and courtroom testimony situations, primarily with children but are available for adults too. Ramos said of child victims, “Some of them have suffered tremendous physical abuse, some of them tremendous sexual abuse and some have lost their lives.” The aim is to help witnesses be comfortable as they testify in order to get cases prosecuted in court.

“Our main goal is to greatly reduce the understandable fears that a child has about entering the courtroom,” Ramos said in a written statement.

Posted in immigration, juvenile justice, LASD | No Comments »

Money for Diversion, Solitary Confinement Pt. 3, Video of LASD Lakewood Shooting, and Rehabilitating Locked-Up Women

August 26th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

LA COUNTY BOARD OF SUPES, PROBATION DEPARTMENT CLASH OVER FUNDING FOR DIVERSION PROGRAM

On Tuesday, Sept. 1, the LA County Board of Supervisors is slated to re-vote on a jail building plan, after the original vote was found to be in violation of the state’s open meetings law. On the agenda, it was attached to a program to divert the county’s mentally ill from jails, which will also be reconsidered Sept. 1.

In the meantime, a disagreement about how the board plans to fund the diversion plan has arisen.

Over a period of five years, the LA County Probation Department has received $200 million in state money allocated to help keep people with felony convictions from getting locked up for certain probation violations.

The Supes want to redirect half of the state money from Senate Bill 678 to set up and run the planned Office of Diversion and Reentry which would be under the county’s Health Services Department.

But LA County Probation Chief Jerry Powers argues that SB 678 money is intended solely for probation programs, and that if the Supes get their way, it would likely be to the detriment of future probation program funding.

The LA County Supes have already set aside $30 million in county money, but had banked on about $100 million in additional state funding. The probation chief says he is willing to help the board come up with money from somewhere else. And Supe Mark Ridley Thomas says he believes the board is committed enough to this comprehensive diversion program that they will find another source of funding if necessary.

We’ll keep you updated on the issue.

The LA Times’ Abby Sewell has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Probation chief Jerry Powers has protested, saying the money must go to his department and be spent on felony probationers. In a letter to county supervisors, Powers warned the board’s plan “would likely jeopardize future [state] funding” for a wide range of programs.

State officials echoed Powers’ concerns and said they have raised the issue with county leaders.

“We have always understood [money authorized by Senate Bill 678] to be a probation program, and the dollars in the program are calculated based on the number of people that probation is keeping out of prison or jail,” said Diane Cummins, a special assistant to Gov. Jerry Brown. “It seems clear in the statute that the money has to go to probation.”

The new diversion office would be part of the county’s Health Services Department, not the probation department.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who proposed the new diversion program, said the issue is being reviewed by county attorneys.

“We rely on legal opinions rather than that which is being asserted by a given department head,” he said.

Ridley-Thomas said even if the state money can’t be used for the new diversion office, the board’s “commitment to diversion is so high that I suspect the board members will be motivated to find the necessary resources to fund” the program.


THE STATE OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT IN NEW YORK

The final story in a three-part NPR series on solitary confinement in the US focuses a lens on New York, where major efforts (and lawsuits) have been changing when and how long prisons can hold inmates in isolation cells.

NPR’s Brian Mann takes a look at both sides of the debate. On one side, the head of the NY prison guard’s union, Mike Powers, says the solitary confinement is an indispensable deterrent and is used strategically by officers to keep prisons safe.

On the other side, reform advocates say isolation is inappropriately used as a “default mechanism,” and that studies on the issue suggest solitary confinement can cause serious psychological damage.

(Here’s where we linked to part one and part two.)

Here’s a clip:

“Our SHUs are not the dungeons that people portray them to be,” Powers says…

“I don’t know how many times I’ve had an offender, an inmate, tell me that ‘I’m not going back in there, Powers. You can count on that,’ ” he says.

This is the debate happening across the U.S. Many corrections officers see solitary confinement as a normal practice, relied on for decades.

Reform advocates say isolation is used far too often. They point to the fact that many of the 4,500 inmates held in New York’s isolation cells before last year’s agreement were teenagers, pregnant women and inmates who committed minor infractions.

“Five out of six offenses that lead people into solitary are for nonviolent ticket infractions, like excessive bearding or having too many stamps,” says Five Mualimm-ak, now a reform activist, who spent 11 years behind bars on weapons charges, including five years in solitary. The figures come from a New York Civil Liberties report released in 2012.

“Socially, it made me numb. I felt like I was stripped of all the skills I was used to using on a human-being level,” Mualimm-ak says.

Solitary confinement is getting a second look from politicians as part of a general shift away from tough crime policies and because studies show isolation can harm inmates’ mental health and lead to more crime once they’re released. In a statement, New York’s acting corrections commissioner, Anthony Annucci, said the reform effort here will make prisons “more humane.”

But with details of New York’s new policy still being hashed out, Soffiyah Elijah with a pro-reform group called the Correctional Association worries that opposition from prison guards will block significant change.

“It’s the No. 1 hurdle because they are on the front line, they’re given amazing discretion to abusively use the ability to put somebody in solitary confinement, and it’s their default mechanism,” Elijah says.


VIDEO RELEASED OF CONTROVERSIAL LASD LAKEWOOD SHOOTING OF MENTALLY ILL MAN – QUESTIONS STILL REMAIN

On July 6 in Lakewood, Los Angeles County deputies shot and killed John Berry, a 31-year-old mentally ill man who had likely gone off his medication.

John’s brother, Chris Berry, a federal law enforcement officer, saw the whole thing. He was the one who called the cops on John. Chris says that when he requested a mental evaluation team, which would have included a mental health care professional, he was told deputies would be responding instead.

Berry’s family has released video captured by a witness at the scene that has been included as evidence in a civil trial.

Deputies say Berry rammed his car head-on into a patrol car, pinning an officer between the two cars before the witness started filming. His family says he didn’t hit the patrol car. They say the video depicts deputies peppering Berry with bullets as he is backing up in the car.

The LA Times’ Corina Knoll and Rubin Vives have the story. Here’s a clip:

But Berry was not himself and appeared to be off his medication July 4 when he showed up at home upset that he had lost his job. He called the police to complain that he wasn’t being allowed access to the belongings in his room. When a deputy arrived, Berry gathered some possessions and left the house he shared with his mother, sister, brother and a niece.

Two days later, Berry reappeared at the house, parking his car on the front lawn. His older brother went out to talk to him.

“He was sitting in the driver’s seat of his BMW,” Chris Berry, 37, recalled. “I could tell he hadn’t slept in a while.”

Chris Berry, a federal police officer who works at a facility with two psychiatric hospitals, said he called the Lakewood sheriff’s station and asked that a mental evaluation team be dispatched. He was informed that deputies would be sent instead.

The deputies who arrived were immediately aggressive and escalated the situation, Chris Berry said. He said he watched as they unleashed pepper spray, shot his brother with a Taser at least four times and struck him with batons. His brother, he recalled, looked stunned and cried, “What did I do wrong?”

“They said he accelerated and crashed into the police car. That did not happen — I was there for the whole thing,” Chris Berry said. “But they have to say that because it justifies their aggressive actions.… I believe in my heart and I know Johnny wasn’t trying to hurt them.”

Chris Berry said that as a law enforcement officer, he is pained to be mixed up in what feels like a family fight. “I called one brother to help another brother and…” He stopped, unable to finish the sentence.

The family hopes the release of the video will hold the department accountable while also forcing law enforcement agencies to rethink how they interact with the mentally ill.


LONGREAD: WOMEN IN PRISON FIND HEALING AND PURPOSE THROUGH EDUCATIONAL AND THERAPEUTIC PROGRAMS

The Desert Sun’s Anna Rumer has a great longread about redemption for incarcerated women (often victims themselves) in California detention facilities, and the programs that helped them change their trajectories. Here’s how it opens (but do read the whole thing):

Looking at Danielle Barcheers, it’s impossible to imagine her as a killer.

The perky 34-year-old often wears a smile and makes repeated apologies for the “mess” in her spotless cell. She comes off like a beam of light amid the 1,640 women serving time at the California Institution for Women in northern Corona.

She’s come a long way. In 1997, 15-year-old Barcheers became the youngest girl in California at the time to be tried and convicted as an adult after helping murder her boyfriend’s grandmother.

Sentenced to 25 years to life, politicians bragged about locking away a child they considered an uncorrectable bad seed — a distinction Barcheers found herself believing for a long time.

But in the 18 years since she first said goodbye to her physical freedom, she’s found another way to free herself and other women as a mentor and certified drug counselor.

Most of these women were victims themselves, prison counselors say — victims of addiction, physical abuse, sexual violence and broken homes. But somewhere along the way, they became the victimizers.

Since Barcheers was sentenced, she’s seen a 180-degree change in the political attitude about rehabilitation. Today, prison officials look to education, counseling and social programs to help provide the women their greatest opportunity to escape the cycle of violence.

Of those who are given a second chance, only half will make enough of a change to leave behind the mistakes and traumas that haunt them. But others find hope.

Barcheers may never banish the ghosts of her past completely, but she has made peace with them and, for the first time in her life, herself.

Posted in LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LASD, solitary | 16 Comments »

“Evolution of a Criminal,” Solitary Confinement Pt. 2, LAPD Community Guardians, and the Beneficiaries of Prop 47

August 25th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

Darius Clark Monroe was a 16-year-old honors student in Texas until he robbed a bank with a shotgun in a foolish attempt to bring his family out of extreme financial hardship.

In an award-winning PBS documentary, filmmaker Darius Monroe talks about the circumstances that led to his decision and asks his victims for forgiveness.

As a teenager, Darius says he did not think of the repercussions when he robbed the bank: the psychological harm done to the bank employees and customers present for the robbery, and the pain inflicted upon his tight-knit family and upon himself.

You can watch the whole documentary on PBS’ website until Sept. 11.


NEW MEXICO EXPERIMENTS WITH EFFORTS TO REDUCE USE OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT IN PRISONS

The second installment in a three-part NPR series on solitary confinement in US prisons takes a look at the prison system in New Mexico where officials are working to reverse the state’s overuse of isolation. New Mexico has made real progress: 6% of the prison population is in solitary confinement this year, compared with 10% in 2013. But as the numbers creep lower, the task becomes more challenging, says Gregg Marcantel, head of New Mexico’s prison system. (We pointed to the first here.)

Here’s a clip from Natasha Haverty’s story for NPR:

In New Mexico, many low-risk inmates were moved out of solitary. The men still housed in isolation can now earn their way out in nine months with good behavior. That’s still more time in solitary than most reform advocates and most mental health experts support, but not so long ago, New Mexico’s solitary unit was packed with inmates who were thrown into cells “and then we really had no clear-cut way to get them out of there,” says Gregg Marcantel, head of New Mexico’s prison system. He says when he came in as corrections secretary four years ago, that heavy reliance on solitary had been unquestioned for decades.

“It’s very, very easy to overuse segregation. I mean, for a guy like me it’s safe, right? It’s safe — if these prisons are quiet, I don’t get fired,” he says.

One of Marcantel’s new programs gives prisoners the chance to live in a more open group setting if they swear off their gang affiliations.

For corrections leaders like Marcantel trying to change the system, it’s a struggle to get it right. None of his reforms get rid of solitary. He says he can’t see it ever going away.

“But i­n a perfect world, one that maybe involves unicorns, yeah, I would love to get rid of it,” he says.

So far, New Mexico’s first steps toward change seem to be working. Two years ago, 10 percent of the state’s prison population was in solitary. That’s down to 6 percent this year.


LAPD: THE TRANSITION FROM “WARRIORS” TO “GUARDIANS”

The Los Angeles Police Department is conducting a series of five-hour training (or retraining) sessions in the wake of controversial officer-involved shootings in LA and across the nation.

The LA Times’ Kate Mather sat in on some of the LAPD training lectures, which emphasized replacing the “warrior” culture of the 70′s and 80′s with a mindset shift to “guardian” of communities. (WLA pointed to another story exploring this issue here.)

Here are some clips from Mathers’ story:

“We were warriors,” Deputy Chief Bill Scott recently told a room filled with LAPD rank-and-file officers, a group of fresh-faced rookies watching from the front.

Now, he said, officers need to think of themselves as guardians watching over communities — not warriors cracking down on them.

“That means if we’ve got to take somebody to jail, we’ll take them to jail,” Scott said. “But when we need to be empathetic and we need to be human, we’ve got to do that too.”

[SNIP]

The five-hour lectures in Los Angeles have covered matters such as the way officers should interact with people who are mentally ill, how they can build community trust, when they are permitted to curse while dealing with the public and why they should avoid walking with a swagger. Department brass emphasized that public perceptions of police can be influenced by the way officers treat residents during their daily work.

Scott warned one group assembled at a department pistol range that the brash attitudes some officers have — “I’m the cop, you’re not” — can appear disrespectful. “That’s one of the biggest problems that we have,” he said. “How we talk to people.”

In an Eastside auditorium, Deputy Chief Jose Perez told a crowd of Hollenbeck officers that just because department policy allowed them to curse at uncooperative suspects — the LAPD calls it “tactical language” — they shouldn’t automatically use foul language when walking up to someone.

“It doesn’t let you go up to them, when you’re getting out of the car, and you go: ‘Hey … come here,’” Perez said, using a profanity. “We use it because we have to, not because you can or because you want to.”

When and how officers should use force was another key focus. Police were reminded to be patient with people who may be mentally ill and to try to build a dialogue in an effort to avoid using force to take them into custody.

In one session, officers were implored to carry less-lethal devices such as a Taser or beanbag shotgun in their patrol cars, so the option is always available. The department does not require all officers to carry less-lethal devices.

Last week, the LA Times’ Patt Morrison interviewed Deputy Chief Bill Murphy on the evolution of training within the department. (WLA linked to it here.)


PROP 47 IS HELPING FORMER OFFENDERS BREAK FROM STIGMA OF FELONIES

During her 20s, Sholanda Jackson was incarcerated 13 times because of an addiction Sholanda’s mother sparked by giving her crack cocaine as a teenager.

A poster child for rehabilitation, Sholanda has now been sober 11 years, has a degree, and works at a non-profit.

Thanks to California’s Proposition 47, which reclassified certain non-serious felonies as misdemeanors, former offenders like Sholanda are receiving a second chance—one that will free them from the stigma of old felony convictions, and help them secure employment, as well as government assistance.

KQED’s Marisa Lagos has more on the issue, including the story of Sofala Mayfield, another former felon who received a second chance through Prop 47. Here’s a clip:

His life began to fall apart in his teens, after his grandmother suffered a stroke and his mother fell back into drug addiction. After a series of minor run-ins with the law as a teenager, he was convicted of felony theft two years ago for stealing an iPhone.

Mayfield has three younger siblings that live with him. But he said when he got out of jail, he couldn’t find a job.

“I didn’t get any calls back, I would call them back — our hiring manager’s not in, you know. I just had a feeling that’s what it was, just me having the felony on my record and stuff,” he said.

At the urging of his probation officer, Mayfield called the public defender’s office and asked if he would qualify to reduce his felony to a misdemeanor under Prop. 47. Within a month, a court had approved the change.

He now has two jobs, is helping support his family and hopes to go to culinary school.

“I was just very grateful,” he said.

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