Prison Tech, Prez Nominates Deputy Mayor for US Attorney, Disabled in Isolation, Public Defenders’ Unconscious BiasFebruary 5th, 2015 by Taylor Walker
SMUGGLED CELL PHONES CONNECT PRISONERS WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD…PLUS SAN QUENTIN’S CODING CLASS
A three part series for Fusion by Kevin Roose and Pendarvis Harshaw explores digital tech issues in the criminal justice system.
Part one takes a look at the seemingly limitless flow of contraband cell phones, which inmates use for everything from to coordinating hunger strikes between prisons, to checking in with loved ones, to recording comedic vine videos. Here are some clips:
A month-long Fusion investigation turned up dozens of social media profiles of inmates currently serving time in several states, many of whom were frequent users of the services in question. Some inmates appeared to be accessing the Internet through proxies – a family member who had the inmate’s Facebook password, for example, and was using the account to relay messages – while other inmates appeared to be accessing the sites directly from their cells.
“Been on lock down for two weeks…going into the third week. Letters would be great. Money would be a blessing. If I have to choke down one more bologna sandwich I think I might snap….,” wrote one Facebook user last October. The user, whose name matches that of a current federal prisoner in West Virginia, appears to have posted to his Facebook profile from two other prisons where he was previously housed.
“Hello everyone, wanted to say hi and let u know I’m currently on an extended lock-down,” wrote another federal inmate, who is serving time for armed robbery at a high-security facility in Texas. “Dont worry I’m nit [sic] in trouble the lock-down is due to a big incident that happened between two gangs at my location,” the inmate wrote….
Other social networks, too, are filled with evidence of contraband activity. One Vine user, who goes by “Acie Bandage,” has posted dozens of six-second videos of himself and his fellow inmates dancing, goofing off, and doing impersonations from their prison cells. (The user wraps a bandage around his face during the videos to disguise his identity — click here to see more of his videos, which are really quite something.)
Beyond the pragmatic safety issues, there are philosophical questions about the role digital culture should play in the criminal justice system. In 2015, as technology forms the base layer of culture, communication, and education, is it cruel and unusual to cut prisoners off from the entire online universe? What’s the role of technology in rehabilitation? If the purpose of a prison is to restrict an offender’s movement and keep him from causing further harm to the general population, should those restrictions apply just to the physical body? Or should his virtual self be imprisoned, too?
The second story explores the issue of teaching inmates technology in prison, for job seeking purposes, and also so that they can more easily reenter their digitally-connected communities.
Roose and Harshaw focus on Code 7370, a coding program put on by the Last Mile, in partnership with Hack Reactor and the California Prison Industry Authority. While the vocational program at San Quentin State Prison does not directly connect participants to the internet, their completed coursework is tested on an administrator’s computer and projected onto a screen. And although there do not seem to be many pre-release programs to teach inmates the basic tech skills they will need to thrive on the outside, yet, the calls for such training are growing louder. Here’s a clip:
For former inmates, the transition out of prison and into the 21st century can be jarring. Many newly paroled inmates, especially those who served long sentences, have never sent an e-mail, used a smartphone, or filled out an online form. The unfamiliarity of these systems can create hurdles when it comes to mundane tasks, such as buying groceries from the self-checkout aisle at the store or using an electronic subway pass. And when it comes to applying for jobs, small hurdles can turn into huge obstacles.
The post-prison lives of inmates are rarely easy, technology problems or no. 77 percent of ex-convicts are arrested again within a 5 year period of being released, according to a study conducted by the Bureau of Justice. But numerous studies have shown that vocational training and educational opportunities, like those offered by The Last Mile, can help keep ex-inmates from returning to prison. A 2010 study by The Rand Corporation showed that fewer than half of incarcerated people receive academic instruction while behind bars. Those who do receive educational or vocational training, though, are 43 percent less likely to become repeat offenders, and 28 percent more likely to land a job.
One graduate of The Last Mile, Kenyatta Leal, got his first smartphone shortly after being released from San Quentin, where he served the last part of a 19-year sentence for firearms possession. Leal, 46, was no stranger to technology – years before, he’d been given 40 days of isolation in “the hole” as punishment for having a cell phone in prison – but he’d never had a phone capable of downloading apps, streaming music, and sending e-mail. In his new job at RocketSpace, a San Francisco tech co-working space whose founder hired Leal after meeting him in Code 7370, he realized he would need to catch up.
“I didn’t have any tech skills, but I had bust-my-ass skills,” says Leal. “My boss gave me a Galaxy III on my first day, and I took it home, figured out YouTube, and watched, like, four different videos on how to send an e-mail.”
LA DEPUTY MAYOR, EILEEN MAURA DECKER, TAPPED TO BE NEXT US ATTORNEY FOR CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CA
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama nominated Eileen Maura Decker to be US Attorney of California’s Central District. Decker is a former federal prosecutor and currently serves as Los Angeles’ deputy mayor on law enforcement and public safety.
Decker would take the place former US Attorney André Birotte Jr., who was sworn in as the newest judge of the federal District Court in Los Angeles in October.
The Associated Press’ Brian Melley has more on Decker’s nomination and background. Here’s a clip:
Mayor Eric Garcetti credited Decker’s leadership with bringing crime to a historic low in the city, overhauling the fire department and making the city a model for disaster preparedness.
“Our office will miss her work and I will personally miss her, but I am glad that her new position keeps her in the business of keeping L.A. safe,” Garcetti said.
Decker was recommended for the post by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who said she was highly qualified to work with federal, state and local law enforcement in a region of 19 million people that spans from Orange County to San Luis Obispo and the Inland Empire.
Decker, 54, who earned her undergraduate and law degrees from New York University, started her legal career in private practice in 1990.
She worked as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Gary L. Taylor for two years, returned to private practice and then became an assistant U.S. attorney in 1995, where she prosecuted cases involving national security, fraud and organized crime. She also has a master’s degree from the Naval Post Graduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security in Monterey.
FED. JUDGE SEZ STOP WAREHOUSING DISABLED CALIFORNIA PRISONERS IN ISOLATION
An Oakland federal judge has ordered California prisons to discontinue sticking disabled inmates in solitary confinement due to lack of space elsewhere in the facility. Judge Claudia Wilken says a number of state prisons are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but that San Diego’s R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility is the most egregious violator. Wilken is currently hearing a class-action lawsuit against California’s solitary confinement practices.
The LA Times’ Paige St. John has the story. Here’s a clip:
Lawyers for prisoners and the state in 2012 had agreed on a plan to find more suitable housing within the state’s crowded prison system. Even so, Wilken found, prison logs showed 211 disabled inmates had been put in the isolation cells in the past year, spending from one day to one month in the units. Most of those cases were at one prison — R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.
Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the corrections department, said the agency was reviewing the court’s order but otherwise did not comment.
Lawyers for Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, representing the corrections department, argued in court that the problems at the San Diego prison would best be resolved internally by state policy changes.
A corrections department administrator said the housing assignments were temporary as the state copes with unplanned need to move 400 to 600 inmates between prisons every week, some the result of other court orders to relocate prisoners at risk of contracting valley fever or to receive mental health care.
WHEN PUBLIC DEFENDERS GIVE LESS THAN ADEQUATE REPRESENTATION BECAUSE OF THEIR UNCONSCIOUS BIASES
The Sixth Amendment Center’s David Carroll interviews Tigran Eldred, New England Law Professor and former public defender, about what he calls “ethical blindness,” which the prof. says is what happens when well-meaning public defenders are too overloaded to detect when they are giving poor clients subpar representation.
Elgred names three components: confirmation bias—preferring information that validates prior beliefs, motivated reasoning—seeking information that brings preferable answers, and overconfidence bias—misjudging the power to give effective counsel in the face of extreme adversity.
Here’s a clip from the interview:
DC: Okay – let’s try to unpack this for our readers. Are you saying that the demands of excessive caseloads force public defenders into making quick decisions about cases everyday that that they themselves may not be consciously aware of?
TE: That’s basically it. And, the scientific support for this comes from the world of “behavioral ethics.” In particular, three psychological factors are relevant to the excessive caseload discussion. First, we all experience what is known as “confirmation bias.” This is the tendency in all of us to seek out, interpret and remember information in a manner that supports our pre-existing beliefs. The second and related concept is “motivated reasoning.” Not only do we seek to confirm our pre-existing beliefs, but also we do so to reach conclusions that we prefer. Third, because of our general desire to think well of ourselves, we tend to experience an “overconfidence bias,” including the tendency to overestimate our abilities to act competently and ethically when confronted with difficult dilemmas.
All of three of these factors occur unconsciously. We are tricked into believing that our choices are reasoned, even when often they are not. Our brains convince us our quickest decisions are solely the result of conscious and rational deliberation. But all the while we are blissfully unaware of how our pre-existing views, desires and self-conception can influence the judgments and decisions that we make.
DC: So, we need some context here. Can you explain these theories within the specific debate of how public defenders respond to excessive caseloads?
TE: Certainly. I agree with Professor Gross that defenders who have too much work often have only one option: to triage cases. Structurally, they are forced into focusing limited resources on a percentage of cases at the expense of many others – and on those cases that don’t get the same level of focus or resources, you wind up with an assembly line of quick plea dispositions. When this type of triage occurs, the psychological phenomena I have described can be expected to exert significant influence.
For example, by starting with the premise that most cases will need to be disposed of quickly, lawyers will likely engage in confirmatory and motivated reasoning, unconsciously seeking reasons to justify this pre-determined conclusion. This can happen in a number of ways. For example, the lawyer might overestimate the strength of the evidence against the client or underestimate the value of additional investigation. Acts of omission, as Professor Gross notes, can have a profound effect on a case. When the lawyer fails to seek exculpatory material, to interview witnesses or to visit a crime scene – or fails to engage in many other forms of advocacy for a client – the lawyer is essentially confirming the pre-existing belief that no additional work for the client will be helpful.
DC: In studying indigent defense services all across the country, I continually encounter public defenders that tell me that I should not be so dismissive of early resolution courts because they often result in favorable decisions to defendants.
TE: Right, they’re playing the percentages. While in many instances it may be true that the best course of action is a quick plea bargain, it is also true that in many instances it is not. There is a significant chance that the decision to forgo additional work for the client is the product of the type of fast thinking I have described. And then, after the fact the process become self-fulfilling. The lawyer has decided that a quick plea is appropriate without further investigation. So the client is advised to take the plea quickly and the lawyer, laboring under the illusion that the decision was solely the product of rational deliberation, remains convinced of the propriety of the decision — unaware of the subtle psychological forces that conspire to influence the lawyer’s behavior.
Tilgard goes on to explain how to reform indigent defense in a way that will effectively combat these unconscious biases:
TE: This is where the latest post by Mr. Vitale is so critical to the discussion. He suggests that indigent defense reform must occur on three fronts: system-building, public advocacy and culture change. I agree all three are critical to overcoming ethical blindness. Public defenders must work in systems that insulate them from undue political and judicial interference. Without structural independence there is little hope that public defenders can overcome these issues alone.