CHASTENED SUPES RESCHEDULE VOTE FOR LA’S MUCH DISCUSSED (AND OFTEN VOTED ON) BIG BUCKS JAIL BUILDING PLAN
As we reported Tuesday morning, last week’s August 11 vote by the LA County Board of Supervisors to move ahead on a compromise version of the costly and controversial jail rebuilding plan turned out to be ..um…illegal. It seems it was not calendared on the board’s agenda, thus it violated the Brown Act, which guarantees that the public—i.e. the rest of us—will be notified in advance that such a vote is going to take place in order to be able to participate in the decision making process in the form of public comment.
Thus, as of Tuesday, the vote has been scheduled to be re-voted on Sept. 1, complete with plenty of time for public discussion.
We are genuinely curious about what the supervisors thinking in blasting the vote through last week without putting it on the agenda properly. Instead, after multiple years of discussing this puppy, it was rushed through as a sort of rider on another scheduled vote—namely the mental health diversion plan—as if it was simply a minor amendment of no consequence, instead of a hugely controversial multi-year project that will cost upwards of $2 billion.
It didn’t matter that, before the illegal vote, ACLU’s Peter Eliasberg threatened every kind of lawsuit he could think of, and other jail reform advocates threatened similar measures.
But then, on August 13, two days after the vote, District Attorney Jackie Lacey wrote the board a short, pleasant, but very firm letter advising the five Brown Act scofflaws that they’d better fix things. Like, now.
The supes did as they were told. Sort of. They didn’t actually rescind the illegal August 11 vote. Instead, they approved a motion by Supervisor Mike Antonovich to redo the vote legally on the new date, while leaving the old vote on the books in the meantime. The reason for leaving the old vote intact until a new vote could replace it was to avoid missing a strict deadline to apply for $100 million in state money that would help to finance the Mira Loma women’s jail. (Fear of losing the $100 mill was much of the reason the Supes engaged in their tortured efforts to make the legally challenged vote happen in the first place.)
Here’s the letter: Letter to Board of Supervisors
NOTE: This story was updated to correct our earlier erroneous report that the vote had been rescinded in order to reschedule it.
MILITARY VETERANS HELP EACH OTHER HEAL IN A WASHINGTON STATE PRISON
A Washington state prison houses convicted military veterans together, seeking to capitalize on their shared experiences to promote healing and their eventual transition to the outside. Washington is one of the handful of states that have instituted programs where vets are grouped in a special unit. Florida, Oregon, Virginia, and Colorado are some of the others.
Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Washington is one such prison where the process seems tentatively to be working.
Patricia Murphy, reporting for KPCC as part of the KUOW/American Homefront Project, has more on the issue:
Here’s a clip:
“We want to recapture that positive stuff that they learned in the military and them have them apply it to civilian life,” McElravy said.
The 90 or so men move about their unit freely. The walls are painted with armed forces insignia and flags.
The program is attractive to prison officials largely because it doesn’t cost extra money. Inmates with non-violent behavior while in prison are eligible; they work with the State Department of Veterans Affairs to sign up for VA benefits, services and job training.
Inmate Michael Kent began serving time for robbery in 2011 and came to the vets pod a year and a half ago.
“When I came to the pod, people greeted me. I was like, ‘Whoa, something is different here,’” Kent said. A common background helped to foster a sense of responsibility.
“There wasn’t all the politics. There wasn’t all the other garbage to be involved in,” he said. “All they were trying to do is help each other out. “
A story by Matthew Wolfe that ran late last month in the Daily Beast tells of a prison in Virginia with its own veterans’ pod, that is also seeing early intimations of success. Here’s a clip from that story:
Butler County’s Judge McCune, who spent a decade as a prosecutor, admits that veterans do receive treatment that, in a perfect world, would be available to all defendants. But he sees rehabilitating soldiers afflicted with combat trauma as a special moral imperative.
“If you’re willing to give your life to protect your country, we as a society have an obligation to help you deal with some of the problems attached to that service,” he said. “We’re trying not to make the same mistakes we made after Vietnam.”
In Haynesville, each veteran is assigned a position in the dorm. Recently the other inmates voted Corporal Boyd senior coordinator, making him the dorm’s unofficial leader. In previous facilities, Boyd tried to kept his veteran status under wraps—a challenge, as his right shoulder bears a massive tattoo reading “USMC.”
“A lot of guys don’t take kindly to you being in the military,” Boyd said. “A guy might be like, ‘What? You think you’re better than me?’ It’s better to keep quiet.”
In the veterans dorm, though, fights are almost nonexistent. If a conflict between inmates arises, there’s an intervention where everyone sits down and hash it out internally. The mood is calm and the dorm orderly. In the morning, racks are made, shoes squared away. Boyd and another group of vets meet for PTSD group on Thursday. The unit holds veterans from five different wars, and the average age of the dorm is a decade or two older than the inmates in gen pop. Boyd told me the level of trust was such that no one bothered to lock their footlockers.
“Everyone’s on the same page,” Boyd said. “We just want to do our time and go home.”
DOES A NEW YORK PRISON HAVE A “BEAT UP SQUAD?”
The New Times’ Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz have written a very soberly reported story about a group of guards who work in the Fishkill Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Beacon, N.Y., about 60 miles north of New York City, who may have deliberately beat to death a mentally ill inmate this past April.
Here’s a clip from the story’s opening:
On the evening of April 21 in Building 21 at the Fishkill Correctional Facility, Samuel Harrell, an inmate with a history of erratic behavior linked to bipolar disorder, packed his bags and announced he was going home, though he still had several years left to serve on his drug sentence.
Not long after, he got into a confrontation with corrections officers, was thrown to the floor and was handcuffed. As many as 20 officers — including members of a group known around the prison as the Beat Up Squad — repeatedly kicked and punched Mr. Harrell, who is black, with some of them shouting racial slurs, according to more than a dozen inmate witnesses. “Like he was a trampoline, they were jumping on him,” said Edwin Pearson, an inmate who watched from a nearby bathroom.
Mr. Harrell was then thrown or dragged down a staircase, according to the inmates’ accounts. One inmate reported seeing him lying on the landing, “bent in an impossible position.”
“His eyes were open,” the inmate wrote, “but they weren’t looking at anything.”
Corrections officers called for an ambulance, but according to medical records, the officers mentioned nothing about a physical encounter. Rather, the records showed, they told the ambulance crew that Mr. Harrell probably had an overdose of K2, a synthetic marijuana.
He was taken to St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital and at 10:19 p.m. was pronounced dead.
In the four months since, state corrections officials have provided only the barest details about what happened at Fishkill, a medium-security prison in Beacon, N.Y., about 60 miles north of New York City. Citing a continuing investigation by the State Police, officials for weeks had declined to comment on the inmates’ accounts of a beating.
An autopsy report by the Orange County medical examiner, obtained by The New York Times, concluded that Mr. Harrell, 30, had cuts and bruises to the head and extremities and had no illicit drugs in his system, only an antidepressant and tobacco. He died of cardiac arrhythmia, the autopsy report said, “following physical altercation with corrections officers.”
PROVIDING EDUCATION IN PRISON REDUCES RECIDIVISM & SAVES MONEY: SO WHY NOT DO MORE OF IT?
Late last month, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and US Attorney General Loretta Lynch revealed a pilot program to give federal Pell Grants—college grants for low-income students—to thousands of prisoners, reversing a 22-year ban on giving such grants to inmates.
Meanwhile, in California four community colleges are launching classes inside certain state prisons as part of an 18-month, $2 million pilot program starting this fall.
Michelle Chen, writing for the Nation Magazine, points to a 2013 RAND Corporation study, which reported that participation in prison education, including both academic and vocational programming, was associated with a more than 40 percent reduction in recidivism, resulting in $4 to $5 saved, for each dollar spent on educational programs.
So why the resistance to providing more college opportunities inside the nation’s lock-ups?
Here are some clips from Chen’s story:
The plan to extend Pell Grant access in prisons is described as a “limited pilot program” authorized through a federal financial aid waiver program under the Higher Education Act. Incarcerated adults could apply for grants of up to $5,775 for tuition and related expenses, at college-level programs offered in prison facilities nationwide. Designed to allow for studying long-term effects of education on recidivism, the program moves toward restoring access to Pell Grants for incarcerated people, which Congress removed in the mid-1990s.
College behind bars remains a tough sell to some law-and-order conservatives—hence the charmingly titled counter-legislation, the “Kids Before Cons” Act. Generally, however, the idea of de-carcerating the prison population appeals to an ascendant libertarian streak among Republicans because, in fiscal terms, textbooks and professors yield better returns on investment than weight rooms and laundry duty.
But educational interventions may have more profound social impacts. Attending college classes has been associated with improved social climate and communications in the prison population, and “reduced problems with disciplinary infractions,” according to an analysis by the Institute of Higher Education Policy (IHEP). A study on women incarcerated at New York’s Bedford Hills facility was linked to improved family relationships, by demonstrating to family members a commitment to rehabilitation and turning parents into academic “role models.”
This is not simply about turning inmates into good worker bees. As a formidable prison debate team in New York has shown, postsecondary education enhances critical thinking by compelling incarcerated people to channel their often prodigious street smarts into more sophisticated forms of inquiry and analysis.
Glenn Martin, head of the reform group Just Leadership USA, which helped advocate for the Pell Grant initiative along with other decarceration measures, attended college himself while serving time in a New York prison. Post-release, he was rejected repeatedly for jobs, he recalls, but “what a college degree did for me was [also] to recalibrate my own moral compass and help me better understand why I was facing all those barriers to the labor market, the stigma I was facing.… I was able to analyze my situation in a much much more complex way.”