offset STARTING NEXT MONTH, CALIFORNIA PRISON GUARDS TRAINING WILL BE SHORTENED BY A MONTH—FROM 16 WEEKS TO 12 WEEKS
Through an agreement between California Correctional Peace Officers Association and Gov. Jerry Brown, the training academy for California prison guards will be shortened from 16 weeks to 12 weeks starting in July.
The shortened training will allow for the CA Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation to graduate an additional class of around 250 each year, to help the department reach its three-year goal of hiring 7,000 new prison guards.
Some classes will be cut and some will be merged to account for the lost four weeks.
Concerned about their already maligned profession, CCPOA agreed to the shorter training on the condition that a training standards oversight commission be relaunched and funded.
CCPOA under founding President Don Novey, for years fought for a 16-week academy as part of an agenda to elevate the professionalism and safety of front-line prison staff. Part of the calculus was money: The more training and expertise required for the job, the stronger the argument for higher compensation.
So the union was well-positioned in the 1980s when lock-’em-up laws in California sparked a boom in prison construction and a demand for officers to staff those facilities. By the early 2000s, the confluence of politics and policy made California’s prison officers among the highest-paid in the nation.
Today, California state correctional officers earn from $3,172 per month at entry level to $6,644 per month for the most senior employees. The figures do not include officers’ overtime, which has climbed as the state has run short of staff.
Over the last several years, however, court orders to cut the state’s prison population and a shift to incarcerating more offenders in local jails reduced the number of inmates in state prisons. The state also shut down its cadet academy in Galt, effectively choking off the pipeline of new employees to replace hundreds who retired each month. Overtime among prison officers soared.
The union agreed to the shorter academy in exchange for reviving and reconstituting the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, which lost funding during the Arnold Schwarzenegger administration.
The new six-member board will be comprised of three seats appointed by the governor and three rank-and-file seats. Before the board went dormant, the department appointed three members and the governor appointed three – essentially making the panel an extension of the executive branch.
SAN QUENTIN DEATH ROW INMATES SUE OVER SOLITARY CONFINEMENT CONDITIONS
Six San Quentin death row inmates held in “extreme isolation” have filed a lawsuit against Gov. Jerry Brown, CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard and San Quentin Prison Warden Ronald Davis alleging cruel and unusual punishment.
The inmates, who are classified as gang-affiliated, are held between 21-24 hours per day, receive three showers per week, and say they don’t get enough sleep they are subjected to frequent suicide checks.
Courthouse News Service’s Nick Cahill has more on the issue, including the controversial gang-affiliation designation. Here’s a clip:
All are classified “Grade B” prisoners, subjecting them to “stark and cruel deprivations,” including 21 to 24 hours per day in their cell, just three showers per week and lack of sleep due to constant suicide checks by jailers.
Lopez claims that all condemned prisoners deemed to have gang affiliations are classified Grade B, whether they were in a gang or not. He claims the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation violates their constitutional rights by making them Grade B prisoners though they have not participated in gang activity at San Quentin.
“The condemned unit has no process or quality control measures for assessing whether plaintiffs and the class remain active participants in prison gangs,” the complaint states. “As a result, plaintiffs and the class are often assessed as having gang allegiances because of their ethnicity and the region in which they grew up.”
Though prison regulations require review of Grade B classification every 90 days, Lopez calls it a “meaningless and perfunctory process.” Though several plaintiffs have no disciplinary infractions at San Quentin, they are subjected to Class B restrictions anyway.
STUDENTS IN FOSTER CARE MOVING ON TO HIGHER ED RECEIVE RECOGNITION, SCHOLARSHIPS AT WALT DISNEY CONCERT HALL
More than 170 high-achieving students in foster care received scholarships and were honored at the Walt Disney Concert Hall late last week. In California, only 58% of foster kids graduate high school. Beating the odds, all students honored graduated high school with a 2.8 or higher, and are heading off to college or a vocational school.
KPCC’s Rina Palta and Chronicle of Social Change’s Holden Slattery reported on the event and some of the incredible challenges overcome by the students honored.
Palta has the story of quadruplets who were shuffled around in foster care before reuniting and completing high school together. Here’s a clip:
“People definitely look down on us and think you’re not going to make it out of college and stuff – we’re going to end up in jail, we’re going to end up homeless,” said Bianca Lucci, the fraternal sister amongst the quadruplets. “But I believe that’s not true. As long as you have determination and you work hard in school, you’ll achieve your goals.”
The quadruplets are among 175 high-achieving foster children who were honored with scholarships at an event at the Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday.
They entered the foster care system after abuse and abandonment.
Madison Lucci remembers the exact moment — on Christmas Eve — when the police showed up to take the girls from their home, where they had been left alone.
“Christmas is supposed to be when you’re with your family,” she said. But that day, the sisters were split up and spent the next few years in and out of foster homes and group homes. In 2011, they all finally settled in Rancho Palos Verdes, where they all graduated from high school this month.
Slattery follows the story of Destinee Ballesteros, a straight A student with dreams of becoming Chief Supreme Court Justice whose life was turned upside down when she entered foster care. Here’s a clip:
Destinee was accepted into the competitive magnet program at AV Soar High School, located right on the Antelope Valley College campus in Los Angeles County, where she could challenge herself with college classes.
But during those high school years, her mother began using methamphetamines, which made her hallucinate, Destinee explained in a recent interview. Destinee’s mother would take her and her brother away from their home to escape from “unsafe people.”
“Even though we had a house, she thought it was unsafe,” Destinee said. “So we would bounce from hotels to shelters.” Destinee started missing school because she had no way to get there, and because caring for her younger brother became her top priority.
After a hotel clerk called the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), a social worker determined that the two siblings had been neglected. Destinee and her brother entered foster care, and Destinee was transferred to a different school. There, during her junior year, she got her first F.
“It [getting an F] was really hard,” Destinee said. “It really broke my heart, but then again, I realized that sometimes you’ve got to fail in order to appreciate the success.”
POWERFUL “DRUGGING OUR KIDS” DOCUMENTARY RECEIVES NATIONAL AWARD
San Jose Mercury reporter Karen de Sá and photojournalist Dai Sugano have won a well-deserved Edward R. Murrow Awardfor the country’s best news documentary video by a large online organization, for their series “Drugging Our Kids,”—a powerful investigation into the excessive use of psychotropic medications to treat California kids in the foster care system.
De Sá and Sugano’s five-part series (which won three other national awards) sparked important legislative change and reforms. Read the series and watch the documentary: here.
STATES RELEASE INMATES FROM SOLITARY CONFINEMENT BACK INTO THEIR COMMUNITIES, WHERE THEY STRUGGLE TO ACCLIMATE, AND OFTEN RETURN TO LOCK-UP
A new collaborative investigation released Thursday between the Marshal Project and NPR gathered and analyzed data from every state on inmates released from solitary confinement directly onto the streets.
Last year, 24 states dumped over 10,000 solitary confinement prisoners, who often need the most reentry assistant, right back into their communities. The other 26 states, along with the feds, either did not track or could not provide data on such releases.
The investigation has particular significance in the wake of Kalief Browder’s suicide. Browder spent three years on Rikers Island, the majority of which he spent in solitary confinement, without a trial. Browder came out of Rikers and isolation and struggled for three years with mental illness and the aftereffects of prolonged solitary confinement. Browder tried to kill himself several times before succeeding last Saturday.
These inmates who often need the most help, pre-release and post-release, get the least amount of help. For instance, inmates that remain in isolation until they are released, generally do not get to participate in re-entry classes. And in some states, including Texas, these inmates are often released without supervision. Due, in part to the mental deterioration that happens during prolonged isolation, and without much-needed help, inmates released directly from solitary often find themselves jobless, homeless, in mental hospitals, or back in prison.
The Marshall Project follows the story of Mark, young man with schizoaffective disorder and developmental disabilities who spent the majority of his teenage years in isolation, and lasted just four months on the outside, before he was locked up again. Here’s a clip:
In Mark’s home state of Texas, 1,174 prisoners were freed straight out of administrative segregation — prison jargon for solitary units housing suspected gang members or others deemed a threat to prison security — in fiscal year 2014. More than 60 percent of them emerged without any supervision, compared to only 14 percent of other prisoners released that year.
Prisoners who go straight to the street pose a danger to public safety. Analysts for the Texas Legislative Budget Board found that more than 60 percent of state prisoners released from solitary were rearrested within three years, compared with 49 percent of overall prison releases. Similar studies in Washington and California found people coming out of segregation cells had recidivism rates as much as 35 percent higher than those leaving the general population.
Dealing with the other kids at one of the juvenile facilities, Crockett State School, seemed to overwhelm him. He often retreated to his cell to pace, talk to himself, and cut his arms. His behavior was not new. In the year before his sentencing, Mark made nine trips to state mental hospitals in Austin and San Antonio for cutting and other psychotic episodes. Mark also picked up a new conviction for assaulting a guard, for which he was given three years to be served concurrently. After evaluating him three months before his 18th birthday, psychologists at Crockett concluded: “It is recommended that he be provided therapy….[and] would benefit from a program to learn independent/daily life skills.”
Instead, Mark was soon moved to a maximum-security adult prison, the Telford Unit in New Boston, Texas. And within six months, he landed in a segregation cell for allegedly threatening to escape.
Mark had told his mother that he was nervous around the older prisoners, particularly his cellmate. He had stopped taking his Seroquil and Abilify for schizophrenia, because he said they made him groggy and unable to stay alert and on guard. The other prisoners referred to him as “Crazy Boy.”
Mark was initially relieved when he was moved to solitary, thinking he would be safer. But as his mother observed, solitary was no place for people who “live in their mind.” Mark’s learning disabilities made it difficult for him to fill the time reading books or writing letters. So he paced his cell and listened to the radio. Without any other distractions, his anger and depression worsened. “You have nobody to talk to but yourself,” Mark said. “All I remember doing was just thinking about the people who hurt me.”
During their monthly, no-contact visits, Garcia saw Mark’s behavior change. He began swearing at her, flipping her off, and telling her not to come. “He wasn’t like that when he went in,” she said. She tried to pacify him by recalling happier times — their yearly trips to Disney World, the birthday parties she threw for him. But Mark could not remember any of it.
NPR focuses on Brian Nelson, a man who had similar experiences to Mark, but has managed—sometimes just barely—to rebuild his life on the outside. Nelson is now a paralegal and prisoner’s advocate at the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago. Here’s a clip:
When Nelson’s mother picked him up at the distant supermax prison in Tamms, Ill., he told her how he was given a television during his last year of solitary and kept seeing ads for a fast-food ice cream…
On the drive home, they stopped for a Blizzard at a Dairy Queen.
“And I’m standing there and a guy walked behind me. And I was not used to people being that close to me. And I started cussing. I turned around, I’m ready to fight because I thought I don’t know if he’s going to attack me,” Nelson recalls. “I have prison mentality in my mind. And then I looked up and saw my mom crying, like ‘Oh my God, what have they done to him?’ You know, because I couldn’t handle being around people.”
That was five years ago. It’s still hard for Nelson, 50, to be around people.
The Department of Justice estimates that about 80,000 prisoners in the U.S. are in solitary confinement. The system drastically expanded in the past 30 years as the U.S. prison population grew. Corrections officials built supermax prisons and added other new programs to isolate the inmates who were considered the most dangerous.
“The United States is unique and this is a relatively new experiment,” says Alan Mills, who is Nelson’s boss at the Uptown People’s Law Center. “And now we’re dealing with people who have spent a decade in solitary and are getting out. Mental health professionals don’t know how to deal with it. And don’t have treatment for it yet. It’s a brand new world and unfortunately it’s one that we as a society have created for ourselves.”
Mills says, at the least, prisons need to take inmates out of solitary months before they leave prison and give them mental health treatment, job training and other help to get them ready to go back home.
A few states, and the federal prison system, have started doing that.
Unlike most prisoners who are given parole when they are released, inmates in solitary are less likely to get supervision. That’s because they “max out” their sentence and fall outside the parole system.
Be sure to listen to part two, which airs on Friday (today) on Morning Edition.
NEW US BILL TO UPDATE AND REAUTHORIZE JUVENILE JUSTICE DELINQUENCY AND PREVENTION ACT
On Thursday, US Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced a bill that would revamp and reauthorize the aging Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act. The JJDPA was first enacted in 1974 (and hasn’t been successfully reauthorized since 2002).
The JJDPA gives states funding (into the millions) for compliance with these four requirements: do not detain kids for status offenses, work to reduce disparate minority contact with the justice system, keep kids out of adult facilities (with a few exceptions), and when kids do have to be kept in adult prisons, keep them “sight and sound” separated from adults.
Scott’s new bill, the Youth Justice Act of 2015, is modeled after Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)’s bipartisan reauthorization bill introduced late last year.
The Youth Justice Act would strengthen the JJDPA’s objectives and add some new functions, including removing those exceptions to keeping kids away from adults in detention facilities, as well as the exceptions that allow kids who have committed certain status offenses to be isolated for up to 24 hours.
In addition, the bill would phase out various confinement practices that some consider dangerous, such as isolation that lasts longer than a few hours.
The measure would also create a new grant program for communities to plan and implement evidence-based prevention and intervention programs specifically designed to reduce juvenile delinquency and gang involvement.
“We have documented the power evidence-based policies have in both reducing crime and saving money, and we have realized the role that trauma plays in the lives of our disengaged youth and what it takes to get them back on the right track,” said Scott. “The Youth Justice Act builds on the strong framework of our colleagues in the Senate, and takes suggestions from our nation’s leading juvenile justice advocates on how we can make our system even safer and more responsive to our youth.”
US DISTRICT JUDGE SETS DATE FOR TANAKA – CAREY TRIAL
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson has set the date for November in the federal trial of former LA County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and ex-captain Tom Carey. Defense attorneys originally agreed on January.
The federal prosecutors are scheduled to try several other use-of-force cases in advance of the two former LASD leaders. The Tanaka/Carey trial is expected to take around two weeks.
The case was initially set for trial next month, but Anderson ordered attorneys for both sides to meet and agree on a later date. Federal prosecutors in the Tanaka/Carey case are scheduled in the coming months to try three separate use-of-force cases involving current or former sheriff’s deputies, along with the trial of a deputy U.S. marshal facing civil rights homicide and obstruction of justice charges.
The Tanaka/Carey case is expected to take at least two weeks, lawyers said.
Evidence to be delivered to the defense includes a Web-searchable database and 4,000 pages of transcripts from a previous related trial, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret Carter.
Tanaka — who is on a leave of absence as mayor of Gardena — and Carey, who oversaw an internal sheriff’s criminal investigations unit, have denied the charges contained in a five-count indictment returned May 13 by a federal grand jury.
LAPD CHIEF RECORDS VIDEO THAT COMMISSION FINDS UPSETTING AFTER THEIR DECISION REGARDING THE DEATH OF EZELL FORD
On Wednesday, after the LA Police Commission’s decision that actions taken during the incident that led to the death of Ezell Ford were unjustified, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck recorded a video message to express his support for the rank and file…
The video riled the LA Police Commission because in it, Chief Beck tells officers that they have the support of their chief, Mayor Eric Garcetti, and “the vast majority of the people of Los Angeles.” The Police Commission was not included in the list of supporters. The LA Times interviewed the president of the commission, Steve Soboroff, and Chief Beck about the video. Here’s a small clip:
Soboroff bristled at any suggestion that the commission didn’t support officers. “To intimate that I don’t care or don’t have the best interests of officers — it’s hurtful but it’s so untrue,” Soboroff said. “It’s so outrageous and so against anything that I feel or that I’ve ever displayed.”
Beck told Soboroff that it was not his intention to suggest that commissioners didn’t back the officers.
“It was not intended to infer lack of support by the Police Commission,” Beck later told The Times. “I have viewed it [the video] several times and I don’t believe it is reasonable to come to that conclusion based on the content.”
The LA Police Protective League (LAPPL) issued a statement Thursday in support of Chief Beck, calling the commission’s decision “self-serving” and “irresponsible.” Here’s a clip:
Surprisingly, the Police Commission, who was privy to the same facts as Chief Beck, came away with a different conclusion. It unanimously reached a finding that left many, including the LAPPL, scratching their heads and wondering how the Commission could let the usual protesters and external political forces influence their decision on this extremely important matter. Beyond being self-serving, the decision was downright irresponsible and has the potential to put the officers that protect this city at risk by signaling to criminals that it is OK to reach for an officer’s weapon depending on the situation.
The Commission got this wrong. Instead of focusing on the multiple forms of hard evidence, including the fact that Ford was a known gang member with a lengthy criminal history of violent crimes, the Commission cited and stretched thin the “objectively reasonable” standard established in the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case of Graham v. Connor. A standard that the court later noted should not be the primary driver determination, noting that “reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”
LAPPL President Craig Lally also spoke to the Times about the video, saying that if Chief Beck had included the commission in the list of supporters, it would have discredited the entire video. “You can’t say that you support the cops and make a decision like that,” said Lally.
We will continue to track this story, which is clearly far from over.
JUDGE RECOMMENDS CHARGING CLEVELAND OFFICERS IN THE DEATH OF 12-YEAR-OLD TAMIR RICE
On Thursday, nearly 200 days after the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Municipal Court Judge Ronald Adrine ruled that there was probable cause to prosecute the two officers involved in the 12-year-old’s death. (If you need a refresher: Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun outside of a recreation center with his sister when he was shot by Officer Timothy Loehmann.)
A group of activists and clergy filed affidavits asking the court to arrest Loehmann and another officer, Frank Garmback. The ruling is essentially a recommendation to Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty and city prosecutors, as the case will automatically go before a grand jury, according to Ohio law. Judge Adrine recommended charging Loehmann with murder, involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide, negligent homicide and dereliction of duty, and Garmback of negligent homicide and dereliction of duty.
In response to a petition from citizens, under an obscure and little-used provision of Ohio law, Municipal Court Judge Ronald Adrine agreed that Officer Timothy Loehmann should be charged with several crimes, the most serious of them being murder but also including involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide, negligent homicide and dereliction of duty. Adrine also found probable cause to charge another officer, Frank Garmback, with negligent homicide and dereliction of duty. He rejected aggravated murder charges against both officers. (The Guardian has the full order here.) Referring to the “notorious” video of Rice’s death, the judge wrote, “This court is still thunderstruck at how quickly this event turned deadly.”
But Adrine did not order the two men to be arrested. He stated that because the law under which the affidavits were filed had been amended in 2006, judges no longer have the authority to issue warrants themselves in such cases.
Instead, Adrine forwarded his opinion to city prosecutors and Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty, who says he is currently investigating the case. And he took pains to note that prosecutors are required to apply a different standard before filing charges, determining that it is more probable than not that a reasonable “trier of fact” would hold the officers accountable for any alleged crimes.
The affidavit filed Monday was intended to jumpstart the process of prosecution; it’s been more than 200 days since Rice, a 12-year-old black boy, was shot and killed in a city park. Adrine’s finding of probable cause may increase pressure on McGinty. But since all murder prosecutions have to go through a grand jury under Ohio law, Adrine’s order just funnels the case back to where it was before—waiting for McGinty to act.
It’s been 199 days since Tamir Rice was shot to death by a Cleveland police officer. And for a group of community leaders in the Forest City, that’s too long to wait for prosecutors to charge the officers involved in the shooting. Instead, they went to a municipal court judge Tuesday morning and asked him to issue a warrant for the officers on charges of murder, aggravated murder, involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide, negligent homicide, and dereliction of duty.
If that sounds confusing, it’s not just you. The activists made the request under an obscure provision of Ohio law that entitles citizens to file an affidavit demanding an arrest.
In October 2014, The New Yorker ran a shattering story by staff writer Jennifer Gonnerman about a young Bronx man named Kalief Browder who, just before he turned sixteen years old, was arrested then locked up on Riker’s Island. There he remained for the next three years, without a trial, until finally the prosecutors who brought the charges, then dragged their collective legal feet with 36 months worth of unexplained continuances, simply dropped the case.
Kalief was accused of stealing a backpack, an accusation that was fuzzy from the beginning. The youngest of seven children and reportedly well liked at school, Kalief insisted that he was innocent, repeatedly refusing to take the deals the prosecutor offered, even the last one, which would have let him out for time served.
No, he had said. He would go to trial. “I did not do it.”
But the approximately 800 days he spent in solitary confinement during those three years in Rikers took a terrible toll on a once-upbeat boy’s psyche. And, in addition to the damage caused by the isolation, there was also also the beat down by at least one guard, maybe more than one, and another brutal beating by gang members that reportedly ran the area of the jail where Kalief was located—that is when he wasn’t shut up in a 12′ X 8′ solitary cell.
As months then years passed in Rikers with no seeming end in sight, Kalief began to emotionally decompensate. He tried suicide twice when he was locked up, and again a couple more times when he was finally released.
Gonnerman and others who knew Kalief felt that, for a while this spring, things seemed to be getting better for the young man who had grown so fragile after the ordeal that took away half of his teenage years.
Then, on Saturday, she got the news that Kalief had hanged himself.
The primary takeaway from Gonnerman’s fine reporting is this: Kalief Browder was a young man who could have been my son, could have been yours, who was failed and brutalized by multiple levels of the American justice system, and who—this weekend—succumbed to the effects of that 3-year-long psychological beating.
Here’s a clip from Jennifer Gonnerman’s story:
….Late last year, about two months after my story about him appeared, he stopped going to classes at Bronx Community College. During the week of Christmas, he was confined in the psych ward at Harlem Hospital. One day after his release, he was hospitalized again, this time back at St. Barnabas. When I visited him there on January 9th, he did not seem like himself. He was gaunt, restless, and deeply paranoid. He had recently thrown out his brand-new television, he explained, “because it was watching me.”
After two weeks at St. Barnabas, Browder was released and sent back home. The next day, his lawyer, Paul V. Prestia, got a call from an official at Bronx Community College. An anonymous donor (who had likely read the New Yorker story) had offered to pay his tuition for the semester. This happy news prompted Browder to re-enroll. For the next few months he seemed to thrive. He rode his bicycle back and forth to school every day, he no longer got panic attacks sitting in a classroom, and he earned better grades than he had the prior semester.
Ever since I’d met him, Browder had been telling me stories about having been abused by officers and inmates on Rikers. The stories were disturbing, but I did not fully appreciate what he had experienced until this past April when I obtained surveillance footage of an officer assaulting him and of a large group of inmates pummeling and kicking him. I sat next to Kalief while he watched these videos for the first time. Afterward, we discussed whether they should be published on The New Yorker’s Web site. I told him that it was his decision. He said to put them online.
He was driven by the same motive that led him to talk to me for the first time, a year earlier. He wanted the public to know what he had gone through, so that nobody else would have to endure the same ordeals. His willingness to tell his story publicly—and his ability to recount it with great insight—ultimately helped persuade Mayor Bill de Blasio to try to reform the city’s court system and end the sort of excessive delays that kept him in jail for so long.
Browder’s story also caught the attention of Rand Paul, who began talking about him on the campaign trail. Jay Z met with Browder after watching the videos. Rosie O’Donnell invited him on “The View” last year and recently had him over for dinner. Browder could be a very private person, and he told almost nobody about meeting O’Donnell or Jay Z. However, in a picture he took alongside Jay Z, who draped an arm around his shoulders, Browder looked euphoric.
Last Monday, Prestia, who had filed a lawsuit on Browder’s behalf against the city, noticed that Browder had put up a couple of odd posts on Facebook. When Prestia sent him a text message, asking what was going on, Browder insisted he was O.K. “Are you sure everything is cool?” Prestia wrote. Browder replied: “Yea I’m alright thanks man.” The two spoke on Wednesday, and Browder did seem fine. On Saturday afternoon, Prestia got a call from Browder’s mother: he had committed suicide…..
The photo of Kalief Browder is a screen shot of an ABC7 broadcast that was then put through WLA’s art process.
BILL TO PUT HUGE LIMITATIONS ON WHEN KIDS CAN BE PUT IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT MAKES IT PAST CA SENATE
On Tuesday, the California Senate approved SB 124, a bill to drastically limit the use of solitary confinement in state and county juvenile correctional facilities. Next, the bill will head to Assembly policy committees. If SB 124, authored by Sen. Mark Leno, makes it past the Assembly and Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, California will join 19 other states that ban the use of solitary confinement as punishment for locked up kids.
“We applaud members of the Senate for their leadership in voting for SB 124 to protect our incarcerated youth from the trauma of solitary confinement,” said Alex M. Johnson, Executive Director of the Children’s Defense Fund-California, one of the four groups co-sponsoring the bill. (The others are the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the California Public Defenders Association, and the Youth Justice Coalition.)
Specifically, the bill would ban isolating kids except in extreme circumstances in which a kid poses a serious threat to staff or others, and when all other alternatives have not worked. The bill would also clearly define solitary confinement as “involuntary placement” in isolation away from people who are not staff or attorneys. Kids would also only stay in solitary for the least amount of time needed to handle the safety risk.
Last week, the LA County Board of Supervisors passed Supe. Sheila Kuehl’s motion to back the important bill. (Read more about that here.)
ADVOCATES AND OTHERS WHO WERE HELD IN SOLITARY AS KIDS PRAISE LA COUNTY SUPES FOR SUPPORTING CA BILL TO DRASTICALLY LIMIT SOLITARY CONFINEMENT FOR KIDS
On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to support CA Sen. Mark Leno’s important bill to limit the use of solitary confinement at state and county juvenile correctional facilities.
In the days immediately following, various advocates, some of whom had personally experienced the trauma of solitary confinement as kids, praised the board’s decision to back the measure.
Sheila Kuehl, authored the motion, which was co-sponsored by Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Youth Justice Coalition, the Children’s Defense Fund of California, and the CA Public Defender’s Association. In response to the positive vote, Kuehl said, “I’m proud to be part of this rehabilitative movement working to change our treatment of incarcerated youth, and want to thank my fellow Supes for joining with me on this critically important issue.”
In her motion, Supervisor Kuehl said the board’s hope is that the county will set a precedent—the “LA Model”—at both the state and national levels by overhauling the way LA County supervises the 1,200 kids in its juvenile detention facilities. As the first step in that model, Kuehl points to the $48 million transformation of the dilapidated Camp David Kilpatrick, now under construction, that will turn it into a facility focused on “relationship-building, trauma informed care, positive youth development, small and therapeutic group settings, quality education, properly trained staff, a relational approach to supervision and an integrated group treatment model.”
An overuse of solitary confinement is not in keeping with the rehabilitative focus of the LA Model, thus the Supes have moved to support Sen. Leno’s proposed legislation.
Alex Johnson, Executive Director of Children’s Defense Fund-California said that the support of the supervisors for Leno’s bill “moves the state one step closer to ending the use of solitary confinement for youth in California,” and helps “to ensure that youth in L.A. County and across the state receive the healing and rehabilitation they need to succeed rather than be re-traumatized.”
Specifically, the bill would ban isolating kids except in extreme circumstances in which a kid poses a serious threat to staff or others, and when all other alternatives have not worked. The bill would also clearly define solitary confinement as “involuntary placement” in isolation away from people who are not staff or attorneys. Kids would also only stay in solitary for the least amount of time needed to handle the safety risk.
Francisco Martinez, a youth leader with the Youth Justice Coalition described solitary confinement as “horrible – like an animal in a cage.” Martinez lived through solitary confinement at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, CA. “The conditions were a small, dirty concrete room,” he said. Food, dirt, and spit covered the walls and windows, and the mattress was i, according to Martinez. “We were kept in our boxers with a tee shirt and socks, and a thin blanket.” Martinez said the air conditioning, which blew 24-7, “was even worse for me, because I have asthma. I had shortness of breath when I woke up until I went to sleep.”
The passage of Sen. Leno’s bill, say advocates, would be meaningful not only for the kids who are locked away in isolation, but also for their loved ones on the outside, the family members to whom they return, often more damaged than before their incarceration.
“My godson was incarcerated for almost 10 years since the age of 15. His time in solitary confinement hurt him the most, and I was worried the damage would be permanent,” said LaNita Mitchell, board member of the Ella Baker Center. “Our children need help, not torture.”
“Troubled youth need treatment, not isolation,” said Sen. Leno. ““Deliberately depriving incarcerated young people of human contact, education, exercise and fresh air is inhumane and can have devastating psychological effects for these youth, who are already vulnerable to depression and suicide.”
The LA Supervisors’ move came one week after the Contra Costa County Probation Department agreed to ban solitary confinement in juvenile facilities, as part of a groundbreaking settlement.
CA ASSEMBLY TAKES ACTION ON CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND FOSTER CARE BILLS
On Thursday, the California Assembly and Senate Appropriations Committees took action on a number of weighty criminal justice and foster care bills.
Among other noteworthy justice-related bills, the Assembly Committee addressed measures that aimed to reverse portions of California’s Prop 47—the reclassification of certain non-violent drug and property-related felonies as misdemeanors.
AB 150 by Assemblymember Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elisnore) which would have bumped gun theft back up to a felony, was blocked, while SB 333 by Sen. Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton), a bill to reinstate the felony classification to the possession of date rape drugs, was sent to the Senate floor for a vote.
Three bills addressing the state’s over-drugging of foster kids made it out of the Senate Committee alive: SB 238 from Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-LA), which would require the state to collect data on how many kids in foster care are prescribed psychotropic (and other potentially dangerous) meds; SB 319 by Sen. Jim Beall, which would establish a monitoring system for public heath nurses to oversee foster kids who have been given psychotropic drugs; and SB 484, also by Beall, which would make the state identify and inspect foster care group homes in which kids are being over-drugged, and create drug reduction plans for those homes.
Other bills that advanced Thursday, and are worth tracking:
AB 1056 by Assemblymember Toni Atkins would use money saved by Prop 47 to house former offenders through the “Second Chance Program for Community Re-entry.”
SB 674 by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, (D-LA) would require cops to issue certificates to immigrant victims of crime who have aided law enforcement during investigations. Those certificates could then be used by immigrants to avoid being deported.
MENTAL ILLNESS IN THE AGE OF MASS INCARCERATION
The Sacramento Bee’s Daniel Weintraub has an interesting profile of MacArthur Genius Elyn Saks, a professor of law, psychology and psychiatry at USC, in the midst of her own battle with schizophrenia, has become a champion for the mentally ill, fighting against the criminalization of people with mental illness, and pushing for legislation that brings treatment to the community level.
“Everything about my past says I shouldn’t be here,” Saks says.
But here she is – a professor of law, psychology and psychiatry at the University of Southern California. She is a researcher, an author and the recipient of a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”
Thirty-five years ago, however, Saks was first-year law student at Yale University suffering a terrifying mental breakdown. Studying with friends one night, she started speaking gibberish and singing the Florida “sunshine song.” Then she withdrew inside herself.
That episode eventually landed her in the emergency room and led to five months in a psychiatric hospital. She was placed under restraints for up to 20 hours at a time. Her doctors described her prognosis as “grave.” Some expected her to live out her life in board and care homes, doing menial jobs – or living on the streets.
But with the help of a few close friends, her family, regular therapy and medication, Saks held her life together, and then some.
Her experience led her to become a leading opponent of the use of force to control people with mental illness, a practice she says is largely unnecessary. She also believes it is dehumanizing and probably counterproductive, because it keeps many people from seeking the care they need.
The first time she was “retrained,” Saks said, a sound she had never heard came out of her mouth: “It was a half-groan, half-scream, barely human and pure terror.”
In an op-ed for CNN, Newt Gingrich and Van Jones lay out the ways incarcerating mentally ill Americans does a colossal disservice to taxpayers, cops, and, of course, the mentally ill, and stress the importance of identifying and implementing research-based strategies to keep people with mental illness out of jails and prisons.
Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House who, along with some of his other Right on Crime colleagues, was instrumental in getting both Prop 47 and Prop 36 passed. Van Jones is a former presidential advisor and founder of Rebuild the Dream, an online platform focusing on policy, economics and media.
America’s approach when the mentally ill commit nonviolent crimes — locking them up without addressing the problem — is a solution straight out of the 1800s.
When governments closed state-run psychiatric facilities in the late 1970s, it didn’t replace them with community care, and by default, the mentally ill often ended up in jails…
Today, in 44 states and the District of Columbia, the largest prison or jail holds more people with serious mental illness than the largest psychiatric hospital. With 2 million people with mental illness booked into jails each year, it is not surprising that the biggest mental health providers in the country are LA County Jail, Rikers Island in New York and Cook County Jail in Chicago…
Cycling [the mentally ill] through the criminal justice system, we miss opportunities to link them to treatment that could lead to drastic improvements in their quality of life and our public safety. These people are sick, not bad, and they can be diverted to mental health programs that cost less and are more effective than jail time. People who’ve committed nonviolent crimes can often set themselves on a better path if they are provided with proper treatment.
The current situation is also unfair to law enforcement officers and to the people running our prisons, who are now forced to act as doctors or face tense confrontations with the mentally ill while weighing the risk to public safety. In fact, at a time when police shootings are generating mass controversy, there is far too little discussion of the fact that when police use force, it often involves someone with a mental illness.
Finally, the current approach is unfair to taxpayers, because there are far more cost-effective ways for a decent society to provide care to the mentally ill. Just look at Ohio, where the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is projected to spend $49 million this year on medications and mental health care, on top of nearly $23,000 per inmate per year.
FIRST-OF-ITS-KIND PUBLIC DEFENDER’S OFFICE PROGRAM TO TEACH KIDS THEIR RIGHTS WHEN INTERACTING WITH LAW ENFORCEMENT
Alameda County Public Defender’s Office recently visited an 11th grade class at Oakland Technical High School to teach them the things they should say and do (and things they should not say and do) when stopped by law enforcement. The purpose of the Public Defender’s Office’s unique program, Learn Your Rights in California (LYRIC), is to make sure young people of color—many of whom have been stopped by officers before—are aware of their rights, and to help them have better interactions with cops. The public defenders taught the Oakland Tech students through role-play and skits in addition to a thorough Q&A session.
LAPD ANNOUNCES A COMMUNITY POLICING PILOT PROGRAM THAT WILL ADD 16 NEW FOOT PATROL COPS TO EASTSIDE
On Monday, the Los Angeles Police Department announced a pilot program that will increase the number of foot patrol officers in its Hollenbeck Division.
The “Hollenbeck Community Partners Program” will have sixteen beat cops walking corridors in areas like Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights and El Sereno, as part of the LAPD’s increased community policing and crime prevention efforts. Eight new pairs of beat cops may not sound like a lot, but the move is a significant one for a department that has traditionally relied on officers in cruisers to patrol its territory, which stretches 468 square miles and has a population of four million.
KPCC’s Frank Stoltze has more on the program and what the department and members of the community hope it will achieve. Here are some clips:
Relationship-based policing requires staying in a neighborhood. It is an increasingly popular term among criminal justice experts and civil rights activists who say police have become too disconnected from the communities they police. The Los Angeles-based Advancement Project is one proponent.
The LAPD, which has fewer officers per capita than many big city police departments, has used foot patrols on a limited basis on Skid Row, in Venice and elsewhere. The sprawl of Los Angeles makes it hard to patrol effectively and efficiently by foot.
The increase comes less than a month after the LAPD announced it’s quadrupling the size of its elite Metropolitan Division to 200. In contrast to the foot patrols, Metro cops are assigned to swoop into high crime areas with an eye toward making a lot of stops and arrests. Some worry that effort could hurt community policing efforts.
Foot patrol officers typically make fewer arrests.
“I like to think of it as more preventing crimes,” said Officer Joe Romo, who may be the most veteran foot officer in the city at 16 years. “It’s a more positive way to police.”
He said he arrests about ten people a year. Officers in patrol cars responding to radio calls arrest five to ten people a month, he said.
“I’m not expecting these guys to be hauling people in left and right,” said Baeza, the area captain. “I am expecting them to build relationships and partnerships with the community.”
If the effort goes well, officials said, they will look for ways to expand “foot beats” across the city.
It’s a back-to-basics approach that is common in other cities that are more compact, like Chicago, or that have larger departments, like New York, but it never became a staple of policing in Los Angeles, where officers rely on patrol cars to cover the city’s roughly 470 square miles.
“We have foot beats that come and go and foot beats that work some areas, but none that will be like in Hollenbeck,” said Assistant Chief Jorge Villegas. “One hundred percent of the time, that’s all they’ll do.”
The move marks a step away from the iconic image of LAPD officers cruising down palm-lined streets in black-and-white cars.
Newsweek’s Victoria Bekiempis has an interesting story exploring the “catch-22″ of placing more cops—even cops intending to rebuild police-community relations—on the streets in communities that are feeling over-policed in the first place. Here’s a clip, but go read the rest:
The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, meanwhile, is charged with determining the best ways police can reduce crime and build trust with communities. In early March, the task force published an hundred-plus page interim report that emphasizes community policing as a way to achieve these goals—in fact, “Community Policing & Crime Reduction” is one of the six listed “pillars” in the report. Some of the recommendations in this section seem almost tailor-made for foot patrol proponents. Police must communicate with people at times other than emergency calls or crime investigations, the report recommends. Law enforcement agencies must allow officers time “to participate in problem solving and community engagement activities” during patrols, the report says.
Foot patrol sounds like an even better idea when you look at the data. Research has indicated it both improves police-community relations and fights crime. Though these positive outcomes make foot patrol quite an appealing policing tactic today, they happened before a year that saw the police-involved deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice and Walter Scott—and, most recently, Freddie Gray.
While man-on-the-street interviews wouldn’t provide quantitative data, I had been looking into foot patrol for a while, including earlier reporting on St. Petersburg’s initiative, and I had traveled to Baltimore hours before the city burned to try to find out whether residents thought the requirement would work, both in general and in light of Gray’s death. In interviews, the general sentiment was that foot patrol, like other community-policing techniques, was either a pipe dream or a paradox: Foot patrol could build much-needed trust in communities of color, but not until trust had first been restored. Residents conceded, however, that restoring trust probably wouldn’t happen if successful community-police engagement programs, such as foot patrol, weren’t already in place.
Sure, this doesn’t mean that foot patrol wouldn’t work, but it suggests that officials’ enthusiasm for foot patrol might be too glib—and that a lot of people supposedly poised to benefit from this kind of community policing absolutely do not want more cops on the streets right now.
On a stretch of sidewalk empty save for a few shuffling seniors, neighborhood resident Thomas Thornton says Baltimore’s foot patrol program isn’t inherently ill-conceived but is an awful idea given recent events. Before Gray brought police-community relations to a breaking point in Baltimore, resentment had long been building, explains Thornton, who works as a janitor. He says police routinely stop him and others in the neighborhood and ask, “Where are you going?” and “What are you doing?” Residents “see the uniform as a threat,” and that perception has intensified, he says.
“At this time, I don’t think it’s a good time to walk around—at all,” says Thornton, 45, speaking of foot patrol. “Maybe eventually, but at the present time, I wouldn’t recommend it. Not right now. Because it’s so tense.”
Marguerite Johnston, also a neighborhood resident, doesn’t think all police are bad based on the behavior of a few; she was raised not to judge people like that, she says. Johnston, 61, says the bad ones have nothing better to do than pick on people. Police officers should get to know their community, she says, recalling a time when a uniformed cop used to walk her neighborhood and even knew her by name. Maybe this kind of familiarity would build relationships, she says, and would make things better. Foot patrol is a good idea, she agrees, just not any time soon, given the present tensions.
“Maybe down the road? Probably sometime at the end of the year?” Johnston says. “It’s a catch-22. The police should probably try harder to gain the community’s trust before doing these projects.”
Then there was outright pessimism—a lot of it, actually.
“It’s only going to make it worse,” says Kyree Brown, who was sitting on a stoop with friends near the police station, talking about foot patrol. “It’s them against us.”
Could people trust police, then, if the programs that are supposed to engender trust don’t work?
THE COST OF PROTECTING CA’S FOSTER KIDS FROM DOCTORS PRESCRIBING THEM DANGEROUS PSYCHOTROPIC MEDS
A package of four California reform bills to address over-drugging in California foster care system could cost $8 million—and possibly over $22 million—per year, according to court estimates. The bills have bipartisan support, and have a good chance of making it through both legislative houses and onto Governor Jerry Brown’s desk.
“When you consider the long-term harm and consequences to the kids being doped up like this, it’s really pennies — I personally believe $8 million is budget dust,” said Mike Herald, a legislative advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “But in my experience, just about anything is subject to his rejection if it’s going to cost millions of dollars.”
In an early sign of possible support, however, Brown’s $115.3 billion budget plan released Thursday included two surprises: $149,000 to improve data on prescribing to foster children, and an increase of $1.5 million for social worker training that includes psychotropic medication issues.
“This is an exciting development,” said Kathryn Dresslar, who was chief of staff to former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and is with the nonprofit advocacy group Children’s Partnership. “The fact that there are dollars in the budget right now that specifically mention training for psychotropic drugs, and the kind of tracking that we need, is good news — I think that means that the administration intends to address this problem in some way to a greater extent than they have in the past.”
Under four bills inspired by this newspaper’s ongoing investigation “Drugging Our Kids,” a mix of federal and state funds would be used to hire 38 new public health nurses; provide second medical opinions, and train social workers and caregivers to watch out for side effects and to advocate for alternatives to mind-numbing meds. Juvenile court judges could not approve prescriptions for foster children without lab tests and ongoing monitoring and unless kids 14 and older consented in writing. Social workers would be alerted about prescriptions for young children and those on multiple meds; and there would be new oversight of residential group homes, where the medications are most frequently prescribed.
Policy analysts say the four reform bills authored by Sens. Jim Beall, D-San Jose; Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Bill Monning, D-Carmel, will save the state money, with fewer costly and unnecessary drugs billed to the public health system. California taxpayers spend more on psychotropics than on drugs of any other kind for foster children, this newspaper found, more than $226 million over a decade.
CONTRA COSTA KICKS SOLITARY CONFINEMENT FOR KIDS TO THE CURB
As part of a groundbreaking settlement, Contra Costa County Probation and has agreed to end solitary confinement in the county’s Juvenile Hall. Kids will no longer endure prolonged isolation (for more than four hours) as punishment or for convenience. After the four-hour mark, kids must either be removed from solitary confinement, be placed in an individualized program, or be sent to a mental health facility.
Contra Costa’s Dept. of Education has also agreed to make sure that locked up kids with disabilities are getting their educational needs met.
“At a time when the nation is re-evaluating the use of solitary confinement, this settlement is of extraordinary public importance,” said Mary-Lee Smith, Managing Attorney at Disability Rights Advocates. “In Contra Costa County, the draconian practice of solitary confinement will come to an end and the focus will be, as it should, on education and rehabilitation. Our hope is that other facilities across the nation will follow suit.”
Under the settlement agreement with the Contra Costa County Probation Department, the County will no longer use solitary confinement (also known as room confinement) for punitive reasons, discipline, or for expediency. In line with national standards, the County may segregate a youth in his or her room for no more than four hours and only if the youth’s behavior threatens immediate harm to themselves or others. After four hours, the Department must remove the youth from confinement, develop specialized individualized programming for the youth, or assess whether the youth should be transported to a mental health facility. The settlement also calls for two joint experts to review the Department’s practices, implement changes to improve conditions for young people with disabilities, and monitor compliance for two years.
“This landmark settlement puts an end to the egregious practice of subjecting children with disabilities to inhumane maximum security-like prison conditions and unconscionable deprivations of education,” said Public Counsel Education Rights Director Laura Faer. “The promise of this settlement for youth in the juvenile hall is real rehabilitation, support instead of isolation and segregation, and high quality special education services and options. If the Defendants bury the hatchet and focus on implementation, Contra Costa can become a model for the state and the Nation.”
Under the settlement agreement with the Contra Costa County Office of Education, the County Office of Education will retain an outside expert to evaluate its compliance with federal and state special education laws and to ensure that the students with disabilities in Juvenile Hall receive the special education that they need. The expert will make recommended revisions to policies, procedures and practices as they relate to Child Find, development and implementation of individualized education plans, and discipline and monitor compliance for two years.
LA COUNTY SUPES APPROVE $$$ FOR TRAINING STAFF AND COMMUNITY ON HOW TO RECOGNIZE KIDS WHO ARE VICTIMS OF SEX TRAFFICKING
The LA County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to allocate $250,000 to train county staff and community partners to identify young victims of sex trafficking. The LA County Probation Dept. has already trained 7,000 individuals, but more must be done to protect the county’s children from exploitation, according to the motion by Supe. Don Knabe.
Probation will use the money to develop further training in collaboration with other county departments and community groups, and to train thousands more people to recognize the warning signs earlier.
INMATES KEPT IN ISOLATION IN THE NATION’S SECURITY PRISON: “THEY ARE NOT SURE THEY EXIST AND, IF THEY DO, EXACTLY WHO THEY ARE”
The United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colo., known by most as the ADX, is the highest-security prison in the country. Inside ADX you will find such high profile inmates as the Unibomber Ted Kaczynski, the Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef, Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols, former Bonanno crime-family boss Vincent Basciano and Michael Swango, a serial-killing doctor who may have poisoned 60 of his patients.
These kind of prisoners, most of whom are doing multiple life sentences, are viewed as having nothing to lose, thus potential violent.
But according to a class action lawsuit filed in June 2012, many of those housed in ADX are not high risk prisoners but inmates who’ve gotten transferred to the prison for a list of less-than-necessary reasons. Moreover, many are mentally ill and the conditions—along with a lack of appropriate care at ADX—make those who come to the facility with mental and emotional problems inevitably grow far worse.
And many of those who come into ADX without serious mental problems, have decompensated mentally and emotionally as a consequence of the extreme isolation to which they are subjected.
Perplexingly, according to the lawsuit, those who are housed in ADX’s Control Units-–the most restricted and isolating units in the prison—receive no mental health care or psychotropic medication at all, whatever their needs.
“Currently, the BOP [Bureau of Prisons] turns a blind eye to the needs of the mentally ill at ADX and to deplorable conditions of confinement that are inhumane to these prisoners,” states the 2012 lawsuit knowns as Bicote v. The Federal Bureau of Prisons. “No civilized society treats its mentally ill citizens with such deliberate indifference to their plight.”
In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, reporter Mark Benelli writes a long and affecting story about what it’s like inside “America’s Toughest Prison,” and about the conditions and the prisoners that persuaded attorneys Deborah Golden, the director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project, and Ed Aro, a cowboy-styled super lawyer from Denver, to file a lawsuit that most considered unwinnable.
Here are some clips:
Robert Hood, the warden of the ADX from 2002 to 2005, told me that when he first arrived on the campus, he was struck by “the very stark environment,” unlike any other prison in which he ever worked or visited — no noise, no mess, no prisoners walking the hallways. When inmates complained to him, he would tell them, “This place is not designed for humanity,” he recalled. “When it’s 23 hours a day in a room with a slit of a window where you can’t even see the Rocky Mountains — let’s be candid here. It’s not designed for rehabilitation. Period. End of story.”
Hood was not trying to be cruel with such frankness. The ADX was built explicitly to house men often already serving multiple life sentences and thus facing little disincentive to, say, murder a guard or another prisoner. Still, during his own tenure, Hood said he made a point of developing one-on-one relationships with as many inmates as possible — he described Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano as “a very likable guy, believe it or not,” and he bonded with the Unabomber over their shared interest in running marathons — in hopes of eliciting good behavior in exchange for whatever he could do to make their sentences more bearable. But he also needed them to understand that even as warden, he lacked the authority to change the rules of their confinement. In the past, Hood has memorably described the ADX as “a clean version of hell.”
A Colorado native who looks the part, attorney [Ed] Aro, 50, favors cowboy boots and fleece jackets, and his cheeks have the ruddy, slightly cured quality of a man who enjoys vigorous exercise at high altitudes. “Juries are my stock in trade,” he told me. “They bring me in when the story is complicated and there’s not going to be a settlement and they need someone to tell a convincing narrative. With this case, I worried, How do you weave a narrative and humanize people at a prison like this?”
As he tried to get a handle on the lawsuit, he made the two-hour drive to Florence nearly every week. For years, conditions inside the ADX had remained largely a mystery; from 2002 on, the Amnesty report noted, ADX officials denied every media request for a visit or prisoner interview, aside from a restricted tour in 2007. (The B.O.P. declined to comment for this article or to allow a site visit.) Aro assumed he would find a small number of prisoners who had somehow slipped through the cracks. “The thing that shocked me most was how massive the problem was,” Aro said. “The ADX is the most closely monitored and evaluated subset of the prison population in the entire country. With the extent of the problem, it’s incomprehensible to me that the B.O.P. didn’t notice what was going on.” How, Aro wondered, did the toughest prison in the United States become a mental asylum — one incapable of controlling its own population?
He enlisted Dr. Doris Gundersen, a Denver-based forensic psychiatrist, who was allowed inside the ADX as part of his legal team. After evaluating 45 prisoners, she estimated that 70 percent met the criteria for at least one serious mental illness. She and Aro spoke to inmates who swallowed razor blades, inmates who were left for days or weeks shackled to their beds (where they were routinely allowed to soil themselves), an inmate who ate his own feces so regularly that staff psychiatrists made a special note only when he did so with unusual “voracity.” A number of prisoners were taken off prescribed medications. (Until recently prison regulations forbade the placement of inmates on psychotropic medication in the Control Unit, the most restrictive section of the ADX, as, by definition, such medication implies severe mental illness.) Others claimed that they were denied treatment, aside from “therapy classes” on the prison television’s educational station and workbooks with titles like “Cage Your Rage,” despite repeated written requests. (The ADX lawsuit says that only two psychologists and one part-time psychiatrist serve the entire prison.)
Gunderson and Aro met one inmate, Marcellus Washington, sentenced to life for carjacking and armed robbery, who slashed his wrists in a suicide attempt and was punished for it: He lost his television and radio privileges for several weeks. They met another inmate, Herbert Perkins, also serving life for armed robbery, who, after slashing his throat with a razor and being rushed to a hospital, was returned to the same cell, given a mop and bucket and ordered to clean up the blood.
The Atlantic’s Andrw Cohn also wrote an excellent series on ADX and the lawsuit.It begins here.
Here’s how Cohen’s series opens with the harrowing tale of then ADX inmate Jack Powers:
When Jack Powers arrived at maximum-security federal prison in Atlanta in 1990 after a bank robbery conviction, he had never displayed symptoms of or been treated for mental illness. Still in custody a few years later, he witnessed three inmates, believed to be members of the Aryan Brotherhood gang, kill another inmate. Powers tried to help the victim get medical attention, and was quickly transferred to a segregated unit for his safety, but it didn’t stop the gang’s members from quickly threatening him.
Not then. And certainly not after Powers testified (not once but twice) for the federal government against the assailants. The threats against him continued and Powers was soon transferred to a federal prison in Pennsylvania, where he was threatened even after he was put into protective custody. By this time, Powers had developed insomnia and anxiety attacks and was diagnosed by a prison psychologist as suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Instead of giving Powers medicine, or proper mental health therapy, officials transferred him yet again, this time to another federal prison in New Jersey. There, Powers was informed by officials that he would be removed from a witness protection program and transferred back into the prison’s general population. Fearing for his life, Powers escaped. When he was recaptured two days later he was sent to ADX-Florence, part of a sprawling prison complex near Florence, Colorado often referred to as “ADX” or Supermax,” America’s most famous and secure federal prison.
From there, things got worse. The Supermax complex, made up of different secure prison units and facilities, is laden with members of the Brotherhood and Powers was no safer than he had been anywhere else. Over and over again he was threatened at the Colorado prison. Over and over again he injured or mutilated himself in response. Over and over again he was transferred to federal government’s special mental health prison facility in Missouri, diagnosed with PTSD, and given medication. Over and over again that medication was taken away when he came back to Supermax.
As he sits today in Supermax, Powers had amputated his fingers, a testicle, his scrotum and his earlobes, has cut his Achilles tendon, and had tried several times to kill himself. Those tattoos you see? Powers had none until 2009, when he started mutilating with a razor and carbon paper. He did much of this — including biting off his pinkie and cutting skin off his face — in the Control Unit at ADX while prison officials consistently refused to treat his diagnosed mental illness. Rules are rules, prison officials told him, and no prisoners in that unit were to be given psychotropic medicine no matter how badly they needed it.
In addition to Monday morning’s expected post-Oscar commentary on winners, losers, and the various best and worst dressed, we were pleasantly surprised to note that there was also a lot of attention paid to a particular part of musician/composer John Legend’s acceptance speech in which he referred to the alarming number of black men in America’s prisons. The singer/songwriter’s assertions evidently sent reporters and commentators scurrying to find out if what Legend said was factually accurate. (Answer: Yes.)
The artists John Legend and Common received an Academy Award Sunday night for “Glory,” their song in the film “Selma.” In his acceptance speech, Legend called for reform of the U.S. criminal justice system. “There are more black men under correctional control today than there were under slavery in 1850,” he noted.
It’s true. There are some, as Politifact has written, 1.7 million black men under some form of correctional control, including probation and parole, excluding those held in local jails on any given day. That is about twice the 870,000 or so black men at least 15 years old who were enslaved in 1850, according to the Census (warning: big file).
In some ways, of course, the comparison is misleading. Although there are more blacks under correctional control now than there were slaves before the Civil War, the population has a whole has grown tremendously in that time. The Census that year found that roughly nine in 10 of the nation’s 3.6 million blacks were enslaved. By contrast, one in 11 blacks is under correctional supervision today, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.
And it would be wrong to obscure the horrors of slavery by comparing that peculiar institution to today’s systems of probation and parole (although in modern prisons, practices such as solitary confinement are indeed profoundly damaging to inmates).
In other ways, though, these numbers conceal the size of our criminal justice system and its consequences, especially for blacks — in a society that, unlike that of the 1850s, is supposed to be free and equitable…
On any given day more than 60,000 kids under the age of 21 are confined to juvenile facilities in America. The majority of those kids are already behind in school when they encounter the juvenile system. And most have experienced one or more serious traumas in their childhood of the kind that have been shown to have had a negative impact on school performance and behavior.
In theory, the time those same kids spend locked up should be a stable period in which they can begin to catch-up on their education without distractions. Thus, most kids should be able to leave the facility better able to succeed in school than when they came in.
Unfortunately, in too many cases, the opposite is true. The education they receive is often sub-par in quality; the environment more punitive than rehabilitative, and not overly conducive to learning.
With these problems in mind, late last year the Department of Justice and the Department of Education put out an advisory to state educational officers urging them to make changes:
For youth who are confined in juvenile justice facilities, providing high-quality correctional education that is comparable to offerings in traditional public schools is one of the most powerful – and cost-effective – levers we have to ensure that youth are successful once released and are able to avoid future contact with the justice system. High-quality correctional education, training, and treatment are essential components of meaningful rehabilitation because these equip youth with the skills needed to successfully reenter their communities and either continue their education or join the workforce.
On Monday and Tuesday, Adriene Hill reported for NPR’s Marketplace on two examples of facilities that are already doing what the DOJ and DOE describe—in particular by focusing on the educational technology that has become common in America’s public schools.
“Technology is no longer the way of the future,” says Chris Jones, superintendent of the Wyoming Girls’ School, which was one of the first secure juvenile justice facilities in the country to embrace the digital classroom. “It is the status of the current. So it is our job as educators to integrate that into how we are educating kids.”
To that end, the school has incorporated educational technology in nearly all its classes, as well as in sports. In geography class, for instance, students use Google Earth to explore the streets of Manhattan and other cities. In horticulture, they will soon be using iPads to monitor temperature and humidity in the greenhouse. And, in computer science class, girls are learning to code.
Teacher Jordan O’Donnell, who has been instrumental in bringing tech into the school, says he is trying to, “empower these students here to think them beyond what got them here to get them involved in coding, STEM, science technology engineering and math.”
Fourteen-year-old Shawnee, who asked her last name not be used, has been at the school for just under five months. In that time, coding has become her thing. She says it gives her a sense of control.
“When people mediate they do that to come at peace with themselves,” she says, in a way that makes her sound much older than she is. “That’s kind of what coding is for me, it’s my meditation.”
She’s already taken the computer science class offered by the school, so she’s doing a more in-depth online class in her free time. She says, ultimately, she wants to get a degree in computer science, then go work for Google. Or a video game company.
“If I hadn’t been here and hadn’t discovered coding, I would be running around like a chicken with their head cut off trying to figure out what I’m doing to do with my future,” she says. She also points out cutting class isn’t exactly an option.
Wednesday, we’ll excerpt from Hill’s story on a facility in San Diego that plans to give every kid a laptop.
THE BAIL INDUSTRY WANTS TO BE YOUR JAILER
The United States is one of only two countries with a private bail industry. (The other is the Philippines.)
In England and Canada, making a profit by posting a defendant’s bail is a crime, while in America, the bail bond business has grown to approximately $14 billion, and the average bail amounts levied by courts have more than doubled since 1994, largely due to the aggressive lobbying of the bail industry.
In the past few years, however, studies have repeatedly shown that the over-use of bail has disproportionately penalized the poor, while resulting in overcrowded jails with no benefit to public safety. To the contrary, the inability to make bail has been found to greatly diminish offenders’ ability to resume a normal life once they do get out, and to significantly raise the likelihood that they will recidivate. As a consequence, an increasing number of states and municipalities are starting to consider a system of pre-trial release for those charged with lower-level nonviolent offenses.
In a Dallas Hilton conference room last summer, a few dozen state lawmakers from around the country gathered for a closed-door presentation about an all-American industry under threat. The pitch was part of an annual conference hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a powerhouse conservative consortium that promotes — and often drafts — pro-business legislation. The endangered industry was bail.
Bail is an essential lubricant of American justice, asserted Nicholas Wachinski, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, a trade group for insurance companies that underwrite bail bonds. But now bail agents are under siege by so-called reformers, who argue that the traditional bail system forces poor defendants to choose between paying fees they can’t afford and sitting in jail until they go to trial. A growing number of states — New Jersey, Colorado, Virginia, Delaware, West Virginia, Hawaii and others — are limiting the use of bail for defendants who don’t pose a threat, or replacing for-profit bail with government supervision.
Of course, Wachinski said, the bail bond industry will continue its tireless lobbying to protect its lucrative franchise, but he was there with another message: Innovation! New products! New markets! “A brave new world!” Why should bail bonds be only for defendants who are awaiting trial? How about bail bonds for a whole new class of customers: people who have already been convicted.
“My task,” Wachinski told the crowd, “is to bring the sexy side of bail back.”
In a courtroom just outside Jackson, Mississippi, Kristina Howell was about to experience a new, “sexy side of bail.”After spending two days and nights in jail for drunk driving this past August, Howell was brought to the Byram city court, where she pled guilty and was told she had to pay a fine of $1,044. If she couldn’t come up with the money on the spot, she was headed back to jail. “I panicked,” said Howell, who lives and supports her son “paycheck to paycheck.”But there was one other option. The judge explained to Howell that she could avoid jail by purchasing a new kind of bail bond, a post-conviction device that bail agents in Mississippi are busily promoting around the state. It would cost $155, and would buy her two extra months to come up with the money to pay her fine. Howell was then escorted to another room, where Patty Hodges from the Mississippi Bonding Company sat ready with the paperwork….
ADVOCATES RAMP UP SUPPORT FOR LENO BILL LIMITING SOLITARY CONFINEMENT IN JUVENILE FACILITIES
In January of this year, state senator Mark Leno introduced a bill that would limit the use of solitary confinement at state and county juvenile correctional facilities.
The bill—SB 124— is co-sponsored by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, California Public Defenders Association, Youth Justice Coalition and Children’s Defense Fund-California.
Specifically, SB 124 would:
• Define solitary confinement as the involuntary placement in a room or cell in isolation from persons other than staff and attorneys.
• Provide that solitary confinement shall only be used when a young person poses an immediate and substantial risk of harm to others or the security of the facility, and when all other less restrictive options have been exhausted.
• Provide that a youth shall only be held in solitary confinement for the minimum time necessary to address the safety risk.
• Empower existing county juvenile justice commissions to report on the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities.
This spring the proposed legislation will be heard in the Senate Public Safety Committee, so on Tuesday, its advocate co-sponsors issued a statement ramping up support. Here’s a clip from the Children’s Defense Fund’s letter:
Solitary confinement is particularly psychologically damaging for young people who already arrive having experienced a history of trauma in their lives, which encapsulates between 75 and 93 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system. Practices such as solitary confinement can contribute to re-victimization and re-traumatization of these young people.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, as early as 2006, found that children are particularly at high risk of death and serious injury as a result of the use of seclusion and restraint, especially children with mental disabilities. In April of 2012, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry noted the psychiatric impact of prolonged solitary confinement including depression, anxiety, and psychosis, and also finding that the majority of suicides occurred in juvenile correctional facilities when the individual had been isolated or confined…
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.
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.
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.
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.
CHOOSE ACTIONABLE REFORM OVER NATIONAL DISCOURSE ON RACE
In an op-ed for the LA Times, California Endowment President Robert Ross says that instead of pushing for a national discussion about race issues, we should take advantage of this “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to take action. Ross urges Californians to push forward with meaningful reforms to ensure better opportunities and outcomes for young people of color.
He points to four specific areas, which the state has already made some measure of progress on, where we should focus our efforts—public education, criminal justice, immigration, and healthcare. Here are the details on the first two:
Public education: California has made the most progressive changes in the nation to bring more resources to our most vulnerable students. In 2012, voters approved Proposition 30, a temporary tax increase that channeled $6 billion to our under-funded schools. We should make it permanent. Then, there’s the Local Control Funding Formula that was ushered in by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013. It will increase classroom funding — by as much as $18 billion over eight years, according to Legislative Analyst Office estimates — for kids in poor, immigrant and foster care households.
Still, the supplemental funds from the Local Control Funding Formula risk disappearing into the ether of school districts’ bureaucracies. We need an annual report card or tracking effort to ensure that the money goes to the students it intends to help, and to hold education bureaucracies accountable for closing education gaps.
Criminal justice: California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 47 last November, which reclassified nonviolent drug and theft crimes that involve less than $950 as misdemeanors instead of felonies.
Under Proposition 47, an estimated 40,000 fewer Californians will be convicted of low-level felonies every year. Up to 1 million could have old nonviolent felony convictions wiped from their records, improving their prospects for jobs, housing and stability, and hundreds of millions of dollars in reduced prison costs could be shifted to drug prevention and treatment services.
It is crucial to take advantage of what the law offers. We need to fund effective outreach about the clean-slate provision to maximize its life-changing possibilities. And we must deliver a new approach to safety. Californians are done with prison-first justice. Putting Proposition 47′s prison savings toward treatment programs will double down on its effectiveness in terms of tax dollars spent and people’s lives remade.
WHY WE LOCK KIDS IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, AND WHAT IT DOES TO THEIR BRAINS
Dana Liebelson has an excellent longread for the January/February issue of Mother Jones Magazine, chronicling the history of solitary confinement in the US, and detailing the alarming effects isolation has on young developing brains, exacerbating existing mental illnesses, and even producing new ones. Here’s a clip, but we highly recommend reading the whole thing:
We now know…that new brain cells continue to develop in the hippocampus—a portion of the brain central to cognition and memory processing—throughout adulthood. When scientists began looking at animals kept in isolation, they discovered that they grew fewer new neurons than their nonisolated counterparts. That’s because isolation creates stress, and stress hormones inhibit neuron formation, which can result in harm to memory and learning. The effect is often more pronounced in juvenile animals, whose brains are undergoing rapid development. There “isn’t any question,” says Zachary Weil, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Ohio State University, that isolation is harmful to the brain and to overall health.
Last March, researchers from Brazil published a study in which they isolated adolescent marmosets, a kind of adorable South American monkey, in cages as small as two and a half feet across, and kept them from seeing or touching other monkeys. The animals soon grew anxious and spent less time on their usual grooming habits. Compared with controls, they exhibited “significantly” higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and a steady drop in neuron production in the hippocampus—just one week in isolation decreased the observed number of new cells by more than one-third.
Ceylan Isgor, an associate biomedical science professor at Florida Atlantic University, has found that the effects of isolation on juvenile animals are “long-lasting.” As she explained it to me, the pruning of synapses—the connections between nerve cells—that occurs during adolescence and helps teenagers grow out of behaviors such as impulsiveness does not occur normally under conditions of extended isolation. Extrapolating from animal studies, she said, the results would suggest that kids already prone to breaking rules will become even more likely to act out: “You’re getting a whole different network.” And while the consequences may not be seen right away, they can pop up later as mental-illness symptoms or vulnerability to drug addiction. In other words, the way we often deal with messed-up kids in juvenile detention may increase the likelihood that they’ll reoffend down the road.
David Chura, whose 2010 book, I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine, chronicles the decade he spent teaching English to juveniles at the Westchester County Jail (an adult lockup in New York), has seen the effects of isolation firsthand. In 2004, the prison opened a new security housing unit, a.k.a. solitary wing. At first, it seemed like an improvement: The rooms, Chura recalled, were clean and quiet and “you could read or whatever.” But then his students began to deteriorate, rapidly and dramatically, and his teaching attempts fell apart: “The motivation for doing anything was lost.” Young men who used to fastidiously iron their orange uniforms stopped bathing. They became angrier and started acting out more. When they were allowed out of their cells into an adjacent recreation area—an empty room with a screen for fresh air—the kids would “plaster their faces against these screens and be yelling back and forth,” Chura told me, as though trying to prove, “I’m alive. I’m really still here.”
The class action suit in Ohio described a boy, “IJ,” who was 14 when he entered state custody in 2006. Grassian, by then retired from Harvard, was asked to review his records. When IJ first came into the system, Grassian testified, he was described as a “cooperative youth” who, despite his intellectual disabilities, didn’t require psychiatric drugs or mental-health services. But after a few years, and a lot of time spent in solitary, the teen was diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder and PTSD. Six years into his sentence, he was “seen as simply incorrigible…and a misogynist,” Grassian noted. He assaulted a staff member that year too. “I hated being in my room,” IJ testified. “It made me mad. It made my anger issues way worse.”
NYC CORRECTIONS SAYS NO MORE SOLITARY FOR RIKERS INMATES UNDER 21, BUT THERE ARE…PROBLEMS
Earlier this week, the New York City Board of Corrections unanimously voted to prohibit the use of solitary confinement for all inmates 21 and younger. The decision is particularly important for the young people housed in the notorious Rikers Island Jail.
But while the move is a huge step in the right direction, senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union, Taylor Pendergrass, says formidable obstacles must be overcome in order for the ban to be successful. The first is obtaining sufficient funding.
The Marshall Project’s Clare Sestanovich has the story. Here’s a clip:
Taylor Pendergrass, a senior staff attorney at the NYCLU, who has worked on their federal lawsuit challenging New York state solitary practices, foresees two problems with implementation. The first is one that the Board of Corrections itself has identified: funding. In fact, the board literally underlined this contingency in their new regulations. The ban on solitary will only take effect, they wrote, “provided that sufficient resources are made available to the Department for necessary staffing and implementation of necessary alternative programming.”
Even if funding is secured, a bigger challenge awaits: how to manage such a drastic policy overhaul in a place where, as one former corrections official told The New Yorker, staff has become “severely addicted to solitary confinement.” If this addiction is as deeply rooted as many claim (and Commissioner Joseph Ponte has himself identified a “culture of excessive solitary confinement”) the new policy could face stiff resistance. “The piece that’s complicated and harder to get a sense of,” Kysel says, “is how much buy-in there will be from officers who are putting them in practice.”
But more than getting corrections officers on board, the key, according to Pendergrass, will be “making sure that [guards] have tools other than sending [inmates] to solitary as a knee-jerk response. I think it’s certainly true that if you just take away solitary confinement and replace it with something else, there’s a high risk that the policy will never be properly implemented, or even if it is implemented, you will have a regression back to punitive responses.”
Solitary confinement, he says, has been used as a blunt instrument to respond to a wide array of problems, ranging from mental illness to substance abuse to adolescent defiance, and poses real dangers to those assigned to maintain order. Pendergrass says a long-term solution will require “fragmenting the approach”; tailoring responses to inmates who act out based on their underlying problems. That, of course, requires complicated – not to mention expensive – training. The BOC’s new rule seems to anticipate this approach. It specifies that all staff who monitor punitive segregation units will be provided with training that “shall include, but shall not be limited to, recognition and understanding of mental illness and distress, effective communication skills, and conflict de-escalation techniques.”
WHERE LA STANDS ON THE ROAD TO REFORMING THE DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES
After months of delaying the implementation of foster care reform recommendations made by a blue ribbon commission, including the hiring of a child welfare czar, the LA County Board of Supervisors appear to be gaining momentum.
Like most of us, the transition team tasked with preparing the way for the new Office of Child Protection attributes the new energy, in part, to the arrival of two new board members determined to implement the commission’s reforms.
The Chronicle of Social Change’s Christie Renick reports that until now, the transition team has come up against resistance from members of the board, particularly Supervisor Don Knabe, who has opposed both the blue ribbon commission and the transition team as unnecessary bureaucracy. In addition, the transition team, once authorized to lend a hand in the hiring of the new czar, were subsequently excluded from the process.
Bolstered by the new activity from the Board of Supervisors, the transition team has set a list of priorities they intend to push in the coming months.
The transition team appointed to initiate sweeping child protection reform in Los Angeles met for the first time in 2015 this week, and seemed to embrace an optimistic attitude.
“A lot of times you wonder if this is going to be shelved, these recommendations, and what I’m seeing is that it’s alive and well, and we’re moving forward,” said Richard Martinez during the January 12 meeting. Martinez, who served on the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, is a member of the transition team and Superintendent of the Pomona Unified School District.
“It’s so exciting that we’re moving forward with this,” said transition team member Janet Teague at the January meeting.
The positive tone belies the team’s frustration over spending the past six months grinding out small wins while being sidelined from the highest priority of the reform process: hiring the person who will oversee it.
The transition team’s meetings – held in the cavernous and almost entirely empty Board of Supervisors’ meeting room in downtown L.A. – have produced some results, such as the expansion of the medical hubs where children and youth receive health screenings.
But fitful relations between the team and some of the county’s five supervisors have left team members and outside observers wondering what could have been if the board had given the deliberative body a stronger mandate.
“We have not yet had an easy communication with respect to the people we’re serving, the Board of Supervisors,” said transition team co-chair Leslie Gilbert-Lurie during a December meeting. “A transition team really is only useful if there is a desire to use us in terms of our expertise and our opinions.”
Hope for better relations comes in the form of two new board members, both of whom have voiced support for the reform process.
“We need reports back [from the transition team] more often,” said newly sworn in Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, during a recent Board of Supervisors’ meeting. “I think the public’s confidence in what we’re doing is very low. They haven’t seen us doing much and they don’t know that we will do much.”