PRESIDENT ANNOUNCES HISTORIC BAN ON SOLITARY CONFINEMENT FOR KIDS IN FEDERAL LOCK-UPS
On Monday, President Barack Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, acknowledging the devastating effects of isolation on mental health.
Last summer, President Obama ordered the Department of Justice to conduct a review on the nation’s over-reliance on solitary confinement. The report came back offering ways to better protect the health and well-being of federal inmates by greatly limiting solitary confinement.
The president said his administration will adopt the recommendations in the report, which include banning the use of isolation as punishment for low-level offenders, expanding out-of-cell time for those held in solitary, and building separate and less-restrictive spaces for mentally ill inmates and those in “protective custody,” who would normally be held in solitary confinement. The changes have the potential to impact the lives of approximately 10,000 federal prisoners.
Obama pointed to the story of Kalief Browder, whose inability to post $3,000 bail led to a three-year stint at Rikers Island, most of which was spent in solitary confinement. Browder came out of Rikers and isolation and struggled for three years with mental illness and the aftereffects of prolonged isolation. Browder tried to kill himself several times, finally succeeding in June of last year. He was 22-years-old.
Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences. It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior. Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones. Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses.
The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance. Those who do make it out often have trouble holding down jobs, reuniting with family and becoming productive members of society. Imagine having served your time and then being unable to hand change over to a customer or look your wife in the eye or hug your children.
As president, my most important job is to keep the American people safe. And since I took office, overall crime rates have decreased by more than 15 percent. In our criminal justice system, the punishment should fit the crime — and those who have served their time should leave prison ready to become productive members of society. How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.
That’s why last summer, I directed Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and the Justice Department to review the overuse of solitary confinement across U.S. prisons. They found that there are circumstances when solitary is a necessary tool, such as when certain prisoners must be isolated for their own protection or in order to protect staff and other inmates. In those cases, the practice should be limited, applied with constraints and used only as a measure of last resort. They have identified common-sense principles that should guide the use of solitary confinement in our criminal justice system.
The Justice Department has completed its review, and I am adopting its recommendations to reform the federal prison system…
“Today is a historic day,” said Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), on Tuesday morning.
And so it was.
Lobel was referring to Tuesday’s announcement of the settlement of Ashker v. Governor, the class action suit brought by the CCR in 2012, that now will result in sweeping changes in the way that California prisons use solitary confinement. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of a group of ten Pelican Bay State Prison inmates who had each spent at least 10 years in solitary confinement, several of them far longer.
(This same group of plaintiffs were the primary organizers of the prison hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013, to protest the conditions of those held in solitary. The 2013 strike resulted in 30,000 prisoners refusing food during its first five days.)
When the Center for Constitutional Rights first filed Ashker on May 31, 2012, in Pelican Bay alone, more than 500 of the 1100 prisoners residing in the SHU—as solitary housing units are known—had been there for over 10 years. An additional 78 prisoners had been in Pelican Bay’s SHU for more than 20 years.
As of Monday, across the state as a whole, a total of 2,858 prisoners were reportedly locked in SHUs. In Pelican Bay, which has the largest SHU program in the state, this means they spend 22 ½ hours a day in cramped, concrete, windowless cells. They are denied telephone calls, contact visits, or any kind of programming whatsoever.
Under Tuesday’s agreement, the number of prisoners kept in solitary could fall by more than half, or as many as 1,800 inmates, according to Jeffrey Beard, the secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, who talked with reporters by conference call on Tuesday.
The far-reaching agreement, as described by the Center for Constitutional Rights, in their summary of settlement terms “…fundamentally alters all aspects of this cruel and unconstitutional regime. The agreement will dramatically reduce the current solitary confinement population and should have a lasting impact on the population going forward; end the practice of isolating prisoners who have not violated prison rules; cap the length of time a prisoner can spend in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay; and provide a restrictive but not isolating alternative for the minority of prisoners who continue to violate prison rules on behalf of a gang.”
Among the most important terms of the settlement is the fact that now California will no longer impose indeterminate SHU sentences. Instead, after serving a determinate sentence for a SHU-eligible offense, validated gang affiliates whose offense was proven to be related to gang activities will be transferred to a two-year, four-step program—knowns as a step-down program. When those two years are up, if the inmates do not commit another SHU-eligible offense while in the program, they will be released to a general population prison setting. Even during the two years, although “conditions at the steps remain harsh,” explains the CCR, prisoners will be allowed some telephone calls, plus rehabilitative programming at each step.
If mass incarceration is one of modern America’s deepest pathologies, solitary confinement is the concentrated version of it: far too many people locked up for far too long for no good reason, at no clear benefit to anyone.
The practice “literally drives men mad,” Justice Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court said in an appearance before Congress last March, highlighting the case of a California man isolated for 25 years. In July, President Obama became the first president to denounce the use of solitary. Locking people up alone for years or decades, he said, “is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt?”
These remarks are notable only because they come from the highest levels of government. Many Americans have been aware of the horror of indefinite solitary confinement for years.
On Tuesday, the slow push for meaningful reform got a big shove in the right direction. In a sweeping, unprecedented class-action settlement, California officials agreed to a drastic overhaul of the state’s solitary confinement system, the largest, most indiscriminate and most brutal in the country.
The settlement — which ends a lawsuit brought on behalf of a number of long-serving inmates — will mean the immediate release of more than 1,000 isolated inmates back into the general prison population. When the suit was filed in 2012, 500 of these inmates had been held for more than 10 years in tiny, windowless cells with virtually no human contact. At most, they had 90 minutes a day to take a shower or stand alone in a concrete “yard.” (A 2011 United Nations report said that stays longer than 15 days could amount to torture.)
The offenses that landed them in solitary? Most often, it was evidence that they were “affiliated” with a prison gang, whether or not they had broken any rules. The risk they posed to other inmates was rarely a factor. Still, they had to wait six years for a chance at review. Any evidence of continuing gang ties meant at least six more years.
By coincidence, a study on solitary was released Wednesday by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and researchers at Yale Law School, which reported that state and federal prisons are holding as many as 100,000 inmates in solitary confinement, a figure that poses a “grave problem” for the criminal justice system, said the researchers.
Jess Bravin of the Wall Street Journal, who reports on the research, notes that Colorado corrections director Rick Raemisch, who helped oversee the study, said use of solitary confinement had gotten out of control, as officials found it a convenient way to maintain order in their prisons.
“The original purpose was to take those who were deemed too violent or too dangerous in the institution and to isolate them so no one got hurt,” he said. “But as it evolved, if you didn’t follow the rules in a particular area—no violence but you didn’t act the way you were supposed to act—you were placed in solitary confinement.”
For inmates with mental illness or emotional disorders, such isolation only exacerbates their problems, making them a greater safety risk when eventually released, Mr. Raemisch said.
Solitary confinement has a long history in the U.S. and was originally instituted by Quakers and Anglicans, not as punishment, but as a time for contemplation and to seek forgiveness from God, all of which it was hoped would be corrective. Yet, when political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville came from France to investigate the U.S. penitentiary system in 1831, de Tocqueville examined the use of solitary confinement and quickly perceived the wrong-headedness of the strategy. He wrote:
“Nowhere was this system of imprisonment crowned with the hoped-for success. In general it was ruinous to the public treasury; it never effected the reformation of the prisoners.
“In order to reform them, they had been submitted to complete isolation; but this absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.”
CALIFORNIA BILL TO CURTAIL USE OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT FOR KID GETS SHOT DOWN IN LAST COMMITTEE
California’s SB 124, which would have greatly reduced the use of solitary confinement for kids, was defeated in a state assembly committee on Thursday. The bill, sponsored by Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) had already been passed by the California senate, and the crucial Assembly Public Safety Committee. It had one more committee hearing left—namely in the Assembly Appropriations Committee—before heading to the Assembly floor.
SB 124 never made it out of that second committee.
At the same time, SB 124 faced opposition by law enforcement, and particularly strong opposition from organizations representing county probation officers, who run most juvenile facilities in California.
The bill was amended several time to try to placate its primary opponents.
SB 124 would have established important guidelines aimed at keeping youth in the classroom, programs, and counseling, and out of long-term isolation.
Thursday afternoon, some advocates were pointing fingers at Appropriations Committee chair, Jimmy Gomez (D).
We will know more in the next few days about why the bill was defeated.
The video below features young activists who experienced solitary in their youth, and who now work to end or drastically limit the use of the practice for kids.
LA COUNTY SHERIFF & OTHERS PUSH FOR REAL PENALTIES FOR BUYERS of CHILD SEX, INSTEAD OF THE WRIST SLAPS THEY NOW RECEIVE
In LA County, men who buy favors from under-age girls who are sex-trafficked into prostitution now are typically charged with misdemeanors and hit with fines in LA County.
All that may change as a Los Angeles task force looks at ways to use existing California laws to hit johns with felonies that result in prison time and possible registration as a sex offenders.
LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell is one of those county officials who strongly favors the push for real punishment, not just a minor slap on the wrist.
“What are johns? They’re pedophiles, they’re child molesters,” LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell told The Associated Press. “If we can take away the demand and very clearly let people know this is going to ruin their life … We’re hoping that’s going to be a disincentive.”
The county is the nation’s most populous, with more than 10 million residents. A taskforce that’s expected to be in place this fall will pursue the stiffer charges, a push that puts Los Angeles at the national forefront of “appropriately going after the buyers” of child sex workers, according to Malika Saada Saar, head of the Washington D.C.-based Human Rights Project for Girls.
For about a decade, Scandinavian countries have pioneered the so-called Nordic model, which aims to attack sex trafficking by targeting customers to decrease demand. The concept has gained traction in the United States in recent years with states including Massachusetts, New York and Colorado increasing fines and penalties. And law enforcement has started to move away from arresting women for prostitution and treating them like criminals.
California is one of the nation’s top four destinations for trafficking human beings, according to the state attorney general’s office, and transnational gangs are increasingly trafficking humans because it’s low risk and highly profitable.
Five girls working for a trafficker seven days a week brings in an estimated $600,000 to $800,000 annually. The average age in California for a girl who is sex trafficked is 12 years old and some are as young as 9 years old, McDonnell said. The average age of entry into sex work nationally is 15 years old, said Ziba Cranmer, executive director of Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Demand Abolition.
California doesn’t have a specific law treating johns as traffickers, so jurisdictions such as Los Angeles and Alameda counties are trying to use existing sex laws against buyers.
WHY IS THERE A RISE IN LA’S CRIME? FOR LOTS OF DIFFERENT REASONS, SAYS AUTHOR AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE ANALYST JOE DOMANICK
Crime in LA has been diving for more than a decade. So why did it rise more than 20% during the first half of 2015— with felony assaults up 26% and robberies up 19%.
In an Joe Domanick in an LA Times Op Ed, author and analyst Joe Domanick points to an interweave of probable causes. (Domanick is the associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and author of “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing.)”
Here’s a clip from his essay:
Here in Los Angeles, the rise might also be attributable in part to the Los Angeles Police Department crime stats simply being reported more honestly. An irrefutable Los Angeles Times investigation of the department’s crime numbers for the first half of 2014, for example, discovered the misclassification of 1,200 violent felony assaults as misdemeanors, thus making it appear that serious violent crime was going down when in fact it went up by 14%.
There are also broader national trends that might be affecting L.A.’s crime rate. According to Ron Noblet, the dean of gang interventionists at the Los Angeles Urban Peace Institute, the heroin epidemic plaguing the Northeast has finally started to hit Los Angeles.
“It’s moving now from middle-class kids in the west San Fernando Valley to Chicano and African American areas such as South Los Angeles and East L.A.,” says Noblet. Thus we might be seeing heroin become a crime-rise factor like crack was in the 1980s, both in terms of strung-out users committing crimes to feed their addiction and gangs fighting turf wars over drug distribution rights.
But I’d like to take an educated guess on what might be the key factor causing L.A. crime to rise: Something may be happening akin to the eras of the Watts riots of 1965, the high-crime crack war years of the 1980s and early ’90s, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. And it’s this: a new Gilded Age of obscene wealth, stunning, low-wage income disparity and grinding poverty have come together to make ghetto and barrio life ever more desperate. As a result, the steam is once again pressing against the engine cap, just as it did during those infamous times.
LA COUNTY BOARD OF SUPES, PROBATION DEPARTMENT CLASH OVER FUNDING FOR DIVERSION PROGRAM
On Tuesday, Sept. 1, the LA County Board of Supervisors is slated to re-vote on a jail building plan, after the original vote was found to be in violation of the state’s open meetings law. On the agenda, it was attached to a program to divert the county’s mentally ill from jails, which will also be reconsidered Sept. 1.
In the meantime, a disagreement about how the board plans to fund the diversion plan has arisen.
Over a period of five years, the LA County Probation Department has received $200 million in state money allocated to help keep people with felony convictions from getting locked up for certain probation violations.
The Supes want to redirect half of the state money from Senate Bill 678 to set up and run the planned Office of Diversion and Reentry which would be under the county’s Health Services Department.
But LA County Probation Chief Jerry Powers argues that SB 678 money is intended solely for probation programs, and that if the Supes get their way, it would likely be to the detriment of future probation program funding.
The LA County Supes have already set aside $30 million in county money, but had banked on about $100 million in additional state funding. The probation chief says he is willing to help the board come up with money from somewhere else. And Supe Mark Ridley Thomas says he believes the board is committed enough to this comprehensive diversion program that they will find another source of funding if necessary.
Probation chief Jerry Powers has protested, saying the money must go to his department and be spent on felony probationers. In a letter to county supervisors, Powers warned the board’s plan “would likely jeopardize future [state] funding” for a wide range of programs.
State officials echoed Powers’ concerns and said they have raised the issue with county leaders.
“We have always understood [money authorized by Senate Bill 678] to be a probation program, and the dollars in the program are calculated based on the number of people that probation is keeping out of prison or jail,” said Diane Cummins, a special assistant to Gov. Jerry Brown. “It seems clear in the statute that the money has to go to probation.”
The new diversion office would be part of the county’s Health Services Department, not the probation department.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who proposed the new diversion program, said the issue is being reviewed by county attorneys.
“We rely on legal opinions rather than that which is being asserted by a given department head,” he said.
Ridley-Thomas said even if the state money can’t be used for the new diversion office, the board’s “commitment to diversion is so high that I suspect the board members will be motivated to find the necessary resources to fund” the program.
THE STATE OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT IN NEW YORK
The final story in a three-part NPR series on solitary confinement in the US focuses a lens on New York, where major efforts (and lawsuits) have been changing when and how long prisons can hold inmates in isolation cells.
NPR’s Brian Mann takes a look at both sides of the debate. On one side, the head of the NY prison guard’s union, Mike Powers, says the solitary confinement is an indispensable deterrent and is used strategically by officers to keep prisons safe.
On the other side, reform advocates say isolation is inappropriately used as a “default mechanism,” and that studies on the issue suggest solitary confinement can cause serious psychological damage.
“Our SHUs are not the dungeons that people portray them to be,” Powers says…
“I don’t know how many times I’ve had an offender, an inmate, tell me that ‘I’m not going back in there, Powers. You can count on that,’ ” he says.
This is the debate happening across the U.S. Many corrections officers see solitary confinement as a normal practice, relied on for decades.
Reform advocates say isolation is used far too often. They point to the fact that many of the 4,500 inmates held in New York’s isolation cells before last year’s agreement were teenagers, pregnant women and inmates who committed minor infractions.
“Five out of six offenses that lead people into solitary are for nonviolent ticket infractions, like excessive bearding or having too many stamps,” says Five Mualimm-ak, now a reform activist, who spent 11 years behind bars on weapons charges, including five years in solitary. The figures come from a New York Civil Liberties report released in 2012.
“Socially, it made me numb. I felt like I was stripped of all the skills I was used to using on a human-being level,” Mualimm-ak says.
Solitary confinement is getting a second look from politicians as part of a general shift away from tough crime policies and because studies show isolation can harm inmates’ mental health and lead to more crime once they’re released. In a statement, New York’s acting corrections commissioner, Anthony Annucci, said the reform effort here will make prisons “more humane.”
But with details of New York’s new policy still being hashed out, Soffiyah Elijah with a pro-reform group called the Correctional Association worries that opposition from prison guards will block significant change.
“It’s the No. 1 hurdle because they are on the front line, they’re given amazing discretion to abusively use the ability to put somebody in solitary confinement, and it’s their default mechanism,” Elijah says.
VIDEO RELEASED OF CONTROVERSIAL LASD LAKEWOOD SHOOTING OF MENTALLY ILL MAN – QUESTIONS STILL REMAIN
On July 6 in Lakewood, Los Angeles County deputies shot and killed John Berry, a 31-year-old mentally ill man who had likely gone off his medication.
John’s brother, Chris Berry, a federal law enforcement officer, saw the whole thing. He was the one who called the cops on John. Chris says that when he requested a mental evaluation team, which would have included a mental health care professional, he was told deputies would be responding instead.
Berry’s family has released video captured by a witness at the scene that has been included as evidence in a civil trial.
Deputies say Berry rammed his car head-on into a patrol car, pinning an officer between the two cars before the witness started filming. His family says he didn’t hit the patrol car. They say the video depicts deputies peppering Berry with bullets as he is backing up in the car.
The LA Times’ Corina Knoll and Rubin Vives have the story. Here’s a clip:
But Berry was not himself and appeared to be off his medication July 4 when he showed up at home upset that he had lost his job. He called the police to complain that he wasn’t being allowed access to the belongings in his room. When a deputy arrived, Berry gathered some possessions and left the house he shared with his mother, sister, brother and a niece.
Two days later, Berry reappeared at the house, parking his car on the front lawn. His older brother went out to talk to him.
“He was sitting in the driver’s seat of his BMW,” Chris Berry, 37, recalled. “I could tell he hadn’t slept in a while.”
Chris Berry, a federal police officer who works at a facility with two psychiatric hospitals, said he called the Lakewood sheriff’s station and asked that a mental evaluation team be dispatched. He was informed that deputies would be sent instead.
The deputies who arrived were immediately aggressive and escalated the situation, Chris Berry said. He said he watched as they unleashed pepper spray, shot his brother with a Taser at least four times and struck him with batons. His brother, he recalled, looked stunned and cried, “What did I do wrong?”
“They said he accelerated and crashed into the police car. That did not happen — I was there for the whole thing,” Chris Berry said. “But they have to say that because it justifies their aggressive actions.… I believe in my heart and I know Johnny wasn’t trying to hurt them.”
Chris Berry said that as a law enforcement officer, he is pained to be mixed up in what feels like a family fight. “I called one brother to help another brother and…” He stopped, unable to finish the sentence.
The family hopes the release of the video will hold the department accountable while also forcing law enforcement agencies to rethink how they interact with the mentally ill.
LONGREAD: WOMEN IN PRISON FIND HEALING AND PURPOSE THROUGH EDUCATIONAL AND THERAPEUTIC PROGRAMS
The Desert Sun’s Anna Rumer has a great longread about redemption for incarcerated women (often victims themselves) in California detention facilities, and the programs that helped them change their trajectories. Here’s how it opens (but do read the whole thing):
Looking at Danielle Barcheers, it’s impossible to imagine her as a killer.
The perky 34-year-old often wears a smile and makes repeated apologies for the “mess” in her spotless cell. She comes off like a beam of light amid the 1,640 women serving time at the California Institution for Women in northern Corona.
She’s come a long way. In 1997, 15-year-old Barcheers became the youngest girl in California at the time to be tried and convicted as an adult after helping murder her boyfriend’s grandmother.
Sentenced to 25 years to life, politicians bragged about locking away a child they considered an uncorrectable bad seed — a distinction Barcheers found herself believing for a long time.
But in the 18 years since she first said goodbye to her physical freedom, she’s found another way to free herself and other women as a mentor and certified drug counselor.
Most of these women were victims themselves, prison counselors say — victims of addiction, physical abuse, sexual violence and broken homes. But somewhere along the way, they became the victimizers.
Since Barcheers was sentenced, she’s seen a 180-degree change in the political attitude about rehabilitation. Today, prison officials look to education, counseling and social programs to help provide the women their greatest opportunity to escape the cycle of violence.
Of those who are given a second chance, only half will make enough of a change to leave behind the mistakes and traumas that haunt them. But others find hope.
Barcheers may never banish the ghosts of her past completely, but she has made peace with them and, for the first time in her life, herself.
Could steroid use by cops cause officers to escalate in encounters with suspects, when deescalation might prevent tragedy? In a new story for AlterNet reporter David J. Krajicek talks to police experts and others who express concern over a rise in secret steroid use, now that pricy and complicated random testing has fallen out of favor with budget-minded law enforcement agencies.
While we don’t necessarily agree with every single one of Krajicek’s conclusions, his story brings up some worthwhile questions.
But first here is some background on the issue in general:
In 2004, the DEA became concerned enough about a pattern of steroid use among law enforcement personnel that, together with the U.S. Department of Justice, they created a seven-page booklet titled “Steroid Abuse by Law Enforcement Personnel” to help police agencies understand the problem and how to avoid it.
“Anabolic steroid abuse, once viewed as a problem strictly associated with body builders, fitness ‘buffs,’ and professional athletes, has entered into the law enforcement community,” the DEA wrote in its brochure.
“Law enforcement personnel have used steroids for both physical and psychological reasons,” added the DEA. “The idea of enhanced physical strength and endurance provides one with ‘the invincible mentality’ when performing law enforcement duties.” Especially when those duties are of a nature that can easily turn dangerous.
But whatever upsides the drugs might provide, the downsides could be considerable, warned the DEA, citing the following psychological side-effects:
- Mood swings (including manic-like symptoms leading to violence)
- Impaired judgment (stemming from feelings of invincibility)
- Extreme irritability
- Hostility and aggression
When the problem seemed to get worse, not better, in 2008 the International Association of Chiefs of Police passed a resolution that “calls upon state and local law enforcement entities to establish a model policy prohibiting the use of illegally obtained steroids” by officers.
That same year, Police Chief Magazine, the publication put out by the IACP, ran a story about dangers of steroid “use and abuse,” in which the authors (which included a high ranking Arizona cop, an army doctor, and several medical specialists and researchers) explained why the steroid issue was an essential one to face, despite the admitted difficulties with testing:
“Officers carry weapons, are authorized to use lethal force, and are often involved in physically controlling or restraining people,” the authors noted. “If the stories of ’roid rage are true, how often are the officers who use anabolic steroids involved in unnecessary use-of-force incidents that could become a major liability for their agencies? Considering the legal issues, health effects, and commensurate costs associated with inappropriate use, agencies should proactively address this issue. Rather than look back on what could be an embarrassing “steroid era” of law enforcement—one in which the profession might be riddled with lawsuits, corruption, and claims of heavy-handedness—it is critical to address the current and future impact of this issue head-on.
But according to more recent stories, even many of the cop shops that did test have dropped testing, including the Phoenix police, whose testing protocol was considered a pioneering model. Yet the problem has not gone away, as demonstrated by this 2014 story in the Augusta Chronicle about a brewing steroid scandal among law enforcement in Georgia—and elsewhere. Here’s a clip:
One of the largest cases occurred in New Jersey in 2007 when 248 officers and firefighters from 53 agencies were obtaining fraudulent prescriptions of anabolic steroids from a doctor. According to news accounts, the discovery was made after the doctor’s sudden death.
But smaller cases have occurred throughout the country, including one in Atlanta last year.
Five firefighters and one police officer from Cobb County were included in the investigation. Two of the employees resigned almost immediately.
Earlier this year in Washington state, investigators learned a King’s County sheriff’s deputy had been using steroids and dealing them to others inside and outside of the agency.
The sheriff told news outlets he suspected members of his SWAT team bought steroids, but he would not try to prove it because he needed the 20-man team intact.
(Interestingly, back in 2009, LA County’s Office of Independent Review reported, according to the LA Times, that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department had lowered its hiring standards to the degree that, among other questionable hires, it accepted a recruit who “had abused marijuana and steroids and been convicted of underage drinking shortly before he applied to become a deputy.” Such standard dipping has since been corrected, which is good. However, it is no guarantee that steroid use is not continuing under the radar, at both the LASD and the LAPD. As a matter of fact, anecdotally speaking, we hear stories….)
The truth is, exactly no one reports that steroid use among cops is now on the wane, or even less prevalent than it was in the mid 2000s.
In fact, Dr. Harrison G. Pope, director of the Biological Psychiatry Laboratory at Harvard’s McLean Hospitaltold Megan Cassidy of the Arizona Republic last month, “There’s no real way to stem the tide, so to speak, as far as access to steroids, and there’s no prospect in the near future that use of them is going to decline,” said Pope.
“We are going to continue to see its use with law-enforcement officers.”
AND IN OTHER NEWS: WILL THE JJDPA OPEN THE WAY FOR OTHER JUVENILE JUSTICE REFORM?
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act (S 1169) will be the piece of legislatation most closely watched by juvenile justice activists when Congress returns from summer recess in September. The JJDPA, as it is commonly known, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 23, and is headed to the Senate floor.
First enacted in 1974, the JJDPA has been due for reauthorization since 2007. On April 30, 2015, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) introduced S. 1169, the bipartisan bill to accomplish the necessary reauthorization. The bill would also strengthen the JJDPA’s core protections for kids involved in the juvenile justice system.
If the Senate passes the bill, other juvenile justice legislation could gather momentum in JJDPA’s wake, said Naomi Smoot, senior policy associate at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.
Such reform-oriented legislation introduced in late July and August include bills that deal with solitary confinement, shackling, alternatives to incarceration and record expungement.
Smoot said juvenile justice reforms are a natural fit within broader bipartisan negotiations to reform the criminal justice system.
“Juvenile justice reform really is the first line in those criminal justice efforts,” she said.
Barr lists some of the legislation that the JJDPA could tow behind it, including the MERCY Act (S 1965), which is the bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., with Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, that would prohibit solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal system or held in pretrial facilities and juvenile detention facilities.
AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE SUBJECT OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT: HERE’S HOW SOLITARY CONFINEMENT GOT HARDWIRED INTO THE POLICIES OF AMERICAN PRISONS
Here’s a clip from Part 1, which looks at the history of solitary:
In the yard at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, gray-haired men make their way up to a small stage. A towering stone prison wall rises overhead. One by one they sit at a scratchy microphone and tell their stories — of being locked up 23 hours a day in a place that just about broke them.
“This place here really did something to me psychologically,” says former inmate Anthony Goodman.
Eastern State is the prison where solitary confinement was pioneered in the U.S. It’s a museum now, but the reunion here is a chance for former inmates to talk about what it meant to do time here.
“Because this place would make you go insane if you didn’t know how to handle it,” Goodman says.
Fred Kellner was a psychiatrist charged with looking after inmates’ mental health. He says he knew conditions at Eastern State were hurting people, but he felt powerless.
“I remember being bothered by various situations. You can’t do much about it because the most important thing in a prison is control. And that rules,” he says. “If you expect to change it, you’re in for depression.”
Here’s one of the first things you learn when you study the history of solitary confinement: People have had deep doubts about isolating inmates for a really long time.
The earliest experiments were carried out here at Eastern State in the 1800s in tiny, monastic cells. Sean Kelley, director of education at Eastern State, says at first people really believed that isolating criminals for long periods might help them heal, make them more virtuous.
Critics didn’t buy it. The British author and activist Charles Dickens who visited in the 1840s described long-term isolation as “ghastly,” a form of “torture.” Kelley says the people running Eastern State didn’t listen. Decade after decade they kept trying to make the system work.
“The officers and the administrators would write about the inmates becoming agitated. They would have to carry out really extreme physical punishments to maintain silence. They would literally put them in strait jackets and douse them in water in the wintertime and leave them outdoors,” he says.
LA COUNTY SUPES LIKELY TO VOTE ON CREATING AN “OFFICE OF DIVERSION” TO KEEP MENTALLY ILL OUT OF JAIL
Today (Tuesday), the LA County Board of Supervisors is slated to vote on increasing mental health diversion efforts in the county through creating and funding an Office of Diversion.
Last week, LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey presented a report full of recommendations on how to redirect LA’s mentally ill from county jails and into far more appropriate community treatment. Several of the most important pieces of DA Lacey’s report include implementation of major mental health crisis training for law enforcement, adding more urgent cares to which officers can bring people in crisis, and launching a specialized housing program.
So far, $30 million has been set aside for diversion efforts, and in a report presented to the board last week, interim CEO Sachi Hamai estimated Lacey’s diversion plan would have a total implementation cost of $83,574,841. The necessary additional funding will come from realignment money, as well as money from SB 678, the Community Corrections Performance Incentives Act.
The director would work with five other Diversion staff members (experts in mental health, substance abuse treatment, housing, etc.) to oversee LA County’s efforts to divert the mentally ill, homeless, and those with substance abuse problems from lock-up. The Diversion office will coordinate closely with the Jail Care Transitions Director (whose job it is to ensure inmates have access to reentry services when they’re released).
The motion would also create a committee to push diversion recommendations and to keep cross-agency collaboration running smoothly. The Permanent Steering Committee would be comprised of one official from the Chief Executive Office, the Superior Court, the Public Defender’s Office, the Alternative Public Defender’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, the Sheriff’s Department, Probation, the Fire Department, the Department of Mental Health, the Substance Abuse Prevention and the Control division of the Department of Public Health, and DHS.
“We need the Office of Diversion Services to serve as a pipeline, bringing people from one resource to the next in an effective way so they do not commit more crimes once they are released,” said Supe. Ridley-Thomas. “In fact, we need to design a game plan so that they don’t enter the system in the first place.”
The SoCal ACLU’s legal director, Peter Eliasberg, said that if the motion passed, “it would be a major step forward in the diversion effort.”
DIFFERENT DEFINITIONS OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT POSE PROBLEMS
During a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing that focused on conditions in federal prisons, including solitary confinement practices, criminal justice advocates and prison officials had a strange disagreement about whether the US Bureau of Prisons even uses solitary confinement.
Charles Samuels, the director of the Bureau of Prisons, told US Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) that isolation isn’t actually happening in federal facilities because in the overstuffed prisons, inmates are sharing cells in solitary confinement, and are only housed solo if they are determined to be a threat to others or if a health professional deems it necessary.
But according to the Department of Justice’s own definition of solitary confinement, if inmates are kept in their cells for 22 or more hours per day, in limited contact with other people, it doesn’t matter whether or not inmates are in their own cells or housed with others.
The ACLU’s Amy Fettig, called the confusing exchange “simply a word game to try to cover up a practice that harms people.”
“We do not practice solitary confinement,” Samuels told Booker at the hearing. “Our practice has always been to ensure that when individuals are placed in restrictive housing, we place them in a cell with another individual, to also include that our staff make periodic rounds to check on the individuals.”
“I’m sorry, I just really need to be clear on that,” Booker cut in, sounding baffled. “Your testimony to me right now is that the BOP does not practice solitary confinement of individuals singularly in a confined area?”
“You’re correct,” Samuels said. “We only place an individual in a cell alone if we have good evidence to believe that the individual could cause harm to another individual and/or if we have our medical or mental health staff given an evaluation that it would be a benefit to the individual to be placed in a cell alone. We do not under any circumstances, nor have we ever, had a practice of placing individuals in a cell alone.”
Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said Samuels did not testify accurately.
“It’s patently untrue. The Bureau of Prisons does use solitary confinement,” Fettig said. “It is simply a word game to try to cover up a practice that harms people.”
So, what explains the two different stories? According to Fettig, the bureau has reckoned with a growing prison population by double-celling inmates in solitary confinement, then claiming that doesn’t qualify as solitary confinement.
In fact, this interpretation is at odds with the bureau’s parent organization, the Department of Justice. The DOJ defines solitary confinement as “the state of being confined to one’s cell for approximately 22 hours per day or more, alone or with other prisoners, that limits contact with others.”
FORMER PROSECUTOR AND JUDGE OPENS RANCH TO HELP KIDS BREAK FROM THE PATH TO JUVENILE DETENTION
In an essay for the Washington Post, Monterey County Supervisor John Phillips tells the story of how he went from landing kids in detention facilities as a Monterey County prosecutor (and then as a superior court judge), to creating a camp to keep kids out of lock-up.
The 100-acre Rancho Cielo Youth Campus in Salinas, provides teens and young adults with opportunities to earn college credits, participate in job training, and other skills-building services.
Judges can recommend teens for placement at Rancho Cielo, but no one is “sentenced” to stay at the camp. Phillips said he wanted the kids to see it as a space to grow and succeed, rather than as a punishment facility.
(now a Monterey County Supervisor)
According to Phillips, around 200 kids have graduated from Rancho Cielo, and that 83% of participants are still employed or in college one year after their time in the program ends. And, all told, Rancho Cielo’s costs are around 10% that of incarceration.
I gained firsthand knowledge of the cycle of violence here — first during a long tenure as a Monterey County prosecutor and later as a Superior Court judge. I devoted most of my 21 years on the bench to criminal cases. During my career, I was responsible for sending a lot of young people to prison. That was my job.
By the mid-1990s, California had gotten tough on crime (“Use a gun and go to prison” and the three strikes law), and the legislature was severely restricting judicial discretion. I found myself having to decide whether an 18-year-old kid would be sentenced to either 46 years to life or 52 years to life. Most of the young people who stood before me were men of color who, because of multiple factors, had never had the opportunities that are supposed to be afforded to all our kids in this great nation.
There was also a bit of economic irony. Very few services were provided for young people involved in criminal activity before they got in trouble. But once the trigger was pulled, all sorts of resources were directed to them — police, prosecutors, a defense attorney, the judge, the judicial system, probation officers, and of course, prison incarceration. After a while, I didn’t feel as good as I once did about my job; I didn’t feel as if I was making things better. So I decided to do something about it.
I had learned there was one strategy that actually worked to engage disenfranchised young people: the combination of education, job training and, eventually, employment. These critical three experiences allow youths to reconnect with communities from which they feel alienated and help build the self-esteem and self-confidence that many lack.
I knew of a county-owned, 100-acre, abandoned facility in Salinas called Natividad Boys Camp. The beautiful land and distance from the streets of Salinas made it the perfect location for programs to help struggling kids regain trust in themselves and in our community. I tried to convince our county to restore the facility as a site for youth programs, but was told it would take $20 to $30 million to reopen the doors. It took the help of some friends in the legal community to form a nonprofit and convince the county to lease me the property.
Initially, my board of directors consisted mainly of elected officials. Frankly, we didn’t accomplish much. I was able to raise enough grant money to fund a feasibility study of my idea, but that $26,000 study concluded that the Rancho Cielo project was totally impossible. I decided to change direction and replaced my board of directors with people in the business community — construction industry leaders, in particular, since they were willing to get to work revamping the old building along with the kids.
I had no money, but we moved forward anyway, commencing work on the property in 2003. When I arrived at 7 a.m. on that first Saturday, 75 pickup trucks already covered the hills; 22 dump trucks from various trucking companies lined the road. It was a beautiful sight to see. We never looked back. a beautiful sight to see. We never looked back.
WASHINGTON POST AND HUFFPOST JOURNALISTS WHO COVERED FERGUSON ARE NOW FACING CHARGES IN ST. LOUIS
The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly, who reported on the 2014 Ferguson protests, are now being charged in St. Louis with trespassing and interfering with a police officer.
According to officers, the journalists did not leave the McDonald’s they were working in quickly enough when they were ordered to pack up and go. Reilly reportedly had his head slammed against glass during the arrest, and Lowery said he was pushed into a soda fountain.
The Huffington Post, in a statement backing the reporters, said, “At least we know St. Louis County knows how to file charges. If Wesley Lowery and Ryan J. Reilly can be charged like this with the whole country watching, just imagine what happens when nobody is.”
Coroner’s data shows that half of those shot and killed by police in Los Angeles in the past five years were Latino. This year, of the 23 killed by police in LA, 14 were Latino.
Now, some of the families of those killed by law enforcement under questionable circumstances are beginning to ask why some deaths seem to have captivated the attention of the media and of community activists, while others have not.
For instance the family of 28-year-old Oscar Ramirez Jr. who was unarmed and committing no crime when he was shot last fall by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies, wonders why they were unable to generate any kind of outcry for an inquiry into Oscar Jr.’s death.
The question is asked outside of LA as well. On February 10 of this year, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, a Mexican migrant worker, who had thrown rocks at cars, was shot and killed by police officers in Pasco, Washington. A video of the shooting appeared to show that Zambrano-Montes was running away, turning only at the last minute with his hands raised before shots were fired. Yet, although the story was big local news, interest in the investigation never caught fire nationally in the media.
The LA Times’ Nicole Santa Cruz, Ruben Vives and Marisa Gerber have written a thought provoking story that delves into the question and suggest that a least part of the reason for differences in response might be due to a complex weave of cultural differences between the black and Latino communities, along with separate historical contexts.
Here’s a clip from the story’s opening:
Kris Ramirez never saw police as a threat. Growing up, his body didn’t tense with us-versus-them dread when police cruisers drove through his Southeast Los Angeles neighborhood.
“If someone is wearing a uniform,” Ramirez said, “you show respect.”
Then last year, four days before Halloween, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy shot and killed his brother, Oscar Jr., along railroad tracks near Paramount High School. Deputies said the 28-year-old didn’t comply with orders and moved his arm in “a threatening manner.” Ramirez was unarmed.
The Ramirez family marched in front of the Paramount sheriff’s station and held vigils, but they struggled to find wider support for their cause. As the family grieved, the national Black Lives Matter movement picked up energy, bolstered locally by the fatal shooting of Ezell Ford, a mentally disabled black man, by LAPD officers.
Watching the protests over Ford’s killing, Kris Ramirez felt frustrated: “Why can’t we get that same type of coverage or help?”
The muted reaction to the deaths of Latinos in confrontations with police tells a larger story: Black Lives Matter is starkly different from Brown Lives Matter. In contrast to the fatal shootings of African Americans such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Walter Scott in South Carolina, deaths of Latinos at the hands of law enforcement haven’t drawn nearly as much attention.
A federal judge on Tuesday ordered the release of a video showing Gardena police officers shooting two men, killing Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, an unarmed Latino. The video has been viewed millions of times on YouTube. It generated national media coverage, but very little protest.
IS PUTTING YOUNG PEOPLE IN SOLITARY AN ACT OF VIOLENCE? CA CHILDREN’S DEFENSE FUND HEAD SAYS YES
Nationally, approximately 60,000 youth are held in solitary confinement, the majority for non-violent offenses. Moreover, according to a study by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), over 50% of the youth who committed suicide inside a juvenile justice facility were being held in solitary confinement at the time of their death.
A few months ago the name Kalief Browder may not have triggered more than passing recognition. Yet those who question the brutal impact of solitary confinement on youth need to look no further than his ordeal. Kalief, who spent 800 days in solitary during three years at New York City’s Rikers Island after being arrested on a robbery charge at age sixteen, has become the national face of solitary confinement. While he was ultimately acquitted, the toll of solitary confinement had already impacted Kalief and he attempted suicide several times while in solitary confinement and after being released. He should have become a thriving adult, and indeed he was on his way, but the lasting trauma of being held in solitary confinement pushed Kalief to take his own life at the age of 22.
Twenty-seven days before he died, Kalief authored an essay where he described the physical and psychological damage that results from solitary confinement: from chest pains, weight loss, diarrhea, and fainting to psychological symptoms like reduced concentration, confusion, memory loss, hallucinations, paranoia, overt psychosis, violent fantasies, anxiety, depression, and trouble sleeping.
Despite evidence demonstrating that solitary confinement is an ineffective rehabilitation strategy, the practice remains prevalent in juvenile facilities. A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation documents substantial evidence of systemic abuse of children, such as placing youth in isolation, in 29 states including California.
A series of lawsuits have addressed the disproportionate number of disabled youth who are held in solitary confinement and deprived of their educational rights. A recent landmark settlement ended the use of juvenile solitary confinement in Contra Costa County (California) after it was discovered that disabled youth were routinely held in isolation for 23 hours a day. One young person known as “W.B.” had to be hospitalized with a mental breakdown after spending three weeks in solitary confinement.
On Tuesday, federal Judge Stephen V. Wilson ordered the city of Gardena to release two disturbing videos of Gardena police officers shooting an unarmed man named Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, whose brother’s bicycle had been stolen, causing someone to call the police. As they waited for police to come, Diaz Zeferino and two friends went out to look for the bike but ran into the police instead, who assumed that the three were the bike thieves. The encounter ended with a volley of gunfire that killed Diaz Zeferino and badly injured one of his friends.
The tragedy may have been in part set in motion when the police dispatcher wrongly described the called-in theft as a robbery, suggesting that it involved force.
The June 2, 2013 encounter between the three men and the police was captured by two patrol car-mounted video cameras.
City officials and the Gardena police department have been battling for two years to keep the videos from public view, even though the city had already settled with Diaz Zeferino’s family and others for $4.7 million.
In making his ruling, Judge Wilson was responding to a collective request from the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and Bloomberg, which challenged a blanket protective order by 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, that had prohibited the release of the videos and other evidence in the court case.
LA Times reporters Richard Winton and Joel Rueben have more details.
Here’s a clip:
In unsealing the videos, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson said the public had an interest in seeing the recordings, especially after the city settled a lawsuit over the shooting for $4.7 million. Wilson rejected last ditch efforts by Gardena attorneys, who argued the city had paid the settlement money in the belief that the videos would remain under seal.
The “defendants’ argument backfires here — the fact that they spent the city’s money, presumably derived from taxes, only strengthens the public’s interest in seeing the videos,” Wilson wrote. “Moreover, while the videos are potentially upsetting and disturbing because of the events they depict, they are not overly gory or graphic in a way that would make them a vehicle for improper purposes.”
Wilson’s decision comes as law enforcement agencies nationwide increasingly have embraced the use of cameras worn by officers and placed in patrol cars to record police interactions with civilians. But few agencies have made their videos public, spurring a debate over the need to balance the privacy of those captured on the recordings and transparency in policing.
IN A MAJOR ADDRESS PRESIDENT OBAMA CALLS FOR SWEEPING CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM AND A REEXAMINATION OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
On Tuesday, President Barak Obama gave what turned out to be a serious policy speech when he addressed the annual conference of the NAACP in Philadelphia. The speech, which was also broadcast, had criminal justice reform advocates madly tweeting to each other: “Is anybody watching this?!!”
President Barack Obama has called for sweeping reforms to the US criminal justice system including curbing the use of solitary confinement and voting rights for felons.
He said lengthy mandatory minimum sentences should be reduced - or thrown out entirely.
“Mass incarceration makes our entire country worse off, and we need to do something about it,” he said.
Mr Obama urged Congress to pass a sentencing reform bill by year’s end.
On Thursday, Mr Obama will be the first sitting president to visit a federal prison - part of week long focus by the White House on the criminal justice system.
Speaking to a gathering of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Philadelphia, Mr Obama discussed investments in education, alternatives to trials and prison job training programs.
US Attorney General Loretta Lynch has been tasked with reviewing the overuse of solitary confinement, Mr Obama said.
“Do we think it makes sense to lock people up in tiny cells for 23 hours a day? It won’t make us safer and stronger.”
The country should not be tolerating overcrowding in prisons, gang activity or rape, which Mr Obama called “unacceptable”.
DOES THE TREATMENT OF LAUSD’S RAFE ESQUITH SUGGEST THAT BUREAUCRATS ARE WRECKING EDUCATION?
Robby Soave writing for the Daily Beast argues that “when the feelings of students are prized above all else,” talented teachers like Rafe Esquith “looking to inject a little personality into the classroom are the first to suffer.”
Here’s a clip about Esquith’s case, but read on for other examples:
Teachers with unusual, engaging methods are often mistreated by the education system—even, like Buchanan, when they win awards. Rafe Esquith, an elementary school teacher at Hobart Boulevard in Los Angeles who won numerous teaching distinctions and was dubbed the world’s most famous teacher by The Washington Post, earned a suspension this year for a familiar reason: he told a joke.
Whereas Buchanan said some mildly provocative things to a bunch of full-grown adults, Esquith made a completely inoffensive remark to a bunch of children. He runs his own nonprofit, puts on productions of Shakespeare plays, and takes his low-income LA students on educational field trips—relying on private donations to fund his activities. In March, Esquith joked with his students that unless he was able to raise more money, they would have to perform the play naked. He made this remark after reading a relevant passage from Huckleberry Finn that concerns a king “prancing out on all fours, naked.”
The joke was essentially harmless. But another teacher overheard it, divined some sinister intention, and reported it to school authorities. Esquith had to cancel his production and sit in a rubber room while administrators interrogated his students about his behavior. A California credentialing committee ruled that Esquith did nothing wrong, but the district still hasn’t let him return to teaching.
Last month, Esquith’s attorneys announced that they were filing a class action suit in behalf of “thousands of well-respected teachers deprived of their rights by the Los Angeles Unified School District.”
OBAMA FOCUSES ON CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM AND THE U.S. AS “A NATION OF SECOND CHANCES,” COMMUTES 46 SENTENCES AND WILL VISIT A PRISON
On Monday, President Barack Obama, who has previously faced criticism for seldom granting clemency, announced that he had commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders. This brings President Obama’s total number of approved clemency petitions up to 89. To put this in perspective, former President George W. Bush only commuted 11 sentences during his 8 years in office, and Bill Clinton granted clemency to 61 offenders. There are still nearly 8,000 pending clemency petitions.
In a letter, Obama tells those given a second chance, “…it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change…but remember you have the capacity to make good choices.”
…federal sentencing practices can, in too many instances, lead nonviolent drug offenders to spend decades, if not life, in prison. Now, don’t get me wrong, many people are justly punished for causing harm and perpetuating violence in our communities. But, in some cases, the punishment required by law far exceeded the offense.
These unduly harsh sentences are one of the reasons the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system. Today, he is continuing this effort by granting clemency to 46 men and women, nearly all of whom would have already served their time and returned to society if they were convicted of the exact same crime today…
In taking this step, the President has now issued nearly 90 commutations, the vast majority of them to non-violent offenders sentenced for drug crimes under outdated sentencing rules.
Obama will also become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he tours the El Reno prison in Oklahoma next week as part of a VICE special documentary for HBO on mass incarceration. The president, along with VICE founder Shane Smith, will tour the grounds and speak with prison staff, prisoners, and law enforcement officials. Here’s a clip from VICE’s announcement:
Located in central Oklahoma, El Reno is a medium-security facility that houses 1,300 inmates convicted of violating federal law. It was home to Jason Hernandez, a prisoner convicted on drug charges who had his life sentence commuted by Obama in 2013.
The interviews will be part of a documentary looking at the pervasive impacts of America’s approach to crime and imprisonment. The special is the latest in VICE’s ongoing coverage of what has become a major civil rights and reform agenda in the United States.
“There’s an emerging consensus in this country — on both the right and the left — that the way we treat criminal offenders is utterly broken and weakening our society in profound ways,” Smith said. “Visiting El Reno with President Obama — the first-ever visit to a federal prison by a sitting president — will give our viewers a firsthand look into how the president is thinking about this problem, from the policy level down to one on one conversations with the men and women living this reality. It’s going to be fascinating.”
The President says he will also be discussing bipartisan-backed ideas for criminal justice reform in Philadelphia on Thursday. Stay tuned.
CA REGAINS CONTROL OF HEALTH CARE FROM FEDS AT FOLSOM STATE PRISON
After nearly a decade of federal oversight of healthcare in California’s prison system, the state will regain control in Folsom State Prison—the first from the federal receiver overseeing healthcare in California’s prisons, Clark Kelso. Folsom is the first prison to be returned to state control.
Kelso says much progress has been made in Folsom and in other prisons, but U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson says federal oversight will only end after the state has had control of health care in all of its prisons for a full year.
“We’re pleased and ready to start taking back control of medical care,” corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said in a statement. “We know that other CDCR prisons are ready to step up in the months ahead and we will continue collaborating with the Receiver’s Office to ensure inmates at all of our facilities receive appropriate health care.”
Don Specter, director of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office that represents inmates in the lawsuit, said it’s good that care has improved at Folsom, but attorneys will continue monitoring.
“One of the things I’m most concerned about is whether the state has reformed its processes so that all the improvements that the receiver has made over the last 10 or so years are sustained,” Specter said.
Kelso reported in March that conditions statewide have substantially improved, though some prisons are doing better than others and more work remains to be done statewide.
Under the judge’s rules, Kelso could retake control of a transferred prison if conditions decline, but the goal is for the receiver to eventually monitor rather than run the health care system.
FOSTER KIDS MOVED AWAY FROM THEIR HOME COUNTIES SUFFER LONG DELAYS FOR MENTAL HEALTH CARE
When foster kids are transferred out of their home counties, they face months-long interruptions in much-needed mental health services. The problem is that, under current law, instead of following the kids, the responsibility (and funding) to provide mental health treatment remains with their home county.
A California bill, which would ensure foster kids transferred outside of their home counties receive continued mental health services in their new counties, will be heard California Senate Health Services Committee today (Tuesday), after passing out of the Assembly.
The bill, authored by CA Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (D), aims to fix a serious lack of collaboration between departments serving foster kids between counties.
In LA County, 17% of foster kids are in out-of-county and out-of-state placements, in comparison to Alameda and San Francisco—59% and 60% respectively.
AB 1299, which was introduced by State Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (D), would require the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) to create clear policies to guide the transfer of responsibility for mental health services to a child’s county of residence. The bill would also compel the Department of Finance to establish a system to ensure that counties are fully reimbursed for providing mental health services, during the fiscal year when the services are delivered, by May of 2016.
All California foster youth are eligible for Medi-Cal, the state’s public health insurance program. But under current law, when a foster youth moves to a different county, responsibility for providing mental health services—and any related funding—remains with the county of origin and its network of service providers
As a result, nearly 12,000 out-of-county foster youth—or about one in five of all youth in the state’s child welfare system—are routinely left in limbo, waiting for mental health services that often take months to begin.
A 2011 report from the state’s Child Welfare Council, which is responsible for improving collaboration among child-serving agencies, revealed disparities between children in and out of county who were receiving mental health services. An examination of the data for all 58 counties in California showed that out-of-county youth received fewer average days of mental health outpatient or day services when compared to children with in-county placements (2.3 days versus 2.9).
“Part of the issue is that the counties have been in control of the money up until this point, and the money has not been flowing as it needs to when these kids are moving from one county to another,” said Khaim Morton, chief of staff for Ridley-Thomas. “We want to get to the point where we can collaborate and reach a compromise that will enable more of the money to reach these kids and more swiftly.”
California may once again find itself back in court as part of a class-action lawsuit if there isn’t an agreement soon, according to mental health advocate Patrick Gardner, founder of Young Minds Advocacy Project.
“If there isn’t a solution by the end of the year, either through negotiations under the auspices of the Child Welfare Council or through the work being done in the legislature, a judge is going to have to step in to fix this, because letting this continue is completely unacceptable,” said Gardner.
CA TURNING AWAY FROM SOLITARY CONFINEMENT…SLOWLY
In 2011, California prisoners went on the first of three major hunger strikes over prison conditions and excessive and punitive use of solitary confinement.
Real efforts toward curbing solitary in state prisons began in late 2012. Prison officials reviewed the cases of prisoners in solitary, and released a modest number of long-isolated inmates back into the general population.
But the process has been slow and hard-fought.
In June, six San Quentin death row inmates held in “extreme isolation” filed a lawsuit against Gov. Jerry Brown, CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard and San Quentin Prison Warden Ronald Davis alleging cruel and unusual punishment.
Even as it prepares for a courtroom showdown over the use of prolonged solitary confinement to keep order in its prisons, California has adopted emergency rules to dial down such isolation.
Inmates may no longer be put in isolation for refusing a cell assignment, for example, one of several prison infractions for which solitary confinement punishment has been reduced or dropped. And those being disciplined with segregation can cut that punishment in half with good behavior.
“This is part of an ongoing evolution in how we manage inmates in segregation,” said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the corrections department. “There will be more changes.”
The new rules went into effect last month, ahead of public hearings scheduled for August. They come atop other changes that have cut the count of California prisoners held in near-constant lockdown from more than 9,800 in early 2014 to just under 8,700 last month.
The revisions also have been made amid an escalating debate over solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, of which California has the largest share.
Advocates for inmates are preparing to release research by a prominent corrections psychiatrist describing a malady he calls “SHU Post-Release Syndrome,” a reference to the Security Housing Unit, California’s name for long-term solitary confinement.
The study documents some of the same psychiatric effects raised last month by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in an unusual opinion in a California death penalty case. He essentially invited a constitutional challenge to long-term isolation and the “terrible price” it extracts.
RENOWNED PLAYWRIGHT ANNA DEAVERE SMITH TURNS HER CREATIVE FOCUS ON RACE AND THE SCHOOL-TO-PRISON PIPELINE
Playwright/actress Anna Deavere Smith has never been one to be scared off by complex subject matter.
When Smith premiered Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, her searing and revelatory one woman play about the aftermath of the Rodney King verdicts—first performing it in Los Angeles in 1993, then a year later in New York—reviewers fell over themselves praising the work. At the same time, they also argued with each other about whether Smith’s creation was really theater, or some strange new kind of journalism.
The confusion had to do with the fact that Smith had gathered the material for the play that would make her a critical success by interviewing nearly 300 people, many of whom had some direct connection to the riot, some of whom did not. Then, from those interviews, she shaped monologues for more than 40 “characters,” real people whom she inhabited on stage, one after the other, with eerie accuracy.
The parts she played included former LAPD chief Daryl F. Gates, a south LA teenager, one of the members of the Rodney King jury, a Beverly Hills real estate agent, a former Black Panther party head now living in Paris, truck driver Reginald Denny, the widow of a Korean American grocer killed during the madness, a pregnant cashier hit by a random bullet who managed, against odds, to save herself and her baby—and several dozen more.
All of this came together to produce what NY Times’ theater reviewer David Richards called, “an epic accounting of neighborhoods in chaos, a city in anguish and a country deeply disturbed by the violent images, live and in color, coming over the nightly airwaves.”
Now, 22 years later, Smith is working on another play that makes use of her signature form of documentary theater to illuminate another crucial cultural moment. (Smith has authored around 18 of these documentary plays thus far.) The new play, which has the working title of “The Pipeline Project,” investigates what the playwright describes as “the school-to-prison pipeline—the cycle of suspension from school to incarceration that is prevalent among low-income Black, Brown, Latino, and Native-American youth.”
As she did with Twilight, for the last year or so, Smith has been interviewing hundreds of people including students, teachers, parents, police, thought and policy leaders, psychologists, community activists, heads of prisons, people who are incarcerated, kids in juvenile hall, public defenders…and many more, as she fashions her theatrical characters.
Smith said that she got the idea after educators and reformers approached her to see if art could affect policy change. And so: The Pipeline Project.
Most recently, she has been performing pieces of the work-in-progress at select regional theaters in Berkeley, CA, Baltimore, MD, and Philadelphia, PA. Then after each performance, Smith engages in an extended dialogue with the audience, sort of town hall meeting style, all of which she uses to continue to recalibrate her material.
Eventually Smith will have a full length theater piece, that she’ll debut around the country.
In the meantime, Californians will have the opportunity to see the work-in-progress version starting this coming Saturday, July 11, when Smith will begin previews at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre. This pre-play play will run through August 2.
“This is one of those rare moments when people do begin to think about race relations in this country,” Anna Deavere Smith says over the phone from Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where she’s in rehearsal for the premiere run of her latest solo piece. The new work, with the complicated but accurate title “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education, the California Chapter” is about the treatment of African American and other disadvantaged youth in our schools and what’s increasingly being called the school-to-prison pipeline.
“I started thinking seriously about these matters in 2010, and I started my work, my interviews in 2013,” Smith says. “A lot has happened very quickly in this country during that time. … You can’t really think about inequities in education without looking at the broader canvas of racial inequity in America. And you can’t think about school discipline without thinking about the ways in which the types of discipline that are of greatest concern mimic some of the practices in prisons.
“So it’s a problem, and it’s an opportunity. I did my first staged readings of this piece here at the Rep last July and left town and — boom! Ferguson. And just since then, because of technology, Americans have watched any number of bad interactions between authority and young African American males, and these videos have taken the country by storm and have caused a lot of people to go, ‘Wait. What? Something’s going on here about men of color. What is this? Wow! Whoa! No! How could that happen?’”
Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, the California Chapter: Previews begin Saturday, July 11. Opens July 14. Through Aug. 2. $25-$89. Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org.
AND IN OTHER NEWS….THE LA TIMES EDITORIAL BOARD LOOKS AT HISTORY & CALLS FOR REAL OVERSIGHT OF THE LOS ANGELES SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT
Let us hope the LA County Board of Supervisors are paying attention.
Here’s a clip:
Los Angeles County has a commission created more than a half century ago, that is tasked with monitoring jail conditions and holding government accountable for improper treatment of inmates. As reports circulated in recent years of inmate beatings and abuse at the hands of sheriff’s deputies, the Sybil Brand Commission for Institutional Inspections failed to find or act on the pattern of brutality that has resulted in the county paying millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements, the resignation last year of Sheriff Lee Baca the indictment this year of former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka (among others), the convictions of several deputies for obstruction of justice, and the ongoing criminal investigations into inmate mistreatment. It instead reported accomplishments such as commending the sheriff for his cooperation during jail inspections.
Following reports of numerous improper uses of force by deputies more than two decades ago, the Board of Supervisors hired special counsel Merrick Bobb, who regularly reported on problems in the jails and elsewhere in the department; but the board, distracted by other emergencies and concerns, took little action on Bobb’s recommendations. The board abolished his office just over a year ago.
In 2001, in response to concern that abusive deputies were not facing meaningful discipline, the county created an Office of Independent Review to provide civilian oversight of the discipline process. But in order to get access to confidential sheriff files, the office agreed that such documents would be privileged, and in so doing it became in essence the department’s attorney, and wound up providing in-house advice rather than actual oversight. That office, too, was abolished last year.
Those efforts illustrate the two primary avenues of failure in oversight of the sheriff’s department. The supposedly independent overseer either is absorbed into the sheriff’s world, as with the Office of Independent Review, or becomes an agent of the Board of Supervisors, ineffectual like the Sybil Brand Commission or else too easily ignored, given the board’s many duties and political pressures, like the Office of Special Counsel.
There is an urgent need for a new model that does not replicate those that so utterly failed during the jail abuse scandal. The oversight body must have sufficient independence from both the board and the sheriff, sufficient access to department documents to perform its task, sufficient standing to apply political pressure in cases when the sheriff refuses to cooperate, and sufficient professionalism and restraint to avoid becoming a runaway tribunal.
To design such a model, the Board of Supervisors appointed a panel to consider various possibilities and make recommendations. The Working Group on Civilian Oversight completed its report late last month. It falls woefully short.
LAPD’S MODEL MENTAL HEALTH UNIT IS THE NATION’S LARGEST
While, it doesn’t magically solve every single problem, with 61 sworn officers and 28 mental health workers, the Los Angeles Police Department’s mental evaluation unit is the largest mental health policing program of its kind in the nation and, by all accounts, it’s doing a lot of good, both in helping take the pressure off patrol officers while, most importantly, aiding in productive and appropriate resolutions, rather than harmful outcomes, for the city’s mentally ill.
According to LAPD spokespeople, the unit has become a vital resource for the city’s 10,000-person police force.
Officer Ted Simola and his colleagues in the unit work with county mental health workers to provide crisis intervention when people with mental illness come into contact with police.
On this day, Simola is working the triage desk on the sixth floor at LAPD headquarters. Triage duty involves helping cops on the scene evaluate and deal with people who may be experiencing a mental health crisis.
Today, he gets a call involving a 60-year-old man with paranoid schizophrenia. The call is typical of the more than 14,000 fielded by the unit’s triage desk last year.
“The call came out as a male with mental illness,” says the officer on the scene to Simola. “I guess he was inside of a bank. They said he was talking to himself. He urinated outside.”
If it were another department, this man might be put into the back of a police car and driven to jail, so that the patrol officer could get back to work more quickly. But LAPD policy requires all officers who respond to a call in which mental illness may be a factor to phone the triage desk for assistance in evaluating the person’s condition.
Officer Simola talks to the officer on the scene. “Paranoid? Disorganized? That type of thing?” The officer answers, “Yeah, he’s talking a lot about Steven Seagal, something about Jackie Chan.” Simola replies, “OK, does he know what kind of medication he’s supposed to have?” They continue talking.
The triage officers are first and foremost a resource for street cops. Part of their job entails deciding which calls warrant an in-person visit from the unit’s 18 cop-clinician teams. These teams, which operate as second responders to the scene, assisted patrol in more than 4,700 calls last year.
Sometimes their work involves high-profile interventions, like assisting SWAT teams with dangerous standoffs or talking a jumper off a ledge. But on most days it involves relieving patrol officers of time-consuming mental health calls like the one Simola is helping to assess.
The man involved in this call has three outstanding warrants for low-grade misdemeanors, including public drinking. Technically, any of them qualifies him for arrest. But Simola says today, he won’t be carted off to jail.
“He’ll have to appear on the warrants later,” Simola says, “but immediately he’ll get treated for his mental health.”
AMENDMENTS TO JUVIE SOLITARY BILL DON’T SWAY CRITICS
The bill’s author, Senator Mark Leno, has tried to address some of the concerns of the bill’s opponents, with a set of amendments, but so far they’ve not done the trick writes Kelly Davis for The Crime Report.
Here’s a clip:
In response to opposition from county probation unions and California’s influential prison guard union, Leno has agreed to several amendments since the legislation was first introduced in February. The most recent amendment allows a youth to be confined beyond four hours if he can’t be safely re-integrated into the general population.
But the amendments have not appeared to sway the critics.
At the committee hearing, Craig Brown, a lobbyist with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, argued that the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), which runs California’s four juvenile correctional facilities, has implemented numerous reforms over the last several years, including significant reductions the use of confinement. In 2004, the DJJ, then called the California Youth Authority, entered into a consent decree with the Prison Law Office after documented cases of young people being kept in solitary confinement—sometimes in cages—for 23 hours a day.
Leno’s bill would add another layer of regulations and “mess up all that progress” Brown said.
There are currently no laws governing the use of juvenile solitary confinement in California.
The lack of regulations has played a role in at least four lawsuits-—the one filed against the Prison Law Office against the DJJ, and three subsequent lawsuits against county probation departments.