Category Archives: prison

a question of justice

this one is personal for me.  philip scott cannon is one of the men i have been working with in my inside-out classes at the oregon state penitentiary.  last week, it was exactly 10 years since his arrest for three murders that took place on a stormy november night in oregon.  scott was convicted based on circumstantial evidence and ballistic evidence that since has been widely discredited (proclaimed “bad science”).  he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  scott has proclaimed his innocence all along; during his incarceration, he has become a thoughtful and influential leader in the penitentiary.  he is an invaluable asset to my inside-out courses, but i would much rather see him out in the community.

in the years after his trial and conviction, a lot has happened.  as reporter thom jensen explains:

Then there is the prosecution’s key witness, Bimla Boyd.

Boyd owned the property where the murders occurred. Two of the victims, Kinser and Osborne, were her personal caretakers.

Since the 1998 murders, two more people have died at Boyd’s home under suspicious circumstances. In 2001, her estranged husband, Charles Boyd, died from a drug overdose.Weeks later, Boyd turned up in a Marion County court with Charles Boyd’s Last Will and Testament, a document that awarded Bimla Boyd everything. The will was witnessed and signed by Boyd’s new caretaker, 54-year-old Robert Daniel Spencer.

In 2002, Spencer died in Boyd’s home from a single gunshot to the head. Boyd was arrested for the murder and pleaded guilty to manslaughter after convincing prosecutors she killed Spencer because he was molesting her 14-year-old daughter. Boyd could be released from prison as early as April 2009.

there’s more to the story, including a witness who casts doubt on bimla boyd’s story but who was never questioned by detectives and never had the opportunity to testify at the trial.  with this additional evidence and renewed attention on the case, scott is hoping for another chance.  as jensen reports:

Right now Scott Cannon is asking for what is called Post Conviction Relief. If the court grants his request, it could overturn his life sentence for a lack of evidence.

But for now, Oregon attorney general spokesman Jake Weigler said his office is sticking to the case against Scott Cannon.

“Before you let somebody out of jail, you want to make sure that they didn’t do it,” Weigler said.

Scott Cannon says he thought you were supposed to prove someone is guilty before you put them in prison.

please follow this link to read or watch the whole story for yourself.  and then let’s all hope for justice.

trying to do good

i’ve been spending a lot of time in the oregon state penitentiary lately. i’m currently teaching my fifth inside-out class and it continues to be an inspiring, rejuvenating experience. it’s amazing how much good will can be generated in a tiny room on the fifth floor of a maximum-security prison where 15 oregon state university students come together with 15 (or so) inmates in order to learn and work together. the inmates in the group are men who are working hard to change their lives and to make their time behind bars meaningful. of the approximately 2300 men in the penitentiary, i’ve selected about 60 to participate in inside-out classes; as such, i’m well aware that i’ve worked with a skewed sample of the best citizens in the prison. we’ve received good press for the program and i’ve been singled out for some honors for my part in the process, but what i appreciate most is knowing that these classes have offered hope and motivation in a place where both can be very hard to find.

this quarter, we’re focusing again on the topic of preventing delinquency, and i’ve challenged the class try to figure out what action(s) they can take to make a difference. they’re trying to come up with small-scale projects that can be implemented relatively quickly and with no budget. a challenge, to be sure.

and so, i’ll offer my own small-scale project as an example. i applied for a “literacy grant” from a national program last year and did not get it. because i thought the idea was a good one, i pitched it to administrators at the penitentiary and they agreed to fund a pilot program (two inmate clubs are also providing funding). it’s a simple enough idea, but it just might make a difference: incarcerated fathers will have a chance to sign up to read the same books as their children. with help from the lifer’s club (and others), we’ll start with a volunteer group of fathers and their children. with help from local librarians and bookstores, i’ll choose age-appropriate, interesting books and give one to the father and one to the kid. reading the same book(s) will hopefully give them another chance to connect, another topic to discuss, whether it’s in person, on the phone, or via mail. the fathers are enthusiastic about the idea; presumably the kids who agree to participate will get on board if we choose good books.

simple, small-scale, do-able. i’m hoping this little program succeeds and grows. i don’t know if it will make a difference, but at least we’re trying to do good and we’re working to translate our good intentions into action.

if anyone has suggestions for the program, for projects for the inside-out students, or recommendations for interesting kid/teen books, i would love to hear them.

Prison Reform by Order of the Feds

California’s prison system is the most over-crowded (170,000 in a system designed for 100,000) and its inmates have the highest recidivism rate (70%) in the country. Why? A public that favors longer sentences, mistrusts corrections officials to make good public safety decisions, and increasing politicization of crime that results in politicians who advocate sentencing reform at their peril.

These constraints have, in part, been taken out of the hands of the public and political system in CA. As a result of class action suits, the prison system here is increasingly in the hands of third parties. Health care of inmates was transferred to a receiver because of widespread problems. In an historic decision, CA awaits the recommendations of a panel of federal judges regarding prison over-crowding.

How might the state respond to orders from the judicial system to change its practices and reduce overcrowding?

Reduce the number of people sent to prison. The options for sending fewer people to prison are limited. As a result of the common use of ballot propositions in CA, some sentencing policies are unavailable to legislative manipulation. Most notably, overturning the well-known Three-Strikes law would require a 2/3 vote by the state legislature – unlikely to occur when almost 70% of Californians voted for it. Policies not hampered by propositions get little traction.

Release inmates early. Governor Schwarzenegger lobbied this but the idea fell by the wayside about 24 hours before his latest budget proposal was released. Opinions differ but I suspect it also has to do with political viability – even if crime doesn’t go up overall with the release of 22,000 low-risk inmates, there is the nagging political (and public safety) problem of the one guy who does something horrible.

Build more prisons. A ($7.8 billion) reform bill that includes substantial funds to build more prisons has been passed but progress has stalled over implementation and budget difficulties.

Supervise parolees differently. The debate now is, quietly, over this remedy. Some of the increase in the prison population is due to an increased likelihood of parolees being returned to prison for technical violations. CA supervises the vast majority of released inmates – by watching them for a shorter period, they will notice less crime. By declining to send parolees back to prison, they reduce the prison population.

I’ll be watching closely – the sociologist in me says that (federal) judges will have a difficult time imposing sentencing reform on a public and political climate that does not want it. On the other hand, it is intriguing to watch a state struggle with these issues when the influence of public zeal for punitive punishment is substantially reduced and a budget crisis is forcing the state to make very real choices between more prison beds and laying off public elementary school teachers. Stay tuned.

new bjs report on sexual victimization in local jails

the bureau of justice statistics has released a large-scale study of self-reported sexual victimization in local jails. i made the quick figure above to show the estimated prevalence of such victimization for different inmate groups: about 5% of females and 3% of males reported sexual victimization and rates were disproportionately high for inmates of color, youth, and more educated inmates. prior victimization and (self-identified) sexual orientation are most strongly correlated with victimization, however, with about one in 10 bisexual inmates and almost one in five homosexual inmates reporting sexual victimization.

one hopes that such data can help provide a road map for reducing sexual assaults in correctional facilities — and protecting those most subject to victimization. courageously, the bjs report also identifies the specific jails with especially high or low rates of sexual victimization:

The Torrance County Detention Facility (New Mexico) had the highest rate — 10.1% when sexual victimization excluded willing activity with staff and 8.9% when victimization excluded abusive sexual contacts (allegations of touching only). The Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail and the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center (New Mexico) were also among the top five facilities on each of these more serious measures of sexual victimization.

bjs incarceration numbers for 2006

the bureau of Justice statistics has released mid-year 2007 numbers for prison (1,595,034) and jail (780,581) incarceration. the data continue the trend of recent years: correctional populations continued to grow in 2007, albeit at a slower rate than in the 1980s and 1990s. [click charts for data]

according to bjs, african american males comprised 35.5 percent of the inmates held in u.s. prison and jails. about 4.6 percent of all african american males were in prison or jail on 6/30/2007, relative to 1.7 percent of hispanic males and 0.7 percent of white males.

strib 3-parter on sex offender civil commitments

larry oakes of the strib offers a well-researched look at sex offender civil commitment in minnesota. a few bullets:

  • 19 states and the federal government now detain former prison inmates for indefinite involuntary treatment.
  • the state now has the highest rate of sex offender civil commitments, locking up 544 men and 1 woman.
  • minnesota numbers have spiked dramatically since a heinous 2003 case.
  • it costs $134,000 per inmate per year in the minnesota sex offender program, relative to $45,000 per inmate per year in state prison, $15,000 per year for outpatient treatment, $10,000 per year for gps monitoring, and $4,000 per year for electronic home monitoring.
  • recidivism has dropped dramatically. as a 2007 state department of corrections report concludes: “due to the dramatic decrease in sexual recidivism since the early 1990s, recent sexual reoffense rates have been very low, thus significantly limiting the extent to which sexual reoffending can be further reduced.”

here’s the lead:

In the 14 years since Minnesota’s Sexually Dangerous Persons Act cleared the way for the state to detain hundreds of paroled sex offenders in prison-like treatment centers, just 24 men have met what has proved to be the only acceptable standard for release.

They died.

“We would say, ‘Another one completed treatment,’” said Andrew Babcock, a former guard and counselor in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).

undergrad and inmate collaborate on globe editorial

conor clarke and greg yothers offer a nice boston globe op-ed on felon voting — the more we imprison, the less we vote. here’s the bit i like:

[O]ur experience in class suggests that the opposite is true. We all write the same papers, read the same material by John Locke and Alexis de Tocqueville, and are all equally engaged in debating and discussing everything from the role of the good citizen to America’s role in the world. There is no reason to think inmates are uniquely unqualified to wield a vote, and no reason to think they can’t.

Yes, going to prison necessarily entails the loss of liberty. But the right to vote is in many ways more important than the right to walk freely down the street: Voting is the most basic check against the coercive power of the state. The places where that coercive power is most starkly exercised, such as prisons, are also the places where that most basic of checks becomes more important. The fact that prisoners have a big stake in governmental choices isn’t an argument in favor of disenfranchisement; it’s an argument against.

cruel and unusual weight loss?

the smoking gun reports on an arkansas man who is suing the benton county jail for not providing him with sufficient food. broderick laswell (left) says he dropped from 413 pounds to 308 pounds after only eight months in the jail. He has filed a federal lawsuit charging that the jail fails to provide inmates with enough food.

while many will no doubt dismiss these claims from such a still-large man, this seems like a scary weight drop over such a short period — 13 pounds a month or about .44 pounds per day. whenever one visits a prison, inmates will share some shocking food stories. for example, one young man told me he found a single glove and a rat in his food (reminding me, of course, of this #1 hit).

while the quality of prison food is usually unimpressive and sometimes downright shameful, most institutions at least deliver 2000+ calories per day. to the best of my knowledge, however, they are not mandated to deliver any more calories to a 6’10″ 400-pounder than to a 4’10″ 100-pounder. the issue of weight loss is bigger for prisons than for jails, since prisons tend to keep people far longer. inmates with funds, of course, can often supplement their diets by purchasing snacks in the institution. if mr. laswell is convicted of the murder charge on which he is being held, his weight will likely stabilize over a long term in an arkansas state penitentiary.

is texas 3.3 times more democratic than minnesota?

there’s another fine adam liptak piece on punishment in today’s times. as is by now well-documented, these united states have the highest incarceration rate in the world.

one of the cited lawprofs pointed to democracy as the reason for high u.s. incarceration rates. yeesh — i get the whole “lack of civil service institutional buffer” thing, but c’mon. fortunately, marc mauer pointed out that each of these semi-united states have wildly divergent incarceration rates: minnesota (with a rate of 300 per 100k) looks more like sweden (80 per 100k) than like texas (1000 per 100k). would anyone but a carpetbagging dallas stars fan suggest that texas is 3.3 times more democratic than minnesota? or, worse, that texans are 12 times more democratic than swedes?

president bush signs second chance act

via the sentencing project:

President George W. Bush this week signed into law the Second Chance Act of 2007 – legislation inspired by his 2004 State of the Union address – which authorizes $362 million to expand assistance for people currently incarcerated, those returning to their communities after incarceration, and children with parents in prison.

The Second Chance Act was first introduced in 2004, by then-Representative Rob Portman (R-OH) and Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), to help the nearly 700,000 people leaving prison each year. It quickly gained broad bipartisan support and earned the backing of law enforcement, state and local government, religious and Justice reform organizations. Passage of the Second Chance Act highlights a new political approach to crime prevention. Imprisoning 2 million Americans has diverted enormous resources that could have been used more effectively in reducing crime. Programs that provide housing, drug treatment, education and employment provide more cost-effective approaches to producing public safety.

The Second Chance Act seeks to promote public safety by reducing recidivism rates among people reentering communities after prison. Presently, two-thirds of formerly incarcerated people are rearrested within three years after release. The services to be funded under the Second Chance Act include:

· mentoring programs for adults and juveniles leaving prison;
· drug treatment during and after incarceration, including family-based treatment for incarcerated parents; · education and job training in prison;
· alternatives to incarceration for parents convicted of non-violent drug offenses;
· supportive programming for children of incarcerated parents; and
· early release for certain elderly prisoners convicted of non-violent offenses.

For decades, political concerns have trumped research findings in promoting harsh sentencing laws. Passage of the Second Chance Act signals that a bipartisan consensus exists for offering opportunities to those who are at risk of committing crimes. Innovation in crime prevention should be applauded; incarceration should not be the only option.