Archive: Jul 2007

conjugal visits for prisoners have long been suggested as a means to preserve family bonds (with those on the outside) while providing an additional incentive for decent behavior (with those on the inside). i’ve yet to see a methodologically bulletproof test of their effects, but i’d characterize the research evidence on these questions as “spotty.” in this area, as in others, we could use some randomized trials.

nevertheless, i’m definitely taken with the idea of prisoners earning private time with their loved ones, particularly in the weeks and months preceding release. unfortunately, such programs are rare today. in light of prison overcrowding, budget pressures, and concerns about visitors bringing s.t.d.s and contraband into prisons, only a handful of states operate conjugal visit programs today.

where such visits are offered, however, there appears to be a move to extend them beyond heterosexual marital relationships. california recently became the first state to establish overnight conjugal visits for same-sex partners. just this week, institutions in mexico city adopted a similar policy. in california, visits are only permitted for registered domestic partners who are not themselves in custody, and the domestic partnership must have been established before admission to prison. moreover, such visits are not permitted for sex offenders, condemned inmates, or those without a parole date. those with violent offenses against a minor or a family member are also ineligible.

even with such restrictions, the program helps some inmates reconnect with an important source of outside support — and sometimes their only source of outside support. msnbc quoted one california inmate as follows:

“I got to spend 2 1/2 days one-on-one with my partner, my best friend, my confidant, my life partner. It wasn’t about the sex … You can actually just relax and get to know your partner again.”

as a reentry, reintegration, and recidivism-reduction strategy, that’s probably not a bad use of a weekend.

cbs news ran reports this week on gangs in the military and gangs employing military training in their criminal activities. the juxtaposition of military and street gang iconography, as in this picture of marine corporal shavon striggles at parris island, raises all sorts of disturbing and provocative questions.

in discussing gangs in the military, most will look immediately to the 125,000 recent recruits entering the service with criminal records. in making this leap, i’d suggest two cautions:

first, many of these recruits surely had some history of gang involvement, but just as surely had left ganglife behind. the best longitudinal data i’ve seen suggests that gang affiliations are rarely the lifelong commitments suggested in popular culture. relative to other former gang members, those that enter intensive military training might be expected to shed such affiliations especially quickly.

second, while one needn’t look far to find evocative images such as gang graffiti and hand signs around military personnel, the official gang incident numbers remain quite small: 16 reports of investigation (ROI) and 44 other suspected gang incidents in 2006. in short, though i’m glad the military is vigilant on this issue, the rest of us would probably do well to keep such threats in perspective.

while prison is a bad place to live, it is an even worse place to die. if you spend much time talking with inmates, it won’t be long before you hear the phrase, “i don’t want to die in prison.” long sentences and an aging inmate population, however, suggest that rates of prison death are likely to rise in coming years. of course, the vast majority of inmates will ultimately be released to their communities. nevertheless, the specter of dying behind bars is likely becoming more realistic.

if you want to learn more about this phenomenon, the amazingly efficient professionals at the bureau of Justice statistics have developed a useful new deaths in custody site. according to bjs, there were about 15,308 deaths in state prisons from 2001-2005, with illness listed as the cause in most (12,630) of them.

the prison mortality rate ranges from 126 per 100,000 prisoners in north dakota to 410 in louisiana. after looking at the state list, i was taken by the strong geographic patterning of prison mortality. in particular, midwestern states tend to have far lower prison mortality rates than southern states.

i’m not sure to what extent this pattern can be attributed to differentials in sentencing practices, health care, or the sociodemographic characteristics of inmates, but there is strong evidence for some sort of regionalization.

the map below is based on the interquartile range for the state mortality data, with the lowest quartile (fewer than 211 deaths per 100k) shaded yellow and the highest death quartile (more than 275 deaths per 100k) shaded red.

a contiguous line of states from pennsylvania to louisiana and back up to kansas has death rates in the top quartile, whereas a clump of states in the upper midwest all show far lower death rates. this map bears some resemblance to overall incarceration patterns — with maine and north dakota anchoring one end of the distribution and louisiana the other.

note that these statistics do not consider executions. had these been added to the prison death numbers, there would be even stronger evidence of a southern death belt. or, more positively, of a life belt elsewhere. only twelve states are without a death penalty on the books, but eight of these (north dakota, iowa, rhode island, hawaii, minnesota, alaska, wisconsin, and maine) fall into the lowest quartile for prison death rates. of the six states with the lowest prison death rate, none have a death penalty.

the above pattern of results suggests to me that executions and life sentences are complements rather than substitutes. states that categorically refuse to kill prisoners are less likely, rather than more likely, to let them die in prison.


“The Right to Vote for Convicted Felons” By David Hinman, #0025374, Anamosa State Penitentiary, Post Office Box 10, Anamosa, Iowa 52205-0010. Also see Whittling Away the Time, an article about a wood carving of Anamosa State Penitentiary.
“Justice Works! When its principles are not compromised”, A Letter to the Governor by Michael Braae, 270679 W.C.C. AT 105 IMU P.O. Box 900 Shelton, WA 98584
“Indemnification of Prison Guards” By DJ Taylor, #179983 Northern Supermax, P.O. Box 665, Somers, CT 06071.
Letter from Kenneth Keel: Challenging “Three Strikes” Under Human Rights Treaty: International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Concerned USA Citizen’s Support To End Life Imprisonment of Nonviolent Offenders Under California’s ‘Three Strikes’ Law, February, 2007
Letter from F. DeAndre Howard, February, 2007. Contact the author at Reg. #07757-089, Federal Correctional Institution, P.O. Box 5000, Pekin, IL 61555-5000
“Comprehensive Incarcerated Person Reform, Rehabilitation and Reentry Act” and Letter. Please feel free to contact the author with your thoughts and comments: Sheldon N. Messer 00A3204, Sing Sing Correctional Facility, 354 Hunter Street, Ossining, New York 10562
“Anatomy of a Prison Riot” by R.M., November 2006
“Waiting to Die – The American Prison Experience” by R. M., November 2006
“A Call for the Abolition of Prisons” by Tiyo Attallah Salah El
“Prisoner Suicides: The Danger of Manufacturing Hopelessness” by Ed Bowser

from the PEN prison writing program:

Doing Time by Steven Bulleit First Prize, Poetry
Sunday evening Mom and Dad unwind on the couch,/ her full black hair lays against Dad’s shoulder./The iconic stopwatch fills the screen, the second hand/sweeps north, folding its final ticks into silence. [More]
“Feeling(s) Cheated” by J.E. Wantz First Prize, Nonfiction/Essay
From 1995 to 2005 I was on Paxil, a medication that, ostensibly, was to help me in the areas of depression and obsessive compulsive thinking. As I look back on the role that this medication has played in my life for the last 10 years I begin to wonder. [More]
Just Another Death by Christina MacNaughton First Place, Memoir
I sit on my bunk as the minutes tick by. The count should have cleared over half an hour ago. Something’s up. In a place where timing and routine and schedule are the axis upon which the world revolves, remaining locked for so long past the standard count time sends Morse code through the heart of every inmate. [More]
Confessions of a Jack-Off Artist” by Clifford Barnes First Prize, Fiction
I like cocaine. No, I love it. It can be pure or stepped on with Inositol, B.C. Powder, or Equal. I’ll cook it up, draw it into the rig, and shoot it. I love bumpin’ coke because I get a feeling like when I was twelve and skeeted for the first time, except the rush is ten-times more intense and lasts about fifteen to twenty minutes.[More]

american public media’s the story offers an extensive profile of local guy tom coles and the sex offenders he has invited into his home. heather h. tipped me off to after the offense, a story about swimming upstream against stigma and a man’s enduring belief in redemption.

i’d probably edit the hour-long segment for classroom use, but i could imagine using it in concert with a sex offender recidivism study and a classroom discussion of politics and policy choices.

in response to lawsuits documenting inadequate services for physical and mental health in california prisons, federal judges have ordered creation of a three-judge panel, charged with reducing overcrowding in that state. i’m guessing that the three judges won’t be operating out of the triple-bunk setup shown at left, in vacaville’s solano prison gymnasium.

according to bjs sources, california is now home to 175,000 state prisoners, far more than any other state and only about 15,000 inmates fewer than the entire federal system. that said, the state’s incarceration rate of 476 per 100,000 is still below the national average of 497. nevertheless, the system is expanding rapidly, growing by 8,583 inmates from midyear 2005 to midyear 2006. moreover, california has a higher than average rate of parolees and it returns these parolees to prison at a much higher than average rate, often for technical violations. though governor schwarzenegger just signed a $7.7 billion prison construction bill, it will be tough (and, some say, impossible) for the state to build its way out of these problems.

in this clip, inmates of the provincial detention and rehabilitation center in cebu, philippines challenge three beliefs held by many criminologists:

1. that criminals have little capacity for organized action.

2. that people on the inside are fundamentally and constitutionally different from people on the outside.

3. that the king’s jailhouse rock video is not a faithful representation of contemporary prison life.

this is the story of a short-lived moral panic and the challenges of leadership positions in law enforcement. earlier this month, the police chief in the peaceful college town of northfield, minnesota, called a press conference to alert the media to an emerging heroin epidemic.

according to media accounts, he estimated that up to 250 heroin users in and around northfield high were feeding habits of up to $800 per day — and that this group was responsible for a major spike in the local crime rate.

some were called to action, others scoffed, and some of us just scratched our heads. i never doubted that some kids in northfield had tried heroin, but the claims seemed overblown. since 1999, heroin use has declined significantly among high school students. according to the 2006 monitoring the future data, only about 1.4 percent of 12th graders had even tried the drug and only .8 percent had ever done so intravenously.

yes, heroin can be found an hour north in minneapolis and, i suppose, the drug may have found its way to some carleton or st. olaf dorm room, but $800 per day? that’s a mother-superior-sized habit. also, the picture painted at the meeting — of the town’s high-achieving valedictorians stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down — just smacked of hyperbole. frankly, in the absence of some corroborating evidence from schools, hospitals, or treatment centers, such claims called to mind reefer madness or, worse, j. peterman.*

now, just a couple weeks later, the good people of northfield and the town’s feral youth have questioned the chief’s evidence and his claims. and the chief, in turn, has taken an indefinite leave of absence. i don’t write to ridicule the chief, because i don’t doubt his motives. this didn’t strike me as a cynical search for a scapegoat to explain the rise in property crime; nor did it strike me as intentionally hyping a story to garner resources for the department. i just think the chief saw a problem and reacted strongly. who knows? he might be proven right after all. at least the town is having better-informed drug policy discussions.

in my view, this case illustrates the value of asking “where’s your data?” before taking big policy steps regarding crime and drug use. as soon as the evidentiary base was examined in northfield, the system seemed to self-correct and the moral panic was averted.

*That’s right Elaine. white lotus, yam-yam, shanghai sally…I too once fell under the spell of opium. It was 1979. I was travelling the Yangtzee in search of a Mongolian horsehair vest…

here’s a clever criminology riff on pharmaceutical ads.

updated: 7/19

the sentencing project sent word today of their new report, Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration By Race and Ethnicity. taking data from their tables, i graphed the state ratios of black-to-white incarceration shown below (note: this figure was revised 9/19 to correct a mislabeled state):

the disparity seems to be lowest in hawaii, though — let’s be clear about this — a ratio of 1.9 still means that african americans are almost twice as likely as whites to be incarcerated in that state. southern states also have relatively low disproportionality ratios, partly due to their higher-than-average incarceration of whites. things are most disparate in iowa, vermont, new jersey, connecticut, wisconsin, and the dakotas, with african americans getting locked up at a rate 10 times that of whites. there is no state in which african american incarceration rates are anywhere near parity with white rates.

the report also computes ratios for hispanics versus non-hispanic whites, though i suspect that data quality varies considerably among the states on this indicator. nevertheless, i graphed these data as well:

comparing the two charts, the first thing i notice is the difference in scale on the y-axes: from 1.9 to 19 for the african american-to-white chart and from .4 to 6.6 on the hispanic-to-white chart. only connecticut, massachusetts, and pennsylvania had hispanic-to-white ratios of greater than 5. moreover, two states reached parity — a ratio of 1.0 — and five states had ratios indicating lower incarceration among hispanics than among non-hispanic whites: georgia, alaska, florida, arkansas, west virginia, louisiana, and hawaii. again, such ratios should probably be interpreted with a bit more caution than those presented in the first figure, since ethnicity is inconsistently reported in the criminal Justice system.

the state-to-state differences are instructive and sobering, especially for northerners who might be smug or complacent about racial inequality. criminal punishment represents one area in which racial disparity appears far worse in the north than in the south, with mostly-white states such as connecticut leading the way in racial inequality. still, the overall disparities remain the big story: nationally, african american incarceration rates are 5.6 times as high as white rates, while hispanic rates are 1.8 times those of non-hispanic whites.