By Hilary O. Shelton and Lauren-Brooke Eisen
The early 1990s were a turbulent time for many cities and towns in America. The national violent crime rate had been steadily ticking up, increasing 40% from 1984 to 1992, as the murder rate climbed 20% between 1984 and 1993, disproportionately impacting communities of color. Congress reacted by passing the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, better known as the “1994 Crime Bill,” which restructured federal grant funding. It inspired states to build more prisons.
The number of people behind bars increased by almost 50% between then and now, from 1.5 million to 2.2 million people. African Americans bared the brunt of that tremendous growth, making up 13% of the U.S. population but 37% of the nation’s prisoners. Meanwhile, crime rates are down. Budgets are tight. Prisons are overcrowded with inmates who are serving time for non-violent crimes. And we are beholden to an often-unjust justice system built on policies past, which highlights and exacerbates racial inequality in America’s criminal justice system. In short, we are paying dearly to waste human lives.
But a new bill introduced Wednesday by Rep. Tony Cárdenas of California aims to reverse that decades-long trend. The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act, which Senators Cory Booker and Richard Blumenthal introduced this summer in the Senate, sends federal funds to states that reduce crime and incarceration together. It is the only solution proposed on Capitol Hill that would help reign in state prison populations (where 87% of the country’s prison population is housed), while reducing vast racial disparities in the system and ensuring hard-earned public safety gains over the past quarter-century are not lost. Senator Blumenthal said on Wednesday, “the federal government can encourage more enlightened and effective action” at the state level with this bill.
For decades, through both the 1994 Crime Bill and other programs, the federal government has sent out grants to states and cities on autopilot to fight the “war on drugs” and to aid other anti-crime, public-safety initiatives. States and cities often seek these additional “bonus” dollars and are willing to modify policy to get them. It’s one reason why almost all the funds ultimately allocated by Congress from the 1994 bill were used by states to build more prisons and lengthen prison sentences.
This new measure is designed to redirect that flow of funding — to upend that incentive. It would authorize $20 billion in incentive funds over 10 years to states that cut their prison population by 7% every three years and keep crime near record lows, or even lower. This can be done either by creating a new grant — or by directing current funds — to support state activities proven to reduce crime and incarceration at once. Lately, some states are already on a path to do this; the bill will encourage and could speed up further progress, promising federal dollars for successful and reform-oriented changes in policy.
But federal sentencing reform alone will not eliminate mass incarceration. The federal government must work with states to drastically cut the number of prisoners behind bars. Under this new act, states would be free to choose their best path to achieving these common goals, building on local expertise rather than just a federal mandate. If fully applied, this would result in a 20% reduction in the prison population nationwide in a decade, a result of local expertise at the state level. Certainly, Republicans and Democrats should be able to get on board with a program that improves public safety while reducing our expensive and inefficient incarceration system.
Not only is this possible, it’s played out across the country. In the last 10 years, 27 states have reduced incarceration and crime together. It’s a politically and geographically diverse group. They include states in the Northeast (New York and New Jersey), the West (California and Colorado) and the South (Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas). Texas alone has closed eight prisons in just six years, while crime rates remain at historic lows. Similarly, under Governor Andrew Cuomo and due to a reduction in the state’s prison population, New York has closed 13 state prisons.
To be sure, local and state reform is key to making a dent in America’s prison population. But this bill would set a tone from the top and directly help states continue already successful efforts. It would dramatically reduce prison populations, lessen the justice system’s disproportionate impact on communities of color and maintain hard-won declines in crime over the last 20 years. Passing this bill would send a message from the federal government that our society is capable of responding to crime in a way that is not only effective, but also humane.
Published on TIME on October 4, 2017
By Karen L. Cox
While the mass incarceration of men has dominated the discussion of policing and prisons over the past few years—and rightly so—there’s been a recent shift in thinking about incarcerated women, and not a moment too soon. According to a report by the Vera Institute, women’s incarceration has increased a startling 14-fold since 1970. Like their male counterparts, these women are also overwhelmingly women of color.
Despite the shocking increase in their numbers, however, the specific issues and needs of female prisoners have largely gone ignored. In particular, as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month begins in the U.S., it’s worth noting that the vast majority of women in prison are single mothers who have been victims of domestic and/or sexual violence.
These concerns have rarely been part of prison-reform discussions, and yet this fact is typical of the history of women’s incarceration in our country.
Criminal justice in the American South for decades following the Civil War was meted out unjustly, disproportionately affecting African Americans, regardless of gender. And, thanks to a unique historical record created by women in a Mississippi prison in the 1930s, it’s possible to see that the similarities between women’s incarceration then and now is significant. In both periods, women were more likely to be incarcerated for nonviolent crimes than for violent ones. Likewise, many of the incarcerated women in both cases were victims of domestic and sexual violence whose income was vital to their family household.
The prison in question was a state penitentiary in Jim Crow Mississippi, better known as Parchman. Of the more than 2,000 prisoners there in the mid-1930s, between 60-80 were women, of which only a handful were white. That small group was responsible for sewing all of the convict uniforms and the mattress ticking, canning the food that was eaten by everyone, picking cotton, and even slaughtering cows and hogs that fed the prisoners. There, women left a record of their lives in the form of blues poems and songs. In the early 1930s, Delta journalist David Cohn visited the women at Parchman and provided them with pencils and paper on which they provided details of their lives, their criminal trials and incarceration.
In “My Prison Blues,” for example, Fannie Walden wrote about some of the very same issues that concern incarcerated women today. She laments being separated from her child in the lyric “One poor little daughter in the cold world behind/for home and her love, my heart doth pine.” A later verse explains the reason she is in prison was due to a situation of domestic violence: “The only trouble I’ve given the land/Was defense of myself—just killed one man.”
Nor did the violence stop at the prison gates. Women at Parchman also wrote about the violence they experienced while in prison, sexual and otherwise. One woman, identified only by the initials M.A.V., describes another female prisoner’s child, the product of sexual violence at the hands of the white supervisor of the women’s camp: “Coreanna’s got a baby and he’s got blue eyes, must be the Captain’s, he ain’t none of mine.”
Another prisoner detailed the physical violence at the hands of the man she calls the “Ricketiest Superintendent.” In her “penitentiary blues,” she describes the brutality of prison and thoughts of refuge in the lyric, "Got the ricketiest superintendent, Got the worst sergeant on the farm, and if I make it to the bushes, my sergeant can't do me no harm."
Fast-forward to 2017 and we realize that little has changed in the treatment of women in over one hundred years. The vast majority of female prisoners remain women of color. They continue to be victims of sexual violence. Their children are being raised without them.
The difference is that this is not Jim Crow Mississippi. Today, this situation extends well beyond the South. Nationally, as the Vera Institute Report shows, the overwhelming majority of female prisoners are held for nonviolent offenses and most are women of color. Among them, 86% are victims of sexual violence.
The difficulties faced by female prisoners are now attracting the attention of politicians. On July 11 of this year, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, or the “Dignity Act,” on behalf of himself and Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Richard Durbin.
The bill aims “To improve the treatment of Federal prisoners who are primary caretaker parents.” To that end, the Dignity Act calls for a more generous visitation policy for incarcerated mothers. If passed, it would also prevent restraining pregnant women by shackling them or placing them in strait jackets, among other forms of restraint. Prisons would provide parenting classes and trauma-informed care for those who need it, as well as make basic healthcare products like tampons available. Gynecological care would also be mandatory.
Since July, the Dignity Act has only advanced as far as the Senate Judiciary Committee where no further action has been taken. Given the stark realities of life for incarcerated women, action cannot come soon enough. Our nation can and should do better than to allow Jim Crow-like prison policies to continue unchecked.
Published on TIME on October 2, 2017
By César Muñoz
On March 22, Brazil’s representatives will have to explain at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights why the country maintains some of the most violent and inhumane prisons in Latin America, and why the government has let them fall into the hands of criminal organizations.
You’d expect Brazilian authorities to make regaining control of their prisons a top priority after the series of massacres that left more than 100 inmates dead just two months ago. Instead, state negligence, incompetence, or a lack of political will continue to let gangs use prison cells as recruiting grounds.
An October 2016 report by the Federal Prison Department said that the state government’s failure to provide adequate health, education, work, and legal services to inmates was strengthening the very gangs the prison system is supposed to help crush. The consequences for Brazil reach far beyond the prison walls.
In mid-February, we asked permission to visit the Penitenciária Agrícola de Monte Cristo, the largest prison in the northern state of Roraima, where gang members killed 10 inmates in October and another 33 in January. State authorities candidly shared details about life inside the prison, but refused to let us in, saying they could not ensure our safety. In truth, they can’t ensure anyone’s safety. Only the gangs can do that.
The crumbling Penitenciária Agrícola held 1,511 inmates in February. It was built for 750 but its real capacity could be as low as 300 because successive riots have caused the infrastructure to deteriorate, a judge overseeing the prison told us. Most of the prisoners spend 24 hours a day in overcrowded, fetid cells, with nothing to do.
Roraima’s statewide prison population has grown by 41 percent in the past 18 months, to 2,300. More than half have not been convicted of a crime, according to state data. Their average wait in prison for trial is more than a year, according to the National Council of Justice.
In January, the judge ordered that the 161 inmates held in a semi-open facility –which allows some of them to go out to work during the day– continue their sentences under house arrest after the prison director said that he was unable to ensure their security or the security of his personnel.
At Penitenciária Agrícola, since the October killings, guards have only entered the prison grounds twice a day, to bring food. They are protected by a squad of heavily armed military police officers. Any inmate who feels sick in between –or is attacked– may well die.
The two public defenders who represent convicted detainees in all of Roraima’s prisons have been unable to meet with their clients in Penitenciária Agrícola since October, one of them told us. As we have reported elsewhere in Brazil, lack of adequate legal representation means that some cases fall through the cracks, including one man who remained in a Roraima prison for a year after he was awarded parole in 2016.
So who’s in charge? Vicious gangs, who use the prison to recruit members by offering the protection that the state does not.
The Penitenciária Agrícola holds about 500 members of PCC, a prison gang originally from São Paulo, according to prison officials, who ask incoming detainees to declare their gang affiliation so that they can be housed with members of their own gang. Even those who say they belong to no gang are sent to cells with PCC members, allegedly for lack of space, according to prison officials. There, they are under pressure to join.
The 33 inmates who died in January did not belong to any gang. Members of PCC decapitated all of them as a show of force, prison officials told us.
None of this is exclusive to Roraima. Brazil has more than 622,000 people behind bars – 67 percent over capacity. Holding pretrial detainees with convicted criminals, hideous overcrowding, procedural delays, and gang rule within the cellblocks are common.
A new prison under construction – designed for fewer than 400 inmates – won’t solve the state’s problems. Neither Roraima, nor Brazil, will be able to build enough prisons to end overcrowding if there is no change in current incarceration policies.
Judicial and state authorities should make wider use of alternatives to prison, both for people awaiting trial and those convicted of non-violent offenses, and improve the justice system by ending unjustified delays and increasing the number of public defenders. Most of all, Brazil should abandon its retrograde “war on drugs” policy, which is filling prisons with people detained with small quantities of drugs. Brazil needs to decriminalize drug use.
The recent prison massacres showed the strength of Brazil´s prison gangs. Brazil’s federal and state governments need to demonstrate that they are stronger, and smarter, by overhauling judicial and incarceration systems that now serve no one well except the gangs. The safety of everyone – inside and outside the prison walls – depends on it.
This article was published on Human Rights Watch's website on March 22, 2017.
By Kristine Phillips
Tens of thousands of immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were forced to work for $1 day, or for nothing at all — a violation of federal anti-slavery laws — a lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit, filed in 2014 against one of the largest private prison companies in the country, reached class-action status this week after a federal judge’s ruling. That means the case could involve as many as 60,000 immigrants who have been detained.
It’s the first time a class-action lawsuit accusing a private U.S. prison company of forced labor has been allowed to move forward.
“That’s obviously a big deal; it’s recognizing the possibility that a government contractor could be engaging in forced labor,” said Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, a Colorado-based nonprofit group that represents low-wage workers, including undocumented immigrants. “Certification of the class is perhaps the only mechanism by which these vulnerable individuals who were dispersed across the country and across the world would ever be able to vindicate their rights.”
At the heart of the dispute is the Denver Contract Detention Facility, a 1,500-bed center in Aurora, Colo., owned and operated by GEO Group under a contract with ICE. The Florida-based corporation runs facilities to house immigrants who are awaiting their turn in court.
The lawsuit, filed against GEO Group on behalf of nine immigrants, initially sought more than $5 million in damages. Attorneys expect the damages to grow substantially given the case’s new class-action status.
The class-action ruling by U.S. District Judge John Kane means that as many as 60,000 current and former detainees at the detention facility in Aurora are now part of the lawsuit without having to actively join as plaintiffs, said Andrew Free, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The lead plaintiff in the case is a permanent resident of the U.S., and attorneys expect “a significant portion of the class will fit that bill,” Free said.
The original nine plaintiffs claim that detainees at the ICE facility are forced to work without pay — and that those who refuse to do so are threatened with solitary confinement.
Specifically, the lawsuit claims, six detainees are selected at random every day and are forced to clean the facility’s housing units. The lawsuit claims that the practice violates the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which prohibits modern-day slavery.
“Forced labor is a particular violation of the statute that we’ve alleged,” Free said. “Whether you’re calling it forced labor or slavery, the practical reality for the plaintiffs is much the same. You’re being compelled to work against your will under the threat of force or use of force.”
GEO Group also is accused of violating Colorado’s minimum wage laws by paying detainees $1 day instead of the state’s minimum wage of about $9 an hour. The company “unjustly enriched” itself through the cheap labor of detainees, the lawsuit says.
None of the original nine plaintiffs are still detained at the facility, DiSalvo said.
The class-action ruling by Kane, a senior judge in the U.S. District Court in Colorado, came at a critical time, DiSalvo said, noting President Trump’s pledge to deport 2 million to 3 million undocumented immigrants. Advocates say private prison companies that have government contracts stand to benefit significantly from the president’s hard-line policy of detaining and deporting a massive number of immigrants
“That means you need to round up and detain more people in order to determine whether they have the rights to stay in this country before you deport them,” DiSalvo said. “More people could be moving through, not just in the Aurora facility. More people could be subjected to GEO’s forced labor policy.”
Notably, the stocks of the two biggest private prison operators, Geo Group and CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America), have surged since Trump’s election. The companies donated a total of $500,000 to Trump’s inaugural festivities, USA Today reported. Since Trump took office, his administration has reversed the Obama administration’s policy to end the country’s reliance on private prisons.
GEO Group has strongly denied the lawsuit’s allegations and argued in court records that pay of $1 a day does not violate any laws.
“We intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims,” GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez said in a statement. “The volunteer work program at immigration facilities as well as the wage rates and standards associated with the program are set by the Federal government. Our facilities, including the Aurora, Colo. Facility, are highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments pursuant to the Federal Government’s national standards.”
Jennifer D. Elzea, acting press sectrary for ICE, said she couldn’t comment on the litigation because “ICE is not specifically a party in this suit.”
Under ICE’s Voluntary Work Program, detainees sign up to work and are paid $1 a day. The nationwide program, ICE says, “provides detainees opportunities to work and earn money while confined, subject to the number of work opportunities available and within the constraints of the safety, security and good order of the facility.”
Detainees work for up to eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, cleaning bathrooms, showers, toilets, windows, patient rooms and staff offices, waxing floors, and preparing and serving meals. ICE says detainees “shall be able to volunteer for work assignments but otherwise shall not be required to work, except to do personal housekeeping.”
Jacqueline Stevens, who runs Northwestern University’s Deportation Research Clinic, said the program does not meet the criteria for what qualifies as volunteer work under labor laws.
“Just slapping the word ‘volunteer’ in front of ‘work program’ doesn’t exempt the prison firm from paying legally mandated wages any more than McDonald’s can use ‘volunteer’ senior citizens and pay them Big Macs,” said Stevens, whose research about the volunteer work program prompted the lawsuit.
Prison labor, Stevens added, has two purposes: to punish prisoners after they’ve been convicted of a crime and to rehabilitate them.
Those don’t apply to immigrant detainees, she said.
“There’s no ostensible purpose to rehabilitate them,” Stevens said. “They’re just waiting for a court date in order to clarify their immigration status. Some don’t end up being deported.”
Free, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said there are alternatives to detaining immigrants while they wait for their day in court. That includes supervision programs and community monitoring.
“That’s much cheaper than spending double the current cost of detention,” Free said, adding that not incarcerating them would ensure they’re able to find attorneys and attend their immigration hearings. “The for-profit prisons are a policy choice against due process in immigration courts and against access to counsel and against positive outcomes to immigrants who have valid claims.”
In 2014, GEO Group filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing in court records that Colorado’s minimum wage law does not apply to immigrant detainees.
“Detainees are not whom the minimum wage laws were intended to protect. The minimum wage law was enacted in Colorado to ensure wages are adequate to ‘supply the necessary cost of living and to maintain the health of workers so employed,'” the attorneys argued, quoting the state statute.
The company further argued that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act is inapplicable because the law is meant to prevent human trafficking of people for labor and/or sex. GEO Group, the attorneys wrote, “did not traffic Plaintiffs in the Aurora facility with the purpose of putting them to work.” They added that the detainees are in the custody of immigration officials.
In 2015, Kane, the federal judge, partially denied the motion to dismiss. Although he agreed with GEO Group that Colorado’s minimum wage law is inapplicable, he ruled that the other claims can stand.
“GEO’s argument was, ‘Even if we are forcing people to work under threat of solitary confinement, that would be allowed,'” DiSalvo said. “And the judge said, ‘No it wouldn’t be.'”
Kane granted class-action status a few days after the Justice Department directed the Bureau of Prisons to, again, use private prisons, a significant shift from the Obama-era policy of significantly reducing — and ultimately ending — their use.
In a one-paragraph memo last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the previous directive to the Bureau of Prisons to either reduce or decline to renew private-prison contracts as they came due, The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky reported.
“The memorandum changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system,” Sessions wrote. “Therefore, I direct the Bureau to return to its previous approach.”
The original directive from the Obama administration did not apply to immigration detainees.
This article was published on The Washington Post's website on March 5, 2017.