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Hello all,

Sad news: effective immediately, 1 in 100 will no longer be posting updates. Work and life experiences have gotten in the way of posting in the last couple of years, but hopefully the blog will resume someday.

Thanks to everyone for reading. In the meantime, check out the Prison Abolitionist blog, which is one of the finest prison resources on the web. If you post comments or questions, Peggy will get back to you right away.

And to all incarcerated individuals and their families, please know that there are lots of people out there who want to help you in any way they can. Never give up.

Take care,

1 in 100

On Thursday, September 16, the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA teamed up with Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty to host a showing of Dead Man Walking and a Q & A session with Sister Helen Prejean, a lifelong advocate against the death penalty.

A little background information about Prejean: in 1993, she published the memoir Dead Man Walking about her experiences serving as spiritual adviser to two men sentenced to death in Louisiana. The memoir provides an informed but passionate perspective of the issues surrounding the U.S. prison system, particularly the death penalty. Prejean does an incredible balancing act of eliciting compassion for the condemned men while continually reminding readers of the suffering endured by the families of the victims that these men killed.

In 1995, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins made Dead Man Walking into a movie, for which Sarandon won an Academy Award for Best Actress by portraying Prejean. The film focuses on a fictional man on death row who is a combination of the two men Prejean writes about in her memoir. The film is notable for its excellent portrayal of the complexity of American attitudes toward the death penalty– the thirst for justice, especially when a convict is proven guilty; sympathy for the murdered victims; sympathy for the condemned man; and feelings of uneasiness about the power of the state to put individuals to death.

After the screening, Prejean fielded questions from the audience for about 15 minutes– a disappointingly short amount of time, but Prejean tours the world giving talks about eradicating the death penalty, so she’s surely done this same event and seen this film just a few times before. In addition, the event was hosted in Massachusetts, which does not have the death penalty, so the need to mobilize and inspire people was considerably lower than it might have been in a state that actively executes people.

Not surprisingly, during her talk Prejean framed a lot of her views about the death penalty in a religious context–she is a nun, after all– and explained that, in her eyes, the human rights perspective is steeped in religion. However, toward the end of the talk, she gave some great points that would be useful to any death penalty activist:

  • No government should be allowed to kill people. You can argue this point from a moral perspective, but it might also be useful to point out how expensive capital cases, appeals, and the death penalty are to carry out, and how these funds are better used elsewhere.
  • Incorporating the death penalty does not lower murder rates— in fact, states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than states without the death penalty. Prejean pointed out that Americans have a “penchant to use violence to solve social problems.” The death penalty is the most extreme extension of “tough on crime” laws in the United States, fueled by a barbaric concept of justice that borrows from “an eye for an eye.” Although the desire to seek justice for victims of violence is understandable, the death penalty in itself it not enough to deter criminal behavior or bring murder victims back to life. Instead, it perpetuates a vicious cycle of violence that has longstanding effects for the families of all involved parties.
  • The criminal justice system in the United States is flawed and racist. People of color and the poor are far more likely to be sent to death row, and 8 out of 10 individuals on death row are there for killing whites, even though approximately half of all murder victims are African American. Because of the fundamental racism within the judicial system, it is impossible to guarantee that all individuals have been given a fair trial. Given that the death penalty is a permanent form of punishment, it is unthinkable to condemn people to this fate if they have been subjected to an unjust criminal system or been denied adequate access to resources with which to defend themselves.

In 2007, a Gallup survey found that 66% of Americans consider the death penalty to be morally acceptable. But Prejean points out that there is a “profound moral contradiction” in that belief; killing one person to punish them for killing someone else accomplishes nothing. The death penalty doesn’t bring anyone back from the dead, make neighborhoods safer, or achieve any sense of justice. Instead, it pushes a small amount of individuals through a long, tired court process that is incredibly expensive and continues the cycle of violence.

You can follow Sister Helen Prejean on Twitter or visit her website.

Apologies for delaying the first post of 2010 until April– 1 in 100 got sucked into some time-consuming work commitments. Happy to be back and (hopefully) regularly blogging about prisons again.

Last year we delved into some of the many problems plaguing the U.S. prison system– overcrowding, inadequate healthcare, and sexual assaults against women prisoners, to name a few. While these problems are disturbingly pervasive in many prisons, there are a number of correctional facilities that have developed rehabilitative programs that benefit both prisoners and communities. Turns out there are quite a few positive things happening in prisons to highlight, too.

Today’s blog features an article about five correctional programs that offer prisoners the chance to give back to their communities. Numerous studies have suggested that rehabilitation is an essential part of the prison experience; inmates who take part in educational and vocational classes or volunteer are much less likely to return to prison.

Check out the article “Inmates Giving Back” here.

One program from this article that particularly stands out is the Long Termer’s Organization working out of Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California. These women have minimum sentences of ten years and cannot anticipate returning to their communities for quite some time. What’s striking about this program is not only the fantastic work they’ve done donating money, time, and goods to local organizations– including $4,000 raised for a breast cancer foundation and quilting blankets for a hospice– but these women are also sponsoring a Girl Scout troop composed of the daughters of inmates at the prison.

Children of inmates often have a very difficult time adjusting to the absence of a parent, resulting in diminished self-confidence, poor performance in school, and an increased chance of future incarceration. However, by stepping in and nurturing young girls through an organization that promotes independence and self esteem, the women of Valley State Prison are setting examples of leadership that will immeasurably benefit these daughters of inmates for years to come. While this support network is pretty nontraditional, establishing continued adult presences in these children’s lives will go a long way in ensuring the next generation does not make the same mistakes their mothers did. What a commendable group of women!

As the end of 2009 approaches, 1 in 100 is taking a look back at some noteworthy stories about prison from the past year that may not have crossed your radar.

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Several hundred women prisoners filed suit against the state of Michigan for failing to stop repeated sexual assaults against them by male prison guards. They’ve won at least $50 million in damages so far. Toni Bunton, above, bravely recounted the multiple sexual assaults she endured during her 17 years in prison to the Detroit Free Press in early 2009.

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On December 8, Kenneth Biros was the first person executed in the United States with a single-drug lethal injection, a process that is supposed to be less painful than executions carried out with the typical three-drug cocktail.  Ohio adopted the new method after the botched execution of Rommell Brown, whose execution was halted after Brown suffered for an unimaginable two hours. Kenneth Biros was the 52nd person executed in 2009; Carlton Gary is scheduled to be the 54th, and final, person executed this year.

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This year, the New York Times has run several interesting articles on various prison-related issues. Check out these pieces on flaws in the immigration detention systemchildren with parents in prisona reporter who covers executions in Texas, and an ex-convict trying to stay clean after prison.

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On May 20, Arizona inmate Marcia Powell died after being left in a cage in the desert sun for four hours. Powell had been given psychotropic medication that made her more susceptible to overheating, and nearby prisoners claimed that Powell was denied repeated claims for water. When Powell was pronounced brain dead at a hospital, prison officials could not find record of a legal guardian for Powell, even though she had one, resulting in Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan authorizing termination of Powell’s life support without proper legal consent. Read more about this tragedy here and here.

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This year, the Supreme Court heard two cases arguing that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole (LWOP) is unconstitutional. Joe Sullivan, above,  and Terrance Graham were each sentenced to LWOP as juveniles for crimes that did not involve murder. Approximately 2,750 individuals in the United States are serving LWOP for crimes committed as juveniles; the United States is the only country in the world that has this penalty for individuals under the age of 18.

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Finally, a fantastic chart from Online Education demonstrating the social and financial costs of prisons. Click here to see the full-size version.

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Happy Holidays, and here’s hoping for a 2010 with fewer prisons.

-1 in 100

The Innocents

homecomingIn July, photographer Taryn Simon gave a TED talk about her project The Innocents, a  touring exhibit and book of portraits focusing on people wrongly convicted of crimes, mostly through photographic misidentification. Simon’s talk is spectacular; her insight into the use of photographs in criminal investigations is startling and demonstrates a disturbing bias in the way law enforcement officials sometimes steer victims toward identifying their assailants. Simon sums the issue up nicely in the forward of The Innocents:

The criminal justice system had failed to recognize the limitations of relying on photographic images.

Simon notes that memory is malleable– it can easily be influenced (intentionally or unintentionally) by sources other than photography, especially composite sketches and lineups. Take this example Simon presents in her talk:

A woman was raped and presented with a series of photographs from which to identify her attacker. She saw some similarities in the first photo, but couldn’t quite make a positive identification. Days later, she’s presented with another photo array of all new photographs– except that one photo that she had some draw to from the earlier array is repeated in the second array, and a positive identification is made, because the photo replaced the memory, if there ever was an actual memory.”

In many of these cases profiled by Simon, the accused individual had a solid alibi confirmed by multiple witnesses– yet identification by the victim took precedence in the courtroom. In other cases, damning factors beside photographic misidentification work against the wrongfully convicted– such as in the case of Frederick Day, an African-American man who was convicted of rape by an all-white jury, despite an alibi confirmed by thirteen people. Simon’s work, sponsored by The Innocence Project, highlights significant flaws in the criminal justice system that have led many innocent men and woman to long terms of imprisonment, and sometimes even execution.

Check out some of Simon’s photographs below alongside the stories of the wrongfully convicted:

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Who: Tim Durham

Where: skeet shooting, Tulsa, Oklahoma

What: 11 alibi witnesses placed Durham at a skeet-shooting competition at the time of the crime. Served 3.5 years of a 3,220 year sentence for rape and robbery

When: 2002

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Who: Charles Irvin Fain

Where: the Snake River in Melba, Idaho, where he allegedly kidnapped, raped, and murdered a young girl walking to school. When it was discovered he was wrongfully convicted, authorities learned that Fain had never even been to the location before.

What: Served 18 years for murder, rape, and kidnapping

When: 2002

To learn more about Taryn Simon and her current project, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, visit her website. All photographs © Taryn Simon.

Dollar sign chainTurns out the recession may be the best thing to happen to America’s prisons in quite a while. As California struggles to devise a plan to release 40,000 inmates from its prisons as mandated by a federal court, other states are voluntarily looking to release prisoners early and exploring alternatives to incarceration in an attempt to both save money and fix the nation’s fractured prison system.

In recent months, states including Kentucky, Michigan, Colorado, Florida, New York, Ohio, North Carolina, and Mississippi have initiated early-release programs for nonviolent offenders. Not every prisoner is eligible for early release; typical participants have served time for small-quantity drug possession or minor offenses like parole violations. (In other words, felons and violent offenders don’t make the cut.)

Illinois recently decided to follow suit by announcing a plan to release 1,000 inmates, a move that could save the state $5 million in just one year. Governor Pat Quinn also allotted $2 million toward community-based alternative and drug treatment programs that will help keep people out of prison. This is an outstanding move–many community-based programs have a proven record of success at reducing prison entry and recidivism rates. And considering that nearly 25 percent of prisoners are incarcerated for drug-related offenses, with some 33 percent of state prisoners and 26 percent of federal prisoners reporting they were under the influence of alcohol or drugs while committing the crime(s) for which they are imprisoned, these programs are essential for helping people avoid prison time and beat substance abuse.

Other states are trying alternative methods of keeping prison populations down. From 2007–2008, Texas, a state known for its tough sentencing laws, implemented drug and DWI courts designed to funnel people with drug and alcohol problems into treatment programs instead of sending them to prison. In addition to instituting alternative courts, Texas also halved probation times and increased parole rates, resulting in its prison population of 155,000 shrinking.

While the consequences of early-release programs have been widely debated, there is one benefit that cannot be ignored: releasing low-risk inmates frees up money for rehabilitative programs for current prisoners. Reducing the number of inmates currently incarcerated is one step toward improving the prison system, but significant investments in rehabilitative programming, both preventative and ongoing, must be made in order to quell the prison epidemic. The current recidivism rate in the United States hovers around two thirds; this is an astonishingly high figure that shows that the contemporary penal system simply isn’t working.

It’s not enough to let prisoners out of jail early– we also need to prevent them from returning to prison. That’s an investment we can all afford.

California PrisonsAs individuals across the U.S. endure furloughs, plummeting 401(k) plans, and job losses, state governments are struggling through their own fiscal battles—particularly California. The Golden State has officially become The Bankrupt State, juggling a $26 billion deficit and millions in cuts to much-needed social and government programs.

Conveniently enough, however, California’s fiscal crisis coincides with a recent federal ruling that the state come up with a plan to release 40,000 of its prisoners over the next two years—a move that could instantly ease some of the state’s financial woes while vastly improving conditions in its overcrowded prisons.

The problems within California’s broken prison system have become alarmingly apparent in recent weeks: a prison riot in Chino on August 10 injured nearly 250 inmates and caused extensive damage to the prison. The prison was desperately overcrowded, with 5,900 men packed into a facility designed to hold only 3,000 bodies. This trend of overcrowding has become a hallmark of California’s prisons; it is estimated that the state’s prison system is only capable of safely holding half of the 170,000 prisoners it currently houses. Some 16,000 inmates in California don’t even have cells to share and instead are tightly packed into leftover spaces such as gyms and hallways, which simply crowds facilities even further and hinders recreational opportunities in common areas.

Though he has vowed to appeal the federal ruling, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed a $1.2 billion cut to the state’s $10 billion prison budget in an effort to address the state’s prison and financial troubles. Initially, the cut came with a mandate to release 27,000 prisoners, but this provision was eliminated from the governor’s proposal after intense GOP opposition.

Click here to listen to an NPR podcast about the Chino riot and problems in California’s prisons. Click here to read an editorial by Neal Peirce at the Seattle Times about prison overcrowding.

Click here for a breakdown of California’s prison population.

Email or call Governor Schwarzenegger to demand better conditions in California’s prisons.

IV DripGovernor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent decision to renege on a plan to build two prison hospitals for California inmates has met with intense national criticism and highlighted the dire healthcare situation for prisoners in the United States.

This is hardly the first time that the state of California has demonstrated a blatant disregard for the quality of life of its prisoners. In February, a federal court ruled that California’s prison system provides an unconstitutional level of medical care to its more than 150,000 inmates. As a result of the ruling, over the next three years, California must reduce overcrowding in its prisons by releasing around a third of its total inmate population.

But California is not alone in its medical mistreatment of prisoners. Correctional institutions are legally required to provide the same medical care to prisoners as that available to the public—including preventative care, care for chronic conditions, and mental treatment.

Unfortunately, many prisons contract private, for-profit providers that care more about keeping costs low than improving inmates’ health. In 2005, the New York Times ran a series called “Harsh Medicine” by Paul von Zielbauer that exposed the unlawful, unethical practices of Prison Health Services, a medical-care provider for prisons in New York state. After ten deaths in New York prisons, investigators discovered “medical staffs trimmed to the bone, doctors underqualified or out of reach, nurses doing tasks beyond their training, prescription drugs withheld, patient records unread and employee misconduct unpunished.”

Take the story of Brian Tetrault, a 44 year-old with Parkinson’s disease who died after ten days in a New York county jail when he was denied medication he needed for his condition. As von Zielbauer writes:

Over…10 days, Mr. Tetrault slid into a stupor, soaked in his own sweat and urine. But he never saw the jail doctor again, and the nurses dismissed him as a faker. After his heart finally stopped, investigators said, correction officers at the Schenectady jail doctored records to make it appear he had been released before he died.

Despite state investigators finding Prison Health Services responsible for the death of Tetrault and at least nine others, PHS continues to be one of the most popular healthcare providers for prisons in the United States.

Coming later this year, Part 2 of “Healthcare in prisons” on 1 in 100 will closely examine specific medical issues in prisons, including HIV/AIDS, drug treatment, and the need for access to condoms and needle-exchange programs.

Click here to read the transcript for a Democracy Now! interview with Paul von Zielbauer, the author of “Harsh Medicine.”

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This week the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners do not have a constitutional right to obtain DNA testing that might prove their innocence if they have already been convicted. In a 5-4 decision, the court majority ruled that allowing prisoners the right to postconviction testing would undermine the finality of a conviction and the justice system’s accuracy. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote:

[DNA has an] unparalleled ability both to exonerate the wrongly convicted and to identify the guilty… [but] to suddenly constitutionalize this area would short-circuit what looks to be a prompt and considered legislative response.

This was clearly a difficult decision for the justices as evidenced by the close final ruling. On one hand, justices voting in the majority like Samuel A. Alito Jr. argued that any defendant “could demand DNA testing in the hope that some happy accident — for example, degradation or contamination of the evidence — would provide the basis for seeking postconviction relief.” However, in a compelling rejoinder, dissenting justice John Paul Stevens wrote that states would have nothing to lose if defendants offered to pay for testing themselves.

While the Court’s decision came as a blow to prisoners’ rights advocates, it was a small one. According to the Innocence Project, an organization that works to obtain DNA testing for wrongfully convicted individuals, the impact of the decision is “limited… because most prisoners obtain access to DNA testing at the state level.” Chief Justice Roberts emphasized this reality in his opinion, writing that “federal courts may upset a State’s postconviction relief procedures only if they are fundamentally inadequate to vindicate the substantive rights provided.” In other words, since the defendant, William G. Osborne, was initially offered DNA testing but his lawyer turned it down for fear of further incriminating her client, Osborne’s due process rights were not violated, so the Court would not intervene on his behalf.

As of today, 46 states have laws that allow defendants access to DNA evidence. The Innocence Project reports that there have been 240 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, 17 of whom were death row inmates. In 140 of those cases, DNA testing revealed the actual perpetrator.

Despite these startling figures in favor of postconviction DNA testing, many prosecutors are still trying to deny defendants access to it. According to the New York Times, in several states prosecutors are using eyewitness accounts and other evidence to keep defendants in jail, even when defendants offer to pay for the test themselves (which costs about $300-$400).

Arguably, DNA testing is a complicated issue that is not guaranteed to establish anyone’s innocence– for example, in cases where there are multiple suspects, test results may only show that there is an additional perpetrator instead of proving any particular suspect’s innocence. However, the cost of only a few hundred dollars is well worth it when you consider the price in years and quality of life paid by individuals who are wrongly convicted (the Innocence Project estimates that the average amount of time spent in prisons by exonerees is 12 years). If states are unwilling to pay for postconviction testing, there are numerous groups that would raise money for this relatively inexpensive test, not to mention defendants who use their own resources.

Click here to read about Charles Chatman, who was freed from prison after 26 years when DNA testing proved him innocent of rape.

Click here to learn more about the Innocence Project and its work.

ff_prisonphones2_fIf one thing can be said about prisons, it’s that they perform their main function very well–it is extremely difficult for prisoners to contact the outside world. There are numerous restrictions on both the communication that can reach prisoners and what they’re allowed to send out. From personal letters to magazines, every piece of mail sent to a prisoner is thoroughly inspected to ensure it meets prison standards for decency and appropriateness, which are often arbitrarily set or unreasonable. For example, prisoner subscriptions to periodicals are strictly monitored; magazines must come directly from publishers and are often withheld from prisoners if officials disapprove of content. Many prisoners complain of not receiving issues from mainstream periodicals that are free of pornographic, political, or weapon-related content. In addition, according to the Prison Book Censorship Program, inmates are generally not allowed to receive books from individuals, only from organizations, which limits the ability for friends and family members to send reading material to loved ones on the inside. With few educational or recreational activities available in prison, most inmates would benefit greatly from regular access to reading materials that keep them informed of the world from which they have been cut off.

In a recent article for Wired magazine, Vince Beiser describes how some prisoners have found a new way to reestablish contact with the outside– by smuggling in cell phones. Telephones are generally not available to prisoners, so many inmates pay large sums to guards and other individuals to bring prepaid cell phones illicitly into prisons. Beiser notes that though some serious crimes have been coordinated from prison using cell phones, the majority of inmates smuggle in cell phones in order to contact their loved ones. As Beiser puts it:

Whatever their crimes, most convicts have parents, children, and others they’re desperate to stay in touch with. Letters are slow, and personal visits often involve expensive, time-sucking travel. Some prisons have public phones for making collect calls, but access is limited, conversations are often monitored, and phone companies often charge much higher rates than on the outside.

Beiser suggests that instituting permanent landlines in prisons would help  reduce recidivism as inmates who maintain regular contact with family members are less likely to return to prison. Ironically enough, some prisons are now installing landline phones in prisons while keeping cell phone bans in place in an attempt to reduce recidivism and its associated costs (even though crimes are arguably just as easily conducted from a landline as a cellphone).

Regardless of the logic, prisoners should be allowed regular phone calls to their family members, as well as unfettered access to books and magazines that do not contain harmful or hateful content (such as a book with bomb-making instructions or an anti-Semitic publication). Imprisonment should not mean that inmates lose the right to educate, inform, and entertain themselves through books and periodicals; since one of the alleged goals of prisons is rehabilitation, this right should be honored foremost by prison officials. In addition, the separation of families is a painful process that could be ameliorated by telephone contact with loved ones.

For a list of prisoner publications that have a good success rate reaching prisoners, click here. If you’d like to support the Prison Book Program, click here.

**Update: July 15, 2009– Senator Kay Hutchison (R-TX) has introduced the Safe Prisons Communications Act, which would allow corrections officials to petition the FCC to jam cell phone signals coming from banned mobile devices in prisons. This unprecedented act of communications interference means that 1) it will become even more difficult and expensive for prisoners to contact loved ones and 2) prisons are continuing to fail to meet the needs of inmates by improving existing communications options.
A better alternative for inmates: supporting the Family Telephone Connection Protection Act, which would regulate maximum charges on telephone calls by inmates and force correctional institutions to offer more service providers. (Sign the petition here.)
Click here to tell your Representatives to vote YES on the Family Telephone Connection Protection Act.
Click here to tell your Senator to vote NO on the Safe Prisons Communication Act. **

Photo © Andrew Hetherington