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.”



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

Women in prison


Prison isn’t easy for anyone. Though male inmates suffer plenty of abuse from guards and other prisoners, female prisoners are especially vulnerable to sexual assault and medical neglect. Inmates rely on guards for everything– from basic needs like food and hygiene products to medical care– and guards have the power to take these rights away at any time for any reason. Because of this power imbalance, women prisoners are sometimes coerced into trading sex for additional food, privileges, or to avoid punishment. A significant contributor to this power imbalance is gender disparity between guard and inmate populations; in federal prisons, 70% of guards are male.

In 1996, The Progressive documented the case of Robin Lucas, a female inmate in California who was transferred to solitary confinement in a men’s correctional facility after getting in a fight with another inmate. Over a period of two months, she was attacked three times by male prisoners whom a guard granted unfettered access to her cell at night, culminating in an attack by three men who handcuffed and raped her.

Unfortunately, Lucas is hardly the only woman who has endured sexual misconduct or assault in prison. According to Amnesty International:

Records show correctional officials have subjected female inmates to rape, other sexual assault, sexual extortion, and groping during body searches. Male correctional officials watch women undressing, in the shower or the toilet. Male correctional officials retaliate, often brutally, against female inmates who complain about sexual assault and harassment.

In addition to sexual abuse, women prisoners are often subject to medical neglect and discrimination as well. Female inmates have been refused routine treatments like mammograms and Pap smears (which are only available in half of state prisons for women) as well as care for serious conditions such as HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, pregnant inmates are routinely shackled, sometimes even during labor. Lesbian and bisexual prisoners are often targeted as victims because of their sexual identity; Lucas, a lesbian, was taunted by male guards about her sexuality before they allowed male inmates to rape her, saying “maybe we can change your mind.”


Read Salon Magazine‘s “Locked Up in America” series for more stories from women who have been abused and mistreated in prison.

See a photo pictorial about women’s experiences in prisons here, and read more facts about women in prison from Women in Prison: A Site for Resistance.

To read a history of women’s resistance in prisons, check out Resistance Behind Bars by Victoria Law, who’s interviewed in the most recent issue of Bitch magazine.

**Update: July 16, 2009– The State of Michigan will pay $100 million to 500 female prisoners who were sexually harassed and raped by Michigan prison guards.  The verdict comes seven months after the Detroit Free Press ran a five-part story on Tori Bunton, a Michigan inmate who was repeatedly raped by prison guards and awarded a $3.45 million settlement. **

090330_r18075_p233 In the March 30 issue of the New Yorker, Atul Gawande asks the question, “Is solitary confinement torture?” His compelling answer, supported by personal accounts from prisoners, is an unequivocal “Yes.” Gawande’s article mainly focuses on the stories of two American prisoners isolated for years with hardly any human contact, even from guards. The mental toll that solitary confinement takes on these men is readily apparent; one man sets his tiny cell on fire multiple times while the other becomes obsessed with revenge fantasies involving his captors. Gawande notes that locking people up in isolation for long periods of time makes them mentally unstable– they lose the ability to interact normally with others and often the will to live.

Today, solitary confinement is no longer limited to temporary punishment for unruly prisoners; it has influenced correctional design so fundamentally that entire institutions are built with the purpose of keeping inmates isolated from one another at all times.  These supermax prisons, or Special Housing Units (SHU), have become favored prison models in the United States.  Laura Sullivan of National Public Radio estimates that at least 25,000 inmates are currently serving their sentences in solitary confinement, locked up for 23 hours a day with only one hour allotted for exercise alone in a small concrete yard. In non-supermax prisons, suspected gang members are routinely thrown into solitary in a weak effort to dilute violence within the general population, while other times solitary is imposed arbitrarily or for minor offenses. The worst instance of solitary confinement nationwide comes from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where two men, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox,  each spent 36 years in isolation, a situation Amnesty International declared “cruel, inhuman, and degrading.”

For more information about the history of solitary confinement, click here. Also, read NPR’s fascinating three-part series on solitary confinement, which highlights Pelican Bay Prison in California, one of the U.S.’s most notorious supermax prisons.

20090204-steve-henley-executedThe Tennessean recently made an interesting journalistic decision: they ran an opinion piece from a staff reporter about her experience covering the February execution of a man named Steve Henley — from a prison witness room occupied by both Henley’s family members and several journalists. The witness room of the death chamber is a place that only prison officials, reporters, and loved ones of the condemned are allowed to enter; most stories reported from there focus on botched executions or grieving family members of the victims. Instead, Kate Howard’s article is a moving depiction of the suffering endured by Henley’s family as they watched him die via lethal injection, told from the fascinating perspective of a journalist in the difficult position of watching and documenting a human being’s final moments.

This article is only available via purchase from The Tennessean website for $2.95, but here are some of the particularly memorable parts:

I spent an hour, an extremely awkward hour, getting shuffled with Steve’s family from one concrete, clockless conference room to another while they counted down the minutes. The warden of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution had brought us into the room himself and let us know right off the bat there were no interviews on these premises. There were six of us intruding on those sacred moments, media witnesses who were told to stay silent…

His pastor, a staunch anti-death penalty advocate, said she couldn’t believe this was really happening after all these years. His son Greg, who said he didn’t comprehend reading that well, was repeating over and over the statement he planned to give later to the press, trying to commit it to memory.

“I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing my daddy. I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing my loving daddy. I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing my loving daddy, and I want you to know he is an innocent man.”…

The blinds were lifted, and Henley was strapped to the gurney. A microphone was coming down from the ceiling for his last statement. He raised his head, turned to see his family, and stuck out his tongue. With his hands strapped down, he tried to blow a kiss. He made his statement. He said he was sorry for what Fred and Edna went through, but he didn’t do it. He said he hoped this procedure would give some peace to them and their family, although he didn’t believe death brought anything but pain. He said he was an innocent man.


His family began to sob. They stood by the window, shouted to him. He told them to quit crying, called them a pitiful bunch. He told them – perhaps his pastor especially – to never quit. “I feel it coming,” he shouted from the death chamber. His head was already down, he snored a few times and went silent. In the witness chamber, it was chaos. They were screaming, sobbing. His daughter began to throw up. His sister and his pastor joined together in the Lord’s Prayer, so impassioned that even the pastor stumbled over the words.

I bit my lip and furiously wrote, knowing my notes were never going to match my memory or capture what was happening in that moment. The color drained from his face. He started to turn blue. And slowly it grew quiet in the witness chamber, too.

Don’t cry. Don’t cry.

I looked at the other reporters. They were still writing. Soon Henley’s sister turned and stared me and the others straight in the face. “Not a tear in anyone’s eye back there,” she said to nobody in particular. “Don’t human life mean nothing to you? You’re like a pack of dogs.”

Not surprisingly, Howard’s piece drew significant public response, including many criticisms for sympathizing with a man who allegedly killed two people. But in an interview with 1 in 100, Howard expressed that she was glad she wrote the story, though she won’t discuss any personal views on capital punishment in order to remain as objective as possible. Her words on the experience:

After a long night and filing my story at 4 a.m. after the execution, I went home and crashed. I took the next day off, but I sat down and wrote mostly because I had spoken with so many colleagues about covering the execution beforehand and thought I’d answer everyone’s questions at once. So I wrote my recollections and posted it to Facebook, where it was read by my executive editor.

He said he wanted very much to publish it as a first-person opinion piece on Sunday’s Issues page. The intention was to put another, less formal version of the events and to essentially allow readers where they’re likely to never go: inside the death chamber.

The public response was tremendous and extremely varied. I got calls and emails in the hundreds. Some were extremely vitriolic, and thought it insensitive to the family of the man’s victims or a piece vilifying the death penalty. Many anonymous commenters said that I’d feel differently if it were my loved ones who were killed by Mr. Henley. But many readers read it as I intended it to be: a heart-wrenching account of a family who killed nobody, watching the death of a father they still loved from behind a glass. I have never heard from Mr. Henley’s family or from the family of the victims, Fred and Edna Stafford.

jim-webb2Jim Webb, a first-term Democratic senator in Virginia, announced new legislation this week that would create a National Criminal Justice Commission tasked with rigorously analyzing the criminal justice system and making recommendations for reforms in sentencing and prison policy.

Inspired by his experiences as a lawyer and journalist, Webb’s push for change has been described by many politicians and experts as nothing short of courageous.  Glenn Greenwald, a civil rights lawyer, wrote on Salon.com that “there are few things rarer than a major politician doing something that is genuinely courageous and principled, but Jim Webb’s impassioned commitment to fundamental prison reform is exactly that.”

Webb’s legislation is wide in scope– it addresses overcrowding, prison gangs, community safety, rehabilitation, prisoner health, and sentencing for nonviolent offenses, to name a few. Here are the main concerns that the National Criminal Justice Commission will tackle, according to Webb’s website:

  • With 5% of the world’s population, our country now houses 25% of the world’s reported prisoners.
  • Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200% since 1980.
  • Four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals.
  • Approximately 1 million gang members reside in the U.S., many of them foreign-based; and Mexican cartels operate in 230+ communities across the country.
  • Post-incarceration re-entry programs are haphazard and often nonexistent, undermining public safety and making it extremely difficult for ex-offenders to become full, contributing members of society.

Webb will face a difficult road in both assembling the Commission and implementing the policy reforms it suggests. Contact Senator Webb and express your support for his brave approach to prison reform:

Senator Jim Webb
1501 Lee Highway
Suite 130
Arlington, VA 22209
Toll-Free 1-866-507-1570

Contact your own senators and urge them to publicly endorse Senator Webb’s legislation by clicking here.

Listen to an NPR interview with Jim Webb, read a fact sheet about the legislation, or read his upcoming article in PARADE magazine.

**Update: In the June 15 issue of Newsweek, Dahlia Lithwick argues why focusing on prison reform in the United States is more important than the issue of Guantanamo. Features a nice summary of Jim Webb’s proposed legislation.**