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Posts Tagged ‘California’

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!

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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.

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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.

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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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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.”

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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. **

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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.

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