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Posts Tagged ‘Michigan’

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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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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