Category Archives: prisons

While eyes are on Russia, Sessions dramatically reshapes the Justice Department

The Washington Post reports: For more than five hours, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sat in a hearing room on Capitol Hill this month, fending off inquiries on Washington’s two favorite topics: President Trump and Russia.

But legislators spent little time asking Sessions about the dramatic and controversial changes in policy he has made since taking over the top law enforcement job in the United States nine months ago.

From his crackdown on illegal immigration to his reversal of Obama administration policies on criminal justice and policing, Sessions is methodically reshaping the Justice Department to reflect his nationalist ideology and hard-line views — moves drawing comparatively less public scrutiny than the ongoing investigations into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin.

Sessions has implemented a new charging and sentencing policy that calls for prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges possible, even if that might mean minority defendants face stiff, mandatory minimum penalties. He has defended the president’s travel ban and tried to strip funding from cities with policies he considers too friendly toward undocumented immigrants.

Sessions has even adjusted the department’s legal stances in cases involving voting rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in a way that advocates warn might disenfranchise poor minorities and give certain religious people a license to discriminate.

Supporters and critics say the attorney general has been among the most effective of the Cabinet secretaries — implementing Trump’s conservative policy agenda even as the president publicly and privately toys with firing him over his decision to recuse himself from the Russia case. [Continue reading…]


The disturbing lessons of Trump’s shameful Arpaio pardon

Scott Lemieux writes: During his very loosely hinged extemporaneous remarks in Phoenix on Tuesday, President Trump strongly hinted that he would pardon the infamous former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. On Friday evening, with a frightening hurricane descending on Texas, Trump made it official. The decision to issue his first pardon to a public official who made his reputation, such as it is, through race-baiting and a contempt for both legal restraints and basic human decency tells us a lot about Trump — and none of it is good.

It is highly relevant that Trump and Arpaio first became allies while Trump was rising to prominence within the Republican Party by pushing the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. The Arizona sheriff actually launched a farcical investigation into Obama’s birth certificate, wasting taxpayer money to build his cred with his resentful white supporters. That Arpaio and Trump would become mutual admirers was inevitable.

It should go without saying that Arpaio is a terrible candidate for a pardon. If you have any doubts, read this chilling 2009 profile of Arpaio by William Finnegan in The New Yorker. Arpaio’s first claim to local fame was to make the conditions of imprisonment for inmates under his jurisdiction as inhumane as possible — housing thousands of people in tents next to cites like dumps and waste disposal plants in the brutal Arizona heat. He fed inmates for 30 cents a meal, two meals a day, and then made the Food Network one of three channels available to prisoners. He put many people who were being held for trial and had not been convicted of any crime to work on chain gangs. Under his watch, guards were so consistently cruel to inmates that the county had amassed more than $40 million in civil damages from lawsuits. And he also engaged in egregious racial profiling when detaining people suspected of being illegal immigrants.

Arpaio’s focus on abusing prisoners and arbitrarily detaining people of Latin American descent also made his “tough on crime” reputation grossly misleading. The resources wasted on his cruel publicity stunts took money away from law enforcement, slowing response times and leading to (among other problems) hundreds of botched or perfunctory sex crimes investigations. He did, however, find the time to file frivolous charges against two journalists who were looking into his suspicious property dealings, leading to another huge legal settlement for Maricopa County’s taxpayers to pay off. [Continue reading…]


The incarceration industry was having a tough time. Then Trump got elected

James Surowiecki writes: Going into Election Day, few industries seemed in worse shape than America’s private prisons. Prison populations, which had been rising for decades, were falling. In 2014, Corrections Corporation of America, the biggest private-prison company in the U.S., lost its contract to run Idaho’s largest prison, after lawsuits relating to understaffing and violence that had earned the place the nickname Gladiator School. There were press exposés of shocking conditions in the industry and signs of a policy shift toward it. In April, Hillary Clinton said, “We should end private prisons.” In August, the Justice Department said that private federal prisons were less safe and less secure than government-run ones. The same month, the department announced that it would phase out the use of private prisons at the federal level. Although most of the private-prison industry operates on the state level (immigrant-detention centers are its other big business), the news sent C.C.A.’s stock down by thirty-five per cent.

Donald Trump’s victory changed all that: within days, C.C.A.’s stock had jumped forty-seven per cent. His faith in privatization is no secret, and prison companies aren’t the only ones rubbing their hands. The stock price of for-profit schools has also rocketed. Still, the outlook for private prisons is particularly rosy, because many Trump policies work to their benefit. The Justice Department’s plan to phase out private prisons will likely be scrapped, and a growing bipartisan movement for prison and sentencing reform is about to run up against a President who campaigned as a defender of “law and order.” Above all, Trump’s hard-line position on immigration seems certain to fill detention centers, one of the biggest money spinners for private-prison operators. [Continue reading…]


Private prison companies ready to cash in on throwing out immigrants

The Daily Beast reports: When the children were released from the privately run immigration detention facility in Karnes City, Texas, they were immediately taken to the emergency room with pneumonia.

Over the past few months, several children who fled from violence in South and Central America with their mothers have been hospitalized after leaving the facility run by GEO Group, a private prison company that saw its stocks jump following Election Day. The children’s health problems were the result of poor medical care inside what is essentially a prison for mothers and their children, according to Amy Fischer of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.

With Donald Trump now president-elect, the Karnes City facility and a dozen more like it across the country are preparing to fill even more beds with immigrants and refugees. GEO Group and another private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America, are also preparing for more large, lucrative contracts with the federal government to run the detention centers.

Both companies saw their stock prices soar following Trump’s historic and shocking win. [Continue reading…]


Rebecca Gordon: Arresting our way to ‘justice’

The figures boggle the mind.  Approximately 11 million Americans cycle through our jails and prisons each year (including a vast “pre-trial population” of those arrested and not convicted and those who simply can’t make bail).  At any moment, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are more than 2.3 million people in our “1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.”  In some parts of the country, there are more people in jail than at college.

If you want a partial explanation for this, keep in mind that there are cities in this country that register more arrests for minor infractions each year than inhabitants. Take Ferguson, Missouri, now mainly known as the home of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot and killed in 2014 by a town policeman.  The Harvard Law Review reported that, in 2013, Ferguson had a population of 22,000.  That same year “its municipal court issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses,” or almost one-and-a-half arrests per inhabitant.

And then there are the conditions in which all those recordbreaking numbers of people live in our jails and prisons. At any given time, 80,000 to 100,000 inmates in state and federal prisons are held in “restrictive housing” (aka solitary confinement).  And those numbers don’t even include county jails, deportation centers, and juvenile justice institutions.  Rikers Island, New York City’s infamous jail complex in its East River, has 990 solitary cells. And keep in mind that solitary confinement — being stuck in a six-by-nine or eight-by-10-foot cell for 23 or 24 hours a day — is widely recognized as a form of psychosis-inducing torture.

And that, of course, is just to begin to explore America’s vast and ever-expanding prison universe.  The fact is that it’s hard to fathom even the basics of the American urge to lock people away in vast numbers, which is why today TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon focuses instead on what it might mean for justice in this country if we started to consider alternatives to prison. Tom Engelhardt

There oughta be a law…
Should prison really be the American way?
By Rebecca Gordon

You’ve heard of distracted driving? It causes quite a few auto accidents and it’s illegal in a majority of states.

Well, this year, a brave New Jersey state senator, a Democrat, took on the pernicious problem of distracted walking. Faced with the fact that some people can’t tear themselves away from their smartphones long enough to get across a street in safety, Pamela Lampitt of Camden, New Jersey, proposed a law making it a crime to cross a street while texting. Violators would face a fine, and repeat violators up to 15 days in jail. Similar measures, says the Washington Post, have been proposed (though not passed) in Arkansas, Nevada, and New York. This May, a bill on the subject made it out of committee in Hawaii.

That’s right. In several states around the country, one response to people being struck by cars in intersections is to consider preemptively sending some of those prospective accident victims to jail. This would be funny, if it weren’t emblematic of something larger. We are living in a country where the solution to just about any social problem is to create a law against it, and then punish those who break it.

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The U.S. is the largest jailer of children in the world


Liz Ryan writes: The mass incarceration epidemic in the US has been getting much-deserved attention in recent years. What’s less well known is that some of the worst atrocities in the prison system are being committed against children—the US is the largest jailer of children in the world. With the looming presidential election putting prison reform in the spotlight, now is the time to reverse decades of bad policies.

Putting children in prison has a devastating impact on their families and communities, as well as on young people themselves. There are many examples of these atrocities in action. The Lincoln Hills youth facility in Irma, Wisconsin, is one of the largest youth prisons in the US. In the past 18 months, the facility has been the subject of federal and state investigations stemming from allegations of physical and sexual abuse, as well as guards using intimidation tactics to discourage youth from reporting incidents of pepper spray use, strangulation, and suffocation. In one incident, a boy’s toes were amputated after a staff member slammed a heavy door on his foot.

For the past several years, the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, Connecticut’s largest youth prison, has been under multiple investigations by the Office of the Child Advocate for excessive use of isolation, overuse of restraints, inadequate suicide prevention, lack of appropriate staff support and training, inadequate and harmful crisis management, and scant available information on quality, public safety outcomes, and oversight. Last year, the Child Advocate’s office released video of staff members conducting face-down restraints on young people at the training school—which are illegal in Connecticut schools and treatment centers. [Continue reading…]


Hate preachers to be held in separate prison units in England and Wales to curb radicalisation

The Guardian reports: Influential hate preachers will be held in separate prison units after an official inquiry found inmates were acting as “self-styled emirs” behind bars.

A government-ordered review into radicalisation in jails has concluded that some charismatic prisoners exerted a “radicalising influence” over fellow Muslims. It also claimed that some have attempted to engineer segregation, encouraged aggressive conversions to Islam, and been involved in the intimidation of prison imams.

The claims have emerged in a review led by former prison governor Ian Acheson and commissioned last year by then justice secretary Michael Gove. Such concerns in Whitehall were disclosed by the Guardian in February.

Its conclusions will overturn 50 years of dispersing the most dangerous prisoners across the prisons system. Critics have previously warned that such a move could also provide a focal point for public protests and claims of a “British Guantanamo”. [Continue reading…]


How safe is it to lock up Anjem Choudary in prison with Muslims he could radicalise?

Andrew Neilson writes: The conviction of the cleric Anjem Choudary for inviting support for the Islamic State (Isil) brings into sharp focus a longstanding concern about prisons and radicalisation. The spectre is that jailed Islamist extremists – or indeed any other kind of political extremist – find that there is no better recruiting ground for their cause than prisons themselves.

We know, for example, that a number of extremists behind recent terror attacks in France associated with Isil had spent time in the French prison system and had been radicalised there. Now a man described as the “most dangerous man in Britain”, who counter-terrorism chiefs have spent the best part of two decades pursuing on charges of radicalisation, will most likely be sent to prison for many years. What might he achieve in the potentially fertile recruiting ground of British prisons?

As it happens, and possibly with the looming conviction of Choudary in mind, the former Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove commissioned a review into Islamist extremists in prison. That review is yet to be published, and with the appointment of Elizabeth Truss to the Ministry of Justice its future is currently rather uncertain. We do know, however, that the review found that such extremism is a growing problem within prisons (although we do not know what data the review relied upon to reach this conclusion). The review also found the National Offender Management Service, which oversees the prison system, lacked a coherent strategy to deal with the problem. Some 69 recommendations were made for change. [Continue reading…]


‘Abu Ghraib’-style images of children in detention in Australia trigger public inquiry

The Guardian reports: Australia’s prime minister has launched a public inquiry following the broadcast of footage of children in detention being abused, hooded and bound in a manner likened to Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.

Malcolm Turnbull announced a royal commission hours after the national broadcaster aired shocking footage showing children in detention at the Don Dale facility outside Darwin in the Northern Territory.

Footage aired on the ABC’s Four Corners program on Monday showed one youth being stripped and physically held down by guards.

In another scene that the program compared with images from Guantánamo Bay or the Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad, 17-year-old Dylan Voller was shown hooded and tied in a restraint chair for two hours. [Continue reading…]


How to stop prisons from turning criminals into terrorists


Cullen Thomas writes: Each time I learn of another terrorist who spent time in prison, I’m taken back to my own prison time. In 1994, I was caught smuggling hashish into South Korea and spent three and a half years imprisoned there. Since then I’ve struggled to understand the nature of confinement and its effects on the individual.

It’s a striking and clear pattern that many of the most notorious terrorists of the modern era spent time in prison. Salah Abdeslam, the suspect behind the Paris and Brussels terror attacks, was imprisoned in Belgium with Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who lead the Friday the 13th attacks in Paris last November.

Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks in Paris earlier in 2015, were imprisoned in France’s massive Fleury-Mérogis, Europe’s largest prison.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, before he became right-hand man to Osama bin Laden, was radicalised in Egyptian prisons. As Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006), put it, Zawahiri ‘entered prison a surgeon. He came out of it a butcher.’ [Continue reading…]


Solitary confinement is ‘no touch’ torture, and it must be abolished

Chelsea E Manning writes: Shortly after arriving at a makeshift military jail, at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, in May 2010, I was placed into the black hole of solitary confinement for the first time. Within two weeks, I was contemplating suicide.

After a month on suicide watch, I was transferred back to US, to a tiny 6 x 8ft (roughly 2 x 2.5 meter) cell in a place that will haunt me for the rest of my life: the US Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, Virginia. I was held there for roughly nine months as a “prevention of injury” prisoner, a designation the Marine Corps and the Navy used to place me in highly restrictive solitary conditions without a psychiatrist’s approval.

For 17 hours a day, I sat directly in front of at least two Marine Corps guards seated behind a one-way mirror. I was not allowed to lay down. I was not allowed to lean my back against the cell wall. I was not allowed to exercise. Sometimes, to keep from going crazy, I would stand up, walk around, or dance, as “dancing” was not considered exercise by the Marine Corps.

To pass the time, I counted the hundreds of holes between the steel bars in a grid pattern at the front of my empty cell. My eyes traced the gaps between the bricks on the wall. I looked at the rough patterns and stains on the concrete floor – including one that looked like a caricature grey alien, with large black eyes and no mouth, that was popular in the 1990s. I could hear the “drip drop drip” of a leaky pipe somewhere down the hall. I listened to the faint buzz of the fluorescent lights.

For brief periods, every other day or so, I was escorted by a team of at least three guards to an empty basketball court-sized area. There, I was shackled and walked around in circles or figure-eights for 20 minutes. I was not allowed to stand still, otherwise they would take me back to my cell. [Continue reading…]


Little evidence to show that prisons have become ‘universities of terror’

By Sarah Marsden, Lancaster University

From “shoebomber” Richard Reid, to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the ringleader of the attacks in Paris, there seem to be increasing examples of people becoming “radicalised” in jails. So how concerned should we be about the role of prisons in producing violent extremists?

Contrary to those who argue that jails are at risk of becoming “universities of terror” there is actually relatively little systematic evidence of a link between prison and involvement in terrorism.

That is not to say that apparently “radical” groups have not developed in prisons, or that there haven’t been efforts to recruit people to militant Islamism in UK jails. Jamaal Uddin, who was convicted for assault and enforcing a “Sharia-controlled zone” in east London, boasted of his ability to “radicalise” people in the face of apparently powerless authorities. In the worst cases, such as in Iraq where several American-run detention facilities became pivotal in the development of what was to become Islamic State, prisons have been intimately implicated in terrorism.

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The Kingdom of Silence: Literature from Tadmor prison

Linah Alsaafin reports: “When death is a daily occurrence, lurking in torture, random beatings, eye-gouging, broken limbs and crushed fingers… [When] death stares you in the face and is only avoided by sheer chance…wouldn’t you welcome the merciful release of a bullet?”

This was taken from a report smuggled out in 1999 to Amnesty International by a group of former Syrian prisoners who had spent years in the infamous Tadmor (Arabic for Palmyra) prison, where unimaginable acts of torture took place against both dissidents and criminals alike.

Tadmor prison fell to the Islamic State group as it captured the city of Palmyra from government forces earlier this week, but the significance of its seizure has been overshadowed by widespread fears that IS could raze the UNESCO World Heritage site just south of the modern town. In fact the capture of the prison could be a much more important development, according to analysts and former inmates of the jail.

The prison, which used to be a French military barracks, is located in the desert in eastern province of Homs and is around 200 kilometres away from the capital Damascus. As previously reported by Middle East Eye, the massacre of hundreds of prisoners in 1980 after a foiled assassination attempt on then president Hafez al-Assad exacerbated the prison’s symbolic status of repression.

Human rights reports were not the only medium to document what took place in what has been described as one of the worst prisons in the world.

The vicious reality of Tadmor, where the blood of those massacred in 1980 was not cleaned up resulting in the mass spread of gangrene amongst the rest of the inmates, created literary works written by survivors and former inmates that narrated their daily lives in stark detail. Whips were given human names, friendships were struck between prisoners and rats and cockroaches, and torture sessions were opportunities to experiment with excruciating devices.
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This man came from Rome to show Americans why the death penalty is wrong

Cosimo Bizzarri writes: Today, 105 countries around the world have abolished the death penalty by law and 43 more have approved public or de facto moratoria against it. Among them are Gabon and Mongolia, Cambodia and Russia, Albania and Kyrgyzstan. In Cuba, death row is currently empty.

Worldwide, only a few dozens countries still stick to the death penalty, opposing the 2007 UN resolution that called for a global moratorium on its use. Among them, the most prolific executioners are China, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States, which has killed more than 1,400 people since 1976. Currently, the US holds more than 3,000 people in death row, including recently-sentenced Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

“Some US citizens, especially in the South, grew up with the idea that retributive justice is the only justice,” explains Italian journalist and human right activist Mario Marazziti to Quartz. “This opinion is sometimes based on a fundamentalist reading of the Old Testament.”

Marazziti, 62, is the spokeperson for the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Rome-based Catholic movement for peacemaking and human rights, and a co-founder of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. In the 1990s, Marazziti collected 3 million signatures in 157 countries calling for a worldwide moratorium against the death penalty. [Continue reading…]


The cruel and unusual execution of Clayton Lockett

Jeffrey E. Stern reports: On the morning of his execution, Clayton Lockett hid under the covers.

Before a team of correctional officers came to get him at 5:06 a.m., he fashioned a noose out of his sheets. He pulled the blade out of a safety razor and made half-inch-long cuts on his arms. He swallowed a handful of pills that he’d been hoarding. And on April 29, 2014, when the team of officers knocked on the door of his cell in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Oklahoma, Clayton Lockett — a 38-year-old convicted murderer — pulled a blanket over his head and refused to get up.

The officers left and asked for permission to tase him. While they were gone, Lockett tried to jam the door. They came back, forced their way in, tased him, and dragged him out.

Eleven hours later, at about 5:20 p.m., after a medical examination, X‑rays, eight hours in a holding cell, and a shower, Lockett was brought by a five-member strap-down team into the death chamber. It was a small, clinical-looking room with white walls and a polished floor that reflected the lights overhead. A gurney stood in the center of the room; above it hung a microphone for Lockett’s final words. [Continue reading…]


The use of force against the mentally ill incarcerated in America

Human Rights Watch: Jail and prison staff throughout the United States have used unnecessary, excessive, and even malicious force against prisoners with mental disabilities, Human Rights Watch charged in a report released today.

The 127-page report, “Callous and Cruel: Use of Force against Inmates with Mental Disabilities in US Jails and Prisons,” details incidents in which correctional staff have deluged prisoners with painful chemical sprays, shocked them with powerful electric stun weapons, and strapped them for days in restraining chairs or beds. Staff have broken prisoners’ jaws, noses, ribs; left them with lacerations requiring stitches, second-degree burns, deep bruises, and damaged internal organs. In some cases, the force used has led to their death.

“Jails and prisons can be dangerous, damaging, and even deadly places for men and women with mental health problems,” said Jamie Fellner, US program senior adviser at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “Force is used against prisoners even when, because of their illness, they cannot understand or comply with staff orders.”


Mass incarceration: The silence of the judges

Jed S. Rakoff writes: For too long, too many judges have been too quiet about an evil of which we are a part: the mass incarceration of people in the United States today. It is time that more of us spoke out.

The basic facts are not in dispute. More than 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in US jails and prisons, a 500 percent increase over the past forty years. Although the United States accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The per capita incarceration rate in the US is about one and a half times that of second-place Rwanda and third-place Russia, and more than six times the rate of neighboring Canada. Another 4.75 million Americans are subject to the state supervision imposed by probation or parole.

Most of the increase in imprisonment has been for nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession. And even though crime rates in the United States have declined consistently for twenty-four years, the number of incarcerated persons has continued to rise over most of that period, both because more people are being sent to prison for offenses that once were punished with other measures and because the sentences are longer. For example, even though the number of violent crimes has steadily decreased over the past two decades, the number of prisoners serving life sentences has steadily increased, so that one in nine persons in prison is now serving a life sentence.

And whom are we locking up? Mostly young men of color. Over 840,000, or nearly 40 percent, of the 2.2 million US prisoners are African-American males. Put another way, about one in nine African-American males between the ages of twenty and thirty-four is now in prison, and if current rates hold, one third of all black men will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetimes. Approximately 440,000, or 20 percent, of the 2.2 million US prisoners are Hispanic males. [Continue reading…]