Monday, April 14, 2014
Would embrace of "judicial corporal punishment" help remedy mass incarceration?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this provocative new commentary by John Dewar Gleissner and given the headline "Who is biased against prison and sentencing reform?". Here are excerpts:
Private prison companies and the guards’ labor unions are biased, of course. Politicians do not wish to appear soft on crime. Some communities need the jobs prisons provide. The public is biased about crime generally, and believes crime rates are going up when they are actually declining. Many want prison to be horrible. Who can blame crime victims? Taxpayers dislike money going to prisons. Law-abiding people do not have much in common with prisoners. Businesses don’t sell much to prisoners. Prison industries lose money and cannot succeed with government control.
The media prefer sensational stories about egregious criminal behavior. Once the offender is sentenced, the story usually ends. Prisoners do not have access to the internet.
Incarceration is hidden from the eyes of the people, harmful to the morals of prisoners and expensive. Cultural, generational and religious bias prevent us from crediting our ancestors or other countries with effective crime-control techniques....
Attacking the supply of illegal drugs did not work. The costs of fully supporting 2.3 million inactive welfare recipients, America’s prisoners, finally caught our attention. The Constitution is the standard in conditions of confinement litigation. But when the Constitution was adopted, massive incarceration as we now know it did not exist. Back then, judicial corporal punishment was constitutional; it was approved of or used by all the presidents carved into Mt. Rushmore.
Incarceration is all Western civilization has known for several generations. As the death penalty declines, most of us think of prison as the nearly exclusive serious punishment method. Criminal justice systems focus on the single, inflexible, expensive and inexorable dimension of time. Most Americans are shocked by the idea of judicial corporal punishment, which is invariably depicted as cruel, perverted or unjust in movies and TV.
Science proves that rehabilitation, restitution and deterrence are not often achieved by lengthy incarceration. But some violent offenders deserve their long prison sentences. Prisons will not be abolished. Real bad folks need to stay behind bars.
We think society moves forward. Reformers are supposed to be “forward-looking.” Belief in continual social progress ignores history. Society periodically degenerates into barbarism, disorganization, bankruptcy, genocide, war and revolution. Scientific study of changed values sometimes takes decades before conclusions are reached and legislation enacted. Our belief in social progress is accompanied by rejection of biblical principles in favor of unproven secular values.
We do not often enough look in the Bible for answers. If we did, the relatively simple solution to ending massive incarceration would be obvious: Deuteronomy 25:1-3. We could cut the American prison population in half. Modern behavioral and neurological science can and would confirm the superior effectiveness of traditional judicial corporal punishment. Believe it or not, judicial corporal punishment was largely abolished in the U.S. because it was too effective.
Judicial corporal punishment is in public, less expensive, much faster and repeatable. Its last use in the United States was to punish wife-beating without diminishing family income. In The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, Harvard law professor William J. Stuntz wrote, “Today's would-be reformers would do well to … consider the possibility that the best models for productive change may not come from contemporary legislation or court decisions, but from a past that has largely disappeared from our consciousness. Sometimes, the best road forward faces back.”
Friday, April 11, 2014
"Abandoned: Abolishing Female Prisons to Prevent Sexual Abuse and Herald an End to Incarceration"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new article by David Frank now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Because the U.S. is unable to prevent widespread sexual violations of incarcerated women, it should apply the prescriptions of a recent U.K. female prison abolitionist movement as the most effective and humane solution to the problem.
Part I of this article examines the mass incarceration, composition, and sexual victimization of U.S. female prisoners. Part II evaluates the most recent attempt to stop the sexual victimization of U.S. prisoners under the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Part III presents the U.K. abolitionist solution and the small, though notable, consensus of support that developed around it. Part IV contends that, because neither the Prison Rape Elimination Act nor any previous law has adequately protected prisoners from sexual abuse, the incarceration of women is unconscionable when adequate prison alternatives of support programs and community care are available. This Part also argues against alternatives rooted in retaliation and violence. The article concludes with hope: it argues that the best response to chaotic brutality is not calculated brutality, but humanity.
Thursday, April 10, 2014
Notable NY Times op-ed asks "What is prison for?"
The new Marshall Project's editor in chief, Bill Keller, has this lengthy op-ed in this morning's New York Times under the headline "College for Criminals." There is much of note in the op-ed, and I found these closing paragraphs especially intriguing:
Considering that the United States is the world’s leading warden, we should be able to answer with some conviction this question: What is prison for?
First, punishment, although it is often demeaning, brutal, psychologically debilitating and wildly disproportionate to the offense. Second, public safety. Social scientists argue about how much of our recent decline in crime is attributable to a surge in incarceration (I’ve heard estimates from 3 percent to 30 percent). But common sense says at least some of it is.
Third, rehabilitation. The bureaucracies that run prisons are called departments of “corrections” for a reason. This is at least as important as the first two purposes, because nearly 95 percent of the incarcerated are eventually released back into society.
Alas, nearly half of those released are returned to prison within three years for committing new crimes. Clearly we are not doing a good job of “correcting.”
This is not a bleedingheart cause. Leading conservatives and red state politicians have supported prison college programs as a matter of public safety and fiscal prudence. A RAND metaanalysis of 58 studies concluded that inmates who participated in these programs were 43 percent less likely to return to a life of crime; even assuming that the most redeemable inmates are the likeliest to sign up, this is an incredible return on a modest investment. Moreover, wardens and prison guards believe such programs lower the explosive tensions in prison.
Yet while 76 percent of prisons in the country offer high school diploma programs, only a third offer college degrees, which are, more than ever, a prerequisite for decent jobs. Education programs are among the first things to go in a recession. Now — when the economy is in slow recovery, the crime rate is relatively low, and there is an emerging national awareness that our way of punishment wastes money and lives — should be an opportune time to expand inmate education. But it has to be sold, not sprung without groundwork.
Experts who have studied the American way of crime and punishment far longer than I have tell me, to quote Michael P. Jacobson, a veteran corrections official who heads a public policy institute for the City University of New York, that they see “almost a complete disconnect between what we know and what we do.”
“The influence of highprofile crimes, fear of crime, issues of race, the acquisition of cheap political capital — all have had far more influence on criminal justice policy than what we know works, or what is fair or just,” Mr. Jacobson told me.
Governor Cuomo is now trying to rally private donors to underwrite his college program for a year, with an understanding that he will get the state to take over in Year 2. Let’s hope. But apparently the inmates of Sing Sing and Attica are not the only ones in need of correction.
"Death Delayed Is Retribution Denied"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Russell Christopher now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Does death row incarceration for upwards of thirty years or more impermissibly impose the suffering of additional punishment or permissibly bestow the benefit of death delayed and thus the enjoyment of life extended? Most commentators conceive of it as an unconstitutional additional punishment that is either cruel and unusual or disproportionally excessive. Most courts construe it as a constitutional nonpunishment that the death row prisoner opts for and benefits from. Sparking a long-running debate at the Supreme Court, Justices Stevens and Breyer view prolonged death row incarceration as unconstitutional additional punishment. Terming their view as “meritless” and “a mockery of our system of justice,” Justice Thomas finds it constitutional.
Attempting to break this impasse, this Article undertakes the first comprehensive assessment of death row incarceration under what the Supreme Court enthrones as the primary justification for the constitutionality of capital punishment — retributivism. Assuming that retributivism does justify capital punishment per se, this Article demonstrates that the combination of capital punishment plus substantial death row incarceration violates retributivism. Whether such incarceration constitutes additional punishment aggravating capital punishment or a life-extending, beneficial mitigation of capital punishment, the combination is unjustified under retributivism and thus perhaps unconstitutional.
Wednesday, April 09, 2014
Reviewing how US prisons now serve as huge warehouses for the mentally ill
This MSNBC article, headlined "Prisons are the ‘new asylums’ of the US: Report," effectively summarizes a new study documenting that that US prisons now "house ten times more people with mental illnesses than its hospitals." Here is more:
The report, released Tuesday by the Treatment Advocacy Center, found that state prisons and county jails house approximately 356,268 people with mental illnesses, while state mental hospitals hold only 35,000. The disparity is also a nationwide problem – only six states have psychiatric hospitals with more people in them than a prisons or jail.
Prisons, according to the report, have become the nation’s “new asylums.” The number of beds available at hospitals for mental health patients has been dropping for decades. And as the population of incarcerated people has exploded, so has the number of people with serious problems....
The report provided a breakdown of the number of mentally ill prisoners in each state’s correctional facilities, the laws governing treatment, and examples of how inmates are treated. Among others, they include a Mississippi prison designed for mentally ill inmates, overrun by rats, where some prisoners capture the rats, put them on makeshift leashes, and sell them as pets to other inmates. There was also a case in which a schizophrenic man spent 13 of 15 of his years in prison in solitary confinement....
“Inmates who linger untreated in jails and prisons become increasingly more vulnerable to their symptoms and the resulting victimization or violence,” the report read. Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center and lead author of the study, said in a statement, “The lack of treatment for seriously ill inmates is inhumane and should not be allowed in a civilized society.”...
The report’s authors admit that reducing the number of mentally ill inmates in jails would have to come along with a massive recommitment to high-quality mental health care in hospitals – a tall order in this age of austerity. In the interim, they advocate for more outpatient treatment and jail diversion programs, as well as more planning, both when inmates enter the system and leave it.
The full report released by the Treatment Advocacy Center is titled "The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails: A State Survey," and it can be accessed in full at this link.
Monday, April 07, 2014
"Billion Dollar Divide: Virginia's Sentencing, Corrections and Criminal Justice Challenge"
The title of this post is the title of a new report by the Justice Policy Institute, which was released last week, is available here, and is summarized via this press release. Here are excerpts from the press release:
As Virginia lawmakers consider a budget that would see corrections spending surpass a billion dollars in general funds, a new report points to racial disparities, skewed fiscal priorities, and missed opportunities for improvements through proposed legislation, and calls for reforms to the commonwealth’s sentencing, corrections and criminal justice system.
According to Billion Dollar Divide Virginia’s Sentencing, Corrections and Criminal Justice Challenge, ... while other states are successfully reforming their sentencing laws, parole policies and drug laws, Virginia is lagging behind and spending significant funds that could be used more effectively to benefit public safety in the commonwealth....
According to the report, approximately 80 percent of the corrections budget is being spent on incarcerating people in secure facilities, while only about 10 percent of the budget is spent on supervising people in the community. Put another way, in 2010 for every dollar the Commonwealth of Virginia spent on community supervision, it spent approximately $13 on costs for those incarcerated. Other states have a better balance between prison spending, and supporting individuals in the community.
"Taxpayers' wallets – and more important, people's lives – are in jeopardy," said Marc Schindler, executive director of JPI. "Instead of planning to spend more than $1 billion on an ineffective corrections system, Virginia should be looking to policies that are being implemented successfully in other states to make wiser use of precious resources and get better public safety outcomes.”...
The report describes challenges facing Virginia’s sentencing, corrections and criminal justice system, including:
- Worrisome racial and ethnic disparities in how the state deals with drugs and drug crimes: African Americans make up approximately 20 percent of the Virginia population, but comprise 60 percent of the prison population, and 72 percent of all people incarcerated for a drug arrest. JPI has compiled information for the largest Virginia cities and counties that show the disparities in drug enforcement, and the latest data show Virginia’s drug arrest rates on the rise;
- More people serving longer sentences and rising length-of-stay: The changes to Truth-in-Sentencing enacted in the 1990s eliminated parole, and reduced access to earned-time and good-time credits. The commonwealth has added more mandatory minimums that have lengthened prison terms, and about one quarter of all of Virginia’s mandatory minimum sentences involve drug offenses. Between 1992 and 2007, there has been a 72 percent increase in individuals serving time for drug offenses. There has also been a substantial and very expensive increase in the number of elderly individuals incarcerated in Virginia, despite strong evidence that these individuals pose little threat to public safety....
Does an imprisoned white supremacist have a right to an anti-Kosher diet?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article from Illinois headlined "White Supremacist Hale Sues Bureau Of Prisons For Violating His Rights." Here are the basics:
It was nine years ago today that Matt Hale of East Peoria was sentenced to 40 years in prison – convicted of soliciting the murder of a federal judge. Now, without a lawyer, Hale is suing the federal Bureau of Prisons because he says his rights are being denied.
Matt Hale, a minister in the religion of Creativity, is suing because he says the federal prison system has been taking away his mail privileges.
“They just come in and announce to him that his mail is being taken away from him,” said Evelyn Hutcheson, Hale’s 75-year-old mother. Hutcheson is his staunchest defenders. She says her son is moral, never plotted against a judge – and she says his trial was dirty and tainted. “I would like to see him freed before I die. I really would. But I just know how dirty it is. I’m sorry. I know how dirty it actually is. And who am I? I’m just a little peon. I’m nothing.”
Besides wanting to get his mail regularly, Hale is suing the prison system to be served the diet he says his anti-Jewish religion requires: uncooked food like raw fruits, vegetables and nuts.
Wednesday, April 02, 2014
Terrific upcoming NYU Law conference on "Mercy in the Criminal Justice System"
I am very pleased and very excited that on April 15 this year I will be spending all day thinking and talking about something other than my income tax forms. That is because, as detailed in the program linked at the bottom of this post, I will be spending that day attending and speaking at the Sixth Annual Conference of the NYU Law School's Center on the Administration of Criminal Law. This year's NYU Center conference is focused on clemency and related topics.
The full official title for the event, which runs from 10am to 4pm at NYU Law is "Mercy in the Criminal Justice System: Clemency and Post-Conviction Strategies," and the keynote speaker is White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler. Here is a brief account of the panels and participants scheduled to surround the keynote:
Panel 1: The Role of Law Schools in Delivering Clemency and Post-Conviction Assistance.
This panel will discuss how law schools are providing critical services to prisoners through clemency clinics and other mechanisms, and will also provide practical training on how to effectively prepare clemency petitions, post-conviction motions and provide other reentry support to prisoners.
Moderator: Prof. Mark Osler, University of St. Thomas Law School. Panelists: Prof. Anthony Thompson, NYU Law; Prof. J.P. “Sandy” Ogilvy, Columbus School of Law, Catholic University; Harlan Protass, Esq., Clayman & Rosenberg; Prof. Joann M. Sahl, University of Akron Law School.
Panel 2: What We Can Learn About Clemency From the States.
This panel will examine the different ways clemency and pardon petitions are administered in selected states with effective systems.
Moderator: Nancy Hoppock, Executive Director of the CACL. Panelists: Lt. Governor Matthew Denn, State of Delaware; Hon. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., King & Spalding and former Governor of Maryland; Margaret Love, Esq., former U.S. Pardon Attorney; Jorge Montes, Esq., former Chairman of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.
Panel 3: The Future of Clemency.
This panel will discuss recent developments in federal clemency and where clemency could and should be headed in the future.
Moderator: Prof. Rachel E. Barkow, NYU Law. Panelists: Amy Baron-Evans, National Federal Defender Sentencing Resource Counsel; Prof. Paul G. Cassell, University of Utah Law School; Prof. Douglas A. Berman, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law; Sam Morison, Esq.; Dafna Linzer, Managing Editor of MSNBC.com.
Persons can register for this great and timely conference at this link.
April 2, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack
Is there any likely sentencing or (private) prison reform aspect to big SCOTUS political speech ruling?
The question in the title of this post highlights that I am always a blogging criminal justice hammer seeing every important SCOTUS ruling as a possible sentencing nail. Without even reading the full opinion, I wonder if this ruling might end up helping (1) some white-collar defendants and their wealthy friends better support federal legislators and candidates who advocate sentencing reform in arenas that impact these kinds of defendants, and/or (2) private prison companies and their executives support federal legislators and candidates who advocate for continued or expanded reliance on private prisons.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday freed wealthy donors to give more money directly to congressional candidates, extending its controversial 2010 Citizens United decision that opened the door for unlimited independent spending on political issues.
In a 5-4 decision, the court’s conservative majority struck down Watergate-era aggregate limits that barred political donors from giving more than $123,000 a year in total to candidates running for seats in the House of Representatives or Senate. The court said this limit violated the free-speech rights of the donors, and it was not needed to prevent “corruption” of the political process. The justices noted that donors mush still abide by rules that prevent them from giving more than $2,600 per election per candidate.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., speaking for the court, said the 1st Amendment protects a citizen’s free-speech right to give to candidates. “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the 1st Amendment protects,” he said. If it protects “flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacles cause — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, speaking for the four dissenters, said the court had opened a huge legal loophole that threatens the integrity of elections. “Taken together with Citizens United, today’s decision eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws,” he said.
As usual, I am sure I am stretching a bit to view a non-sentencing story as having significant potential sentencing echoes. But maybe readers agree that there could be something to these early post-McCutcheon speculations.
Tuesday, April 01, 2014
Forecasting the uncertain present and future of federal legislative sentencing reform
Writing for CQ Weekly (which calls itself the "definitive source for news about Congress") John Gramlich has this fascinating and lengthy new article about the state of federal sentencing reform efforts. The piece is headlined "The Prison Debate, Freshly Unlocked," and here are excerpts from a piece that merits a full read:
A bipartisan Senate coalition intent on shrinking the swollen federal prison population will see its toughest test yet in the weeks ahead. Party leaders face the delicate task of shepherding legislation through a politically charged chamber that could ease punishment for tens of thousands of felons — in an election year, no less.
The political stakes, particularly for Democrats, are substantial. Control of the Senate is up for grabs in November and if Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada presses forward with a debate over crime and punishment, he could force members of his own caucus to cast difficult votes on a subject that has haunted the party in the past. Many vulnerable Democrats want to focus on jobs rather than softening criminal penalties.
Despite the risks, it’s clear that Congress is closer than it has been in decades to slowing the growth of the federal prison population, which has ballooned to about 216,000 today from 25,000 in 1980. Overhaul supporters have covered their bases, building consensus and deliberately pushing legislation through the committee process. But floor consideration will pressure any cracks in the coalition, given lingering reservations from influential lawmakers in both parties and opposition from prosecutors, which could stoke public fears about crime.
Reid has two bills on his slate, both of which would cut criminal penalties for a broad cross-section of federal offenses. One would slash mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenders by as much as 60 percent and give judges more leeway to impose lighter penalties than those set out in statute. It also would allow crack cocaine users and dealers who were sentenced under a system that Congress abolished in 2010 to seek shorter sentences retroactively.
The other measure would allow as many as 34,000 currently incarcerated inmates — more than 15 percent of the federal correctional population — to leave prison early, provided they successfully complete rehabilitation programs first.
Both bills have support from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, further undermining the decades-old caricature of party orthodoxy on criminal justice: that Republicans are “tough on crime” while Democrats are “soft.”...
Predicting the outcome of an election year Senate debate about criminal justice is not easy. Reid is still weighing whether to bring the legislation up in a year in which his party is at risk of losing control of the Senate for the first time since 2007.
And even if legislation passes the Senate, finding a path through the House is more difficult. The House Judiciary Committee has set up a task force to examine sentencing and prison population issues. But House leadership has, so far, shown no interest in taking up companion bills to the Senate measures. House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, said his panel “is taking a comprehensive look at the prison reform issue, and plans to continue its review over the next several months.”...
Lobbying from law enforcement organizations could still prove pivotal in this debate, particularly if it focuses on the specter of increased crime. The sentencing bill sponsored by Durbin and Lee has sparked notable opposition from the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, a prosecutors’ group that took the rare step of publicly breaking with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — their boss — to denounce the legislation and warn that it could endanger public safety....
Meanwhile, the Fraternal Order of Police ... has its own concerns about any proposals that might reduce time behind bars. The group is still evaluating both bills. “The argument that we hear most often for reducing the prison population is cost,” James Pasco, the executive director of the group’s legislative advocacy center, says. “Well, you know, the fact of the matter is if somebody commits a crime serious enough for lengthy incarceration, it’s at variance with common sense to suggest that’s not a good penalty just because it costs too much.”
“We have had conversations with the administration and we’ve had conversations with both sides in Judiciary, and they are aware of our apprehensions [about the bills],” Pasco added. “But the game really begins now.”
Bipartisan opposition from a handful of holdouts could make for speed bumps on the floor, if not outright problems. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, a senior member of the Judiciary panel, warned that the early-release bill could endanger public safety because “we do not know the facts of any of the 34,000 inmates estimated to be affected by this bill.”
Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, also withheld his support for the early-release bill by voting “present” in committee. Leahy expressed concerns that the measure, which would let lower-risk inmates earn credits allowing them to transfer from prison to halfway houses and other forms of supervision, could worsen “racial and socioeconomic disparities in our prison system” and place an unfunded mandate on the Bureau of Prisons by requiring the agency to do widespread risk assessments on the inmates it incarcerates.
Holder has endorsed the sentencing measure, but stopped short of endorsing the early-release proposal, telling the U.S. Sentencing Commission in March that it needs changes to make it “as good as it might be.”
The sentencing bill also faces likely amendments. In an interview with CQ Roll Call, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said he and fellow Judiciary member Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, are working on an amendment that would scale back some of the bill’s sentencing reductions.
Republicans, for their part, are divided about whether they want both measures to reach the floor at all. Tea-party-backed members such as Lee and Paul support both bills, but Cornyn and the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, represent the party’s establishment wing and support only the early-release measure. “If Sen. Reid would take up the prison reform legislation, I think then it has a good chance of passing. It’s got good, strong bipartisan support,” Cornyn, the Senate minority whip, says. “If they’re going to try to pair it with the sentencing reform, I think that’s a problem.”
In the Senate, where opposition from even a single member can stop legislation dead, Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions is still evaluating his options to oppose both bills. Sessions, another member of the Judiciary Committee and a former federal prosecutor who helped broker a new law in 2010 to reduce sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses, voted against both of the new proposals in committee.
“One of the reasons people want to reduce sentences is because the crime rate is down,” Sessions said. “They think that just happened. But a fundamental reason is we enhanced enforcement, we enhanced the likelihood that you’d be apprehended and actually convicted, and we enhanced the penalties. I believe the changes in the law that they have proposed are larger and more impactful than the sponsors fully realize.”
Though I sincerely hope I am very wrong, I take away one fundamental message from this story (aided, in part, by reading between the lines): the real chance of passage of any significant federal sentencing or prison reform legislation this year seems slim, at best.
Monday, March 31, 2014
Is it time for AARP to get active in policy debates over sentencing and prison reforms?
The (provocative) question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy article from a local Pennsylvaia paper under the headline, "Older criminals present challenges for prisons, courts; Our population is getting grayer everywhere, including behind bars." I have seen and highlighted a number of these article in the past, and often they appear in a series of articles about state prison policies and reform. But this lengthy article is within a series of articles called "Coming of Age" addressing a range of issues facing a greying baby-boom population.
It is surely a sign of the modern mass incarceration times that a series about growing old includes a lengthy article about growing old in prison. And here are excerpts from the piece:
Older prison inmates are more likely to have chronic illnesses and mental conditions that require special treatment, and moving them through the court system can be a complicated balancing act on the scales of justice.
At the Bucks County Correctional Facility in Doylestown Township, 7.5 percent of the population — about 89 prisoners — are 65 and older. There is no special cell block for the elderly, although some prisoners who are especially frail may be placed in protective custody, said William Plantier, Bucks County’s director of corrections....
Most of Pennsylvania’s state correctional institutions house elderly inmates. All have wheelchair-accessible cells and showers that can accommodate people with disabilities. Inmates with medical conditions that require elaborate care are sent to SCI Laurel Highlands, a minimum security prison located about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
Built on the site of a former state hospital, Laurel Highlands is set up like a medical facility. Inmates receive treatments like kidney dialysis and chemotherapy, and staff members have been trained to treat chronic illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Laurel Highlands has 15 dialysis chairs. Before the facility opened in 1966, inmates had to be transported to outside clinics for treatment. “We’re saving a ton of money by doing it in-house,” said Betsy Nightingale, assistant superintendent at Laurel Highlands. “It’s also much better for security purposes, because the inmates do not have to travel.”
Inmates in Laurel Highlands follow a normal prison schedule; there are regular times when prisoners are counted and meals follow a schedule. Frail inmates who cannot move about the facility easily have activities brought to them. “There’s bingo and a current events program,” Nightingale said.
About 120 inmates reside in Laurel Highland’s skilled care unit. That part of the prison has nurses on staff 24/7. Prisoners who have Alzheimer’s and other incapacitating illnesses take up most of the rooms. While the majority of the 1,571 beds at Laurel Highlands are filled with older inmates, younger people with chronic illnesses may also be sent there. Sometimes, they are nursed back to health and transferred to another prison.
Currently, about 5,365 of Pennsylvania’s 51,512 state-sentenced prisoners are over age 55. That’s about 10.42 percent of all prisoners. In 2000, the percentage was 4.82, about 1,775 out of 36,802 inmates.
There are 1,249 prisoners over age 65 — about 2.49 percent of the prison population. Nationwide, the number of prisoners age 55 and older has risen sharply over the past decade, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Charitable Trust, a nonpartisan research center. In 1999, there were 43,300 prisoners age 55 and up. By 2011, that number had blossomed to 121,800.
The health care costs for inmates age 55 and older with a chronic illness is, on average, two to three times that of the cost to house and care for other inmates, according to the study. In Pennsylvania, the ratio of older to younger inmates fluctuates, as prisoners complete their sentences and are released, said Susan Bensinger, deputy press secretary for the state Department of Corrections. “Not everyone who is older and goes to prison, even to Laurel Highlands, goes there to die, which is a common assumption,” she said.
But the reality is, people do die behind bars. To address this issue, the department has created an end-of-life care initiative, in which an inmate volunteer is paired with another prisoner who is terminally ill. The two inmates spend several hours a day together, so the dying prisoner spends less time alone and is more comfortable. The program, which isn’t hospice care, can be an emotional experience for the volunteers, Bensinger said. “It’s a very different thing to watch another human being die,” she said. “Some of them are probably seeing themselves in 10 years. The volunteers are very compassionate.”
In the prison system, 50 is considered elderly. That’s because inmates often enter the facilities with serious health problems. “Many inmates come to us never having received dental care or regular health care. Most of them also have drug and alcohol dependence, which ages a body much more rapidly,” Bensinger said.
Saturday, March 22, 2014
"Banning the Bing: Why Extreme Solitary Confinement Is Cruel and Far Too Usual Punishment"
The title of this post is the title of this new article by Elizabeth Bennion now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
"To be kept in solitude is to be kept in pain . . . and put on the road to madness." (E.O. Wilson).
The United States engages in extreme practices of solitary confinement that maximize isolation and sensory deprivation of prisoners. The length is often indefinite and can stretch for weeks, months, years, or decades. Under these conditions, both healthy prisoners and those with pre-existing mental health issues often severely deteriorate both mentally and physically. New science and data provide increased insight into why and how human beings (and other social animals) deteriorate and suffer in such environments. The science establishes that meaningful social contacts and some level of opportunity for sensory enrichment are minimum human necessities. When those necessities are denied, the high risks of serious harm apply to all prisoners, no matter how seemingly resilient beforehand.
Given these facts, this Article argues that solitary confinement, as commonly practiced in the United States, is cruel and unusual punishment — whether analyzed under current Supreme Court standards or an improved framework. Furthermore, recently released data on states implementing reforms shows that extreme solitary confinement tactics are counterproductive to numerous policy interests, including public safety, institutional safety, prisoner welfare, and cost efficiency. Both the scientific and policy data suggest possible avenues for effective reform.
Friday, March 14, 2014
"Some prosecutors fighting effort to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences"
The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Post article highlighting that not all prosecutors agree with Attorney General Eric Holder about the need for significant sentencing reforms. Here are excerpts:
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s broad effort to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and reduce sentences for defendants in most drug cases is facing resistance from some federal prosecutors and district attorneys nationwide. Opponents of the proposal argue that tough sentencing policies provide a critical tool to dismantle drug networks by getting cooperation from lower-level defendants and building cases that move up the criminal chain of command....
Longer prison terms for more criminals have led to a significant decline in the crime rate over the past 20 years, these critics say, and they argue that Holder’s proposed changes are driven by federal budget constraints, not public safety. “Rewarding convicted felons with lighter sentences because America can’t balance its budget doesn’t seem fair to both victims of crime and the millions of families in America victimized every year by the scourge of drugs in America’s communities,” Raymond F. Morrogh, commonwealth’s attorney in Fairfax County and director at large of the National District Attorneys Association, testified Thursday to the U.S. Sentencing Commission....
The prospect of ending mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses had drawn fire from the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, which has been lobbying senior lawmakers to try to prevent legislation that would change the system. “We believe our current sentencing laws have kept us safe and should be preserved, not weakened,” said Robert Gay Guthrie, an assistant U.S. attorney in Oklahoma and president of the prosecutors’ organization. “Don’t take away our most effective tool to get cooperation from offenders.”
The organization that represents line federal prosecutors has written letters to Holder, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the panel’s ranking Republican, urging them not to change the sentencing rules. Guthrie said that 96 percent of about 500 prosecutors who were surveyed in an association poll did not support Holder’s plan.
But other assistant U.S. attorneys — as well as several who were interviewed — said the new guidelines would reduce prison overcrowding and would be more equitable to certain defendants who can face severe sentences under the current system. “It allows us to be more fair in recommending sentences where the level of culpability varies among defendants in a large drug organization, but where the organization itself is moving large quantities of drugs,” said John Horn, first assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Georgia. “Before the new policy, every defendant involved with over five kilos of coke would be subject to a minimum 10 or 20 years, whether he was a courier, someone in a stash house, a cell head or an organizational leader, and those distinctions can be important.”
Or, as Neil MacBride, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, put it: Former Mexican drug lord “Chapo Guzman and some low-level street dealer in Richmond simply don’t pose the same existential threat to society.”...
Sally Yates, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, said any new system will require some period of adjustment. “This is a sea change for assistant U.S. attorneys,” said Yates, who was appointed by President Obama after working as an assistant U.S. attorney for more than 20 years. “They grew up in a system in which they were required to seek the most serious charge, which often resulted in the longest sentence. Now, the attorney general is saying, ‘Look at the circumstances of every case and his or her prior criminal history in determining the fair and appropriate charge.’ That’s a lot harder than robotically following a bright line rule.”
Timothy J. Heaphy, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, said prosecutors in his office at first had concerns similar to those of the association. “But as time goes on,” he said, “people are understanding that we’re spending less money on prisons and it is more fair to tailor our charging discretion.”
In the end, a Justice Department official said, assistant U.S. attorneys are free to express their opinions internally, but they don’t make policy. They must follow guidelines, the official added. Indeed, when Guthrie was asked Thursday about Holder’s newest proposal, he acknowledged: “We’ll follow the direction of the attorney general. He’s our boss.”
Some prior posts about AG Holder and prosecutorial perspectives on sentencing reform:
- Attorney General to testify about drug guideline reform before US Sentencing Commission
- "With Holder In The Lead, Sentencing Reform Gains Momentum"
- "Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws"
- Smarter Sentencing Act passes Senate Judiciary Committee by 13-5 vote
- Are "hundreds of career prosecutors" (or mainly just Bill Otis) now in "open revolt" over AG Holder's support for the Smarter Sentencing Act?
- Very eager to provide very thorough and fair coverage of prosecutors' views on Smarter Sentencing Act
Monday, March 10, 2014
"Little-Known Health Act Fact: Prison Inmates Are Signing Up"
The title of this post is the headline of this front-page New York Times article. Here is how it gets started and additional excerpts:
In a little-noticed outcome of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, jails and prisons around the country are beginning to sign up inmates for health insurance under the law, taking advantage of the expansion of Medicaid that allows states to extend coverage to single and childless adults — a major part of the prison population.
State and counties are enrolling inmates for two main reasons. Although Medicaid does not cover standard health care for inmates, it can pay for their hospital stays beyond 24 hours — meaning states can transfer millions of dollars of obligations to the federal government.
But the most important benefit of the program, corrections officials say, is that inmates who are enrolled in Medicaid while in jail or prison can have coverage after they get out. People coming out of jail or prison have disproportionately high rates of chronic diseases, especially mental illness and addictive disorders. Few, however, have insurance, and many would qualify for Medicaid under the income test for the program — 138 percent of the poverty line — in the 25 states that have elected to expand their programs....
Opponents of the Affordable Care Act say that expanding Medicaid has further burdened an already overburdened program, and that allowing enrollment of inmates only worsens the problem. They also contend that while shifting inmate health care costs to the federal government may help states’ budgets, it will deepen the federal deficit. And they assert that allowing newly released inmates to receive could present new public relations problems for the Affordable Care Act. “There can be little doubt that it would be controversial if it was widely understood that a substantial proportion of the Medicaid expansion that taxpayers are funding would be directed toward convicted criminals,” said Avik Roy, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative policy group....
In the past, states and counties have paid for almost all the health care services provided to jail and prison inmates, who are guaranteed such care under the Eighth Amendment. According to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, 44 states spent $6.5 billion on prison health care in 2008.
In Ohio, health care for prisoners cost $225 million in 2010 and accounted for 20 percent of the state’s corrections budget. Extended hospital stays — treatment for cancer or heart attacks or lengthy psychiatric hospitalizations, for example — are particularly expensive Stuart Hudson, managing director of health care for Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said his department, which plans to start enrolling inmates in Medicaid when they have been in the hospital for 24 hours, expects to save $18 million a year through the practice, “although it’s hard to know for sure, because there’s other eligibility factors we have to keep in mind.”
Nancy Griffith, Multnomah County’s director of corrections health, said the county expected to save an estimated $1 million annually in hospital expenses by enrolling eligible inmates and passing the costs to the federal government. More money could be saved over the long term, she added, if connecting newly released inmates to services helps to keep them out of jail and reduces visits to emergency rooms, the most expensive form of care. “The ability for us to be able to call up a treatment provider and say, ‘We have this person we want to refer to you and guess what, you can actually get payment now,’ changes the lives of these people,” Ms. Griffith said.
Rick Raemisch, executive director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections, said that billing Medicaid for hospital care would save “several million dollars” each year. But as important, he said, was the chance to coordinate care for prisoners after their release. About 70 percent of prison inmates in the state have problems with addiction, he said, and 34 percent suffer from mental illness.
Recent related posts:
- Might Obamacare end up reducing prison populations "more than any reform in a generation"?
- "Obamacare Is a Powerful New Crime-Fighting Tool"
- "Healthcare Not Handcuffs": Will ACA help end the drug war?
- "Can Obamacare Reduce the Cost of Corrections?"
Friday, March 07, 2014
Senate Judiciary Committee approves Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act
Yesterday the US Senate Judiciary Committee voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill known as the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act. This press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, headlined "FAMM Hails Continued Bipartisan Support for Criminal Justice Reforms," provides this information about the bill contents and context:
The bipartisan bill, a compromise negotiated by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and John Cornyn (R-TX), is anticipated to help alleviate overcrowding in federal prisons — now at 138 percent of their capacity — and may help reduce federal prison costs, which consume a full quarter of the Department of Justice’s budget and threaten funding for other law enforcement programs. Among other things, the legislation passed today:
requires the federal Bureau of Prisons to classify all federal prisoners as being at high, moderate, or low risk of reoffending;
permits many prisoners to earn time credits for completing recidivism-reducing programs or “productive activities” like maintaining a prison job; and
allows low and moderate risk prisoners who earn a certain number of time credits to be released from prison early to serve the remainders of their sentences on prerelease custody in a halfway house, on home confinement, or under community supervision.
This article from Main Justice, headlined "DOJ Spends Too Much on Prisons, Leahy Says," reports than 15 Senators voted in support of this bill and that the only GOP member to vote against the bill was Senator Jeff Sessions.
For a variety of reasons, I expect bills to reform severe sentencing laws like the Justice Safety Valve Act and the Smarter Sentencing Act will continue to get a lot more attention than this Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act. But, for a variety of reasons, I think this bill, which may have the broadest support among the most important political players in Congress, could end up being the most important and consequential for helping to transform the nature and future of the federal sentencing system.
Thursday, March 06, 2014
Fascinating split Ninth Circuit ruling on prisoner 1983 suits
Because I obsess much more over sentencing matters rather than corrections, I am not likely to muster all the time and energy needed to fully consume and assess what an en banc Ninth Circuit panel did today in the prisoner rights case of Peralta v. Dilliard, No. 09-55907 (9th Cir. March 6, 2014) (available here). But I know enough to know the ruling is fascinating for various reasons, as this unofficial court-staff summary highlights:
The en banc court affirmed the district court’s judgment following a jury verdict in favor of a prison dentist and affirmed the district court’s judgment as a matter of law in favor of prison administrators in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action alleging deliberate indifference to medical needs in connection with a prisoner’s dental care.
The court held that a prison official sued for money damages under § 1983 may raise a lack of available resources as a defense. The court held that the district court’s challenged jury instruction in this case properly advised the jury to consider the resources that the prison dentist had available when determining if he was deliberately indifferent. The court held that to the extent the court’s prior decisions in Jones v. Johnson, 781 F.2d 769 (9th Cir. 1986), and Snow v. McDaniel, 681 F.3d 978 (9th Cir. 2012), could be read to apply to monetary damages against an official who lacks authority over budgeting decisions, they were overruled.
The court held that the jury had sufficient evidence on which to base a finding that a lack of resources caused any delay in providing care. The court further held that the district court did not err by granting judgment as a matter of law in favor of Dr. Fitter, the prison’s Chief Medical Officer and Dr. Dillard, the Chief Dental Officer.
The court held that the district court’s prior decision refusing to grant Fitter and Dillard summary judgment did not, under law of the case, preclude the district court from reconsidering its pretrial ruling.
Dissenting in part and concurring in part, Judge Christen, joined by Judges Rawlinson, M. Smith, and Hurwitz and Judge Bybee as to parts I, II, and III, stated that the decision overturned more than thirty years of circuit precedent by holding that lack of resources is a defense to providing constitutionally inadequate care for prisoners. She joined the majority in affirming the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims against Dr. Fitter, but she disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that a directed verdict was appropriate on plaintiff’s claims against Dr. Dillard.
Dissenting in part and concurring in part, Judge Hurwitz, joined by Judges Rawlinson, M. Smith and Christen, and Judge Bybee as to parts I and II, stated that the majority effectively held that a state can first choose to underfund the medical treatment of its wards, and then excuse the Eighth Amendment violations caused by the underfunding. Judge Hurwitz stated that as to Dr. Fitter, the majority correctly held that he was entitled to qualified immunity as he had relied on his staff’s medical judgment.
I would be especially eager to know from people in the know if they think this case seems likely to end up before the Justices on the merits.
Wednesday, March 05, 2014
Just what is Ohio doing so right with respect to reentry and recidivism? Can it be replicated nationwide?
The question in the title of this post is my reaction to this wonderful new AP news from my own state, which carries the headline "State reports record-low Ohio prisoner return rate." Here are the details:
Fewer Ohio prisoners than ever are going back to prison after they’ve been released, the state announced Wednesday, attributing the drop to community programs that work with newly released prisoners, and new prison units that prepare people for life outside bars. The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction says the current inmate return rate of 27.1 percent, down from 28.7 percent a year ago, is far below the national rate of 40 to 44 percent.
The rate affects not just the prison system’s bottom line but the bigger goal of reducing crime in Ohio, prisons director Gary Mohr said. “If our people being released from prison are committing less offenses, then we have less crime victims,” Mohr told The Associated Press. “I think that’s the most important piece.” Saving money on prison operations also means more state dollars can be spent earlier in people’s lives on things like education, he added.
Going forward, the expansion of Medicaid is expected to help connect incarcerated people to needed resources as they come home. The state projects that roughly 366,000 residents will be newly eligible for coverage by the end of June 2015 by increasing the state-federal health care program for poor children and families. Mohr says a lower return rate will also help the state reduce its prisoner population, currently about 50,500.
A 2011 sentencing law meant to lower the number hasn’t had the desired impact, leading to fears that the state may need to spend millions to build a new prison after 2017, while pushing judges to rethink sentences and placing a greater emphasis on rehabilitation. The current prison population hasn’t changed much since 2011, despite projections that it would drop to 47,000 by 2015 and continue to decline.... Ohio’s prisoner population could grow to 52,000 in two years and top 53,000 in six years, Mohr warned last year....
It’s not that the 2011 law is failing. Challenges, including a recent increase in violent crime and an uptick in cases filed by prosecutors, are holding back promises that the law would lower the prisoner population. Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor has said the courts are also part of the problem and called on judges to be more diligent about reducing the number of offenders behind bars.
The rate announced Wednesday is based on a three-year study of inmates released in 2010.
The report/study on which this article is based is available at this link under the simple title "DRC Recidivism Rates." I would be grateful for any and all help figuring out if there are other big important conclusions or lessons (good or bad) to be drawn from this report beyond the one discussed above.
March 5, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Tuesday, March 04, 2014
Might Obamacare end up reducing prison populations "more than any reform in a generation"?
The question in the title of this post is drawn from the headline of this new Newsweek article that purports to explain "How Obamacare May Lower the Prison Population More Than Any Reform in a Generation." Here are a few highlights:
[The] the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) ... may be the biggest piece of prison reform the U.S. will see in this generation.
On the face of it, there’s no direct connection between the ACA and what experts refer to as the “justice-involved population.” There’s no mention of prisons or jails or even crime in the language of the law. However, in what proponents of the act are considering a happy public policy accident, the ACA may inadvertently change the makeup of the U.S. prison population by getting early help to those with mental health and drug abuse issues, ultimately reducing recidivism rates and saving states millions, if not billions, of dollars annually....
The last major study on mental health in prisons, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that 64 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons met the criteria for mental illness at the time of their booking or during the twelve months leading up to their arrest. For comparison, the rate of mental disorders among U.S. citizens stands at around 25 percent, according to the NIH. Sixty-nine percent of the country’s prison population was addicted to drugs or alcohol prior to incarceration....
Health and crime have become inextricable in the U.S. Health issues such as drug addiction and severe mental health disorders directly lead to illegal activities and eventual imprisonment. A high percentage of those incarcerated are guilty of crimes directly related to medical issues, such as illegal drug use or theft to support an addiction.
This population — the poor, homeless, addicted, and mentally ill — has never had any health safety net. With no jobs or income, they are highly unlikely to have private insurance, and Medicaid — the federally-funded health coverage option meant to protect the poorest Americans — is actually only available to a select group of individuals. Though it varies state by state, eligibility is always categorical, which means besides having a low income, Medicaid is only available to five types of people: pregnant women, children below a certain age, parents of Medicaid-eligible children, the disabled, and seniors.
Essentially, Medicaid left out poor, single, male adults without dependant children – the same demographic most likely to end up arrested and incarcerated. Starting in January 2014, however, the categories have been eliminated (at least in the states that have chosen to take the medicaid expansion — it is an optional aspect of the ACA). “That means that a lot of people who are going to jail for mental illness or substance abuse related crimes could potentially avoid jail,” says Marsha Regenstein, a professor of health policy at George Washington University.
Of course, these people are hard to reach, and eligibility doesn’t ensure coverage or healthier behavior. That’s why the bigger opportunity, according to many health and justice policy experts, is to reach and help this population at the points where they do become involved with the justice system....
[T]he right to health care only applies to the length of a person’s sentence.... [A] 2013 report in California, for example, found that 90 percent of prisoners had no health care upon release. Once released, prisoners are likely to discontinue their meds, delay seeing primary care doctors (out of concern for costs), and, as a result, end up in emergency rooms — where high treatment costs are passed on to everyone else via insurance premiums.
This is not just a public health issue; it’s a public safety concern. Lack of care for chronic conditions creates additional long-term problems, like being physically or mentally unfit for employment. In conjunction with a lack of appropriate care for their drug problems and an inability to effectively medicate their mental health disorders, the formerly incarcerated are likely to return to a life of crime.
Many hope and believe that change is on its way. The Justice Department estimates suggest that with the expansion of Medicaid, 5.4 million ex-offenders currently on parole or probation could get the health care they need. (It’s important to note that 25 states plus Washington, D.C. have implemented the Medicaid expansion as of 2014. However, many policy experts expect the remaining states to fall in line, citing the historical example of how CHIP was initially rejected by many states when it rolled out in 1997, but is now utilized in every state in the country.)
Even with coverage, those ex-offenders will still need to actually utilize those health, and the key will be making the connection at the time of release. The biggest challenge will be getting state justice systems and health systems — not exactly happy bedfellows in past years — to work together to create coordinated discharge planning between jails and community healthcare....
The cost savings associated with keeping former prisoners out of the ER and out of prisons will likely lead leadership at the highest levels — state governors, for example — to push for the types of collaboration that will keep ex-offenders healthy and out of trouble....
Ultimately, because there is no precise directive in the ACA, the choice on how to handle these issues will be made independently in every state, and in every county. In some cases, reform will be swift; in others, life may go on as though Obamacare never happened.
"15 Years In Environment Of Constant Fear Somehow Fails To Rehabilitate Prisoner"
The title of this post is the headline of this amusing new item in The Onion sent my way by one of my terrific students. Here are highlights from this all-too-biting satire:
Reportedly left dumbfounded by the news that recent parolee Terry Raney had been reincarcerated on charges of assault and battery, officials at Woodbourne Correctional Facility struggled Tuesday to make sense of how the prisoner had not been rehabilitated by 15 years of constant threats, physical abuse, and periodic isolation.
“It just doesn’t seem possible that an inmate could live for a decade and a half in a completely dehumanizing environment in which violent felons were constantly on the verge of attacking or even killing him and not emerge an emotionally stable, productive member of society,” said chief warden Albert Gunderson, who noted that, as hard as it was to believe, Raney’s recidivism proved that his criminal impulses had not in fact been corrected by the sense of grave distrust he felt toward every other person in the facility, including both fellow inmates and prison authorities, every day since 1999....
Gunderson [also] noted his additional confusion at how the man’s criminal record and the social stigma of his prison sentence had somehow failed to land him a steady job immediately upon his release.
Sunday, March 02, 2014
Alabama struggling with enduring challenges as tough-on-crime history creates "box of dynamite"
The New York Times today has this notable and lengthy article about the criminal justice reform challenges facing Alabama headlined "Troubles at Women’s Prison Test Alabama." Here are excerpts:
For a female inmate, there are few places worse than the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. Corrections officers have raped, beaten and harassed women inside the aging prison here for at least 18 years, according to an unfolding Justice Department investigation. More than a third of the employees have had sex with prisoners, which is sometimes the only currency for basics like toilet paper and tampons.
But Tutwiler, whose conditions are so bad that the federal government says they are most likely unconstitutional, is only one in a series of troubled prisons in a state system that has the second-highest number of inmates per capita in the nation. Now, as Alabama faces federal intervention and as the Legislature is weighing its spending choices for the coming year, it remains an open question whether the recent reports on Tutwiler are enough to prompt reform.
“Yes, we need to rectify the crimes that happened at Tutwiler, but going forward it’s a bigger problem than just Tutwiler,” said State Senator Cam Ward, a Republican from Alabaster who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We’re dealing with a box of dynamite.”
The solution, Mr. Ward and others say, is not to build more prisons but to change the sentencing guidelines that have filled the prisons well beyond capacity. Just over half the state’s prisoners are locked up for drug and property crimes, a rate for nonviolent offenses that is among the highest in the nation. “No one wants to be soft on crime, but the way we’re doing this is just stupid,” Mr. Ward said.
Still, in many corners of Alabama, a state where political prominence is often tied to how much a candidate disparages criminals, the appetite for change remains minimal. The Legislature is in the middle of its budget session, working over a document from Gov. Robert Bentley that includes $389 million for the state’s prisons. That is about $7 million less than last year’s budget.
The Department of Corrections argues that it needs $42 million more than it had last year. Alabama prisons are running at almost double capacity, and staffing is dangerously low, said Kim T. Thomas, the department’s commissioner. He said he would use about $21 million of his request to give corrections officers a 10 percent raise and hire about 100 officers....
There is no ignoring the prison crisis. Even Stacy George, a former corrections officer who is challenging Mr. Bentley in the June Republican primary by promising to be “the gun-toting governor,” this past week issued a plan for prison reform. It calls for changing sentencing rules, rescinding the “three-strikes” law for repeat offenders, releasing the sick and elderly, and sending low-level drug offenders into treatment programs instead....
“It is just a culture of deprivation and abuse, not just at Tutwiler but in institutions across Alabama,” said Charlotte Morrison, a senior lawyer with the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal organization that represents indigent defendants and prisoners. In 2012, the organization asked the federal government to step in after its own investigation into Tutwiler showed rampant sexual abuse....
“It’s a primitive, very backward prison system,” said Larry F. Wood, a clinical psychologist who was hired at Tutwiler in 2012. He quit after two months, appalled at the conditions and what he said was the administration’s lack of support for mental health services. “I’ve worked in prisons for most of 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “We need to back up and look at it with fresh eyes. The people who are running it don’t have the perspective to see what can change.”