Tamms Correctional Center- AP
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed closing Tamms Correctional Center, the state’s only supermax prison. Even if driven by economic efficiency concerns, this action could put an end to prison conditions that have caused a mental health crisis, precipitated, among other reasons, by the fact that the 200 inmates held at Tamms have lived in almost continuous solitary confinement. Read more here.
Illinois residents can support this proposal and the Tamms Year Ten Committee’s work by following this link and making a call.
This week, the U.S. Sentencing Commission held a hearing in Washington, D.C. on federal sentencing after U.S. v. Booker, the Supreme Court decision that made the sentencing guidelines advisory instead of mandatory. Families Against Mandatory Minimum’s VP Mary Price testified that judges are using their discretion wisely and need to be able to continue to give individualized sentences. You can read her testimony here.
FAMM released this statement on President Obama’s new budget proposal, which endorsed the idea of expanding good time credit and compassionate release.
HLS professor and former judge of the U.S. District Court for Mass. Nancy Gertner was counsel of record in an amicus brief (PDF) submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in Dorsey v. U.S. and Corey Hill v. U.S. These decisions will determine whether the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 applies to defendants sentenced after the law was enacted, but whose crimes were committed beforehand. Gertner co-wrote the brief, which argues that denying such application will further “damage the legitimacy of the sentencing process,” with another former federal judge, Paul Cassell. Both authors sentenced defendants under the mandatory-minimum provisions of the 1986 Act, and have written previously to express their deep concerns about the damaging effects and racism of mandatory-minimum penalties for non-violent drug offenders.
Finally, FAMM President Julie Stewart recently published this op-ed in the Huffington Post last week. At a time when some Congress members argue that more prosecutorial discretion will reduce racial disparity, it calls attention to a powerful new study that suggests that much responsibility lies with prosecutors, not judges, for the disparity in sentences between black and white offenders.
For those of you following the current controversy over Massachusetts sentencing bills, Families Against Mandatory Minimums has this update:
- As of last month, the conference committee that was trying to negotiate a compromise between the Senate and House sentencing bills had not made progress. As you know, the Senate bill included mandatory minimum reforms (along with many other issues) while the House bill only addressed habitual offenders.
- The House leadership then announced that the House of Representatives would be debating and voting on a second sentencing bill that covered some of the other issues from the Senate bill.
- But by early February, the House leadership said that the House members of the conference committee could negotiate a final bill after all, without the need for the House to take up a second sentencing bill. FAMM members did a terrific job of writing to their representatives in the House, urging them to include drug sentencing reforms.
- Meanwhile, there has been an outpouring of concern about changes to the habitual offender law (also called the “three strikes” law) that both the House and Senate passed. FAMM has joined community leaders, clergy and activists in speaking out against mandatory maximum sentences. Click here for our fact sheet. (Lowell area members, we hope to see you at tonight’s community forum.)
- Opposition to the habitual offender parts of the bills has slowed down the conference committee’s work – and rightly so. This is a critical criminal justice issue that needs to be fully considered.
A June 2005 file photo of the Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut, Ohio, which the state sold to Corrections Corporation of America last year.
Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is the nation’s largest operator of for-profit prisons; it is a “Wall Street giant” that has grown more than five-fold during the last fifteen years. After 9/11, it capitalized on anxieties about national security and anti-immigrant sentiment to contract with the government to build private detention facilities; by 2009, almost half of all immigrants detained by the government were in facilities managed by private contractors (read more here). Between 2001 and 2005, CCA’s increased its lobbying expenditures more than sevenfold, from $470,000 to nearly $3.4 million. The Huffington Post observes that “[i]n recent years, Corrections Corporation of America has made it clear that it sees opportunity in the new era of state budget crises.”
CCA recently sent this letter to 48 states, offering to buy their prisons. Like “cash for keys” offers to foreclosure victims, the long-term costs of this exchange for states will be far greater than the cash states could take away in hand now. If the reasons that harnessing the private profit goal to and giving up public management of the prison system will be costly aren’t obvious, consider that to keep generating profits from the prison system, it will have to continue to grow, which means that the nation’s prison population will have to continue to rise, while incentives to invest in conditions that could decrease recidivism– shorter sentences, less crowded conditions, educational opportunities, reentry programs, even adequate food, healthcare and staffing, just to name a few– disappear. This would not only mean an exacerbation of the worst tendencies we have described in prior posts, but also, given the increasing power of CCA’s lobbying arm, a diminished likelihood of legislative prison reform.
Read more about this utterly depressing and horrifying prospect here.
Gustavo Amador/European Pressphoto Agency
A fire at a central Honduras prison has caused over 300 deaths, and this tragedy has drawn attention to the broader crises of overcrowding and violence in the nation’s carceral system.
The New York Times covers the story, with a photo slideshow that includes images of prisoners’ relatives watching the fire from outside the prison fences.
We rarely see images of incarcerated children like this.
You can take a look at more of photographer Richard Ross’ work and watch a video in which he is interviewed here.
The dramatic increase in prison population in the U.S. over the past few decades means that there is now an unprecedentedly large geriatric prison population for which prisons do not have the resources to care. Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report on this issue using data from nine states and twenty prisons; you can access the full report and the press release here. Colorlines also comments and provides some useful infographics.
Right after I posted on Adam Gopnik’s piece in the New Yorker, I ran across this sharp and excellent criticism of it by Lisa Guenther, who calls Gopnik out for failing to interrogate the racially determined– or let’s just say racist– claim that crime in the U.S. has decreased since the 1980s, which he takes primarily from Berkeley criminologist Franklin Zimring’s book about New York. You can almost hear Guenther’s weariness as she obligatorily reminds us to ask whether New York or the country is “safer” for the young black men who, like Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and countless others, are routinely targeted and lose their lives as a result of the “stop and frisk” programs that Zimring praises and tries to distinguish from racial profiling.
At the same time, by addressing Gopnik’s perspective– and exclusion of the perspectives of people and communities most affected by mass incarceration and associated police practices– Guenther raises the traps of the question of platform, writing, “To be sure, poor people do not often publish books with Oxford University Press, nor publish articles in The New Yorker. This is part of the problem.”
What kind of ideas can or could not make it into the New Yorker or any major press? What do those limits have to do with the positions that we embrace, endorse? How do our adjusted expectations contribute to a status quo? Many thanks to Guenther for prompting these questions, and her tempering with realism my excitement about the fact the New Yorker is willing to publish a long piece advocating sentencing reform and to offer the U.S. racial caste system as an explanation for mass incarceration. Please don’t miss her piece, especially if you’ve read the Gopnik. I’ll give her the last words here:
“Those of us who are privileged enough to enter these sites of power have an obligation to push beyond what seems like “common sense” to us – especially when we are addressing issues that directly affects those who do not share this privilege. This obligation is both political and epistemic; we simply cannot get a sense of what the world is like by remaining entrenched in our privilege, and we certainly can’t change the world from this position.”
This article‘s discussion of mandatory sentencing guidelines versus discretion shows how stuck the debate is and conveys how depressingly racism will shape both approaches, quite aside from aspirations to create uniformity in sentencing or to reserve a place for consideration of particular contexts.
I hope you’ll all read Adam Gopnik’s recent article in the New Yorker, which addresses how “[m]ass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today.” In his attempt to answer the question, “how did we get here?” he describes two different ideas: one, elaborated by the late, beloved Bill Stuntz, that conceiving of justice as procedure and process rather than principles results in a system that is essentially impersonal and insulated from its human effects; the second, put forth by Michelle Alexander among others, that the prison is an institution of white supremacy that functions in the service of racial domination as social control.
This long and thoughtful piece opens with a nice meditation on time in the context of incarceration– the “timeless time” of death row, and the way that in prison, time becomes something being done to you, not something you do things with. It also offers some sobering facts: six million people are under correctional supervision in the U.S., more than were in Stalin’s gulags; Texas alone has sentenced more than four hundred teenagers to life imprisonment; during the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. There is more– a discussion of the relationship between crime and such punishment, and of stop and frisk programs, some Shakespeare and a little hope– and more than that too, that makes it worth your while to take a look.