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Category: Go Big Read 2015-2016: Just Mercy

Shipping Inmates Out of State

A recent article from The Marshall Project discusses the hardships that families go through as states are shipping parts of their inmate populations to other states in an attempt to alleviate overcrowding in their correctional facilities. The four states that currently engage in this practice are Hawaii, California, Vermont, and Arizona, and the U.S. Virgin Islands send their prisoners to U.S. states as well.

The portions of the inmate populations from these states that get shipped away end up in areas in Michigan, Arizona, the Mississippi Delta, Florida, Virginia, and Texas. According to the article, “often, the best-behaving prisoners — those with no disciplinary record, escape history or medical issues — are the most likely to be sent far from home,” usually ending up in “facilities run by for-profit companies such as Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group.”

This is an issue for families of the inmates who want to visit their loved ones, only to have to pay travel fees to the out-of-state facilities that are anywhere from $1000 and up (usually for those who are from Hawaii, at least).

The sign outside of a Corrections Corporation of America location. Inmates who are shipped out of state are often housed at CCA private prisons.

The sign outside of a Corrections Corporation of America location. Inmates who are shipped out of state are often housed at CCA private prisons.

This practice also has important ramifications for the facilities in the towns and cities to which these inmates are sent. The article states:

When the people of Lake County, Mich., the poorest county in that state, learned that their local prison might reopen to accept inmates from Vermont, many were thrilled. The state representative there and the executive director of Michigan Works, a jobs program, both sent letters to Vermont officials pleading for the contract to be signed.

Now that the facility has opened for business, Lake County Commissioner Dan Sloan said unemployment has plummeted from double digits to about 7 percent in less than a year. “We’re seeing more use of our facilities, gas stations, retail, everything,” he said.

In Sayre, Okla., where California sent hundreds of inmates until last year, City Manager Guy Hylton said that having prisoners from out of state “was a miracle for a town like ours, there’s no other way to put it. Commissary purchases were one of our largest sources of sales tax, and the utilities that the prison paid for were like…having a whole other city here in our city.”

While this practice has rejuvenated the economies of several of the towns and cities where these inmates are now being shipped, this has not been the case across the board. The article discusses a specific example at a prison in Mississippi, stating that “for those living in the Delta’s poverty, the prison has been a false promise. ‘That prison should be to the Delta region what Toyota is to North Mississippi: a big economic deal,’ said Johnny B. Thomas, the mayor of Glendora, a nearby town. ‘But the corporation is taking all the proceeds while our children’s schools are falling down.'”

There are currently over 7,200 inmates that are sent to correctional facilities outside of their states, but a few other states are also considering adopting this practice (Washington state and North Dakota, to name two), so this number could easily rise in the coming months. States engage in this practice because it essentially “solves” two problems at the same time: shipping inmates out of state helps alleviate overcrowded prisons in-state and it is also less expensive.

The article goes on to break down the differences in cost between sending an inmate out of state versus housing them in a facility in state:

Hawaii pays CCA about $70 a day to house each inmate at Saguaro, compared with an average of $140 a day for an inmate at any of the four prisons back home. In Vermont, an out-of-state prison bed costs about $62 per day; in-state, the price tag is $162. For the U.S. Virgin islands, the choice is between as little as $67 on the mainland, versus $150 on the islands. (California’s complicated budget picture makes it more difficult to make a similar comparison.)

Even though states are saving money by engaging in this practice, it is the families of inmates who are shipped out of state that are paying the consequences.

To read the full article, entitled “The Prison Visit That Cost My Family $2370,” click here.

The featured photo for this article is of the town of Eloy, Arizona, where Saguaro Correctional Center is located. Saguaro is where many of Hawaii’s inmates who are shipped out of state are housed. Photo taken by Raquel Baranow in 2009.

ASPIREist Features Clint Smith

ASPIREist is a new half-hour reality feature news show. Each episode has three features ranging a wide variety of topics. The purpose of the show, according to its website, is to “empower 21st century viewers to take action on issues that matter.” Each feature ends with a way for the viewer to take action about that particular issue.

The first episode features Clint Smith, a researcher of the intersections between race, education, and incarceration from Harvard University. His feature called “The New Jim Crow,” like the Michelle Alexander book, focuses on issues similar to what Bryan Stevenson talks about in Just Mercy. He talks about the the racial inequality in the criminal justice system, children in prison, and the greater problem of mass incarceration. View the feature below.

One of the show’s other personalities is Shiza Shahid, a previous Go Big Read speaker. To view her features, visit the ASPIREist YouTube page here.

For more information about ASPIREist, click here.

Utah Abolishes Life without Parole Sentences for Children

Earlier this year, South Dakota abolished life without parole sentences for children. Last week Utah passed similar legislation. The new law does not allow people under 18 years old to be convicted of a capital crime to life in prison without parole. The law was passed  because law makers believe those under 18 have more of a capacity for rehabilitation.

Other states to have passed similar laws in recent years are Alabama, Hawaii, Connecticut, West Virginia, Delaware, Nevada, Vermont, and Wyoming. A recent Washington Post article “States are getting rid of life sentences for minors. And most of them are red states” states that approximately 2,500 U.S. prisoners sentenced to life without parole were sentenced as children.

To read “States are getting rid of life sentences for minors. And most of them are red states” click here.

Nixon’s “War on Drugs” was Founded on Racism

Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative have focused their work on the unequally high incarceration rates of African Americans. They argue the criminal justice system favors white people, especially in regard to drug offenses. Now there is proof that the criminal justice system’s drug policy’s were formed with exactly that in mind.

David Baum recently published  and article called “Legalize It All: How to Win the War on Drugs” in Harper’s. For the article he references a 1994 interview with John Ehrlichman, Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief. In the interview Ehrlichman says:  “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” In other words Nixon and his advisors had an idea of how devastating thier policies would be to the African American community. The Equal Justice Initiative explains that the legacy of those policies are mass incarceration of black people and deepening institutionalized racism in the country.

To read more about this click here.

To read “Legalize It All: How to Win the War on Drugs” click here.

Criminal Justice Activist Shaka Senghor on Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday

Oprah recently interviewed criminal justice activist Shaka Senghor as part of her SuperSoul Sunday series. Shaka spent nineteen years in prison for second-degree murder at the age of nineteen, and seven of those years were spent in solitary confinement.

There are many parallels between Shaka’s experiences with the criminal justice system and the anecdotes in Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. Shaka, like many of the individuals Mr. Stevenson has represented, experienced physical and sexual abuse growing up, and he also turned to the streets and drug dealing as a way of gaining the support and acceptance he lacked at home.

Shaka also discusses the dehumanization that takes place in modern American prisons. This dehumanization almost certainly contributes to the high rates of mental illness in prisons, which Shaka describes as common and especially apparent when inmates were subjected to solitary confinement.

Shaka now visits classes and kids in his community to talk about his experiences, teaches classes at the University of Michigan, and has a fellowship at MIT’s Media Lab. One of his greatest challenges in his activism is figuring out ways to “empower young men and women in communities where powerlessness is the norm.” Shaka’s ultimate goal is to “raise awareness” that young people in communities and in prison are worthy, valuable, and redeemable. He says that “all [he] ever wanted was a fair chance to just be a human,” and his actions help spread that message in communities where youth are at higher risk of incarceration.

To watch the full episode, click here.

Life After Thirty Years in Prison

A recent article from The Crime Report details one man’s experiences re-entering society after thirty years behind bars. The article is the second in a series from The Crime Report that follows Lorenzo Brooks and his experiences adjusting to life outside of prison after being incarcerated for thirty years.

Lorenzo Brooks, now 60, was convicted of second-degree murder thirty years ago. Even before his release was granted, he says, “I made preparations and I set goals,” he says. “I just educated myself on the resources available.” Re-entry to society is something that many former inmates struggle with upon their release from prison, especially after decades spent behind bars.

“Some people don’t prepare themselves while they’re in (prison),” Lorenzo says. “They think someone else is going to do it for them.”

Immediately after his release on September 22, 2015, Lorenzo went to Bellevue Men’s Shelter in Manhattan and then another shelter in Brooklyn. According to the article, the next day “he began to rebuild his life. He went to the Human Services Administration, where he filled out applications for food stamps, Medicaid and immediate cash assistance. Next, he filled out an application to live at the Fortune Society in Harlem, an organization that provides housing and support to formerly incarcerated men and women, and was admitted about three weeks later.”

A photo of Lorenzo Brooks in his neighborhood. Photo by Alice Popovici from The Crime Report.

A photo of Lorenzo Brooks in his neighborhood. Photo by Alice Popovici from The Crime Report.

Lorenzo now has a job as a program aide in charge of security at the Fort Washington Men’s Shelter in New York City. His first day at the job, he tried swiping his ID card three times before being able to successfully clock in for his shift. He says of his experiences on his first day at his first job outside of prison in thirty years that, “I wasn’t used to swiping a card….It was very foreign to me, very foreign.”

Lorenzo hopes to one day have “a position as counselor for clients [at a homeless shelter like the one he works at] with substance abuse problems—a job that would require about four months of specialized training.”

“Right now, my position is one of being at the bottom of the ladder,” he says, “You’ve always got to crawl before you walk.”

Lorenzo uses his own experiences to empathize with many of the men at the shelter, some of whom were just recently released from prison themselves. “Being in their position, you can feel hopeless and helpless,” he said, “so I try to let them know that they’re not helpless and that there is hope.”

To read the article “Life After Prison: ‘You’ve Got to Crawl Before You Walk'” by Alice Popovici at The Crime Report, click here.

Florida Revises Death Penalty

Last week, Florida governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law that prevents judges from overruling juries’ recommendations for life imprisonment and imposing death sentences instead. A recent article from the Equal Justice Initiative covers the details and impacts of this change in Florida’s death penalty sentencing. As a result, there are only two other states in the nation–Delaware and Alabama–that allow judges to impose death sentences even after juries have recommended life imprisonment.

The article states that “Florida’s legislature changed the law in response to a United States Supreme Court decision in January which held that Florida’s capital sentencing scheme violated the Sixth Amendment’s requirement that a jury, not a judge, must find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.”

Florida’s new law requires that if a jury recommends a life sentence, the judge imposes life in prison, whereas if a jury recommends death, the judge has the choice to sentence the defendant to either death or life in prison. 10 jurors, not 7, now must recommend death in order for the judge to be able to impose a death sentence, but Florida still does not require that jury recommendations for death be unanimous. Florida and Alabama remain the only two states that allow for a jury to recommend death even if the verdict is non-unanimous.

According to the article, Alabama actually “has the same statute as Florida’s old scheme. Alabama judges have overridden jury life recommendations 101 times, and nearly 20 percent of the people currently on Alabama’s death row were sentenced to death through judicial override. An Alabama trial judge ruled last week that Alabama’s statute is unconstitutional in light of the recent Supreme Court decision.”

To read the EJI article entitled “Florida Abolishes Death Sentences by Judicial Override,” click here.

Rise in Allegations of Sexual Abuse in Juvenile Detention Facilities

A recent article by the Equal Justice Initiative reports on a study published by the Justice Department that found that allegations of reported child sexual abuse in juvenile detention facilities have increased in the past decade.

The study found that the rate of formal allegations of sexual abuse in state facilities rose from 19 per 1000 youth in 2005 to 47 per 1000 youth in 2012. Local and private facilities also saw increases in their rates of alleged sexual abuse from 2010 to 2012 as well. Staff harassment of the youth in juvenile detention facilities characterized 45 percent of these allegations.

The article also discusses the fact that most staff members who are found guilty of sexually abusing children in juvenile detention facilities do not face criminal charges. The study found that “most staff members do not face consequences apart from being discharged from their jobs or allowed to resign. The study shows that fewer than half of the staff members who were found to have abused children were subjected to legal action. Only about 37 percent were referred for possible criminal prosecution, and only about 17 percent were arrested. Nearly 20 percent kept their jobs.”

The study also found that over half of the confirmed victims of sexual abuse in juvenile detention facilities did not receive medical follow-up afterwards, including medical examinations, HIV/AIDS testing, and STD testing.

EJI’s article also stated that “juvenile correctional authorities told the Bureau of Justice Statistics that in half of the confirmed staff-on-youth sexual victimization cases, the sexual contact between the child and the staff member ‘appeared to be willing.’ The study’s authors disavowed this characterization, writing that ‘[r]egardless of how juvenile correctional authorities reported these incidents, they were considered an abuse of power, involved an unknown level of coercion, and were illegal.'”

To read the Equal Justice Initiative’s article, click here.

To read the Justice Department’s report on sexual abuse in juvenile detention centers, click here.

EJI Receives $1 Million from

On February 26th, the USA Today reported that, the philanthropic sector of Google, is giving $1 million to the Equal Justice Initiative. Bryan Stevenson had this to say about the partnership with Google: “They have the skills and the knowledge and the innovative techniques to allow us to do this work in a way that engages a broad cross section of our nation.”

EJI was not the only organization to receive racial justice grants from Two million dollars were distributed among other organizations in the  Bay area who are working to end racial inequalities in education.

Google is taking an unprecedented stand on racial justice for a technology company. Justin Steele, a administrator said “Google and our own industry need to do more to promote equality and opportunities for all. Last year launched a new dedicated effort to support leaders who are doing critical work to end mass incarceration and combat endemic educational inequality for black and brown students.”

To read  the USA Today article “Google gives $1M to Bryan Stevenson’s racial justice effort” by Jessica Guynn, click here.

For more information about Google’s racial justice work, click here.

After More than 40 Years Albert Woodfox Was Released from Prison

This week the New York Times reported that a man had been released from prison after spending many years in solitary confinement. Albert Woodfox arrived at Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1971. He was released on February 19, 2016, after more than 40 years behind bars. Much of his time was spent in solitary confinement because of a crime he did not commit.

In 1972 a white correctional office was killed at Louisiana State Penitentiary. Woodfox and two other men were charged for his murder. No forensic evidence linked Woodfox to the crime. There convictions were based only on testimony from witnesses. Since that time, it has come to light that those witness testimonies were problematic.

For more information, read the New York Times article “For 45 Years In Prison, Louisiana Man Kept Calm and Held Fast to Hope” by clicking here.