County sheriffs claim that prisoners sleeping head-to-toe count as being "six feet apart" for coronavirus safety

Prisons in America are already overcrowded, under-supported, and maddeningly profitable for the people who made them that way. And when people die in incarceration under more normal circumstances, it still tends to get ignored or covered up. As a result, some of them have been struggling with how to deal with social distancing, quarantine, and general medical safety during this pandemic. (Case-in-point: Joe Exotic may have been exposed to coronavirus.)

Even in that context, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections offered a particularly absurd excuse for their less-than-bare-minimum effort in treating incarcerated people with basic humanity. According to CourtWatch MA, a volunteer community group that acts as a watchdog for the state prison system, the state's latest prison capacity report claims that the DOC is prepared for a capacity of 7,492 people. But there are 7,916 people currently incarcerated by the state — nearly 500 more than that design/rated capacity. (The state also claims that its operational capacity is 10,157, which is not consistent with the data available records requests.

This week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court asked the sheriffs of 14 counties to provide information about their handling of this overcrowding during the coronavirus outbreak, to ensure that they're all adhering to proper CDC guidelines. Here's the first question they asked:

Approximately what percentage of inmates or detainees sleeps within six feet of another inmate or detainee? Individuals in disciplinary isolation should be excluded from this estimate.

That seems fairly straight-forward. But the sheriff Hampden County responded that "0% sleeps within six feet of one another" at the main institution, the women's facility, the regional recovery and wellness center, and the pre-release center in that county. Read the rest

A new play lets formerly incarcerated people tell their stories. Meanwhile, prisons are still banning books.

In January of 2018, I was hired by the Civic Ensemble of Ithaca, New York to take part in a fascinating playwriting opportunity. The company had started a ReEntry Theatre program in 2015, teaming with state social services to implement a theatre education curriculum to help people dealing with incarceration and substance abuse rehabilitation to transition back into society. In the past, the program participants had written their own monologues and brief scenes, along with learning some improv exercises. But they brought me in to work with those program participants, and all the raw material they'd produce, and turn that into a full-length play—a singular, cohesive vision that was lightly fictionalized but drawn directly from the participants' real experiences dealing with prison and addiction.

The result, Streets Like This, had its world premiere in May of 2018. But now the company is re-mounting it at the Cherry Artspace (also in Ithaca) from March 12-22, 2020.

Working on this play was a very cool experience. The program participants were all people who had seen a lot of shit, but also had some incredibly deep empathy but for what they and others like them had gone through. Many of them possessed an intuitive understanding of the complex systemic issues that drove them into the desperation — the violence, drugs, sex work, and petty crime — that landed them in prison in the first place. And having been through prison — sometimes more than once — they also had a better understanding of the ways that the system is set up to fail people just like them. Read the rest

Why aren't more conservatives concerned about felon voting rights?

I've been a huge fan of Elizabeth Warren since I saw her yelling at a cop during the 2012 Boston Pride Parade. I generally think that her past history as a Republican should actually be a selling point, as it demonstrates her capacity to examine the available evidence and change her mind. But one place where Bernie still stands out in front is his willingness to extend voting rights to people who are incarcerated.

I'm not surprised that Warren is hesitant to go all the way in allowing people to vote while still incarcerated — after all, unexamined biases against incarcerated people are extremely common — but I am disappointed.

The more I thought about it, however, I began to consider how strange it is that felon voting rights (during or after incarceration) tend to be such a partisan issue. As a progressive, I've come around to understand why it matters, as all human rights matter, particularly in an unjust legal system. As much as I hate it, I can at least understand the true authoritarian racist argument in favor of retaining free labor through a loophole-by-design of the 13th Amendment.

But when I think about the conservatives I know, and the philosophies they claim to adhere to, that's where the contradictions arise. For example, let's ignore the contrived veneer respectability that shines on every deceptive video from PragerU, and take their argumentative claims at face value and in good faith. PragerU pumps out plenty of content defending the Electoral College by rationalizing it around a fear of mob rule, or the "tyranny of the majority." Read the rest

Objectivity is a myth, and a single tweet explains why

People like to think they're objective. I get it; it's a good thing to strive to be. As a white dude, I know firsthand that it's easy to assume that you're coming from the "default" perspective, and thus, are more capable of being rationally objective than other, non-white dudes.

But that's wrong. Because if you're brainwashed into seeing your popular mainstream status quo assumptions as "default," then you're actually not objectively considering every possible factor. And this tweet might be the best, most succinct example to explain this:

In other words: we assume that someone can't be objective about prison reform if their own parent has been incarcerated. But what about the other way around? How can you be objective about prison reform if you don't have a parent that's been incarcerated? How can you rationally examine all of the evidence to form a conclusion, if you don't actually have firsthand knowledge of the social, financial, and emotional toll of incarceration? What biases might you be missing that you never even thought to consider because you assumed that your "default" position was automatically normal or correct?

In both situations, your objectivity will be tainted by your emotional response; the difference is that, as a society, we've arbitrarily decided that certain emotions are either proper or negligible when it comes to attaining our idealist objectivity. Read the rest

In U.S. prisons, women are disciplined at a higher rate than men

Even women in prison can’t escape the sexist stereotype of the “difficult woman.” Read the rest

How a prisoner's amazing drawings of golf courses set him free

“Creating golf holes with pencils is how I pass the time. Maybe one day I'll get to play the game I've only imagined.”

A man who was serving 39 years to life in prison decided to started drawing golf courses. His art was really cool. One thing led to another, and his drawings made their way to Golf Digest, which then wrote about him, realized his conviction sounded dubious, investigated, and guess what.

Valentino Dixon is now free. Read the rest

Canadian border authorities hold citizen without charge for eight months

Look, we’re not all maple syrup lollipops and free healthcare up here. According to the CBC, a naturalized Canadian citizen was held against his will, without charge, for 10 months while immigration officials attempted to verify his identity.

47-year old Nigerian-born Olajide Ogunye moved to Canada with his family in the 1990s and, in 1996, he became a Canadian Citizen. But that didn’t matter to the Canadian Border Services Agency. During a sweep of his neighborhood (which, I have to admit, I had no idea that the CBSA did), Ogunye was told to produce evidence of his citizenship. So he did: His Ontario Health card and Canadian Citizenship card.

But here’s the thing: despite his producing two pieces of government identification – the gold standard for get-out-of-my-face-I’m-a-citizen, the CBSA refused to believe that Ogunye was who he claimed to be. So, without charge, they took him into custody so that he could be properly identified.

From the CBC:

According to Ogunye's statement of claim, the officers ran his fingerprints, which they said matched the identity of a man named Oluwafemi Kayode Johnson, a failed refugee claimant who had been deported from Canada to Nigeria in the 1990s.

Ogunye says he was told the CBSA believed he was actually Johnson, who had returned to Canada illegally and assumed Ogunye's identity. Those fingerprints, according to court documents, were never produced by the CBSA to Ogunye.

This shit went on for EIGHT MONTHS. Despite having not committed any crime, Ogunye was remanded to two different mixed medium/maximum security prisons. Read the rest

Zany sheriff does kooky fake ad for county slammer

What to do with all that civil asset forfeiture? Why not erect a fake hotel sign outside the county jail and make a fake ad starring you? That's what Sherriff Rick Staly thought would be fun. Read the rest

Powerful film on how Bronx Freedom Fund rescues those who can't afford bail

Bail is intended to compel defendants show up for court, but for poor citizens who can't make bail, it can lead to pre-trial jail terms that can ruin their lives. The Bail Project profiles Ramel, who was bailed out by the nonprofit Bronx Freedom Fund. Read the rest

A guide to prisons for white collar criminals

When rich people are somehow forced to go to prison, they stay in minimum-security federal prison camps (FPCs). Perks include air conditioning, "superior" medical care, regular Internet access, step aerobics classes, ceramics, crocheting, knitting, practice rooms for musicians, basketball, volleyball, softball, soccer, and an "on-site sweat lodge that's used for Native American religious ceremonies." This 2012 Town and Country article has photos of these places, which look like pretty nice college dorms.

[via] Read the rest

Sobering look at how the poor are denied American justice

American penitentiaries, in idealized Quaker imaginings, were to be a place for reflective penitence followed by forgiveness. That's not how it worked out, especially for the poor. And the problem goes far beyond prison reform: Read the rest

Starving pensioners in Japan responsible for shoplifting crime-wave

Japan's recently expanded prisons are already at 70% occupancy, an incarceration epidemic blamed on hungry pensioners who account for 35% of the nation's shoplifting, with a high rate of re-offending. Read the rest

Woman faces mandatory six years in prison for "painless" kick to deputy's shin

Tina Hunt, a 49-year-old grandmother received a felony conviction for aggravated battery of a peace officer when she kicked a sheriff's deputy in the shin during a struggle in a lockup. At her trial, the deputy testified that the kick was not painful and left no mark. Nevertheless, because Hunt has two prior convictions for violent crimes decades ago, she faces a mandatory minimum of six years in prison.

From Chicago Tribune

A Temple University assistant professor in criminal justice who spent nearly a decade working at the Leighton Criminal Court Building as a law clerk called the case an example of inequities in criminal sentencing law.

"She may very well should have been convicted, but what you see in the sentencing is there's no way to reform," Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve said in a telephone interview. "It's a punitive system. The sins of the past will follow you forever."

Image: Shutterstock Read the rest

Give me blood, cash, or jail time, Alabama judge orders defendants

What's worse than courts demanding that poor people pay extortionate fines to the state for minor offense? Asking them to literally pay with their own blood. Read the rest

Mentally ill man jailed over $5 worth of snacks dies in cell after waiting months for mental health care

Man, the first few paragraphs of this Washington Post story about a mentally ill man who died in a jail while waiting for medical care are so devastating. Read the rest

San Francisco Sheriff's Deputy ring accused of pit-fighting inmates

San Francisco sheriff's deputy Scott Neu is accused of leading a ring of corrupt jail guards who coerced prisoners into gladiatorial combat with threats of rape and violence. Read the rest