Let me tell you a story about Herman Wallace, who spent 41 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit

I read a lot. It's part of my job as a writer. Sadly, most of what I read these days is kind of terrible. We do awful things to one another. We've been doing it for a long time. Here's something terrible that I learned today.

In 1972, Herman Wallace was in the Louisiana State Penitentiary doing a stretch for armed robbery. While he was inside, one of the prison's guards was murdered. Wallace and two other black men--Robert King and Albert Woodfox--were convicted for the murder.

There was just one problem: they weren't guilty.

To say that Wallace, King and Woodfox, known members of the militant Black Panther Party, were unpopular with the penitentiary's staff was an understatement. Back then the trio insisted that the crime was being hung on them because of the color of their skin and their political beliefs. Their declaration of innocence wasn't enough to save them from being punished for the guard's murder. The trio was declared guilty. Wallace spent the next 41 years of his life in solitary confinement.

In 2013, a United States Federal Court Judge overturned Wallace's sentence, stating in no uncertain terms that Wallace's trial had been "unconstitutional" and ordered his immediate release. The Department of Corrections complied with the order.

A few days later, Wallace died of liver cancer. The only moments of freedom he had known in over four decades were also his last. King and Woodfox were a little more lucky--both managed to stay alive for more than a few days after leaving prison. Read the rest

Canada struggle to end solitary confinement is "justice deferred"

Until recently, under Canadian law, prison administrators could confine their charges to an indefinite period in solitary confinement. Thanks to a pair of high profile court rulings, this could change in a big way, provided the Federal government can get its shit together.

Last month, the Supreme Court in the Canadian province of British Columbia struck down a law that allowed prisoners to be kept indefinitely in solitary confinement. It was a huge win for prison inmates and society: long-term solitary confinement does nothing to rehabilitate or condition an individual to become a more productive member of society. Worse, as humans are social animals, being locked away from our peers for long periods of time can cause psychological trauma--that's not something you want to do to someone who'll eventually be released back into society. Human rights activists in BC applauded the court's decision. Unfortunately, a similar case, heard in a different region of Canada, is keeping the verdict from changing the country's confinement laws.

This past December, a Superior Court Judge in the province of Ontario handed down a verdict that found that solitary confinement lasting any longer than five days is absolute bullshit, according to the Canadian constitution. But, as the CBC details, the practice of doing so does not violate the constitutional rights of the individual being thrown into solitary.

Both verdicts have merit, but which has more weight?

It's a question that the Canadian government has decided can only be answered by another run through the legal system. Read the rest

Arizona may end draconian feminine hygiene rationing for prisoners

Right now, if prisoners use up their 12 allotted pads for the month, they have to work 27 hours to afford a $4 box of tampons. Read the rest

How to make potentially lethal prison wine

The recent deadly outbreak of nacho botulism reminded me of another big botulism outbreak caused by pruno, aka prison wine. Brian and Jason from Modern Rogue show how to make pruno, showing why it could easily contain botulism. Read the rest

Film examines the brutal long-term effects of solitary confinement

The vast majority of prisoners like Kenneth Moore held in solitary confinement for extended periods get released with almost no rehabilitation or coping skills. Frontline spent three years inside and outside Maine State Prison documenting the effects on prisoners as they try to return to society after solitary. Be warned, it is as bloody and terrifying as any horror movie. Read the rest

Why are 2.3 million people in the US locked up? This infographic explains everything you need to know

This pie chart, by Prison Policy Initiative, breaks down where and why 2.3 million people in the US are behind bars. One in five of them are imprisoned for non-violent drug offenses. "For the last 20 years, the number of arrests for drug sales have remained flat, while the number of arrests for possession have grown."

While this pie chart provides a comprehensive snapshot of our correctional system, the graphic does not capture the enormous churn in and out of our correctional facilities and the far larger universe of people whose lives are affected by the criminal justice system. Every year, 641,000 people walk out of prison gates, but people go to jail over 11 million times each year. Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails have not been convicted. Some have just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days, and others are too poor to make bail and must remain behind bars until their trial. Only a small number (187,000 on any given day) have been convicted, generally serving misdemeanors sentences under a year.

Read the rest

Orange County's Seal Beach jail offers posh, $100/day accommodations to rich crooks

If you're convicted of a crime in Orange County, you can shell out thousands of dollars to be housed in Seal Beach's fancy "pay to stay" jail, which made $365,000 in the last fiscal year by aggressively marketing its "work release, flat screen TVs, computer/media room, clean facility, new beds" to deep-pocketed criminals, who pay $100 a night to stay there rather than one of Orange County's notoriously violent, dirty jails. Read the rest

A grim documentary examines solitary confinement

Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison aired last night after a successful festival run. The film is an unflinching look at life in solitary confinement at Red Onion supermax, where prisoners spend 23 hours a day or more in solitary confinement. Read the rest

Tomorrow: largest prison strike in US history

America imprisons more people than any other country in history, in both absolute and relative terms. American prisoners -- disproportionately racialized and poor people -- are held in inhumane conditions that include long periods of solitary confinement, in violation of international protocols against torture. Read the rest

In prison, "punitive frugality" causes ramen to beat cigarettes as currency

According to a new University of Arizona study, instant ramen is the most valuable currency at one US prison. For example, a two .59 packets of ramen could be traded for one $10 sweatshirt while one ramen packet was worth "five tailor-made cigarettes." Why did the noodles overtake cigarettes as the most valuable currency? Because the cafeteria food is terrible and it's getting worse. Sociologist Michael Gibson-Light calls it "punitive frugality." From The Guardian:

The study paints a bleak picture of the state of food available at the prison. Gibson-Light found that black-market food became more valuable after control over food preparation switched from one private firm to another in the early 2000s.

“That change was part of a cost-cutting measure,” Gibson-Light said. “With that change that resulted in a reduction in the quantity of the food the inmates were receiving.”

Inmates at the prison Gibson-Light studied went from receiving three hot meals a day to two hot meals and one cold lunch during the week, and only two meals for the whole day on the weekend...

“[Money] doesn’t change unless there’s some drastic change to the value in people using it,” he said. The shift from tobacco to ramen highlights how dire the nutritional standards at prisons has become, he added.

Read the rest

Chelsea Manning cut off from contact with lawyers after medical emergency

U.S. military officials are preventing imprisoned whistleblower Chelsea Manning from having contact with her legal team or her friends, following unconfirmed reports that she was hospitalized after a health crisis.

Read the rest

America's prisons are replacing vital in-person visits with expensive, nonfunctional video calling

A new documentary, "(In)Securus Technologies: An Assault on Prisoner Rights", tracks the rise of for-profit video "visitation" programs, which are being rolled out across America's unimaginably huge prison system, replacing the in-person visits that have been shown to be vital for prisoners' successful rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Read the rest

Captured: a book of prison inmate drawings of CEOs and other too-big-to-jail criminals

Jeff Greenspan and Andrew Tider are two artists who spent more than a year working with prisoners to identify CEOs who presided over terrible crimes without any personal penalties, and paired convicts with CEOs, commissioning portraits of the rich people whose impunity protected them from the inmates' fate. Read the rest

Citing copyright, Army blocks Chelsea Manning from receiving printouts from EFF's website

Chelsea Manning's helpers write, "Citing potential copyright infringement, the Army censored materials on prison censorship from the Electronic Frontier Foundation that were sent to Chelsea by one of her volunteers." Read the rest

Obama commutes sentences of 95 prisoners and pardons two

President Barack Obama today announced he has commuted the sentences of 95 federal prisoners, and granted two prisoners pardons. Most of them are nonviolent drug offenders.

This is the most he has done at one time, and more than doubles the number of clemency orders he has granted since taking office. His signature today sets free 40 prisoners who are serving life sentences.

Read the rest

Multi-generational cruelty: America's prisons shutting down kids' visitations

The history of American prison visitations are a mix of racism ("black men, denied sex, will riot in jail") and compassion -- especially the late 1960s' ground-breaking, multi-day family visitation programs that allowed prisoners to play and live with their children for a whole weekend a few times every year. Read the rest

Not (just) the War on Drugs: the difficult, complicated truth about American prisons

U Penn political scientist Marie Gottschalk has a new book out, Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, in which she expands on her prodigious work on the root causes of America's astounding rate of incarceration. Read the rest

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