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
Yesterday evening in Yakima, Washington, Briseida and Alex Gonzalez recorded this clip of more than a dozen inmates hopping the fence of the Yakima County Jail. The music playing on the Gonzalezes' car radio is a perfect soundtrack. Apparently, the inmates broke open a fire door and made a run for it. Around half have been caught so far.
According to YakTriNews, the inmates reportedly told officials 'they were upset after the Governor’s press conference regarding the statewide order to shelter in place and the virus outbreak has them all scared.'” Read the rest
The past couple years has seen a rise in prison profiteers who strike deals with state corrections departments to provide "free" tablets to prisoners (these being the flimsiest, cheapest, least reliable hardware imaginable), and then profiting by charging exorbitant sums for prisoners to send emails (selling "digital postage stamps" that have to be affixed to each "page" of email), videoconference with family members, and provide media, charging prisoners for music that they lose every time a prison changes suppliers. Read the rest
In 1996, Benjamin Schreiber, 66, was sentenced to life in prison for killing a man with an axe handle. A few years later in the Iowa State Penitentiary, Schreiber suffered from septic poisoning, briefly died, and was resuscitated. So he argued to an Iowa appeals court that he has served his sentence and should be set free. The court ruled with what might be called the "Schrödinger's convict" respsonse. From the New York Times:
“Schreiber is either still alive, in which case he must remain in prison, or he is actually dead, in which case this appeal is moot,” Judge Amanda Potterfield wrote for the court....
Judge Potterfield wrote in the ruling this week that because “life” is not defined by the state’s code, the judges had given the term “its plain meaning,” which they took to prescribe that Mr. Schreiber must spend the rest of his natural life incarcerated, regardless of whether he had been revived. “We do not find his argument persuasive,” Judge Potterfield wrote, adding that the judges found it unlikely the Legislature would have wanted “to set criminal defendants free whenever medical procedures during their incarceration lead to their resuscitation by medical professionals.”
Physicians removed a balloon packed with marijuana from a fellow's nasal cavity 18 years after he smuggled it into prison. The 48-year-old man is now just fine. Physicians from Westmead Hospital in New South Wales, Australia, reported on the unusual case in the British Medical Journal. Apparently the man's girlfriend handed him the package that he shoved up his nose for safekeeping. The package made its way into his nasal cavity where he lost track of it. From CNN:
"A nose out of joint: first reported case of prison-acquired marijuana-based rhinolith" (British Medical Journal)
"A 48-year-old man was referred to the Westmead ENT Department after a CT of the brain, originally performed for headaches, demonstrated an incidental 19x11mm calcified lesion in the right nasal cavity," the report states.
"On questioning, the patient confirmed a long history of unilateral right nasal obstruction and recurrent sinonasal infections."
The rhinolith was removed from the man's nose under general anesthetic, and a subsequent study revealed that it contained a "rubber capsule containing degenerate vegetable/plant matter."
"On follow-up and specific questioning, the patient was able to recall an incident that occurred 18 years prior, while he was incarcerated," the report states. "He remained unaware of the package's presence until presented with the unusual histopathology report."
Ross Ulbricht, the creator of The Silk Road darknet marketplace, is serving a double life sentence plus forty years with no possibility for parole for "money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic fraudulent identity documents, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics by means of the Internet." [Wikipedia] Above, a detail from his incredible drawing of his cell and cellmate at the MCC (Metropolitan Correctional Center).
In a Medium essay titled Life in a Box, Ross writes:
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Try, if you can, to imagine being in this 65-square-foot cell, just you, your cellie and a pet mouse. Mail comes in and out. You get the occasion visit or phone call, but otherwise this and the prison is your universe. Now imagine living here day after day. You lay down in the bunk at night and wake up in it every morning. You eat here. Some days you weep here. Year after year, this is it. No breaks, no weekend off, and you are told you will never be let out, ever.
What can one live for under these conditions?
Surprisingly, there is much. At the very least, I know that rarefied states of mind, states of pure bliss that dedicated monks experience after many years of devotion, are available to me if I live a spiritual life in here. I know also that all the world’s knowledge is still available to me between the covers of books (some I was reading at the time I drew “Life in a Box” can be seen stacked on my bunk).
Brazilian drug lord Clauvino da Silva attempted to escape a Rio de Janeiro prison on Saturday by impersonating his teenage daughter. From The Guardian:
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hen Silva – AKA Baixinho (“Shorty”) – requested the return of his daughter’s ID card at the prison entrance, officers saw through his low-budget disguise and asked him to strip in front of the cameras.
Reports on Monday said the 42-year-old drug trafficker had been moved to solitary confinement but was unlikely to face extra prison time since his unsuccessful bid for freedom had not involved violence.
His daughter, Ana Gabriele Leandro da Silva, who had remained behind in the prison as part of the ruse, seemed to have been less lucky.
According to Rio newspaper Extra she will be charged with abetting prison escape, a crime punishable with up to two years in prison. Seven other visitors – including a pregnant woman suspected of smuggling the disguise into the jail – are also being investigated.
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Inventor William Cubitt subscribed to the “no pain, no gain” philosophy. His “Tread-Wheel,” which was described in the 1822 edition of Rules for the Government of Gaols, Houses of Correction, and Penitentiaries (published by the British Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline and for the Reformation of Juvenile Offenders), was presented as a way for prisoners to put in an honest day’s labor. Prisoners used treadmills in groups, with up to two dozen convicts working a single machine, usually grinding grain or pumping water, sometimes for as long as eight hours at a stretch. They’d do so “by means of steps … the gang of prisoners ascend[ing] at one end … their combined weight acting upon every successive stepping board, precisely as a stream upon the float-boards of a water wheel.”...
This was considered to be more humane, at least compared with earlier methods of punishment, which centered on hanging or exile to British colonies. Hard labor on a treadmill for a fixed term, the theory went, could rehabilitate an offender, who could then return to society and family. Never mind that the prisoner was often left shattered by the experience. Oscar Wilde spent two years on the treadmill as punishment for “gross indecency with certain male persons.” In a poem about his incarceration, he wrote: “We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns, /And sweated on the mill: /But in the heart of every man /Terror was lying still.”
California's 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled that inmates can have a small supply of marijuana behind bars but "smoking or ingesting cannabis in prison remains a felony.” The ruling overturned convictions of five inmates busted for possessing marijuana in prison. From KTLA:
“The voters (who in 2016 passed Proposition 64 legalizing marijuana) made quite clear their intention to avoid spending state and county funds prosecuting possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, and quite clear that they did not want to see adults suffer criminal convictions for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana,” Sacramento County Assistant Public Defender Leonard Tauman said in an email. The appeals court “quite properly honored what the electorate passed..."
While prison officials can still punish inmates for violating the rules, “this ruling will prevent inmates from having years added to their sentences for simple possession, reducing overcrowding and saving $50,000-75,000 a year in unnecessary costs,” said Assistant Public Defender David Lynch.
Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections is planning to ban free book donations to inmates by mail, claiming that this is a "primary avenue for drugs" to enter prisons. But the move coincides with a renewed push to get prisoners buying into a pricey prison eBook system that offers low-end tablets for $150 and eBooks no cheaper than $3 a read.
"Effective immediately, the DOC will begin to transition to ebooks coupled with bolstered DOC library system featuring centralized purchasing and ordering process," the DOC announced at its website. "No books or publications will be shipped directly to an inmate. ... [we] will no longer accept books donated directly to individual inmates.”
Presented as evidence by the DOC was a letter from a prisoner it said "describes how to smuggle drugs through a popular book donation program." As the Prisoners Lit Project and others pointed out, though, the letter didn't say anything at all about drugs: "the poor guy just wanted a dictionary!"
The project describes itself as an all-volunteer grassroots group that sends free books to prisoners in the United States. It sends 30-40 packages a week to prisoners—no drugs included—and plans to fight what it sees as an "unfair and shortsighted change" that will effectively end the program.
"Banning books from 'books to prisoners' organizations is inhumane," it wrote.
Another similar organization, Book' Em, said it mails hundreds of book packages to prisoners and would push back against the policy.
Harris was referring to the visit she made to the Central California Women’s Facility in July, a visit on which I tagged along. It was a surreal experience to watch dozens of women, mostly women of color, at work stations inside of the country’s largest prison for women, laying out and printing fabric and then dyeing it royal blue. It was just as surreal, if not more so, to hear prison officials point out that these flags would one day fly atop every state and federal building in California, describing this with something almost adjacent to pride.
A dozen prisoners at Jasper, Alabama's Walker County Jail escaped on Sunday and one is still at large. One of them used peanut butter to change the number above his cell door and then called for the guard, a new employee, to open it. The number the prisoner changed it to was actually the door to the outside.
"And unknowingly to (the guard), he hit that lock and out the door they went," said Walker County Sheriff Jim Underwood.
Eleven of the escapees were nabbed within eight hours. A manhunt is underway for the twelfth. From CNN:
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Meanwhile, as of right now, the Walker County sheriff said officials would look again at placing a young person in an control area to make decisions for 140 inmates. The camera system also needs to be equipped with more monitors, he added.
Despite the current sticky situation, the sheriff said he doesn't have plans to put any dietary restrictions in place in the future.
"They love peanut butter sandwiches," said Underwood.
A UK weapons company called Drone Defence has sold an anti-drone product to Les Nicolles prison on Guernsey that will use 20 nonspecific "disruptors" to do something to drones that will stop them from overflying the prison and smuggling in contraband. Read the rest
The Flexi-Pen is the writing utensil of choice in prisons because it can't be used to shiv someone. I bet it's fun to fidget with too. Amazon sells a five pack for $13.
The Flexi-Pen is made with a soft rubbery material that bends under the slightest pressure, making it nearly impossible to do lethal damage with it. It's as close to a stab-resistant, non-lethal weapon you can get, while still providing the subject with a workable ballpoint pen to write with.
It's ideal for use in interview rooms, holding cells, and in any prison or jail environment. You go to great lengths to confiscate any potential weapon when taking a prisoner into custody, so why would you want to hand him one afterward?