The Future of Mass Incarceration: Punishment in the Proposed Era of Decarceration
by Chez Rumpf, PhD Candidate in Sociology, Loyola University Chicago
Two weeks ago in a speech to the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder openly critiqued the United States’ “War on Drugs,” admitting it has been a failure and that its unintended consequences have severely harmed individuals, families, and entire communities. Specifically, Holder took issue with mandatory minimum sentencing policies that have contributed greatly to the build-up of the United States’ prison nation. He went so far as to instruct federal prosecutors throughout the United States to no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent federal drug charges.
An End to the “War on Drugs” and Mass Incarceration?
Holder’s comments carry a great deal of symbolic importance. It is undeniably noteworthy for the country’s Attorney General to openly challenge and call for a reversal of U.S. crime policies and to acknowledge publicly that mass incarceration is a grave social injustice, in part because of the severe racial disparities that permeate the criminal legal system. It remains to be seen, however, whether the symbolic importance of Holder’s speech will translate to changes in policy and practice. As Kara Dansky recently noted on the ACLU’s blog, federal prosecutors may resist Holder’s instructions based on their own racist beliefs and adherence to “tough on crime” ideology.
I’ve written several times on this blog about the increase in the elderly who are in prison. This increase is related to longer sentences and a curbing of parole in several states. You can read some of my posts about this issue here, here, and here. Colorlines also created a terrific infographic that visually depicts the problem of an aging prison population.
Now comes an amazingly moving music video by Brandi Carlile for a song titled “That Wasn’t Me” featuring Kris Kristofferson (who I just love). In the video, Kristofferson plays an elderly man who is paroled from prison and cannot find a way to fit into society. Please take a moment to watch the video. You won’t be sorry.
I am currently working with a coalition of other groups in Illinois to pass a bill to reform the juvenile expungement process. Juvenile expungement is intended to provide people with juvenile criminal records with a chance to erase them. This is intended to make it more likely that they can qualify for financial aid, that they can apply and be hired for jobs, and that they can qualify for certain professional licenses (like nursing).
As part of our process to pass the bill, we have been meeting with various stakeholders including legislators and law enforcement representatives. For the most part, folks have been supportive of our common-sense reform measures. Our biggest opponent however is the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office which refuses to adopt any sort of reasonable posture in negotiating with our coalition.
After our latest meeting with a group of stakeholders representing the legal system this morning, I am reflecting on the fact that many people are just downright hostile against young people. The assumption seems to be that if they aren’t getting their records expunged; it’s their fault. In the world that some of these people inhabit, fees are not an obstacle to expungement “because they can afford to pay.” Additionally, the system should remain as onerous as possible because they want youth to “jump through hoops” in order to clear their records. When it is pointed out that thousands of young people are arrested each year and their cases aren’t referred to court. The response remains the same. We don’t care if these are mere arrests (some of which are surely false arrests), we just want to make them “take responsibility” for their actions.
Given the reality that almost 30% of youth in the U.S. will be arrested by the age of 23, I can’t help but think that we will be reaching a tipping point soon. When the main people who were being adversely impacted by arrest records were youth of color, there was no urgency to reform the expungement process. However now that many more young white people find themselves caught in the net of increasing police control, I wonder how much more amenable the powers that be will be to expungement reform in the future.
It’s a sad but true fact that only when they see these as “their” kids too will they find a willingness to make the system more fair, just, and cost-effective. You can learn more about our efforts by visiting the UN-MARKED CAMPAIGN BLOG.
I think that the re-entry industrial complex is a racket. Yet real people get out of prison and jail every single day and need to navigate hostile waters on the outside. One such person is Tracey Stevens who narrates her story. I think that her words are poignant and should compel us to REALLY focus on providing opportunities for formerly incarcerated people.
According to a press release that I received yesterday:
“Jake Cronin, a policy analyst with the Institute of Public Policy in the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri, studied Missouri Department of Corrections data and found that inmates who earned their GED in Missouri prisons were significantly more likely to find a job after prison and less likely to recidivate than inmates who did not. Cronin found the biggest jump in reduced recidivism rates, more than 33 percent, when he looked at inmates who earned a GED and acquired a full-time job after their release.
“Employment proves to be the strongest predictor of not returning to prison that we found,” Cronin said. “Those who have a full-time job are much less likely to return to prison than similar inmates who are unemployed. Recidivism rates were nearly cut in half for former inmates with a full-time job compared to similar inmates who are unemployed. Inmates who take advantage of the educational opportunities available to them in prison are more likely to find a job than those who do not.”
Cronin says these reduced recidivism rates can save the state a substantial amount of money in reduced incarceration costs. He points to a similar study which found that educational programs that reduced recidivism rates saved the state of Maryland $24 million a year, which is twice the amount of money spent on the program. Cronin believes this shows that correctional facility educational programs are a good investment for the state of Missouri.
“If similar results occur in Missouri, which I would expect given the findings of this study, that would mean the state is currently saving more than $20 million a year in reduced incarceration costs as a result of correctional education programs,” Cronin said. “In this political environment, states across the country are looking for ways to save money. This is one program that, in the long run, saves the state money. It is a good investment; an investment that has a high rate of return.”
This is directly relevant to current prisoners. My pen pal Randy Miller who is incarcerated at Indiana State Prison is an advocate for prisoner education. Here is a letter to the editor that he wrote a couple of months ago about this topic:
Recent legislation passed by Indiana law makers eliminated the bachelor’s degree program from all Indiana State Prison beginning in the fall semester of 2011. The reason given by Governor Mitch Daniels and the state legislators for this action, is that it is unfair for tax payers to be burdened with the cost of covering educational expenses for convicted felons. This may be a valid argument, except that financially it is an outright lie.
The cost of college expenses in the 2010 school year for all Department of Correction inmates was $9.06 million, covered by the Obama grant program. Under new legislation, only $2 million will be allocated to the Department of Corrections to cover educational expenses for college. On the surface this appears to be a financially sound move and looks to save tax payers $7 million a year, but let’s look at what it really costs.
The state of Indiana pays the Department of Corrections just under $58 per day, per inmate, or $21,170.00 per year. There are approximately 361 inmates eligible to receive a bachelor’s degree each year within the Department of Corrections. Obtaining a bachelor’s degree cuts two years off an inmates sentence, saving tax payers $42,340.00 per inmate. By eliminating this opportunity for an average of 361 inmates state wide per year, Governor Mitch Daniels and your state legislators have saved you the tax payer $7 million a year in educational expenses to inmates, and burdened you with $15,284,740.00 per year to house inmates who now cannot receive this time cut. These costs do not include the rising rate of recidivism bound to follow these cuts in education.
Governor Mitch Daniels wants to move to technical schooling to teach inmates a trade rather than a general education, even though these trades have been shown and proven to have little to no effect on lowering recidivism rates. As it stands today, the average recidivism rate in Indiana is at 63 percent. A bachelor’s degree cuts that rate to less than 8 percent! Under Governor Mitch Daniels, Indiana has led the nation in prison population growth, with a prison population increase of more than 6 percent per year. Even California, a state who’s prison population dwarfs Indiana’s in comparison, cut it’s prison population by almost 3 percent.
It is time to change the way we think about the Department of Corrections. It is unfeasible to think you can warehouse inmates and ignore the problem, especially when more that 95 percent of those inmates will be re-entering society someday. The single most beneficial tool we have to lower crime rates, reduce recidivism and ensure the success of inmates re-entering society is education. There is absolutely no benefit for anyone in cutting educational funding to prisoners and eliminating the bachelor’s degree opportunity to inmates.
Randy Miller #154124
Indiana State Prison
August 6, 2011
We walked into 3510 S. Michigan Avenue (which is our Chicago Police Headquarters) at around 10:50 am this morning. We walked through metal detectors over to the central information kiosk. We were greeted by a police officer. We told him that we needed to get a copy of Mariah’s juvenile RAP sheet. He asked her if she had been arrested before her 17th birthday and for her name. He asked if she had a government issued ID and she gave him her state ID card. He then called someone and passed the phone over to Mariah. She was asked again for her name and also for her date of birth. She was then told to have a seat in the lobby.
We were the only two people sitting in a large lobby area. It was empty. Mariah leaned over to me and said: “It’s a police station but I don’t feel safe here.” She was nervous. I passed her the journal that I was writing in and told her to jot down her thoughts. I said that it sometimes helps to write down how one feels as a way to move past those feelings. With her permission, I will share her stream of consciousness musings with you.
I didn’t really have a bad experience but of course it wasn’t a good one. They all seem so uptight. This is taking too long or maybe time is going really slow. What is a rap sheet anyway? The elevator dings but it’s still not for me. I’m feeling uneasy seeing all the folders and guns. Shorts? it’s pretty cold for that. I wonder what they’re doing. I’m the only one here waiting for my file. My stomach is feeling weird. I wonder if that’s an FBI agent with the microphone in his ear. It isn’t very discreet. There’s a police officer/soldier. Interesting. So does the army have their own police but they all have guns? At least 20 min! What are they really doing. It takes longer to get my rap sheet than for the guy to get his gun registered. I just knew MK was gonna get up. And I just knew that police officer at the front desk was going to say something. I hope they don’t take longer on purpose.
Mariah is referring to me when she mentions that she “just knew MK was gonna get up.” After 30 minutes without service, I went back to the information desk to ask if they could call upstairs to see what the hold up was. He dialed and handed me the phone. I was promptly told by the person handling juvenile investigations: “When we’re ready, we’ll bring it down.” It took us 45 minutes from the time we arrived until we got the rap sheet. If you’ve never seen a juvenile rap sheet, here’s a copy below:
The disposition listed for Mariah is “Informal Adjustment (Released to Parent).” That’s right boys and girls, the supposed incident that has led Mariah to receive a letter saying that she cannot practice nursing involves an informal station adjustment that she received at 13 years old.
We weren’t done yet. We got into my car and drove over to juvenile court. Our goal there was to get the Clerk of the Court to write a letter stating that there was a negative record of court proceedings. When we arrived, Mariah explained what she needed. The young woman at the front desk was very pleasant and asked to see a government-issued ID. We sat and waited for about 20 minutes while the letter was being written. We were given juvenile expungement information packets and encouraged to have the record erased. I will have more more say about that process tomorrow. I will be accompanying Mariah back to court to talk with a pro-bono lawyer who will help her to file a petition to have her record expunged. Below is a copy of the letter that the Clerk of the Court provided:
All in all we spent 4.5 hours today getting the necessary paperwork to send a letter to the Department of Professional Regulation requesting that they proceed to reviewing Mariah’s application for licensure. Tomorrow, we will spend more hours beginning the costly and tedious process of expunging her juvenile “criminal” record. Stay tuned…
I am very involved in advocating for an automatic juvenile expungement bill here in Illinois. For those who are interested learning more about HB2841, you can visit the UN-marked Campaign blog.
I wanted to share a terrific short youth-created film that underscores the value and importance of clearing juvenile criminal records. It is impactful and powerful because the young people speak for themselves about this issue. This film was created in 2007 but is still as timely as ever. We will be creating a curriculum for youth and adults in our state to learn more about this issue and we look forward to making use of this film in that curriculum. Special thanks to the Community TV Network and Michael Chandler in particular for making this film readily available for all of our use. Take 10 minutes to watch this excellent film.
I got some sad and disturbing news a couple of days ago. A colleague of mine was re-arrested for a technical violation of his parole and is currently locked up (without bail). This is a man who spent several years in prison and when he was released he dedicated his life to working on behalf of young men who were just like he was. He rose to some prominence in an organization called “Ceasefire.” Ceasefire is currently getting a lot of national attention for its violence interruption work through a documentary directed by Steve James and produced by Alex Kotlowitz called “The Interrupters.” My colleague was by all measures an example of a former prisoner who had successfully “re-entered” society after a long incarceration.
I don’t think that most Americans are aware of how many people are currently locked up in prisons and jails across America for “technical” parole violations. They number in the tens of thousands. Technical violations mean that a person has broken some condition of their probation or parole. Usually these are transgressions that are not even illegal. Technical violations are a particular problem for youth incarceration. Many young people who receive probation or are on parole are mandated to attend school. If for example, they are found to be truant, they are often re-arrested and sent back to prison or jail.
I was talking to a friend about my colleague this weekend. My friend knows him too and is also a former prisoner. He uttered some jarring words to me when I told him about what had happened to our colleague. “You never truly come home from prison,” he told me. “Part of you never leaves the hole.” It is worth spending some time reflecting on my friend’s words and to think about their implication for our work to dismantle the prison industrial complex.
I have referenced this particular scene featuring a young man named Lil’ Mikey from the documentary “The Interrupters” before. I think that it is relevant to resurrect it again in the context of this post.
What I find important to underscore about this clip is that it provides a window into the life that prisoners sometimes leave behind. It highlights that these are people who often have family members who love them and miss them terribly when they are away. It shows the toll that such an absence takes on families of the incarcerated. Finally, it illustrates that “re-entry” is as much about reconnecting with the outside world emotionally as it is about finding a way to make a living and survive on the outside.
I want to believe that what my friend said isn’t true. I want to believe that “you can come home from prison.” But I fear that my friend may be right and that is why it is imperative that prisons be abolished.
A few days ago, I wrote about how jail inmates in England historically had to pay for their own incarceration. Well here in Illinois in 2011, the Supreme Court is hearing a fascinating case that relates to this.
Kensley Hawkins has accumulated $11,000 over 20 years in prison from jobs that he has had while behnd bars. Now the State of Illinois would like to garnish those earnings to have Mr. Hawkins pay for the costs of his own incarceration. Mr. Hawkins has been making about $2 a day building furniture at Stateville Prison which amounts to about $75 a month.
From the Chicago Tribune:
In March 2005, nearly 23 years after he entered prison, the Corrections Department sued Hawkins in Will County. It demanded more than $455,000 that it has spent to house him from July 1, 1983, to March 17, 2005, or an average of about $57 a day.
Under Illinois law, prisoners are liable for their incarceration costs. Most offenders do not have the means to pay, but the department can begin collection proceedings against those who have sufficient assets. Hawkins’ lawyers said the threshold is $10,000 in assets. The state requires prisoners to file financial statements.
In the last eight years, the department has brought more than 200 suits against current and former inmates, Elman said. The department has tried to seize inheritances and awards from personal-injury cases, said James Chapman, a Chicago lawyer who has represented prisoners in such claims.
Hawkins has been told that he owes $455,203.14 to cover the costs of his imprisonment at Stateville Prison. I love the fact that they haven’t even bothered to round down the amount. We have to make sure to collect those 14 cents too. Mr. Hawkins has taken his case to court to stop the state from garnishing the $11,000 in his bank account.
According to the Tribune, “the issue of whether the state can repossess the meager wages paid to inmates will be determined by the Illinois Supreme Court, which will hold arguments in the Hawkins case Tuesday [last week]. It’s the first time the court will address the issue, which also has social justice and public policy ramifications for Illinois.”
States continue to exhibit a stunning lack of foresight by ensuring that once released prisoners will find themselves right back behind bars. Funds that are earned from prison labor should not be garnished, they should be kept in trust and returned to prisoners as they are released to give them a real shot at so-called re-entry. I just read over the weekend that the Michigan Republican Party has decided that perpetual punishment is needed for those convicted of a drug felony in their state. Apparently the Michigan legislature is considering a bill this Tuesday which would bar people with felony drug convictions from receiving food stamps or basic needs assistance for the rest of their lives. Once again, the brilliant minds of our political officials on full display…