Jan 15 2013

The Drug War: Still Racist and Failing #4

This video does a good job of breaking down the exponential growth of the prison population and attributes the major part of the growth to the “War on Drugs.”

Also, the Wall Street Journal published a pretty good article about the War on Drugs. One key excerpt:

The total number of persons incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the U.S. has grown from 330,000 in 1980 to about 1.6 million today. Much of the increase in this population is directly due to the war on drugs and the severe punishment for persons convicted of drug trafficking. About 50% of the inmates in federal prisons and 20% of those in state prisons have been convicted of either selling or using drugs. The many minor drug traffickers and drug users who spend time in jail find fewer opportunities for legal employment after they get out of prison, and they develop better skills at criminal activities.

Apr 24 2012

Bill Clinton Was Incredibly Destructive for Black People…

I have refrained from writing this post for almost two years but I cannot hold back any longer. Bill Clinton is without a doubt my least favorite President of the last 40 years. You read that correctly. But, but, but, what about Ronald Reagan you might ask? What about George W. Bush you might protest? Well for me, the truth is that I expect Republicans to be detrimental to people of color’s prospects. They do not pretend to be interested in our survival.

Bill Clinton, on the other hand, has actively tried to ingratiate himself to black people by appropriating black culture. Think back to his appearance on Arsenio Hall, playing the Sax. Think back to his post-Presidency move to Harlem to locate his Clinton Foundation office there. Think back to the fact that we are incessantly told that Bill Clinton was the “first black” President. What a massive insult! People who speak this nonsense, say it without irony.

There are so many ways that the Clinton Presidency was toxic to black people in particular and people of color in general. I will periodically highlight some of his greatest hits against black people in the coming weeks. Today I want to focus on one piece of legislation that the U.S. Congress passed in 1994 which is still reverberating in 2012. The 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill (spearheaded by Joe Biden and Bill Clinton) cost $30 billion dollars and helped to accelerate the growth of the prison industrial complex in ways that we are only just beginning to understand. The bill’s provisions included:

1. $10.8 billion in federal matching funds to local governments to hire 100,000 new police officers over 5 years.
2. $10 billion for the construction of new federal prisons.
3. An expansion of the number of federal crimes to which the death penalty applied from two to fifty-eight (the bill also eliminated an existing statute that prohibited the execution of mentally incapacitated defendants).
4. A three strikes proposal that mandated life sentences for anyone convicted of three “violent” felonies.
5. A section that allowed children as young as thirteen to be tried as adults.
6. The creation of special courts able to deport noncitizens alleged to be “engaged in terrorist activity” on the basis of secret evidence.
7. Established guidelines for states to track sex offenders. Required states to track sex offenders by confirming their place of residence annually for ten years after their release into the community or quarterly for the rest of their lives if the sex offender was convicted of a violent sex crime. [This sex offender registry law has caused havoc in the legal system]

These are just a few of the greatest hits from the 1994 Crime Bill.

Progressives who are loudly complaining about President Obama’s record on civil liberties (which is abysmal) were overwhelmingly SILENT about Clinton’s dramatic expansion of the prison industrial complex. I remember that period of time clearly. I invite you to send me your own examples of the many ways that Bill Clinton’s presidency was destructive to people of color and I will happily post them here. I think that this is a period of history that many people either don’t know about or are willfully choosing to forget. It should NOT be forgotten since we are living with the consequences of that era today.

May 25 2011

Visualizing California’s Crowded Prisons

Once again, the New York Times comes through for me with data visualization:

May 24 2011

The Supreme Court Provides Useful Ethnographic Data about California Prisons…

I was finally able to read through the Supreme Court opinion about California prison overcrowding last night. I highly encourage anyone interested in prison issues to read through it. You don’t have to be a lawyer or law student to understand the opinion. It is written in an accessible way. In Forbes Magazine, Ben Kerschberg provides very good information about the conditions that the majority cited in support of its opinion. I was particularly interested in the following ethnographic information about the current conditions in the California prisons that were cited in the opinion:

Physical Illness

* A prisoner with severe abdominal pain died after a 5-week delay in referral to a specialist.
* A prisoner died of testicular cancer after prison doctors failed to do a work up for cancer for the prisoner, who was in pain for 17 months.
* Physically ill prisoners were held together in one prison in a 12-by 20-foot cage with up to 50 sick inmates for five hours.
* In Plata, the State conceded that deficiencies in prison medical care violated prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights. That’s a pretty profound concession.
* Overcrowding has increased the incidence of infectious disease and has led to rising prison violence and greater reliance on lockdowns. The average lockdown lasted 12 days. According to the district court, at least 20 lockdowns lasted for 60 days.
* A review of referrals for urgent specialty care at one prison revealed that only 105 of 316 pending referrals had a scheduled appointment.
* Urgent specialty referrals at one prison had been pending for six months to a year.

Mental Health

* Wait times for mental treatment ranged as high as 12 months.
* The suicide rate in California’s prisons in 2006 was nearly 80% higher than the national average for prison populations. A court-appointed Special Master found that “72.1% of suicides involved ‘some measure of inadequate assessment, treatment, or intervention, and were therefore most probably foreseeable and/or preventable.’”
* A federal district could found “overwhelming evidence of systemic failure to deliver necessary care to mentally ill inmates.”
* In 2007, after 12 years of examining the California penal system, a Special Master appointed by the district court reported that the state of mental health care in California’s prisons was deteriorating.
* One correctional officer reported that he had kept mentally ill prisoners in segregation for “6 months or more.” Some were held in tiny, phone booth-sized cages without toilets. “The record documents instances of prisoners committing suicide while awaiting treatment.”

This is some really awful stuff…

May 23 2011

Women in Prison and The “Myth of Small Numbers”

From the Just Seeds Artists' Cooperative

I came across a short piece by Erika Kates about women in prison. It reminded me of just how invisible women in prison continue to be in society. I have written often about the plight of women and girls in prison on this blog. Erika Kates offers some useful statistics to provide context for this issue:

1. The U.S. has the largest incarcerated population in the world. In 2007, over two million prisoners were held in federal, state and local correction institutions; of these 203,100 were women.

2. The percentage of women has more than doubled – it is now 9%; and this is the highest percentage in the world.

3. In 1977-2007 the U.S. female prison population grew by 800%; and the annual growth has doubled that of men for some time.

4. The US also has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In 2008, it was around 900 per 100,000 for men, and 62 for women.

5. Racial and ethnic factors are significant, too. The rate for black women in the US is 149 per 100,000 compared to 75 for Hispanic women, and 50 for white women.

Even in Massachusetts, a state with a low incarceration rate of 13 per 100,000, this trend continues. Between 1977-2007 the female prison population grew by almost 400%, with an average annual rate of increase of 8.7% per year.

These numbers belie harsh realities for incarcerated women and girls. In light of the Supreme Court decision about California prison conditions, below is an excerpt from a talk given by sociologist Jodie Lawston a couple of years ago. Jodie shared this with me last year as I prepared to lead a discussion with community members about gender and the prison industrial complex. I believe that her words are informative and motivating. I think that you will agree.

“Mirroring the trends we see in men’s incarceration, the increase in the imprisonment of women has disproportionately affected those who are of color and poor. Close to 70 percent of women confined in local, state, and federal institutions are Black, Latina, First Nation and Asian (Diaz Cotto 2006; James 2005; Johnson 2003); most are also poor or working class. I should also briefly mention that recent research shows that mandatory minimum sentences, enacted with and after the drug laws of the 1980s, do not just disproportionately burden women but Black women. So Black women have been disproportionately affected by mandatory minimums and other sentencing enhancements, and of course the war on drugs.

Most of the research on violence and abuse in women’s prisons has focused on sexual abuse and medical neglect at the hands of prison staff.

Violence at the hands of male correctional staff—especially that which is sexual in nature—has existed since women were incarcerated in separate wings of men’s prisons in the nineteenth century (Freedman 1981). Both Human Rights Watch (1996) and Amnesty International (1999) released reports that not only document this ongoing abuse but that underscore the ways in which male correctional staff inflict sexual violence with almost total impunity. Human Rights Watch exposed cases of sexual abuse and assault by male correctional officers in women’s prisons from Georgia to California; this report found that male guards have subjected women to sexual assault, extortion, groping during body searches, rape, and in some cases, impregnation.

Approximately 25 percent of incarcerated women report sexual abuse while imprisoned (Talvi 2008). Until March 1992 Georgia incarcerated women were fondled and groped by male prison staff, sexually propositioned, coerced into sexual relationships by threat of retaliation or in exchange for contraband, raped, and/or impregnated (Human Rights Watch 1996). Similarly, in 1997 a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into women’s prisons in Arizona found that the prison administration failed to protect women from sexual abuse inflicted by correctional officers and other staff. This abuse included rape, sexual relationships, sexual touching, and close-up viewing during dressing, showering and use of toilet facilities (Amnesty International 1999). Even medical staff have been found to sexually abuse women in prison. In 1994 several cases were brought to the attention of human rights organizations, of a prison doctor that sexually assaulted women at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF). Women that went to this doctor for common colds or other ailments were subjected to forced gynecological exams and sexual touching (Human Rights Watch 1996). In a more recent 2008 case in Michigan, women prisoners at Scott Regional Correctional Facility were awarded $15.4 million dollars for the sexual abuse they endured. The prisoners testified about sexual advances, assaults, and rapes by male guards (Lam 2008).

Healthcare, or lack thereof, can also be considered a form of abuse, and runs the gamut from improper medical care administered by untrained and unqualified staff to outright refusal of medical treatment. While medical care is also problematic in men’s institutions, in comparison to men women present “more serious and longstanding health problems” when they enter prisons (Talvi 2007, 87).

Cases of medical neglect are too numerous to enumerate here, but I will mention a few. In a study of prison healthcare in Florida from 1992 to 1996, a woman prisoner who had a miscarriage waited six to seven hours before medical personnel sent her to the hospital, even though she was bleeding profusely; another pregnant prisoner, who had a history of prior pregnancy problems and was in severe pain, was told that the prison does not treat pregnant prisoners (Amnesty International 1999). In 1998, forty prisoners at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women signed a petition describing delays in getting access to emergency care, doctors, medication, and treatment for chronic illnesses (Amnesty International 1999). A woman who was bleeding profusely from the rectum was told by staff to elevate her feet, and subsequently bled to death (Amnesty International 1999).

As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s critical to hear from incarcerated women themselves, as they are the experts on incarceration. I just want to give one quote from a woman inside about medical neglect, as this is an issue that they repeatedly highlight. For example, Zoe states:

There were women on the compound who had ailments impossible to treat or care for in a facility which was not a medical center. Women taken out for surgery would come back to the compound and receive improper post-op care, often getting infections. I knew a woman, who had been an attorney on the outside who was given wrong medication. In return she had a stroke, and by the time I left the compound, she looked as if she was close to dying. A woman died in her cube… Everyone knew it was an unnecessary death and could have been prevented with earlier proper action and medical care. One woman I lived with for six weeks in the “fish bowl” —a converted TV room, overcrowded with sixteen women and no ventilation—went out to have a hysterectomy. When she came back, she could barely walk. She received no post-op care, and I only saw an officer check on her twice. Mostly the inmates took care of her.

These stories, which may seem shocking to those of us on the outside of prison, are par for the course on the inside of prison. While medical neglect has physical consequences for imprisoned women, it has other, more obscure consequences in that it essentially silences these women. This silence can be blatant, as when prison personnel cut off outgoing mail to cover up malpractice and keep women from speaking out about staff “mistakes.” But it is also less obvious in that refusing to treat women’s ailments, or treating them inappropriately, frequently keeps imprisoned women physically weak and unable—even afraid—to speak out about their conditions.”

May 01 2011

The Wall Street Journal Sees Growth Potential in the Private Prison Industry


I am not going to offer any additional comments on this but I came across a blog post by someone named Liam Denning at the Wall Street Journal today. Denning was discussing the private prison industry and how investors should trade the stocks of these entities (Geo Group and CCA). You can read the full post here.

The most striking parts of the post are quoted below:

By 2020, the U.S. adult population should increase by roughly 22 million, according to the World Bank. At the current incarceration rate, there will be another 160,000 federal and state prisoners by 2020. Say average overcrowding is cut from 109% to 105%—by building more beds—and the private operators win 35% share of all new beds, in line with the average for 2005-09. The result would be 76,000 new private beds across the decade, or a healthy growth rate of 4.5% a year. Privatization of existing public facilities would add to this.

There is a chance America’s appetite for imprisonment weakens, but this would require a major shift in attitudes. More importantly, as long as taxpayers are looking for ways to cut costs while still keeping their neighborhoods safe, the private prison operators should be able to lock in long-term growth.

This is what we are up against…

Oct 14 2010

Who are Your Nominees for the Incarceration Nation Hall of Shame?

I saw this post over at Diversity Inc about the role that politicians have played in the exponential growth of incarceration in America since the 1970s.  Here is the list that they offer:

For about 50 years before 1972, the rate of imprisonment in the United States was steady.

But in the 1960s, rising crime rates, urban riots and social tensions triggered tough-on-crime policies that would alter the size and racial composition of the prison system.

Here are major players in this movement and the role they played in satiating the public and political hunger for law and order.

Richard Nixon

First president to popularize the term “war on drugs.” Under his presidency, majority of funding goes toward treatment, rather than law enforcement.

Nelson Rockefeller

New York governor creates some of the harshest sentences for drug crimes. Under Rockefeller drug laws, penalty for possessing four ounces of cocaine or heroin or for selling two ounces is a mandatory prison term of 15 years to life. Today, nearly every state and the federal government have some form of mandatory sentencing.

Ronald Reagan

Prioritizes war on drugs, signing three massive drug bills in 1984, 1986 and 1988. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign becomes centerpiece of drug war. Drug laws in 1986 create mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses; creates 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

By early 1990s, nearly 90 percent of crack prosecutions target non-whites. In 1995, the average federal prison term for a crack offense surpasses that for murder.

George H.W. Bush

Spends more money on drug war than every president since Nixon combined. Federal inmate population nearly triples to 80,259, mostly for drug crimes. Roughly 60 percent are Black or Latino. In 1991, Blacks in prison outnumber whites, even though Blacks make up 12 percent of the population.

Bill Clinton

Oversees most intensive incarceration boom in U.S. history, with federal incarceration rates during his term more than that of Bush and Reagan combined. By 2001, 645,135 more Americans are in jail than on Clinton’s inauguration day. Fifty-five percent are Black or Latino.

George W. Bush

As governor of Texas, Bush oversees execution of a record 152 people. After 9/11, Bush targets immigration policy in the name of national security; most of the legal infrastructure was put in place during Clinton era. U.S. Patriot Act of 2001 makes it easier for the government and law enforcement to access private information, detain immigrants and search homes and businesses.

Barack Obama

In August, Obama signs new law reducing the crack/powder cocaine disparity in sentences. He has also pledged to push for immigration reform. Justice Department files lawsuit to block Arizona’s tough new immigration law.

This list  got me thinking about others who should be included in the Incarceration Nation Hall of Shame.   For my money,  I would have to include:

The Corrections Corporation of America — CCA is THE major player in the private prison industry worldwide.  They are politically connected and are an engine driving hyperincarceration.

The U.S. population — American citizens are a key engine in driving the PIC through our general apathy and/or our active complicity with the social oppression that is at the root this phenomenon.

Who would you add to this list?

Sep 15 2010

Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections:Mapping Incarceration, Community Reentry and Public Safety Costs Across 22 States

I am currently on a conference call for the unveiling of a terrific new resource called the Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections.  This is great day for data geeks and people interested in mapping incarceration.

Eric Cadora, founder of The Justice Mapping Center, hosted a national webinar to introduce the National Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections, an online, interactive, mapping utility that provides academics, policy makers and the public a data-driven view of neighborhood patterns of imprisonment, community reentry, probation and parole and corrections spending.

For the first time, policy makers, researchers and the public will have access to in-depth statistics detailing disproportionate incarceration rates, parole and probation revocations, the removal and incarceration of parenting-aged men, and the millions of dollars spent neighborhood-by-neighborhood on imprisonment.

The site is easily navigated.  For a quick example of information that is available, go to the site go to the “documents section” on the site and download PDF examples of specific Atlas Snapshots.  They have collected data from 22 states.  Data will be updated each year and they hope to expand to other states as well.

When you go to the site, click on the actual map on one of the states where data is available.  It provides county by county data and zip code level data.  There is a tutorial for those who need help to navigate the site.  There is a great export function so that you can share your own custom maps.  Below is an example of prison admissions rates in Texas as a map that I exported:

This tool is absolutely fabulous and provides the level of data that many of us need on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis.

Sep 06 2010

Could this EVER Happen in the United States? Netherlands Closing 8 Prisons…

According to Life Means Health:

The Dutch government has announced that it does not have enough prisoners to fill its prisons, and as a result is closing down 8 prisons. Currently, the Netherlands has the capacity for 14,000 prisoners, but only has 12,000 people to fill those jails. The shutting down of these prisons are being attributed to an ever decreasing crime rate in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands has a population of 16.6 million and a prison population of roughly 12,000, putting its percentage of prisoners as 0.07%, whereas the UK’s own prison population is nearly 94,000 (!!!) with a population of 62 million, leaving its percentage as 0.15%, just over twice that of the Netherlands.

The United States has a population of 310 million people and at last count we had over 2.3 million people in our prisons and jails.

The article continues by explaining that the Netherlands lenient drug laws are actually contributing to their steep drop in crime as opposed to the laws in the UK and the US which contribute to a growth in the prison population:

[I]t is estimated that as much as 40% could be in prison for small-time drug crimes which are costing taxpayers billions of dollars every year. In stark contrast, the US is finding that it has to actually open MORE prisons each year while we see the Netherlands is actually being forced to close them. With incentives like Proposition 19 gaining significant traction, and other countries outside the States stating that if Proposition 19 is passed drug reform in the country would occur, a repeat of the events happening in the Netherlands could actually happen in similar smaller countries.

The reason for this would be because state-controlled distribution of marijuana at subsidized prices would cut into illegal drug activites, where huge amounts of crime occur all the way from the cartels to the streets. Violent drug dealers and similar criminals would be driven out of business by the safe, cheap, high quality dispensaries and the community would benefit all round from this.For example, taxing and regulating cannabis would generate up to $1.4 billion in revenue per year for California. Similarly, $200 million of taxpayer money will be saved, due to less inmates in local jails. It is also estimated that California will generate $12-18 billion in spinoff industries such as tourism and coffee houses. The figures would be similar to what Amsterdam currently gets! All these savings could be put towards creating jobs, as it’s estimated that if Prop 19 passes, approximately 100,000 jobs will be created. Passing it would also help fight the Mexican drug cartels and stop the 6k death toll that has occurred this year as a direct result of their actions, as it is estimated that 60% of their income comes from marijuana trafficking.

Aug 30 2010

Racialized Mass Incarceration and the Criminal-Punishment Binge

Lawrence Bobo of Harvard University tackles the issue of racialized mass incarceration in a column at the root.com which is excellent and worth reading.

Bobo makes three major arguments in the piece — the first is that the criminal-punishment binge disproportionately targets poor blacks and has even become the norm:

First, incarceration is so extreme and so biased on the basis of class and race that prison has become an ordinary life experience for poorly educated blacks, in a manner not characteristic of any other segment of American society.

My Harvard colleague sociologist Bruce Western, in his book Punishment and Inequality in America, compared rates of incarceration for two generations of men: those born in the five years immediately following World War II and those born during the height of the Vietnam War era (1965 to 1969).

Black men in the post-World War II generation who did not graduate from high school had a less than one-in-five chance of going to jail or prison by the time they were 30 years old. Similarly educated black men born in the Vietnam era, however, had a three-in-five chance of spending some time in prison by the time they reached the same age. That is, nearly 60 percent of black men in this more recent cohort were destined for jail or prison — a figure that is sure to be worse for the most recent cohorts of poor and poorly educated black men.

This now means that exposure to jail and prison is a more common experience for a generation of poor blacks than is, say, membership in a labor union, service in the military or receipt of a variety of government benefits.

Next he focuses on the high costs of incarceration. Something that I have been blogging about consistently.

Second, the growth in state expenditures on jails and prisons has far outstripped the growth in all other state expenditures, with the exception of Medicaid. A 2009 Pew Center on the States report estimates that, on average, it costs $29,000 a year to house each inmate. In 2007 we spent $49 billion on corrections overall (jails, prisons, and supervision of those on parole and probation). That figure, which is four times what it was a decade earlier, reflects growth over the decade of more than 127 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Next and perhaps most importantly the criminal-punishment binge has not significantly reduced crime:

The best estimates suggest that as little as 5 percent of the decline in crime rates over the last decade-and-a-half can be attributed to the new mass-incarceration society.

Finally, he ends with this point which I think cannot be stated often enough, in fact it should be shouted from the rooftops of every state capitol:

This punitiveness binge would never have gone on for so long or reached such extreme levels if those being swept up into the criminal-justice system weren’t largely black and poor. Whether you call it the carceral state, the fourth stage of racial oppression or the New Jim Crow, the situation is unacceptable.

Read the entire article, it is excellent and concisely lays out the key problems with racialized mass incarceration.