Solitary Confinement: “It’s As If We Want Them to Fail”

Written by Sean Larner Evan Ebel was worried about leaving prison — and reasonably so. His last couple years were spent by himself in a cinderblock cell the size of two queen mattresses. Before his release Ebel wondered, in a … Continue reading

Pick 6 (5/10/2015)

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Hello friends. Happy Mother’s Day! We’re back with our weekly feature–Pick 6. Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We welcome your thoughts and feedback, so don’t be shy!

1.) How Baltimore and cities like it hold back poor black children as they grow up (Washington Post)

“Every year a poor boy spends growing up in Baltimore, this research found, his earnings as an adult fall by 1.5 percent. Add up an entire childhood, and that means a 26-year-old man in Baltimore earns about 28 percent less than he would if he had grown up somewhere in average America. And that’s a whole lot less than the very same child would earn if he had grown up, 50 miles away, in Fairfax County.

That one result — among data Chetty and Hendren have calculated for every county in America — marks a remarkable convergence this week of slow-going social science and current events. If young men in Baltimore who have been protesting for the last two weeks are lashing out at a long legacy of inherited disadvantage, they are also reacting to a reality today that empirical data now confirms: Baltimore is a terrible place to grow up as a poor black boy.”

2.) Chicago to Pay $5.5 Million in Reparations for Police Torture Victims (Rolling Stone)

“We’re the first municipality in the history of the country to make reparations for racialized police torture and violence, and I hope that other jurisdictions and other municipalities follow suit,” Mariame Kaba, founding director of Project NIA, an organization that helped push through the reparations, tells Rolling Stone. “It’s one thing to sue civilly for money and damages. It’s another thing to insist that people receive care for the trauma they’ve experienced. It’s another thing to insist that people get education and their kids benefit and grandkids benefit. It’s another thing to really focus on the importance of memorializing the harm done, the atrocities visited upon real people.”

3.) The Painful Price of Aging in Prison (Washington Post)

Also see: Older Prisoners, Higher Costs (The Marshall Project)

“Harsh sentencing policies, including mandatory minimums, continue to have lasting consequences for inmates and the nation’s prison system. Today, prisoners 50 and older represent the fastest-growing population in crowded federal correctional facilities, their ranks having swelled by 25 percent to nearly 31,000 from 2009 to 2013.”

4.) Are We Witnessing an Emergence of a Black Spring? (Ebony)

Equal Justice Society board vice chair Priscilla Ocen co-authored this must-read piece on the emergence of a ‪#‎BlackSpring‬

“The description of the Arab Spring could just as easily apply to the mobilizations in the United States, in Ferguson, in New York and now in Baltimore. The similarities between these movements have not escaped the notice of many activists in the United States, as they see the connections between the conditions they confront in poor Black neighborhoods, the eruption of protests in American cities, and the resistance efforts of peoples in the Arab World. For these activists, the protest movements in places like Baltimore signal the rise of a “Black Spring,” a kindred movement spurred by many of the same structural symptoms and subhuman conditions that ignited the popular protests in the Arab World.

5.) Inquiry to Examine Racial Bias in the San Francisco Police (New York Times)

Time to investigate…
“Blacks make up about 5% of the city’s population, but account for half of its inmates and more than 60% of the children in juvenile detention.”

6.) Clinton on incarceration: ‘We cast too wide a net’ (KRGV)

‘Clinton signed into law an omnibus crime bill in 1994 that included the federal “three strikes” provision, mandating life sentences for criminals convicted of a violent felony after two or more prior convictions, including drug crimes. On Wednesday, Clinton acknowledged that policy’s role in over-incarceration in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.”

For Mother’s Day

+1) What It’s Like to Visit Your Mom in Prison on Mother’s Day (Mother Jones)

+1) The New Mothers in Bedford Hills (The Marshall Project)

+1) Ella Baker Center Mama’s Day 2015

Audio of the week) #BlackLivesMatter: Alicia Garza on the Origins of a Movement (RadioProject.org)

“Black Lives Matter. This simple phrase has become the motto of a growing movement calling for true justice and equalty for black people. Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, first typed out those three words back in 2013. In March of 2015, Alicia Garza visited the University of Southern Maine to tell the story of how Black Lives Matter came to be, and express her hopes for where it’s headed. We hear her speech.”

Report of the week) TURNING ON THE TAP: How Returning Access to Tuition Assistance for Incarcerated People Improves the Health of New Yorkers (forthcoming May 12th)

Quote of the week) “Mass incarceration is ahistorical, criminogenic, inefficient, and racist,” Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center from The Milwaukee Experiment (The New Yorker)

Image of the week)

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 7.55.16 PM

#BlackLivesMatter #BlackSpring

Pick 6 (4/17/15)

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Hi friends. Again it is Friday, so again it is time for our weekly Pick 6! Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We welcome any and all thoughts or feedback, so don’t be shy!

1.) John Legend Launches Campaign to End Mass Incarceration (AP)

From the AP: “John Legend has launched a campaign to end mass incarceration. The Grammy-winning singer announced the multiyear initiative, FREE AMERICA, on Monday…”We have a serious problem with incarceration in this country,” Legend said in an interview. “It’s destroying families, it’s destroying communities and we’re the most incarcerated country in the world, and when you look deeper and look at the reasons we got to this place, we as a society made some choices politically and legislatively, culturally to deal with poverty, deal with mental illness in a certain way and that way usually involves using incarceration…I’m just trying to create some more awareness to this issue and trying to make some real change legislatively.”

2.) Are you running for President? Please answer these questions about the criminal justice system. (Washington Post)

Thus far, Hilary Clinton (D), Ted Cruz (R), Marco Rubio (R), and Rand Paul (R) have announced their candidacies for President of the United States. Radley Balko, author of the book “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces,” has strung together a “quick and dirty list of [criminal justice related] questions” that he’d like to see 2016 Presidential candidates answer.

3.) Federal Prosecutor Tries a Radical Tactic in the Drug War: Not Throwing People in Prison (Huffington Post)

“[South Carolina’s top] U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles is testing out a novel approach to dealing with drug-related crime, one that aims to clean up the streets by looking beyond mass arrests and incarceration…If the program’s success continues in South Carolina, it could become a model for law enforcement across the country…Nettles’ plan is surprisingly straightforward. First, federal and local prosecutors identify local drug dealers with the help of the police, probation officers and community members. Next, they build criminal cases against them by reviewing records for outstanding warrants and conducting undercover drug buys. In most cases, arresting all the dealers would be the next order of business, but Nettles has a different idea. While high-level dealers are still arrested and prosecuted, some low-level offenders are given another option. For them, Nettles stages something of an intervention. Together with the police, family members, religious leaders and other members of the community, prosecutors present the dealers with the evidence against them and give them a choice: Face the prospect of prison or participate in the pilot project. The program, officially known as the Drug Market Intervention Initiative, helps the dealers find legitimate jobs and offers them help with drug treatment, education and transportation. The hope is that it provides them with the support and the motivation they need to turn their lives around.”

4.) Driver’s License Suspension Create Cycle of Debt (New York Times)

“The last time Kenneth Seay lost his job, at an industrial bakery that offered health insurance and Christmas bonuses, it was because he had been thrown in jail for legal issues stemming from a revoked driver’s license. Same with the three jobs before that. In fact, Mr. Seay said, when it comes to gainful employment, it is not his criminal record that is holding him back — he did time for dealing drugs — but the $4,509.22 in fines, court costs and reinstatement fees he must pay to recover his license. Mr. Seay’s inability to pay those costs has trapped him in a cycle that thousands of other low-income Tennesseans are struggling to escape. Going through the legal system, even for people charged with nonviolent misdemeanors, can be expensive, with fines, public defender fees, probation fees and other costs running into hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. Many people cannot pay. As a result, some states have begun suspending driver’s licenses for unsatisfied debts stemming from any criminal case, from misdemeanors like marijuana possession to felonies in which court costs can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars. In Tennessee, almost 90,000 driver’s licenses have been suspended since its law was enacted in 2011…Many defendants are forced to choose between paying court debt or essentials like utility bills and child support. Mr. Seay said his tax refund this year went toward child support debt accumulated during his time in prison and periods of unemployment. For even low-level offenders, debt can make a valid license unattainable…In Tennessee, judges have the discretion to waive court fees and fines for indigent defendants, but they do not have to, and some routinely refuse. Judges also have wide discretion over how much time to allow defendants to pay traffic tickets before suspending a license.”

5.) The Legal Right to Videotape Police Isn’t Actually All that Clear (City Lab)

From The Atlantic’s City Lab: “Last Saturday, a Dominican immigrant named Feidin Santana used his phone to record video of North Charleston police officer Michael Slager firing his gun eight times and killing Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was running away. Slager has been charged with murder. Santana, who is being celebrated as a hero, has since said that he was terrified and thought about erasing the video. He had reason to be afraid. What if police had assaulted or arrested Santana, or destroyed his phone?…[T]he truth is that courts have not uniformly recognized that a right to record police actually exists. Though the U.S. Department of Justice has expressed its support for the right to record, only four federal appeals courts have ruled that such a right exists; others have either not ruled at all or narrowly ruled that no right had been “clearly established.” Until a right to record police is in fact clearly established, some officers will continue to act against bystanders who record them with impunity.” (Related: California Senate seeks to clarify right to video police conduct)

6.) D.C. Council rejects Corizon Health contract after lobbying battle (Washington Post)

Last month, R&R Legal Fellow Dominik Taylor blogged about the deadly consequences of for-profit prison healthcare. Dominik specifically mentioned Corizon Health’s failings in Alabama and in Alameda County, California. Our last Pick this week is an update on Corizon Health and the movement to improve healthcare for incarcerated people. From the Washington Post: “The D.C. Council on Tuesday rejected a controversial health-care contract proposed for the city’s jail after weeks of fierce arguments and heavy lobbying by supporters and opponents. The council’s 6-to-5 vote against a $66 million proposal by Corizon Health marked a high-profile defeat for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who had supported the contract….Contract opponents cast the decision as a victory for inmate care and a rejection of a company mired in legal troubles in other states, including several high-profile wrongful-death lawsuits. David Grosso (I) said that if getting the best possible care for the city’s inmates is the objective, then “contracting with a for-profit, scandal-prone company is not the way for us to get there.” 

Report of the week) Stop and Frisk in Chicago (ACLU of Illinois)

From the executive summary of our report of the week: “Chicago has failed to train, supervise and monitor law enforcement in minority communities for decades, resulting in a failure to ensure that officers’ use of stop and frisk is lawful. This report contains troubling signs that the Chicago Police Department has a current practice of unlawfully using stop and frisk: Although officers are required to write down the reason for stops, in nearly half of the stops we reviewed, officers either gave an unlawful reason for the stop or failed to provide enough information to justify the stop. Stop and frisk is disproportionately concentrated in the black community. Black Chicagoans were subjected to 72% of all stops, yet constitute just 32% of the city’s population. And, even in majority white police districts, minorities were stopped disproportionately to the number of minority people living in those districts. Chicago stops a shocking number of people. Last summer, there were more than 250,000 stops that did not lead to an arrest. Comparing stops to population, Chicagoans were stopped more than four times as often as New Yorkers at the height of New York City’s stop and frisk practice. In the face of a systemic abuse of this law enforcement practice, Chicago refuses to keep adequate data about its officers’ stops…This failure to record data makes it impossible for police supervisors, or the public, to identify bad practices and make policy changes to address them.”

Extra of the week) Letter from Birmingham Jail (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

52 years ago this week (4/16/1963) Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.The letter defends his strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism. King declares that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws, and to take direct action rather than waiting potentially forever for justice to come through the courts. King famously wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (Related: What if MLK’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” Had Been a Facebook Post?)

Take a few moments this weekend to read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Or if your prefer, here is audio of King reading the letter. Enjoy. #BlackLivesMatter

Pick 6 (4/3/15)

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Hi friends. Friday=time for our weekly Pick 6! Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We welcome your thoughts and feedback, so don’t be shy!

1.) Sixteen states have more people in prison cells than college dorms (The Grio)

David A. Love of The Grio writes, “As was reported in MetricMaps, there are 16 states where there are more bodies filling up the prisons than there are students living in college dormitories.  What is truly fascinating, maybe even disturbing, is that nearly all of these 16 states are located in the South, the bottom portion of the country…Let than sink in for a minute.  More people behind bars than in the dorms. What could it be about the South that would explain this?  Could it be a tradition of slavery, racial violence and Jim Crow segregation, a legacy of criminalizing and dehumanizing people and of just not treating folks very well?…It is no accident that the states which imprison the most – including the Deep South — are among the poorest and find themselves at the bottom of the barrel in terms of life expectancy, health standards and education. After all, Dixie has a great deal of experience with depriving people of educational opportunity when it forbade blacks to read and write, in favor of imprisoning them against their will on slave plantations. In addition, the Slave Codes created a police state that criminalized black people and singled them out for punishment. And the era of Jim Crow segregation only continued the racial oppression and the forced labor and imprisonment, even up until the present day.”

Corrections vs. College

2.) Woman who killed man she said abused her can’t escape felony past (Washington Post)

Fredrick Kunkle of the Washington Post reports, “Shari L. Thomas went to prison more than 25 years ago for killing the man who she said had abused her as a child. She used her time there to remake herself, becoming the first woman in Virginia to obtain a college degree behind bars. She earned a master’s degree in biotechnology after her release. She has kept her record clean since, managing research laboratories for major hospitals and pharmaceutical companies. In the past few years, perhaps because of the nation’s abiding fear of crime, its litigiousness, or the Internet’s ease at churning up background information that may not have surfaced before, Thomas has been rejected or terminated from several high-paying jobs. She had been making $150,000 six years ago. Now she is on food stamps…She could lose her Cecil County, Md., home. “I came home and got my
master’s degree,” said Thomas, 50. “I’d been working 18 years with no problem. When is enough enough?… And yet even now, her criminal record has the power to reach through time, upending her life…“I just feel like the punishment never ends,” 

3.) California’s Death Row has just about run out of room (KCRW-Los Angeles)

Darrell Satzman reports, “More than 750 inmates in California have been condemned to death. But no one in this state has been executed in nearly a decade – and with new inmates arriving every month, Death Row has just about run out of space. Gov. Jerry Brown is asking the Legislature for more than $3 million to open 100 new cells for condemned men at San Quentin Prison. The request is included in Brown’s $113 billion budget proposal…There are currently 731 men and 20 women on Death Row in California. Almost all of the men are at San Quentin, while the women are housed at a prison in Chowchilla.”

4.) Poverty Shrinks Brains from Birth (Scientific American)

According to new studies conducted by a team led by neuroscientists Kimberly Noble from Columbia University in New York City and Elizabeth Sowell from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, California, The stress of growing up poor can hurt a child’s brain development starting before birth, research suggests—and even very small differences in income can have major effects on the brain. Researchers have long suspected that children’s behavior and cognitive abilities are linked to their socioeconomic status, particularly for those who are very poor. The reasons have never been clear, although stressful home environments, poor nutrition, exposure to industrial chemicals such as lead and lack of access to good education are often cited as possible factors…Still, the researchers are hopeful that the impacts could be reversible through interventions such as providing better child care and nutrition. Research in humans and in other animals suggests that is the case: a study in Mexico, for instance, showed that supplementing poor families’ income improved their children’s cognitive and language skills within 18 months. “It’s important for the message not to be that if you’re poor your brain is smaller and will be smaller forever,” Sowell says.”

5.) The rise of the working poor and the non-working rich (Baltimore Sun)

In an opinion piece for the Baltimore Sun, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, Robert Reich writes, “Many believe that poor people deserve to be poor because they’re lazy…In reality, a large and growing share of the nation’s poor work full time — sometimes 60 or more hours a week — yet still don’t earn enough to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. It’s also commonly believed, especially among Republicans, that the rich deserve their wealth because they work harder than others. In reality, a large and growing portion of the super-rich have never broken a sweat. Their wealth has been handed to them. The rise of these two groups — the working poor and non-working rich — is relatively new. Both are challenging the core American assumptions that people are paid what they’re worth, and work is justly rewarded. Six of today’s 10 wealthiest Americans are heirs to prominent fortunes. The Walmart heirs alone have more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans combined…Americans who became enormously wealthy over the last three decades are now busily transferring that wealth to their children and grandchildren. The nation is on the cusp of the largest inter-generational transfer of wealth in history. A study by the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy projects a total of $59 trillion passed down to heirs between 2007 and 2061. As the French economist Thomas Piketty reminds us, this is the kind of dynastic wealth that’s kept Europe’s aristocracy going for centuries. It’s about to become the major source of income for a new American aristocracy…That widening inequality — combined with the increasing numbers of people who work full time but are still impoverished and of others who have never worked and are fabulously wealthy — is undermining the moral foundations of American capitalism.”

6.) The poor are treated like criminals everywhere, even at the grocery store (Washington Post)

In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, Jeanine Grant Lister writes, “Anger toward those living below the poverty line seems to only be increasing. Maine and Missouri have proposed bills limiting residents’ food choices if they use SNAP. Missouri House Bill 813 would bar the state’s 930,000 food stamp recipients from using their benefits to buy cookies, chips, soda, energy drinks, steak and seafood. (The legislature also implemented mandatory drug testing for TANF applicants in 2011.) If the bill becomes law, a Missourian can’t buy a can of tuna with an EBT card. Tortilla chips to go with salsa? Nope. Flank steak — tough, stringy and the only cut of beef I can afford — is off limits, too. Who are these people, and what makes them think that what we eat is their business? And given that the average food stamp allotment in my state in 2013 came out to just $1.41 per person per meal, I wonder if they understand that recipients couldn’t buy lobster if they wanted to. In America today, being poor is tantamount to a criminal offense, one that costs you a number of rights and untold dignities, including, apparently, the ability to determine what foods you can put on the dinner table. It’s as if middle-class and wealthy Americans think poor people live under the poverty line by choice, as if a sensible person would choose to subsist on so little. We’re barely getting by. Don’t tell us what to buy at the grocery store.”

+1) Does barbaric Georgia prison cell photo depict an American Abu Ghraib? (Christian Science Monitor)

Patrik Jonsson reports, “A shocking prison photo of inmates taken at a Georgia correctional facility could intensify a halting effort in the United States to alleviate poor prison conditions that can lead to unchecked barbarism likened to an American Abu Ghraib. The picture from Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, Ga., shows three young and shirtless African-American male prisoners. One of them is pointing at the camera as though holding a gun, another is holding a makeshift leash, and the third, an 18-year-old, is on his knees, his left eye closed from a beating, and the leash lashed around his neck…“I think this picture can go a long way toward galvanizing a discussion about what prisons are for – particularly, does anybody believe that these men are deterred by prison?” says Jonathan Simon, a University of California, Berkeley law professor and author of “Mass Incarceration on Trial.” “You have to ask yourself: If the basic story that we tell ourselves is that it’s all about laws and sending people to prison because they violated laws and harmed other people, how can we possibly justify sending them to a place where that is happening to them?” Professor Simon says.”

+2) Obama Commutes 22 Drug Sentences, Instantly Doubling The Number of Commutations He’s Issued (Huffington Post)

“President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 22 individuals on Tuesday, more than doubling the number of commutations he has issued in the six-plus years he’s been in office. The men and women granted the reprieves had been imprisoned under an “outdated sentencing regime,” the administration concluded. Eight of the 22 inmates had been sentenced to life imprisonment and would have died behind bars. “Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement shared in advance with The Huffington Post. “Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years — in some cases more than a decade — longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime.” The president sent a letter to each of the commutation recipients encouraging them to take advantage of their post-prison opportunity. An administration official said that this was the first time Obama has sent such letters during his presidency.”

Infographic of the WeekEconomic Benefits of Closing Academic Achievement Gaps (Center for American Progress)

From the Center for American Progress come this compelling infographic that, “demonstrate[s] the benefits of closing the achievement gap.  Despite the fact that 50.3 percent of students in public K-12 classrooms across America are children of color, black and Hispanic children are still far more likely than non-Hispanic white children to grow up in poverty. And on average, children of color score lower on math and science tests than their non-Hispanic white peers. These two trends are not coincidence; families’ financial security affects children’s ability to reach their academic potential. These children are the future of our workforce, and we need to ensure that they are equipped with the skills our future economy needs.”

Pick 6 (3/20/2015)

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Hello friends. We’re back with our weekly feature–Pick 6. Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week.

As you may have noticed, our Pick 6 now has a new logo!!! The new Pick 6 logo features a hand picking a fruit off a tree, while another fruit is inscribed with a “6.” This new logo is ripe with symbolism (pun intended): the tree represents knowledge; the fruit represents a sweet reward; and the upward-reaching hand represents all of us who continue to simultaneously reach for both greater knowledge and justice. Here’s to hoping that we can continually educate ourselves about and work to eradicate the problems within our criminal justice system, so that we may be rewarded with justice for all…

Our new logo was created by Amira Taylor, a very creative and talented Mass Communications major at Old Dominion University [she’s also R&R Legal Fellow Dominik Taylor’s little sister]. You can follow Amira on Twitter @ataylor28

As always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback, so don’t be shy!

1.) US lawmakers introduce bill to restore voting rights to ex-convicts (Al Jazeera America)

On Wednesday, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Representative (John Conyers (D-MI) introduced a new bill in both houses of Congress. If enacted, the bill, The Democracy Restoration Act, will restore voting rights in federal elections to nearly 4.4 million U.S. citizens with criminal convictions. Deborah J. Vagins of the ACLU stated, “Millions of American citizens are without a political voice in federal elections because the current patchwork of laws that disenfranchise people with criminal records has created an inconsistent and unfair electoral process.” As we told you last week, largely because of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, 1 in 13 African Americans in the country are barred from voting. Of the 5.85 million Americans barred from voting, only 25% are currently in prison. 35 states currently have laws that bar people from voting if they are on parole. 31 states have laws that disenfranchise people on felony probation. In 11 states, a felony conviction results in life-time disenfranchisement. As a federal law, the Democracy Restoration Act, if enacted, will preempt state disenfranchisement laws, ending felony disenfranchisement as we know it. Here’s more information on felony disenfranchisement.

2.) Racial tensions flare at U-Va. after arrest of black student (Washington Post)

Racial tensions flared and over 1000 students marched in protest at the University of Virginia, after white Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) officers violently arrested a black UVA student outside of a popular pub early Thursday morning. 20 year old Martese Johnson–an honors student and elected member of UVA’s prestigious Honor Committee–was battered, bloodied, and arrested by ABC officers after Johnson was denied admission into a local pub for allegedly showing a fake ID. UVA president Teresa A. Sullivan told the Washington Post that, “Getting arrested shouldn’t involve getting stitches.” Cellphone videos of the incident show Johnson laying facedown on the ground with a stream of blood running down his face as numerous officers aggressively place his hands in cuffs. Johnson is heard repeatedly crying out, “How could this happen?” Johnson required ten stitches for his injuries. The UVA protests mark the latest protests in the growing #BlackLivesMatter movement. For more on this story, you can go here or here.

3.) I Was Alabama’s Top Judge. I’m Ashamed by What I Had to Do to Get There: How Money is ruining America’s courts (Politico Magazine)

In a piece for Politico Magazine, Sue Bell Cobb, former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court speaks out against judicial elections. Cobb writes, “In Alabama, you don’t get to mete out justice without spending millions of dollars. I had my money; my opponent had his . . . The amounts are utterly obscene. In Alabama, would-be judges are allowed to ask for money directly. We can make calls not just to the usual friends and family but to lawyers who have appeared before us, lawyers who are likely to appear before us, officials with companies who may very well have interests before the court. And I did. Where do you draw the line? . . . When a judge asks a lawyer who appears in his or her court for a campaign check, it’s about as close as you can get to legalized extortion.”

4.) Missouri executes Cecil Clayton, state’s oldest death-row inmate (The Guardian)

On Tuesday, Missouri executed mentally impaired Cecil Clayton, who due to a 1972 work accident, was missing 20% of the frontal lobe of his brain. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that, under the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, it is unconstitutional to put to death an intellectually disabled person. Medical experts found that Clayton was intellectually disabled with an IQ of 71. Despite this, the U.S. Supreme Court denied to hear his case.

5.) Did the US Prison Boom Lead to the Crime Drop? New Study Says No. (The Intercept)

In Louisiana, 1 in 75 adults is incarcerated. This is twice the national average. This statistic has lead to Louisiana’s reputation as “the world’s prison capital.” A new study from the Brennan Center for Justice shows that Louisiana’s high incarceration rate results from harsh sentencing, brutal mandatory minimums, and a large percentage of inmates servicing sentences of life without parole. But as Lauren-Brooke Eisen of the Brennan Center notes, mass incarceration in Louisiana (and elsewhere) can be counterproductive. Eisen states, “There is no evidence that locking more people up makes America safer.”

6.) The Untold Narrative of Black Men in the United States (Center for American Progress)

A new study by the Center for American Progress finds that, “While the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow continue to plague black men and the black community as a whole, there has been great improvement in terms of education, employment, and income, among other areas.”

The report concludes that of fathers who live with their children, black fathers are more likely to be intimately involved in their children’s lives. Black men are more likely to bathe, dress, diaper, and assist their children in the bathroom than fathers in all other demographic groups. The study also shows that black fathers living with their children are more likely to help them with homework on a daily basis than fathers of other demographic groups. As this study demonstrates, it is time for negative stereotypes of black males as absent fathers to end.

Report of the week: Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition (Center for Community Alternatives)

The Center for Community Alternatives and Education From The Inside Out Coalition recently published a new case study that, “makes clear how the criminal history box on college applications and the supplemental requirements and procedures that follow create barriers to higher education for otherwise qualified applicants.” While the report focuses on the State University of New York system, the report has national implications, as the procedures and requirements of the SUNY system are reflective of procedures followed by colleges and universities nationwide.

Update: UN panel to consider US ‘failure’ to clear up racial murders of the civil rights era (The Guardian)

Last month, we told you about a report by the Equal Justice Initiative that argued that the lynching of African Americans was terrorism and a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation. On Thursday (3/19), the United Nations human rights council held a special meeting where the United States Department of Justice was accused of failing to account for hundreds of African Americans who disappeared or were lynched in the deep south during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Ed Pilkington writes that, “The UN spotlight falls at a time of rising concern about the unresolved nature of America’s sordid history of race killings. It follows the recent publication of a study by the Equal Justice Initiative that identified almost 4,000 lynchings in the country between 1877 and 1950 – vastly more than previously reported.”

Update: Audit: SDPD flaws led to misconduct (San Diego Union-Tribune)

Last month we told you about a report by San Diego County’s District Attorney’s Office that analyzed and detailed police officer-involved shootings in San Diego County from 1993-2012. On Tuesday, the Police Executive Research Forum (overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice) released the findings of a year-long review of the San Diego Police Department. The auditors offered 40 policy-based recommendations to correct the systematic flaws within SDPD. This independent audit found “serious gaps in supervision and discipline that allowed officer sexual misconduct and other offenses to go undetected for months and even years.”

Pick 6 (3/13/15)

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Hello friends. It’s Friday the 13th…so you know what that means…it’s time for our weekly Pick 6! Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We always welcome thoughts and feedback, so don’t be shy!

1.) In response to Ferguson probe, Cleaver to introduce bill to curb policing for revenue (Washington Post)

Last week we told you about the recently released U.S. Department of Justice report into the policing and court practices in Ferguson, Missouri. DOJ investigators determined that “in nearly every aspect of Ferguson’s law enforcement system,” African Americans are disparately impacted. On Wednesday, 3/11/15, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson resigned, seven months after Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown. Early Thursday morning, two St. Louis area police officers were shot in Ferguson by an unknown gunman, as protesters peacefully gathered outside police headquarters. Peaceful protests continued in Ferguson on Thursday night and a candlelight vigil was held for the two officers, who have been released from the hospital.

Amidst the continued tension in Ferguson, Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver (D-MO) announced his plans to propose a bill called The Fair Justice Act. While the bill will likely face steep opposition from House Republicans, if enacted, The Fair Justice Act would make it a federal civil rights violation punishable by up to five years in prison for a police officer, chief, or department to enforce criminal or traffic laws for the purpose of raising revenue. Clever and Representative Lacy Clay (D-MO) also announced that they are offering a cash reward to anyone with information that leads to the arrest of “those responsible” for Thursday’s shooting.

2.) 3 Unarmed Black Men Killed By Police Officers In 4 Days (Think Progress)

As peaceful protests continue in Ferguson, Missouri, 3 unarmed African American men have been killed by police officers in a 4 day span. Unarmed Naeschylus Vinzant was shot and killed in Aurora, Colorado last Friday. In Madison, Wisconsin, unarmed Tony Robinson was also shot and killed by a police officer last Friday. And on Monday, outside Atlanta, Georgia, unarmed Anthony Hill was shot and killed by a police officer. As Carimah Townes of Think Progress notes, “research suggests that bias may inform officers’ split-second decisions to use lethal force. Furthermore, officers associate black faces with criminal behavior and are more likely to view African Americans as threatening.”

3.) UN expert slams US as only nation to imprison kids for life without parole (Al Jazeera America)

As Natasja Sheriff reports, the United States was singled out Monday by a United Nations expert on torture for being the only country in the world that continues to sentence children to life in prison without parole. The usage of life sentences without parole on children is banned by several international laws, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the U.N. Convention Against Torture, and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Child. The U.S. and South Sudan are the only two U.N. countries that have signed, but not ratified, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Child. In 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger convicted of homicide are unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

4.) Fix felon voting law, Washington County attorney says (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

In Minnesota, state law currently forbids convicted felons from voting while on probation, parole, or any other form of community supervision. This will all change if a recently proposed bill passes. The bill, which has bipartisan support, would grant voting rights to convicted felons who are on probation, parole, or community supervision. If enacted, the bill will restore the right to vote in the 47,000 Minnesotans under probation or parole. 18 states currently allow people on probation or parole to vote. Here’s more information on felony disenfranchisement, which has resulted in 1 of every 13 African Americans, nationwide, being unable to vote.

5.) Barred from Church (The Marshall Project)

Last month, Graham County, North Carolina sheriff announced that registered sex offenders could not attend church services in his county. Graham County consists of 9000 people and has 20 registered sex offenders. As noted by Maurice Chammah of The Marshall Project, this “policy taps into a much larger issue faced by states, counties, and churches throughout the country as they implement often sweeping and strict laws meant to prevent sex crimes: Can sex offenders attend church? And is denying them the ability to do so a violation of their rights?” North Carolina’s ACLU is currently reviewing Graham County’s policy.

6.) Why Was An FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force Tracking A Black Lives Matter Protest? (The Intercept)

The Intercept recently obtained an email confirming that members of an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force tracked the time and location of a Black Lives Matter protest last December at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. According to the FBI’s website, the FBI Joint Terrorism Taskforce operates in 104 cities nationwide and serves as “our nation’s front line to terrorism.” A spokesperson for the FBI told The Intercept that the FBI has no interest in the Black Lives Matter movement. Despite the FBI spokesperson’s denial, this news sounds eerily similar to J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s efforts to track the personal lives of  Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and other prominent members of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

#blacklivesmatter

(+1) Jennifer Lobato’s Jail Death: Sheriff Admits She Didn’t Need To Die (Westword)

Last week, R&R’s blog featured a story about the dangers (and horrors) of the for-profit prison healthcare industry. In this week’s final Pick, we bring you the story of Jennifer Lobato, a 38-year-old mother of seven who recently died in a Jefferson County, Colorado Jail. Lobato was booked into the Jefferson County jail on March 1. At the time of her booking, Lobato was going through heroin withdrawals. Lobato denied using drugs during her intake screening and the jail’s medical team did not realize that Lobato was going through withdrawals. The next morning, as her withdrawals worsened, Lobato informed a jail deputy that she was going through heroin withdrawals. The deputy informed the medical staff. But the medical staff did nothing. As Lobato’s condition grew worse and worse, fellow inmates informed the deputies that Lobato was vomiting “virtually nonstop.” Still, Lobato received no medical attention and she died in her cell that night. In a local t.v. interview following Lobato’s death, Jefferson County Sheriff, Jeff Shrader, responded, “No, no,” when asked whether Lobato needed to die in jail. Shrader also replied, “That is correct,” when asked whether it was true that Lobato was left in her cell for 10 hours despite numerous inmate complaints about her condition. Last December, a jury awarded  former Jefferson County inmate, Ken McGill, $11 million in a lawsuit stemming from the substandard provision of care after McGill suffered a stroke. Correctional Healthcare Companies, Inc. provides healthcare in Jefferson County.

Thanks for reading!

The R&R Team

Pick 6 (3/6/2015)

pick 6

Hello friends. Friday=time for our weekly Pick 6! Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We welcome your thoughts and feedback, so don’t be shy! And Happy Women’s History Month, by the way!

1.) 50 years after Bloody Sunday, Voting Rights Are under Attack (The Nation)

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965. But even as President Obama and former President George W. Bush travel to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the marches that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, voting rights are still under attack in 2015. As Ari Berman writes, from 2011 to 2015, 395 new voting restrictions have been introduced in 49 states (Idaho being the lone exception). 25 states have adopted measures making it harder to vote. And due to the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder, the states with the worst histories of voter discrimination (such as Alabama), no longer have to obtain “federal preclearance” before implementing changes to their voting laws or practices. With the anniversary of Bloody Sunday nearing, Berman reports that Congresswoman Terri Sewell of Selma recently told him, “My hope is that . . . people will recommit themselves to restore the teeth back into the Voting Rights Act . . . the biggest tribute that we can give to those [Bloody Sunday marchers] is fully restoring the Voting Rights Act.”

2.) The 12 key highlights from the DOJ’s scathing Ferguson report (Washington Post)

Seven months after Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown, the U.S. Department of Justice has released a report into policing and court practices in Ferguson. DOJ investigators determined that “in nearly every aspect of Ferguson’s law enforcement system,” African Americans are disparately impacted. DOJ’s report details frequent Fourth Amendment violations, stunning racial disparities in police traffic stops and use of force, and a law enforcement system that is shaped by “revenue rather than by public safety needs.” Despite only making up 67% of Ferguson’s population, African Americans accounted for 85% of police stop, 90% of traffic citations, and 93% of arrests from 2012-2014. The DOJ report states that “our investigation has revealed that these disparities occur, at least in part, because of unlawful bias against and stereotypes about African Americans.” You can read the full DOJ report here.

3.) Out of Trouble, but Criminal Records Keep Me Out of Work (New York Times)

Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times chronicles the story of Michael Hugh Mirsky, a formerly incarcerated New Jersey resident, whose story is representative of the plight faced by millions of formerly incarcerated Americans. Appelbaum writes that, “The reluctance of employers to hire people with criminal records combined with laws that place broad categories of jobs off-limits, is not just a frustration for men [and women] like Mr. Mirsky; it is also taking a toll on the broader economy. It is preventing millions of American men from becoming, in that old phrase, productive members of society.”

4.) WH Task Force: All police shootings should be independently review (Washington Post)

A report by a White House Task Force charged with investigating and probing the strained and deteriorated relationship between police and the communities that they ostensibly protect was delivered to President Obama on Monday. The report calls for independent review of all police shootings, more body cameras on police officers, re-training for most officers, greater transparency by police departments (including better record keeping about police use of force), and an acknowledgement by law enforcement of “the role of policing in past and present injustice and discrimination and how it is a hurdle to the promotion of community trust.”

5.) Dying inmates may appeal court decisions against early release (Los Angeles Times)

On Thursday, the California Supreme Court unanimously decided that dying prisoners may appeal a judge’s decision refusing them an early release (known as a “compassionate release”). This ruling by California’s high court overturns an appellate court decision that held that only the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or the parole board could challenge a trial court’s decision to deny compassionate release to an inmate. California requires that any inmate requesting compassionate release have a doctor’s report stating that the inmate has fewer than six months to live (amongst other requirements).

6.) NYU Launches Prison Education Program Backed by Ford Foundation Grant (Newswise)

New York University has recently launched an initiative to bring college education to incarcerated individuals at Wallkill Correctional Facility in Ulster County, New York. Through a $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, NYU’s Prison Education Program (PEP) will allow incarcerated students to earn credits towards an Associate of Arts degree from NYU. Once released, the students will be able continue their education at NYU or transfer their credits to another institution. This spring, the PEP program has 36 students enrolled. These students will have an option of taking five courses that “offer both intensive liberal arts study and introductory courses from NYU’s professional schools.”

Audio of the week: High Hurdle to College for Ex-Offenders (WNYC & The Marshall Project)

Check out this short podcast and the accompanying article. This joint effort by WNYC and The Marshall Project details a “Ban the Box” campaign to prevent colleges from asking applicants whether they have a criminal record. Currently, over half of the nation’s colleges ask applicants whether or not they have ever been convicted of a crime. This podcast/article describes the work of the non-profit Center for Community Alternatives, which argues that asking applicants about their criminal history “discourage[s] would-be applicants who feel stigmatized, and is often the precursor to an applicant process full of extra hurdles for people with records.”

Bonus: Selma still struggling with social segregation, unemployment & crime 50 years after Bloody Sunday (al.com)

50 years after Bloody Sunday, the fight against segregation and discrimination is still not over in Selma, Alabama. As one Selma native puts it, “There’s still a residue of segregation, or a ‘my side of town, your side of town,” [the population of west Selma remains almost entirely white, while the east side’s population is almost entirely black] . . . The events that happened in Selma (on Bloody Sunday) make it more of a contradiction because this should be more of a utopian society for blacks and whites.” As Conner Sheets of al.com reports, “not only is the populace of Selma effectively segregated geographically, but the city’s residents still mostly segregate themselves in social settings as well.” White flight and the exodus of once booming industry have “left most of the city’s remaining black population struggling to achieve upward mobility and start businesses and families . . . many residents are still suffering from the wounds inflicted during the Jim Crow era, which are still visible today in the sorry state of Selma’s public schools, crime rate and economic vitality.”

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, let us not forget that we still have so much more work to do . . .

For Selma (by Langston Hughes)

In places like
Selma, Alabama,
Kids say,
In places like
Chicago and New York…
In places like
Chicago and New York
Kids say,
In places like
London and Paris…
In places like
London and Paris
Kids say,
In places like
Chicago and New York…

Pick 6 (2/27/15)

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Hello friends. Friday=time for our weekly Pick 6! Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We welcome your thoughts and feedback, so don’t be shy!

1.) The disappeared: Chicago police detain Americans at abuse-laden ‘black site’ (The Guardian)

In an exclusive, Spencer Ackerman of the Guardian describes the horrific treatment of detainees at a secretive, off-the-books interrogation”black site” known as Homan Square. Homan Square is a “nondescript warehouse,” but it isn’t located at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib . . . it’s located on the west side of Chicago and is operated by the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Among the alleged atrocities committed by CPD are: keeping arrestees out of official booking databases, shackling and beating arrestees for extended periods of time, denying attorneys access to the “secure facility,” and holding people without legal counsel for between 12 and 24 hours. At least one man was found unresponsive in a Homan Square “interview room” and later pronounced dead.

2.) Free state ID cards proposed for newly released prisoners (Seattle Times)

Not having proper identification can be a major hurdle for newly released prisoners. Identification is required to get housing, to get a job, to cash a check, and even to get a library card. In Washington, getting a new driver’s license or state identification card usually costs between $45-$54 (not to mention, the time and cost of transportation required to get to a Department of Licensing office). Unfortunately, many Washington prisoners are only released with as little as $40. But a new bill, proposed by state legislator, Cyrus Habib, would issue free temporary identification to all reentering individuals as they are released from jail or prison.

3.) Want to visit an inmate? Increasingly, you’ll have to log on (San Fransisco Chronicle)

Hamed Aleaziz reports that several California counties, notably; Napa, Solano, and San Mateo are moving away from allowing prisoners to have in-person visits, and are instead replacing them with Skype-like digital video-chats. Supporters argue that using video-chat technology saves money and strengthens security. Supporters are quick to note that families can now video-chat with their incarcerated loved ones from home, without having to make a trip to jail. But as Bernadette Rabuy of the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative notes, “Inmates and their families find video visits to be more impersonal.They talk about being able to hold their hand on the piece of glass and the other incarcerated person holding their hand up. Moments like that feel impossible with video visits.” A 2011 Minnesota Department of Corrections study concluded in-person prison visits “establish a continuum of social support,” and that visited inmates were 13% less likely to be convicted of a new felony after release. According to Keramet Reiter, an assistant professor of criminology at UC Irvine, “The data is pretty good. The more in-person visits prisoners have, the better off they are likely to be when they get out.” Also problematic is the fact that the video-chats are expensive. The companies providing video-chat technologies for prisons and jails charge families up to $20 for as little as 20 minutes of talk time. These companies then split profits with the county (Napa receives 20% of fees obtained from video chats to its inmates).

4.) Santa Clara County increases oversight of cases of youths being charged as adults (Santa Cruz Sentinel)

California prosecutors have wide discretion in deciding whether to charge juvenile suspects as juveniles or as adults. A 2013 internal review by Santa Clara County’s District Attorney’s Office revealed that a higher percentage of Latino kids face adult charges than other ethnicities. In response to this finding, Santa Clara’s DA has teamed up with Santa Clara’s Public Defender’s office and several Bay Area youth advocacy groups to examine these cases more stringently. Specifically, the DA has asked youth advocates who favor rehabilitation over prison to review and critique the DA’s decision to charge juveniles as adults. The committee of advocates is currently reviewing every 2014 Santa Clara case where a juvenile was charged as an adult.

5.) Eric Holder’s parting shot: It’s too hard to bring civil rights cases (Politico)

Last Saturday (2/21) marked the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination. In a recent exit interview, Politico asked outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder what book he would recommend to a young person coming to Washington, D.C. Holder’s answer–“The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”Holder also stated that before leaves office, he will call for a lower standard of proof for civil rights crimes (see # 6, below). “I think some serious consideration needs to be given to the standard of proof that has to be met before federal involvement is appropriate, and that’s something I am going to be talking about before I leave office.” Holder’s remarks come days after the Department of Justice announced that it has closed its investigation in the shooting death of unarmed African American teenager Trayvon Martin. DOJ will not be filing federal hate-crime charges against Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman.

6.) Why Is It So Hard to Prove a Civil Rights Crime? (The New Republic)

Cristian Farias discusses the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision not file federal hate-crime charges against George Zimmerman and the limits of federal hate crimes laws. Farias writes, “Willfulness, in civil rights cases or otherwise, is by far the most difficult thing to prove in criminal law. And absent a damning confession from Zimmerman or a mountain of circumstantial evidence showing that he harbors resentment toward black teenagers, making that showing is hardso hard, DOJ determined, it couldn’t risk pressing charges and losing later.”

Bonus: Tomorrow, 2/28, marks the end of Black History Month. If you have some spare time this weekend, cozy up with your loved ones and take 2 hours to watch “Freedom Riders,” the beautifully directed, 2010 documentary by Stanley Nelson Jr. “Freedom Riders” is the powerful, harrowing, and inspirational story of six months in 1961 that changed America forever. From May until November 1961, more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives—and many endured savage beatings and imprisonment—for simply traveling together on buses and trains as they journeyed through the Jim Crow South. The Freedom Riders challenged the status quo by riding interstate buses and trains in the South to challenge local laws or customs that enforced illegal segregation in seating. They called national attention to the blatant disregard for federal laws and the local mob violence used to enforce segregation in the South. You can watch Freedom Riders for free online courtesy of PBS. Here’s a link to the film.

Dignity v. Inhumanity in the Criminal Justice System — an evening conversation hosted by Root & Rebound and Project Rebound

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Dear Friends,
You are warmly invited to attend a panel discussion hosted by Root & Rebound: Reentry Advocates & Project Rebound at SFSU, entitled Dignity v. Inhumanity in the Criminal Justice System, featuring Jason Bell, Director of Project Rebound, San Francisco State University, Airto Morales, Data Specialist at Project Rebound, San Francisco State University, and Professor Jonathan Simon, Adrian A. Kragen Professor of Law and Director, Center for the Study of Law and Society at University of Berkeley, School of Law. This event is part of our groups’ efforts not just to serve individuals and communities in reentry, but to raise awareness of the major issues within our criminal justice system and to encourage idea-sharing and dialogue to build solutions.

The event will be on February 26th at the David Brower Center in the Tamalpais Room, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. We will provide light snacks, drinks, and desserts. There will also be a raffle to give away five copies of Professor Simon’s latest book, Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America. There is a suggested (but not mandatory) donation of $10 at the door that will go towards the cost of the event. Any proceeds will go towards Root & Rebound and Project Rebound.

The David Brower Center is at 2150 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA 94704, conveniently located one block from the Downtown Berkeley BART station. There are also several parking structures nearby, though please note that parking may be scarce so please consider taking BART if possible!

As seating is limited, please RSVP as soon as you can. To RSVP, please follow this link to subscribe to the events list: http://eepurl.com/bbjOg9.***

***PLEASE NOTE: Once you submit this online form, a subscription confirmation email will be sent to your account, and you will need to click on the “Yes, subscribe me to this list” button in order to finalize your RSVP to the event. You will then receive a summary email detailing your information.

Please email info@rootandrebound.org with any questions or comments.

Hope to see you there!

The Root & Rebound & Project Rebound Teams

Event flyer — Dignity v. Inhumanity in the Criminal Justice System

Unlocking Potential: Lessons from San Quentin: Interview with Jody Lewen of the Prison University Project

Photo taken from prisonuniversityproject.org

Photo taken from prisonuniversityproject.org

Dear Readers, Today we want to share with you an insightful interview conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice, with Jody Lewen, Executive Director of the Prison University Project.The interview is part of The Unlocking Potential: Perspectives on Education in Prison blog series, within Vera’s Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project.

Jody Lewen is the executive director of the Prison University Project, an inspiring nonprofit organization that operates the College Program at California’s San Quentin State Prison. The program offers a college preparatory program and courses leading to an Associate of Arts degree in liberal arts. We are so pleased to showcase Jody’s interview as a valuable Board member for Root & Rebound. Also, the Prison University Project is an inspiring community partner who not only made it possible for Root & Rebound to raise funds over the last 6 months, but one who we continue to turn to and collaborate with in improving the lives of those returning to the community from prison and jail.

We hope the interview will impact you – feel free to share with your friends and networks!

Beyond academic achievement, how do students benefit from taking college courses while in prison? 

Even after taking just a few classes, their written and verbal communication skills are much stronger. They become more confident. Their self-esteem is strengthened. They have a broader sense of what their professional opportunities might be. They are more able to negotiate complex systems and institutions, both for themselves and for their families—even from prison. They are more likely to be active in their communities and involved in various types of advocacy work. They are more engaged with their children’s education. To me, these are success stories: if the person is healthy and happy and living a productive life.

In what ways is teaching college courses inside prison rewarding for teachers? 

For teachers, prison college programs offer an opportunity to serve communities that are, almost by definition, radically excluded from quality education in the United States. It’s also incredibly satisfying to have students who are highly motivated and deeply grateful for the opportunity to go to college! The educational climate is very serious, rich, and satisfying, for both students and teachers.

What challenges do educators and colleges face when trying to implement college programs in prison? 

There are massive logistical issues: getting the students to class, getting teachers into the institution, the lack of technology, the simple fact that the institution has completely different priorities and values. You have all kinds of constantly changing constraints on what equipment and materials may be allowed inside. Pedagogically speaking, teachers who’ve taught only in conventional settings are often not prepared to serve students with such diverse learning styles; they may also not be prepared for the range of psychological obstacles that students might grapple with, particularly at the beginning—for example, self-doubt, anxiety, or shame.  

Why do you think some people are against access to a college education for people in prison? 

The biggest issue is that in the U.S., higher education is considered a luxury. A lot of people are legitimately resentful that they have not had the opportunity to get a college education, and it makes them uncomfortable—or even furious—to imagine that people in prison might. It seems unfair. There’s also the whole ideology of “deservingness.” People imagine that if you are a good person, you deserve good things and if you are a bad person, you deserve bad things. What frustrates me about this perspective is not just that it’s simplistic and moralistic, but that it essentially ignores the question of what’s in the best interest of the society as a whole. Also, Americans who have not been exposed to the prison system directly—people who haven’t been incarcerated, and have not had a friend or family member who’s been incarcerated—often have their own ideas of who is in prison and what they are like. Our culture is very invested in its global, generalized hatred of people who are in prison, and very invested in the thought of their suffering. People think of education as a stepping stone to economic opportunity and as a source of pleasure, and a lot of people don’t want anybody in prison to have either.  

What will it take to change their minds? 

People need to see firsthand the transformative power of higher education in prison. They need to be exposed to the real live faces, voices, conversations, and stories that will allow them to recognize people in prison as actual human beings. They need to hear not just statistical accounts of what happens when people in prison have the opportunity to go to school. They need to become emotionally invested in the good that it does for the individual’s community, family, and the climate of the prison.

How has the Prison University Project been successful in sharing and changing public discourse around higher education in prison? 

Above all, through publications like our journal of student writing (OpenLine), newsletters, and various special events. Strong communications materials are a way to carry the message of the humanity of the people inside to a much larger audience. If you can bring people into a prison through these kinds of materials, in my experience it’s pretty rare that they hold on to their hostility.

What kind of reentry services and resources do students need to be successful once they leave prison? 

Affordable housing! People with substance abuse and other special issues need supportive housing. And everyone needs some sort of community—they need people they can really talk to, and ask questions, and ask for help. Also, a lot of people get out and want to continue school but they don’t have the money. We need to start creating robust scholarship opportunities for people coming out.

What are the key takeaways that you think any state/prison looking to create a college program in prison needs to consider? 

Prison higher education is an educational intervention and not simply a criminal justice intervention. We do this work not simply to make the public safer. We do it because we are committed to educational excellence, and to supporting the personal, professional, and intellectual development of the individual. What you see a lot in this field are people who want to avoid saying or doing anything that might be politically controversial. They say, “The public will never go for that.” For example, they want to exclude sex offenders, or people serving long sentences, for fear of public outrage. The fact is that a high quality educational program that is open to the whole prison community has the capacity to change the entire culture of that institution. Conversely, programs that exclude academically eligible people for political reasons just build resentment, weaken the pro-social fabric of the prison, and waste precious resources. If we really want to create high quality programs that generate the greatest public benefit, we need to be unapologetically committed to inclusiveness, and we need to hold our ground. We need to keep reminding everyone: we are building a healthier democracy. We are improving public health. Our students’ lives matter. They are human beings.

Happy Friday!

– The R&R Team