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 (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

5 Criminal Justice and Reentry Documentaries You MUST See

This week, Root & Rebound’s Spring Law Clerk Chandra Peterson reviews five must-watch criminal justice/reentry related documentaries. Be Informed and Take Action! What’s better than snuggling up on your couch with some popcorn and a great criminal justice documentary? Probably … Continue reading

Website Feature: Reentry Resources Center

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Hi Readers!

Thanks to everyone who has written to us about our new website. We have received an overwhelmingly positive response– which has been really encouraging! Today, we are highlighting a special section on the website: the Reentry Resource Center, with free current information that targets many of the common questions and concerns of people in reentry and their advocates. This is a feature we are really excited about!

Why did we create the Reentry Resource Center?

We created the Reentry Resource Center as a go-to free online resource for people preparing for or in reentry, their advocates, and the wider public. Why? (1) There isn’t enough information out there for people in reentry and (2) the resources that do exist are not centralized in one, easy to access place. People in reentry need information about where they are allowed to live, the kinds of jobs they can apply for, and whether they can see their children again.

Who is it for?

This hub aims to make reentry resources (legal resources, social service resources, and reports/studies on reentry) directly accessible to people preparing for or in reentry. It is also for their advocates: the social worker, the close friend, the reentry lawyer, working to provide support.

What resources are available and how are they organized?

Currently, there are 3 types of resources available online: (1) Legal Resources for People in Reentry and Their Advocates; (2) Social Service Resources- Guides for CA programs and services; and (3) Studies and Reports on Reentry Issues.

(1)  Legal Resources for People in Reentry and Their Advocates

So many people in reentry don’t have access to an attorney and we are limited in our reach for whom we can provide direct services. Putting legal reentry resources online ensures that people who can’t step into our office for consultation or attend our legal trainings will still have a reference where they can access the legal information that is out there. This section is full of resources that pertain to specific areas of law and barriers people face: general resources, probation and parole rules, housing law, public benefits law, employment law, family law, education law, immigration law, expungement, and voting laws.

What is exciting to us about 2014 is that we are developing a California “Know Your Rights Guide” which will cover eight key areas of law and will be a one-stop resource for people in reentry to get the legal information they need to understand what rights, protections, restrictions, and risks exist under law. This will be available online and in print in September of this year, and we hope it will be utilized by thousands of people across the state and country!

Disclaimer: When we put together legal information, we do our best to make sure it is useful and accurate – and we periodically be check it for currentness. Of course, the laws change frequently and are subject to differing interpretations so when using the legal material, please be aware that the laws may have changed, and do check whether if it is still applicable to your situation.

(2) Social Service Resources- Guides to CA Programs and Services

People in reentry often don’t know where to go for programs and services that they need, from mental health services to housing; from vocational training to education; from parenting classes to food pantries and clothing closets. This can be remedied by having a centralized place online that collects and shares existing guides to services across the state.

More guides for programs and services need to be created. There simply are not enough of these guides in existence. We at Root & Rebound are developing our own resource guide for Alameda County (available from August 2014) and working with others in counties across the state to promote the creation of these resource guides for their counties.

(3)  Studies and Reports on Reentry Issues

Here we share scholarship from around the country on all areas of reentry and criminal justice issues for people who want to learn more. This is a place to share in the excitement of the movement across the nation away from mass incarceration and to a focus on bringing people back to the community with the support they need.

We are very shortly publishing a report, Voices From The Field (May 2014), which brings together the voices of practitioners, individuals and advocates that Root & Rebound staff interviewed about the reentry landscape nation wide and the major gaps and unmet needs in reentry. It also shares best practices in starting a reentry program.

 

We are excited to share this feature today and we hope our readers will share the resources with individuals, groups, and the wider community. Spread the word!

Lastly, if you have any suggestions on how we can improve to this resource center, please let us know! We would love to hear from you. Comment here or email info@rootandrebound.org!

Thanks for being a part of our work!

– The R & R Team

Root & Rebound is growing!

Hello readers!

Today we wanted to give you a sneak peak into Root & Rebound—and our vision for where we are headed! R & R has been working hard to build a strong foundation. We spent the Fall meeting with over 70 practitioners, formerly incarcerated advocates, and academics to understand the landscape of reentry services and needs. Based off those interviews, we are developing a report on best practices and gaps in reentry services that we plan to publish and make available online in the next few months!

R & R has also been working with a consultant on strategic planning, development, and with our graphic designer to develop a great website to showcase Root & Rebound’s work and the resilient and motivated people we serve.

Here is a sneak peak at the website…

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We are very excited about the website we are creating, and believe that technology and Internet are great resources for sharing information and knowledge about reentry with the wider public.

Throughout this era of strategic growth, R & R has developed a multiyear vision for serving reentering citizens:

YEAR 1 (2014)—In our first year of practice, Root & Rebound’s programmatic goals include:

  1. Direct legal services with social services support—developing an integrated system for collecting client information that will track indicators for success and outcomes; providing legal counsel, advice & information to a small number of pilot clients.
  2. Public education & legal trainings—producing an educational “Know Your Legal Rights in California Reentry” manual to be shared with community-based organizations, government agencies & prisons and jails; teaching reentry legal rights to partner organizations and clients going through the reentry process.
  3. Reentry Resource Development—developing a database and guide for formerly incarcerated people of community-based organizations and government agencies serving returning citizens in the Bay Area and their eligibility requirements.
  4. High-impact advocacy through policy reform and litigation—joining local and national reentry consortiums; supporting policies and petitions that will improve the lives and opportunities for reentering citizens.

OUR 5-YEAR VISION—In the next 5 years, Root & Rebound aims to:

  • Scale our work across the Bay Area and begin to address issues of people returning to rural communities in Northern California;
  • Provide a clear service continuum and pathway for returning citizens who are our clients;
  • Have established a strong referral network and relationships with high caliber organizations and government agencies;
  • Serve as a hub for up-to-date information on reentry with a statewide and nationwide reach on the Root & Rebound blog and website;
  • Support changes in state and local policy informed by our direct services work.

Thank you for being part of this journey. We could not do it alone. We value your commitment to supporting returning citizens and to the many people who have encouraged Root & Rebound’s innovation and growth in reentry. Exciting things ahead!

—The R & R Team

Reading Roundup: Criminal Justice Making Headlines

This image is part of photographer Amy Elkins' project "Parting Words." It portrays Franklin Alix, who was executed in Texas on March 30, 2010 at age 34.

This image is part of photographer Amy Elkins’ project “Parting Words.” It portrays Franklin Alix, a man on Texas’ death row who was executed on March 30, 2010 at age 34.

Here at Root & Rebound, we could not be happier to see criminal justice reform and reentry issues making top national headlines. We feel it is important to share the writing and work of others in this field. Please check out some of the amazing things happening around our country—in art, politics, and journalism—all centered on fixing our broken criminal justice system and the barriers that face people coming out.

California-based photographer Amy Elkins has launched an incredible and haunting online visual archive of the more than 500 people on Texas’ death row who have been executed since the state’s death penalty was reinstated in 1976. These portraits overlap executed individuals’ mug shots with their last words as provided on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Web page. On the Department’s “Executed Offenders” page, members of the public can scroll through the names, ages, prison IDs, race, convictions and last statements of the people in prison sent to death, in chronological order. At the time Elkins stumbled upon the website, it listed 440 men and women. Today, it lists 510.

Kristof’s op-ed in the New York Times this weeks describes how jails and prisons have become “de facto mental health hospitals,” calling this “inhumane” and “deluded.” Root & Rebound agrees. Many people struggling with mental illness and disorders have nowhere to go, can’t afford medicine outside of jail or prison, and are arrested and criminalized for behaviors and acts that often flow from their mental illness. When people facing mental health challenges are released, we do not have a social or legal system built up to support them; instead we funnel money back to incarceration instead of dealing with the problem from a fiscally and socially responsible services-based standpoint.

Last month, Root & Rebound shared the exciting news that the deputy attorney general, James Cole, of the Department of Justice, was searching for suitable candidates for clemency, specifically people with nonviolent, low-level drug offenses who are serving “life or near-life” sentences that are considered excessive under current law. (R&R has also written about excessive sentencing laws here and here.) In tandem with changes to federal drug sentencing laws, we applaud the Justice Department’s renewed interest in the President’s clemency powers, “designed so that the President could commute unjust sentences or pardon deserving petitioners who had served their time.” These signals from the federal government are important–there is new recognition that our system of incarceration in this country is seriously flawed and that mercy for people behind bars and people coming out of incarceration is a concept deserving of our country’s attention.

At Root & Rebound, we are working hard to create useful information on reentry to be shared with the public, with practitioners and advocates, and with people living behind bars. So to learn that the incredible talent of Bill Keller, a columnist at The New York Times and its former executive editor, is building and directing The Marshall Project, a nonprofit startup journalism and news source dedicated entirely to issues of criminal justice, is nothing short of fantastic!! In addition to Keller’s talent, the Marshall Project has a projected budget of $5 million a year, paying for a staff of about 30. Keller said the site would include “strong original journalism” as well as an “aggregation of interesting research and interesting voices, including voices from inside prison.” It is intended to be, he said, “a bit of a wake-up call to a public that has gotten a little numbed to the scandal that our criminal justice system is.” We are so excited for this upcoming project to take flight and to see the great resources going into criminal justice reform and news. Maybe one day, R&R and The Marshall Project can collaborate!

During a speech at a criminal justice reform symposium hosted by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights at Georgetown University Law Center, Attorney General Eric Holder called laws taking away the right to vote from people with felony records “unnecessary and unjust” and rooted in “centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear.”  Such laws disenfranchise millions of Americans, disproportionately impacting Black and Latino men. Voter disenfranchisement laws are one of the many political tools used to keep people locked out of society after coming out of prison. We believe that all people, including those with felony convictions, deserve to have a voice in the political process and are extremely proud to see Attorney General Holder acknowledging this on a public platform.

Happy reading! Please free to share other interesting news stories on reentry and criminal justice as well as your comments and feedback with us below….

—The R&R Team

Back to the Community, Back to School

Hello and happy Tuesday, blog world!

We hope that yesterday was a restful and relaxing day for all of you—and a chance to reflect on the life and vision of Martin Luther King, Jr., and how each of us can set goals this year to help make his vision of a more equal and just world a reality.

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In that vein, today we wanted to share an incredible resource that we’ve come across in our research: Back to School: A Guide to Continuing Your Education after Prison. This guide, by the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College in 2010, is a wonderful resource and should be shared with advocates, community based organizations, government agencies, probation and parole offices, corrections departments, and of course, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

Why do we love it so much? First, the information applies nationally—to all people leaving state prison across the U.S. who want to continue their education. Second, this guide is for people at all levels of education—people who want to get their GED and people who want to pursue a PhD, and everyone in between, with information about how to pursue each point in education, including vocational training. Third, it is written in PLAIN ENGLISH! No legalese, no academic speak, just plain language that is digestible and makes complicated topics and systems actually understandable.

Lastly, the substance of the guide is incredible, because it explains not just roadblocks in education and how to get around them, but acknowledges that there are many other areas of civil life that require support before and along with pursuing an education—a holistic approach. There is information on how to get a state ID, a driver’s license, a Social Security card, a copy of a RAP sheet/ criminal record, and the like. There is also great information on the financial aid system, how to apply for student loans, and the ban on financial aid for people with drug convictions. The guide even includes a glossary of helpful documents and information, including a weekly schedule to help people organize their time and plan wisely and a sample resume.

This guide was extremely helpful to us in understanding how to assist folks in reentry who want to get back to school. We hope you will use it as a resource and share it widely.

—The R & R Team