Monday, March 28, 2016

What Mass Incarceration Means For Families

By Wendy Pacheco
JPI Intern

Since I could remember, my life has been shaped by courts, cops, and jails. My grandmother and I used to walk hand in hand through the East Los Angeles Civic Center toward the local courthouse to watch a judge decide the fate of my mother.

I remember blaming her, reprimanding her for her choice in clothing, her decisions to walk through the alleys at night, and for her overall state of well-being. My feelings shifted my 2nd year of college, when a professor offered a course to formerly incarcerated students where we spent hours on end discussing our own experiences and deconstructing the historical relationship between people of color and the criminal justice system. I realized that my mother’s experiences speak largely to the experiences of women across the United States who are suffering from drug addiction, homelessness, domestic violence, or other forms of abuse. I realized that due to mass incarceration, my mother and I were unknowingly a part of a community of millions of women who experienced what my mother and I had.

My mother’s relapse lasted about 8 years before she was mandated by a judge to participate in a rehabilitation program or serve a minimum of 1 year in a federal prison. As a witness to my mother’s journey with reentry I recall the difficulties she faced in trying to rebuild her life. Finding stable housing was especially difficult, because the waiting list for public housing and the formal processes for renting an apartment hindered my mother from taking the necessary steps to reintegrate into society. Many leasing agencies and landlords require potential tenants to provide proof of income that reflects twice the amount of rent. But for someone like my mother, whose income primarily consisted of government assistance that did not amount to anything near twice the amount of rent for an apartment in Los Angeles, her options were limited.

I found my everyday realities continue to be enmeshed with the criminal justice system after my father's arrest in 2011. At the time, he was the head of household, and so his arrest resulted in a shift of financial responsibilities and ultimately bore severe financial hardships on my family. As a senior in high school my only option, as I saw it, was to completely immerse myself in the possibility of higher education as a means to move beyond my circumstances. As a 1st year student at UC Berkeley my priorities were driven by the necessity to care for my family: bearing the financial responsibility of paying for phone calls to maintain steady communication, sending my father money for his monthly commissary visits, and carrying out the emotional labor for my family in dealing with the incarceration of a parent.

As my mother celebrates her third year of recovery, my father completes five years of being incarcerated; I still carry the psychological and emotional trauma from those experiences. The stigma, isolation, and trauma associated with incarceration have direct impacts across families and communities that last well beyond release. Since 2011, as many as 100,000 mothers who are were primary caregivers have been incarcerated in prison alone; additionally, when it is not the woman who is incarcerated, women tend to be the ones who bear the financial and emotional responsibility after a loved one has been locked away. It is not enough to address mass incarceration as a racial issue, an economic issue, or a queer issue, we must also view mass incarceration as a reproductive rights issue, and as an overall women’s issue, that bears collateral consequences on families including increased poverty, destabilized neighborhoods, and generations of trauma.

Wendy Pacheco is a graduating senior at the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Ethnic Studies.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Prison Labor: Trauma as a “marketable job skill”

By Jacqueline Conn
Guest Blogger

The fields on the William P. Hobby unit in Marlin, TX had watermelons, green onions, okra, sweet potatoes—and I’m sure other crops that I don’t remember because they aren’t tied to a trauma. It was plantation fields with a disproportionate amount of Blacks and Latinos working under mostly white guards on horses.

I was on the “aggravated hoe squad” for women with violent charges, many of whom I‘d learn were lifetime victims of abuse themselves.

After we were pat down and out the gates, the Lieutenant—an older White man on horseback—gave a brief orientation, “. . . I only break fights if someone ain't fightin back an’s gettin a head kicked in . . . nothin worse than a wimp.”

With that we started running in a tight line of pairs, with an aggie (or hoe, hence “hoe squad”) balanced on the palms of our hands. Our bosses herded us, sitting over us horseback with shotguns.

I should pause for a definition of terms. Prison labor, job training, and humanizing the carceral state are used interchangeably to talk about modern day slavery. Texas Correctional Industries (TCI) redefined its slavery program as one that provides “participants with marketable job skills to help reduce recidivism through . . . job skills training.” These redefinitions help us forget the 13th amendment banned slavery, with the exception of prisoners.

Eventually I saw the parallels to slavery: neither are a choice, and both motivate workers with coercion and fear. Hoe squad bosses put the fastest at the front and punished anyone in back who couldn’t keep up. Bosses reprimanded us and rewarded fast workers for bullying “lazy” ones. Other women became our enemies and bosses were our merciful masters.

There were porta-potties and a water tank; we got to use both if we were lucky. Some days the heat climbed up to 114 degrees. I got sick the first winter, but there are no sick days and “only sorry hoes complain.” The boss told me to vomit as I worked, as long as I didn’t stop moving.

I didn’t have friends on the field at first. They called me weak, lazy, or dirty because I looked different than them, and no one wanted to work by me. We had no sympathy for each other, or ourselves. Each morning we picked a partner. The wrong partner meant a case or a beating, and so I was always the last person picked. One morning, too beat down for pretense, I mumbled to myself: “why doesn’t anyone want to be my partner, what’s wrong with me?” One woman heard me, and made the choice to be my friend. “I remember what it was like when I first started,” she said. This is the only disruptive, radically compassionate moment I remember.

It’s impossible for me to fully describe a world that for some may only exist in the 1800’s. But I can say this: none of the “job skills” I learned from prison slave labor—like how to hold my pee, or work through dehydration, or avoid physical violence with jokes—have proved marketable in any of my job searches. I still don’t know how to talk about my experience as a prison laborer free from the trauma and shame that comes with having once been an object of the state. Maybe TCI could also offer a resume template on their website, or advice for the growing number of men and women returning home with a lack of marketable job skills, but an abundance of trauma and shame.

Jacqueline Conn is a writer and activist living in Austin, Texas.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Justice Reform in 2015 and Beyond

By Marc Schindler
Executive Director of JPI
Originally Posted on Huffington Post's Crime Blog

Scout J. Photography via Getty Images
Criminal justice reform is enjoying a moment of mainstream support: Mass incarceration is now widely recognized as wasteful, in terms of dollars and lives, and the language of reform has been echoed by politicians, pundits and the media throughout 2015.
Among the important milestones of 2015, President Obama made history as the first sitting president to prioritize comprehensive criminal justice reforms. During a speech to the NAACP, the President outlined a sweeping criminal justice reform agenda to roll back mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of drug offenses, review the use of solitary confinement, and invest in alternatives to incarceration. The President instructed Federal agencies to stop asking potential employees about criminal histories at the beginning of the selection process and became the first sitting chief executive to visit a federal prison. And with his most recent executive action, Obama also has commuted the sentences of more people than the last five presidents combined. Finally, changes to federal sentencing guidelines by the U.S. Sentencing Commission resulted in the historic release of more than six thousand people from federal prisons, and other changes to the guidelines will lead to over 10,000 prisoners having slightly shorter sentences in years to come.
The President and the Sentencing Commission are not the only catalysts for change. In California, the state began implementing voter initiated Prop 47, which changed low level offenses from felonies to misdemeanors for thousands of people, and created pathways for people with a conviction to expunge their records. In Connecticut, Governor Malloy proposed developmentally appropriate treatment of young adults in the justice system by raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction in his state to age 21, and providing special confidentiality protections for adults under 25. And in states across the South, there have been bipartisan efforts to reduce incarceration and reinvest the savings towards efforts to keep people out of prison and reduce crime. Congress is also poised to pass bi-partisan criminal justice reform legislation, hopefully in early 2016.
For a country that far and away leads the world in incarceration, these are important signs of progress.
However, we cannot pop the champagne corks just yet. The latest prisoner statistics showed that there has only been a one percent reduction in the state and federal prison population -- nothing near the dramatic changes we need to see to bring real relief to the communities most impacted by incarceration. And we need to ensure that these efforts to include reducing incarceration for those imprisoned for violent crimes, not just non-violent drug offenders.
How can we ensure that recent and important efforts are the prequel to lasting and comprehensive reforms that dramatically reduce the use of incarceration?
First, policymakers could follow the President's lead: Like Obama, political leaders need to witness firsthand the failures of these institutions, and commit to substantial reform.
Second, we need transparency and oversight of the corrections system, and to engage those most impacted by the system in the movement to reduce prison populations. As the Marshall Project editor-in-chief Bill Keller laid out in a recent essay, there needs to be more media access to prisons and jails, to provide for accountability in our corrections systems, sustainability for the reform taking place, and as a way to engage the most impacted communities in reform. Keller notes that, "unless the men and women and children we incarcerate are visible, the clamor for reform is likely to be unsustainable -- a moment, but not a movement."
Shining a spotlight on what is happening in prisons, and building a movement of the most impacted communities to close prisons will make more money available to be reinvested in the kinds of services that promote safe and healthy communities. We should take the billions we are currently spending on prisons and jails, and make bigger investments in a public infrastructure that can house, employ, and meet people's treatment needs outside the criminal justice system.
Finally, while the communities most impacted by incarceration will build this movement, this work needs to be owned by everyone. The reach of the justice system is far and wide, and there are countless individuals whose direct experiences and leadership should shape the direction of reform.
Mass incarceration has reshaped and torn at the very fabric of our nation. To turn the tide, we all need to be a part of a broad and deep movement for reform. Together, we can make sure the next chapter is one built on promise rather than failure.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Reflections of a Hypocrite

By Leo Kim
Guest Blogger

What happens when you learn that you’re a hypocrite?

That was the thought bouncing around my head as I fumbled around a row of black trash bags lining the street, dealing with the aftermath of a sudden eviction.

A few hours earlier, I had been at my desk at Justice Policy Institute’s office working when I got a call. “You need to get here right away,” a panicked neighbor told me. “The guy you’re subletting from is being evicted and the marshals are taking out everything.”

First, I thought it was a joke. There’s no way, I thought. It was too ironic. After all, I had only recently finished helping with research for JPI on the intersection of homelessness and the criminal justice system in Maryland.

Thirty minutes later, when I got to the apartment and saw my entire life in D.C. tossed indiscriminately into trash bags on the side of the street, I knew it was no joke. I had received no word of the eviction. No forewarning. But there it was.

It was quite a scene and on a busy Georgetown afternoon; I stuck out.

Most passersby tried to avoid eye contact. Some talked amongst themselves about what could have happened. A select few actually came up and asked me themselves, leaving with words that, while comforting, amounted to little more than “I’m sorry, I wish I could help.”

It was at that point that a man of about 50 approached me. Despite looking worn and tired, he told me that he wanted to help. He told me that something similar had happened to him, and he understood. If I needed anything, I should come get him— he’d be across the street.

This man, homeless, was the only stranger to offer me help that day.

All this started to get me thinking. What would I have done had I been one of the people walking by? After all, I should have known how swift and terrible something like this could be. I had spent the better part of a summer specifically researching it, and I knew that for most people, the same event would have been far worse than I could ever hope to comprehend. I knew from my research that homelessness could have devastating impacts and often lead to involvement in the justice system.

I, who could rattle off dozens of facts about the worst parts of homelessness, wouldn’t have offered substantial help. And while I’m sure there are better souls out there, I think most people would do the same— they did do the same.

So where does this leave me?

The thing is, I’m a little bit of a dork. But not just any kind of dork, I’m a philosophy dork. So naturally, that’s where my mind went.

There’s a theory in philosophy that essentially says that your beliefs are intimately linked to your actions. If  you believe something, you’ll act in accordance with that belief. If you act in a way seemingly contradictory, we can say that you never believed that thing in the first place. After all, it makes sense to say a person who acts bigoted doesn’t believe in equality, even if they explicitly say they do.

Plus, if beliefs don’t cause action, then why would we bother teaching correct information? What’s the purpose of teaching people about global warming if we don’t think it’ll lead to positive change, to something happening?

So how would someone who believed in the inequity surrounding homelessness have acted in that situation? The obvious answer seems to be that they would have helped. But, contrary to my belief that people who are homeless need more than a few meaningless words, that’s exactly what I would’ve done, like so many did that day.

What conclusion did I have? I was a hypocrite.

I thought I had done all the right things to help myself become more understanding of the world around me— to become more understanding of the privilege I have that so many lack, of the obligation we all have towards one another. I had researched, written, and learned about the relevant issues. I had taken classes on ethics and waxed philosophical.

But at the end of the day, this intellectual education wasn’t enough to ensure that my beliefs translated into actions consistent with those beliefs. I didn’t have the right beliefs in the sense that we want them, beliefs in the sense that they matter in a tangible way. There was still a vast chasm separating my intellectual knowledge, and this visceral, acting knowledge.

It’s probably safe to assume that many reading this, like me, are interested in reform and have a genuine desire to—pardon the hackneyed expression— “be the change that they wish to see in the world.”

Yet, this isn’t something that can be achieved in a purely academic setting, as so many of my university peers may think. Rather, there needs to be something connecting you to the people the problem affects; it needs to be human, not solely intellectual.

Fighting this abstraction through personal involvement is important. With it, the divide between the two kinds of knowledge can start to inch closer and closer together.

When I came to my internship at JPI, I was told that my primary job was to “learn.” By the end of my internship, I realized that the most valuable kind of learning I did was unlike the academic kind I had become so accustomed to in the past 15 years of my life.

Getting a chance to meet those that the problem affected and becoming more personally conscientious of the issues at hand gave me something I could have never taken away from a report or a classroom. And this is precisely what we need if we are to become more like the person we all want to be, rather than the ones we so often are.

Leo Kim is a student at Yale where he studies philosophy and writes for the Opinion Section of the Yale Daily News. He is also a former JPI Research Intern.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Help Young Adults Succeed: Create Alternatives to the Justice System

By Marcus Bullock
Guest Blogger

On October 2nd, the Washington Post published “Why 21 year-old offenders should be tried in family court”. As I read the op-ed, I was reminded of the young guys that I knew while I was locked up as a 15-year-old kid.

The young men around me may have been older than I was, but these guys were no different from me. For Youth Justice Awareness Month at the Campaign for Youth Justice, I created this video about why experiencing prison while still developing is extremely harmful for young adults. As I learn about the brain science and behavior research that shows what seemed obvious to me at the time, I now know that there’s not that much difference, developmentally, between an older teenager and a young adult.Now that we know this, I hope we can create approaches and programs that are based on what science tells us.

Instead of treating young adults the same as if they are much older and putting them in the criminal justice system, we should create systems for diversion, community-based services, and maybe even special facilities to address their unique needs. I now run my own home remodeling business, and am the founder of the Flikshop mobile app, which generates postcards from digital downloads to help keep people in prison more connected to their loved ones. If we provide supports that recognize the needs of young adults, even if they are in the adult criminal justice system, we can see lots more people succeed like me. Doing this would be the ideal game plan, and would ensure that our communities are safer in the long run.

Marcus Bullock is the CEO and Founder of the mobile app Flikshop. He is also a Board Member at the Justice Policy Institute. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A national agenda for criminal justice reform: Not just second chances, but a rational first response

By Marc Schindler
Executive Director of JPI
Originally Posted on Huffington Post's Crime Blog

During a powerful speech to the NAACP convention on Tuesday, President Obama outlined sweeping reforms to ensure our justice system is more fair and effective. He will be the first President to visit a federal prison, and he commuted more sentences in a single day since Lyndon B. Johnson. 

These efforts will surely illuminate some of the most glaring problems with our nation’s justice system, such as the excessive incarceration of people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses and deplorable practices of solitary confinement. Solving the nation’s crisis of incarceration will require sustained attention and committed action. And while removing or reducing time served by people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses would be significant, ending the era of our incarceration generation requires deeper changes where incarceration is used as the last resort. This would be a dramatic shift from current practices where incarceration is too often used as the first response to social problems.   

Obama’s speech rang like music to the ears of community activists, advocates and experts who have long called for reforms like eliminating mandatory sentences, ending the use of solitary confinement, and investing in hard-hit neighborhoods. As the President noted, there is nothing new about recognizing the failures of the criminal justice system. What has changed is a growing political and popular consensus that business as usual isn’t working for anyone.

When I learned of Obama’s scheduled visit to the El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma on Thursday, my first thought was gratitude for an encounter that is long overdue. My second thought was disbelief. Was it possible that a sitting President of the United States, which spends $80 billion each year to house the world’s largest incarcerated population, has never before investigated the impacts firsthand? Imagine a nation where health care or education policy is designed and implemented on state and federal levels without the Commander in Chief ever stepping into a hospital or school.

It’s well known that the justice system disproportionately impacts young men of color, and treats people of color differently for the same crimes. Essentially, there is glaring unfairness in our so-called justice system. The President also spoke to the enormity of the system in terms of its costs and impact on children and families.

Consider the magnitude.  Expanding on an estimate from a Bureau of Justice report, roughly 2.5 million children have incarcerated parents. Using the same math and considering that about 70 million people have criminal records that means approximately 78 million children have parents with a record. In the end the total number is staggering: out of a national population of 318.9 million people, 153 million are either in prison or jail, have a criminal record, or have parents who are in prison or jail, or have a conviction 

And this is the first time a sitting President has visited a U.S. prison?

I have every hope that the President will be deeply impacted by what he experiences in El Reno. In my own work, visits to prisons and encounters with people in prison have been some of the most powerful ways to motivate reform. Following the President’s lead, every governor, mayor and county executive should be called on to visit an adult or juvenile facility within the next 60 days. 

I know that the commutations the President ordered this week will mean everything to the people who have been given a second chance. And diverting individuals or reducing sentences for people convicted of nonviolent offenses would make a significant dent in the imprisoned population. But sentencing reform should be considered more broadly and account for actual public safety benefits. 

Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project has advanced the idea of sentencing maximums, which cap sentences at 20 years except for the most extreme instances. Decades long sentences increase costs without advancing safety. To implement comprehensive reforms we need to address excessively long sentencing system-wide, not just for non-violent drug offenders.

The President says that we are a people that believe in second chances. I agree with that, but we also must scrutinize our first responses. Now is the time where we must work together to ask and answer the hard questions: In what instances is prison the correct response? For whom is it the right option? And what is it intended to do?

To truly transform our justice system, we need to not only open our eyes to its failures but also question its intent. We all need to work together to make sure that this shift is not just in the way we talk about prisons, but ultimately in how they are used—as a last resort, in limited circumstances, and always measured by their fairness and effectiveness.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Labor Pains: Banning shackling during childbirth isn’t enough

BY Daniel Landsman
Former JPI Intern

In November 2008, Jennifer Farrar was arrested for cashing fake payroll checks and booked into Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois. Farrar went into labor during a hearing in January 2009 and was rushed to the hospital, shackled and chained. When she arrived at the hospital, the belly chain was removed but her hands and feet remained cuffed, despite doctors and nurses asking for their removal. Finally, when it came time to push, all but one cuff was removed, leaving her left arm cuffed to the hospital bed while she was giving birth.

Farrar became one of the many women to give birth while under the custody of a prison or jail and with one or more of their limbs shackled.

Women throughout the country are at risk of being subjected to the same treatment Jennifer Farrah received during the birth of her child. 29 states (report was completed before legislation was passed in Maryland, Massachusetts, and Minnesota) do not have state laws preventing the shackling of pregnant women who are in the custody of correctional systems during childbirth. Of those 29 states, 21 have departmental policies banning or regulating the practice. The remaining seven states view women in labor as a safety risk that must be shackled at the ankles, wrists, and across the belly. These shackles can cause serious health risks during childbirth and are clear violations of our protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

It seems that state laws or departmental policies addressing the issue are not enough. Take, for example, the State of Tennessee. Following a lawsuit against the city of Nashville, after a woman in the U.S. without documentation was detained for driving without a license and forced to endure the pains of labor while cuffed to a hospital bed, the Tennessee Department of Corrections created a policy against the use of restraints. However, the policy did not specifically ban the practice during the total duration of labor. Instead, the policy gives discretion to corrections officers, directing that “restraint devices and methods employed during movement and transportation be appropriate to the medical and security needs of the inmate”. In other words, because women are likely to be at the prison when they go into labor, they can be shackled while they are being taken to the hospital and in any movement throughout the hospital.

Similarly, despite state legislation to end the practice in New York, women continued to be shackled during labor. According to a report by the Correction Association of New York, 23 of 27 women interviewed were shackled during pregnancy in direct violation of a law banning the practice.
As the population of women in prison continues to grow—  an increase of 100,000 since 1980—we cannot allow state and federal prisons to continue the barbaric act of shackling women during childbirth. These states need to enact legislation (or even policy) that contains clear language banning the practice, such as the bill enacted in Washington, D.C. in 2013. The bill provides many rights to pregnant women in the correctional system, including banning shackling of pregnant women beginning in their third trimester.

Passing legislation or enacting policy is an important step in the process of stopping this practice, correction officers must be trained on anti-shackling laws as they are passed and women must be properly educated on their rights under anti-shackling laws. States need to clearly communicate to the Department of Corrections and the correctional officers that the practice of shackling women in labor is no long acceptable.  A shift in attitude about shackling women during labor is a long time coming and will likely go a long way to ensuring the safety and well-being of women and their babies.