Monday, May 12, 2008

Children go to jail, for lack of options

Children go to jail, for lack of options
By Robin Dahlberg and Amy Reichbach May 12, 2008

TWO YEARS ago, a 15-year-old named Maria was arrested for bringing a small fingernail file to school.

For eight weeks, she was held in a secure juvenile detention center awaiting trial. She was strip-searched upon entering the facility. She was housed with children who were drug-addicted, mentally ill, and charged with far more serious crimes than she was. The doors and windows of the facility were locked. And her ability to move around inside the facility was limited.

Maria was not jailed because she was a flight risk, or because she was a danger to her community. She was jailed because, having been raped by a family member before her arrest, a Massachusetts Juvenile Court judge felt she could not live at home safely. And the Commonwealth had no other place to put her. There were no readily available placements in either the Commonwealth's child welfare or mental health systems.

Maria's case is extreme, but she is hardly the only Massachusetts child to be jailed inappropriately while awaiting trial for a minor offense. Our organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, recently examined documents from the Department of Youth Services and interviewed dozens of professionals in the juvenile justice system. From the interviews, we found that hundreds of children who should be in the Commonwealth's child welfare and mental health systems are being jailed because Massachusetts has failed to provide these systems with sufficient resources.

Although these children have been charged with minor, nonviolent criminal acts, they are neither flight risks nor dangers to their community. Last year, for example, almost half of the 5,400 children who were locked up had been charged with misdemeanors. Most were eventually released back into their communities after their cases were resolved. Yet each child spent an average of 25 days in lock-up before an alternative placement was located or the child was permitted to return home.

Adding insult to injury, the Commonwealth's failure to adequately fund its child welfare and mental health systems falls heavily on the shoulders of youth of color. Although children of color comprise slightly more than 20 percent of Massachusetts's population between ages 7 and 17, they account for 60 percent of all children detained before a trial.

We are failing our children if we are locking them up for weeks at a time because we have nothing else to offer them. We are also threatening public safety. National research demonstrates that secure detention is one of the most accurate predictors of future criminal behavior. It further demonstrates the detention environment exacerbates behavioral problems, mental health issues and educational difficulties, and that detained youth are more depressed, angry, and dysfunctional when they are released than when they entered.

Massachusetts has already taken some important steps to limit the use of pre-trial juvenile lock-ups. The Commonwealth's Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee has publicly announced that one of its priorities reducing the number of youth of color in detention facilities. The Department of Youth Services is spearheading an effort supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to develop alternatives to detention.

But we must do much more. We must invest in creating alternatives to jail for youth like Maria. Massachusetts should increase the availability and accessibility of placements for adolescents in both the Commonwealth's child welfare and mental health systems. In addition, it should develop community-based programs to supervise children who need such supervision in order to return to their families. And the Massachusetts Juvenile Court should use these resources, limiting secure pretrial detention to those children who are flight risks or dangers to their communities.

The current approach is not working. By creating effective alternatives to pre-trial lock-up and reserving secure detention for the relatively small number of children who truly need it, Massachusetts can invest our scarce tax dollars more wisely. We can keep our kids in school rather than in lock-up and, in so doing, make our communities safer in the long run.

Robin Dahlberg is a senior staff attorney with the national ACLU Racial Justice Project. Amy Reichbach is the racial justice advocate for the ACLU of Massachusetts.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The more we imprison, the less we vote

The more we imprison, the less we vote
By Conor Clarke and Greg Yothers May 5, 2008

FOR THE past 12 weeks, we have both been students in an Amherst College class on citizenship. Unlike most college courses, however, this one isn't held in a classroom. Each week, as part of the nationwide program Inside-Out, we meet for 2 1/2 hours in the dimly lit visiting room of the Hampshire County Correctional Facility. Half the students in the class are from the college; half are inmates at the facility.

It is a class on citizenship with a cruel irony: Because of a 2000 amendment to the Massachusetts constitution disenfranchising incarcerated felons, half the students in the class cannot vote. In about a week, all of the Amherst students will leave for the summer; many will volunteer for a presidential campaign. This November, like most adult citizens, they will walk to a local polling station or cast absentee ballots from the comfort of a college dorm. The students inside the facility can't.

American incarceration has received a lot of attention recently. Last month, The New York Times reported that one in every 100 American adults is in prison, the highest rate in the world by a wide margin, and about six times higher than the world median. This drive to incarcerate has been rightly and roundly criticized as too expensive (it costs more per capita to imprison than educate) and too harsh, since the vast majority of inmates are serving time for nonviolent crimes. But amid the controversy over price and punishment, it tends to be forgotten that incarceration imposes a cost on American democracy: The more we imprison, the less we vote.

Why should that be the case? In early 2000, before the amendment passed, Governor Paul Cellucci told Bryant Gumbel of CBS News that disenfranchisement was necessary to ensure that felons did not damage the political process. Cellucci said, after a group of Massachusetts prisoners tried to organize a political action committee in 1997, he "thought that this was a little bit ridiculous, that prisoners would actually politically organize and try to lobby against the very laws that put them in prison to protect the people of this state." The clear implication was that, once you've broken the social contract, you've proved yourself unfit for any social contact, including the right to vote.

But our experience in class suggests that the opposite is true. We all write the same papers, read the same material by John Locke and Alexis de Tocqueville, and are all equally engaged in debating and discussing everything from the role of the good citizen to America's role in the world. There is no reason to think inmates are uniquely unqualified to wield a vote, and no reason to think they can't.

Yes, going to prison necessarily entails the loss of liberty. But the right to vote is in many ways more important than the right to walk freely down the street: Voting is the most basic check against the coercive power of the state. The places where that coercive power is most starkly exercised, such as prisons, are also the places where that most basic of checks becomes more important. The fact that prisoners have a big stake in governmental choices isn't an argument in favor of disenfranchisement; it's an argument against.

And because the vote is so essential to democratic citizenship, it is also an important part of reintegrating inmates with society. Prisons separate and divide, but at their best they also prepare inmates for life after imprisonment. Rebuilding civic engagement is perhaps the most important part of that process.

There are more than 25,000 inmates in Massachusetts correctional facilities, and more than half are racial minorities. Almost all of them will, at some point in the future, exit their cells and return to their homes and families. It would be better if they returned as voting citizens.

Conor Clarke is an Amherst College student; Greg Yothers is an inmate at the Hampshire County Correctional Facility.

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Packed Prisons

Packed Prisons
The how and why of overcrowding

The US prison population grew eight-fold since 1970; more than 2.3 million people are incarcerated nationally. The rising numbers aren't proportional to population growth; the Pew Institute recently reported that for the first time in history, more than one in every 100 Americans is incarcerated. Don't like those odds? One in 30 men aged 20 to 34 is locked up, and that jumps to one in nine for black men. People of color make up 70 percent of the prison population, the reverse of the US race ratio outside prison walls.

The Massachusetts prison population grew by 3 percent since 2006, and overcrowding is pandemic. Two years ago, Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities were at 134 percent capacity. Now they've reached 143 percent. But that's merely a median ... MCI Framingham, the state's largest women's prison, is at 323 percent capacity. Only two of Massachusetts' 22 facilities are not spilling over capacity.

"Overcrowding means the facility population is greater than the design capacity," says DOC spokeswoman Diane Wiffin. "We turn single cells into doubles, provide more beds in a dormitory."

Hakim Cunningham was recently incarcerated in Massachusetts. "They were putting two or three people to a cell together," he says. "In Concord CI, they have people sleeping on the gym and rec areas in cots."

Such solutions are dangerous, says Joel Pentlarge, acting executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates reforming the state's justice system. "Those cells are very small—typically under 80 square-feet. They're designed to hold only one prisoner," he says. "Those conditions escalate prisoner-on-prisoner violence."

Why is the prison population climbing, and why are people of color disproportionately incarcerated?

The relationship with Massachusetts' crime rate is tenuous; the prison population has climbed steeply since the late 1970s, but crime has wavered up and down, with peaks in the mid '70s and early '80s, and a steady decline since 1990.

Thomas Nolan, a professor of criminal justice at Boston University and retired Boston Police officer, says the rise in imprisonment corresponds with the war on drugs. "What we're seeing nationally, as well as in Massachusetts, is an incremental, long-term trend to incarcerate people, particularly for drugs," he says.

Nolan joined the Boston Police Department (BPD) in 1978, and saw the shift in national priorities play out locally. "In the mid '80s, police departments in urban areas devoted more time and attention to drug enforcement than ever before. Historically, a department goes where the federal funding goes. In the 80s it was the war on drugs, in the '90s it was community policing," he says. "In the 70s we had a small, centralized city drug department of half a dozen officers. Now, every district has its own drug unit. Roxbury even has two of them, a day shift and a night shift. And there's still a city-wide unit. So you've got 100 officers whose sole purpose is enforcement in the war on drugs."


Phillip, who asked that his real name not be used, has been shooting heroin since he was 16. He grew up in Cambridge public housing. Both his parents were junkies; his mother died of AIDS in 1997, his 65-year-old father is still in a methadone clinic. His father's face is scarred from "an incident when he fell asleep on a radiator because he was so high."

"There were a couple of times when my father would come into school inebriated and tell the teacher, 'Phillip has to go, he has a doctor's appointment,'" he says. "We'd walk out, and I'd say, 'Do I really have a doctor's appointment, Daddy?' and he'd say, 'No, I just thought you'd like to get out of there.' And I'd say, 'School's what I look forward to. It's the best part of my day.'"


While the percentage of people of color in Massachusetts prisons doesn't reach the national figures, they're still overrepresented. Hispanics make up 21 percent of prisoners in a state where they comprise 7.9 percent of the population. Nationally, Latinos make up 20.5 percent of prisoners, and 14.8 percent of the general population.

"It's not that these people are more likely to commit an offense," says Nolan. "They're just more likely to get caught and subsequently incarcerated."

National figures from 2000 indicate whites make up 72 percent of all drug users, yet blacks are five times as likely to get arrested on drug charges.

Their neighborhoods are policed more, according to Nolan. "Law enforcement is concentrating its efforts in communities of color," he says. "Historically, that's where law enforcement has devoted its resources. Law enforcement is going to tell you they go where the crime is, and it would be fruitless to focus elsewhere."

The BPD failed to respond to questions about their policies.

Katrina Christensen, a coordinator with the Cambridge Needle Exchange, says economic prejudices exist as well. "There's a stigma on a person sleeping on the street," she says. "There are many professionals out there who use, and people say, 'Oh, that's OK. They're doing well.' Well, what does that mean? That someone who's struggling to get by is useless?"

Pentlarge says the mentally ill are also more susceptible to getting mixed up in the criminal justice system. "When we closed down mental institutions in the '80s, prisons became the place of last resort for the seriously mentally ill," he says. With 15 suicides in the last three years, Massachusetts has the highest prisoner suicide rate in the country. Last year, the DOC hired suicide prevention specialist Lindsay Hayes to do an independent review of the phenomenon. Diane Wiffin says the DOC has implemented most of Hayes' recommendations.

Pentlarge insists prisons aren't designed to deal with mental illness. "A person might be seriously delusional," he says. "The prison's first response is to put them in solitary, which is where the majority of our prisoner suicides occurred."


Phillip started using because everyone around him was. But he couldn't afford it. "A lot of drug addicts resort to stealing to support their habit," he says. "The effect of the heroin will wear off, and it's a serious drag. When heroin addicts withdraw, they become ill."

In 1979, Phillip was convicted of armed robbery. He walked into a store, and the clerk welcomed him perkily. "I thought, 'I can't believe I'm about to do this. This isn't me.' I pulled out the gun, and she freaked," he says, dragging his fingers down his cheek. "It's hard for me to live with the fact that I traumatized this woman. I wasn't going to hurt her, but she didn't know that." He squats on the floor, placing his hand by his face. "She was just like this. It stays with me."

He went to prison when he was 17, and grew up inside those walls.


In 1994, the Gun-Free Schools Act mandated that states adopt legislation requiring the one-year expulsion of students who brought drugs or weapons to school. Massachusetts' statute allows for permanent expulsion and doesn't require any alternative education for expelled students.

Amy Reichbach, an advocate with the Massachusetts ACLU, says such measures are used mostly at schools with few alternatives. "Schools are under-resourced, and may not be able to offer counseling and the extra costs of different educational needs," she says.

Since the busing riots in the 1970s, Boston public schools have Boston School Police in their halls. Today, they employ 84 such officers, who don't carry weapons but have full arrest powers on school property.

Reichbach says transgressions the school traditionally dealt with are now met with harsher penalties or given to law enforcement. "There's a perception out there that this just affects kids bringing weapons," she says. "But they can get expelled for other misbehavior, like disorderly conduct. They can get arrested for disturbing a school assembly." Any student facing criminal charges (including offenses that occurred off school grounds) can also be suspended.

Tami Wilson studies this "school-to-prison pipeline" at Harvard's Charles Hamilton Institute. "This is happening more often than we think, though it varies by school district," Wilson says. "Five urban school districts in Massachusetts with a large population of children of color, immigrants and children eligible to receive free lunch were responsible for 103, or over half, of all school exclusions." Students of color make up approximately 20 percent of the state's student population, but represent over 55 percent of school exclusions. The state's dropout rate has also risen, reaching 3.8 percent.

In Massachusetts, 70.4 percent of prisoners never completed high school.

Aaron Tanaka, of the Boston Workers' Alliance (BWA), a nonprofit for underemployed workers, sees crime as a product of poverty. "About 12,000 Boston youth aren't in school," he says. "They don't have options in the mainstream economy, so they get involved in illicit activity, like drug trade or sex work."


Phillip's done several stints since his initial sentence; mostly petty thefts and drug charges. "You always come out worse than you came in," he says. "You come out with so much anger, your self-esteem plummets because you're used to being treated like you're worthless, like you have no value. People talk like I'm an evil, vile human being."

Now he's homeless. He can't get public housing or a job with his record. "Idle time for a drug addict is very dangerous," he says. "You can imagine."


Pentlarge says the state must find alternatives to incarceration. "Part of the reason we've so overcrowded is we're treating a disease as a crime," he says. "If we treated it like alcoholism, we'd ultimately save some money."

Nolan thinks there's been a shift in societal conception. "People lose their sense of relativity. We panic when we see the number of homicides reach 60, but forget that in the '80s, it hit triple digits," he says. "We have a harsh and punitive attitude toward those who violate laws. I think we should be targeting addiction and everything that goes along with it. Prisons serve no purpose other than warehousing people and taking them off the streets for a period of time."

Approximately 97 percent of prisoners face eventual release. A 2006 report from Brandeis University estimates at least 39,700 people in the state are in critical need of drug treatment, but aren't receiving it. The Pew Center recently found that in the last 20 years, Massachusetts' spending on corrections grew 127 percent, compared to a 21 percent increase for public higher education. For every dollar spent on a state college, 98 cents is spent on prisons.

The governor's extensive bond bill plan for infrastructure repairs includes $2.5 billion for prison repairs and expansions. It's in committee right now, but results are due in June. Rep. Carl Sciortino Jr., D-Medford, backed a bill placing a moratorium on prison construction for the next five years, and creating a committee to investigate incarceration trends. The bill's essentially dead for the session.

Wilson says that her final report on Massachusetts' school-to-prison pipeline will offer alternatives to punitive measures. "We're looking into restorative justice and peer mediation programs," she says. "Say a student commits some type of offense. Instead of shipping them off, they'd have to own up to what they did. An apology is made, and students work together to find ways to rectify the situation. It's more of a healing process, it's inclusive and the offense itself is addressed."

Such approaches to criminal justice exist in many court systems worldwide, and are being explored in some US states. Colorado, Kansas, Arizona, Delaware, Florida and Tennessee have passed legislation allowing for out-of-court reparation programs, particularly for juvenile offenders. No such legislation exists in Massachusetts.

For now, Wilson is focusing on the statistical landscape of the problem. "But as we look at data, it's important we make the connection that these are actual people with real potential," she says.


Phillip is still using. Over the course of the interview at the Cambridge Needle Exchange, he verged from tangential diatribes, to holding his eyelids open with his fingers, to scratching his arms, looking around the corner.

He says he'd like to get clean and councel other junkies. But it's not so easy.

"It's a mess of a life," he says. "You're defeated without hope. But I have hope."

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Publisher drops book ban lawsuit against Mass. prisons

NOTE: PLN is continuing its lawsuit against the MA DOC, as issues related to damages and attorney fees are still not resolved. PLN is ably represented by NPAP attorneys Howard Friedman and David Milton.

Publisher drops book ban lawsuit against Mass. prisons

By Associated Press Wednesday, May 7, 2008

BOSTON - State prison officials have decided to allow a publisher of legal self-help books to distribute its materials in Massachusetts prisons.

The decision comes after mail-order publisher Prison Legal News sued Department of Correction Commissioner Harold Clarke. The Seattle-based publisher claimed Clarke was banning its publications in state prisons by refusing to add it to a list of approved vendors who can send books to prisoners.

DOC spokeswoman Diane Wiffin said Prison Legal News was added to the approved distribution list on May 1. She said Clarke, who became head of the state’s prison system late last year, is in the process of examining all its policies and practices "to determine whether any changes would be useful or beneficial."

Prison Legal News publishes a monthly journal of court decisions and other news affecting the rights of prisoners. It also distributes books on inmates’ legal rights.

Editor Paul Wright said he’s pleased with the DOC’s decision.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Prison Legal News Files First Amendment Lawsuit Against Massachusetts Corrections Officials for Banning It from Selling Books to State Prisoners

For immediate release:
April 23, 2008


Prison Legal News Files First Amendment Lawsuit Against Massachusetts Corrections Officials for Banning It from Selling Books to State Prisoners

Boston, MA – Prison Legal News (PLN), a non-profit publisher and bookseller, today filed a lawsuit in United States District Court in Boston against Corrections Commissioner Harold Clarke, former Commissioner Kathleen Dennehy, and others for banning books from PLN in Massachusetts prisons. PLN distributes books to prisoners in the other 49 states and to those in the federal prison system. Massachusetts, which permits only a handful of "approved vendors" to send books to prisoners, is the only state correctional system that refuses to allow PLN to send books to prisoners.

PLN distributes books and other written materials concerning the legal rights of prisoners and the conditions affecting prisoners. It is the sole distributor of some of these books. PLN distributes the Prisoner Diabetes Handbook free upon request. PLN also publishes a monthly magazine, Prison Legal News.

"Commissioner Clarke claims that improving prisoners' literacy is a priority in his administration, but banning books from Prison Legal News is designed to maintain an illiterate and uninformed prisoner population," said Paul Wright, the editor of Prison Legal News.

The lawsuit alleges that the policy banning PLN from sending books to Massachusetts state prisoners is unconstitutional. PLN seeks an order declaring the policy to be unconstitutional, preventing the defendants from maintaining the policy, and an award of damages and attorney's fees. PLN is represented by Boston attorneys Howard Friedman and David Milton of the Law Offices of Howard Friedman, P.C.

PLN has successfully vindicated the free speech rights of itself and its prisoner subscribers on numerous occasions around the country. Currently seven states operate their prison mail systems under PLN consent decrees, injunctions or both. Jails in three states operate under similar court orders.

PLN Editor Paul Wright can be reached at 802-257-1342 or and see www.prisonlegalnews.or..

Attorney Howard Friedman can be reached at 617-742-4100.

Friday, February 29, 2008

New High In U.S. Prison Numbers

New High In U.S. Prison Numbers
Growth Attributed To More Stringent Sentencing Laws
By N.C. Aizenman, Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008; A01

More than one in 100 adults in the United States is in jail or prison, an all-time high that is costing state governments nearly $50 billion a year and the federal government $5 billion more, according to a report released yesterday.

With more than 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States leads the world in both the number and percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving far-more-populous China a distant second, according to a study by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States.

The growth in prison population is largely because of tougher state and federal sentencing imposed since the mid-1980s. Minorities have been particularly affected: One in nine black men ages 20 to 34 is behind bars. For black women ages 35 to 39, the figure is one in 100, compared with one in 355 for white women in the same age group.

The report compiled and analyzed data from several sources, including the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics and Bureau of Prisons and each state's department of corrections. It did not include individuals detained for noncriminal immigration violations.

Although studies generally find that imprisoning more offenders reduces crime, the effect may be less influential than changes in the unemployment rate, wages, the ratio of police officers to residents and the proportion of young people in the population, report co-author Adam Gelb said.

In addition, when it comes to preventing repeat offenses by nonviolent criminals -- who make up about half of the incarcerated population -- less-expensive punishments such as community supervision, electronic monitoring and mandatory drug counseling might prove as much or more effective than jail.

For instance, Florida, which has almost doubled its prison population over the past 15 years, has experienced a smaller drop in crime than New York, which, after a brief increase, has reduced its number of inmates to below the 1993 level.

"There is no question that putting violent and chronic offenders behind bars lowers the crime rate and provides punishment that is well deserved," said Gelb, who as director of the Center's Public Safety Performance Project advises states on developing alternatives to incarceration. "On the other hand, there are large numbers of people behind bars who could be supervised in the community safely and effectively at a much lower cost -- while also paying taxes, paying restitution to their victims and paying child support."

Sociologist James Q. Wilson, who in the 1980s helped develop the "broken windows" theory that smaller crimes must be punished to deter more serious ones, agreed that sentences for some drug crimes were too long. However, Wilson disagreed that the rise in the U.S. prison population should be considered a cause for alarm: "The fact that we have a large prison population by itself is not a central problem because it has contributed to the extraordinary increase in public safety we have had in this country."

About 91 percent of incarcerated adults are under state or local jurisdiction. And the report also documents the tradeoffs state governments have faced as they devote larger shares of their budgets to house them. For instance, over the past two decades, state spending on corrections (adjusted for inflation) increased 127 percent; spending on higher education rose 21 percent.

Five states -- Vermont, Michigan, Oregon, Connecticut and Delaware -- now spend as much as or more on corrections as on higher education. Locally, Maryland is near the top, spending 74 cents on corrections for every dollar it spends on higher education. Virginia spends 60 cents on the dollar.

Despite reaching its latest milestone, the nation's incarcerated population has been growing more slowly since 2000 than it did during the 1990s, when harsher sentencing laws began to take effect. These included a 1986 federal law (since revised) mandating prison terms for crack cocaine offenses that were up to eight times as long as for those involving powder cocaine. In the 1990s, many states adopted "three-strikes-you're-out" laws and curtailed the powers of parole boards.

Many state systems also send offenders back to prison for technical violations of their parole or probation, such as failing a drug test or missing an appointment with a supervisory officer. A 2005 study of California's system, for example, found that more than two-thirds of parolees were being returned to prison within three years of release, 40 percent for technical infractions.

"We're just stuck in this carousel that people get off of, then get right back on again," said Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, who as New York City police commissioner in the 1990s oversaw a significant reduction in crime.

Because of these policy shifts, the nationwide prison population swelled by about 80 percent from 1990 to 2000, increasing by as much as 86,000 a year. By contrast, from 2007 to 2008, that population increased by 25,000, a 2 percent rise.

The U.S. Supreme Court has recently issued decisions giving judges more leeway under mandatory sentencing laws, and a number of states -- including Texas, which has the country's second-highest incarceration rate -- are seeking to reduce their prison population by adopting alternative punishments.

Last year, Maryland officials began developing a new risk-assessment system to ensure that low-level offenders are not kept in jail longer than necessary, said Shannon Avery, executive director of a policy planning division of the state's Department of Public Safety.

"That's what you have to do when you don't have enormous amounts of tax dollars available for building prisons," she said.

Among the early innovators that states can look to is Virginia, which overhauled its system for sentencing nonviolent offenders in the mid-1990s. Although the state's incarceration rate remains relatively high, Virginia has managed to slow the growth of its prison population substantially and reduce the share of its budget spent on corrections while still reducing its crime rate.

State judges use a point system to weigh factors believed to predict a lawbreaker's likelihood of becoming a repeat offender or otherwise pose a threat to public safety. Those deemed low risk are given alternative sentences. As a result, the share of Virginia prison beds occupied by nonviolent convicts has dropped, from 40 percent in 1994 to 23 percent in 2007.

"The idea is to make a distinction between the people we're afraid of and the ones we're just ticked off at," said Rick Kern, director of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission. "Not that you shouldn't punish them. But if it's going to cost $27,500 a year to keep them locked up, then maybe we should be smarter about how we do it."

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Interview with Paul Wright on Prison Profiteers

This is the video of the interview Paul Wright did with KEXP radio in Seattle last month about his new book, "Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration". The video also aired on community access TV in Seattle. It has now been posted on Youtube. It is 30 minutes long.

If you would like to check out the book, more information and ordering information is available at:

Paul Wright, Editor
Prison Legal News
972 Putney Rd. # 251
Brattleboro, VT 05301

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Commutation plea carries a political risk for Patrick

Commutation plea carries a political risk for Patrick
Killer's request OK'd by Parole Board
By Shelley Murphy, Globe Staff

NORFOLK - Arnold King's supporters say he is the model prisoner.
In 36 years behind bars, he has earned undergraduate and master's degrees, published articles, mentored fellow inmates, and counseled high school students about the pitfalls of drugs and violence.

But it was the reason he ended up in prison that will forever define his life. On Oct. 20, 1971, King, then 18 years old and high on marijuana and alcohol, stuck a gun in a car window on Newbury Street and fired a shot into the head of John Labanara, a 26-year-old campaign aide to Mayor Kevin H. White of Boston. King was convicted of first-degree murder eight months later and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Now, after two-thirds of his life behind bars, King is asking for a second chance. He is the first inmate whose plea to be set free has made it to the desk of Governor Deval Patrick, and his attempt has met with the unanimous approval of the state Parole Board.

His request for a commutation - a reduction in sentence - along with the Parole Board's support, marks the first test of whether Patrick's attitude toward prisoners will be different from that of his Republican predecessors, who last commuted a sentence 11 years ago. It also forces the governor to wade into what has been a political minefield.

"In this society, everybody gets a second chance," said King, 55, in a recent interview in a bare conference room at the Bay State Correctional Center, a medium security prison.

"I think what I want people to understand is there is a possibility for change," King said. "I want to portray myself not as a teenage killer, but as a person who has done a lot of work and tried to make myself a better person. I think I have done that, and other people think I've done that."

King's supporters include the Massachusetts Black Legislative Caucus, academics, ministers, and community leaders, among them Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner, and former Boston mayoral candidate Mel King. But Labanara's family, Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis, and Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley oppose King's release.

Labanara, a graduate of Boston University and Suffolk Law School, had just passed the Massachusetts bar exam and was coming from a celebration with friends when King shot and killed him during an attempted robbery.

"He snuffed out a life that was full of promise and hope for no reason whatsoever," said Stephen Bowen III, a close friend of Labanara's who worked with him on political campaigns. "For all those people who have sympathetic ears to Arnold King, let them have one of their children killed on the happiest day of their life and call me and tell me they forgive."

The state's six-member Advisory Board of Pardons, which is also the Parole Board, cited King's "exceptional strides" and sent his commutation petition to Patrick's desk Dec. 18 with a unanimous recommendation that he accept it. The governor's approval would move it to the Governor's Council for a final decision.

As the governor addresses the issue, the specter of Benjamin LaGuer looms large. LaGuer is a convicted rapist whom Patrick and many other community leaders rallied behind until DNA tests linked him to the crime. Patrick's actions - he donated money to LaGuer's defense - proved a controversial issue during the 2006 gubernatorial campaign.

Since then, Patrick has cautiously approached criminal justice issues, emphasizing his belief in rehabilitation, while not wanting to appear soft on crime. He declined through a spokesman to talk about his views on commutations and pardons. A statement released by his press secretary said: "The Governor is inclined to believe that offenders should serve their sentences in full. There is, however, a process in place where it is the responsibility of the Board of Pardons to review individual cases and make recommendations. The Governor will take advice from the Board under advisement and will make his own decision on a case by case basis."

Commutations and pardons are politically risky, and politicians over the last 20 years have been generally unwilling to grant any leniency for inmates, according to Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist.

"It seems that in politics today it's not a risk worth taking because of the potential backlash that can happen," said Marsh, citing the oft-referenced 1988 presidential campaign of former governor Michael S. Dukakis. "Whether you stay in office or run for higher office, it certainly will come up again."

Dukakis was lambasted for granting 48 commutations during his first term as governor, including 45 for first- and second-degree murderers. He was also criticized for a state furlough program that allowed inmates to go home for weekends. One inmate, Willie Horton, raped a Maryland woman and stabbed her husband during a 1986 furlough.

During his presidential bid, Mitt Romney, Patrick's Republican predecessor as governor, touted the fact that he had granted no commutations or pardons. Political rivals accused Romney of being inflexible for refusing to pardon a decorated Iraqi war veteran who could not become a police officer because he grazed a classmate with a BB gun when he was 13 years old.

The last commutation in Massachusetts was granted to Joseph Salvati in 1997, amid evidence he had been wrongly convicted of a 1965 murder. His conviction was later overturned.

Since Patrick took office last year, the number of commutation and pardon petitions has spiked, with 131 filed in 2007, compared with 49 during Romney's last year in office. King's commutation request and two pardon petitions were the only ones approved by the advisory board and forwarded to Patrick.

King, whose five prior commutation requests were denied, said he is sorry for killing Labanara.

Three days after he had been paroled from a New Hampshire prison after serving seven months for robbery, King and a friend were planning to rob a drug dealer when they came upon Labanara at 1:30 a.m., King said.

"I was young, on drugs and alcohol, it was more that I was out of control," said King, a high school dropout who was raised in Portsmouth, N.H., and started drinking and doing drugs by the time he was 13.

John Labanara grew up in Belmont, and played hockey at Belmont High and at Boston University. He served in the National Guard.

His mother, Margaret, who was widowed when Labanara was 2 and worked full time as a telephone company supervisor to raise her two sons, was devastated when her son died on what had been one of the happiest days of his life, said Lynne Labanara, widow of Labanara's brother, Frederick, who died in 2006.

"How lucky he is to have the opportunity to do all the things he is doing - and I strongly feel that he should continue to do that in prison," she said.

Labanara's family and friends also voiced concern about the more than 50 disciplinary reports King has received in prison.

"I don't believe he's been rehabilitated one bit," said Bowen, Labanara's friend. "He's just a conman who is . . . trying to get out on the street."

The advisory board denied King's first three petitions, citing his disciplinary record, the nature of the crime, and his failure to accept responsibility for the murder. But, the board voted 3-3 on his fourth petition, and 4-3 in favor of his fifth bid, which was then rejected by Romney.

King said he had difficulty adjusting to prison initially, but changed after getting educated, joining self-help groups, and founding programs that involve counseling high school students and other inmates. It is that kind of counseling work that supporters say is not only proof of his reform, but would make him a valuable resource in the community.

Sam Williams, chief operating officer of the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry in Roxbury, says he owes much of his success to King. "There are a lot of men in the community who are doing as well as I am who got taught and were mentored by Arnie," said Williams, who was released from prison in 1996 after serving 11 years for killing a man during a drug deal.

Ogletree, among King's most prominent supporters, said he understands the pain of being a victim because his sister, a police officer, was murdered 25 years ago.

"The fact that he could fall and go all the way to the lowest possible place and have the fortitude to rise above his misconduct and bad judgment to be someone that others look to for advice, for direction, that's why I think he has earned what I hope the governor will grant," Ogletree said.

Bypassing detention centers

Bypassing detention centers
Program aims to keep youths at home, out of trouble
By Maria Cramer, Globe Staff

Isaiah is a soft-spoken sixth-grader with poor grades, virtually no relationship with his father, and a police record that includes attempted breaking and entering and assault and battery - the latter on his mother and sister when he was 11 years old.

He also has something else: a new lease on a young life, courtesy of a juvenile judge.

When Isaiah was arrested last November for trying to break into a friend's house in Dorchester, Judge Leslie Harris could have ordered him to be locked up in a detention center that resembles an adult prison.

Instead, Harris decided on a less punitive option. He referred Isaiah to an innovative program, through which the boy - and about 30 other Boston children charged with serious crimes - lives at home and stays in school. Three to four times a week, the children, who range in age from 11 to 17, go to a community center in Roxbury, where they meet with advocates who make sure they stick to court-ordered curfews and attend school. They receive counseling and take tours of nearby colleges on field trips their advocates hope will expand their world view beyond the street corners that seem to cause them so much trouble.

The fledgling program, known as the Detention Diversion Advocacy Project, was born in 2005 from a concern that too many minority children and teenagers are held at the state's juvenile detention centers. Incarceration at that age, statistics suggest, is even more likely to lead to a life of crime than being in a gang.

The program, which is funded with a grant from the federal Department of Justice and administered by the state, is part of a growing trend in recent years to steer children and teenagers away from detention. In 2006, more than 5,400 youths across Massachusetts were ordered held on charges ranging from trespassing and larceny to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Only about 1,000 of them were eventually found guilty of their charges.

In Suffolk County, about 91 percent of the 1,019 youths detained were minorities. Most of them were black and Hispanic.

"I very seldom have a day where I'm not sending kids to DYS," said Harris, who works out of Dorchester District Court, which refers children to the program. "I also know that locking up kids isn't always the answer. I believe I see kids who are stressed and depressed, and having a program like DDAP can give them individualized attention before they become part of the system."

The state does not measure recidivism among teenagers and children who have been detained, but studies in other states show that youths who are locked up while they wait for their court dates are more likely to drop out of school, become depressed, and meet gang members who will try to recruit them. In Wisconsin, 70 percent of the youths detained were arrested again or returned to a detention center within a year after their release, according to a 2006 study of detention programs by the Justice Policy Institute.

Department of Youth Services Commissioner Jane Tewksbury said the state is in the preliminary stages of developing alternative programs that would focus on keeping children charged with less serious crimes, such as shoplifting, from being held while they wait for their court dates.

"I was aware of the dangers of detention," Tewksbury said. "For us, detention reform really is getting the kids with the less serious offenses out of the system."

Isaiah, who always wears a knit cap and favors baggy Dickies pants, describes his arrests with bravado. He laughed as he recalled one incident two years ago, when he said a zealous officer charged into his grandparents' house and pointed a gun at him and his grandmother. The officer showed up after Isaiah had run away from home following a fight with his mother and sister, who called the police to report the assault.

"Some white guy came in and said 'Freeze,' " Isaiah said, chuckling at the memory. "My grandmother said, 'Is this really necessary? He's only 11 years old.' " When he was referred to the Dorchester-based program, rather than being grateful to be kept out of detention, he was annoyed that his schedule was disrupted and suspicious of his advocate, Deborah Duncan, who remembered an angry boy who just wanted to go home.

" 'Why I gotta do this?' " she recalled him grumbling. "I thought it was going to be a hard one to crack, but he came around."

Isaiah eventually embraced life at the center, showing up almost every day and participating in activities organized by groups like Mission Safe, a nonprofit organization that runs after-school programs for teenagers and middle-school students. Isaiah's family asked that his full name be withheld because he is a juvenile.

Most days after school, Isaiah shoots pool in the basement of the community center or visits Simmons College, where he talks with students about their majors or conducts science experiments.

One Wednesday afternoon, he made ice cream with Boston University students in the community center, though the results were less appetizing than he expected.

"It was watery," he said with a grimace.
He now says he wants to be a police officer, but emphasized that his policing style will be "way different" from some of the officers he has met. He wants to do better in school, though mostly because his mother has promised him a new bike if his grades improve.

"He's very articulate, he has a lot of potential, and I don't want him to give up on himself," Duncan said.

If he is not arrested and shows up for every court date until his case is decided, he will be considered a success story for the program.

The number of detained children in the state has dwindled in recent years, from 6,408 in 2003 to 5,438 in 2006.

But as alternative programs like DDAP struggle to find funding, advocates worry that without them, judges will have no choice but to continue incarcerating children, who can quickly adapt to life behind bars.

"People who are at DYS think they can now handle prison, so they're not afraid of going to prison and they should be," said Harris, the juvenile court judge. "We've developed, in my mind, a bunch of kids who think they've earned their red badge of courage, because they went into the system."

Isaiah, who already has been detained at the Department of Youth Services, shrugged when he was asked if he feared being locked up.

"Not really," he said. "I'll get out sooner or later."

Professor Lee, "Life Without"

This event is this evening--2/27/08 at 6:30 pm.

On February 27, from 6:30 - 8:30 pm at the Museum of African American History, 46 Joy Street, Boston, MA, Massachuesetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Professor Helen Elaine Lee will read from her new novel "Life Without" which chronicles the lives of inmates in U. S. prisons.

The Somerville 5 Need Your Support

Somerville 5 need you to attend Cambridge Juvenile Court tomorrow @ 9:00 am!!

Retired, Unemployed, Bored or Motivated by the pursuit of Justice? Come to court tomorrow!!!
( And for however long the trial lasts! )


The trial for the juvenile defendants in the case will start
Your immediate help is needed:

Thursday, 2/28/08 9:00 AM

Middlesex Juvenile Court, 121 Third St. - Cambridge (brick building, corner of Thorndike + Third Streets, Lechmere Stop on Green Line)

Call, Fax or Write the Judge.
Demand Case be dismissed and all charges dropped!
Chief Justice of Juvenile Court Honorable Martha P. Grace, 3 Center Plaza, #520, Boston, MA 02108; TELEPHONE: 617-788-6550; FAX: 617-788-8965

The Somerville 5 are Black youth who were racially profiled by white Medford police then attacked, beaten, maced and arrested on April 20, 2005. They were charged with numerous crimes and suspended from Somerville High School. They became a symbol across Boston of youth standing up and fighting back against racism and police brutality.

Almost three years later, the Medford cops and Middlesex DA are continuing with their attempts to railroad the remaining 2 defendants, Cassius Belfon and Earl Guerra. Jury selection will start on Wednesday, February 27 and the trial is expected to begin on Thursday, February 28th.

These young men should be allowed to get on with their lives. Both Cassius and Earl will be graduating from high school this year and are looking forward to attending college. Both are active in organized sports and church activities.

The pursuit of this racist vendatta by the Medford Police and DA is an outrage, particularly in light of the fact that the first trial of Calvin Belfon and Isaiah Anderson was rife with conflicting police testimony and lies. One witness for the prosecution turned against them and testified in defense of the Somerville 5, saying she had been coerced and duped. Other witnesses were taken to the police station and threatened. The judge stated in a memo that it was clear that the police initiated the attack on the youths, resulting in the youths being forced to defend themselves.

For one and a half years, the Committee to Defend the Somerville 5, friends, family and supporters picketed, rallied, held press conferences, conducted a national phone/fax campaign, held fundraisers and then packed the courtroom. The judge, the jury, the police and the DA all took note of this. As a result, the DA's plan to lock the youth in prison for 2 years was stopped! But they were found guilty of some charges and given 2 years probation.

Enough is enough! We need to defend our youth! Demand all charges be dropped against Cassius Belfon and Earl Guerra!

Thank you,

Committee to Defend the Somerville 5

c/o The Action Center

284 Amory St.

Jamaica Plain, MA 02130


Sunday, February 10, 2008

New Site for Logging Abuse Complaints on Behalf of Prisoners

Do you have a love one in lockdown? Does he/she complain about physical or mental abuses ? Are they being denied medicines or are locked down in solitary confinement for month on end? Have you complain to the "proper" authorities with no avail..?

Well here is a website to log your abuse complaints and to link with other activism on behalf of prisoners as well.

This is the website to log abuses, name names, and let other know what is happening behind the walls. Find out what is happening in the prison industrial complex that your tax dollars fund without your input.

Torture and death happens everyday right here in the United States Prison System. Get in touch with the truth and let people know that prisoners are still human beings.

Log on to

Please write a letter in support of Arnold King

Please send a letter to Governor Deval Patrick in support of Arnold's commutation

Peace People, here are some points that we discussed at the community meeting at Mel King’s on Sunday (2/4), including some points from the legal team.

We would like you to write a letter in support of Arnold to Governor Deval Patrick asking him to approve Arnold's petition for commutation and forward Arnold's package to the Governor's Council for consideration.

Please address the letter to:

Governor Deval Patrick, Massachusetts State House, Room 360, Boston, MA 02133

Please incorporate into your unique letter as many of the following points as possible:


· People who write support letters to the Governor should state how long they’ve known Arnie.
· Optional…say something about how you met
· If you have, say how many parole hearings you’ve attended.


· People might want to mention that you’re aware of the Governor’s creation of an Anti-Crime Council.
· Of the Governor's direct participation in council meetings.
· Maybe mention some of the things that prompted him to establish the council, and its mission.
· Looking at Arnie’s documented record over the pass 30 years particularly in,
· Education,- Programs-participated in and created-
· Youth councilling
· Arnie, could be appropriate candidate for his muti-faceted Anti-crime council.
· Can quote MA advisory board statement about Arnie, “may very well prevent future crime by his outreach work in the community” or any other quote you feel is relevant.


· Para phase: we are also aware from your guidelines that you recognize the people with the greatest expertise to make an informed judgement on commutation petitions are the members of the parole board.
· That the advisory board has scrutinized Arnie for over twenty years.
· That after four hearings, 1992-2002-2004-2007
· Attendance at the hearings rose respectively from, 45, 75, 130, ~150. Couldn’t count the 2007 hearing since the parole room was filled, the over flow room was filled, the lobby, and hallways. They started telling people as they drove in, there was no more room.
· Arnold's self-development, self-improvement, exceptional strides…
· Arnold's unanimous recommendation for commutation and release.


Final point that the majority of the parole board was appointed by Republican Gov.s, Deval Patrick has only appointed two people of the six…so, they can not say that he is soft on crime if he signs it…He is simple following the process that was set up long before him.

Please write this letter of support as soon as possible and send a copy to Arnold (Bay State Center, P.O. Box 73, Norfolk, MA 02056) and Marva (1511 Athens Road, Wilmington, DE 19803).

Thank you for continuing to support our brother.

Peace and Love,

Kazi Toure and the rest of the King Family

Editor's Note: You may wish to review the Governor's Clemency Guidelines.