Jan 302012

In October of 1990, I heard a prison cell door clang shut behind me for the first time.  Reality struck.  Time stopped.  It was easier for me than for many, because I served only nine years.  Ever since I have searched for ways to convey the experience to others, who have not been there themselves.  I never could do so to my complete satisfaction, but in a recent article, Adam Gopnik has.  Here is a very small part of it:

man_behind_barsA prison is a trap for catching time. Good reporting appears often about the inner life of the American prison, but the catch is that American prison life is mostly undramatic—the reported stories fail to grab us, because, for the most part, nothing happens. One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is all you need to know about Ivan Denisovich, because the idea that anyone could live for a minute in such circumstances seems impossible; one day in the life of an American prison means much less, because the force of it is that one day typically stretches out for decades. It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates. The inmates on death row in Texas are called men in “timeless time,” because they alone aren’t serving time: they aren’t waiting out five years or a decade or a lifetime. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock.

That’s why no one who has been inside a prison, if only for a day, can ever forget the feeling. Time stops. A note of attenuated panic, of watchful paranoia—anxiety and boredom and fear mixed into a kind of enveloping fog, covering the guards as much as the guarded. “Sometimes I think this whole world is one big prison yard, / Some of us are prisoners, some of us are guards,” Dylan sings, and while it isn’t strictly true—just ask the prisoners—it contains a truth: the guards are doing time, too. As a smart man once wrote after being locked up, the thing about jail is that there are bars on the windows and they won’t let you out. This simple truth governs all the others. What prisoners try to convey to the free is how the presence of time as something being done to you, instead of something you do things with, alters the mind at every moment. For American prisoners, huge numbers of whom are serving sentences much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the civilized world—Texas alone has sentenced more than four hundred teen-agers to life imprisonment—time becomes in every sense this thing you serve…

Inserted from <The New Yorker>

I urge you to click the link and read the entire article, especially if you think that prison is somehow like a country club.  You may think that prisoners deserve abuse, or that it just does not matter to you, but it does.  Almost every person locked behind bars will be released.  They will walk your streets.  They will live in your neighborhoods.  The quality of care and opportunities for prisoners to rebuild themselves, as productive citizens, who obey the law, has a direct effect on your safety and that of your family.  If you can’t support making prisons places to restore people, because it’s the right thing to do. do it because it’s the selfish thing to do.

Nov 232011

One area where the United States indisputably leads the world is incarceration.

The United States has 2.3 million people behind bars, almost one in every 100 Americans. The U.S. prison population has more than doubled over the past 15 years, and one in nine black children has a parent in jail.

Proportionally, the United States has four times as many prisoners as Israel, six times as many as Canada or China, eight times as many as Germany and 13 times as many as Japan.

With just a little more than 4 percent of the world’s population, the United States accounts for a quarter of the planet’s prisoners and has more inmates than the leading 35 European countries combined. Almost all the other nations with high per capita prison rates are in the developing world.

There’s also a national election in the United States soon. This issue isn’t on the agenda. It’s almost never come up with Republican presidential candidates; one of the few exceptions was at a debate in September when the audience cheered the notion of executions in Texas.

Barack Obama, the first black president, rarely mentions this question or how it disproportionately affects minorities. More than 60 percent of the United States’ prisoners are black or Hispanic, though these groups comprise less than 30 percent of the population.

“We’ve had a race to incarcerate that has been driven by politics, racially coded, get-tough appeals,” said Michelle Alexander, a law professor at Ohio State University who wrote “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

The escalating cost of the criminal-justice system is an important factor in the fiscal challenges around the United States. Nowhere is that more evident than in California, which is struggling to obey a court order requiring it to reduce its overcrowded prisons by 40,000 inmates.

Today, there are 140,000 convicts in California’s state prisons, who cost about $50,000 each per year. The state pays more on prisons than it does on higher education.

Yet the prisons are so crowded — as many as 54 inmates have to share one toilet — that Conrad Murray, the doctor convicted in the death of the pop star Michael Jackson, may be able to avoid most prison time.

California isn’t unique. In Raleigh County, West Virginia, the county commission has worried that the cost of housing inmates at its Southern Regional Jail may imperil basic services, including education. That problem is exacerbated as the state keeps more prisoners longer at such regional facilities to alleviate its overcrowding problems.

The prison explosion hasn’t been driven by an increase in crime. In fact, the crime rate, notably for violent offenses, is dropping across the United States, a phenomenon that began about 20 years ago.

The latest F.B.I. figures show that murder, rape and robberies have fallen to an almost half-century low; to be sure, they remain higher than in other major industrialized countries.

There are many theories for this decline. The most accepted is that community police work in major metropolitan areas has improved markedly, focusing on potential high-crime areas. There are countless other hypotheses, even ranging to controversial claims that more accessible abortion has reduced a number of unwanted children who were more likely to have committed crimes.

However, one other likely explanation is that more than a few would-be criminals are locked up. Scholars like James Q. Wilson have noted that the longer prison terms that are being handed down may matter more than the conviction rates.

This comes at a clear cost. For those who do ultimately get out, being an ex-con means about a 40 percent decrease in annual earnings.

Moreover, research suggests that children from homes where a father is in jail do considerably less well in life and are more prone to becoming criminals themselves.

“People ask why so many black kids are growing up without fathers,” said Ms. Alexander. “A big part of the answer is mass incarceration.”

It seems clear that the U.S. penal system discriminates against minorities. Some of this is socioeconomic, as poorer people, disproportionately blacks and Hispanics, may commit more crimes.

Much of the inmate explosion and racial disparities, however, grow out of the way the United States treats illegal drugs. It began several decades ago with harsher penalties for crimes involving crack cocaine, which was more widely used by blacks, than powder cocaine, which was more likely to involve whites. A larger issue is how the U.S. criminal justice system differentiates in its treatment of drug sellers — who get the book thrown at them — versus drug users, who, at most, get a slap on the wrist.

A hypothetical example: A black kid is arrested for selling cocaine to the members of a fraternity at an elite university. The seller gets sent away for 25 years. The fraternity is put on probation for a semester by the university and nothing else.

In all likelihood, the convicted seller is quickly replaced, and few of the fraternity kids change their drug-use habits. The lesson: neither the supply nor the demand has changed, and the prison population grows.

Given their budgetary difficulties, about half the states are actually reducing their prison populations. Smart selective policies are cost-effective. Many criminologists and sociologists say the proclivity to commit crimes diminishes with age; the recidivism rate for convicts over 30 is relatively low, and most every analysis suggests that parole and probation are far less expensive for taxpayers than incarceration.

Nevertheless, the politics of the crime issue cuts against any rational approach. Even if recidivism rates are low, it’s the failures that attract attention. In 1988, the Democratic presidential nominee, Michael S. Dukakis, was savaged when it was revealed that one convict, Willie Horton, who was furloughed on his watch as governor of Massachusetts committed a rape while at large. Four years ago, the former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, a Republican, was hurt in his bid for his party’s nomination by reports of crimes committed by felons who were paroled during his time in office.

“One case where a parolee does something very wrong is sensationalized,” Ms. Alexander said, “and many, many others are kept behind bars for a long time.”

Paul Solomon

Executive Director

Sponsors, Inc.

338 Highway 99 North

Eugene, OR 97402

Main Office: 541.485.8341

( Direct: 541.505.5652)

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Apr 142011

The excessive cost of telephone calls plagued me as a prisoner, and twelve years later there’s far too little progress in eliminating the shameful fleecing of prisoners’ loved ones.

14prisonphoneAn exhaustive analysis of prison phone contracts nationwide has revealed that with only limited exceptions, telephone service providers offer lucrative kickbacks (politely termed “commissions”) to state contracting agencies – amounting on average to 42% of gross revenues from prisoners’ phone calls – in order to obtain exclusive, monopolistic contracts for prison phone services.

These contracts are priced not only to unjustly enrich the telephone companies by charging much higher rates than those paid by the general public, but are further inflated to cover the commission payments, which suck over $152 million per year out of the pockets of prisoners’ families – who are the overwhelming recipients of prison phone calls. Averaging a 42% kickback nationwide, this indicates that the phone market in state prison systems is worth more than an estimated $362 million annually in gross revenue.

In a research task never before accomplished, Prison Legal News, using public records laws, secured prison phone contract information from all 50 states (compiled in 2008-2009 and representing data from 2007-2008). The initial survey was conducted by PLN contributing writer Mike Rigby, with follow-up research by PLN associate editor Alex Friedmann.

The phone contracts were reviewed to determine the service provider; the kickback percentage; the annual dollar amount of the kickbacks; and the rates charged for local calls, intrastate calls (within a state based on calls from one Local Access and Transport Area to another, known as interLATA), and interstate calls (long distance between states). To simplify this survey, only collect call and daytime rates were analyzed.

Around 30 states allow discounted debit and/or prepaid collect calls, which provide lower prison phone rates (much lower in some cases). However, since other states don’t offer such options and not all prisoners or their families have access to debit or prepaid accounts, only collect calls – which are available in all prison systems except Iowa’s – were compared. Also, while telephone companies sometimes provide reduced rates for evening and nighttime calls, many prisoners don’t have the luxury of scheduling phone calls during those time periods.

Lastly, it should be noted that more recent phone rates may now be in effect due to new contract awards or renewals, and while data was obtained from all 50 states, it was not complete for each category. See the chart accompanying this article for a breakdown of the data obtained…

Inserted from <Prison Legal News>

Hat Tip: Cure National

This is just the introduction to an extensive review.  I urge you to read the original.

Jun 102010

The current economy is forcing hard choices in Salem.

sci_inst Oregon corrections officials proposed Wednesday closing three prisons, releasing nearly 1,000 inmates and cutting 232 jobs as part of the budget-cutting planned by Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

The three are the Mill Creek work camp and the Santiam Correctional Institution in Salem, and the Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City, according to budget documents released by the governor’s office.

They are among the smaller prisons in Oregon’s system of 14 correctional facilities. All are minimum-security facilities.

With revenue falling short of expectations, Kulongoski two weeks ago ordered agencies to come up with 9 percent across-the-board cuts. He said Wednesday he would announce a final cut list by the end of the month.

The governor has limited flexibility in trimming the budget. He’s allowed only to order an “allotment,” which means all agencies cut their budgets by the same percentage…

Inserted from <Business Week>

I expect heavy opposition to this from the corrections union, from people who support punishment over rehabilitation and restoration, and especially from companies that profit, sometimes excessively, from prison contracts and their lobbyists.  In my opinion this is a far better plan than cutting programming that helps prisoners better themselves.