Retiring Arizona Prison Watch...

This site was originally started in July 2009 as an independent endeavor to monitor conditions in Arizona's criminal justice system, as well as offer some critical analysis of the prison industrial complex from a prison abolitionist/anarchist's perspective. It was begun in the aftermath of the death of Marcia Powell, a 48 year old AZ state prisoner who was left in an outdoor cage in the desert sun for over four hours while on a 10-minute suicide watch. That was at ASPC-Perryville, in Goodyear, AZ, in May 2009.

Marcia, a seriously mentally ill woman with a meth habit sentenced to the minimum mandatory 27 months in prison for prostitution was already deemed by society as disposable. She was therefore easily ignored by numerous prison officers as she pleaded for water and relief from the sun for four hours. She was ultimately found collapsed in her own feces, with second degree burns on her body, her organs failing, and her body exceeding the 108 degrees the thermometer would record. 16 officers and staff were disciplined for her death, but no one was ever prosecuted for her homicide. Her story is here.

Marcia's death and this blog compelled me to work for the next 5 1/2 years to document and challenge the prison industrial complex in AZ, most specifically as manifested in the Arizona Department of Corrections. I corresponded with over 1,000 prisoners in that time, as well as many of their loved ones, offering all what resources I could find for fighting the AZ DOC themselves - most regarding their health or matters of personal safety.

I also began to work with the survivors of prison violence, as I often heard from the loved ones of the dead, and learned their stories. During that time I memorialized the Ghosts of Jan Brewer - state prisoners under her regime who were lost to neglect, suicide or violence - across the city's sidewalks in large chalk murals. Some of that art is here.

In November 2014 I left Phoenix abruptly to care for my family. By early 2015 I was no longer keeping up this blog site, save occasional posts about a young prisoner in solitary confinement in Arpaio's jail, Jessie B.

I'm deeply grateful to the prisoners who educated, confided in, and encouraged me throughout the years I did this work. My life has been made all the more rich and meaningful by their engagement.

I've linked to some posts about advocating for state prisoner health and safety to the right, as well as other resources for families and friends. If you are in need of additional assistance fighting the prison industrial complex in Arizona - or if you care to offer some aid to the cause - please contact the Phoenix Anarchist Black Cross at PO Box 7241 / Tempe, AZ 85281.

until all are free -

MARGARET J PLEWS (June 1, 2015)


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AZ Prison Watch BLOG POSTS:

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Parsons v Ryan: Wexford confirms AZ DOC class action allegations.

This was an interesting revelation this week. Big shout out to the foks at Wexford for doing us this service. And good for KJZZ for covering it and linking to the original court documents (linked to below) - which families who are fighting for your loved ones rights need to read.

-----from KJZZ Public Radio-----

The company that once provided health care services for Arizona’s 33,000 inmates told state officials the corrections health system “is broken and does not provide a constitutional level of care.” That information came from records unsealed by a federal court on Tuesday.

Wexford Health Sources was hired in July 2012 by the Corrections Department to provide health care for the state prison system. The legislature had ordered the department to privatize prisoner health care in an effort to reduce costs. At the time the state was, and still is, facing a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates who alleged the state was not providing adequate health care.

After a review of the prison system’s health care program Wexford found “the current class action lawsuit to be accurate.”

Dan Pochoda is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union representing the inmates.

"They specifically said there were four areas that were required for constitutional care and minimally adequate care, and in all four areas the Arizona Department of Corrections failed," Pochoda said.

Inadequate staffing, training and poor record keeping were among Wexford’s complaints. Two months after the assessment, Wexford and the Department of Corrections agreed to sever the 3 year $349 million contract.

At the time corrections officials blamed Wexford for a variety of problems. DOC spokesman Doug Nick would not elaborate.

 "The delivery of health care of comprehensive health care is the subject of ongoing litigation, and the department’s response to any specific allegations will be addressed through the legal process," Nick said.

Meanwhile another provider was hired to serve the inmates, but the ACLU said health care has not improved. It may be several months before the court issues a decision on the lawsuit against the Corrections Department.

View court Exhibit 1 and Exhibit 2, presentation information compiled by Wexford Health Sources.

Eric Holder to American Bar Association on sentencing reform, mass imprisonment.

There have been many articles and opinion pages already written about this change in the headwinds at the DOJ, which is quite signifigant. After looking around for the best analysis to post here, I decided the best thing to do is just put Holder's whole speech out there for you to see yourself. This is really pretty remarkable, considering the DOJ that raised it's ugly head under John Ashcroft. 

Already the feds have told Colorado and Washington State that they won't interfere with state plans to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana use, and have re-prioritized how they prosecute some drug crimes. Unfortunately, AZ seems to lag behind the rest of the nation by about 30 years on this kind of intellectual honesty, so don't get your hopes up, folks - we are far from being "smart on crime" (thanks to men like Chuck Ryan and Bill Montgomery being allowed to set the agenda through boards like the AZ Criminal Justice Commission) but we'll see where this takes us...


San Francisco ~ Monday, August 12, 2013

Thank you, Bob Carlson, for those kind words – and for your exemplary service as Chair of the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates.  It’s a pleasure to be with you this morning.  And it’s a privilege to join so many friends, colleagues, and leaders – including U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California Melinda Haag – here in San Francisco for the ABA’s 2013 Annual Meeting.

I’d like to thank your Delegates for all that they’ve done to bring us together this week – and for their dedication to serving as faithful stewards of the greatest legal system the world has ever known.  From its earliest days, our Republic has been bound together by this system, and by the values that define it.  These values – equality, opportunity, and justice under law – were first codified in the United States Constitution.  And they were renewed and reclaimed – nearly a century later – by this organization’s earliest members.

With the founding of the ABA in 1878, America’s leading legal minds came together – for the first time – to revolutionize their profession.  In the decades that followed, they created new standards for training and professional conduct.  And they established the law as a clear and focused vocation at the heart of our country’s identity.

Throughout history, Americans of all backgrounds and walks of life have turned to our legal system to settle disputes, but also to hold accountable those who have done wrong – and even to answer fundamental questions about who we are and who we aspire to be.  On issues of slavery and segregation; voting and violence; equal rights and equal justice – generations of principled lawyers have engaged directly in the work of building a more perfect Union.  Today, under the leadership of my good friend, President Laurel Bellows, this organization is fighting against budget cuts that undermine the ability of our courts to administer justice.  You’re standing with me – and with my colleagues across the Obama Administration – in calling for Congressional action on common-sense measures to prevent and reduce gun violence.  And you’re advancing our global fight against the heinous crime of human trafficking.

In so many ways, today’s ABA is reminding us that, although our laws must be continually updated, our shared dedication to the cause of justice – and the ideals set forth by our Constitution – must remain constant.  It is this sense of dedication that brings me to San Francisco today – to enlist your partnership in forging a more just society.  To ask for your leadership in reclaiming, once more, the values we hold dear.  And to draw upon the ABA’s legacy of achievement in calling on every member of our profession to question that which is accepted truth; to challenge that which is unjust; to break free of a tired status quo; and to take bold steps to reform and strengthen America’s criminal justice system – in concrete and fundamental ways.

It’s time – in fact, it’s well past time – to address persistent needs and unwarranted disparities by considering a fundamentally new approach.  As a prosecutor; a judge; an attorney in private practice; and now, as our nation’s Attorney General, I’ve seen the criminal justice system firsthand, from nearly every angle.  While I have the utmost faith in – and dedication to – America’s legal system, we must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is in too many respects broken.  The course we are on is far from sustainable.  And it is our time – and our duty – to identify those areas we can improve in order to better advance the cause of justice for all Americans.

Even as most crime rates decline, we need to examine new law enforcement strategies – and better allocate resources – to keep pace with today’s continuing threats as violence spikes in some of our greatest cities.  As studies show that six in ten American children are exposed to violence at some point in their lives – and nearly one in four college women experience some form of sexual assault by their senior year – we need fresh solutions for assisting victims and empowering survivors.  As the so-called “war on drugs” enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been truly effective – and build on the Administration’s efforts, led by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to usher in a new approach.  And with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter, and rehabilitate – not merely to warehouse and forget.

Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.  And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.

It’s clear – as we come together today – that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.  It’s clear, at a basic level, that 20th-century criminal justice solutions are not adequate to overcome our 21st-century challenges.  And it is well past time to implement common sense changes that will foster safer communities from coast to coast.

These are issues the President and I have been talking about for as long as I’ve known him – issues he’s felt strongly about ever since his days as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.  He’s worked hard over the years to protect our communities, to keep violent criminals off our streets, and to make sure those who break the law are held accountable.  And he’s also made it part of his mission to reduce the disparities in our criminal justice system.  In Illinois, he passed legislation that addressed racial profiling and trained police departments on how they could avoid racial bias.  And in 2010, this Administration successfully advocated for the reduction of the unjust 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

That’s the balance the President and I have tried to strike – because it’s important to safeguard our communities and stay true to our values.  And we’ve made progress.  But as you heard the President say a few weeks ago when he spoke about the Trayvon Martin case, he also believes – as I do – that our work is far from finished.

That’s why, over the next several months, the President will continue to reach out to Members of Congress from both parties – as well as governors, mayors, and other leaders – to build on the great work being done across the country to reduce violent crime and reform our criminal justice system.  We need to keep taking steps to make sure people feel safe and secure in their homes and communities.  And part of that means doing something about the lives being harmed, not helped, by a criminal justice system that doesn’t serve the American people as well as it should.

At the beginning of this year, I launched a targeted Justice Department review of the federal system – to identify obstacles, inefficiencies, and inequities, and to address ineffective policies.  Today, I am pleased to announce the results of this review – which include a series of significant actions that the Department has undertaken to better protect the American people from crime; to increase support for those who become victims; and to ensure public safety by improving our criminal justice system as a whole.  We have studied state systems and been impressed by the policy shifts some have made.  I hope other state systems will follow our lead and implement changes as well.  The changes I announce today underscore this Administration’s strong commitment to common sense criminal justice reform.  And our efforts must begin with law enforcement.

Particularly in these challenging times – when budgets are tight, federal sequestration has imposed untenable and irresponsible cuts, and leaders across government are being asked to do more with less – coordination between America’s federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies has never been more important.  It’s imperative that we maximize our resources by focusing on protecting national security; combating violent crime; fighting against financial fraud; and safeguarding the most vulnerable members of our society.

This means that federal prosecutors cannot – and should not – bring every case or charge every defendant who stands accused of violating federal law.  Some issues are best handled at the state or local level.  And that’s why I have today directed the United States Attorney community to develop specific, locally-tailored guidelines – consistent with our national priorities – for determining when federal charges should be filed, and when they should not.

I’ve also issued guidance to ensure that every case we bring serves a substantial federal interest and complements the work of our law enforcement partners.  I have directed all U.S. Attorneys to create – and to update – comprehensive anti-violence strategies for badly-afflicted areas within their districts.  And I’ve encouraged them to convene regular law enforcement forums with state and local partners to refine these plans, foster greater efficiency, and facilitate more open communication and cooperation.

By targeting the most serious offenses, prosecuting the most dangerous criminals, directing assistance to crime “hot spots,” and pursuing new ways to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency, and fairness – we in the federal government can become both smarter and tougher on crime.  By providing leadership to all levels of law enforcement – and bringing intelligence-driven strategies to bear – we can bolster the efforts of local leaders, U.S. Attorneys, and others in the fight against violent crime.

Beyond this work, through the Community Oriented Policing Services – or “COPS” – Office, the Justice Department is helping police departments keep officers on the beat while enhancing training and technical support.  Over the last four years, we have allocated more than $1.5 billion through the COPS Hiring Program to save or create over 8,000 jobs in local law enforcement.  In the coming weeks, we will announce a new round of COPS grants – totaling more than $110 million – to support the hiring of military veterans and school resource officers throughout the country.

In addition, through our landmark Defending Childhood Initiative and the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, we’re rallying federal leaders, state officials, private organizations, and community groups to better understand, address, and prevent young people's exposure to violence.  We have assembled a new Task Force to respond to the extreme levels of violence faced by far too many American Indian and Alaska Native children.  Next month, we will launch a national public awareness campaign – and convene a Youth Violence Prevention Summit – to call for comprehensive solutions.  And, through the Department’s Civil Rights Division and other components, we’ll continue to work with allies – like the Department of Education and others throughout the federal government and beyond – to confront the “school-to-prison pipeline” and those zero-tolerance school discipline policies that do not promote safety, and that transform too many educational institutions from doorways of opportunity into gateways to the criminal justice system.  A minor school disciplinary offense should put a student in the principal’s office and not a police precinct.

We’ll also continue offering resources and support to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and dating violence.  Earlier this summer, I announced a new Justice Department initiative – known as Vision 21 – which offers an unprecedented snapshot of the current state of victim services.  It calls for sweeping, evidence-based changes to bring these services into the 21st century, and to empower all survivors by closing research gaps and developing new ways to reach those who need our assistance the most.

This work shows tremendous promise.  I’m hopeful that it will help to bring assistance and healing to more and more crime victims across the country.  But it is only the beginning.

More broadly, through the Department’s Access to Justice Initiative, the Civil Rights Division, and a range of grant programs, this Administration is bringing stakeholders together – and providing direct support – to address the inequalities that unfold every day in America’s courtrooms, and to fulfill the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Gideon v. Wainwright.  Fifty years ago last March, this landmark ruling affirmed that every defendant charged with a serious crime has the right to an attorney, even if he or she cannot afford one.  Yet America’s indigent defense systems continue to exist in a state of crisis, and the promise of Gideon is not being met. To address this crisis, Congress must not only end the forced budget cuts that have decimated public defenders nationwide – they must expand existing indigent defense programs, provide access to counsel for more juvenile defendants, and increase funding for federal public defender offices.  And every legal professional, every member of this audience, must answer the ABA’s call to contribute to this cause through pro bono service – and help realize the promise of equal justice for all.

As we come together this morning, this same promise must lead us all to acknowledge that – although incarceration has a significant role to play in our justice system – widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable.  It imposes a significant economic burden – totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone – and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.

As a nation, we are coldly efficient in our incarceration efforts.  While the entire U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal prison population has grown at an astonishing rate – by almost 800 percent.  It’s still growing – despite the fact that federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity.  Even though this country comprises just 5 percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.  More than 219,000 federal inmates are currently behind bars.  Almost half of them are serving time for drug-related crimes, and many have substance use disorders.  Nine to 10 million more people cycle through America’s local jails each year.  And roughly 40 percent of former federal prisoners – and more than 60 percent of former state prisoners – are rearrested or have their supervision revoked within three years after their release, at great cost to American taxpayers and often for technical or minor violations of the terms of their release.

As a society, we pay much too high a price whenever our system fails to deliver outcomes that deter and punish crime, keep us safe, and ensure that those who have paid their debts have the chance to become productive citizens.  Right now, unwarranted disparities are far too common.  As President Obama said last month, it’s time to ask tough questions about how we can strengthen our communities, support young people, and address the fact that young black and Latino men are disproportionately likely to become involved in our criminal justice system – as victims as well as perpetrators.

We also must confront the reality that – once they’re in that system – people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers.  One deeply troubling report, released in February, indicates that – in recent years – black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes.  This isn’t just unacceptable – it is shameful.  It’s unworthy of our great country, and our great legal tradition.  And in response, I have today directed a group of U.S. Attorneys to examine sentencing disparities, and to develop recommendations on how we can address them.

In this area and many others – in ways both large and small – we, as a country, must resolve to do better.  The President and I agree that it’s time to take a pragmatic approach.  And that’s why I am proud to announce today that the Justice Department will take a series of significant actions to recalibrate America’s federal criminal justice system.

We will start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes.  Some statutes that mandate inflexible sentences – regardless of the individual conduct at issue in a particular case – reduce the discretion available to prosecutors, judges, and juries.  Because they oftentimes generate unfairly long sentences, they breed disrespect for the system.  When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety.  They – and some of the enforcement priorities we have set – have had a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and of color.  And, applied inappropriately, they are ultimately counterproductive. 

This is why I have today mandated a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.  They now will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins.  By reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation – while making our expenditures smarter and more productive.  We’ve seen that this approach has bipartisan support in Congress – where a number of leaders, including Senators Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul have introduced what I think is promising legislation aimed at giving federal judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimums to certain drug offenders.  Such legislation will ultimately save our country billions of dollars while keeping us safe.  And the President and I look forward to working with members of both parties to refine and advance these proposals.

Secondly, the Department has now updated its framework for considering compassionate release for inmates facing extraordinary or compelling circumstances – and who pose no threat to the public.  In late April, the Bureau of Prisons expanded the criteria which will be considered for inmates seeking compassionate release for medical reasons.  Today, I can announce additional expansions to our policy – including revised criteria for elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and who have served significant portions of their sentences.  Of course, as our primary responsibility, we must ensure that the American public is protected from anyone who may pose a danger to the community.  But considering the applications of nonviolent offenders – through a careful review process that ultimately allows judges to consider whether release is warranted – is the fair thing to do.  And it is the smart thing to do as well, because it will enable us to use our limited resources to house those who pose the greatest threat.

Finally, my colleagues and I are taking steps to identify and share best practices for enhancing the use of diversion programs – such as drug treatment and community service initiatives – that can serve as effective alternatives to incarceration.

Our U.S. Attorneys are leading the way in this regard – working alongside the judiciary to meet safety imperatives while avoiding incarceration in certain cases.  In South Dakota, a joint federal-tribal program has helped to prevent at-risk young people from getting involved in the federal prison system – thereby improving lives, saving taxpayer resources, and keeping communities safer.  This is exactly the kind of proven innovation that federal policymakers, and state and tribal leaders, should emulate.  And it’s why the Justice Department is working – through a program called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative – to bring state leaders, local stakeholders, private partners, and federal officials together to comprehensively reform corrections and criminal justice practices.

In recent years, no fewer than 17 states – supported by the Department, and led by governors and legislators of both parties – have directed funding away from prison construction and toward evidence-based programs and services, like treatment and supervision, that are designed to reduce recidivism.  In Kentucky, for example, new legislation has reserved prison beds for the most serious offenders and re-focused resources on community supervision and evidence-based alternative programs.  As a result, the state is projected to reduce its prison population by more than 3,000 over the next 10 years – saving more than $400 million.

In Texas, investments in drug treatment for nonviolent offenders and changes to parole policies brought about a reduction in the prison population of more than 5,000 inmates last year alone.  The same year, similar efforts helped Arkansas reduce its prison population by more than 1,400.  From Georgia, North Carolina, and Ohio, to Pennsylvania, Hawaii, and far beyond – reinvestment and serious reform are improving public safety and saving precious resources.  Let me be clear:  these measures have not compromised public safety.  In fact, many states have seen drops in recidivism rates at the same time their prison populations were declining.  The policy changes that have led to these welcome results must be studied and emulated.  While our federal prison system has continued to slowly expand, significant state-level reductions have led to three consecutive years of decline in America’s overall prison population – including, in 2012, the largest drop ever experienced in a single year.

Clearly, these strategies can work.  They’ve attracted overwhelming, bipartisan support in “red states” as well as “blue states.”  And it’s past time for others to take notice.

I am also announcing today that I have directed every U.S. Attorney to designate a Prevention and Reentry Coordinator in his or her district – to ensure that this work is, and will remain, a top priority throughout the country.  And my colleagues and I will keep working closely with state leaders, agency partners, including members of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council – and groups like the American Bar Association – to extend these efforts.

In recent years, with the Department’s support, the ABA has catalogued tens of thousands of statutes and regulations that impose unwise and counterproductive collateral consequences – with regard to housing or employment, for example – on people who have been convicted of crimes.  I have asked state attorneys general and a variety of federal leaders to review their own agencies’ regulations.  And today I can announce that I’ve directed all Department of Justice components, going forward, to consider whether any proposed regulation or guidance may impose unnecessary collateral consequences on those seeking to rejoin their communities.

The bottom line is that, while the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.  To be effective, federal efforts must also focus on prevention and reentry.  We must never stop being tough on crime.  But we must also be smart and efficient when battling crime and the conditions and the individual choices that breed it.

Ultimately, this is about much more than fairness for those who are released from prison.  It’s a matter of public safety and public good.  It makes plain economic sense.  It’s about who we are as a people.  And it has the potential to positively impact the lives of every man, woman, and child – in every neighborhood and city – in the United States.  After all, whenever a recidivist crime is committed, innocent people are victimized.  Communities are less safe.  Burdens on law enforcement are increased.  And already-strained resources are depleted even further.

Today – together – we must declare that we will no longer settle for such an unjust and unsustainable status quo.  To do so would be to betray our history, our shared commitment to justice, and the founding principles of our nation.  Instead, we must recommit ourselves – as a country – to tackling the most difficult questions, and the most costly problems, no matter how complex or intractable they may appear.  We must pledge – as legal professionals – to lend our talents, our training, and our diverse perspectives to advancing this critical work.  And we must resolve – as a people – to take a firm stand against violence; against victimization; against inequality – and for justice.

This is our chance – to bring America’s criminal justice system in line with our most sacred values.

This is our opportunity – to define this time, our time, as one of progress and innovation.

This is our promise – to forge a more just society.

And this is our solemn obligation, as stewards of the law, and servants of those whom it protects and empowers:  to open a frank and constructive dialogue about the need to reform a broken system.  To fight for the sweeping, systemic changes we need.  And to uphold our dearest values, as the ABA always has, by calling on our peers and colleagues not merely to serve their clients, or win their cases – but to ensure that – in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community – justice is done.

This, after all, is the cause that has been our common pursuit for more than two centuries, the ideal that has guided the ABA since its inception, and the goal that will drive additional actions by President Obama – and leaders throughout his Administration – in the months ahead.  Of course, we recognize – as you do – that the reforms I’ve announced today, and others that we must consider, explore, and implement in the coming years, will not take hold overnight.  There will be setbacks and false starts.  We will encounter resistance and opposition.

But if we keep faith in one another, and in the principles we’ve always held dear; if we stay true to the ABA’s history as a driver of positive change; and if we keep moving forward together – knowing that the need for this work will outlast us, but determined to make the difference that we seek – then I know we can all be confident in where these efforts will lead us.  I look forward to everything that we will undoubtedly achieve.  And I will always be proud to stand alongside you in building the brighter, more just, and more prosperous future that all of our citizens deserve.

Thank you.
Related Material:

Trauma-informed care coming to the DOJ? New Juvenile Justice Director.

This looks like good news from the juvenile side of the US DOJ. So much is yet to be said for trauma-informed care with those involved with the CJ system, especially youth. I'll be interested to see what this guy brings to the DOJ and the future of youth imprisonment.

KNAU has been doing a lot of decent journalism when it comes to the criminal justice system lately, so tune into them if you can.



Justice Department Pushes New Thinking On Kids And Crime

Originally published on Thu September 26, 2013 7:45 am 

For a man who spent the bulk of his career as a public defender, Robert Listenbee's new role walking around the halls of the U.S. Justice Department may not be the most comfortable fit.

But Listenbee, who became administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention earlier this year, says his transition has been smooth. And besides, he says, he couldn't resist the "extraordinary opportunity."

Before he joined the federal government, Listenbee co-chaired the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence. Now he's the man in charge of making its recommendations come to life. His report — packed with recommendations about the need for more research and attention on boys, rural areas and the education system — attracted scant attention because it emerged on the same day as the shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., where Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adult staff members at the Sandy Hook school.

But more attention could come Thursday in Northern Virginia, where mayors, police chiefs, educators and young people will join Listenbee, Attorney General Eric Holder and Office of Justice Programs chief Karol Mason to talk about reducing gang activity and other violence that affects kids across the country.

"It's important for everyone to recognize that the trauma that comes from exposure to violence is multifaceted," Listenbee says. "Children who are sexually assaulted, boys and girls, experience the trauma very differently from other kinds of exposure. Children who experience community violence ... also have a different kind of trauma. Each one requires a specific type of treatment. ... We are [at] the beginning of this era of understanding the impact of exposure to violence and the kinds of treatment that are needed ... and we're going to be dealing with this for a long time."

He cites an example from his own life, growing up in a small town north of Detroit, where some of his relatives were killed in their teen years. "I know the pain of that kind of a circumstance. I know the difficulty of adjusting to it over time, and actually it never really goes away — you're reflecting on it all the time."

In the old days, treatment for kids incarcerated in a residential facility or detention center focused on changing their behavior. But these days, researchers are searching for better, long-term solutions.

One story from his own long experience with the system, Listenbee says, illustrates the challenge. A girl got into a fight with her mother and with police. She went into residential placement for more than a year. She got out, but got in trouble all over again for taking drugs.

"There was not an inquiry into what happened to her," he says. "When we started examining what happened to her, we found that she had been sexually assaulted as a young child; she had observed a close friend who had been shot to death; her father was in jail for life for an offense that many said he didn't commit. And when I talked to her, I found she was taking drugs to kill the pain."

Listenbee got her psychiatric counseling, convinced a judge to keep her out of the justice system, put an ankle-bracelet monitor on her, and got her back on track. Too many other young girls, he says, need the same kind of intervention.

He points out that the idea that children are different from adults and that there's a need to understand their brain development if they have brushes with the law has won support from the U.S. Supreme Court in several recent decisions. So his office and other parts of the Justice Department are supporting research to understand those differences — and to offer advice to states, where most of the juvenile justice money is spent.

And along with the Education Department, the U.S. Justice Department is working hard to stop what experts describe as a "school-to-prison pipeline."

"We believe firmly that children should be kept in school and out of courts," Listenbee says. "We don't think that kids who are truant, kids who are runaways, kids who engage in various sort of violations of the code of conduct that aren't criminal offenses — we don't think they belong in the juvenile justice system."

Because once children enter that system, he says, research demonstrates they have a very hard time getting out, and often move on to adult jails and prisons.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Prosecuting Innocence: Condemned Debra Milke finally free!

 This woman has been punished long enough, I think, for something she quite possibly didn't even do. Arizona's prosecutors should stuff their politics for once, and let the woman be. This is one really good reason why we shouldn't be so quick to believe the cops' version of things and execute people willy nilly.

The following clip is for those of you still eager to see a woman get executed, though, since so many Arizonan's are disappointed now. The movie is Dancer in the Dark. Enjoy.

For those of you who find executing human beings offensive, on the other hand, please come to a legislative summit on the death penalty in Arizona, which is second only to Texas in the number of prisoners we executed last year. 

Here is the flyer

Legislative Summit
 Death Penalty Alternatives for Arizona
AZ Senate Building , Hearing Room 1  
(1700 W, Washington St. Phoenix)
September 13th at 9am 


Debra Milke, Arizona woman who had murder conviction tossed, freed

By Greg Botelho, CNN

updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 6, 2013
(CNN) -- For the first time in well over (two decades) -- and in the months since a federal judge overturned her murder conviction -- Debra Milke is free.

A short time after the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office indicated she'd be leaving, video showed someone who appeared to be Milke being driven away Friday from the Lower Buckeye Jail in Phoenix. Sheriff's office spokesman Brandon Jones subsequently confirmed that Milke had been released.

Even though she's no longer behind bars -- leaving the jail without addressing reporters -- Milke's legal ordeal may not be over.

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said in March that his office would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court the judge's decision to toss her conviction and the death sentence that went with it.

9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' Chief Judge Alex Kozinski ruled this spring that Milke did not receive a fair trial.

Milke still faces charges and was released on bond pending the possibility of a retrial.

Milke's legal team will at some point address the media about their client's release, though it's not known when, said one of the lawyers, Lori Voepel.

A jury convicted Milke of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, child abuse and kidnapping on October 12, 1990, less than a year after her 4-year-old son was found dead. She was sentenced to death a few months later.

A day after seeing Santa Claus at a mall, young Christopher Milke asked his mother if he could go again. 
That was the plan, she said, when the boy got into the car with Milke's roommate, James Styers.

Styers picked up a friend, "but instead of heading to the mall, the two men drove the boy out of town to a secluded ravine, where Styers shot Christopher three times in the head," according to Kozinski's summary of the case. Styers was convicted of first-degree murder in the boy's killing and sentenced to death.

During her trial, "no ... witnesses or direct evidence (linked) Milke to the crime" other than Phoenix police Detective Armando Saldate Jr., according to Kozinski.

The detective questioned Milke -- an interrogation that wasn't recorded or seen by anyone else -- and later claimed she'd confessed to her role in the murder conspiracy, saying it was a "bad judgment call."

But Milke offered a vastly different view of the interrogation and denied that she had admitted to any role in a murder plot.

"The judge and jury believed Saldate," Kozinski wrote in his March ruling overturning Milke's murder conviciton. "But they didn't know about Saldate's long history of lying under oath and other misconduct."

The judge explained that he'd made his decision because prosecutors did not disclose the "history of misconduct" of its key witness.

Unbeknown to the defense or to the jury, previous judges had tossed out four confessions or indictments because Saldate had lied under oath, among other issues.

Horne, the Arizona attorney general, has argued the woman should remain on death row, given his understanding of what happened.

"After dressing him up and telling him he was going to the mall to see Santa Claus, Milke was convicted of sending her young son off to be shot, execution style, in a desert wash," he said.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

For the sake of Justice, raise the crime rate...

Long but incredibly worthy read, especially for "victims' rights" advocates, like Steve Twist, who authored and promoted the Crime Victims' Bill of Rights as an amendment to the AZ Constitution in 1990, which resulted in classifiying victims of crime "in custody for an offense" as non-victims. It should be no wonder, then, that AZ prisoners are treated as non-humans by their handlers so often.

This has major implications for how prison rape victims are treated, of course, which I've been deluged with letters about of late. And look at this excerpt form the article below: let it sink in, in fact: 

"The Justice Department now seems to be saying that prison rape accounted for the majority of all rapes committed in the US in 2008, likely making the United States the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women."

Depriving people of basic rights while in custody also affects individuals who were never even convicted of a crime, whose perpetrators were those responsible for their safety - like Marty Atencio, killed in a "Jailer's Riot" by officers while being booked. Not that his killers are ever being charged with a crime, since they are police officers just doing their duty. But if they had been criminally charged his family wouldn't qualify for any victims' rights resources, nor do they have standing with the courts as victims, thanks to the "victims rights advocates" of the 1990's. Even Walmart gets to call themselves a victim in court and collect restitution if someone commits a crime against them, and they aren't even a human being.

The least thing people like Steve Twist could do is step up to the plate now, acknowledge their grave mistake, and help us change that amendment so everyone's rights are protected. Until then, both the people we incarcerate and those we entrust thier care to will victimize the most vulnerable prisoners they can knowing that there will be no one who really cares to hold them accoutnable. Every rape, every beat down, every murder, and even every suicide driven by the terror of meeting a worse fate in the custody of the AZ DOC in particular, should weigh heavily on those advocates today.

Much more than just addressing victimization in prison, though, this article makes a compelling argument for prison abolition, for those of you so often puzzled by such a vision.

 Crime Victims Rights Week 2013
"Justice for Victims of Prison Violence"
AZ Attorney General's Office (Phoenix: April 25, 2013)

------------from N+1 magazine----------

"Raise the Crime Rate"
N+1 magazine
January 26, 2012
Christopher Glazek

Is it true that living in America has become riskier? In 2006, the political scientist Jacob Hacker published The Great Risk Shift, a progressive tract that appropriated the vocabulary of wealth management to show how thirty years of privatization and deregulation had abraded the security of the American family. Risks once borne by corporations and the government, Hacker noted, like unplanned health costs, are now the responsibility of Mom and Pop. Transferring risk from the collective to the individual, though, ends badly for everyone. Family affliction, like banker “contagion,” is tricky to sequester: if Larry and Terry get bankrupted by bad luck, their misfortune cascades, dragging down creditors, neighbors, and especially their children. The reason liberals like insurance is that it helps diffuse risk throughout society. Pooling risk, one might say, is the essence of the progressive social contract.

Hacker focuses on hazards like cancer and credit exposure, but these are not the only perils we face. Every time we leave the house—and more often, actually, if we remain within it—we run the risk of getting stabbed, shot, raped, or robbed. But while financial risks have crested in recent decades, the risk of suffering personal violence has receded. According to government statistics, Americans are safer today than at any time in the last forty years. In 1990, there were 2,245 homicides in New York City. In 2010, there were 536, only 123 of which involved people who didn’t already know each other. The fear, once common, that walking around city parks late at night could get you mugged or murdered has been relegated to grandmothers; random murders, with few exceptions, simply don’t happen anymore.

When it comes to rape, the numbers look even better: from 1980 to 2005, the estimated number of sexual assaults in the US fell by 85 percent. Scholars attribute this stunning collapse to various factors, including advances in gender equality, the abortion of unwanted children, and the spread of internet pornography.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the country was more dangerous in 1990, at the height of the crack epidemic, than in 2006, at the height of the real estate bubble. What’s strange is that crime has continued to fall during the recession. On May 23, in what has become an annual ritual, the New York Times celebrated the latest such finding: in 2010, as America’s army of unemployed grew to 14 million, violent crime fell for the fourth year in a row, sinking to a level not seen since the early ’70s. This seemed odd. Crime and unemployment were supposed to rise in tandem—progressives have been harping on this point for centuries. Where had all the criminals gone?

Statistics are notoriously slippery, but the figures that suggest that violence has been disappearing in the United States contain a blind spot so large that to cite them uncritically, as the major papers do, is to collude in an epic con. Uncounted in the official tallies are the hundreds of thousands of crimes that take place in the country’s prison system, a vast and growing residential network whose forsaken tenants increasingly bear the brunt of America’s propensity for anger and violence.

Crime has not fallen in the United States—it’s been shifted. Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells. The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie—but as the single most shameful lie in American life.

From 1980 to 2007, the number of prisoners held in the United States quadrupled to 2.3 million, with an additional 5 million on probation or parole. What Ayn Rand once called the “freest, noblest country in the history of the world” is now the most incarcerated, and the second-most incarcerated country in history, just barely edged out by Stalin’s Soviet Union. We’re used to hearing about the widening chasm between the haves and have-nots; we’re less accustomed to contemplating a more fundamental gap: the abyss that separates the fortunate majority, who control their own bodies, from the luckless minority, whose bodies are controlled, and defiled, by the state.

Before last year, the federal government had never bothered to estimate the actual number of rapes that occur in prisons. Its data relied on official complaints filed by prisoners, which in recent years have averaged around 800. One such complaint was filed in 1995 by Rodney Hulin, a boy from Amarillo, Texas, who had been arrested as a 15-year-old after throwing a Molotov cocktail into a pile of garbage. The trash burned, causing about $500 worth of damage to the exterior of an adjacent house. Hulin’s prank was unimpressive, but Texas in the mid-’90s had little tolerance for teenage ruffianism; in 1994, George W. Bush had become governor, defeating Ann Richards, a popular incumbent, by depicting her as soft on crime. Hulin was charged with two counts of second-degree arson. He was a small guy—just five feet tall and 125 pounds—but he got a big sentence: eight years in adult prison.

Within a month of arriving at Clemens Unit, a temporary holding facility outside Houston for juveniles on their way to adult prison, Hulin was raped by another inmate. He asked to be moved out of harm’s way, but his request was denied, and the rapes continued. In a letter to prison authorities, he wrote, “I might die at any minute. Please sir, help me.” Help was not forthcoming: getting raped was not deemed urgent enough to meet the requirements of the prison’s emergency grievance criteria. When Hulin got his mother to complain to the prison’s warden, she was told that Hulin needed to “grow up” and “learn to deal with it.”

Hulin’s method for dealing with it was to kill himself. Ten weeks after his arrival, he was discovered dangling from the ceiling of his cell.

Hulin’s case was unusual: most prisoners who get raped do not write letters to the warden. It isn’t hard to see why: resisting an inmate who claims your body as his own, or, worse, acquiring a reputation as a “snitch,” can turn an isolated incident into months of serial gang rape. Just ask Roderick Johnson, a petty thief who was attacked by his roommate shortly after arriving at a Texas prison. Johnson asked to be transferred to a different section of the facility, and got his wish. But news of Johnson’s physical availability had spread throughout the complex—after you’re raped once, you’re marked—and he was soon enslaved by a gang. In addition to passing Johnson around among themselves, Johnson’s new overseers sold his ass and mouth to a variety of clients for $3 to $7, a competitive enough price that it resulted in multiple rapes every day for the eighteen months that Johnson spent in prison. When he went to the authorities, they laughed and told him to “fight or fuck.”

Bringing criminal charges against prison officials for failing to protect inmates is virtually impossible in the United States, but civil actions can be filed. After Johnson got out, he lodged a civil suit against six guards who he said refused to help him. In 2005, a Wichita Falls jury found in favor of the guards. In 2007, after passing a note to a clerk at a gas station that read, “I have 9 mm. Put the money in the bag,” Johnson was arrested again. This time, since Johnson was a repeat offender, he got nineteen years.

Victims in juvenile facilities, or facilities for women, have an even tougher time: usually it’s the guards, rather than the inmates, who coerce them into sex. The guards tell their victims that no one will believe them, and that complaining will only make things worse. This is sound advice: even on the rare occasions when juvenile complaints are taken seriously and allegations are substantiated, only half of confirmed abusers are referred for prosecution, only a quarter are arrested, and only 3 percent end up getting charged with a crime.

In January, prodded in part by outrage over a series of articles in the New York Review of Books, the Justice Department finally released an estimate of the prevalence of sexual abuse in penitentiaries. The reliance on filed complaints appeared to understate the problem. For 2008, for example, the government had previously tallied 935 confirmed instances of sexual abuse. After asking around, and performing some calculations, the Justice Department came up with a new number: 216,000. That’s 216,000 victims, not instances. These victims are often assaulted multiple times over the course of the year. The Justice Department now seems to be saying that prison rape accounted for the majority of all rapes committed in the US in 2008, likely making the United States the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women.

America’s prison system is a moral catastrophe. The eerie sense of security that prevails on the streets of lower Manhattan obscures, and depends upon, a system of state-sponsored suffering as vicious and widespread as any in human history. Dismantling the system of American gulags, and holding accountable those responsible for their operation, presents the most urgent humanitarian imperative of our time.

Progressives lament the growth of private prisons (prisons for profit). But it’s sadism, not avarice, that fuels the country’s prison crisis. Prisoners are not the victims of poor planning (as other progressive reformers have argued)—they are the victims of an ideological system that dehumanizes an entire class of human being and permits nearly infinite violence against it. As much as a physical space, prisons denote an ethical space, or, more precisely, a space where ordinary ethics are suspended. Bunk beds, in and of themselves, are not cruel and unusual. University dorms have bunk beds, too. What matters is what happens in those beds. In the dorm room, sex, typically consensual. In prisons, also sex, but often violent rape. The prisons are “overcrowded,” we are told (and, in fact, courts have ruled). “Overcrowding” is a euphemism for an authoritarian nightmare.

As sites of governmental authority, prisons destabilize Weber’s definition of the state as the monopolist of violence. In prisons, the monopoly is suspended: anybody is free to commit rape and be reasonably assured that no state official will notice or care (barring those instances when the management knowingly encourages rape, unleashing favored inmates on troublemakers as a strategy for administrative control). The prison staff is above the law; the prison inmates, below it. Far from embodying the model of Bentham/Foucault’s panopticon— that is, one of total surveillance—America’s prisons are its blind spots, places where complaints cannot be heard and abuses cannot be seen. Though important symbols of bureaucratic authority, they are spaces that lie beyond our system of bureaucratic oversight. As far as the outside world is concerned, every American prison functions as a black site.

The media mostly honors the government’s preference for leaving prisoners in the shadows. The nation’s prisons now contain more inhabitants than any American city save New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. And yet there is no “prison correspondent” at any of the nation’s major newspapers. This isn’t entirely the papers’ fault. Even if reporters were sent to the prisons, they could be denied entry: the Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment does not prevent prison authorities from barring the press.

It’s impossible to tell the story of American incarceration without also telling the story of American racism. Unlike most leftwing stories about racism, though, this one isn’t about the South, and it isn’t even really about American conservatism. After slavery and Jim Crow came the Great Migration, urban riots, and the war on drugs. The history of the prison crisis is largely a story about progressive politicians—liberal Republicans and centrist Democrats—supporting “tough on crime” policies to protect their right flank, both for self-preservation and to propel other progressive priorities. The prison crisis was something that we ourselves created, law by law, decision by decision, state by state.

One of the original flash points was Detroit. In 1967, riots broke out after city police arrested eighty-four revelers at a party given for a pair of African American veterans who had just returned from Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson sent in an army division to pacify the city, resulting in forty-three deaths and the destruction of 2,000 buildings. In the following months, tens of thousands of residents from the city’s Caucasian enclaves hurtled across 8 Mile Road to the suburbs; they never came back. The following year, as the war in Vietnam escalated, Johnson declared he would not seek reelection, throwing the Democratic nomination to the cheerful but ineffectual Hubert Humphrey. That November, after a bitter campaign fueled by racial antagonism, the country elected Richard Nixon. For the first time in history, the Democratic candidate had failed to secure a majority of votes from the old Confederacy.

There followed a thirty-five-year period of “tough” crime laws. They began in New York State, with Nelson Rockefeller, the liberalish governor who, having failed three times to secure the Republican presidential nomination, decided he would make drug policy his peace offering to the party’s right wing. Previously an advocate of treatment programs and community supervision, Rockefeller abruptly changed course in 1973, innovating harsh mandatory minimum sentences for both the sale and possession of illegal drugs. In the next thirty years, New York’s prison population sextupled, climbing from 13,400 prisoners in 1973 to 71,500 prisoners in 2000.

The pattern soon repeated itself across the country. As whites abandoned the cities, their governors and legislatures enacted increasingly tough sentencing laws for the minorities left behind. In 1978, in what he would later call the biggest mistake of his life, Michigan’s governor, William Milliken, an embattled moderate Republican from the state’s desolate north, signed the 650-lifer law, a Rockefeller-inspired provision mandating life sentences for anyone caught in possession of 650 or more grams of cocaine or heroin. Only 200 people have served the life term, apparently because most big cases get transferred to federal court. (It’s still terrible, though: 85 percent of those sentenced under the provision had no prior criminal record.)

The new sentencing policies did little to discourage criminals. The same summer that Milliken signed his life-sentence law, an ambitious group of teenagers met on the playground of Birney Elementary, on Detroit’s west side, and founded Young Boys Inc., the first professionalized multicity drug-dealing ring in the United States. Within two years, YBI was pulling in $300,000 a day selling heroin in Detroit and other cities. Many of their clients were Vietnam veterans, tens of thousands of whom had become addicted to opium overseas. YBI’s crucial innovation was to distribute their product through a network of hard-to-prosecute juveniles, “corner boys” as young as 12 years old. They were also among the first to use limitless violence to terrorize and execute rivals. As the auto industry collapsed, the market for heroin grew more and more robust. By the mid-’80s, police activity had loosened the grip of YBI’s founders; by that time, though, the corner-boy and murder-the-competition model had spread to every major city in the United States.

And then came crack. Crack democratized the consumption of cocaine by providing a cheap and easy delivery system—smoking—for a highly addictive, high-demand product. Economists have labeled crack a “technological shock,” comparing the dislocations it triggered to the impact of computer chips, or mechanized agriculture. Unlike computer chips and mechanized agriculture, however, crack’s impact was entirely negative. This was not so much because crack was physically harmful—though it was—but more because it was illegal, and highly profitable. Within years of its introduction, the homicide rate for young black males had doubled. The inner city experienced a spike in weapons arrests, fetal deaths, low-birth-weight babies, and children in foster care. Between 1984 and 1994, the death rate for young black males reached 1 percent—double the rate of soldiers fighting in Iraq. A small part of this was caused by crack overdoses. A very large part was caused by a homicidal dialectic of black-market violence and state-sponsored reprisal, a dynamic sustained by popular hysteria and irresponsible media.

The media had never met a story they liked as much as crack, which involved gangs, guns, scary minorities, urban poverty, addiction, and, crucially, babies. Fetuses incubated in crack-exposed wombs were supposed to furnish a generation of “superpredators”—brain-damaged reprobates who wouldn’t be able to tell right from wrong. Although we now know the “crack baby” is a mythical creature—children of crack addicts do not exhibit developmental problems above and beyond those normally experienced by children whose fathers are dead or in prison—the image set off a moral panic in the 1980s, leading the country to begin the unusual practice of incarcerating large numbers of women. In 1986, two months after college basketball star and number two NBA draft pick Len Bias died of an ordinary cocaine overdose erroneously pinned on crack, Newsweek declared crack the biggest story since Watergate and Vietnam. Nancy Reagan was interested in crack, too, and the White House spent $2 billion on equipment and personnel to fight the epidemic, including staff hired to amp up anxiety about the drug among the press.

In the 1990s, the action shifted to the states, twenty-four of which enacted some version of a “habitual offender law,” more colloquially known as a “three strikes” provision. Even more than mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, three strikes laws have been responsible for geometric growth in the prison population. Though details vary depending on where you look, the vengeful theory underpinning the laws is universal: repeat offenders need to be removed from society. As a result, defendants have been given life sentences, which cost taxpayers as much as $1 million, for crimes as minor as stealing golf clubs from a sporting goods store or videotapes from Walmart. By 2003, 127,677 Americans were serving life sentences, an 83 percent jump in eleven years.

As of 2005, the last time a census was taken, there were 1,821 prisons in the country. Maine had just seven, while Texas had 132. Of these 1,821 prisons, 347 were maximum security. Most countries don’t have “supermax” prison facilities like we have in the US, where Alcatraz model of remote, nightmare fortress has become increasingly popular with the passage of time. Inmates in maximum security facilities are more vulnerable to rape, which may seem counterintuitive. The risk of rape, though, increases as prisoners lose control over freedom of movement. In minimum security prisons, it’s easier to find protection in a crowd. On the other hand, maximum security prisons are also distinguished by their willingness to put inmates into solitary confinement for extended periods of time, sometimes decades. Many psychologists now believe that such a long period in solitary inevitably leads to insanity. On the plus side, those prisoners will not get raped, or at least not by inmates.

Meanwhile, back on the battlefield of the war on drugs, crack continues to be consumed in nearly the same quantities as in 1990. But a huge price drop destroyed the handsome margins of the crack trade and virtually eliminated the violence associated with it. The crack-crime epidemic is gone, but the incarceration complex it fomented lives on. As a result, one in three black baby boys can expect to spend part of his life in prison.

Once you go to prison, you never really come back. Beyond incarceration’s immediate physical and mental horrors, after being convicted of a felony, your public life is functionally over. In many states, you won’t be able to vote or sit on a jury. You won’t be eligible for public housing or food stamps. You’ll find it very difficult to attend a college, and may find it nearly impossible to get a job—like everyone else, educators and employers discriminate against ex-cons.

Finding a job is a particular problem, not only because criminals often leave prison with a large amount of debt—from court fees, conviction penalties, probation fines, and especially from child support bills, which continue to accumulate while convicts are in prison—but also because steady employment is itself often a condition of parole: a diabolical catch-22. As scholars have noted, the situation calls to mind the “vagrancy” laws passed in the South in the wake of reconstruction, which made it illegal to be unemployed while black vagrantswere arrested and forced back onto plantations, this time as convicts rather than slaves. An ex-con who fails to land a job may end up back in prison for violating parole. Since service-oriented occupations are usually out of the question, ex-cons are often forced to seek industrial and construction jobs far from urban centers. This puts a large number of people in the position of having to take long, expensive taxi rides to show up for low-wage jobs that don’t even cover transportation costs.

The United States now spends some $200 billion on the correctional system each year, a sum that exceeds the gross domestic product of twenty-five US states and 140 foreign countries. An ever-increasing share of domestic discretionary spending, it would seem, is devoted to building and staffing earthly hells filled with able-bodied young men who have been removed from the labor force. If we added up all the money federal, state, and local governments invest in the poorest zip codes through credits and transfer payments—food stamps, Medicaid, teacher salaries, et cetera—and balanced that against all the value the government extracts from those zip codes through sin taxes, lotteries, and the incarceration complex, we might well conclude that the disinvestment outweighs the investment. Any apparent gains made in the last thirty years in narrowing the employment and education gap between African Americans and whites vanishes once you include the incarcerated population. Before asking the government to spend a fortune improving student-to-teacher ratios, it may be prudent to first ask the government to stop devoting public resources to ripping the heart out of inner-city economies.

Of course, not everyone has made out badly from the country’s prison-construction binge. Telephone companies run up impressive profits from prisoners forced to call collect. Defense contractors have signed lucrative contracts selling paramilitary equipment to local law enforcement agencies. Rural communities have benefited most of all. Not only does the criminal justice sector employ 2 million people, including more than 500,000 correctional officers, most of them in rural areas, it also helps to inflate the local population of prison zones for the purposes of congressional districting and social spending. Schoolchildren learn that in 1787, slave-holding states reached a compromise with free states that allowed nonvoting slaves to count as three-fifths of a human for the purposes of apportioning congressional seats. Counting a slave as a fraction of a man seems like a vivid manifestation of the way the United States dehumanized Africans. Today, thousands of people are removed from urban districts, where public money is urgently needed, and shipped upstate, where each counts for a full person. In this way, prisoners bolster the voting power of rural districts, while being unable to vote themselves. Perhaps this is the reason why, as criminal justice surveys indicate, rural whites form by far the most punitive demographic.

Certain breeds of urban dwellers benefit, too. In gentrifying sections of Brooklyn, for example, steep drops in crime, combined with the virtual depopulation of entire city blocks, has underwritten a real estate boom. In neighborhoods like Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, wealthy people with children have reaped the benefits of climbing land values from apartments they never would have bought had it not been for the removal of tens of thousands of locals from adjacent areas. Neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant show the population exchange in its purest form. As African American Brooklynites are exported upstate for involvement in petty drug crimes, twenty-somethings reared in prison towns migrate south and reoccupy the same areas vacated by prisoners. Often, of course, the new inhabitants proceed to consume and sell the very same drugs that got the previous tenants into trouble. Since they’re white, they do so with impunity.

What would it mean to “reform” the prison system? Despite the best efforts of the moneyed elite and its institutional avatar, the Republican Party, the credentialed elite that controls the White House has succeeded in making progress on multiple reformable domains, including credit markets, the health care system, and public education. These are important, high-stakes achievements, and, as we have seen, no good deed goes unpunished. But America’s incarceration crisis is not a reformable problem. It cannot be addressed by a hectoring Rahm Emmanuel, or a priggish Olympia Snowe; it will not be solved by a supercommittee, or a gang of six.

The US prison system doesn’t need reform—it needs to be abolished. Like slavery in the 19th century, and civil rights in the 20th century, prison abolition in the 21st century can only be accomplished by a popular movement as radical and uncompromising as the movement that set up the prison regime in the first place.
We can start by reevaluating our priorities. There’s no use saying that progressive goals aren’t in competition with one another. They very surely are, and criminals have lost that competition again and again, with tragic results. For decades, politicians from Nelson Rockefeller to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama have sold out criminals in order to win concessions on health care, abortion, gay rights, early education, progressive taxation, and any number of other worthy objectives. Prison abolitionists must now perform the reverse procedure—we must be ready to sacrifice the traditional progressive agenda on the altar of criminal justice. Morality, like politics, starts at the edge of Ockham’s razor: the bad can no longer be allowed to obscure the evil.

The movement to abolish the death penalty is venerable and well-funded. Although it wasn’t successful in preventing the execution of Troy Davis, it’s helped a number of inmates get off death row through DNA evidence, and has arguably had decent success in the last fifteen years in shifting public opinion away from state-led killing. Hundreds of highly qualified, well-educated people devote their lives to trying to eradicate an unethical practice and a national embarrassment.

Compared with the horrors of garden variety American incarceration, though, the death penalty can be viewed only as a distraction. An extremely small number of people are executed in the United States—fewer than thirty a year, on average, in the last three decades. But at any given moment, a full 7 million people are under some form of regular surveillance from the correctional system. More African Americans are in prison today than were enslaved in the 1850s. Back in the early ’70s, before things got really bad, the United States had a decently large and energetic prison abolition movement. Why this movement has nearly disappeared—Angela Davis, a University of California professor and former imprisoned Black Panther, is virtually the only abolitionist left—even as the prison crisis has become more severe, is difficult to answer. The timing, though, suggests that the death penalty may have something to do with it—after execution was reinstated in 1976, many activists who might have spent their lives focusing on prisons switched their attention to a narratively vivid but politically minor bugaboo.

And yet the death penalty does offer one interesting benefit, from the point of view of prison abolition, because the first question any prison abolitionist needs to answer is what we’re supposed to do with violent criminals. An important part of that answer has to be that we must simply put up with an increased level of risk in our daily lives. But what about Charles Manson? Surely something must be done to prevent Charles Manson from chopping up celebrities.

If, in the popular imagination, the primary purpose of prisons is to keep us safe from (the vanishingly small number of) people like Charles Manson, then we should simply kill Charles Manson. Prison abolitionists should be ready to advocate a massive expansion of the death penalty if that’s what it takes to move the discussion forward. A prisonless society where murderers were systematically executed and rapists were automatically castrated wouldn’t be the most humane society imaginable, but it would be light-years ahead of the status quo. (Interestingly, unlike rape, homicide has one of the lowest recidivism rates of any crime—you can only murder your wife once—suggesting that death row inmates may pose less of a security risk than other categories of offenders.)

Gun control is another area where progressive energies have been wasteful and counterproductive. “Centrists” of any persuasion will try to tell you that most people don’t actually want their fellow citizens running around with guns, but gun control appears to be one area that really has cost the Democratic Party a large number of one-issue voters over the years. In any case, you’ll have a hard time convincing anybody that we should abolish prisons and take away the community’s ability to defend itself. Even on its own terms, gun control is not a straightforwardly progressive matter. The war on guns bears important similarities to the war on drugs—both are used as pretexts for searching, arresting, and imprisoning ethnic minorities. Gun control, like drug control, doesn’t do much to restrict supply—instead, it creates a black market for the product regulated through violence. In many states, obtaining a gun license is expensive and complex: we’ve essentially made it legal to own a gun if you’re wealthy and white, and illegal to own a gun if you’re poor and black. Years are added onto criminal sentences because unregistered guns are spotted on the premises, even if the guns have never been used. The only way to sustainably curb the supply of guns is to reduce demand for guns, and the easiest way to do that would be to legalize narcotics.

On May 23, 2011—the same day the morning papers rejoiced over another year of crime reduction—the Supreme Court ordered the State of California to release 45,000 prisoners. In a 5-to-4 decision written by Anthony Kennedy, the Court declared that overcrowding in the state’s penitentiaries had become so severe that simply existing in the system violated a prisoner’s Eighth Amendment right of freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

As a news story, the ruling generated surprisingly little attention—a good deal less than the Court’s 2008 decision banning the death penalty for child rapists— but in legal circles it caused a panic. Antonin Scalia, in a fiery dissent, called it “the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.” Samuel Alito predicted the ruling would generate a “grim roster of victims,” anxiously noting that the quantity of prisoners mandated for release added up to “two army battalions.” In the early ’90s, Alito pointed out, a similar order issued by a federal judge in Philadelphia liberated some 10,000 prisoners: within 18 months, 2,748 of the prisoners had been rearrested for theft, 2,215 for drugs, 1,113 for assault, 959 for robbery, 751 for burglary, 90 for rape, and 79 for murder. California, Alito suggested, should gear up for an enemy invasion.

As the prison population has expanded, the ex-prisoner population has expanded, too, rising from 1.8 million in 1980 to 4.3 million in the year 2000. Every year, 650,000 prisoners are released from American prisons. Just as new prisoners tend to come from poor, urban neighborhoods—in New York, 75 percent of inmates come from just seven neighborhoods: Harlem, Brownsville, East New York, South Bronx, South Jamaica, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the Lower East Side—released prisoners cluster in a limited set of urban enclaves. This isn’t to say that everyone goes back to where they came from—many ex-cons, especially those who lack supportive families, specifically avoid their home neighborhoods. According to surveys, many believe they’ll be less likely to engage in renewed criminal activity with a change of scenery.

Within three years, 70 percent of released prisoners are rearrested, and half are back in prison. A large portion of these “recidivists” haven’t committed new felonies—they’ve simply violated the terms of their parole. California, which is especially adept at throwing parole violators back in prison, ends up reincarcerating two thirds of released prisoners within three years.

Of course, many released prisoners do commit new felonies, and the evidence is clear that releasing prisoners raises the crime rate, just as imprisoning criminals lowers it. The impact in both directions is relatively small, though. One study showed that during any given year in the ’90s, the net increase in the number of ex-offenders circulating in the general population accounted for 2 percent of property crimes and 2.5 percent of violent crimes. The effect was higher for murder and robbery, though. Fourteen percent of murders and 7 percent of robberies were attributable to prisoner releases in 1994. And that’s only the new releases—the fraction of murders committed by the entire ex-offender population was much higher. On the other hand, released prisoners are subject to considerably more state surveillance than most people, and while it’s safe to assume that ex-cons commit crimes at a higher rate than those who have never seen the inside of a prison, they are also more likely to be investigated and rearrested than someone who was never on the police’s radar to begin with. Released prisoners also have fewer noncrime options: getting a job without family or social connections is virtually impossible for them.

The prospects for California’s released prisoners, therefore, are not good. Neither are the prospects for the state. The likelihood is high that most of these released prisoners will be back in jail within three years, and California may very well be back in court for overcrowding its prisons. (The state is hoping to preempt the issue by transferring inmates to county jails in lieu of early release, but it isn’t clear that crowded jails are any more likely to survive judicial scrutiny than crowded prisons.) To reduce its prison population, California will have to do more than release prisoners—it will have to stop creating new ones.

When evaluating the impact of the war on drugs on the country’s incarceration crisis, it helps to keep in mind a statistical nuance: a large fraction of prison sentences are for nonviolent drug offenses, but a small fraction of the prison population is in for a nonviolent drug crime. This is because, despite the harshness of mandatory minimum sentences, drug criminals don’t spend nearly as much time in prison as other kinds of criminals.

It’s tempting to believe that we could free most of the prison population simply by liberating nonviolent drug offenders. Nonviolent drug offenders are “innocent”; they haven’t hurt anybody. Advocating on behalf of criminals is much easier when they haven’t committed any violent crime. And yet this misses the point of the prison crisis: you cannot relieve the suffering of the prison population without increasing safety risks for the rest of us.

And increasing those risks, from a moral standpoint, is the right thing to do.

What would happen to California’s criminal community, once freed from the ping-pong of prison and parole? They would continue being criminals, in all likelihood, breaking and entering, stealing cars, selling drugs, and—very occasionally—taking lives. This would be difficult and painful, both on the individual level for the victims and on a social level more broadly; economic and cultural shocks accompany any kind of population exchange, and a massive jailbreak will likely result in a period of strain and disorganization for inner cities. Over time, though, things will settle. There will be more fathers around, and more state money for things like education and health care.

The incarceration complex, like a civil war or foreign occupation, institutionalizes economic dislocation, making chaos and uncertainty a defining feature of the life cycle. Crime, on the other hand, causes disruptions that are smaller and more manageable. Despite the near-infinite capacity of the human spirit to deal with routine desperation, the residents of East Harlem will never “adapt” to a community life structured around prisons, because uprooting communities is the very function and purpose of incarceration. The capacity of New York residents to absorb higher levels of crime in daily life, on the other hand, is nowhere near its limit.

In all likelihood, dismantling or sharply contracting America’s prison system would make the country feel more like the United Kingdom. In the UK, only 3 percent of crimes result in a prison sentence. In the United States, the figure is closer to 18 percent. London is a more dangerous city than New York. Your likelihood of getting robbed or assaulted is higher there. For educated, middle-class whites unlikely to get in trouble with the police, London is, in some ways, a tougher place to raise children.

On the other hand, life spans are longer in the UK; social mobility is more fluid; racial disparities are smaller; the AIDS crisis is better-controlled; and neighborhoods are more cohesive. Despite some slippage in the last decade, the UK never had the prison boom we experienced in the US—Margaret Thatcher didn’t allow it. Confronted with a crime and drug abuse rate that is high by European standards, London attacked the problem on the front end, installing thousands of CCTV security cameras and hiring thousands of bobbies to discourage lawbreaking. Compared to the United States, they do little in the way of punishment.

Abolishing prisons and releasing all the prisoners would amount to a deregulation of criminal punishment. It would mean letting the private sector determine how best to prevent ourselves from getting robbed. In high finance, the laissez-faire approach has proved to be a disaster; for petty crime, it would be a boon.

If ever there were a time to launch a coordinated assault on the prison-industrial complex, the time is now. Budgets are strained, voters are angry, and crime is low. The Tea Party is in the midst of convincing everyone that government is the enemy— and so it is, in the field of criminal justice.

Popular resentment against an authoritarian state shouldn’t be denied or pooh-poohed— it should be seized and marshaled toward progressive ends. The prison crisis was created by centrists. Limited reforms and immoral moderation will not end the crisis. Prisoners and ex-cons, the most abused population in United States, will have to rely on political extremists, on both the left and the right, to turn the page on what will one day be recalled as one of American history’s darkest chapters.