Prison inmates in California can now marry same-sex partners

The Prison Enquirer

From the article: “Effective immediately, all institutions must accept and process applications for a same sex marriage between an inmate and a non-incarcerated person in the community, in the same manner as they do marriages between opposite sex couples,” M.D. Stainer, director of the Division of Adult Institutions, stated in the memo.”

Gay inmates, however, cannot marry each other.
Read more here.

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Program enabling Pennsylvania inmates to apologize to victims has more letters than recipients

The Prison Enquirer

In this program (facilitated by the DOC and the Office of Victim Advocates), inmates can write a letter of apology to their victim.  It is one way communication with no direct interaction.

This. Is. Awesome.

Read more here.

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Inmate Suicides in South Carolina Prisons

The Prison Enquirer

I think Castro has prompted a lot of interest in inmate suicide in general.  This article discusses suicide in SC prisons.  Since 2000, SC experienced 38 suicides.  In the same time period, 24 inmates were the victims of homicides.  The homicide number seems a bit high to me, because we definitely have a higher suicide to homicide ratio in Ohio.

Read more about SC prison suicides here.

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California prison hunger strike called off

The Prison Enquirer

From the article: “Inmates in several prisons were demanding an end to long-term solitary confinement and a halt to what is known as the “debriefing” policy, in which inmates are required to provide information on prison gangs to get out of solitary.”

Not sure how to feel about this.  On the one hand, I don’t support hunger strikes and I definitely don’t want inmates to endanger their lives.  I also think that giving in to the hunger striker demands (as we have done in Ohio) encourages people to hunger strike and perpetuates the problem.

On the other hand, kind of feel bad for the inmates that they fought the system…and lost.

Read more here.

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California Prisoner Hunger Strikes Won’t Stop Until Authorities Listen

Wilbert Rideau, one of “America’s most reformed criminals,” recently wrote an op/ed piece for The New York Times. Rideau overcame the odds and eventually won his release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, based on an unconstitutional all-white jury. Read more about Mr. Rideau in his great work In the Place of Justice. I was also lucky enough to have him guide a tour of the facility in 1999, as part of a Corrections criminal justice class at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, taught by a LA corrections expert and friend Burk Foster. Also, feel free to subscribe to the prison publication that Rideau helped revive and bring to national prominence, The Angolite, here.

Mr. Rideau discusses  a topic that I’ve always wanted to research and write more about: prisoner protest. He focuses on the current hunger strike taking place in California by more than 30,000 inmates who are refusing to eat. Their major complaints focus on conditions within the prison and the unbridled use of solitary confinement. He approaches questions that many outside of a prison’s walls might ask when observing these protests: why? What do these prisoners think they are going to accomplish? Do they think anyone cares about their issues?

What these people don’t realize is that there are people that do care about these prisoners’ conditions behind prison walls. Those people wear black robes and they head our nation’s highest courts, at the circuit court of appeals level and even at the Supreme Court. The constitution has, at numerous times in the past, provided the foundation for judges to declare conditions at certain prisons unconstitutional. At one point in our nation’s history, around thirty-five prisons, as well as the prison system of Puerto Rico, was under federal scrutiny. My research focuses on the courageous work of three federal court judges in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana in helping create constitutional prison farms during the 1960s and 1970s.

It was the work of the federal courts that helped create what Mr. Rideau considers to be one of the safest penitentiaries in the United States. This is quite a change from a prison that Collier’s once considered the nation’s bloodiest just a few decades earlier. Prisoners protest because they don’t feel like they have any other way to communicate their issues to authorities. Louisiana’s Department of Corrections has helped create a safer prison by giving prisoners a way to directly communicate to the warden to address their grievances. It’s human nature; when people are suffering, they want to be heard.

If prison authorities do not understand why thousands of inmates not directly affected by solitary confinement would join the protests, at great risk to themselves, they have only themselves to blame. They are victims of their own censorship.

If they were to listen to the inmates, they would understand that protests are almost always the product of what prisoners perceive to be officials’ abuse of arbitrary power. They are generally done by men made desperate by the lack of options to address their grievances. At the heart of the problem is a lack of open communications and freedom of expression.

Like Mr. Rideau states, these are reasonable requests. Often, these inmates simply want to be informed of why they are in solitary. They want to know when they will get out. They want to know what can be done to make their time in solitary end. They are not complaining because they want to live in the Hilton. They don’t want five-star room service. They simply want a prison experience that falls in line with the protections afforded them by the Eighth Amendment. Nothing more; nothing less.

The community outside of the prison walls also support the prisoners’ protest. Photo courtesy of the L.A. Times.

One can make interesting comparisons when studying the history of prisoners and prison protests when looking at the history of slaves and slave protests. When I think of some of the more popular prison protests, such as Attica, I simply don’t think those sort of protests would happen in the South the way they did then. I think the use of the prison farm in the South recreates the plantation style work system so much that prisoners in southern prison farms, such as Angola, would have to resort to those same sorts of protests slaves utilized during antebellum times: self-injuring to prevent work, breaking tools, resorting to laziness, playing sick, or simply trying to escape. Prisoners, like slaves, are constantly trying to carve out their own sphere within their prison environment. They can only do this by bucking the system, even in a way so trivial as breaking a tool. I hope to do a lot more research in this matter, but these are my thoughts right now. Angola prisoners have resorted to these sorts of protests, the most famous of which being some thirty inmates slashing their achilles’ tendons in 1951.

Sometimes, one resorts to the only tools of protest they have. These California protestors are doing the same. Until the authorities simply stop and listen, the protests will continue.

Federal Prosecutors in New York Secure Death Penalty for Ronell Wilson

Jurors in New York have handed down a rare death sentence to Ronell Wilson, convicted of killing two undercover detectives. What makes this even more interesting is that this was the second death sentence he was given. Federal prosecutors took the trial from the state of New York due to that state’s highest court striking down capital punishment. The US government successfully garnered a conviction and death sentence for Wilson, but the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned it due to the prosecutor informing the jury that if Wilson had any remorse for his crime, he would have taken the stand. Kind of makes the Fifth Amendment pointless if the jury deliberates with this in mind.

His crime was particularly brutal:

On March 10, 2003, Mr. Wilson killed Detective Andrews, 34, and Detective Nemorin, 36, who were participating in a sting operation to buy an illegal gun. He shot each once in the back of the head at point-blank range on a secluded street on Staten Island.

Prosecutors would paint a remorseless picture of Wilson:

Prosecutors argued that prison alone would not do. The prosecutors showed a dramatic video of several guards at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn storming into a recreation pen to retrieve Mr. Wilson, who had refused to be handcuffed. When the guards emerged from the pen with Mr. Wilson, he smiled.

One of their witnesses described seeing a guard, Nancy Gonzalez, walk away from Mr. Wilson’s cell one day, leaving him there with his pants down and his genitals exposed. Mr. Wilson had several sexual encounters with Ms. Gonzalez, fathering a child, Justus, who was born in March.

The jury, in considering mitigating factors, including

Mr. Wilson’s difficult childhood, during which he shuttled between relatives as his mother, an alcoholic and drug addict, was often absent. He spent years in an overcrowded and squalid home, where the adults who influenced him were criminals.

Life in prison was punishment enough, Mr. Wilson’s lawyers argued, for someone who never really had a chance.

This was a very emotional trial for all involved in New York. Read more about it here, thanks to Mosi Secret of the New York Times.

Challenging Punishment: What the California Prisoners Hunger Strike Tells Us About Mass Incarceration

By Samuel K. Roberts, PhD

prison_barsThe hunger strike at Pelican Bay is the third such action in the past two years and only the most recent in a 20-year history of protests against conditions there going back to the 1995 Madrid v. Gomez case. Now the strike has spread to roughly two-thirds of the state’s 33 prisons, currently involving at least 12,000 prisoners and perhaps as many as 30,000. Strikers’ demands vary, but in total include an increase in hourly wages (currently 13 cents); more humane treatment; and the restoration of educational, rehabilitative, vocational and mental and physical health services recently excised from prison budgets. One of the main demands is an address of the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement, or extreme isolation, in Secure Housing Units (SHUs) and supermax prisons, in which prisoners are locked in a cell for 22 to 24 hours a day, and denied contact with anyone except prison…

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Pardon the Hiatus: I’ll be back shortly!

Hello everyone. Just wanted to let you know that I have a few posts in the works and they will be published within a week or two. It’s been a few busy weeks, wrapping up my time here at Ole Miss and preparing to move onto Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota. But I’ll be back on track soon. My reading list is full, so there are some great posts in store. 

Today in Legal History: Johnson Signs Civil Rights Act

As we celebrate our independence on this day, let us remember those that were not considered worthy of independence at the creation of our Constitution. By and large, African slaves, Native Americans, and even women were a forgotten afterthought in our nation’s struggle for independence and in the creation of it’s form of government. The “deals with the devil” contained within the Constitution (Rendition Clause, etc) were one of the main reasons southern states eventually ratified the Constitution. Thus, our new nation set a path of inequality. While legislation like the CRA of 64 removed some of the inequalities, many still remain today. But, let’s remember the historic fight to establish equality for all races and creeds in our nation. They are worthy of celebration on our nation’s independence day. Everyone have a great and safe day!

Texas executes 500th inmate since state resumed capital punishment

The Prison Enquirer

From the article: “McCarthy, 52, was executed for the 1997 robbery, beating and fatal stabbing of retired college psychology professor Dorothy Booth. Booth had agreed to give McCarthy a cup of sugar before she was attacked with a butcher knife and candelabra at her home in Lancaster, south of Dallas. Authorities say McCarthy cut off Booth’s finger to remove her wedding ring.”

Read more here.

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