Prison Reform
June 18, 2019

Many U.S. jails fail to stop inmate suicides, a joint investigation by The Associated Press and the University of Maryland's Capital News Service found.

Suicide has long been the leading cause of death in U.S. jails. For example, the 50-state reporting effort found more than 300 suicides in local jails from 2015 to 2017, but that number comes from just nine states — the other 41 states reportedly did not provide numbers or offered only incomplete data.

A series of lawsuits all across the country have argued that many of the deaths were avoidable, AP reports. Of the 400 court files reviewed by the news organizations, 135 involved suicides, and another 30 involved suicide attempts. About a third of those cases allege that the inmates who committed or attempted suicide did so after staff refused to provide prescription medication to the inmates to manage their mental illness. Some jail officials argue that inmates often try to manipulate the system to get drugs. David Mahoney, a Wisconsin sheriff, told AP that if inmates are taking psychotropic drugs, "we have a moral and ethical responsibility to continue them."

The investigation also found that the majority of suicides and attempts occurred within the first week of incarceration and that many inmates were allegedly not checked on regularly because of staffing shortages and inadequate training. Read more at The Associated Press. Tim O'Donnell

January 18, 2019

Immigrant detainees have to use three days worth of wages to purchase tuna or a miniature deodorant at a California immigrant detention center, Reuters reports.

Daily wages may be as little as a few cents an hour at the Adelanto Detention Facility in California, and a can of commissary tuna costs $3.25 — more than four times the price at a nearby Target, per Reuters.

Immigration activists say facilities like Adelanto intentionally limit access to essentials like toothpaste and even food in an effort to force or coerce inmates into cheap labor. The paltry wages are then redirected back into commissaries where detainees buy ramen noodles and soap. A spokesman for the Geo Group, which owns the Adelanto facility and is the nation's largest for-profit prison operator, denied these allegations, saying the meals served are approved by dieticians, the labor program is strictly voluntary and wage rates are federally mandated, Reuters reports.

Concerns about commissary in U.S. immigration lockups aren't new — a 2017 report from the U.S. Office of the Inspector General documented problems at ICE lockups, finding spoiled, moldy and expired food at some, per Reuters.

Eleven U.S. senators sent letters last November to Geo Group and CoreCivic, the nation's second-largest for-profit prison operator, calling out the "perverse profit incentive at the core of the private prison business," Reuters reports. Marianne Dodson

June 6, 2018

President Trump has commuted the sentence of Alice Johnson, a first-time, nonviolent drug offender who was given a life sentence in 1996, Axios reported Wednesday.

Reality star Kim Kardashian West got involved in Johnson's case, visiting the White House to meet with senior adviser Jared Kushner to advocate on Johnson's behalf. Kardashian West also visited Trump in the Oval Office to alert him of Johnson's disproportionate sentence and to discuss prison reform.

Johnson, 63, gained widespread attention and sympathy after a Mic video recounted her story. Johnson was convicted of facilitating communications in a drug trafficking case, getting a life sentence without opportunity for parole — a severe sentence that criminal justice reform advocates say exemplifies a need for change. Kardashian West called the case "unfair" in October, and sent a team of lawyers to work on freeing Johnson soon afterwards.

Johnson received clemency from Trump, but not a full pardon. She will be released from prison, but her conviction still stands. Read more at Axios. Summer Meza

October 2, 2015

On Thursday, a group of senators from both parties and all points on the ideological spectrum introduced a plan to lower prison sentences for nonviolent offenders and introduce other reforms in the federal penal system. The package, years in the making, would allow judges to discard mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders, restrict solitary confinement for juveniles, allow some current inmates to reduce their sentences by up to 25 percent by participating in rehabilitation programs, and help prisoners integrate back into society when they get out. The legislation has a good chance of passing in the Senate — the top senators on the Judiciary Committee and No. 2 and 3 leaders in both parties are on board, as are notable liberals and conservatives — but its future is unclear in the House.

The senators unveiling the plan — including Republicans John Cornyn (Texas), Charles Grassley (Iowa), Tim Scott (S.C.), and Mike Lee (Utah) and Democrats Dick Durbin (Ill.), Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), and Cory Booker (N.J.) — looked almost giddy at times. Scott and Booker embraced during the news conference. President Obama applauded the lawmakers for their "historic step forward in addressing these systemic problems," noting that "the movement to improve our criminal justice system has surely attracted strange bedfellows." Case in point, both the conservative Koch Industries, and the ACLU lauded the package as a reasonable compromise. Thanks largely to mandatory minimum sentencing enacted in the 1980s and '90s, The Associated Press notes, the federal prison population has ballooned from less than 25,000 in 1980 to more than 200,000 today. Peter Weber

July 16, 2015

President Obama became the first sitting American president to visit a prison on Thursday, when he traveled to Oklahoma's El Reno medium-security facility. While there, the president told the nonviolent offenders he met with that, had things gone a little differently, he could have been the one behind bars, Politico reports.

"That's what strikes me — there but for the grace of God," Obama said. He added, "When they describe their youth, these are young people who made mistakes that aren't that different from the mistakes I made, and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made. The difference is that they did not have the kind of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes."

On Monday, Obama granted clemency to 46 non-violent drug offenders in prison, saying, "Their punishments didn't fit the crime. And if they'd been sentenced under today's laws, nearly all of them would have already served their time." Obama has now commuted the sentences of 89 prisoners — the most since Lyndon Johnson. Jeva Lange

July 16, 2015

Since commuting the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders on Monday, President Obama has devoted this week to highlighting problems in America's criminal justice system. BBC News decided to take a look, too. More than 1.5 million Americans are in jail, the highest prison population in the world, the BBC's Rajini Vaidyanathan says in the resulting video, and more than half of federal inmates are nonviolent drug offenders. Reining in the War on Drugs has some bipartisan support, in part because it costs about $31,000 a year to house each inmate. Vaidyanathan's graph of the U.S. prison population since 1925 is pretty stunning, and you can see it in the video below. Peter Weber

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