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Tag: prison reform

Who Smuggles Drugs And Weapons Into Prisons? It's An Inside Job

Doctors at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, New York pronounced Michael Nieves, a 40 year old detainee on Rikers Island, dead on August 31, 2022. Nieves had been suspended between life and death since an ambulance brought him from the New York City jail days before. Nieves had slit his own throat and bled out for at least 10 minutes — as jail staffers looked on and did nothing. A video camera captured the entire tragedy.

The New York City Department of Correction has suspended the staffers, two officers and a captain; accountability awaits. The most shocking aspect of what happened isn’t the disregard for life — that’s pretty commonplace — but the fact that this has become a suicide story and not a smuggling one.

A common perception of contraband and smuggling involves outsiders secretly squeezing items through tiny spaces. But that’s not the rule. Most of the time, smuggling’s an inside job, sometimes of goods that no one would identify as prohibited. Anyone who puts something banned into an inmate's hands is a smuggler.

The New York Times has reported that Nieves was actually given the razor as if that makes his possession of it lawful. A razor intended for shaving but used for suicide is contraband; in prisons and jails, anything used for a purpose that wasn’t intended bears that label.

But the larger point, which should go without saying, is that no one in the PACE Center where Nieves was housed — Rikers Island’s intensive psychiatric inpatient unit — should have been allowed to touch a blade of any type. It should be contraband even if it was used for shaving. This isn’t just a story of inaction. It’s a story of unauthorized goods.

Studying smuggling is a challenge. There’s no way to count the number of times contraband is passed — only the number of times someone is caught is numerable — so no one knows exactly how much illegal passing in prisons is initiated by employees.
But the novel coronavirus taught us that it’s a lot. The pandemic acid-tested prison security; every state and the federal Bureau of Prisons suspended in-person, full contact visits when the crisis started. The only people with contact with the outside were people who worked there.

But the flow of contraband barely stopped. The number of drug seizures in Virginia prisons dropped from 967 in 2019 to 871 in 2020. If visitors introduced contraband in a significant way, the reduction should have been more substantial since visits were stopped on March 16, 2020, canceled as a COVID-19 protection. In Connecticut a search turned up marijuana and a cell phone in February 2021 even though contact with the outside had been on hold since the previous March.

In Texas prisons, where an anti-contraband initiative had started before the prisons closed to visitors, staff found drugs 2297 times, only four fewer than the 2301 drug interdictions in 2019, and even though the number of people incarcerated decreased by about 16 percent.

Smuggling isn’t always as clandestine as it seems. Some employees just walk in with it. Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz sent Michael Carvajal, the then-Director of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), an urgent memo last year stating that guards were avoiding being searched when appearing for work.

Carvajal was recently replaced by Colette Peters, the former director of Oregon’s state prisons, but the Senate Judiciary Committee plans on holding another hearing about the failures of the BOP during his tenure when Congress is back in session.
Until such an airing of the ways items land in inmate hands, the federal prison guards union is lobbying to make the number of contraband interdictions the basis for the Bureau of Prisons’ budget — without any irony. So they could bolster their own funding and salaries by bringing in more prohibited goods. An email to the union’s president, Shane Fausey, requesting comment on this position was not returned.

As Nieves' recent story shows, guards freely giving inmates what they’re not supposed to have — either items they brought in or on-site materials — isn’t without consequence. The number of non-COVID deaths in prisons and jails from 2020 to the present time is still being calculated; that data would reveal the human cost of staffer smuggling. Before the pandemic, deaths by drugs and alcohol increased 139 percent between 2016 and 2018 and not because of increased prison populations; the number of inmates barely budged while deaths shot up.

Smuggling problems will be solved only by oversight and there’s almost none of it, even though most everyone agrees it’s needed.
Last month, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an organization dedicated to creating “a more fair and effective justice system that respects our American values of individual accountability and dignity while keeping our communities safe” released the first ever public poll on prison oversight. While the public may not be entirely sympathetic to what inmates experience, they believe that prisons are too loose. Eighty-two percent of survey respondents said we need independent oversight for prisons and jails.

The people polled by FAMM didn’t equivocate; 73 percent of them think “prisons should be inspected by professionals who are independent of the prison system they are inspecting,” 68 percent plainly reported that they don't “trust government agencies to investigate their own problems and honestly report on them,” and almost all of them think that there should be sufficient staffing, authority and access to provide the needed oversight.

Prison oversight shouldn’t be that hard to build if so much of the general public supports it. But an overarching overseer is hard to establish, mostly because such a bunker mentality grips the facilities. The inmates want to blame the guards and the guards want to see the inmates to face consequences. It doesn’t really matter why.

And that’s not oversight’s game. “The point of oversight is not to find out who did something wrong and hold them accountable, it's to prevent these problems," said FAMM’s president, Kevin Ring in an interview.

That mentality makes contraband smuggling an almost intractable problem since no one’s innocent in the contraband racket, no matter who does the smuggling. Recognizing employees as a source of dangerous contraband doesn’t absolve the incarcerated population. Staff bring in drugs and weapons because there’s a demand for it and inmates or their families are willing to pay; they’re not doing it for free.

Similarly, recognizing outsiders as purveyors of the prohibited doesn’t let prison employees off the hook, either. Contraband sneaks in when they’re not looking. And they’re always supposed to be looking. That’s why they’re paid to work there.

Indeed, looking is exactly what the two officers and a captain did while Michael Nieves lay exsanguinating. The cause of his death wasn’t so much their failure to act but their provision of the death instrument in the first place — and the fact that no one above them was watching to prevent that.

Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.

The (Prison) Education Of Joe Biden

December is the month when we revisit the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a stony-hearted man who finally learns to be more generous and humane. That tale may strike home in the Oval Office, because Joe Biden sometimes resembles the reformed Scrooge in trying to make up for his past harshness.

Biden was the chief author of the 1994 crime bill, which was part of a broad push to increase penalties for lawbreakers. That measure contributed to the mass incarceration boom of the 1990s. At the same time, the law took away one important method of keeping inmates released from prison from returning to prison.

In Congress, tough-on-crime politicians raged against the practice of providing federal college funds known as Pell Grants to prisoners who wanted to pursue higher education. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), portrayed the expense as a waste and an injustice: "Citizens who are struggling to meet their children's skyrocketing tuition costs have a right to be outraged when the child of a police officer in their community can't get a Pell grant but a criminal the police officer sends to prison can."

In fact, giving grants to inmates didn't reduce the funds available to their students. But no matter. The Biden crime bill, proudly signed by Bill Clinton, zeroed out Pell Grants for prison inmates. Better, apparently, that they should spend their time making license plates and pumping iron than solving equations and writing term papers.

Biden has since expressed remorse for his role in passing the crime bill, which he described as "a big mistake." The provision on Pell Grants certainly was. It's hard to think of a policy more self-defeating than preventing prisoners from using their time behind bars to discipline their minds and acquire useful knowledge.

Under Barack Obama, the Education Department found a way to offer such financial aid through an experimental initiative called Second Chance Pell. The department expanded the program under Donald Trump, who also signed legislation repealing the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students.

The change, tucked into the $900 billion pandemic relief package approved last December, won't take effect until 2023. In the meantime, the Biden administration has expanded Second Chance to cover some 200 colleges, up from 131 today. Thanks to separate legislation, inmates will also get more access to vocational training programs, such as carpentry and masonry.

These changes will sound like gross extravagance to anyone who thinks incarceration should maximize the misery of criminals. The problem with that approach is that 95 percent of those in prison today will return to our midst — having been changed, for better or worse, by their time behind bars.

Law-abiding citizens will be safer if former inmates have credentials that make them employable, giving them a good alternative to robbing convenience stores or dealing drugs.

"The cost-benefit of this does not take a math genius to figure out," then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in 2015, launching the Second Chance Pell program. "We lock folks up here, $35-40,000 every single year. A Pell Grant is less than $6,000 each year." That $35-40,000, of course, does not include the cost of the harm done to innocent people by freed inmates who revert to crime.

Education is a reliable way to curb recidivism. A study by the Vera Institute of Justice found that prisoners who take post-secondary courses are 48 percent less likely to return to prison than those who don't — saving five dollars for every dollar invested. They are more likely to find jobs after their release.

It also noted, "Prisons with postsecondary education programs have fewer violent incidents than prisons without them, creating safer working conditions for staff and safer living environments for incarcerated people."

Employers may also profit from these programs. In the tight labor market, more businesses are willing to consider applicants they once would have rejected out of hand. Honest Jobs, which helps people with criminal records, "had 158 companies register for its site from May to July, roughly doubling its ranks of active employers," reports Bloomberg. "New York City-based nonprofit Fortune Society says placements in April through June were up 14 percent from the same period last year."

The worst prisons are fully capable of exacting retribution against their occupants. But correctional institutions are far more valuable if they can also give inmates the means to live law-abiding lives once they have paid their debt to society.

Every felon who leaves prison gets a second chance. The question is: a second chance to do what?

Follow Steve Chapman on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

Senators Propose Sentencing Reform To Reduce Prison Overcrowding

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — U.S. senators on Thursday proposed a bipartisan plan for reforming criminal justice, aiming to ditch harsh sentencing laws that lead to prison overcrowding and to limit solitary confinement for juveniles.

The legislative proposal would end the national “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” law, which mandates life sentences for people convicted of a violent felony after two or more previous convictions, including drug crimes.

The proposal would also give judges more leeway in sentencing low-level offenders, and improve prisoner rehabilitation programs. But under the measure, enhanced prison penalties could still be applied to offenders with prior convictions for serious violent offenses and serious drug felonies, a Senate fact sheet said.

The legislation was introduced by nine senators from both political parties, including Republican Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat.

A separate bill in the House of Representatives would also reduce use of mandatory sentences.

The outlook for passage of either measure was uncertain.

“The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth,” Durbin said.

While mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent, they have too often been unfair, and led to overcrowded prisons and tighter budgets, Durbin said.

The drum beat for reform has grown as U.S. crime rates have drastically declined over the past two decades. Lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders are increasingly seen as racially imbalanced and disproportionate to the crimes.

President Barack Obama, a Democrat, also favors criminal justice reform. During the summer he toured a federal prison and vowed to work to address prison overcrowding.

More than 1.5 million Americans were in state or federal prisons at the end of 2013, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. African-Americans were 15 percent of the U.S. population at that time but accounted for about a third of its prisoners.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Grant McCool)

Photo: Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) (C) delivers remarks at a bi-partisan news conference on criminal justice reform, The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington October 1, 2015. Listening are Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) (L) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) (R). REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Endorse This: President Obama vs. The War On Drugs


For the first time ever, a sitting President of the United States not only visited a federal prison — he also expressed empathy for the plight of prisoners, and called for reforms of the way society treats non-violent drug offenders.

“When they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made,” President Obama told reporters. “The difference is they did not have the kinds of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.”

Video via The White House.

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Report: Learning About Inequality Just Makes White People Support More Inequality

One would think that hearing that blacks make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population would make people want to do something to reform the criminal justice system. But not in America. A new study published in Psychological Science shows that telling white people about the unequal nature of the system only intensifies their support for policies that overwhelmingly target black people.

Blacks make up only 12 percent of the total U.S. population, but 40 percent of the prison population. The study attributes this disparity to harsh policies such as California’s three-strikes law, which originally meant that a defendant received a life sentence for almost any crime if they had already had two prior convictions. The law was slightly modified in 2012 to make sure that these life sentences didn’t result from non-serious crimes. Over 45 percent of inmates serving life sentences in California are black.

The study’s lead author, Rebecca Hetey, thinks that policies like this explain why the United States has the highest per-capita prison population in the world.

“Most people likely assume this must be due to rising crime rates, but the explosion in the prison population is better explained by harsh criminal justice policies,” she told Stanford News.

Hetey and Associate Professor of Psychology Jennifer Eberhardt decided to conduct two experiments to see how white people’s support for these policies would change if they actually knew the facts.

They first showed two groups of white voters a video with mugshots of male prisoners. For one group, 25 percent of the mugshots were of black men, while the other group saw a different video, featuring 45 percent black men.

The study participants were then asked if they wanted to sign a petition that would make the three-strikes law more moderate. Over half the people who’d seen the video with fewer black men signed the petition, while only 27 percent of those who saw more mugshots of black men did so. Seeing more black men in prison only made these participants want to keep them incarcerated longer.

Their second experiment took place in New York, the home of stop-and-frisk, which also disproportionately affects blacks and other minorities. The researchers showed white New Yorkers statistics about black inmates to see how it affected their perception of the stop-and-frisk policy. Some were told that 40 percent of inmates across the country are black, while others learned the New York City rate (60 percent).

About a third (33 percent) of participants who saw the lower national statistic were willing to sign a petition to end stop-and-frisk, while only 12 percent who saw the higher New York City number said they would sign it.

They found that the people who saw the New York City incarceration rate were very concerned about crime, which is why they didn’t want to end stop and frisk.

The researchers say that their findings strike a blow against the theory that people will want to fight inequality if they’re properly educated about the problem.

“Many legal advocates and social activists seem to assume that bombarding the public with images, statistics, and other evidence of racial disparities will motivate people to join the cause and fight inequality,” Hetey said. “Reducing inequality takes more than simply presenting people with evidence of extreme inequality.”

Photo: x1klima via Flickr

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Illinois Supreme Court Orders Hearings For About 100 Inmates Sentenced To Life As Juveniles

By Steve Mills and Duaa Eldeib, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO—The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday that inmates serving mandatory life sentences for murders they committed as juveniles will receive new sentencing hearings, giving about 100 convicted killers a chance at freedom.

The inmates, some of whom were as young as 14 at the time of the murders, will now be allowed to present evidence — including the circumstances of their upbringing and their rehabilitative efforts in prison — to obtain reduced sentences and possible freedom. Prosecutors can try to persuade judges to re-impose the life sentences.

Some of the state’s most notorious murderers will be among the inmates given new sentencing hearings: David Biro, who was 16 in 1990 when he forced a pregnant woman and her husband into the basement of their Winnetka home and shot them as they pleaded for their lives, and Christopher Churchill, who was 16 in 1998 when he used a hammer to kill his half-brother, the man’s girlfriend and her three children in southern Illinois.

Thursday’s decision comes two years after the U.S. Supreme Court found that mandatory life sentences violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Its ruling built on an increasing body of scientific and social research that showed that the brains of teens were less developed than those of adults, giving them less impulse control, and that youths were susceptible to peer pressure and other forces that could lead them to commit such heinous crimes without considering their consequences.

Attorneys and advocates praised the ruling, saying that a mandatory life sentence failed to take into account the circumstances of a youth’s life and took away discretion from judges to decide the appropriate prison term.

But the sentencing hearings no doubt will reopen emotional wounds for the families of victims. The issue has divided the family of Nancy Langert, who along with husband Richard were Biro’s victims.

Jeanne Bishop, who has been meeting with Biro in prison for months to try to understand what drove him to commit such brutal murders and to determine if he is indeed remorseful, said she has not yet decided if Biro should ever be released.

“I’m still finding that out,” said Bishop, who viewed Thursday’s ruling as just and appropriate because she believes everyone, even killers like Biro, deserve an opportunity to show they can live again in society.

Her sister, Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, said she was stunned by the court’s decision. A victims rights advocate, she said other victims’ families were finding the news hard to accept as well. She said it will be difficult to have fair sentencing hearings for crimes that occurred decades ago. Most of the inmates were convicted in the 1980s and 1990s.

“It will be re-traumatizing to victims families,” she said. “And most of these guys will get life again anyway.”

A spokeswoman for Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez made much the same point. The office was analyzing the ruling and considering asking the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in again.

“As always, we are concerned that the effect of new sentencing hearings will cause painful wounds for many victims and their families to be re-opened as these victims are forced to relive the pain and anguish of the horrific crimes perpetrated against them,” said the spokeswoman, Sally Daly.

With the ruling, Illinois joins such states as Iowa, Massachusetts and Texas in deciding the 2012 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court applies to prisoners who committed crimes years before the ruling. Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Louisiana are among the states that have refused.

All of the approximately 100 inmates in Illinois will get new sentencing hearings, but it wasn’t clear how soon those would take place.

The sentencings were mandatory for the juveniles because of their convictions on multiple murders or other factors.

Some of the inmates will point to the fact that they played lesser roles in the murders and were convicted under laws that held them accountable. Others insist they have uncovered convincing evidence that proves they are innocent and have been trying all along to win their freedom by unraveling their convictions.

Many are the products of poverty and abuse, the kind of information that could not be considered when they were originally sentenced but will be in the new hearings. Many others have turned their lives around while in prison, according to their lawyers, and hope to show a judge that they have been rehabilitated.

Most of the convictions came in the 1980s and 1990s. At least one of the 100 inmates is a woman, Jacqueline Montanez, who was 15 and a gang member when she shot and killed two rivals with an accomplice, prosecutors said at the time.

The court’s unanimous ruling came in the case of Adolfo Davis, who had been 14 for two months when in October 1990 two older gang members brought him along on what he believed was going to be a robbery, according to his attorneys. Two men were shot and killed, but Davis never fired his gun, they said.

One of his attorneys, Patricia Soung, said that Davis’ difficult upbringing is crucial to understanding why he participated in the crime, while his development in prison will be key to showing he can be rehabilitated.

At the time, Davis was in eighth grade. His father was absent and his mother was a drug addict, so he lived with his grandmother, according to his attorneys. Since he went to prison, Davis has renounced his gang membership, gotten an education, writes poetry and, at 37, helps steer youngsters away from gang life, the attorneys said.

Shobha Mahadev, the project director for the Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children and a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law, called the court’s decision appropriate, especially considering that Cook County is home to the nation’s first juvenile court.

“None of us is the same person we were when we were 15,” Mahadev said. “That’s something that many of them are eager to show.”

In downstate Macon County, State’s Attorney Jay Scott defended the life sentences handed down to two inmates who were each convicted of three murders. He said he would prepare for the new sentencings once they are scheduled.

“I think the original sentences … were more than appropriate given the nature of the crimes,” he said. “But it’s the ruling, and we have to abide by it.”

When the sentencing hearings take place, prosecutors and defense attorneys will be challenged. Since judges had no choice about the mandatory sentences, there was no need to research defendants’ background in the kind of depth usually done for sentencings. That work will have to begin anew, but with the passage of time, records have likely been lost and witnesses died.

Some attorneys already have retained psychologists and others to prepare for the sentencing hearings, said Lawrence Wojcik, an attorney at the firm DLA Piper who co-authored a brief for a coalition of advocacy groups.

“Some of these individuals have been in prison for 20 years. They will have a large body of information for the court to consider,” Wojcik said. “But you’re also not going to have witnesses — the mother who was on crack may be dead, the grandma holding the family together might have passed away.”

Complicating matters further, the case could still find its way back to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Michele Deitch, a juvenile justice expert and professor at the University of Texas, said the split among the states in how they are handling the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court could prompt the justices to correct what she called an “intolerable disparity.”

“I don’t think that the Constitution can really stand such an extreme disparity,” she said.

Photo: Adam Jones via Wikimedia commons