Tag: prison reform
Yellowhammer File 2: How Skeleton Staffing Makes Alabama Prisons Lethal

Yellowhammer File 2: How Skeleton Staffing Makes Alabama Prisons Lethal

Stephone Lvon Marshall died on May 16, 2023 at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Alabama. He was killed, stabbed in the neck. Marshall’s murder might have been prevented. It’s unclear whether anyone will ever know since the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) isn’t being truthful about his death.

According to eyewitness Eddie Ward, Marshall and his aggressor engaged in four to five separate standoffs, one lasting about 30 minutes, the day before the murder. Marshall was armed with a broken mop stick and the other man held a knife. The guard on duty witnessed these conflicts and did nothing to break them up or separate them.

“If an officer had stepped in on any of these occasions, the circumstances would have been different. The outcome would have been different,” Ward said.

Eddie Ward

ADOC told the Montgomery Advertiser that Marshall “was found by corrections officers with injuries” and “was taken to the prison’s health care unit for emergency treatment.”

Those statements are not entirely true.

According to Ward, Marshall wasn’t found. After Marshall was stabbed, he went to a door to try to get out of the unit to get help. But no officer was on that side of the dorm at that point. Instead, said Ward, he was chatting with a female officer on the other side of the dorm.

The men in the dorm beat on “the cube” (it’s like a station with a window within a prison housing unit) until a guard came back. That officer opened the door for Marshall who stumbled out to another area, where nurses had been summoned by radio. One of the nurses fell trying to address his wounds.

Ward says there was a delay in getting Marshall substantive medical attention because keys to a transport van couldn’t be found.
When questioned about the missing van keys, the Alabama Department of Corrections issued a standard reply:

“The ADOC Law Enforcement Services Division is thoroughly investigating the death of inmate Stephone Lvon Marshall. The agency cannot comment about ongoing investigations.”

But the department continued:

“However, we can confirm that an officer was present in the dorm at the time of the incident and there was no issue with finding van keys.”

There was in fact such an issue with keys that Marshall was loaded into a guard’s personal vehicle and driven to a helicopter which took off and then landed in the same spot because Marshall had already died.

It bears pointing out that the department did, in fact, comment on an ongoing investigation by saying that there was no issue with van keys. But that official comment is suspect; Ward and other witnesses did tell investigators about the missing keyring. This evidence should appear in reports. As the investigation closes, it will be important to note what’s included, if anyone ever gets to see a final report.

Moreover, in its statement, ADOC admitted that the unit was understaffed. Having one officer in C-1 Dorm at Elmore is patently inadequate, even when he’s in the dorm. That building houses 198 men.

For comparison, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the average ratio of inmates to guards in state prisons was 4.9 to 1. In 2020, the federal Bureau of Prisons considered a ratio higher than 15 to 1 to be a staffing crisis. The ratio in that dorm on May 16, was thirteen times higher than numbers that alarm federal officials.

A number of sources who are confined at Elmore have told me there’s no medical office or resources at the prison, not even an infirmary. The ADOC has declined to comment on the existence of medical resources at that particular facility. Because Elmore Correctional Facility was once known as the Staton Annex, it uses the Staton Correctional Facility’s medical resources which are approximately a mile down the road.

The problem is that four people have died at Elmore in 2023 alone. That’s why the transport van’s availability is key here. Providing medical care for anyone in Elmore requires a car or van trip.

Ward himself was stabbed on April 12, 2023. A female officer witnessed the attack and shouted “stop it!” several times but didn’t use her pepper spray until Ward successfully fought off his attacker and then she sprayed both Ward and the man who cut him. He waited 20 minutes before they transported him to Jackson Hospital in Montgomery.

No word on where the car keys were that day.

Chandra Bozelko served more than six years 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. Her work has earned several professional awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Los Angeles Press Club, The National Federation of Press Women and more.Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.

Idealism Of Prison Educators Must Overcome Obstacles To Program Rollout

Idealism Of Prison Educators Must Overcome Obstacles To Program Rollout

This is the third in a series of five articles on Pell Grant access for incarcerated students funded by a reporting fellowship from the Education Writers Association. Read the first, the second, the fourth and the fifth in the series.

Even if corrections departments act promptly and in good faith in approving Prison Education Programs (PEPs) as identified by the now-amended Higher Education Act, a number of factors still stand to trouble the Pell grant restoration to students in jails and prisons.

Approval Backlog And Lack Of Capacity

Demand will outstrip supply of quality postsecondary education in correctional facilities.

While the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative (Second Chance Pell programs) will continue as they have been, at least for a while, any schools beyond those original 200 that were included in the original experiment will need to be newly approved, three times over. Once by the accrediting agency that has already certified the school (the PEP program requires its own accreditation) the correctional authority and the Department of Education must approve it as well.

It’s unclear how long this will take — the accreditation process alone can take years — because it hasn’t really started yet. As of mid-December 2022, the form to start the approval process had not yet been created by the Department of Education, so no educational institution has begun its bid to provide postsecondary education behind bars, much less been approved to run a PEP.

Second Chance Pell programs may be at an advantage in this process, as opposed to schools trying to create a PEP from scratch, because those programs already underwent an accreditation process — which makes them familiar with it — and obtained approval from the federal Department of Education.

Even with approval, schools may offer only a few openings; some Second Chance Pell programs worked with as few as ten students.

This will inevitably lead to a waitlist, one that may be longer than an aspiring student has in the facility, according to Terrell Blount, who directs the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network, a Tacoma, Washington-based nonprofit. Blount was a member of the 2021 Negotiated Rulemaking Prison Education Programs Subcommittee.

"Some people…will be on that waitlist until they are released," he said. "And that's where we [the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network] come into play, because we want to be able to reach those students who don't get a chance to enroll because of space issues, because there's no seats available.”

Wasting one’s opportunities while languishing on a list will be less of a consideration in facilities managed by the federal Bureau of Prisons; the average federal prison sentence is over ten years: 147 months. Inmates may have time to wait to take classes, although there’s already a long line ahead of them. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that 25 percent of eligible inmates are biding time on a list for their chance to sit in a classroom.

State sentences are considerably shorter, making waitlists more of a barrier. Across all crime categories, people discharged from prison in 2018 served a median sentence of 1.3 years, according to the Pew Research Center. Two semesters on a waitlist may block a prisoner from even starting his education inside.

Lack Of Available Physical Space

Because these classes happen in correctional facilities, PEPs will need to access classrooms. Facilities may not be able to accommodate as many PEPs and all their courses since classroom space is finite and course offerings and even college programs will be expanding.

The recent spate of prison closures makes this problem even more pronounced. In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul noted that many of the state’s facilities are only half full. To Hochul, consolidating them and closing some has presented itself as an option worth considering. California’s Department of Correction and Rehabilitation is closing both Chuckawalla Valley State Prison and California City Correctional Facility in Kern County, inevitably leaving programs vying for classroom space.

Dr. Erin S. Corbett, founder and executive director of the Second Chance Educational Alliance, an educational reentry program operating in Connecticut prisons, doesn’t see space as much of a limiting consideration as others.

I think for some states it's real…But because [the Department of Correction] keeps saying [space is a problem], people have internalized it because … that's something objective that we can all maybe agree on,” Corbett said of space inside prisons.

But Corbett has seen available, empty classrooms inside prisons. "Limited space" may provide a convenient excuse for a lack of institutional support.

There are all these empty classrooms," said Corbett. "Why can't we use these classrooms? What we are told is that the [prison high school] teachers will not allow us to use their classrooms.”

Infiltration By Profit-Seeking Bad Actors

Many educators, advocates and stakeholders are perplexed by the prospect of a new funding stream attracting schools that don’t run their programs with integrity.

The federal regulations explicitly exclude for-profit schools from applying to establish PEPs. But even schools that don’t operate with an eye toward making money may be drawn into the post-secondary prison education game.

Aaron T. Kinzel, lecturer on criminology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and former fellow with the Corrections Education Leadership Academy of the Vera Institute of Justice, fears that schools will see prisoners’ restored Pell grant eligibility as a “potential cash cow” that can replace tuition they lost through dwindling enrollment.

The recent pandemic dips in enrollment weren’t as dramatic as predicted. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, colleges and universities in the United States experienced a drop of just 1.1% of undergraduate students between the fall of 2021 and 2022.

This wasn’t really news; matriculation has been down every year since 2019 for an overall reduction of six percent. College registrars now count one million fewer students in their records.

To compensate for those missing students -- and their tuition payments -- schools without a proven or strong commitment to quality education may be drawn into the prison education space.

Federal regulations cap the number of incarcerated students at 25 percent of the total student population, so limits already in place can prevent this.

Besides, PEPs aren’t the place to profit. Dr. Sarah Tahamont, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland, thinks the cost of starting a PEP is so prohibitive that she doesn’t identify profiteering as a risk.

I don't see how that could be possible. It works out best when it's more mission driven...invest in it and find ways not only to fund it via Pell Grants but also via other sources, whether that is from the university or from philanthropy or other areas,” she said.

As a practical matter, there’s no other federal aid available to incarcerated students besides the Pell Grant.

Technically, neither Federal Work Study nor Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) was ever banned for incarcerated students, but applying for those programs required being a Federal Pell Grant recipient. Even with their newfound eligibility for Pell Grants, incarcerated students are unlikely to get an FSEOG, which is reserved for students most in need, such as those in danger of homelessness. Federal Work Study grants require students to work outside their college facilities, a logistical impossibility for prisoners.

According to the Education Commission of the States, 19 of the nation's 52 states and jurisdictions offer state-based financial aid to incarcerated students, but many of them are also tied to Pell Grant eligibility. Some states, like Wisconsin, offer state aid and continued to do so throughout the 28 years that Pell Grants didn’t support education in prisons. But most states did not.

Even with Pell Grants becoming available, PEP’s are an expensive venture. The large colleges and universities already offering college education would not disclose their operating costs but the grants they seek and receive are large. The Ford Foundation granted the Bard Prison Initiative $1 million dollars in 2015 to expand its core operations. Last year, a partnership between The Yale Prison Education Initiative and the University of New Haven secured a three-year, $1.5 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, along with The Prison Project at Quinnipiac University, which received $364,000 from the same foundation.

In the end, PEPs will have to cover whatever costs the Pell Grants don’t. This particular type of financial aid can cover tuition, fees, and books but the typical grant isn’t sufficient to pay for everything; the PEP’s home university makes up the difference. Virtually every PEP picks up a hefty tab.

For many Second Chance Pell programs, when students either didn’t have the required information — a Social Security number, tax information, an aggregation of their prison wages (they must report their wages even though the total often is not enough for the prison to issue them a W-2 Wage and Tax Statement) — for the old FAFSA, the program would simply forgo the Pell assistance for that student and cover the cost of his education itself.

There’s another reason why financially struggling colleges may not come marauding the flow of Pell Grant dollars inside prisons. Higher education in carceral spaces is a matter of deep moral and ethical conviction. It attracts people who believe in the students and believe in higher education’s potential for transformation. Running a program in prison is far from easy for anyone, especially school officials unfamiliar with that kind of work.

Operating a college campus inside a prison is a totally different thing than operating one that is not subject to the constraints of correctional officials for a variety of reasons," said Tahamont. "It is an evolving practice. And there's a whole field of people that are dedicated to trying to figure out what are the best ways to deliver higher education in a quality manner inside a prison, subject to the constraints that are imposed by prison."

Solutions to these problems not only exist, but can be developed over time during implementation.

The federal government has done what we asked in regard to restoring Pell Grant access," said Blount. "That's going to open up a lot more opportunities for people. Right now, I think our time is better spent going toward figuring out how to best implement programs."

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.

If Nearly A Million Incarcerated People Apply For Pell Grants, Are We Ready?

If Nearly A Million Incarcerated People Apply For Pell Grants, Are We Ready?

This is the first in a series of five articles on Pell Grant access for incarcerated students funded by a reporting fellowship from the Education Writers Association. Read the second, third, fourth and fifth in the series.

Almost two years ago, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Simplification Act -- the largest revision to the 1965 Higher Education Act in 50 years and part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 -- was signed into law. It repealed the portion of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that made incarcerated students ineligible for federal Pell Grants to pay for college programs.

The law is set to take effect, complete with a new set of regulations, in about six months, on July 1, 2023. On that day, a forgotten and maligned subset of low-income higher education students -- namely hundreds of thousands of prisoners -- can become college contenders. They’ll become eligible to apply for these grants again after a 28-year hiatus.

The Numbers of Potential Applicants Are Large

The number of prisoners who will become eligible is probably well over 700,000. According to Dr. Sarah Tahamont, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland, close to 75 percent of prisoners may be eligible. Dr. Tahamont used a representative sample of Pennsylvania inmates to extrapolate that estimate.

Leaving out the entire population in local jails, because they have fewer higher education offerings (although Pell Grants will continue to be available to students in jails; the Pell grant ban applied to people in state and federal prisons only), there are approximately 1,250,000 prisoners in state and federal prisons -- according to the 2022 “Whole Pie” report from the Prison Policy Initiative, their annual count of prison populations. Seventy-five percent of them amounts to at least 937,500 potential Pell Grant applicants. If Dr. Tahamont is correct that as many as 937,500 inmates will become eligible next summer, that’s a 42-fold increase in applicants that will happen instantly on July 1, 2023.

Pell Grants Address Poverty

Aside from denying them transformative experiences and knowledge, the ban on this need-based form of financial aid focused the discussion of higher education in prison on merit, whether these students forfeited their education through criminal acts or mere criminal allegations. The discussion glossed over what prisoners are and always have been: poor people who couldn’t afford college and were therefore excluded from it.

In 2016, the last date for which data was available, 39 percent of dependent (under age 24) students and 67 percent of independent (over age 24) students lived in or near poverty. These percentages didn’t include any incarcerated students. This particular population has been left out of any analysis of low-income students for decades.

As much as poverty is an outcome of incarceration, it’s also a predictor of it. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates, about 42 percent of state inmates received public assistance before the age of 18. Nineteen percent of them lived in subsidized or public housing and 11 percent experienced homelessness as children. Unsurprisingly, about 62 percent of them never completed high school.

The proscription on Pell Grants for prisoners was just a way to reinforce that poverty, although it’s not clear that the lawmakers who supported the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994 fully understood that; even the late Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, the namesake of the financial aid for lower-income students, voted yes on the bill that would snatch educational opportunities from prisoners. Senator Pell wouldn’t survive to weigh in on restoring eligibility.

Now that the ban is over, the conversation should shift from what these students don’t deserve to what they can’t afford — and the ways to remedy that deficit.

Pell Grants can be a fix here, but the question of whether the system will be ready for expanded eligibility is unavoidable.

Experimental So Far -- And Focused On Preventing Crime

Since prisoners’ access to Pell Grants has been prohibited since 1994, any recent use of that funding for inmates’ college courses has been an experiment that provided considerable leeway to those who undertook it.Under the Higher Education Act, the U.S. Secretary of Education has the authority to offer experiments according to the Experimental Sites Initiative, sometimes referred to as ESI, which allows the department to test the efficiency of statutory and regulatory flexibility for participating institutions disbursing Title IV student aid.

And that’s precisely what then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did. He used the fiat power provided to him by the Higher Education Act to start the pilot Pell Grant program, and invited higher education institutions to apply to participate in it.

Since 2016, the Department of Education has been test-running Pell Grants for prisoners. The Second Chance Experimental Site Initiative, colloquially called the Second Chance Pell Grant program, grew from 63 participant colleges to 130 colleges in 2000 and then to 200 by 2021. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, those 200 schools, which enroll different numbers of students ranging from served 22,117 students through 2020.

The goal of the Second Chance Pell program wasn’t to test how this type of financial aid would be distributed if the program were scaled. it was to determine whether this money should be distributed to incarcerated learners at all.

The Second Chance Pell Program was designed by the department to evaluate what happens when incarcerated students receive Pell grants and pursue postsecondary education and training with the goal of helping them get jobs, support their families, and turn their lives around.” said Dr. Benedict A. Dorsey, a federal official involved in preparing for the program's launch, at the 2022 Virtual Federal Student Aid Training Conference on December 2, 2022.

“The goal was to enhance public safety by breaking the cycle of recidivism and improving outcomes for people returning from prison, jail and juvenile facilities through grant funding for education programs in prison," Dorsey continued.

Experiment Offered Lessons

While the Pell Grant pilot program chiefly examined whether incarcerated students would benefit from grants, the pilot program didn't fail to provide insight into best practices for implementing full-scale Pell grant access. Advocates and Department of Education officials gleaned important insights into the best ways to implement these grants on an even larger scale, if and when such eligibility was authorized by Congress.

For instance, the earlier requirement that men under age 26 register with the Selective Service limited eligibility and therefore opportunities for male students. So the FAFSA Simplification Act removed this requirement. According to Professor Tahamont,, removing the Selective Service requirement expanded the percentage of students who would be eligible from about four to 15 percent under the Second Chance Pell program eligibility rules.

Education officials also discovered that all potential students had struggled to complete the FAFSA form. It was especially challenging for incarcerated applicants because it asked for information that wasn’t readily available to many inmates, like parents’ tax returns.

The statute reduced the number of questions on the FAFSA overall, removed the question about past convictions for drug-related crimes, and revised the formula used to means-test applicants. A new Student Aid Index (SAI) will replace the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) calculation, a key development for low-to no income prisoners because it eliminates the question of the number of family members in college – usually minimal or unknown for a carceral population – and the allows the SAI – the amount that the student may be expected to pay – to run into negative territory, an accurate representation for people who earn anywhere from $0.14 to $1.41 per hour if their prison jobs pay at all.

In these respects, the revisions will benefit incarcerated applicants alongside everyone else using the form.

But a few changes will help an incarcerated student more than others. The new law made incarceration or parental incarceration an “unusual circumstance” that allows financial aid administrators to grant “dependency overrides” which basically lets applicants escape certain requirements on the application. It used to be that an unanswered question could strip a student of their aid package.

Internet access is not universal in correctional facilities and where it exists, it’s limited. It’s not clear how many students will be allowed to access technology to complete the form online. The Department of Education anticipates that most incarcerated applicants will complete a paper form, which led the agency to develop an entirely separate form for prisoners and a different address to receive them, proving that the committees that oversaw the rules for implementation are attuned to the unusual needs and challenges of people in prisons and jails.

Just The Start

But other lessons that should have stuck didn’t. And other questions have emerged, particularly about the regulations and rules that govern how the law will work and whether they may actually backfire and keep this old form of financial aid that’s been made new again from bringing postsecondary education – and the degrees it will lead to – within indigent prisoners’ reach.

The prison education system, writ large – the educational institutions, the correctional facilities, and sundry administrators – can only be considered ready for “Pell for All” by next summer if it's understood that making incarcerated students eligible is just the first, small step to giving them access to college and the credentials they need to succeed.

Many more steps and considerations require attention before all inmates who want to seek higher education will be able to do so.

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.

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

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.