Yellowhammer File 3: How Alabama Is Murdering Prisoners By Medical Neglect

Yellowhammer File 3: How Alabama Is Murdering Prisoners By Medical Neglect

“45 y/o {African-American Male] with [left] shoulder pain 9/2022, finally obtained above path report today” was the note Wilcotte C. Rahming, MD made in inmate Antonio “Tony” Smith’s chart at Kirby Correctional Facility in Mt. Meigs, Alabama outside of Montgomery.

The date of the note was March 16, 2023, approximately six months after Smith alerted medical practitioners that something was wrong, that he was experiencing pain in his arm and shoulders. Doctors found later that Smith has non-small-cell lung cancer. On May 24, 2023, Smith’s medical chart included this update on his malignancy: “Advanced, recurrent or metastatic.”

“I had been complaining about my shoulders and my arms a long time ago. It took them almost seven months to start my treatment,” Smith said. Still, his medical records are replete with recommendations from outside providers and slim on actions by doctors within the prison system.

Antonio "Tony" Smith. Photo credit: Travella Casey

The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) insists that Smith receive only chemotherapy that is very debilitating instead of the radiation recommended by Daniel Sufficool, MD, a radiation oncologist with Alabama Cancer Care, a treatment center that isn’t affiliated with the Department of Corrections but examined Smith earlier this year. The chemotherapy-only protocol has left Smith in pain, unable to sleep and treated with opioids that cause significant gastrointestinal distress. It’s also not working, Smith learned on June 27.

Right now, the ADOC won’t even consider releasing him so he can receive the fully ordered course of treatment. ADOC Commissioner John Q. Hamm admitted as much — on the same day Smith found out that his current treatment was failing — at the Alabama Legislature’s Joint Committee on Prison Oversight’s hearing: “That individual is terminally ill…He was still very capable of committing crime.”

Hamm forgets that anyone is capable of committing a crime and that ADOC itself had certified him as low risk. Hamm’s department sent Smith to Red Eagle Community Work Center, sometimes known as an Honor Camp, where he was allowed to work in the community because his behavior record is exemplary. He’s at Kilby Correctional Facility now solely for medical treatment. Smith lost freedom simply because he is ill.

Smith is caught at the crossroads of two policies that inflict unique harm on people caught in Alabama’s criminal legal system: first, the renewed reliance on what is essentially the same healthcare company that has been found liable in a number of prisoner deaths in other states and second, illegal changes to the Board of Pardons and Paroles.

If Hollywood writers were working right now, they’d say the narrative of health care and supervised release was over the top for the average audience. Yet, in Alabama, it’s reality.

Last year, the ADOC announced a 1.2 billion contract with YesCare, which was formerly known as Corizon Health, and then abruptly and inexplicably withdrew from it. The state legislature paused the closing on the contract until they were satisfied YesCare’s bid — far from the lowest offered — wasn’t influenced by inside actors, namely a a now-former member of YesCare’s Board of Advisors who is also the lead attorney defending the ADOC in civil actions that include claims of deliberate indifference.

At one time, this attorney, William (Bill) Lunsford, now a partner at the firm Butler Snow, had one fiduciary duty to YesCare and another continuing duty to make sure that the ADOC not be held liable for contracting with them. The two obligations are incompatible with healthy inmates. Lunsford is denial of care personified.

How Lunsford procured this power is another almost-too-nuts-to-believe tale. Last spring, Attorney General Steve Marshall stripped all the ADOC’s in-house counsel of their Deputy Attorney General designations thus precluding them from representing the department in litigation. That means that all defense litigation, including the overwhelming task of defending the ADOC in a lawsuit filed in 2020 by the Department of Justice under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act or CRIPA, lands in Lunsford’s lap, along with any claims against YesCare, a company he once advised.

YesCare is just a rebrand of the same company that the state dumped years ago because its care was so deficient that it mired the ADOC and its cast off company, Corizon, in litigation. YesCare is known to ignore patients who might have cancer.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP) issued a report in June 2014 titled “Cruel Confinement: Abuse, Discrimination and Death Within Alabama's Prisons”; within the two organizations concluded that “[n]umerous prisoners have complained of symptoms for months without anyone addressing their concerns, only to be diagnosed with advanced stage cancer that is terminal by the time it is diagnosed.”

The SPLC and ADAP filed a class action suit against the Alabama corrections department, including claims that prisoners’ mental health needs were so severely neglected that it violated their constitutional and civil rights. This suit culminated in a court order issued by United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama Judge Myron H. Thompson in 2017 to bring care up to standards that don’t violate the Eighth Amendment. The litigation continues to this day — June 2023 — to get ADOC to comply.

To be clear, not all blame can be laid at YesCare/Corizon’s feet. Neither Corizon nor YesCare has provided care since 2018; Wexford Health Sources Inc. took over back then — and earned $842,339,355 in approximately five years — and were in place for Smith’s delayed diagnosis.

But the staff remained the same and that’s a problem, too. According to a nurse who worked alongside Dr. Rahming at Kilby Correctional Facility while Wexford Health provided care, (we are withholding her name) even the medical charts aren’t accurate.
“Whatever Dr. Rahming said for them to put down on the paper... That's what they put down. They don't put down the actual findings or actual facts when they know that something is wrong” she said in an interview.

Wexford Health’s interregnum between Corizon/YesCare’s oppressive reign shows that it’s the contract enforcement that is the problem in Alabama and that duty belongs exclusively to the executive branch of state government.

Other men incarcerated in Alabama have either developed cancer or watched pre-existing diagnoses decimate their bodies as they go untreated.

His demands for prostate-specific antigen testing failed for years and now 65 year-old Billy Mitchell, confined at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, just received a diagnosis of prostate cancer that uprooted him from the lower-security Childersburg Work Release Center.

Another, Allen Jacob Hebert, incarcerated at Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton, Alabama, says he was diagnosed about four years ago with Stage 2 “thoracic lymphatic” cancer. Given recent extreme weight loss, Jacob believes it has advanced to at least Stage 3 but reports that medical personnel have advised him that they won’t do anything about it until it reaches Stage 4.

Allen Jacob Hebert.Photo credit: Bernard Jemison.

Nolan Williams, another man in the same prison, carries a burgeoning growth on his back, a golf ball that’s graduated to tennis ball size. He fears it’s cancer. Doctors have yet to order a biopsy for it.

Nolan Williams.Photo Credit: Bernard Jemison.

Nolan Williams' back.Photo Credit: Bernard Jemison.

YesCare declined to comment or answer questions about its standards and practices.

Parole is a natural safety valve for this negligence. Free to seek and receive treatment as needed, men released from prison have a chance to get at least traditional, if not optimal, care.

But Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s grip on the Board of Pardons and Paroles prevents that. The Board denied Smith’s bid for supervised release last year despite his record of laudable behavior and then the ADOC denied his application for medical furlough, a different method of release but the Board still plays a hand in it by deciding whether to request medical records or not.

Less than six months into her first term, Ivey signed into law HB 380, a bill passed by the Alabama legislature that ceded the control over the Board of Pardons and Paroles to the governor. Ivey alone gets to choose who sits on the Board after consulting with her inner circle of advisors. She’s set up a situation where she can install the people who will do exactly what she wants.

Denying parole to deserving applicants isn’t just an expression of Ivey’s iron-cold callousness toward the state’s wards. HB 380 is entirely unconstitutional. Ever since 1940, Amendment 38 to the state constitution ensures that only the legislature governs how pardons and paroles are doled out.

Yet upon Ivey’s arrival at the governor’s mansion, state lawmakers blatantly overrode that statute — in the House of Representatives the vote was 73 to 27 and in the Senate it was 25 to 5 — and gave up this power to the governor. The legislature lacked the authority to do this. Alabama voters would have had to vote again to amend the state constitution and vest this power in Ivey, but they haven’t.

Smith is challenging the constitutionality of HB 380 and he’s not the first to do so. There's a small indication in his appellate record of the state's interest in keeping him incarcerated. The state's brief requests the Court of Criminal Appeals issue a written decision — it hasn't in the past — to stop future litigation on this issue. No appellate party asks for a written opinion unless they're convinced they are in a favorable forum. The state's attorneys think they're going to win this one — and releasing Smith on medical furlough would make this allegedly guaranteed win go away. The issue would become moot.

Local and regional coverage of Smith’s predicament declares “Convicted Dothan killer denied release after cancer diagnosis” as if that tells the entire story. According to his sister, Travella Casey, Smith never interacted with law enforcement prior to his arrest for the death of his girlfriend, LaKendra Smith.

Smith sits at another unfortunate intersection: a failure of the educational system to teach people how to diffuse domestic disputes without violence and the National Rifle Association’s pandering to Black men’s fear of law enforcement by expanding access to firearms.

What Smith might have done to become confined is the wrong question to ask, especially for the law and order crowd. The rule of law requires that people who we hold accountable don’t get killed themselves through negligence or hatred. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States enshrines this. That’s the law.

The proper questions are whether the Alabama appellate court system will allow Smith — and potentially others — to perish without getting the prescribed treatment because of an unconstitutional statute and whether Ivey, Marshall, Hamm and Lunsford understand that their actions are tantamount to homicide, too.

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.

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.

Yellowhammer File 1: How Alabama's Vindictive 'Discipline' Mocks Justice

Yellowhammer File 1: How Alabama's Vindictive 'Discipline' Mocks Justice

William Phelps has done everything right since he was incarcerated in 2019. He’s a GED tutor. He’s taught multiple classes in prison like personal finance.

“It’s not like I’ve just been in here marking time, doing drugs. That’s not my scene and I don’t do that,” Phelps said.

Trouble arose when Phelps wore khaki shorts. He’s allowed to wear them. Indeed they’re part of the uniform. But these shorts were from the outside. “Free world clothing” is what authorities called it, shorts that any one else might have worn to garden or conduct a Zoom meeting. Even though they matched what the state of Alabama issues to men, these weren’t actually issued to him by the state.

Other men around him wear black shorts, blue shorts, clothing that doesn’t even attempt to match the state uniform. Still, an officer issued him a disciplinary report for low-level contraband for the shorts and some medication that belonged to him — Vitamin B — that someone had pulled the name label from.

On May 4, 2023, a hearing officer revoked 1080 days or 2.95 years of Phelps’ earned good time — Alabama calls it Correctional Incentive Time but it’s time earned off his sentence for good behavior — for the shorts.

“It’s like receiving an entirely new prison sentence,” Phelps said.

Phelps' disciplinary dustup happened during a sea change in how Alabama handles misconduct. Last year, a man named Austin Hall allegedly shot and killed a Bibb County, Alabama sheriff’s deputy after he had been released from custody. Because Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) had failed to claw back 2000 days of Hall’s earned good time for an escape attempt from a work release program, state officials blamed the incentive program for Hall’s alleged mistake — Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall issued a statement assailing Alabama’s good time law, rather than the state’s own failure to rehabilitate him.

After that, changes came to the disciplinary system within Alabama prisons. First, just this January, ADOC updated its disciplinary Administrative Regulation for the first time in 20 years. To give the new rules special force and gild the disciplinary lily, Gov. Kay Ivey signed Executive Order 725 for the regulations’ implementation.

Then good time policies underwent legislative change.

Good time isn’t for everyone in Alabama’s prisons. In fact, it’s for very few — about 10 percent of Alabama’s approximately 26,000 confined souls are eligible — and even then the state is pretty picky about who gets it. The state divides eligible inmates into three classes. At one time, Class I inmates (the lowest risk calculation) could reduce their sentences by 75 days for every 30 days served. Class II inmates could shave 40 days for 30 days served and, for Class III, 20 days for 30 days served.

Now, because of the new law, prisoners earn less than half of what they would have before this year. For Phelps to earn back the 1080 days, it will take him 36 months rather than 14 months.

According to the updated regulation, it’s clear that Phelps could have lost “at least one day” of his good time for the disciplinary report; his maximum penalty should have been 30 days lost. The rules are also explicit about losing 1080 days; it’s reserved for high level violations and Phelps wasn’t even accused of that level of misconduct. And, because of the new law, now it’s even harder for Phelps to earn that back.

It looks like a case of picayune punitivity but lasting consequences await people who aren’t even incarcerated.
“You’re literally dramatically changing not only my life but my family’s life. I have a family, a daughter [who’s] waiting on me.” Phelps could be home as soon as November if his good time were restored.

Phelps’ story is important for two reasons. First, the way prison discipline is wielded impacts the length of someone’s sentence; that means the gross mismanagement of these facilities becomes a de facto adjudication of criminal penalties. A system as dysfunctional as the ADOC should have no say over how long a person remains in custody.

Not only can a person lose years of earned good time for a disciplinary action, but these reports affect parole decisions, which rarely go in favor of the person seeking release in Alabama regardless of their rehabilitative status. Besides, discipline is applied unevenly and illegally anyway. Considering that between 40-50 percent of all disciplinary reports are bogus, according to Daniel E. Manville, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Michigan State University College of Law, it’s a scene fraught with unfairness.

Second, Phelps’ shorts expose the tension between policy and action in the Yellowhammer State. Lawmaking is little more than performance; it doesn’t even matter what the law requires because officials ignore it. Even if a member of the Alabama legislature supports the new good time law, it and the Administrative Regulation are clear that Phelps should have lost no more than 30 days for this minor — some might even say inconsequential — offense. Instead an official imposed 36 times that penalty.

And ADOC is doing nothing to bring this penalty into line with its own regulation and has declined to comment on the record.

The way officials are unbound by law and rules in the Yellowhammer State isn’t limited to what people are wearing. I’m hearing reports of illegal detention (holding people past their end of sentence date), imposing sentences that aren’t authorized by law, wrongly convicting defendants under an incorrect statute.

The law is designed to be a shield not a sword, but that’s exactly how Alabama officials use it. They swing the blade however they want, indifferent to where and how it lands.

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.

Yellowhammer Files: Inside Alabama's Crumbling, Inhumane Prison System

Yellowhammer Files: Inside Alabama's Crumbling, Inhumane Prison System

Lice so severe that even kerosene couldn’t kill them. Shoeless feet padding aimlessly. Gross malnourishment.

That’s how people described the Yellow Hammers, a semi-isolated colony of the ostracized and downtrodden in Illinois that developed during the Reconstruction Era.

The history of the Yellow Hammers is murky. As the legend goes, a Colonel Brodie of the Civil War — it doesn’t include a first name — came home to Alabama, the Yellowhammer State, and relocated to Wilmington, Illinois where he purchased several acres of wooded land and invited anyone from his home state to come live on it, creating essentially an encampment people called “Brodie’s Woods.” Those people who relocated to Wilmington from Alabama were impoverished, almost permanently, and made pariahs in the community as they huddled on Brodie’s land.

The pariahs’ poverty prevented those among them who were employed from purchasing their own equipment so they used company tools — when they were able to work — whose handles were painted yellow.

These stories, reported by a high school student, can’t be confirmed. First, the only nineteenth century colonel named Brodie was about 12 years old when the Civil War started. One William Brodie from Alabama fought in the Civil War but there’s no record of his being a colonel. A now defunct local Chicago newspaper, the Surburbanite Economist, reported in 1970 that an area of Wilmington, Illinois was known as Brodie’s Woods, but that’s one of very few verifiable mentions of the area.

The more likely story of the root of Yellowhammer is that a cavalry of soldiers from Huntsville went to Kentucky during the Civil War to aid Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s — history will call him both a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and an innovative warrior — Company A of the Confederate Army. They wore new sharp gray uniforms adorned with brilliant yellow trim. A Confederate soldier in tatters said they looked like the bird the yellowhammer, a type of woodpecker, which was made Alabama’s state bird in 1927. The Yellowhammers ended up becoming valuable team members; they supported several of Gen. Forrest’s victories, one of which frustrated Gen. Ulysses Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign.

That the history of the Yellow Hammers is so hard to pin down says quite a bit about the state today; tracing what really happens proves difficult. Even though Alabama media tries to cover events inside the prisons, the state of news in 2023 dictates that coverage isn’t as complete as anyone would like.

Just as the history of the Yellowhammers is unclear, the view into Alabama’s prisons is muddied by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) and its commitment to opacity. The officials who run that system do not like looksies. Early this year, ADOC stopped releasing the number of in-custody deaths on a monthly basis, ostensibly because there were so many that they either couldn’t keep up or didn’t want to be embarrassed by their inability to protect the state's wards.

Nevertheless, the reports of carnage that keep dripping out — two men were murdered on May 15, 2023, an additional pair added to a list of over 60 since January 1, 2023 — have contributed to a narrative that men and women in Alabama prison are incorrigible, even feral, when all they’re doing is adapting to the environment that the state has established for them.

The truth is that a good number of them are quite high-minded. When they staged a strike last fall, they didn’t even protest the squalid conditions they live in, which happen to be deplorable. Instead they sought policy reform on sentencing and parole which will ultimately benefit people beyond them.

Their strike demands were imminently reasonable, despite Gov. Kay Ivey’s disagreement. But the demands were really only part of the story of the strike. My sources tell me that — under the guidance of some dedicated leaders who I won’t name now — rival gangs and sworn enemies convened in good faith to hammer out what they needed to ask for. In that respect, they’re behaving better than many of us on the outside if they can display that type of comity. They came together despite the fact that they worry every day — along with family and friends — that they’ll be killed or starved. They’re fighting back non-violently. Bravely.

And even effectively. Because of the strike demands, lawmakers introduced two bills poised to pass the Alabama legislature. First is a bill that would mandate the right to attend one’s own parole hearings by video (they can’t attend these crucial proceedings now) and second is a bill that would allow people serving life sentences to petition to have their punishment reduced. Most prison work stoppages achieve nothing. This group of men and women convinced people to listen and act. Do not count these people out.

That doesn’t mean the wind is under their yellowhammer wings. Gov. Ivey just signed a bill into law that reforms the so-called “good time” statute by making it harder to earn time off one’s sentence because ADOC failed to take the good time of someone who attempted escape. Their resilience doesn’t mean they’re safe now or being treated justly. It’s just the opposite.

Alabama’s prison population reflects a lot of their yellowhammer history. Like woodpeckers, they’re tenacious fighters. Much like the Yellowhammer Cavalry in 1862, they're nimble, capable of putting up a few wins, but then ultimately forgotten.

And they aren't living much differently than Brodie’s Yellow Hammers. Some aren’t supplied shoes and therefore aren’t allowed in the chow hall. As I have reported before, the ADOC intentionally starves them when they assert their rights. They wander, often squatting in dorms where they’re not assigned because they want to avoid being raped. The violence doesn’t cease; I hear reports of outright beatings that all too often result in lost “good time” but no medical treatment. And they huddle, displaced and ostracized, in one of Alabama’s 15 state-sanctioned colonies of fear and panic.

But unlike the legend of Brodie’s Woods, these tales are true and verifiable. There’s no fiction here. It’s traceable. It tracks, all too well.

That’s why today The National Memo announces an unflinching series that goes inside Alabama’s criminal legal crisis: the Yellowhammer Files. We’re going to trace and track data and stories until something changes. Check these files as they are published and you will be stunned by what you read.

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.

Public Defenders Do More For January 6 Suspects Than Trump Ever Will

Public Defenders Do More For January 6 Suspects Than Trump Ever Will

Sixty years ago, on March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its opinion in Gideon v. Wainwright, the seminal holding that all defendants in criminal cases are entitled to a lawyer even if they can’t afford one.

Clarence Gideon, after being denied a lawyer in a trial over whether he stole from a Florida pool hall — an offense of which he was innocent yet sentenced to five years in prison — scrawled out a pro se petition to the country’s highest court. The justices accepted Gideon’s bid to overturn his conviction and eventually reversed it with instructions that he couldn’t be convicted unless he had counsel.

About five months later, on the day after a jury acquitted Gideon in his second trial — one where he had the assistance of a flamboyant and effective local criminal defense attorney — the United States Senate voted on the Criminal Justice Act. The federal statute would require states and the federal government to provide counsel to defendants in criminal cases who couldn’t otherwise afford representation. The House of Representatives passed the bill months later, in 1964. As soon as it was passed the Criminal Justice Act backed up Supreme Court precedent with a statute that defendants could cite in order to secure themselves representation they couldn’t otherwise afford.

Since then, however, indigent defense has redeemed neither the promise of the Supreme Court decision nor the federal statute, at least not in the public’s eyes. For instance, in a public opinion poll conducted by American University, only 47 percent of respondents believed that public defenders provide adequate legal representation; a full half think they don’t. Only 45 percent are convinced that public defenders care about their clients. Fifty-three percent assume they aren’t very invested at all.

It’s not like public defenders can afford a public relations campaign. Since the Supreme Court held that defendants had a right to effective assistance under the Sixth Amendment and since Congress said that means someone else has to pay for an attorney when the accused can’t, the funding has never matched the need.

One of the reasons why funding for indigent defense is so inadequate is that there’s no specific way for the federal government to direct funds to indigent defense specifically. The Justice Department’s discretionary grant programs simply make money available to state and local public safety agencies each year.

But they’re just that: discretionary. Which means none of the states or municipalities are required to use the money for criminal defense. Most use it for local and state police agencies and, by strengthening the adversaries of public defenders, the funding mechanism ends up inadvertently weakening legal assistance for poor criminal defendants.

The problem here isn’t merely that the federal government isn’t assisting states to protect the constitutional rights of defendants; that’s a persistent failing for sure. The problem is that there are easy ways for presidential administrations to assure that public defense agencies don’t even get the few crumbs they might catch and not be identified for being as anti-Gideon as they are.

President Donald Trump wanted to reduce the discretionary grant money provided by the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program by $300 million. His administration never made many comments about indigent defense at all — former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made remarks about the Right to Counsel National Campaign and said he was proud the Justice Department started it — although it was the Bureau of Justice Assistance under the Obama administration and the Justice Programs Office at American University that actually did the work on it in 2015.

For the most part, the Trump administration never mentioned public defense during its four years, except when the ex-president lamented a terrorism suspect being able to access “an outstanding lawyer” because of the country’s indigent defense infrastructure.

Ironically, there’s no greater experiment testing the value and worthiness of public defense than the Justice Department's January 6 dragnet. As of February 16, 2023, 1003 people have been charged with crimes related to the events at the Capitol that day; 421 of those criminal cases have been terminated or resolved as of March 10, 2023. Federal public defenders represent 256 defendants whose cases have been adjudicated as of March 10, 2023. Another 165 defendants retained their own attorneys.

The public defenders performed better than the privately retained attorneys. Of those who avoided jail, a total of 186, 113 of them, or 60 percent, had counsel provided for them. Forty percent of those who received sentences of home confinement or probation had shelled out for an attorney.

Comparing the populations side-by-side, the same percentage of clients represented by counsel they paid had to report to a federal prison as those who had counsel we all paid for.

Fifty-six percent of clients went to prison and 44 percent stayed home, no matter who represented them, which shows that
Public defenders have helped Trump’s followers more than he ever did. Or ever will.

But they’ll continue to struggle to get the funding they deserve to cover salaries and the cost of investigations into the allegations against their clients. It's hardly the anniversary gift they deserve.

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 J6 Prison Choir's 'Patriotic' Ballad With Donald Trump Is A Riot. Literally.

The J6 Prison Choir's 'Patriotic' Ballad With Donald Trump Is A Riot. Literally.

In early March Donald J. Trump and the J6 Prison Choir released a song — the audio alternates the choir singing The Star-Spangled Banner, with Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and ends with the prisoners chanting “U-S-A! — that’s now available for purchase. It became Apple Music’s top downloaded song on March 11.

From the audio, it’s not clear whose voices are in the choir or where they’re calling in from. Various reports have stated “jail” but didn’t specify whether it was Washington DC’s Central Detention Facility. Vanity Fair reported that the men in the choir were convicted of the crimes they were charged with, which would suggest that some called from a Bureau of Prisons facility.

I don’t think it’s possible to know who’s on that recording and where the crooning came from. An email to the spokesperson for the Washington DC Department of Corrections about the location of choir members remains unanswered.

It’s most likely that a number of men in the Central Detention Facility sang the song. The males confined in the jail are 87 percent Black; administrators decided to house J6 defendants together, away from others. The segregation has been compared to solitary confinement but the ways the men live don’t line up with that.

Reports from Washingtonian magazine describe a group of men who are allowed out of their single-occupant cells for five and a half hours per day; in contrast, solitary confinement restricts a person to his cell for 23 and a half hours per day. In solitary confinement, inmates can’t congregate or do anything together. To pass time, the Sixers often sing the national anthem in unison.

Plopping these defendants in one cell block is not tantamount to the hole. Rather, it’s a form of correctional management to prevent these Why-O’s from getting into even more legal trouble when they would eventually scrap with other general population inmates.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter who’s in the choir because it’s not the singers but the song that’s the problem. The song’s still a riot – literally. It’s a second insurrection involving the former president.

“A riot is a wild or violent disorder, confusion or disturbance” according to the Central Detention Facilty’s Inmate Handbook. The handbook doesn’t explore the difference between disorder and disturbance but it doesn’t need to do that. Disciplinary rules are notoriously vague so that any behavior that staff want to punish becomes eligible.

The standard for what counts as a riot in prison is low, almost impossibly low. In practical terms, a prison riot is two or more inmates acting in concert without a direct order from staff. Singing together is a riot. Signing a petition for better conditions is a riot. A hunger strike is a riot. Two or more inmates writing letters is a riot. It’s subjective; if someone’s bothered by an inmate’s behavior then it’s misconduct.

In 2020, Edward Terrell Walton and two other prisoners wrote an open letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and corrections chief Heidi Washington complaining about conditions and visiting policy. The warden of Michigan’s Chippewa Correctional Facility immediately placed Walton in solitary confinement and charged the three with inciting a riot.

Walton also sent an email through the JPay electronic communications system to private parties on the outside asking them to call the warden and tell her if she doesn’t make the changes the prisoners want that there would “be a protest scheduled to take place at this prison to make national attention out of the situation.” That gets closer to the commonly accepted understanding of disturbance but demonstrations outside the facility aren’t, and can’t be, inmate controlled. Holding a prisoner responsible for a free person’s actions is a stretch. Calling it a riot makes it even longer.

But it's easy to see why Walton landed in solitary confinement. Inside the prison, "there is no such thing as a peaceful demonstration," Michigan Department of Corrections spokesperson Chris Gautz said to a reporter from the Detroit Free Press about Walton’s punishment. "Prisoners are not permitted to engage in organized protest." Three men signing a letter is organized. And it’s a complaint. Therefore it’s a riot.

This isn’t some Michigan corrections curiosity. It’s the rule everywhere.

The Sixers can defend themselves against accusations of inciting a riot by arguing that it wasn’t a protest; it was commerce, a fund-raising effort for the families of the people who are incarcerated for their involvement with the 2021 attack on the Capitol — and democracy. Or pointing out that the national anthem doesn’t address conditions in the only jail in the country’s capital. Or maybe they’ll counter that none of the singers acted in concert with each other, that each choir member recorded his piece alone and the producer layered the recordings over each other. Accusing them of rioting might be overkill.

But other, less serious offenses await them in the Inmate Disciplinary Code of Offenses, violations like “Interference with the Orderly Operation of the Facility” which includes “Engaging in loud or boisterous talk, laughter, whistling, or other vocal expression, if such is, or may tend to be, disruptive of order or a disturbance to others.” Any iteration of these traitors singing our anthem would count.

Many incarcerated people don’t understand that even relatively innocent actions, if done in a group, can be interpreted as overtures to violence. Prison/jail is a place where the same activity that is approved in one instance becomes threatening in another. When inmates are accused of these offenses, the argument centers on what their intent was, and quite frankly, that can be hard to discern. It’s why prison discipline gets so messy.

While every salient detail isn’t really known about the Sixers’ rendition of the national anthem, this is not in dispute: the singers either knew that what they were doing could be interpreted as a riot or they didn’t know. There’s no in-between.

Either way, the song sung by several men is still problematic. If the choir members didn’t know that their sing-along sessions could be interpreted as a riot, then they’re not paying attention and haven’t caught on to what the rules are. Inmates who are concerned about behaving better clue themselves into the ways the contours of the social compact get reshaped in different places and they’re mindful not to break the contract again. Ignorance isn’t a defense here.

If they did know that their patriotic ditty would be subjected to scrutiny as to whether it was a protest or not and possibly labeled another riot, then they just don’t care about the directives and rules of prison life, many of which are designed to keep the place safe and secure, even if they are often applied in a way that seems oppressive.

If the Sixers knew that it could be a riot, then they’re not afraid of any group effort as long as it serves and pleases Trump. That’s what got them their DC digs in the first place.

Any way it’s analyzed, the ballad doesn’t bode well.

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.

Alex Murdaugh in court after jury found him guilty of murdering his wife and son

Murdaugh Coroners' Folly Raises Hard Questions About Homicide Convictions

Last Thursday, a jury found former solicitor of South Carolina’s 14th District Richard Alexander “Alex” Murdaugh guilty of shooting and killing his wife, Maggie, and his son, Paul, in 2021. South Carolina Judge Clifton Newman sentenced Murdaugh to two consecutive life sentences the next day.

As the nation watched in rapt attention, the Murdaugh trial reintroduced a staple of every true crime murder saga: the medical examiner/coroner. And the trial showed how vital — and inconstant — they are in determining whether a homicide occurred or not.

Medical examiners and coroners both investigate deaths that may be the result of a criminal act or other suspicious circumstances, but a medical examiner is a licensed physician who is specially trained in forensic pathology. A coroner, on the other hand, is an elected or appointed official who is responsible for investigating deaths in certain jurisdictions, usually at the county or municipal level. Coroners aren’t required to have any particular medical or legal qualifications.

Given their lack of training and susceptibility to political pressure, coroners seem more likely to make mistakes or choose a manner of death that doesn’t match the facts. But the rate of inaccuracy on death certificates completed by coroners as opposed to medical examiners isn’t necessarily higher.

In a study of death certificates in Vermont, for example, researchers found that more than half of death examinations contained major miscalculations, but that the physician/non-physician difference in the investigator didn’t matter in a statistically significant way.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of The University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society, the University of Michigan Law School, and the Michigan State University College of Law, 103 people were exonerated of murder because there was no crime; 26 more were cleared of manslaughter convictions because there was no crime. These wrongful convictions lie at the feet of the medical examiners or coroners: their determination of manner of death was inaccurate, and in a material way. There would never have been any criminal case if the reported manner of death had been accurate.

The 129 exonerations aren’t concentrated in coroner country. They’re spread among states with medical examiners and those who employ coroners.

Around five percent of medical examiner conclusions determine a cause of death to be criminal. Of that criminal subsection, about five percent will be ambiguous in some respect. Even if every death were examined this way — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 3,464,231 people die in this country every year; only one-third to one-half are examined for cause and manner of death — that leaves 173,212 potential homicides. Of those, 8660 are hard to discern.

In 2020, 12,440 arrests were made for murder and non-negligent manslaughter. Some of those charges must have been dropped or even disproven at trial, but the numbers should be closer. More corpses should be examined for sure, but even a rough error rate is hard to pinpoint.

In many ways, the role of the official who determines death is more important than the police or the judiciary when settling what happened when someone died -- and it’s one of the most loosely constructed offices in state and municipal governments.

When an erroneous finding occurs, it's not always a frame-up. A variety of factors, including the quality of the evidence available, the thoroughness of the investigation, and the expertise and experience of the examiner or coroner can influence the accuracy of their findings. Additionally, medical experts may debate their conclusions, particularly in cases where the cause of death is not immediately apparent or where multiple factors may have contributed to the death.

But the Palmetto Low Country where the Murdaugh family acted in some law enforcement capacity for decades might be the perfect place where the shortcomings of a compromised coroner could play out. And they did, but not in expected ways.

The Colleton County, South Caroline coroner, Richard Harvey, studied “pre-med” at Medical College of South Carolina but didn’t attend medical school there. According to his own testimony at Murdaugh’s trial, Harvey is one of the first coroners in South Carolina to be medically trained. He also determined the time of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh’s death by placing his hands under their armpits to measure their body temperatures— as opposed to taking a rectal temperature, which would have required him to pull down the decedents’ pants. An axillary body temperature using a thermometer under the arm is an accepted method of determining time of death, but sliding fingers under armpits isn’t. It never has been.

As it turns out, Harvey’s finger stick estimate probably wasn’t that far off. With Harvey and his 30 years experience and some education at the helm, Colleton County is one of the better coroner’s offices, even if Google Maps shows it housed in an old Pizza Hut.

In neighboring Hampton County, South Carolina where Murdaugh served as solicitor, County Coroner Anna Fields graduated from high school. That’s the extent of her education. Fields defeated the previous coroner, Angela Topper, who was appointed to replace the coroner before her, Ernie Washington, after he resigned, mid-term, in 2019, without public explanation.

The Hampton County coroner deserves as much scrutiny as the one who testified because Maggie and Paul Murdaugh’s murders aren’t the only ones at play in this sordid tale. Washington had ruled the manner of deaths in two cases — that of 19 year-old Stephen Smith in 2015 and Murdaugh family housekeeper Gloria Satterfield in 2018 — as accidental and natural. But investigations into those deaths have since been reopened because there’s reason to believe they were unnatural — and potentially closely tied to Murdaugh family members.

Washington wanted to rule Smith’s death a homicide — by gunshot wound to the head, which was patently incorrect — but was overruled by the Medical University of South Carolina pathologist who said it was a hit-and-run. The coroner-pathologist showdown wasn’t a battle between facts and wishes; it pitted two egregious errors against each other. Washington eventually conceded, and Smith’s death was ruled an accident per the pathologist’s assessment. But if Washington had prevailed in his determination of a homicide, any defendant arrested for it could have easily defeated the charge simply by proving that it wasn’t a gunshot wound. It’s hard to say whose mistake — Washington’s or the pathologist’s — protected the perpetrator more.

Ever since the National Research Council concluded this system was “in need of significant improvement” in 2009 and recommended that states replace coroners with medical examiners, reform efforts have been underway. Because so few people want to become pathologists and poke stiffs, there’s a serious shortage of people qualified to work in these offices. Right now, the National Association of Medical Examiners lists more job openings than the number of people who graduate as forensic pathologists each year, which is about 40.

To train coroners to make them as good as medical examiners doesn’t make sense anyway, since empirically medical examiners produce results that are just as bad.

The coroners’ folly exposed by the Murdaugh case can’t be limited to South Carolina alone. It’s not limited to any area of the country and it should undermine our moral confidence in homicide convictions. In many jurisdictions, the person who sets off the whole murder investigation often has little idea what he or she is doing.

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.

Hulu's Sarah Lawrence 'Cult' Series Omits Bernard Kerik's Creepy History

Hulu's Sarah Lawrence 'Cult' Series Omits Bernard Kerik's Creepy History

Hulu’s three-part documentary series Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult of Sarah Lawrence is getting a lot of attention — but perhaps not the right kind.

The upshot of the story is this: Returning citizen Larry Ray bunked with his daughter at Sarah Lawrence College when he was released from prison. He ended up gaslighting his daughter’s roommates enough that he convinced them they owed him thousands upon thousands of dollars — and that his and their lives were in danger because former New York Police Commissioner Bernard “Bernie” Kerik had a team of people stalking Ray after he turned Kerik in to the FBI for the charges that eventually led to his four-year prison sentence and cost him a Bush administration appointment as secretary of homeland security.

Ray’s stories were outlandish and false. There’s no evidence that Kerik targeted Ray, yet bright young people — students at Sarah Lawrence and Columbia University and a psychiatry resident at UCLA/USC — believed his fantasy.

It’s unfathomable to the average audience, mostly because the series doesn’t mention Kerik’s history of harassing and stalking his detractors. Knowing how Kerik operates, which the cult members did, makes it easier to understand why up-and-coming adults, those with potential to succeed in ways most people never do, fell for Ray’s histrionics.

The crime Ray described is called gang stalking, and it refers to harassment and intimidation tactics used by a group of individuals against another person or toward a smaller group of people.

Some psychiatric professionals don’t acknowledge gang stalking as an actual phenomenon; they consider it a “novel persecutory belief system” which means there’s no stalking and the alleged victim is simply paranoid or a QAnon adherent.

Formal research has been conducted into gang stalking; the few academic studies do their best not to deny the existence of the activity, but thinking one is gang-stalked nevertheless comes off as a manifestation of mental illness. One study quoted the answers to the question of why targets thought they were being stalked, and they sound decidedly kooky:

“It is part of an overt agenda to create and test mind control. They are creating weaponry tested on us.”

“I am watched (sic) for 30 years after they put in the implants to see what the implants did to me.”

“Because I refused to join their devil cult and become an operative, I became a victim. My invitation to join came at an early stage via voice-to-skull.” Voice to skull is a technology that transmits sound into the skull of a person or animals.

We shouldn’t write off these accounts of gang stalking automatically; sometimes these stories are real. This became clear recently when it was revealed that a group of eBay employees, including two members of its executive leadership team, stalked and harassed two e-commerce bloggers, Ina and David Steiner of Natick, Massachusetts. The Steiners had criticized some of the auction site’s policies, including outsized executive pay, on their blog EcommerceBytes.

As well as sending threatening messages, eBay employees sent deliveries to the Steiners’ home, including a book on surviving the death of a spouse (the implication being one of them was headed to the graveyard soon), a funeral wreath (because eBay is nothing if not socially adept when it comes to acknowledging a death in the family), a bloody pig Halloween mask, a fetal pig, and live insects. They also posed as the Steiners on Craigslist and asked anyone reading the ads to show up at their home and knock on the door for a sexual tryst. For good measure, they ordered $70 of pizza to be delivered at 4:30 a.m.

This was the best the team could come up with after James Baugh, eBay’s senior director of safety and security, showed the 1988 Anthony Michael Hall film Johnny Be Good, in which two friends send pizzas, an elephant, a stripper, an exterminator, and Hare Krishna missionaries to their football coach’s home.

The only reason why the Natick Police Department was able to unspool all the crazy — and prevent Baugh from delivering a bag of human feces, a running chainsaw ,and a rat to the Steiner’s front porch — was that David Steiner managed to get a picture of the license plate on a car that was tailing him and it was traced back to a rental agency. Seven eBay employees were criminally convicted for this gang-up, the last one just this past January.

Their narrative was completely unembellished, but if David or Ina Steiner had said to someone “I think eBay is sending me fetal pigs and pizza,” a psychiatrist would have filled them to the gills with Haldol.

Being gang-stalked by Kerik and his crew was a fiction of the odious Larry Ray, a misrepresentation that served his degradation of young minds, but these team terrorizations do happen — and they happen to many people who associate with Bernie Kerik.

It’s not like Kerik didn’t foreshadow this to all of us. According to a whistleblower report, the convicted felon gave a speech back when he was New York City's corrections commissioner that included a vow to make anyone miserable who had been disloyal to him and a warning that he had been an effective ‘hunter of men’ and would hunt down those who didn’t display sufficient fealty.

And it looks like he lived up to the promise. When he broke up with one of his mistresses, publisher Judith Regan, he called her while she was dining out with another man and described what she was eating. According to Regan, he had her followed to Los Angeles and called her to inform her he was following her son back to college in Massachusetts. Regan looked crazy, too; an associate of Regan’s described her to the New York Post as “raving” about Kerik’s stalking her.

Kerik didn’t leave these hijinks behind after he was incarcerated from 2010 to 2013.

Dara D’Addio sent the married Kerik a card while he was doing time and they started a non-physical but intimate relationship wherein she ended up essentially co-authoring his memoir. Kerik mailed her 135 letters, made 150 phone calls to her personal unlisted number, and sent her 735 emails. But when Kerik didn’t invite her to his homecoming party, she ceased contact and asked him to do the same.

Instead, Kerik started threatening and harassing her through a third party. On her blog, “Doing Time with Bernie,” D’Addio says Kerik pledged "to destroy [her] life."

It’s the same modus operandi that infused Kerik’s support for former president Donald Trump. The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the Capitol subpoenaed Kerik in November 2021 and he provided papers, among them a 22-page “strategic communications plan” he wrote, to be implemented between December 27, 2020 and January 6, 202. The plan targeted elected officials who wouldn't buy into the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Kerik wanted the home of Jocelyn Benson, Michigan's secretary of state, to be surrounded.

There’s no defense to Larry Ray’s reign over the Sarah Lawrence students — literally. The Hulu series secured the video Ray recorded of his abuse from the court file; Ray’s attorney had used it at trial in an attempt to show that her client really believed his story.

But Kerik sports a verifiable record of attacking, stalking, and seeking to destroy any critics, people who did less damage to him than Ray did. Believing Ray wasn’t as crazy as this series makes it appear.

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.

elon musk

Musk Is Finding Out Why Opinion Run Rampant Will Cost Him Billions

Last week we learned that Twitter has only 290,000 paying subscribers worldwide, making the platform's projected annual revenue $28 million, far short of the $3 billion free speech maximalist Elon Musk planned on.

On the platform, Musk's pandered to the alt-right so much that advertisers have deserted the platform, fearing that their brands will appear adjacent to extremist and white nationalist messaging. Behind the scenes, he's already delivered on his promise to loosen speech restrictions by laying off or firing content moderators. The platform’s COVID misinformation policy is officially kaput.

Musk has to decide what he likes more: money or speech; in the past, unmoderated opinion content has proven to be a bad business model. It doesn’t profit.

Twitter is just like a traditional opinion forum but faster. Its dominance may even explain the way that opinion forums have changed in recent years. Some papers have stopped publishing editorials. Others have reengineered their opinion sections to solutions journalism model. Two months ago, The Washington Post scuttled its 70 year old Outlook section entirely and replaced it with a resurrected book review section. Four months before that, Gannett Media, the largest newspaper chain in the country, announced it was reducing its opinion output because readers didn’t like to be told what to think.

Opinion sections, of course, don’t tell anyone what to think but rather that they should think. They’re an essential part of content-sharing. As John Stuart Mill in his treatise, On Liberty, wrote: “Very few facts are able to tell their own story without comments to bring out their meaning.”

When that comment isn’t fact-based, it’s a losing bet. It’s played out several times in the past five years.

Once upon a time, bloggers had to pitch themselves to The Huffington Post to get space on the blog; it wasn’t just for everyone. I did it the same way many others did: I wrote directly to Arianna Huffington and got in. Even when writers were approved, editors would review and reject pieces that failed to meet the company’s standards.

That was in 2015. A year later, HuffPo editors delimited the admission requirements to a global platform and opened it up to anyone who wanted to post.

It didn’t last long. In January 2018, the platform's Editor-in-Chief Lydia Polgreen posted the reason why the blog-turned public bulletin board would end: “Open platforms that once seemed radically democratizing now threaten, with the tsunami of false information we all face daily, to undermine democracy.” It wasn’t a coincidence that just months before the company laid off 39 employees.

Bloggers migrated to Medium.com, another platform where anyone can open an account and post whatever they want, regardless of whether it’s accurate or not. Medium bans hate speech, promotion of harmful conspiracies, and spam, among other things, but falsehoods are not on the prohibited list.

Right around the time of the 2016 election, Medium marketed itself to political people as the nation’s — even the world’s — opinion page. “Get your message out with none of the editorial interference that comes with old-school media” is how Nancy Scola of Politico played Medium’s pitch.

But eventually misrepresentations got so bad that the Knight Foundation granted $140,000 to the Tampa Bay Times’ Politifact section to check political statements on the platform.

The freedom cost them. Last year Medium bought out almost all of its editorial staff when the founder, EV Williams, also a cofounder of Twitter, admitted that the site simply wasn’t making money.

“We have published many stellar stories that found a wide audience and more than paid for themselves,” Williams said at the time. “But our hit rate has been low, and we’re not near where we need to be to make it work economically.”

The latest iteration of opinion distribution is Substack. Writers, any writer at all, can monetize content by charging subscribers for yearly subscriptions for newsletters. Substack was founded in 2017 but became quite popular in 2021 when a number of opinion journalists — Charlie Warzel and Bari Weiss of the New York Times, Matt Yglesias of Vox, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone — left their posts and started Substack newsletters.

With a valuation of $650 million, Substack raised $65 million and paid advances to writers, a few close to half a million dollars; some writers made decent money in a model that other journalists labeled a scam. Substack differs from other platforms in that it offers writers legal advice, writer office hours, and other resources.

Substack established a rather laissez faire policy toward fact checking and readers noticed. “If you like your copy groomed and pristine, copy-edited professionally and fact-checked, and locked down by logic, some Substacks will give you fits,” wrote Politico’s Jack Shafer. Vaccine misinformation proliferated on the site and it was fact checked by major news outlets.

Some even classified the site as “alt-tech” like Rumble, Telegram, and Gettr, right-leaning platforms that embrace no-moderation management. But they struggle making money as well. Notably, Rumble lost $1.8 million in the first quarter after its IPO. Gettr’s valued at $2 billion now but it’s not attracting users in the ways it planned to.

Unsurprisingly, Substack’s already conceded its lack of sustainability. The company stopped its Series C fundraising earlier this year when it was revealed that Substack made only $9 million in 2021. The newsletter purveyor is trying to snatch up those who scurry away from the Bird App during the tumult, even starting a new private Substack option last month where contributors can approve who follows their work, much like Instagram. It’s worth noting that this new option on Substack actually prevents ideas from hitting the famed ‘marketplace.’ That’s what they predict will make them money.

HuffPo used an advertising model and Medium and Substack use subscriptions but how they make their money doesn’t matter; how they lose it is identical and it’s by not regulating content.

Of course, Musk has said that his goal in buying Twitter isn’t to make money but to help humanity. Even if that’s the case, companies need to balance their books to pay employees. Musk is leveraged on the Twitter purchase and he’s struggling to pay bills. And with his increasingly controversial tweets, the big advertisers who flew the coop don't have much reason to roost.

Musk should examine history: HuffPo, Medium, and Substack prove that solvency isn’t likely when opinionists run amok.

Accepting that democratization of content drives away customers leads us to some uncomfortable truths, namely that the vaunted marketplace of ideas may be a financial sinkhole — and that emporium allows only ideas to be exchanged, not money.

We want the market forces of this theoretical bazaar to reward good, factual ideas and drive out the unsourced ones. The co-founders of Substack relied on the idealized version of the market, writing in their newsletter, “To put it plainly: censorship of bad ideas makes people less likely, not more likely, to trust good ideas.” Indeed, one of the reasons why a robust marketplace can’t develop on social media is the presence of algorithms, artificially elevating the mediocre thoughts. That was Substack’s newsletter model’s selling point; readers could avoid any content they didn’t want by subscribing to what they were looking for.

David Weinberger, an affiliate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, told The Hill: “Musk does not actually understand free speech or the dynamics of the internet and is missing the point of what conversations [online] are.”

That he fails to comprehend how the marketplace of ideas functions, of course, is the least of Musk's troubles. But it's an immediate one, one that's almost guaranteed to destroy the company he bought.

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 You Want Us To Help Prove Your Innocence, Start With This Checklist

If You Want Us To Help Prove Your Innocence, Start With This Checklist

The year 2022 closed out with many readers reaching out to me with cases that they think deserve more scrutiny. I’m flattered and I would like to help. But, on occasion, the outreach I receive is a little light on foundational documents.

I’m kicking off 2023 with a guide that anyone can use if they’re looking for help on a criminal case from a journalist or trying to help a prisoner reduce their sentence.

This is what you should do before and while seeking any journalist's assistance on a criminal case or post-conviction challenge.

Come correct: Collect all your information before reaching out: docket numbers, copies of court files (never walk out of court with original records; that’s a crime), lawyers’ names and all of their contact information (physical and email addresses as well as office telephone numbers and cell phone numbers).

All correspondence between the defendant/prisoner and lawyers can illuminate what happened. An inmate file would be helpful if the person is incarcerated. A signed release of information allowing attorneys to speak with the reporter should be handed over up front. It can accelerate our research.

Write a timeline: As Tennessee Senator Howard Baker asked former White House Counsel John Dean about Watergate: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

Often it’s the order of events that matters in these cases because it either confirms or challenges what people know. This is key. Without a linear depiction of what happened and when, it’s hard to see who knew what and when. Because criminal cases aren’t just about actions but also the accused persons’ state of mind, seeing the events spatially can be essential to any inquiry.

Get transcripts: Transcripts are tricky to take to a reporter because technically they’re not public records; court reporters/monitors own them privately. Their private nature makes them costly. Courts can grant fee waivers for transcripts to applicants who qualify (an incarcerated person, friends and family members with limited means). The clerk in the courthouse where the hearing or trial was held can provide these forms; they vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Courts won’t approve these fee waivers for journalists and news outlets. We have to pay for these volumes and it’s an expensive gambit if they don’t reveal much to assist with the investigation.

The effort of applying for the waiver and having master copies of testimony is worth it. Sometimes you might wonder if the judges who write appellate opinions even read the transcripts at all when you see the way the testimony (the content of the transcripts) appears in a court’s opinion. Those inconsistencies provide fertile ground for someone other than a lawyer to find a reversible error.

We did exactly that here at The National Memo in 2022; we found false evidence in the trial transcripts of Melissa Lucio, the only Hispanic woman sentenced to death in Texas. Her execution was paused pending a hearing after her attorneys included our reporting in a petition to the court. Read the Lucio series here.

Keep a copy: Do this for all paperwork you complete, like fee waiver applications you file, rejections to requests for records.

Sometimes agencies don’t cooperate and it may seem impossible to get the documents you need. But that may be part of the story and we’ll need that proof.

Don’t be offended when a journalist doesn't take your word for it: When we ask for confirmation of a part of the story, it’s not because we suspect you of misrepresenting anything. We need confirmation for our editors.

If there’s no other evidence besides your knowledge of a particular situation, then turn that knowledge into evidence. It can be done relatively easily. In that case, use this template to make out an affidavit. An affidavit — sworn, out-of-court testimony — can be used as evidence. It doesn’t prove that the facts within are true, but it does show the witness’ willingness to expose themselves to perjury charges if the contents of the statement are proven false. Often journalists can use these statements in their reporting.

Find a therapist: This isn’t a layperson diagnosis of mental illness. I’m not pointing out flaws in those people seeking justice for friends, family members or even prisoners. It’s quite the opposite.

Wrongful convictions, lengthy incarceration, waiting for a languid bureaucracy to fix mistakes they made in a millisecond are traumatic experiences even for bystanders. Trying to explain the facts and the trauma to a journalist wastes time and asks them to act as an advisor of sorts. We know — and especially I know — how harmful injustice is, not just to the defendant or inmate, but also people close to them.

But explaining to us how stressful all of this doesn't help anyone — we’re supposed to be investigating — but it’s also pointless because we’re not trained to assist in those ways. Finding a professional with whom you can work out your feelings will enhance your ability to secure attention — and therefore assistance for your cause. Find A Therapist is just one source of information on service providers in your area.

Be Patient: Getting new records or finding the best witness can take time. It won’t happen overnight.

Be Realistic: While pressure from the press can break logjams and even expose innocence, it’s not always possible. We’d love to clear some names and spring some bodies from custody but we’re not magicians.

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.

Restoring Pell Grants To Prisoners Represents Real Change -- Despite Obstacles

Restoring Pell Grants To Prisoners Represents Real Change -- Despite Obstacles

This is the fifth 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 third and the fourth in the series.

In preparing to reverse 28 years of denying low-income, incarcerated students a fair chance at enrolling in higher education programs, the Department of Education tried to troubleshoot potential obstacles. Using regulations, the department banned for-profit colleges from educating students whose schooling is paid for by Pell Grants, limited the number of students schools could admit, and layered approval mechanisms to create a thorough, if daunting, bureaucracy.

For instance, the department changed the process for completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, in an attempt to make it fair and equitable for inmates by requiring all paper applications to be sent to a dedicated post office box. The specially created form for prisoners differs from the regular FAFSA in one way: the post office box number — ensuring that their applications receive dedicated attention.

While not a part of the FAFSA Simplification Act and its accompanying regulations, the Fresh Start program announced by the department on April 6, 2022 — borrowers with student loans in default have the opportunity to bring them into good standing without making a payment — seems designed to remove barriers to eligibility for many aspiring Pell Grantees.

While the Department of Education never explicitly connected Fresh Start with the new Pell Grant eligibility — the initiative will apply to all borrowers when it goes into effect after the pandemic pause on student loans is lifted — department officials and consultants had to know that leaving students who can’t pay bills from behind bars out of the new educational endeavor would negate the second chances they wanted to create. Prisoners lack access to accounts and earn somewhere between 14 cents and two dollars per hour.

How prisoners will avail themselves of the opportunity to get out of default still requires attention. The number of incarcerated students with loans in default remains a question, but the Department of Education forewent collection on 82,021 borrowers in prison or jail between 2012 and 2014.

Prison education advocates, including the Vera Institute of Justice, and financial aid professionals take issue with the way the new FAFSA form was written -- and borrowers’ rights organizations think the student loan debt of certain incarcerated individuals should be forgiven entirely.

Thousands of other logistical issues await the students, the corrections workers, the educators, and the advocates in returning to 1994, the last time inmates were eligible for Pell Grants. Unfortunately Congress and the Department of Education likely made hundreds of misjudgments in writing the rules.

But none of that should cloud what amending the Higher Education Act signifies.

To begin with, it’s the first federal policy in history to acknowledge incarcerated people and their expertise as essential to prison programming. The regulation codifies their input.

“They have to consult with us by law. That’s the opposite of what any inmate goes through. Even our medical decisions don’t involve us,” said one currently incarcerated inmate via email.

Despite this advance in prisoner involvement, formerly incarcerated people have mixed feelings about the Pell Grant restoration. Abraham Sandoval has been home from prison since August. He works as an intensive care unit tech. He took classes both from a Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative program (Second Chance Pell program) at Asnuntuck Community College in Connecticut and another program that doesn’t accept Title IV federal funding and saw that the Second Chance Pell program, with its need to prove itself, as sacrificing educational quality in order to conform with correctional demands.

Santiago fears that the infrastructure to implement this new program isn’t ready, regardless of the funding source.

In an essay published in Inquest, Santiago and a co-author argued:

“Pell restoration, in principle, must also prioritize building a 21st-century infrastructure to support and further higher education in prison — by putting the needs of incarcerated students at the forefront.”

Knowing how education inside works, Santiago has questions.

“Where do the Chromebooks come from? Where is this technology part of it? Where's the classroom space? Where's the training for staff? The government incentivized incarcerating people. So where are the incentives for the [correctional] administrations across the country to take it, really implement this in a really meaningful way?"

Other formerly incarcerated students are less pessimistic.

Shannon Ross is the founder and executive director of The Community, an organization dedicated to pre-entry and “correcting the narrative” that he founded in 2014 while serving a 17-year prison sentence for a violent crime. Ross finished his bachelor’s degree during his incarceration through a Pell Grant provided through a Second Chance Pell program.

"You have a situation right now where …You're not just investing in people who are in prison and have been forgotten. It's more than that," said Ross. "You're investing in a solution to a problem that society has been grappling with and significantly right now, which is crime. And how do we respond to the fact that human beings commit crimes and not just crimes, violent crimes?"

Another important development to remember is that regulations for the new law may seem tedious but they represent a philosophical shift by deeming inmates as inherently worthy of postsecondary schooling. The Department of Education and the Negotiated Rule-making Committees tasked with interpreting the statute established safeguards to assure that the quality of the courses and the experience matches that of students who aren’t incarcerated. For years, the caliber of the coursework in correctional facilities was often a secondary consideration behind access; battling over eligibility for Pell Grants forced people to make the case that prisoners merited postsecondary education at all, regardless of its quality.

Support continues for students to be eligible for this aid, but the way the issue is framed to the public makes a difference. When researchers dangle societal benefits and taxpayer savings in a survey, respondents tend to support the endeavor of postsecondary education for prisoners.

Yet describing the reasons for educating prisoners for their own sake proved less persuasive when researchers took into account study subjects' level of racial resentment. It bears mentioning what may be obvious to many, which is that race is an important aspect of this intersection of educational policy and mass incarceration. Black and Brown low-income people are more likely to be prosecuted and punished with confinement. The ban on Pell Grants was another exquisitely effective tool for excluding poor minorities from educational opportunities; the new and amended Higher Education Act – even with its excessive and misguided regulations – retired that tool.

Under this existing rubric, the privilege of education belongs to the people outside the facility and they make a decision to share it as an act of grace. Those familiar with the transformative power of these courses and classrooms believe that education belongs to the inmates as a right; they were simply separated from it, denied it for a period of time, perhaps their entire lives.

At least in public statements that there’s no reason to doubt, the Department of Education is committed to equity for the incarcerated population, not just access to coursework.

To that end, the department expanded what will count as "success” in Pell Grant-eligible programming.

During the experimental phase, measuring higher education’s effect on recidivism was paramount, and almost the only way a Second Chance Pell program could justify itself. While it’s true that education is associated with lower crime rates, this hyperfocus on lower recidivism rates sometimes neglected a conversation about the quality of programming in prisons and kept the public mired in a narrative about which impoverished groups deserved an education and which ones didn't.

Dr. Stanley Andrisse, an assistant professor in physiology and biophysics at Howard University’s College of Medicine -- and formerly incarcerated himself -- was an alternate member of the Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary Education subcommittee on prison education. He told a 2021 subcommittee hearing that even lowered recidivism doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the programs inside. According to him, it’s usually the transformation a student undergoes simply by being educated that affects their future behavior.

In other words, even lower quality classes can produce demonstrable change in a person but that’s no excuse for settling for less for this particular group of low-income college students.

Going forward, labor outcomes for released students will figure into program assessments, a shift with meaning beyond data collection. Focusing exclusively on recidivism defines the incarcerated pupil as a future threat. Focusing on work defines that same pupil as a future citizen.

The transition to broader eligibility for Pell Grants won’t be smooth. Many students in prisons awaiting higher education will struggle to get it. Tensions will arise between corrections departments and educators. But it’s still a sharp turn from what’s been happening in these institutions for decades -- a change that’s long overdue.

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.

'Outdated' Correspondence Courses May Be Just What Prison Students Need

'Outdated' Correspondence Courses May Be Just What Prison Students Need

This is the fourth 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 third and the fifth in the series.

Emory University professor Sarah Higinbotham knew she had to pivot, and quickly.

COVID restrictions in Georgia prisons, where Higinbotham leads college courses for incarcerated students through an organization she founded called Common Good Atlanta, stood in her way to the classroom. She couldn’t get in to teach.

So she photocopied the lessons, placed them in folders, and dropped them off at the prisons for distribution by the prison staff. Then she and her colleagues picked up students’ homework and replaced the paper-based lesson the next week. Because Common Good Atlanta professors were so nimble, the students ended up not missing a week.

Higinbotham happened upon a solution not only for pandemic restrictions but also the rollout of expanded Pell Grant eligibility: the old-fashioned, paper based or “epistolary” correspondence course where students write the answers to their assignments and send them to professors for evaluation -- who then send back another assignment.

While pandemic restrictions have been lifted on prisons in each of the 50 states, one question still lingers for all educators: What happens when I can’t get in to teach?

It’s a real possibility next summer, when Pell Grant eligibility will be officially restored to incarcerated students, and not because educators will necessarily be blocked from entering facilities; it may be that the new programs simply aren’t approved yet. Prison Education Programs or PEPs may have to wait indeterminate periods of time to go through three — possibly superfluous — levels of approval to offer courses inside.

In theory, correspondence courses could be a solution to this problem, but the federal regulations for PEPs may blunt their potential.

Pell Grants Cover Correspondence Courses

“As of the implementation date of the new regulations [July 1, 2023], otherwise-eligible students can qualify for Pell Grants if they are enrolled in correspondence courses," said David Musser, acting deputy director for oversight of federal student aid at the Department of Education, responding to questions via email. "Nothing in the law or regulations prevents such students from qualifying for Pell on the basis of the modality of their coursework,”

These programs can enter only through the same complex processes. They must undergo approval and monitoring by the correctional oversight entity, plus another approval by the institution’s accrediting agency (in the case of correspondence courses it’s the Higher Learning Commission), as well as approval and monitoring by the federal Department of Education.

“These additional requirements, which were not present in the early 1990s prior to the Crime Bill, may limit the extent to which institutions choose to offer correspondence courses for Pell Grant purposes in carceral settings,” Musser continued.

Pell Grant coverage wasn’t always available for this type of learning. Pell Grants weren’t authorized to finance correspondence courses at all, a reality made clear to schools in the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative (Second Chance Pell programs) during the pandemic when they were in the same position as Higinbotham. They couldn’t get inside the facilities.

The Department of Education sent written guidance to all Second Chance Pell programs in the early stages of the pandemic that clarified that lessons sent through the mail, on paper, were not allowed, but those lessons emailed to the prison and printed out by staff counted as “distance education” and were acceptable.

Such extreme hair-splitting made Second Chance Pell programs more careful but also suggested that the ban on correspondence courses might be counterproductive.

Correspondence Courses Are Underway In Prisons

Right now, at least seven schools offer epistolary correspondence courses to prisoners: Adams State University, Ohio University, Upper Iowa University, Colorado State University at Pueblo, Rio Salado College, Thomas Edison State University and California Coast University. Among them, only California Coast University is a private, for-profit institution and, as such, wouldn’t be able to participate in Pell Grant funding under the federal regulations.

The number of students served by these programs is murky. Many correspondence programs simply don’t have that information at hand.

At Upper Iowa University, a self-paced program that will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, a total of 391 students enrolled in their correspondence course -- and 70 of them were incarcerated.

How many students they have served may not matter as much as their future bandwidth to serve students. In an attempt to prevent schools from developing PEPs to enroll as many incarcerated students as possible to take advantage of the new Pell Grant rules, the Department of Education instituted what’s called the “25% rule” which requires that schools assure that no more than one quarter of their students are incarcerated.

Even with this rule, the Pell Grant opportunities through correspondence courses are significant. Adams State University has about 2000 undergraduate students which leaves them as many as 500 incarcerated Pell Grant slots. Rebecca Knight, independent study coordinator at Colorado State University-Pueblo says she’s confident that the Colorado State University-Pueblo program could accommodate an additional 200 students.

In 2021, Ohio University’s full time enrollment was 18,324; assuming some stability in enrollment, one quarter of that total would open opportunities for more than 4500 students. According to Dawn Novak, Assistant Vice President of Enrollment Management at Upper Iowa University, 25 percent of their student population would amount to about 1000 students.

Pell Grants will cover tuition for students enrolled in degree programs; to maintain eligibility for this type of federal aid. Students must demonstrate satisfactory academic progress or SAP, meaning they have to receive a grade of C or better and pass enough classes to graduate within 150 percent of the normal degree timeline.

This is important because conditions beyond an incarcerated student’s control can interfere with their academic progress. Lockdowns — periods of time where movement within a prison is tightly controlled or even stopped and outsiders can’t enter the facility — can occur at the discretion of corrections officials for almost any length of time.

And they do happen often. The United States Penitentiary at Pollock, Louisiana experienced 16 lockdowns in a 12 month period between 2016 and 2017. They’re so common that the way lockdowns interrupt programming was the number one concern of inmates interviewed by the District of Columbia’s Corrections Information Council.

Evaluating satisfactory academic progress is handled internally at the PEP, where the office of financial aid will determine whether a student is making the necessary headway -- so it’s not as if pupils will be subject to assessment from an antagonistic entity. It’s in the school’s interest that students advance adequately in their studies. However, the regulations governing SAP weren’t modified to accommodate the unusual circumstances incarcerated students face — like lockdowns — an omission criticized by higher education advocates during the regulations’ comment period.

These correspondence courses also may fill holes in PEP programming. Even if PEPs get all the approvals they need, certain degree requirements may have to be taught at a distance. Pell Grants will support the education of those students in degree programs and degree programs often have certain requirements, such as statistics or other competency classes. If there’s no instructor in the area who’s qualified to teach that course, a correspondence course may make the difference in completing a degree on time. Some in-person PEPs may need a particular expert to teach required courses who may be available only at a distance.

“There's a huge need for this stuff, this mode of delivery,” said Jim Bullington, coordinator of the Prison College Program at Adams State University.

That correspondence courses don’t offer the same quality of education as in-person or online learning is a misperception, according to Bullington. While they aren’t preferable to in-person pedagogy, correspondence courses challenge and edify students. Instructors are dedicated and strive to respond to their pupils in the same timeframe as other students.

Modifying Federal Regulations May Help

Students are already trying to enroll in correspondence courses in advance of the 2023 restoration of Pell Grant eligibility and schools will have to turn them away.

“We are worried about getting dumped and swamped and overwhelmed. And we already do have a lot of requests that we have to say no to because just because some students are trying to register right now thinking that Pell Grant money is going to come in, and we just can't do that,” said Knight of her experiences since Congress passed the law expanding eligibility to this class of students.

The problem is a lot of people [who are incarcerated] think right now that we are going to get immediately, July 1, correspondence [courses] and we'll be able to do it," said Bullington. "And that's just not the case.”

The biggest barrier is the accreditation process. For existing correspondence programs, accreditation is redundant; they’re already accredited by the Higher Learning Commission or HLC and approved through an arrangement called the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement or SARA order to service students from all over the country.

Said Bullington:To make us go through the accreditation thing to approve every single facility is literally impossible. You can't do that. So to me, [changing] that regulation would be very big."According to Heather Berg, the Commission’s Vice President of Communications and Engagement, HLC reviews institutions for their ability to offer epistolary correspondence courses and the commission limits approval for correspondence education to courses and one degree or certificate program, although an institution can switch the program it offers via correspondence education with proper notification to HLC.

Of HLC's existing member institutions:

  • 24 institutions or 2% of HLC’s membership are approved for correspondence education courses and programs.
  • 7 institutions or less than 1% of HLC's membership are approved for correspondence education courses and one program.
  • 60 institutions or 6% of HLC's membership are approved for correspondence education courses only, but no certificate or degree programs. These programs may not be eligible for Pell Grant support because this type of aid is restricted to degree or certificate programs.
  • 874 institutions or 91% of HLC's membership have no correspondence approval whatsoever.

HLC can change the correspondence course landscape but it’s the schools themselves that must seek approval and it’s not necessarily a quick process. Substantive change requests, such as an institution seeking approval to offer correspondence education beyond their current situation, may take 6-9 months for review, due process and final action. Schools would need to start the process now to help students take advantage of Pell Grants as soon as possible.

It’s important to note that HLC isn’t necessarily the holdup here. HLC takes action on substantive change requests 10 times a year. In October 2022, HLC took action on more than 75 substantive change requests.

Regulators have already recognized that requiring distance education programs to apply for approval in every state is overly burdensome, which is why they created SARA. The agreement allows members to offer distance education in other member states without having to go through the state’s accreditation processes which are expensive and time consuming. While Rio Salado College and California Coast University aren’t, the remaining five prison correspondence programs are located in SARA-member states; as of July 2019, all states but California have joined SARA.

It’s not just the Department of Education’s bureaucratic burdens that may prevent students from getting an education through correspondence courses. The fact that students can receive Pell Grant aid only if they’re enrolled in a degree or certificate program also might hold them back. If students who are only a few credits shy of a degree or certificate can enroll in non-degree program courses, they may be able to complete a degree started elsewhere through a correspondence program. A key aspect of the Department of Education’s regulations is that all Pell-eligible schooling must be capable of transfer to another institution.

Requiring that a grantee be enrolled in a degree program may block correspondence courses from assisting students in facilities that don't offer PEPs, as might the completion time standards. Most correspondence courses are self-paced; some allow students to take longer because of the unique circumstances of mailing one’s lessons from institutions that aren’t always known for their care and diligence. For these practical reasons, Adams State University allows students one year to complete a course. Upper Iowa University offers four-month extensions for incarcerated students.

But Pell Grants will cover only those students in semester-based degree programs. Changing the regulations or offering waivers to accommodate the realities of prison life or the unique potential of correspondence education might achieve the goals of higher education in prison more quickly and more effectively than clinging to the federal regulations so tightly.

During two days of hearings by the Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education Prison Education Programs Subcommittee’s last year, open forums where questions about implementation received airing, experts discussed correspondence courses only glancingly. They paid little attention to the ways that correspondence courses can further the goal of expanding eligibility for incarcerated students.

Once waitlists begin to frustrate prisoners’ plans for rehabilitation through education next summer, hindsight will likely prove that correspondence courses ought to have played a far larger role in planning for their new Pell Grant eligibility.

Though often seen as antiquated, these modes of teaching hold unique promise for the Department of Education’s goal of expanding prisoners' access to postsecondary classes as soon as possible — and the department is squandering the chance if it doesn’t fix the regulations so correspondence courses can get to work immediately.

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.

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.

Can Corrections Officials Act In The 'Best Interest' Of Incarcerated Students?

Can Corrections Officials Act In The 'Best Interest' Of Incarcerated Students?

This is the second 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 third, the fourth and the fifth in the series.

The Higher Education Act allowed a certain freedom in administering the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative Program because the endeavor was just that: experimental.

While the passage of the FAFSA Simplification Act makes accessing financial aid easier for low-income students in prisons and jails, it also removes the discretion enjoyed by the Department of Education and participating colleges since the Pell Grant demonstration started in 2016.

Certain revisions to the Higher Education Act (made by the FAFSA Simplification Act) and the regulations interpreting them represent a radical change in how prison education has worked in the past, namely the start and survival of new Prison Education Programs (PEPs) rest squarely on corrections departments, a development that gives many people working in prison education pause and may even defy Congressional intent in restoring prisoners’ access to Pell grants.

The amended statute designates them as oversight entities for PEPs and requires them to make substantive appraisals of educational programs and arrive at a judgment if a PEP is acting in the “best interests of the students,” two assessments that corrections departments may not have the capacity, expertise — or even desire — to do.

In order to make that “best interest determination” as the regulations call it, corrections departments are provided seven data points they may use. The basis of the best interest determination is somewhat of a departure from the goals of the Second Chance Pell programs.

Of the seven data points, only one mentions recidivism, the reduction of which was the primary aim of Second Chance Pell experiment. The remaining data points deal with labor outcomes and how many students continue their education and transfer their credits successfully upon release.

None of the suggested considerations in the statute are Student Academic Progress or SAP, the triune standard that combines cumulative grade point average (GPA), pace, and maximum timeframe that keeps student borrowers eligible for aid.

New PEPs will not have this data and it’s unclear what criteria will be used for their assessment.

Corrections departments aren’t accustomed to collecting this data; when a person exits custody, corrections cease to be a part of their lives. That person may live under supervised release like probation or parole, but those agencies are separate from corrections departments. Even data that they are supposed to maintain on current inmates isn’t comprehensive and it may be misunderstood by people who work in prisons.

Ultimately, corrections departments will either request these numbers from the Internal Revenue Service — the one reliable source of post-incarceration employment and earnings comes from comparing reports supplied by corrections to the IRS to tax returns — or from the Department of Education, only to have to report it right back to the same department.

According to Jessica Neptune, national director of engagement of the Bard Prison Initiative, who has discussed the list with legislative aides who worked on the bill, Congress never intended the data points mentioned within to be translated into a process of mandated data collection by corrections departments who then turn it over to the Department of Education. Nevertheless, those data points have become very consequential; they may become the reason why a PEP rises or falls.

Regulations tried to mediate the central role that corrections departments will have. They state that any best interest determination must be turned over to an advisory committee of “diverse stakeholders” including currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, for feedback. But nothing guides the corrections department’s treatment of the feedback. The process of creating that advisory committee wasn’t as transparent as many hoped it would be; when the Department of Education called for nominations to the committee, many key stakeholders weren’t even aware of it."I feel like instead of [making] the oversight entity solely being the Corrections Department, they should have made it a diverse group of stakeholders, but instead [the department of correction] is the oversight entity. And then [the department has] to reach out to a group of stakeholders that includes individuals who have been incarcerated, you know, maybe college presidents or other folks. That's my only critique there,” said Terrell Blount, director of the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network. Blount served on the 2021 Negotiated Rulemaking Prison Education Programs Subcommittee that advised the Department of Education on writing the regulations.

Concentrating so much power in the hands of people who work for carceral systems could stymie the goals of the Pell Grant eligibility expansion. An unknown number of schools that are not used to providing correctional education will be applying for approval to start PEP’s — it’s a triad of approvers: state accrediting agencies (PEPs must be accredited as programs on their own), the correctional authority and the Department of Education. These fledgling programs may stumble in the first two years of initial approval and their inexperience may provide grounds for a corrections department to cancel them as a PEP.

This doesn’t need to be a problem, though. Through Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit that works on workplace and education issues, Ascendium Education Group launched a “Ready for Pell" initiative earlier this year. By supporting colleges and universities at all points of development, the Ready for Pell initiative is preparing new programs so that they don’t flounder as they try to establish themselves.

"Some of our programs have been doing this work for 20 or 30 years but just haven't been part of leveraging Pell dollars. We leaned on some of those longer standing programs to help support some of the newer, much more emerging programs that are using Pell Grant reinstatement as a driver to launch new programs,” said Dr. Rebecca C. Villarreal, senior director of the Center for Justice and Economic Advancement at Jobs for the Future.

But the Ready for Pell initiative works with 20 programs in 16 states, leaving a number of aspiring PEPs with little to no guidance. An assessment of Ready for Pell is slated to be released in the future.

Correctional authorities being in charge of determining the worthy PEPs may not only affect the entry and approval of new programs but also the tenor of classrooms themselves.

The integrity of prison programs that have, thus far, worked hard to build schools within a prison, both through the Second Chance Pell ESI or even before it, may be at stake. While the ban on incarcerated students receiving Pell Grants decimated higher education programs between 1994 and 2022, many colleges and universities continued education by financing the courses they taught inside themselves. They worked hard to vacate classrooms of prison culture to assure that they were like classrooms for unincarcerated students. At an October 18, 2021 meeting of the Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education’s Prison Education Programs Subcommittee, Management and Program Analyst Aaron Washington said that the Department of Education created this approval process to protect the quality of the classes inside. The goal is not to create correctional educational opportunities but rather recreate the educational opportunities available outside prisons in a carceral space.

But if corrections officials have to justify student academic success rates and retention rates, then it may be harder to keep them out of the classrooms, or even the admissions process or curricula.

This isn’t a theoretical problem. According to Dr. Erin S. Corbett, founder and executive director of the Second Chance Educational Alliance, Inc., the only education-based reentry program in Connecticut, corrections departments already restrict applicant pools.

Corrections departments also include behavior requirements, according to Corbett, like insisting that a student be discipline-free to enroll or continue. This presents a problem for students learning thanks to a Pell Grant; if they’re removed from a Pell Grant-supported course mid-semester because of a low-level infraction, they can’t get that Pell coverage back. And since Pell Grant eligibility is capped, the student would lose out on all the educational access the new statutes and regulations are supposed to provide.

Several requests for comment were directed to Department of Education officials and their press office; no responses were received before publication of this article.

While departments of correction had to be amenable to higher education programs during the Second Chance Pell program; it’s difficult to make the case that wardens and commissioners are outright hostile to education.

But that attitude doesn’t mean they will discharge their duties as determiners of best interests. For one, the Department of Education concedes in its response to comments on the proposed rules, as overseers, departments of corrections may need to invest money and time into these activities.

With the increasing number of in-custody deaths, acts of sexual violence and other human rights violations, prisons may not be in the best interest business. Equity concerns arise when corrections officials have the final say on educational programming. Because prisons are split into men’s and women’s facilities, there’s a chance that gender disparities will develop. In Utah, the Department of Correction doesn’t offer female prisoners the same educational opportunities as the male prisoners. The same happens in Texas and Louisiana prisons.

When more vocational classes are available to men than women, it reflects a choice made solely by the same officials who will decide if a PEP stays or goes in the future. At Second Chance Pell sites, women were overrepresented among college students, but departments of correction weren’t calling the shots then. This new power is one of the reasons why the Ready for Pell emphasizes connecting with departments of correction and forging lasting bonds as part of preparing for the expanded Pell Grant eligibility.

The first thing to do is make sure that you're building strong relationships with Department of Corrections and administrators in the particular facilities that you're hoping to work with,” said Villareal.

The correction departments of the country’s five biggest incarcerators — Texas, California, Florida, Georgia and Ohio, in order from largest to smallest — did not respond to requests for comment on how they would handle the new Pell Grant regulations or what their internal processes would look like.

As good as the intentions behind it were, the FAFSA Simplification Act and its regulations may bring bureaucracy, gratuitous costs and/or redundant reporting requirements that may harm the quality and availability of higher education in prison. Going forward, the most important quality in this renewed educational endeavor may not be the ability to connect or to partner, but rather flexibility and a willingness to be nimble in new situations.

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.

Why Didn't Justice Department Defend Alabama Prisoners From Starvation?

Why Didn't Justice Department Defend Alabama Prisoners From Starvation?

This is the third in a series of columns about the current crisis in Alabama’s prisons. Read the first here and the second here.

What happened in Alabama prisons during the most recent work stoppage — the Alabama Department of Corrections served severely reduced portion sizes only twice a day, from September 26 to October 26, 2002 — was nothing less than the weaponization of food by a government against its own citizens.

The last time state actors played Hunger Games against their own in the United States was the Civil War, when President Lincoln issued “General Orders No. 100: Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field,” commonly known as the “Lieber Code” after its main author Francis (Franz) Lieber.

The Lieber Code promulgated the essential rules of engagement for Union Army soldiers during the Civil War. Those rules specifically stated that it was “lawful to starve the hostile belligerent, armed or unarmed”... so as to hasten on the surrender.”

The excuse provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), namely that they didn’t have the correctional staff to cover the positions vacated by the incarcerated workers, is unavailing.

While it’s true that inmate workers were not appearing for their work assignments, posts didn’t go unmanned. Starting around the third day of the strike, the ADOC forced participants in the state’s work release program to go back inside prisons and prepare the meals. The Alabama Department of Corrections forced scabs to come in and break the picket line by working inside.

One man on work release reported that a lieutenant “made [him]” enter a prison and prepare meals or lose his work release status. “It was either come over here or go over to lock up,” he said in an interview.

According to Frank Ozment, a Birmingham, Alabama attorney with years of experience representing prisoners in the Yellowhammer State, taking work release inmates back inside has happened only once before, during the pandemic, when men from the Frank Lee Community Based Facility/Work Center were taken to Draper Correctional Facility in Elmore, Alabama to build an intake center.

When the work release employees realized that COVID patients were housed at that particular facility, they balked and the matter was eventually resolved. It’s important to note that taking work release prisoners to Draper Correctional Facility didn’t involve a work stoppage nor were the tasks assigned to these individuals supposedly being carried out by overworked officers.

The guards were less than enthusiastic about the strike or an expectation that they fill in essential roles; indeed, some may have refused to pitch in. According to screenshots provided by an unnamed source, one ADOC officer posted to Facebook: “They could wade knee deep in shit and starve before I would cook them even a morsel of food!!! When they got a bellyful of living in filth they could clean everything back up too…I wouldn’t lift a finger!!!”

It’s not as if the human rights violations occurring in the facilities seemed to bother the entire guards corps. Memes poking fun at starvation, comments about serving the wards only bread and water proliferated under posts about the strike from accounts purporting to be correctional officers proliferated during the strike.

Of paramount importance in understanding what unfolded during that strike is that neither the State of Alabama nor ADOC has ever directly refuted the claims of inadequate meals. Through counsel, the state of Alabama denied the allegations by claiming inmates' representations of the content and quantity of meals were inaccurate. Kelly Betts, spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Correction, did not answer questions posed to her via email about the meals and the effects of reduced calories on the people who ate them.

However, if the pictures are not representative of what was actually distributed as meals and the claims of inmates are not describing what was served to them accurately, then the state can — and should — provide evidence of what was served. There’s no reason to suspect that these records don’t exist or are even difficult to collect.

Stacey Lee George, a former Alabama correctional officer who resigned last month and worked in the kitchen during his 13-plus year career, reports that kitchens maintain these records on computers. If the ADOC provided sufficient calories during the shutdown, they have the evidence as a matter of daily practice. They’re simply not providing that evidence in any forum. A Freedom of Information Act request seeking copies of all records indicating what was served has not yet been responded to by the Alabama Department of Corrections.

Neither the spacing of the distribution of the meals nor their content was a consequence of the strike’s circumstances. The meals were intentionally prepared and delivered. The state of Alabama and its Department of Correction used outlawed tactics of war to manage people who have been entrusted to their care. What happened in Alabama prisons in September and October violated the prohibited use of food as a method of punishment. It was an attempt to harm the wards and starve them into submission.

And the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) is complicit in this gastronomical gambit, all while the biggest and most powerful law enforcement agency in the country is supposed to be protecting people from unlawful abuse by state agencies like ADOC.

On December 9, 2020, the DOJ filed suit against the State of Alabama under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) alleging that the conditions in Alabama prisons were so bad that they violated inmates’ Eighth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. The case has been pending for the past two years.

Eleven days into the strike, on October 7, 2022, 37 inmates filed a motion to intervene — to become parties to the action to have their complaints heard — in the DOJ suit. And instead of taking action to assure that inmates were fed during the stoppage, the DOJ opposed this motion to intervene, arguing that allowing the inmates to enter the case at that point would disrupt the discovery process.

In the responses filed since October 7, 2022, DOJ provided no other reason why the inmates shouldn’t be allowed to become plaintiffs, nor did the department deny that the meals were as meager and infrequent as alleged. None of the DOJ lawyers even contacted attorneys for the intervening plaintiffs. DOJ failed to make a statement in its response to the inmates’ Motion to Intervene that starving prisoners is unlawful.

It’s not clear that the DOJ took any action to assure the prisoners were fed; Aryele N. Bradford, spokeswoman for the DOJ’s Office of Public Affairs, said in an email that the DOJ will not comment on pending litigation.

The department’s silence and apparent inaction isn’t borne of strategy; it’s vanity.

“The one thing the government doesn't like to do is lose. And that's a good thing. But they're not going to do anything that they don't think is a slam dunk. I mean, that's just been my experience with them almost throughout my career,” said Ozment.

Indeed, legal scholars agree. “For DOJ, success is measured solely by winning percentage in the courts; the basis of a favorable decision does not matter, and winning is an end in itself. For the agency, success is a function of: (a) winning percentage not just in the courts, but in an overall enforcement effort most of which occurs outside the judiciary; and (b) the advancement of a particular policy agenda…” wrote Neal Devins, professor of law and government at the College of William and Mary and Michael Herz, professor of law at Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law in a 2003 article in the Journal of Constitutional Law.

In the responses filed since October 7, 2022, DOJ provided no other reason why the inmates shouldn’t be allowed to become plaintiffs, nor did the department deny that the meals were as meager and infrequent as alleged. It’s not clear that the DOJ took any action to assure the prisoners were fed. An email asking that exact question was posed to four separate lawyers representing the DOJ in this matter and none of them replied.

It’s not that the claims of retaliation with food don’t belong in the pending litigation. CRIPA confers standing on the Attorney General to institute a civil action to enforce any existing constitutional and federal statutory rights of people who are confined within institutions.

In the 2020 lawsuit, the United States alleges that defendants have violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, but the most recent problems add another constitutional dimension. To the extent that ADOC served skimpy trays as retribution for engaging in a protest that the department itself admits was peaceful, the substandard meals implicated inmates’ First Amendment rights.

Whatever particular rights violation the DOJ wants to concentrate on, lawyers for the agency filed the suit ostensibly to protect the incarcerees from harm. To learn that they’re being systematically starved and then oppose any kind of relief for that deprivation undermines the DOJ’s stated commitment to protecting people in institutions and may even introduce a conflict of interest in the currently pending litigation.

The irony of the DOJ’s prioritization of winning over taking a moral stand is that it may undermine their chances of winning. The DOJ depends on inmates to testify and provide evidence in their original case but it’s clear now that there’s little incentive to do so.

One of the intervening plaintiffs, Inmate Billy Crowe, has testified and reported problems to the DOJ through an established hotline. After he moved to intervene in the DOJ’s case during the strike, Crowe’s been beaten severely several times, once while two guards watched, according to his sworn statement made in support of his motion to amend, alter or vacate Judge Proctor’s order denying his attempt to get some relief.

“This is getting old,” said Ozment, who represents Crowe.

And from the department’s response to the mass starvation, Crowe and other inmates know that the DOJ isn’t their champion.

According to one incarcerated man whose identity is being withheld because of fear of retaliation, the people confined in Alabama have little hope that anyone on the outside will help them.

I'm starting to see a lot of guys being more inspired to say, you know what..the courts have turned their backs on us and shut down the parole board, and Alabama has shut down. Society has been shut down," he said. "So now it's time for us to shut down on them and let them run this prison system themselves without us. They already know they cannot run it.”

Whether these men and women will ultimately testify for the DOJ remains to be seen.

They may testify in another proceeding. According to Ozment, who represented one of the intervening plaintiffs, inmate Billy Crowe, Judge Proctor’s decision doesn’t prevent the prisoners’ from initiating a new action to address the problems with food and ultimately establish the law regarding the minimum requirements for prison meals that courts have sidestepped so far. Ozment is considering representing prisoners in such an action if he can find financial backing.

Weaponization of food works -- and that’s its peril and promise. Organizers paused the Alabama prison strike when it became clear that men were becoming ill as a result of the lack of food. It’s not that the strikers didn’t send their message; they did. Prisons can’t function without the laborers willing to do the work — and the current assemblage of guards have indicated that they’re not so willing.

And the Department of Justice is even less willing to do anything to correct these situations.

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.

Smuggled Photos Depict Starvation Diet Inflicted On Alabama Prisoners

Smuggled Photos Depict Starvation Diet Inflicted On Alabama Prisoners

This is the second in a series of columns about the current crisis in Alabama’s prisons. Read the first here and the third here.

“You know, my wife, when I packed my bag for the prison the last probably, I'd say, five or six nights. I would pack six half peanut butter sandwiches in my bag. My wife's like ‘You're not eating those sandwiches, are you?’

"And I said ‘No, I'm not.’

"I said ‘It's for the diabetics in the event they fall out.’”

Former Alabama gubernatorial candidate Stacy Lee George was a correctional officer at Limestone Correctional Facility, Alabama’s largest and highest security prison for more than 13 years. He resigned because of an old injury on October 26, 2022, when the Alabama prison strike — a period of about one month where inmate workers had refused to work to bring attention to the draconian sentencing structures in the state — had been put on hold.

From the outset of the strike on September 26, none of the demands had anything to do with prison conditions. Rather, strikers wanted to eliminate life-without-parole sentences, creating oversight over the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles and establishing new parole eligibility criteria for release, among other demands.

Upon hearing of the strike, administrators posted a notice to inmates at William Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama that houses 1362 men.

“Feeding will continue on a holiday meal schedule until the protest is resolved. The emergency meal plan already in place will be followed for the duration of the peaceful protest, Thanks for making this protest for the concerns you and your families have a peaceful one (sic).”

It seemed like a reasonable concession — if employers were in the habit of well-wishing their own workers a good strike. Holiday or reduced feeding schedules are legal per the 1978 Supreme Court decision in Hutto v. Finney. And the Alabama Department of Corrections facility said it simply didn’t have enough guards to fill the kitchen positions vacated by the strikers. On the surface, a reduced distribution schedule seemed reasonable.

But that wasn’t the extent of emergency or holiday meal management. Wardens reduced the amount of food and the number of calories served to the people incarcerated in all of the state’s fourteen prisons.

According to firsthand accounts, some meals were simply four pieces of bread with an unknown condiment on them.


One picture shows a man with a black styrofoam tray with five sections; three are empty, clean of any sustenance whatsoever, and one contains applesauce and another appears about a third full of a stew-like concoction.

Another meal is two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (peanut butter and jelly are mixed so that the jelly can’t be used to make alcohol).

Another meal photographed by an unnamed source is one slice of cheese, a small serving of canned fruit cocktail, and approximately one-half cup of grits as another meal.

Another meal at Fountain Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama consisted of two biscuits, one slice of cheese and one slice of bologna.

The calorie counts of these meals ranged from 291 to 655 per meal. Federal dietary guidelines suggest that between 2,000 and 3,000 calories per day are appropriate for adult men and between 1,600 and 2,400 daily calories for adult women. Energy expenditure tends to raise caloric needs but even sedentary males over age 18 need at least 2000 calories per day, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

It wasn’t just the meager fare; it was the time between distribution of meals. During the strike, George worked in the segregated housing unit where the first meal was served at four in the morning and the next one wasn’t delivered until eight o’clock at night.

George describes two major problems developed from the extreme spacing between meal distribution times and the lack of food: the effect on prisoners who take psychotropic medications and diabetic inmates. Without a steady or sufficient amount of food in their stomachs, prisoners who took psychiatric medications or who are diabetic would vomit often.

Failing to take food with certain psychiatric medications can have serious clinical consequences. Some antidepressant and anti anxiety medications — buspirone (BuSpar), the antidepressants Zoloft and Viibryd, and the mood stabilizer lithium depend on food at the time of administration for their effectiveness. When swallowed, two antipsychotics specifically, ziprasidone (name brand Geodon) and lurasidone (name brand Latuda) — require about 500 calories in the patient’s stomach for optimal absorption.

“In most cases, if directives aren't followed and the medication isn't taken with food, the medication may be less effective (i.e., a lower blood level). In conditions like Bipolar disorder, this can be especially dangerous, as small changes in blood level can sometimes have major impacts on medication effectiveness and clinical status,” said Andrew D. Carlo, MD MPH, a Health System Clinician in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Of the 76 men in the restricted housing unit George manned during the strike, about 20 to 25 of them took psychiatric medication; George knows this because he had to accompany the nurse who dispenses the pills to the men to each of their doors.

George estimates that about one third of the 2300 men in Limestone Prison take such medication.

In 2015, in the context of a lawsuit filed against the Alabama Department of Corrections over the inadequacy of mental health care in Alabama prisons captioned Braggs v. Dunn, a federal judge found that about 3400 of the state’s prisoners received treatment either in the form of medication or psychotherapy, a number that the judge estimated to be about 20 percent of the prison population.

Alabama currently incarcerates 23,484 people; about one fifth of that count would indicate that there may have been 4696 people who may have needed medication and food to make it work properly during the strike.

The stakes are high with missed medication doses.

“When they go too long without… taking their psychotropic medicine in the past one instance I had, I had them all around with a noose around their neck. I mean, I'm looking in this cell and, you know, they got a noose hanging around their neck,” George said.

The diabetic prisoners struggled as well with the reduced food, although George didn’t witness any of them pass out. That was partially due to the sandwiches he passed out to preempt the effects of low blood sugar in the diabetic prisoners.

“Nobody really realized the impact that the food shortage had until about two weeks after the strike was over. About two weeks after the strike was over, we had about 10 to 12 inmates in the hospital,” George explained.

“So what happened was. he results of what happened there and the minimum amount of food was given. It made extensive hospital stays. Some of them were diabetic. Their sugar was so far off that they had to leave in the hospital for four days...One of them, his sugar was so far off it took three days to regulate it back down. And he would throw up every time food would touch his mouth and after he got there, he couldn't eat a bit of food for three days at the hospital. He was given an IV because his sugar had gotten so far off,” George said.

Eventually, organizers paused the strike because the effects of ADOC’s inducing hunger and illness posed danger to their wards.

That doesn’t mean that resentment doesn't linger in the state’s prisons or this chapter is over. George recently insisted the Alabama National Guard be called in to fix what’s ailing Alabama prisons. According to him, a guard from the Limestone Correctional Facility underwent emergency surgery on November 19, 2022 for a broken jaw, broken teeth and a head injury.

His assailant hit him in the head with a food tray.

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.