Columbia University just says “No” to investing in CCA's prison culture

Photo from Columbia Prison Divest

Photo from Columbia Prison Divest

By Christopher Zoukis

In the years and months since I’ve been writing about prison conditions across the United States, the insidious creep of privatization into our justice system has transformed into an all-out takeover. The prison-industrial complex has now grown into a $74 billion industry that spans across a broad spectrum of areas. Students at Columbia University have sought to provide a solution to part of the problem through its adoption of a divestment policy geared specifically at the prison-industrial complex. 

Divestment, the process of ridding oneself of investments that run counter to one’s ethical beliefs in an effort to force policy change, is a form of protest that has been gaining traction all over the world. This increased engagement is often due in large part to social media and the internet—as individuals are becoming increasingly aware of the impact of their investment behaviours on social and environmental well-being. 

Sustained pressure over the last year or so from the student organization Columbia Prison Divest led the university to strike an advisory committee on the matter. The end results, announced just this week, will see them divesting their $9.2 billion endowment of stocks from the British-based G4S and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and banning future investment in any private prison corporations. 

Prison Divest and Columbia University (along with several other well-known post-secondary institutions) have recognized that a privately-run prison system is fundamentally incompatible with the values of rehabilitation and facilitation of re-entry into the community. Their entire reason for being depends on ensuring high prison return rates in order to satisfy its shareholders, and CCA is a case in point. 

CCA is the largest for-profit prison company in the nation. Its recent claims of being committed to improving prisoner re-entry are belied by its thirty-year track record that includes increased recidivism, increased violence, increased abuse, all going hand-in-hand with increased profits. Companies charged with the care and rehabilitation of the incarcerated are given free run with our inmates, with little to no public accountability. 

As we've noted elsewhere, facilities run by CCA and similar private prison companies have not improved re-incarceration rates, and likely hinder inmate rehabilitation through a variety of policy failures. Thus their modus operandi seems to have more to do with “getting them coming and going” rather than seeing them successful re-enter society. Indeed, their own market prospectus’ have highlighted the lucrative nature of the industry, precisely because of the country’s high rates of recidivism. It's hardly cynical to question why CCA would suddenly be committed to eliminating the very source of their profitability.

Some critics argue that Columbia’s divestment represents a mere drop in the profit bucket of these corporations, and that may be true. But as our own Alex Friedmann points out, it serves an important educative role that sheds light on the role these companies play in our penal system and who ultimately benefits from their involvement; as with any social action, momentum is key. And more importantly, it sends a message to private entities of what we, as investors, consider to be acceptable policies, and that there will be impacts on their bottom line from divestment—whether direct or indirect. 

The social market has spoken: private industry has no role in our criminal justice system.



What “The Mandela Rules” mean for American prisons.

By Christopher Zoukis

For 55 years, the international community has used the “Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners” as a guideline to structuring their criminal justice and penal systems. The document had never been amended (aside from one additional rule in 1977), let alone revised, until this year. On May 22nd, the United Nations ushered in a new set of standards, named after one of the most globally recognized figures of the 20th and 21st centuries. The resolution in favour of adopting the text of “The Mandela Rules” is expected to be presented to the UN General Assembly later this year.

It represents dramatic expansion of the rules governing our prisons, most poignant of which is the creation of a framework that recognizes human rights doctrines as critical to structuring our penal system. It’s an incredibly important development and one I, and other advocates for prisoners’ rights; are extremely happy to see; it represents a fundamental shift in how we perceive the role of incarceration in society.

Yet the news of this landmark event barely hit the media’s radar when it passed a few weeks ago. There has been no official statement from the Office of the President or other significant political representatives. So why is that? Could it be that there is a hint of irony to the United States’ to the few self-congratulatory approbations that appeared? Because while the US is touting the importance of this document in its provision of technical assistance to partner countries, there are serious questions as to whether we are adhering to either these rules, or the prior document. And by failing to even inform the public of their existence—let alone our support of them—I believe we are sending a clear message to the world: “These principles apply only when it suits our interests.”

Whereas the previous document provided relatively vague guidelines, The Mandela Rules are far more precise, including exact instructions for acceptable actions in a variety of penal areas—areas in which we have been incredibly remiss.

Examination of the revised document’s newest “Basic Rules” reveals several problematic areas for America’s current criminal justice system:

·       The inherent dignity and value of inmates as human beings shall be respected.

·       Self-perceived gender shall be logged upon admission.

·       Protection from degrading or inhumane treatment or punishment.

·       The primary purposes of imprisonment are to protect society from crime and reduce recidivism.

·       Reasonable accommodations of physical, mental, and other disabilities shall be made.

·       Solitary confinement beyond 15 days is prohibited; confinement is only as a last resort and prohibited for prisoners with mental or physical disabilities.

·       Prisoners have the right to the same standards of care available in the community, free of charge and without discrimination based on legal status.

·       Health services should be co-ordinated with public health agencies, including ensuring continuity of care as relates to HIV, drug dependence, and tuberculosis.

·       An interdisciplinary health team which includes expertise in psychology and psychiatry, and a dentist, shall be available.

·       Clinical decisions may not be over-ruled by non-medical staff.

·       Physicians or a public health body will regularly inspect food.

·       Mental illnesses must be taken into account prior to disciplinary actions.

·       Prisoners accused of offences must be given adequate resources to prepare their defence.

·       Disciplinary measures may not include prohibition of family contact beyond a limited time period.

In the years since I began my incarceration, I have witnessed rampant violations of all of these rules at just a couple facilities, and my examination of the document has only just begun. By advocating for the implementation of these rules, should not we, as a nation, demonstrate at least minimal commitment to the values and principles we’re espousing?

Penal Reform International has expressed its enthusiasm at assisting jurisdictions across the world in implementing these rules. So it is hoped that our criminal justice system will readily ask for such assistance, rather than focussing on how other nations will integrate the rules into their systems.

So when will the United States’ commitment to these values and principles be demonstrated? The Principles, like many important UN conventions, are not legally binding, so of course the US is not legally required to ensure compliance within its borders. But one would help that we would demonstrate at least a moral conviction to these standards while we admonish other states for not doing so.

Certain attendees at the UN Meetings of the Crime Commission have praised the role the US played at the meetings, and certainly there’s little question of the importance of our presence there. Luis E. Arreaga, the US Prinicipal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement proclaimed the US’ support of the rules. Yet should we have to congratulate our representatives for agreeing that humans—including those incarcerated—be treated as such?

Community-based treatment key to reducing juvenile recidivism

A new report from Pew Trusts has revealed that one of the keystones to reducing recidivism amongst young people is broken.

America’s predilection for jailing is having dangerous results for young people and the costs associated with out-of-home placements are not yielding positive results. Juvenile offenders held in correctional facilities are more likely to re-offend than those enrolled in treatment programs or surveillance programs in their own communities.

It stands to reason, given that the same premise holds true with adults: the stronger an inmate’s ties to their community while incarcerated, the less likely they are to re-offend. The importance of education is also reaffirmed for both young offenders and adults. Juveniles in detention are frequently already behind in school prior to incarceration. And with a lack of educational uniformity in facilities across the country, they are likely to fall further behind during their time there, if they stay in school at all (which many of them do not). With fewer opportunities as a result, they are far more likely to reoffend.

The report backs the recent efforts in a number of states (such as Texas, Hawaii, Ohio) to reduce the automatic institutionalization of juveniles and opt for a number of community-based alternatives instead.

The study also indicated high degrees of support for adopting a more rehabilitative approach to juvenile corrections amongst the population. This included the provision supportive mechanisms to improve social, physical and mental well-being. Across all demographics (including law enforcement) there was an extremely high level of support (73-87%) for adopting an approach that focussed on reducing the likelihood of recidivism, rather than being strictly punitive.

It is hoped that this same analytical lens will also be applied to broadening our understanding of adult incarceration as well, as the stakes for everyone remain the same (especially since many who enter the system are mere days out of childhood).


Dehydration Death of North Carolina Prisoner Prompts Investigations, Firings, Resignations

Dehydration Death of North Carolina Prisoner Prompts Investigations, Firings, Resignations

A North Carolina prisoner with a history of mental illness who was found dead in a transport van after being transferred to another prison died due to dehydration, according to the North Carolina Medical Examiner’s Office.

However, the state pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Michael Anthony Kerr, 54, said records provided by the Department of Public Safety were so scanty and incomplete that she was unable to determine whether his death was accidental, a suicide or a homicide.

Prison records indicate that Kerr was held in solitary confinement for 35 days prior to his death and had spent the last five days of his life handcuffed and largely unresponsive. Prison officials repeatedly turned off the water to his cell because he had flooded it, and put him on a diet of milk and nutraloaf. The milk was later ordered withheld.

“They treated him like a dog,” said Kerr’s sister, Brenda Liles.

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Nebraska’s death penalty ban could be a watershed moment for America

By Christopher Zoukis

On May 27th, the Nebraska legislature made the landmark decision to ban the death penalty in the state. A vote by the legislature came down in favour of overturning Governor Pete Rickett’s attempt to veto a ban on capital punishment in the state. And while some may be surprised that the red state has made this determination, it can be better understood as a predictable result of long-term efforts to raise the level of education regarding the practice and its role in modern society. The state has a relatively long history of drafting anti-death penalty legislation, each time failing to come into force due to gubernatorial vetoes, and Conservatives in the most recent debate heartily backing the ban. 

An organization called “Nebraskans for the Death Penalty” have already mounted opposition to the most recent, amassing signatures for a petition demanding a state-wide referendum on the matter. Should the requisite number of signatures be gathered, LB 268 would be suspended until at least 2016, when it would be voted on during the general election. But many believe that such efforts will be moot, as the decision may represent a watershed moment for the nation. The tide does seem to be turning as regards capital punishment, as justifications for its existence in our justice system withers under scrutiny.

Changing sentiments on the punishment may in part be due to the results of organizations like the Innocence Project; in over 40% of the cases they’ve handled, inmates have been found to have been wrongly convicted. So too have a number of botched executions drilled home the “cruel and unusual” element of the practice, and pressed us to ask how its implementation can be justified in a country that has such tortures outlawed in its very constitution. 

Just 36 countries in the world still have the punishment on the books and implement it. And it’s no surprise to those following the debate that the United States finds itself amongst strange bedfellows when it comes to embracing a punishment the rest of the world long ago determined barbaric. Many of our death penalty “allies” are the very countries we’ve been targeting for oppressive and immoral activities like Saudi Arabia, Libya, and the Sudan, to name a few.

Extending beyond the moral arguments into a legal perspective, there remains no justification (if there ever was one) for the practice. The necessity of due process and the number of wrongful convictions that occur on a regular basis ensures that the cost issues associated with the death sentences will remain, so the economic argument remains moot.

Despite the insistence of pundits, the deterrence argument has never passed muster; murder rates consistently tend to be lower in states without the penalty. And the majority of the world’s leading criminologists (88%) share the viewpoint that it fails to deter crime. There is also the tendency for states with the death penalty to be so oriented towards punishment a punishment bias, that they completely ignore the root causes of crime (poverty, marginalization, inequity, etc.). Thus, crime rates may actually increase in those states.

And contrary to Gov. Rickett’s assertions, there is no evidence that it assists law enforcement either; in fact, police are most at risk in states where the death penalty exists.

And so once all the arguments have been debunked (as they have been by hundreds of scholars), all that remains in the justification for the death penalty is predicated on the concept of vengeance, rather than justice. And a society guided by wrath is not one that moves us forward either socially or morally.