Two More Years to Reduce Overcrowding: A Tide in the Affairs of California's Prison System?

By Christopher Zoukis

In February, the State of California secured yet another extension to the date by which it must comply with the U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce overcrowding in its state prisons.  Prior to the February 10, 2014 ruling, the deadline for reductions in prison overcrowding was set for April, but in the latest decision, three federal judges gave the state an additional two years to comply.

California's prison population is second only to Texas.  Between 2000 and 2010 the inmate population was relatively stable, with a 2010 population of 165,062, or 0.44% of the state's population, an increase of just 1.3% since 2000.  Long-running lawsuits against overcrowding, particularly from inmates with serious medical or mental health conditions, forced a reduction.  In 2010, the prison population fell by 9.4% to 149,569, but overcrowding remains a serious problem.  California state prisons are currently 44% over the listed capacity.

The state's increasingly harsh sentencing laws are a significant part of the problem, but despite long sentences and often miserable prison conditions, California's recidivism rate is much higher than the national average.  Roughly 60% of released prisoners are back behind bars within three years, compared to 44% nationally.  Nor has the current strategy resulted in safer communities.  Data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice for 2011 show that although rates for some crimes are below the national average (13% lower for burglary, 20% lower for larceny/theft, and 24% lower for forcible rape), for other rates, California significantly exceeded those for the nation as a whole: violent crimes are 6.4% higher, robbery 27% higher, and motor vehicle thefts a whopping 70% higher.  Given the dire state of California's public finances and the clear failure of the prison system, it shouldn't require a court order to persuade the state to re-think its strategy.

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Transgender Prisoner's Right to Sex Reassignment Surgery Upheld

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By Christopher Zoukis

Prison officials must provide sex reassignment surgery to a prisoner serving a sentence of life without parole, if that treatment is deemed "medically necessary," said the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit on January 17, 2014.

Michelle Kosilek, a Massachusetts prisoner confined at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution Norfolk, sued Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC) officials in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts after they denied Kosilek's request for sex reassignment surgery.  Born anatomically male, the former Robert Kosilek changed her name to Michelle and began pursuing treatment for gender identity disorder after being arrested in 1990 for the murder of Kosilek's wife, Cheryl McCaul.  Kosilek was convicted of first degree murder in Bristol Count (MA) Superior Court in 1992 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Kosilek's much publicized quest for sex reassignment surgery began in the 1990s and continued in an epic journey through federal court proceedings before Honorable Mark L. Wolf, United States District Judge for the District of Massachusetts, that began in 2002 and stretched on through September, 2012.

In his 2012 order that criticized corrections officials as disingenuous and deliberately obstructing Kosilek's constitutional rights for political reasons and personal distaste for transgender prisoners, Judge Wolf ordered the DOC to provide Kosilek with the sex reassignment surgery she sought, and that had been prescribed by the DOC's own medical experts.

Kosilek had previously successfully sued for provision of female hormones and other gender-oriented treatment and items, but the 2012 order addressed Kosilek's contention that sex reassignment surgery was medically necessary due to Kosilek's "severe" gender identity disorder, which did not abate despite years of lesser treatment.

Upon the Commonwealth's appeal to the First Circuit, Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson authored the opinion for a 2-1 majority, and found that the DOC was violating Kosilek's rights under the Eighth Amendment's "cruel and unusual punishment clause," by acting with "deliberate indifference" to her "serious medical need."  While acknowledging that the United States Supreme Court has ruled security concerns and legitimate penological interests are best left to the wisdom of prison officials, there is a base standard of medical care that must be respected.  "We are assuredly mindful of the difficult tasks faced by prison officials every day.  But as the Supreme Court has cautioned, while sensibility and deference to those tasks is warranted," courts "nevertheless must not shrink from their obligation to enforce the constitutional rights of 'all persons,' including prisoners . . . receiving medically necessary treatment is one of those rights, even if that treatment strikes some as odd or unorthodox."

In upholding the district court's order that Kosilek be given sex reassignment surgery forthwith, the First Circuit noted that sex reassignment surgery has been an accepted treatment "since at least the 1950s," and that such surgery was an integral part of "widely accepted, published standards" in several cases like Kosilek's.  The court rejected the Commonwealth's "security concerns" about such a surgery as "patently unrealistic," and that there was evidence that other claimed concerns were "bogus or at least overblown."  As such, the court agreed with Judge Wolf that the DOC refused to meet Kosilek's serious medical need for surgery "for pretextual reasons unsupported by legitimate penological considerations."

No timetable has been given for Kosilek's surgery, the planning for which the DOC was ordered to pursue pending appeal.  Kosilek's case is the third in recent years in which a federal court of appeals, which answer only to the Supreme Court, has ruled in favor of transgender prisoners seeking surgery or challenging statutes designed to deny them medical care.  In 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, widely viewed as conservative, ordered a lower court to allow a Virginia transgender prisoner, Ophelia De'Lonta, to sue for sex reassignment surgery.  In 2011, the Seventh Circuit struck down a Wisconsin law that prohibited hormone treatment for transgender prisoners.

A Peek Into the Prison System: Personal Ruminations

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By Dianne Frazee-Walker

It was a typical summer evening in the small Rocky Mountain town of Salida, Colorado.  I was taking my routine walk down F Street with my dogs, Kia Ya and Mickey. Final destination --- the Arkansas River for some stick throwing and a dip in the river to cool off the pooches.

Kia Ya is a 5-year-old, 75 lb. Flat Coat Retriever, shelter dog and Mickey is what the Vet terms a Navajo Retriever. I picked-up Mickey behind a McDonald’s on the Navajo Indian Reservation and that’s why I appropriately call her Mickey.

Even though Mickey is going on 2-years-old, she is still puppy-like. She spots a squirrel in the park and goes for it leash and all. I chased Mickey all the way to the other side of the park before I finally caught her.

As I was exiting the park with both dogs in hand I noticed a police officer slowdown in his patrol car. With a southern drawl, he sarcastically yelled out the window, “Can’t you read that sign?”

It was dusk, so the sign was barely visible, but being a 16-year local, I am aware of what the sign says.

My blood was curdled by the tone of the police officer’s question, but I assertively answered, “Yes, I know what the sign says, my dog got away from me, and so I was getting her out of the park.”  

Salida, Colorado is a popular tourist destination because of the premium rafting and kayaking conditions of the Arkansas River, surrounded by 1,400 foot mountains, perfect for hiking enthusiasts, along with snow skiers during the winter months because of the pristine powder conditions of Monarch Ski Resort, but, unfortunately like many small American towns, Salida isn’t as picture perfect as it looks. 

The town has always been about ten-years behind other progressive Colorado communities. Tourist and newcomers are always puzzled by the “No Dogs Allowed” signs posted at the entrance of all the public parks. However, about 5-years-ago Salida finally acquired a neatly tucked away dog park that anyone unfamiliar with the town would need a GPS to find. In fact, the back of the dog park tee-shirt reads, “Where the heck is the Salida Dog Park?”

The comment “Can’t you read that sign?” would not have been offensive to a five-year-old, who hasn’t learned to read, but I happen to be the citizen who passed the city leash ordinance, founded a non-profit restorative justice program, earned a Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and am earning my Master’s degree so I can make a difference in the tattered state of the prison system.

As small as this little dog violation encounter seems --- it provided me with a personal insight into the prison system. I experienced a miniscule fraction of what inmates run into on a daily basis --- authority figures attempting to dehumanize their captives with bullying, rendering them powerless like a spider caught in a web of defeat.

The entirety of it all makes me ponder:  How transformed would the prison system be if the main objective was to educate as opposed to an egocentric urge to have power over others who are depreciated as subhuman because of their status as offender?         

Accessing Health Care in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

By Christopher Zoukis

America's prison population is, like the general public, aging rapidly.  The wide net cast by the incarceration explosion of the 1980s and 1990s means that the percentage of prisoners needing increased health care has risen dramatically as well.  This is particularly true in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which has always had an older population than the national average, due to the profile of the offenders it prosecutes.

Basic Health Care in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

Every inmate entering the Federal Bureau of Prisons is given a general health screening which includes basic blood tests and a consultation (a psychology screening and a dental exam are also provided).

If the inmate is found to be in a generally healthy state, then further medical care is provided only upon request, with the exception of annual tuberculosis testing, which is mandatory.  On occasion, an inmate may be called in for random HIV and other disease testing programs.  Those deemed generally healthy are directed to use the sick call/triage program to access health care, as explained below.

Chronic Care in Federal Prison

Some inmates enter the Federal Bureau of Prisons with chronic health conditions, or develop them during their incarceration.  For these inmates, they are assigned a "care level" commensurate with the care required.  They will be seen regularly and monitored accordingly.

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Speak Up For Hope

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By Dianne Frazee-Walker

On the fateful day, October 24, 1999, Carol Kent was awakened by a phone call that changed her life forever. Her only child, Jason P. Kent, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Jason was a model citizen, an Annapolis Naval Academy graduate with no prior record.  He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Throughout this difficult time the Kent’s eyes were opened to a world they had no prior knowledge of. The prison system.

Throughout their anguish the Kents discovered how challenging life can be for families of inmates and the needs they have that are demanding to fulfill. The Kents found this population to be one of the most deprived people in society. There are about 2,000 prisons in the United States and over two million inmates, which means there are a lot of family members who are in desperate need of support.

Carol and Gene embraced a painful situation and redeemed it into an advocacy for families of prisoners.

The Kents were guided to start a non-profit organization that addresses the needs of families who have loved ones behind bars in conjunction with other organizations. Carol and her husband Gene had the insight to understand that one organization cannot possibly meet all of the needs families of prison inmates face.  

Speak up for Hope is a non-profit, faith based organization whose vision is to help inmates and their families adjust to what the Kents now deem as “new normal”.

Their vision is to provide hope to inmates and their families through encouragement and resources.

Speak up for Hope provides needed materials for education, electronic gear, greeting cards, and sports equipment for inmates. Education consisting of faith based support, relationship, parenting, money management, and communication skills. Innovative ideas for visiting rooms, such as coloring books and crayons for children, games, and cards. Jump Start Bags for newly released inmates and Boxes of Hope for Women Ministries.

Counseling, mentoring for leading small groups, and workbooks are available for inmates and their families to help them cope with their situation.

Carol Kent shares her family’s life altering story in her book, When I Lay My Isaac Down and has followed up with A New Kind of Normal.

When I Lay My Isaac Down was written during the grieving period of the Kent’s ordeal and A New Kind of Normal was written during the rebound stage of their life. Writing is Carol’s method of processing grief. The purpose of both books is to provide others in similar situations the opportunity to find hope. A New Kind of Normal is filled with stories to help readers make hope-filled choices during times much more challenging than the dream they once had for their future.

Unquenchable is Carol’s most recent book, which she wrote to share with her readers how staying in faith even during rough times can help one to discover purpose, joy and hope.

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Carol Kent talks about her new book -- Unquenchable, published by Zondervan.