Mandatory minimum sentencing: A tragedy of comedic proportions

Just as Obama did with his landmark speech at the NAACP several weeks ago, comedian and host of Last Week TonightJon Oliver has thrust the issue of mandatory minimum sentencing into the spotlight of public discourse. In a segment both critically astute and emotionally wrenching, Oliver demonstrated that comedians are amongst those taking most seriously the devastating toll such policies take on our society as a whole.

Because when the situation has become so bad that reality becomes the basis for almost absurdist comedy, something’s gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Sandra Bland case highlights need for stronger oversight at local level

By Christopher Zoukis

As more troubling details regarding the untimely death of Sandra Bland emerge, it’s clear that being under police custody is becoming an increasingly dangerous place to be. On the heels of the deaths of Freddie Gray and Eric Garner, and following in the tradition of Maricopa County’s trail of deaths, Bland’s experiences both during her arrest and in a Texas jailhouse stand out as yet more examples of both overzealous police aggression and the failure of local jails to ensure the safety and security of those under their care.

Bland’s death was initially ruled a suicide, but her family were vociferous in their opposition to that finding and have called for a secondary autopsy—(particularly important in a country where massive problems exist regarding the qualifications of local medical examiners). The Texas district attorney has since announced they will be treating the death as a murder investigation, and last week jail was decertified for its failure to check in on inmates hourly (and when on suicide watch, every 15 minutes).

Local jails house individuals on a short-term basis (sometimes only hours) for a wide variety of reasons, the bulk of which are for non-violent crimes related to “traffic, property, drug, or public order offenses” and the like. While the prison system houses more individuals on a daily basis, the average number of people who pass through local jails is far higher (600,000 versus 11,700,000, respectively). As such, it’s significant that so little attention is paid to the conditions and policies involved in the operation of these institutions. These numbers present challenges in facilities that are already seriously overburdened.

As of 2010, only three states in the country have an independent local jail inspection body to ensure oversight of their operations (authors of the study note that Department of Corrections oversight should not be considered to be “independent” when the DOC is running said facilities)—numbers hardly in keeping pace with the growing trend towards privatizing prisons. 

As with state and federal prisons, the number of individuals being incarcerated in county and city jails continues to grow disproportionately and with the same over-representation of African Americans, the poor, and the mentally ill. And as with other prisons, these incarcerations at the local jail level are representative of systemic failures to deal with the root causes of either the crimes and/or arrests—the latter being of particular importance in the Bland case. Some states have sought to combat the trend towards detention for minor crimes in order to channel offenders into streams that assist in dealing with addiction or mental health concerns, education, and quality-of-life considerations, or through the use of alternative court systems. But such initiatives remain few and far between, and instead, the trends towards increasing mandatory sentences for minor offences continues. 

There can be little question as to what the end results of an increasingly criminalized society which dehumanizes offenders and allows local officials to run roughshod over human rights: more Sandra Blands, more Freddie Grays, and more Eric Garners. 


Can Obama set the US on the path to prison reform?

By Christopher Zoukis

A few weeks ago I wrote about the passing of a landmark revision to the United Nations’ “Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.” In it, I questioned why the United States, a key player in the revision process, had remained so quiet since the announcement, positing that the silence was in large part due to our complicity in violating dozens of the new standards outlined in the new “Mandela Rules.”

As of last night, the current administration appears prepared to challenge head-on at least one of the commonplace tortures routinely utilized in American prisons covered by the Rules: solitary confinement. (I do not use the term “torture” loosely, nor do the myriad researchers who have looked into the psychological effects of this practice, or the United Nations’ experts on torture.) The President spoke yesterday to the NAACP’s annual convention and stated that he has ordered the Department of Justice to review the use of solitary confinement, however the scope and focus of such an investigation are details yet to be revealed. 

The last time a detailed census of the use of solitary confinement in the country was undertaken, it was revealed that more than 80,000 inmates were confined to “restricted housing.” The DOJ has not released any further confinement data since the study ten years ago, and most critics believe this number dramatically underestimated the scope of the problem.

The contents of this speech appear to be part of his push for a pro-prison reform agenda as he enters the final leg of his presidency as this recent speech came on the heels of commuting the sentences of 46 federal prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes.

In addition to expressing concerns over the practice of solitary confinement Obama expanded the discussion to examining a number other issues related to the “justness” of our criminal justice system. He, just as many of those incarcerated do—myself included—acknowledged that there are individuals who need to be confined for lengthy periods, but that the rates of incarceration, along with mandatory minimum sentencing requirements are not producing the desired outcomes of a more just and productive society. Indeed, in recent days, he has taken to Twitter to cite many of the same statistics I and many others have written about, all of which highlight the counter-productivity of our current criminal justice and prison systems.  

Many critics of such reforms will suggest that we should be focusing instead on improving the conditions of “law-abiding” citizens. Yet what Obama has effectively highlighted is the fact that much of the $80 billion spent on our prisons could be spent on improving those conditions by reducing recidivism and working towards remedying the root causes of poverty and crime.  By targeting mandatory minimum sentencing, he is doing just that. Can anyone really argue that a child is better off having their parent taken away from their family for ten years over a minor drug possession? In whose best interests—other than the prison-industrial complex—is it to keep on forcing more and more prisoners into institutions of confinement?

What the President will achieve in this next year remains to be seen, but as always, the opening up of a dialogue on these issues is the first step in effecting change. But it also remains to be seen if this administration will broach the dozens of other principles outlined in the Mandela Rules that American prisons are actively violating; last night’s proclamations are only addressing the tip of the prisoners’ human rights iceberg.

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?