Monday, July 23, 2012

Prisoner Re-entry Programs Need Serious Attention

To:  The Washington Post
From: John Horejsi, SALT Coordinator
Dear Editor,
As a member of Governor McDonnell’s Prisoner Re-Entry Council, I am very disappointed in the lack of progress that has been made in his efforts to help prepare prisoners for returning to society after serving their terms. Many of us were delighted when we thought his initial efforts with respect to re-entry, definitely enlightened efforts, would return prisoners to society safely, ready to resume their citizenship and their place in their families.
Instead, today, all we hear about is the continued disgraceful treatment of prisoners, often subject to solitary confinement, with nothing done to make them ready for returning to society. Governor McDonnell surely knows we have large numbers living their sentences in solitary confinement. Has the governor been ignoring his original re-entry initiative for political reasons? Regardless of his reasons, there are no good economic or humane reasons for not following through on his original commitment to safely return prisoners to society after they have served their terms.
Virginia’s incarceration policies currently have more to do with vengeance than with justice, more to do with punishment than rehabilitation and safely returning offenders to their communities. The governor is aware, I am sure, that states are re-visiting three-strike laws and other tough mandatory minimum sentencing laws, particularly for low-level crimes.
The “tough-on-crime” philosophy, the way it has played out here, is also very tough on taxpayers and fiscally irresponsible. We pay over $20,000 per year per prisoner to incarcerate people who should be out making a living, supporting their families, and paying taxes. We have prisons in Virginia sitting empty because they were built during the tough on crime era, which was done more for enhancing political positions of people running for higher office than responding in a rational way to what was needed.
Governor McDonnell needs to consider:
  • a program to get non-violent prisoners out of prison after serving some appropriate time;
  • set up a realistic program to get prisoners trained to come back into society, starting with the day they become incarcerated; and
  • work with their families to keep the formerly incarcerated integrated into their communities.
John Horejsi, SALT Coordinator

Here’s the link to an op-ed by Bill Mefford about Senator Durbin’s hearing and Virginia’s use of solitary confinement that NRCAT’s press firm placed in the Virginia-Pilot:
Justice considers whether to investigate Red Onion prison
Virginia lawmakers finally got an answer from the Justice Department on whether it will investigate the practice of solitary confinement at state prisons

Red Onion State Prison in Wise County, Va. (David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP)
But it wasn’t exactly what they wanted to hear.
Destroying the soul
Solitary confinement in prison is barbaric and should be ended.
By Colin Dayan, Published: July 5The Washington Post
Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren professor in the humanities at Vanderbilt University and the author of "The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons."
We as a nation are guilty of the most horrific treatment of prisoners in the civilized world. In March, 400 prisoners in California's Security Housing Units, as well as a number of prisoners' rights organizations, petitioned the United Nations asking for help. Since then, the Center for Constitutional Rights has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of prisoners at California's Pelican Bay State Prison who have each spent between 10 and 28 years in solitary confinement. A class-action suit in Arizona challenges inadequate medical and mental health care that subjects prisoners to injury, amputation, disfigurement and death — especially in prolonged solitary confinement.
Supermax detention is the harshest weapon in the U.S. punitive armory. Once, solitary confinement affected few prisoners for relatively short periods. Today, most prisoners can expect to face solitary, for longer periods and under conditions that make old-time solitary seem almost attractive. The contemporary state-of-the-art supermax is a clean, well-lighted place. There is no
This is not the "hole" portrayed in movies. As a sign of professionalism and advanced technology, extreme isolation and sensory deprivation constitute the "treatment" in these units. Supermaxes modify inmates' spatial and temporal framework, severely damaging their sense of themselves: a terrible violence against the spirit and a betrayal of our constitutional and moral responsibilities.
More than a decade ago, I began visiting the "Special Management Units" at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Eyman in Florence. I completed a series of interviews in an attempt to understand this new version of solitary confinement. Prisoners there are locked alone in their cells for 23 hours a day. Their food is delivered through a slot in the door of their 80-square-foot cell. They stare at unpainted concrete walls onto which nothing can be put. They look through doors of perforated steel, what one officer described to me as "irregular-shaped Swiss cheese." Except for the occasional touch of a guard's hand as they are handcuffed and chained when they leave their cells, they have no contact with another human being.
In this condition of enforced idleness, prisoners are not eligible for vocational programs. They have no educational opportunities; books and newspapers are severely limited; post and telephone communication virtually nonexistent. Locked in their cells for as many as 161 of the 168 hours in a week, they spend most of the brief time out of their cells in shackles, with perhaps as much as eight minutes to shower. An empty exercise room — a high-walled cage with a mesh screening overhead, also known as the "dog pen" — is available for "recreation."
These are locales for perpetual incapacitation, where obligations to society, the duties of husband, father or lover are no longer recognized. An inmate wrote me, "People go crazy here in lockdown. People who weren't violent become violent and do strange things. This is a city within a city, another world inside of a larger one where people could care less about what goes on in here. This is an alternate world of hate, pain, and mistreatment."
Situated on 40 acres of desert, Special Management Unit 2 is surrounded by two rings of 20-foot-high fence topped with razor wire, like a nuclear-waste storage facility. During my visits, I learned that those who have not violated prison rules — often jailhouse lawyers or political activists — are placed apart from other prisoners, sometimes for what is claimed to be their own protection; sometimes for what is alleged to be the administrative convenience of prison officials; sometimes for baseless, unproven and generally unprovable claims of gang membership.
We citizens are proud of our history. We are a nation of laws. But what kind of laws? Laws that permit solitary confinement, with cell doors, unit doors and shower doors operated remotely from a control center, with severely limited and often abusive physical contact. Has society's current attention to the death penalty allowed us to forget the gradual destruction of mind and loss of personal dignity in solitary confinement, including such symptoms as hallucinations, paranoia and delusions?
The philosopher Jeremy Bentham came to believe that solitude was "torture in effect." Other 19th-century observers, including Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville, used images of premature burial, the tomb and the shroud to represent the death-in-life of solitary confinement. Some 25,000 inmates are languishing in long-term isolation in America's supermax prisons, with as many as 80,000 more in solitary confinement in other facilities.
A Senate Judiciary Committee panel heard testimony last month on solitary confinement. I hope that someone reminded lawmakers of Justice William Douglas's words nearly 40 years ago: "Prisoners are still `persons.' "
More on this debate:
The Post's View: The harm of solitary confinement in prison
PostScript: Readers respond to solitary confinement and torture
The Post's View: Prisoner isolation is torture, by any name
Anita Kumar: House kills study to reduce solitary confinement in prisons
Justice considers whether to investigate Red Onion prison
Virginia lawmakers finally got an answer from the Justice Department on whether it will investigate the practice of solitary confinement at state prisons

Justice officials wrote in a letter last week that the department will continue to look into the issue at Red Onion State Prison before making a decision.
“The Department is aware of the issue of prisoners in “supermax” facilities, such as Red Onion State Prison,’’ Intergovernmental Liaison Alexa Chappel wrote. “The Special Litigation Section will carefully consider the information you provided, along with other information we have and may receive, to determine whether a pattern of practice investigation of the use of isolation at Red Onion State Prison or the Virginia DOC generally is warranted.’’
Some members of the Virginia General Assembly and human rights groups have asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the use of solitary confinement at Red Onion.
Red Onion, built on a mountain about 400 miles from Richmond, isolates more inmates than any other facility in the state — nearly 500 of the state’s 1,700. Inmates are kept in isolation for disciplinary problems, such as assaulting other prisoners or having drugs, or for protection, officials said.
“I'm delighted the Department of Justice is taking the isolation of prisoners seriously but actions speak louder than words,’’ said Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), who toured the facility and wrote to Justice. “It’s very clear to me that segregating prisoners with serious mental illness for multiple years is a violation of their constitutional rights. I urge Justice to take a more active role in limiting segregation in our nation’s prisons, especially those with a serious mental illness.”
By Anita Kumar | 04:28 PM ET, 07/09/2012
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