Category Archives: Prison Reform

New laws that may have escaped your notice in 2014

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Which pieces of new legislation did you miss last year? BY SIOBHAN WEARE PUBLISHED 5 JANUARY, 2015 – 12:31

Every year thousands of new laws are introduced. Some of these are well publicised and debated, such as the recent changes to the rules on pornography, but others slip under the radar. Many are quite important though, and affect all kinds of people.

Here are just five of the laws introduced in 2014 that you may have missed. You might find they affect you after all.

dog leash law

Tighter leash

On May 13, changes to the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act came into force, in response to a number of high profile cases of dogs attacking children.

It’s now a criminal offence for the person in charge of a dog or its owner to allow it to be dangerously out of control in a public place. Section three has also been amended to make incidents that occur on private property a criminal offence too. That includes both the dog owner’s home and garden and someone else’s home.

Still to come are bigger fines for owners who fail to prevent dog attacks and compulsory micro-chipping from 2016.

Continue reading New laws that may have escaped your notice in 2014

Some of the things that happened during the US Midterm elections last week were not so bad?

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California Voters Helped Kick Off the Prison Boom. They Just Took a Huge Step Toward Ending It.

California’s anti-mass incarceration ballot initiative is already changing kids’ lives

Washington Voters Just Passed the Gun Law Congress Couldn’t

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The Other Midterm Elections Result: Americans Want Legal Weed

Not so sure on this one

18-Year-Old Wins State Legislature Seat in West Virginia

A bit of a mixed bag – hard for the bears..

On Booze, Weed, Backyard Fracking, and Trapping Bears With Donuts, America Has Spoken

My immediate thoughts on the elections were

Dark Money, Voter Restrictions and widespread Gerrymandering – how the Republican’s fixed the US Midterm Elections

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Americas history of locking up young black’s and and of shooting them goes back almost to the Civil Rights era

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America’s fortress of blood: The death of George Jackson and the birth of the prison-industrial complex – In 1971, activist George Jackson was mysteriously killed in San Quentin prison — a tragedy repeated time and again DAN BERGER SUNDAY, SEP 7, 2014 11:59 AM +0100

A young black man gunned down by law enforcement. His body is then left outside for four hours. The shocking gore of the situation sparks countless protests around the country calling for an end to racism. Meanwhile, popular attention to the incident prompts investigations into the young man killed, leading some critics to suggest that his working-class background and alleged criminal activities somehow make his death justifiable.

It is not the last month in Ferguson, Missouri. It is not Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Roshad McIntosh or any of the other unarmed black men killed by police in recent weeks — though it could be. It is San Quentin, California, in the year 1971. His name was George Jackson. Though more than four decades have gone by since he was killed, his life and death signal the ways in which this country’s macabre routine of police violence against young black men and women has become institutionalized throughout the criminal justice system.

With Jackson, as with the others, the deaths marked not just the tragic end of a young life but also the bizarre beginnings of speculation about the character of the deceased. Jackson, an activist and bestselling author, was killed at California’s San Quentin prison on Aug. 21, 1971, by two guards who fired down at him as he ran toward the wall surrounding the prison after a 30-minute takeover of a solitary confinement unit. Unlike the unarmed youth killed by police, Jackson did have a gun on him when he was killed. Yet the circumstances surrounding his death remain mysterious, including how he managed to get his hands on a gun. How he managed to acquire it in the confines of what was then one of California’s toughest prisons remains a mystery, especially since authorities kept changing their story about the caliber of the gun and its origins. Was it smuggled in or did he wrest it from a guard who was about to kill him?

One thing is clear: Jackson’s intransigence and the open-ended questions that surround his death make him a relevant figure in the age of mass incarceration and rampant police violence. His place in history has been secured largely according to one’s political perspective. To some he is a martyr of political injustice, like Sacco and Vanzetti a half-century before him. Every year, thousands of college students meet George Jackson as an author, someone whose raw eloquence captures the prison experience like few others. And to others, Jackson is an exaggerated bad guy, famous for being infamous and a hustler to the end.

Depending on your outlook, Jackson is some combination of these. But he is also something else: a specter haunting the American criminal justice system, a trenchant critic even from the grave. Whether as boogeyman, hero or martyr, George Jackson remains prominent in prison America. Indeed, if the 1953 execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was the dystopic expression of Cold War anxieties, the 1971 killing of George Jackson marked the onset of a new era of mass incarceration and the hyper-policing that sustains it.

Continue reading Americas history of locking up young black’s and and of shooting them goes back almost to the Civil Rights era

Decaying Guantánamo Defies Closing Plans (Long Read)

Guantanamo-Bay-007By CHARLIE SAVAGE SEPT. 1, 2014

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba — One sweltering afternoon last month, a Boeing C-17 military transport plane arrived at the American naval base here. It had come to take six low-level detainees to new lives in Uruguay after 12 years of imprisonment.

Days before, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. had called Uruguay’s president, José Mujica, pressing him to resettle the men. The foreign leader had offered to accept the detainees last January, but by the time the United States was ready for the transfer this summer, Mr. Mujica was worried that it would be politically risky to follow through because of coming elections in his country, according to Obama administration officials.

After four days of frantic negotiations between the two governments as the plane sat on the tarmac, the C-17 flew away without its intended passengers.

Although President Obama pledged last year to revive his efforts to close Guantánamo, his administration has managed to free just one low-level prisoner this year, leaving 79 who are approved for transfer to other countries. It has also not persuaded Congress to lift its ban on moving the remaining 70 higher-level detainees to a prison inside the United States.

“It’s a long way from being closed,” said Gen. John F. Kelly, the leader of the United States Southern Command, which oversees Joint Task Force Guantánamo. “Obviously the president is trying hard, he’s got people trying hard to get countries to take them, but at the end of the day, it’s going to take congressional action” to repeal the transfer ban.

More than 12 years after the Bush administration sent the first prisoners here, tensions are mounting over whether Mr. Obama can close the prison before leaving office, according to interviews with two dozen administration, congressional and military officials. A split is emerging between State Department officials, who appear eager to move toward Mr. Obama’s goal, and some Pentagon officials, who say they share that ambition but seem warier than their counterparts about releasing low-level detainees.

Legal pressures are also building as the war in Afghanistan approaches its official end, and the judiciary grows uncomfortable with the military’s practice of force-feeding hunger strikers. And military officials here, faced with decaying infrastructure and aging inmates, are taking steps they say are necessary to keep Guantánamo operating — but may also help institutionalize it.

Parts of the wartime penal colony, intended to keep detainees only temporarily, are fraying. The unit that houses the most notorious detainees is built on unstable ground — a floor is described as buckling — and will need replacement for any long-term use. In the kitchen building, temperatures soar to 110 degrees at midday, steel supports are corroded, and workers must cover dry goods with plastic tarps during storms because of a leaky roof. In the troops’ quarters, some guards are required to live six to a small shack, with poor ventilation and no attached bathrooms.

The quality of the medical facilities has also raised concerns because Congress has prohibited sending even critically ill detainees to the United States. After Latin American countries declined to take a detainee if an emergency arises, Pentagon lawyers concluded that it was lawful not to evacuate a prisoner for urgent medical treatment, according to an internal Pentagon document acquired by The New York Times in a Freedom of Information lawsuit.

To better prepare for a medical crisis, the military has instead ordered specialized doctors to be prepared on short notice to fly in with equipment. Still, there are limits to what medical personnel can do without quick access to sophisticated hospital resources.

Mr. Obama has argued that Guantánamo should be closed because of its high costs, nearly $3 million per detainee annually, and because it endangers national security; it has become an anti-American symbol of past torture and other detainee abuses. Extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, who beheaded an American reporter in Syria last month, exploited those sentiments by forcing him to wear orange clothing like the garb worn by some Guantánamo’s detainees.

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Continue reading Decaying Guantánamo Defies Closing Plans (Long Read)

The New Jim Crow – How the War on Drugs gave birth to a permanent American undercaste (Long Read)

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The New Jim Crow – How the War on Drugs gave birth to a permanent American undercaste.By Michelle Alexander Mon Mar. 8, 2010 3:15 PM EST

Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, pledging to serve the United States as its 44th president, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race.” Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America.

Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality. There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.

Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.

Most people don’t like it when I say this. It makes them angry. In the “era of colorblindness” there’s a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have “moved beyond” race. Here are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative:

*There are more African Americans under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

*As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.

*If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste—not class, caste—permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

Excuses for the Lockdown

There is, of course, a colorblind explanation for all this: crime rates. Our prison population has exploded from about 300,000 to more than 2 million in a few short decades, it is said, because of rampant crime. We’re told that the reason so many black and brown men find themselves behind bars and ushered into a permanent, second-class status is because they happen to be the bad guys.

The uncomfortable truth, however, is that crime rates do not explain the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African Americans during the past 30 years. Crime rates have fluctuated over the last few decades—they are currently are at historical lows—but imprisonment rates have consistently soared. Quintupled, in fact. And the vast majority of that increase is due to the War on Drugs. Drug offenses alone account for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population, and more than half of the increase in the state prison population.

The drug war has been brutal—complete with SWAT teams, tanks, bazookas, grenade launchers, and sweeps of entire neighborhoods—but those who live in white communities have little clue to the devastation wrought. This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. In fact, some studies indicate that white youth are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youth.Any notion that drug use among African Americans is more severe or dangerous is belied by the data. White youth, for example, have about three times the number of drug-related visits to the emergency room as their African American counterparts.

That is not what you would guess, though, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, overflowing as they are with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, African Americans comprise 80%-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison.

This is the point at which I am typically interrupted and reminded that black men have higher rates of violent crime. That’s why the drug war is waged in poor communities of color and not middle-class suburbs. Drug warriors are trying to get rid of those drug kingpins and violent offenders who make ghetto communities a living hell. It has nothing to do with race; it’s all about violent crime.

Again, not so. President Ronald Reagan officially declared the current drug war in 1982, when drug crime was declining, not rising. From the outset, the war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics. The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing, and affirmative action. In the words of H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff: “[T]he whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

A few years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city communities. The Reagan administration seized on this development with glee, hiring staff who were to be responsible for publicizing inner-city crack babies, crack mothers, crack whores, and drug-related violence. The goal was to make inner-city crack abuse and violence a media sensation, bolstering public support for the drug war which, it was hoped, would lead Congress to devote millions of dollars in additional funding to it.

The plan worked like a charm. For more than a decade, black drug dealers and users would be regulars in newspaper stories and would saturate the evening TV news. Congress and state legislatures nationwide would devote billions of dollars to the drug war and pass harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes—sentences longer than murderers receive in many countries.

Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove that they could be even tougher on the dark-skinned pariahs. In President Bill Clinton’s boastful words, “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.” The facts bear him out. Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies resulted in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. But Clinton was not satisfied with exploding prison populations. He and the “New Democrats” championed legislation banning drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offense) and denying them basic public benefits, including food stamps, for life. Discrimination in virtually every aspect of political, economic, and social life is now perfectly legal, if you’ve been labeled a felon.

Facing Facts

But what about all those violent criminals and drug kingpins? Isn’t the drug war waged in ghetto communities because that’s where the violent offenders can be found? The answer is yes… in made-for-TV movies. In real life, the answer is no.

The drug war has never been focused on rooting out drug kingpins or violent offenders. Federal funding flows to those agencies that increase dramatically the volume of drug arrests, not the agencies most successful in bringing down the bosses. What gets rewarded in this war is sheer numbers of drug arrests. To make matters worse, federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement agencies to keep for their own use 80% of the cash, cars, and homes seized from drug suspects, thus granting law enforcement a direct monetary interest in the profitability of the drug market.

The results have been predictable: people of color rounded up en masse for relatively minor, non-violent drug offenses. In 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, only one out of five for sales. Most people in state prison have no history of violence or even of significant selling activity. In fact, during the 1990s—the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war—nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession, a drug generally considered less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and at least as prevalent in middle-class white communities as in the inner city.

In this way, a new racial undercaste has been created in an astonishingly short period of time—a new Jim Crow system. Millions of people of color are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for.

Affirmative action, though, has put a happy face on this racial reality. Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and become CEOs or corporate lawyers—not to mention president of the United States—causes us all to marvel at what a long way we’ve come.

Recent data shows, though, that much of black progress is a myth. In many respects, African Americans are doing no better than they were when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and uprisings swept inner cities across America. Nearly a quarter of African Americans live below the poverty line today, approximately the same percentage as in 1968. The black child poverty rate is actually higher now than it was then. Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in Third World countries. And that’s with affirmative action!

When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our “colorblind” society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political, and economic structure—the structure of racial caste. The entrance into this new caste system can be found at the prison gate.

This is not Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. This is not the promised land. The cyclical rebirth of caste in America is a recurring racial nightmare.

Original Article

This was undoubtedly the most depressing book I have read for some years. It is a searing indictment of the system and makes a powerful case – it’s just that its such a sad case that reflects poorly on a country that seems to be doing little to put things right. 

Facts and Figures on Incarceration in America

‘Darkness at Noon’ – more from Inside America’s truly scary prisons (Long Read)

Its fair to say that I’m not a fan of America’s Prison System, Not least because I begin to see aspects of this part of ‘the American Way’ in our judicial system in the UK and that scares me.

I’ll list some of my previous blog posts on the subject below.

My blog posts highlight only some aspects of the system and are not an attempt to be definitive on this subject, but there were 2 of these posts which were triggered by things that really seemed to me to be incredibly cruel and Inhuman. The first is the post listed at the bottom of the page about the governors of several Southern States  refusing to sign up (at the cost of penalties to their state) to a process set up by George Bush to reduce Rape in Prison.

The one that seemed to me in some ways the worst was not in a southern state at all it was a long article by one of the US hikers imprisoned in Iran for 2 years. He was shown round California’s notorious SHU’s (Solitary Confinement units) and when the guard proudly invited him to praise their system over the Iranian one he found it very hard to decide what to say.

This is that article – its a long read but worth it.

Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons (Long Read)

Below is a second article by a different author about the same prison system but more than 2 years on. There has been a huge Hunger strike and promises of change but little has really happened and things may be about to take a turn for the worst

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A New Provision Threatens California Inmates’ First Amendment Rights – A year after the hunger strike, some things have improved, but some things have gotten worse By Jessica Pishko in ‘New Republic’ JULY 13, 2014

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the Pelican Bay hunger strike, the largest hunger strike in U.S. history. Beginning in the Security Housing Units—more popularly known as the “SHU”—at Pelican Bay, one of California’s most remote and formidable prisons, the strike eventually included over 30,000 inmates in 33 prisons. The protest was officially suspended last fall when the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) agreed to hold public hearings on some of the strikers’ core demands: the end of prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement, expanded privileges for SHU inmates, and changes to the CDCR’s gang-validation policy. But now, in the guise of further reform, the CDCR is poised to pass a major limitation of inmates’ first amendment rights.

Following the hunger strike, CDCR did attempt to address some of the concerns of the strikers. Most notably, they offered public hearings on changes in SHU policy and the release of some inmates from the SHU via the “Step Down” program. The CDCR also took action to further address complaints related to gang affiliation. Once an inmate has been labeled a gang associate, he may be held, sometimes indefinitely, in the SHU. Todd Ashker, for example, one of the leaders of the 2013 hunger strike, has been held in the SHU for over 23 years based on his alleged affiliation with the Aryan Brotherhood. (The CDCR’s latest report indicates that, as of February 2014, 2,832 inmates are considered gang affiliates, and Pelican Bay houses many more gang affiliates than any other California prison—over 1,000.) New rules proposed by the CDCR in 2012 provide for a gradual return of privileges if an inmate refrains from gang activity. Additional hearings were held in February regarding further proposed changes to the determination of gang affiliation.

But the CDCR’s anxiety over gangs has also resulted in a dramatic new proposal: a reform of the specific provisions of the California Code of Regulations that apply to “obscene” materials. Obscene materials could be pornography, but could also include “written material or photographs that indicate an association with a validated member or associate of a Security Threat Group,” according to the proposal. (The CDCR calls gangs “Security Threat Groups” or “STG.”) Such materials, the proposal states, indicate “an association with groups that are oppositional to authority and society.” Individuals possessing these types of written materials would be punished, which may include incarceration in SHU or other segregated housing. A legally required public hearing was held on June 17, but the CDCR has not responded to any objections.

This definition of obscene materials is so wide that it might include an article from The New York Times or the or the San Francisco Bay View, which serves a primarily African American community and counts several inmates among its regular contributors, including Mutope Duguma, who has been held in the SHU for decades. According to the Bay View’s editor, Mary Ratcliff, more than 500 inmates currently receive the publication. The rule could also serve as a tool to censor inmate-run publications like San Quentin News. Because the CDCR has insisted that the Pelican Bay hunger strike was the result of gang activity, any material concerning the strike might be prohibited under this new rule. Bryan Cave, an attorney for the San Francisco Bay View, submitted a letter to the CDCR as part of the public hearing for the proposal pointing out that the regulations are vague and subject to overreach and misinterpretation. Most notably, the letter points out that the regulations “could serve as a pretext to limit prisoners’ access to informative news publications like the Bay View—publications that enjoy the full protection of the First Amendment.”

In theory, inmates retain the same right to free speech as those on the outside. As Justice O’Connor wrote in Turner v. Safley (1987), “Prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution.” But, in reality, that right is circumscribed. The Court held in Turner that prisoners retain free speech rights so long as they do not interfere with the penological interests of prisons. In other words, the CDCR is permitted to limit inmate speech and access to materials so long as they can demonstrate a penological objective, which is usually “security” and order. In practice, these regulations are always dependent on who is monitoring incoming mail. According to Allen Schlosser at the ACLU, the regulations are not only overly vague, they reflect a mindset that will err on the side of censorship. Jonathan Simon, a professor of law at Berkeley who has written extensively about the California prison systems says, “The logic of the regulation is potentially sweeping. Virtually any writing associated with the Black power movement of the 1960s or the history of Mexico would be subject to banning.” According to Lelia Knox, a First Amendment lawyer, the proposed regulation raises serious concerns about its vagueness.

From the CDCR’s initial statement, it seems they believe that these rules might be a way to curtail the kinds of “disruption” and public scrutiny caused by the 2013 hunger strikes. Throughout the strike, the CDCR asserted that the strikes were simply the acts of powerful gang leaders, rather than expression of political dissent. By limiting access to written materials that may be critical of its policies, the CDCR gives itself the ability to clamp down on interactions between the press and inmates. The CDCR did not respond to inquiries for this article except to say that the regulations have not yet been finalized.

These new regulations emphasize the state of emergency in California’s prisons, despite whatever concessions were made to prisoner concerns in the past year. Cutting off inmates’ access to information will, most likely, simply radicalize them more—it’s hard to imagine someone remaining compliant when they are confined to a solitary cell for 23 hours a day with little to no contact with the outside world. Information, for California’s inmates, may soon no longer be a means to educate, inform, or discuss; instead it is primarily a danger. And that is dangerous to us all.

Original Article

Governors of US Southern States say they wont act to prevent Rape in their prisons…..Who Votes for these guys????.

What Happens if you keep on electing politicians on a ‘Law and Order’ Ticket

Another reason to be horrified by America’s out of control prison system

I’m also reading this which is so depressing I can only take it in short doses. The author puts forward the observation – based on first hand experience of the Judiciary – that the ‘War On Drugs’ has been used to ‘warehouse’ a poor and mostly black section of the population, and then when they are released the Law is used to take away their rights in ways that are reminiscent of the ‘Jim Crow’ laws from America’s racially segregated  past.

The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

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Oh and Yes the title is a partial reference to one of my favourite books by Arthur Koestler.