Hunger Strike Resumes on July 8

The hunger strike over conditions in SHU units in California resumes on July 8. Those who have been following this blog during the previous hunger strike may remember that, in March 2012, CDCR released new regulations in SHU units. The conditions have drawn the attention of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, and a torture expert from the United Nations. And, various organizations in California have reignited the fight against solitary confinement under the banner Stop Torture CA.  My former student Azadeh Zohrabi and current students Courtney Oxsen and Ashley Toles are among those spearheading this campaign, and my colleague and former student Caitlin Henry does important and valuable work on prison visits and organizing.

For those only now joining the bandwagon, a new piece on the hunger strike coalition website explains why the new policies amount to torture. Among other things, the guilt-by-association piece remains alive and well, and new definitions expand what would be considered as a “gang” for solitary confinement purposes.

We will provide updates on the hunger strike as its beginning date approaches and wish success and good health to the strikers, many of whom are elderly and frail.

Three Federal Judges to Jerry: Comply Immediately

Yesterday, a three-judge panel tired of the state’s evasion maneuvers ordered the Governor to comply with the original Plata mandate. The Sac Bee reports:

In a sharp rebuke of Gov. Jerry Brown, the judges said the state must take immediate steps to release inmates toward compliance with the panel’s 2009 order that the prison population be reduced to 137.5 percent of capacity, an order the U.S. Supreme Court later adopted.

“The history of this litigation is of defendants’ repeated failure to take the necessary steps to remedy the constitutional violations in its prison system,” the panel wrote in a scathing 51-page order and opinion that demands the state immediately slash inmate levels or face a contempt citation.

“We are compelled to enforce the Federal Constitution and to enforce the constitutional rights of all persons, including prisoners,” the panel wrote in an order that left no doubt the judges believe the state has intentionally defied its previous orders.

The latest one essentially requires the state to cut its inmate population by nearly 10,000 inmates by the end of the year, and to take steps to ensure that the count will not jump back above the 137.5 percent level.

On other occasions, we’ve discussed the court’s patience with the state and explained why it might seem a preferable course of action to get as much as possible accomplished consensually. But it seems that the court’s patience has worn thin.

Interestingly, the original Plata decisions did not explicitly require a release, and neither does this one. Realignment-related measures could be taken to increase capacity. 

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Props to Simon Grivet for the link.

Happy Father’s Day to Incarcerated Dads

Every Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, the Get on the Bus project brings children to visit parents in prison. This laudable initiative should draw our attention to the fact that, for all other days in the year, many children still have incarcerated parents.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has issued a special report on parenthood behind bars. The findings are fairly grim; as many as 60% of fathers in prison do not have contact with their children. The racial distribution is distressing as well, and means that entire communities lack the experience of regular father-child contact.

Sesame Street’s Little Children, Big Challenges, has stepped up to the plate and created a kit for children of incarcerated parents. This report includes various clips from the program. And while, as Time Magazine reminds us, the show cannot fight mass incarceration in its entirety, it is a small and important step toward acknowledging mass incarceration as an experience affecting a large number of American children.

Riverside Jail Sends Inmates to Fire Camps

Image courtesy prisontalk.com.

This Wednesday, Riverside County Jail became the first county institution to send inmates to California’s fire camps, in which state prisoners help put out fires. Richard de Atley of P.E. bloggers reports:

The 20 inmates were sent Wednesday, June 5 to the CDCR’s Sierra Conservation Camp training facility, in Jamestown. CDCR has agreed to place the trained county inmates in Riverside County fire camps, whenever possible.

. . .

County Supervisors in April approved a Sheriff’s Department proposal to supply county inmates to the fire camp program. More inmates will be sent every two weeks until the program reaches capacity of 200 Riverside County inmates at any time during the next five years.

Riverside County’s five jails have been at capacity shortly after realignment began. More than 10,000 inmates have been released early due to realignment, jail officials have said.

. . .

Riverside County will pay $46.19 daily per inmate. The funds were set aside from realignment money controlled by the Community Corrections Partnership, a joint local agency that includes the probation, sheriff, mental health department and district attorney and public defender’s offices.

Riverside County’s fire camps are located in Norco and Hemet. The county also maintains the Oak Glen camp, located in northern Riverside County inside the San Bernardino National Forest in the San Gorgonio Mountain Range, according to the Riverside County Fire Department’s web site.

In addition to helping fight wildfires, inmate camp members do public road maintenance and community service work.


For readers unfamiliar with California’s fire camps, I highly recommend Philip Goodman’s work (exhibit A, exhibit B). Not only do the fire camps alleviate prison overcrowding, they provide a much-needed public service. As an interesting aside, the strict racial divisions within the institutions blur when inmates work side by side on life-saving work.

Obtaining a job as a fireman after release from prison, however, may be tricky, as the fire departments run thorough background checks.

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Props to Caitlin Henry for the blog link.

Federal vs. State Prison Conditions

Yesterday’s afternoon saw a story by Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic about recent scandals of inmate abuse and neglect in four states.

First, on May 22, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department released a report highlighting the unconstitutional conditions of a county prison in Florida. Then, on May 30th, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit alleging atrocious conditions at a state prison in Mississippi. One day later, the feds again sounded out on behalf of inmates, this time against profound abuse and neglect at a Pennsylvania prison. Finally, last week, a federal judge issued an order describing the unconstitutional “brutality” of the prison in Orleans Parish, Louisiana.

There were many common themes in the reports. In each instance, the mistreatment of mentally ill inmates was highlighted. Prison officials have failed to provide a constitutional level of care in virtually every respect, from providing medication and treatment to protecting the men from committing suicide. In the Louisiana court order, one prison expert is quoted by the judge as describing an “extraordinary and horrific” situation with the prison there. In the Florida investigation, federal investigators noted that local prison officials “have elected to ignore obvious and serious systemic deficiencies” in the jail’s mental health services.

Cohen asks why federal authorities are not investigating similar abuses occurring in federal institutions. I think it may be easier for the feds to investigate and regulate state institutions than their own. And yet, lawsuits regarding abuse in federal institutions are constantly filed, such as here and here. This USA Today story, written from the perspective of white collar criminals, suggests that, while federal institutions are safer, some state institutions offer benefits such as visits. The differences in conditions may have much to do with the population in both institutions, which differs according to type of offense, as seen from the BJS pie charts above.

The bottom line is that it is very difficult to make generalizations on the differences between systems when there are so many institutions. The variation in conditions within each system may be greater than the difference between the systems. And, therefore, Cohen’s point that the abuses in some of them closely resemble those in state institutions is well taken.

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Props to Heather Kelly and to Ben Fleury-Steiner for the link.

Death Penalty in Limbo

On June 7th, Richard Ramirez, otherwise known as the Night Stalker, became the 85th inmate to die of natural causes while on San Quentin’s Death Row. Many Californians still remember his string of heinous crimes committed in Southern California and beyond in the 1980s. A disturbed teen turned serial killer, Ramirez brutally murdered and abused many innocent people, mutilating the bodies, and expressing no remorse for his horrific deeds. If there ever were anyone deserving of the death penalty, it would be Ramirez.
Like his 84 predecessors, Ramirez maximized the usage of his appellate rights. He was still litigating well into the late 2000s, and his numerous appeals were exhausted only a short while before a DNA match linked him to yet one more brutal murder from the 1980s.
Regardless of one’s ideological stance on capital punishment, Ramirez’s death is a sad illustration of the extent to which the death penalty in California is stuck in limbo and broken beyond repair. The litigation efforts in recent years have not focused on the grand questions of the morality of state-sanctioned executions, racial discrimination and deterrence. Instead, courts have, for years, “tinkered with the machinery of death”, and litigation has focused on increasingly technical minutiae of execution protocols, such as the availability and effect of different chemicals used in executions.
The latest installment in death penalty litigation is a case in point. Earlier this week, the 1st District Court of Appeals affirmed a Marin court decision that effectively put the death penalty in California on hold again. The reason: The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) did not satisfy the administrative requirements to properly notify the public of various aspects of its recently amended three-drug protocol. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Baze v. Rees (2008) established that three-drug executions did not violate the Eighth Amendment, but CDCR’s protocols preceded the decision and therefore could not rely on it. In the decision, Justice Anthony Kline wrote that the information CDCR provided to the public exhibited numerous inaccuracies and did not include proper discussion of alternatives to the three-drug method or of the protocol’s costs.
While the public certainly needs to be informed of how its tax dollars are spent in the correctional arena, one cannot read the decision without thinking whether our conversation about the death penalty shouldn’t be deeper and more substantive. Searching for a humane method for putting people to death is, by definition, a fairly futile effort, and incessant discussions of this nature, which have become, by necessity, the bread and butter of death penalty litigation, are missing the bigger picture. Capital punishment lawyers and judges may have no choice but to pore over these technical details, but we, as a society of voters and policy makers, owe ourselves and our fellow Californians a better conversation.
Proponents of the death penalty may bemoan the days in which the condemned were summarily executed in the town square without appeals, habeas proceedings, or quibbling over drug protocols. But those days are over, and given the current political climate in the state, they will probably not return; a recent effort by the California District Attorneys’ Association to push for simplified capital litigation with less post-conviction relief has failed. What we know about the incidence of wrongful convictions is a frightening warning sign to anyone who might want to turn time backwards and streamline the execution process. Experts estimate that up to 5 percent of all convictions may be wrongful, and the prospect of an irreversible punishment should be disturbing to anyone who cares about justice, regardless of political affiliation.
Since the lengthy and expensive appellate process is here to stay, it is time for Californians to ask themselves the same good questions that the people of New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, New York and New Jersey have asked themselves since the onset of the financial crisis: Are the benefits of the death penalty, in terms of retribution and deterrence, worth the hassle and expense?
One such good question might be how the families of Ramirez’s numerous victims feel in the wake of his natural death. For some, an execution might have brought closure and relief; others perhaps would consider the thirty-year wait to no avail an excruciating ordeal and a waste of state resources. A recent study of California violent crime victims, conducted by Californians for Safety and Justice, confirms the solid research according to which crime victims are not more punitive than non-victims. The study, albeit limited by response rates, found low-income people and people of color to be disproportionately represented in the victim group. Victims surveyed in the study tended to view incarceration as futile and to prefer investment in rehabilitation and drug programs. It well may be that some victims are underserved by waiting for a cathartic event that may or may never happen, and that the interminable wait (necessitated by the concern over wrongful convictions) does some families more harm than good.
Another such good question would be whether our legitimate desire for retribution–especially justified in cases like Ramirez’s–is making us confuse fact with fantasy. Perhaps the death penalty as some would want it to be would provide proper retribution; the death penalty as administered in California today does not.
And finally, the question of effective deterrence via capital punishment, which was at the forefront of the conversation in the mid-1970s, has been relegated to the provenance of small handful of economists still studying it. The American Law Institute withdrew its support of the death penalty in 2010, finding no strong evidence for deterrence, and a 2012 report from the National Research council concluded that “research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide rates is not useful in determining whether the death penalty increases, decreases, or has no effect on these rates.” Unfortunately, violent crime will probably never completely disappear, and people like Ramirez will again perpetuate unspeakable crimes. Whether they do so despite, or because, of capital punishment or its absence is, and will always, remain unclear.
Our hearts weep for the many victims of Ramirez’s cruelty, and that of other perpetrators of vicious crimes. Let us punish these people properly, soundly, and economically, by sentencing them to life without parole, and give up on the hollow hopes of a death penalty that is anything but.

Are Crime Victims Punitive?

Research on punitiveness consistently teaches us that, surprisingly, being a crime victim does not make one more punitive. Incidents like today’s death of notorious serial killer Richard Ramirez of natural causes on San Quentin’s Death Row raises the issue of what victims expect from the criminal justice system, and what provides them closure and relief.

It is timely, therefore, to read Californians for Safety and Justice’s recent report on crime victims in California. Here, for your convenience, are the key findings:

The findings are not unrelated to each other. It is unsurprising that violent crime disproportionately victimizes low income people and people of color. And it is also unsurprising that this is the same population that is affected by mass incarceration. Their views on the value of incarceration are pessimistic, and they are unsurprisingly more likely to hope for justice that works.

The victim advocacy groups that popped up in the mid-1990 to steer California law in a punitive direction represented, for the most part, white, middle-class people who lost family members to violent crime. This group of victims did not experience the devastation that mass incarceration wreaks on low-income communities and communities of color, and they do not speak for the majority of crime victims in the state.

Each victim responds to a violent crime experience in a unique and personal way. For some, lengthy incarceration terms and the death penalty are a relief and a method of closure. For others, they are a waste of money that does not make their personal tragedy a catalyst for world improvement. Before speaking for them, let’s keep in mind what they say when they are allowed to speak with their own voices.

UPDATE: The Chron has picked up the story.

Richard Ramirez becomes 85th Death Row Inmate to Die of Natural Causes

Richard Ramirez, whose horrific crimes terrified residents of Southern California and beyond in the 1980s, died in San Quentin’s Death Row today of natural causes. The AP reports:

Ramirez, 53, had been taken from San Quentin’s death row to a hospital where authorities said he died of liver failure.

He had been housed on death row for decades and was awaiting execution, even though it has been years since anyone has been put to death in California.

At his first court appearance, Ramirez raised a hand with a pentagram drawn on it and yelled, “Hail, Satan.”

His marathon trial, which ended in 1989, was a horror show in which jurors heard about one victim’s eyes being gouged out and another’s head being nearly severed. Courtroom observers wept when survivors of some of the attacks testified.

Ramirez was convicted of 13 murders that terrorized Southern California in 1984 and 1985 as well as charges of rape, sodomy, oral copulation, burglary and attempted murder.

This makes Ramirez the 85th inmate to die of natural causes on Death Row in San Quentin. By comparison, since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 2006, only 13 inmates were executed. Earlier this week I explained on CBS-5 news that the death penalty in California has become, essentially, a very expensive version of life without parole.

My heart aches today for the families of Ramirez’s many victims, some of whom may have waited and hoped to see him executed. We may disagree about the substantive issue of the merits of the death penalty, but if anyone was deserving of such a cruel fate, it was Ramirez. But since we cannot, in modernity, deliver the promise of swift death without risking the execution of innocents (the new developments in Florida raise serious concerns about the prospect of mistakes), maybe it’s time to settle, as closure, for what we’re doing anyway: Life without parole, without expensive incarceration conditions in a dilapidated, outdated facility, and without endless and costly state-funded appellate litigation.