“You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? That little lake? By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over? Do you happen to know, by any chance?”–Holden Caulfield, in J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
When I teach 1L criminal law, my preference is to focus not on the sensational cases of serious crime, but on the everyday workings of the system: drugs, property, and various quality of life offenses. As it turns out, teaching the principle of legality, vagueness, and other important basic tenets of criminal legislation becomes apropos and important when using the example of anti-homelessness legislation of various stripes. Many criminal law casebooks include Chicago’s ban on loitering and Chicago v. Morales. I like creating a timeline of legislation, showing how cities have consistently tried (and sometimes failed) to find ways to target the poor and get them off the streets. Sit/Lie ordinances are a classic example, as is the latest bout of litigation about this, which involved ordinances that prohibit one from sleeping or living in his or her vehicle.
Just in the nick of time, the CA Legislature has approved the 2014-2014 state budget.
The passed budget contains a few highlights pertinent to the criminal justice system, which can be found in the trailer bill, AB 1468:
- Persons with felony drug offenses will now be eligible for CalFRESH & CalWORKS;
- The budget allocates $2 million for licenses/I.Ds for parolees; and,
- There will be a presumption of split sentencing for realigned offenders.
The final budget bill, SB 852, can be seen here.
I’ve just finished viewing the recently-released new season of Orange is the New Black, which I had awaited with much anticipation since reading Piper Kerman’s book and the first season. It was everything I hoped for and more, and the storylines were engaging and fantastic. And, even taking into account what we all already know–that TV series aim to entertain and have to compete in the ratings arena–this season’s plotlines highlight some important prison issues that the public may not be aware of and offers an intelligent, critical look at them.
Let the spoilers begin!
This season’s episodes are drawing attention to two populations of inmates that have previously been in the dark to the public: the old and the infirm. It’s easy for the public to imagine the typical prisoner as a young black male, and the statistics on prison population confirm the overrepresentation of such inmates, but that ignores the growing aging population in prison and the special problems they pose. As life-course criminology shows, people tend to age out of street crime as a natural transition to adulthood, and lengthy incarceration beyond those periods, particularly for nonviolent, nonsexual offenses, therefore raises serious questions.
In Cheap on Crime, I talk about the rise in attention of correctional authorities to the old and the infirm, modifying Feeley and Simon’s risk-based actuarial justice to a cost/risk equation. That is, recession-era politics look not only at the risk an individual poses, but also at the cost of his or her incarceration. Orange is the New Black raises these hard questions through the stories of older and infirm inmates these season, focusing on two in particular: Sister Jane Ingalls, an excommunicated, politically active nun incarcerated for chaining herself in place at a nuclear weapons base during a political protest, and Rosa Cisneros, a former professional bank robber now undergoing chemotherapy for an aggressive cancer.
Sister Ingalls, friends with a group of older inmates, witnesses the painful “compassionate release” of a fellow inmate with Alzheimer’s, shocked at the fact that no plans are made to care for the inmate after dumping her on the street. This sad and shocking fact reflects the weakness of many similar “compassionate release” programs designed to save money on care of the elderly without thinking about support following their release. Horrified by the prison authorities’ indifference to the plight of an old, frail, sick inmate, Sister Ingalls embarks on a hunger strike. For a while, she sits on the sidelines of a group of inmates organizing a hunger strike for various issues, and eventually, she remains the lone hunger striker after other inmates are placated with some minor concessions.
Notably, some of the serious issues raised in the context of the hunger strike mirror events from the recent Pelican Bay hunger strike. One of the demands of the strikers in the series was to clarify the administrative policies behind sending inmates to the SHU. Of course, in Orange is the New Black, we only see the SHU being used as a punitive, disciplinary mechanism, rather than as a vague, indefinite status for suspected gang members, as is the case in Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and elsewhere. Nonetheless, we get to see the impact of a month in the SHU on two inmates: Chapman and Watson, both of whom are deeply traumatized by their stay in solitary confinement. The other important issue raised in the series is force feeding of Sister Ingalls – shown as an unpleasant process through IV and raising problematic ethical questions. As some readers may recall, Judge Henderson’s order to allow force feeding of inmates effectively ended the Pelican Bay strike, and more or less around the same time the world was shocked by rapper Mos Def’s demo of force feeding in Guantanamo.
Rosa Cisneros’ chemotherapy treatments also confront the viewers with the liminal place between inmate and patient. The series pays careful attention to Rosa’s transportation in and from prison; to her shackling and unshackling moments at the doctor’s office; and to a teenaged fellow cancer patient’s confusion about her prison uniform, thinking it’s merely “old lady chemo clothes.” Rosa bonds with the teenager through stories of her history as a professional bank robber, which we see in flashback, reminding us that a bald, ill woman was once a vibrant, energetic adolescent involved in daring criminal enterprises. The last scene of the season sees Rosa transform once more, as she “goes with a bang” into her younger, energetic self, daring and transgressing one more time. But before that glorious, powerful end, we see a scene far less dramatic but equally moving: Rosa sits in Healy’s office, where she receives the news that the Department of Corrections will not fund surgery for her, which essentially dooms her to an ineffective chemo course and to an early grave. She receives these news, as well as the news of having three more weeks to leave, in serenity and acceptance. “Talk to me,” she says to the doctor, “like you would talk to someone you like.”
Last but not least, in one of the comical scenes, the inmates are treated to a “mock job fair”, which starts with a jovial dress-up and fashion show, and continues with mock interviews with, of all people, the representative of Philip Morris (“because who else would employ former inmates?”)
Everything about this bullshit so-called rehabilitation program screams the need for useful, realistic, evidence-based vocational training. The inmates are dressing up and interviewing for positions they have no hopes of receiving after their release. The program becomes mere entertainment, a spectacle, a mockery of reality-show-type contests, and does not provide any useful skills for the outside world. When Taystee, the only inmate who seems to take the job fair seriously, asks the Assistant Warden whether the “winner” of the job interview will actually receive a real job, she is mocked and offered a $10 addition to her commissary funds. The warden’s mockery implies that the rehabilitative programming is never seriously meant to rehabilitate, which reflects much of the unsuccessful prison programming that led Robert Martinson to conclude that “nothing works.”
As an aside, the recession may have changed this by prompting states to reduce their recidivism rates to save money. I’ve just received word that the Council on State Governments’ Justice Center will be releasing a report tomorrow, timed to an event on Capitol Hill, showing 6%-18% decline in recidivism rates in eight states, due to conscious efforts to invest in effective rehabilitation and reentry programming. The humorous scene in Orange is the New Black is a reminder of how time served can be effectively used, or completely wasted, depending on the thoughtfulness and genuine motivation of correctional authorities.
What are your favorite moments, characters, and issues, from Season 2?
Dear blog readers – I have good news to share: My book, Cheap on Crime: Recession-Era Politics and the Transformation of American Punishment, has entered the production stage at the University of California Press, and will be available Feb. 2015!
Since the book idea sprang from this very blog, many of you may find it of interest. The book takes a broad look (nationwide, but with a focus on California) at developments in the American correctional landscape since the Great Recession of 2008 and sets out to understand the effect the recession, and recession-era politics and rhetoric, have had on penal policies.
The book relies on two theoretical foundations: critical Marxist social history, which predicts that hard times lead to more public punitiveness aimed at the lower rungs of stratified society, and public choice economics, which predict that during economic downtimes we’ll only punish as much as we can afford. These two bodies of literature seldom speak directly to each other, but when read together they actually allow us to make sense of much of the punishment policies and practices we’ve seen in the last six years. The book identifies a new recessionary logic, humonetarianism, which allows politicians, lawmakers, public and private officials of all stripes to justify a retreat from the punitive policies that started in the Nixon era by calling for financial prudence and austerity. The book analyzes four components of humonetarianism: Scarcity-related rhetoric, the ability to generate bipartisanism and bring together strange bedfellows, new practices constrained by a leaner market, and new approaches toward inmates as burdens and service consumers. It also looks at the price we pay for advancing policies through cost rhetoric, makes some suggestions to social justice advocates, and tries to predict which, if any, of the changes we are making will remain in place when the economy improves.
I will be giving two talks about the book on professional panels in San Francisco this summer. The first talk will be at the Society for the Study of Social Problems and will focus on new perceptions of inmates.
When: Saturday, August 16, 12:30-2:10
Where: San Francisco Marriott Marquis, Room Foothill D
Panel topic: Punishment and Culture
When: Tuesday, August 19, 12:30-2:10
Where: San Francisco, either at the Hilton or at the Parc55 Wyndham (exact location TBA)
Panel Topic: Law in Hard Times: Economic Inequality and the Law
Publication events next spring will include a special book party at UC Hastings and an event at San Jose State University’s Ann Lucas Lecture Series. There will be author-meets-reader events in various professional conferences and more book-related events – watch this space!
Please contact me if you’d like to host an event/book club/book party in the Bay Area, California, and Beyond, in early 2015.
Yesterday, SB 1010 passed in the California Senate, and it is on its way to the Assembly. The purpose of the bill is to eliminate all disparity between the sentences for possession with intent to sell of crack and powder cocaine, by reducing the sentence for the former from 3, 4, or 5 years, to 2, 3, or 4 years. It also eliminates the differences in quantities (a 1:2 ratio in California) between the two drugs for a variety of manufacturing offenses and mandatory prison sentences.
For those unfamiliar with California sentencing, we do not have a sentencing commission. Our sentences are meted out by the legislature, and felony sentencing follows a “triad” of offenses. After Cunningham v. California (part of the Apprendi line of cases), the judge can pick any of the three sentences (but nothing above, below, or in between).
The passage of SB 1010 is a reminder of how much the zeitgeist has changed. Four District Attorneys–in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, and San Francisco–are supporting the proposition. In a few short years, the crack/cocaine disparity has lost favor fairly dramatically.
That the disparity is proxy for racial discrimination is now a commonly held perspective (see here and here), but it is not a wall-to-wall consensus. There are still commentators who believe that the addictive power per molecule justifies a disparity, and others who attribute the rise in urban crime in the 1990s to the crack epidemic. As many readers know, the Obama administration reduced the federal disparity from 100:1 to 18:1. With public climate about crack sentencing considerably altered since the 1990s, I think we can expect SB 1010 to pass in the Assembly in August and reach Governor Brown’s desk soon.
cross-posted to PrawfsBlawg.
The most recent news are from June 2: U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken granted the lawsuit class action status. The L.A. Times reports:
“We pose a fundamental question: Is it constitutional to hold someone in solitary confinement for over a decade,” said Alexis Agathocleous, staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.
The class action motion was filed by 10 Pelican Bay inmates in solitary confinement, but California has since moved five of them to other quarters. Wilken’s order allows the remaining five prisoners to represent the larger class of some 500 Pelican Bay prisoners who have spent more than a decade in isolation, and some 1,100 put into solitary because of alleged gang associations.
Many of the inmates named in the suit also were organizers of a lengthy statewide prison hunger strike last summer.
Wilken refused to allow the state prison guard union to intervene in the lawsuit. The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. had argued that it had an interest in protecting the safety of its members by preventing prisoners from leaving solitary confinement.
We will keep following up on the lawsuit and reporting on its progress.
cross-posted with some changes at Prawfs Blawg.
This coming October, the Hastings Women’s Law Journal will hold a special symposium on family and reproduction in prison, which is incredibly timely. Several important stories from the last few years have raised serious concerns about the correctional authorities’ responsibility for women’s health, pregnancy, and birth in prison.
First, as you may recall, there were efforts to restrict the notorious and common practice of having incarcerated women give birth while shackled. It’s fairly obvious why this is an extremely barbaric practice, and this ACLU report adds some important details.
And just a couple of days ago, this was in the news. Nicole Guerrero, a pregnant inmate in Texas’ custody, was placed in a solitary cell, repeatedly begging for help as her water broke and she was in labor, her cries for care ignored by the guards. Guerrero’s baby died, and the chronology that led to this horrific tragedy includes a nurse who works for a private healthcare contractor. Guerrero is pursuing a §1983 lawsuit against the prison.
There’s hardly anything I can say about this truly horrible incident and the cruelty that led to it that won’t trivialize it, and the basic facts behind it do not seem to be in dispute. My only additional thought about this has to do with the fact that Guerrero’s tragedy occurred in a public setting–a Texas state prison–but one of the people whose behavior was questionable worked for a private healthcare provider. I think we need to problematize the distinction often made by progressive commentators between state institutions and private providers’ institutions. At this point, and in the context of a neoliberal, hypercapitalist economy, it makes a lot less difference who runs the correctional facility overall than these commentaries would suggest. Many functions within state prisons–utilities, phones, cantine services, food, transportation, health care–are partially or completely privatized, as was health care in the institution in which Guerrero was held. Moreover, state actors are behaving like private actors in the market, and many of the corruption scandals and human rights crimes we saw in the last few years–such as Alabama’s Sheriff Bartlett’s profiteering off his wards’ starvation and former Philadelphia Judge Mark Ciavarella essentially selling juveniles to a private contractor for kickbacks–involved public actors. Private prison companies have not cornered the market on cruelty, stinginess, and indifference to human suffering. And wherever a wicked contract is signed, one party tends to be a public actor.
The only answer to this that I can think of is regulation that carefully examines which actors play which roles in exploiting human suffering for profit. Only recently, AB 1876 prohibited the common practice by which sheriffs received kickbacks from phone providers to give them the contract for prison phone services. There are probably ways for sheriffs to bypass this, and we will have to stay fairly attentive to those, but the bottom line is that the lines between the public and the private are so blurred in this economy that maligning “private prisons” misses the point. All actors in these dramas of human cruelty and profiteering–the state included–are acting in a laissez-faire, capitalist market, responding to market pressures, and trying to get ahead; all actors are vulnerable to the sort of indifferent, dehumanizing mentality that seems to have produced the tragedy that happened to Guerrero; and all actors, private and public alike, should be carefully watched and monitored by those who do not want to see more cruelty.
Cross-posted on Prawfs Blawg.