I’m attending the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology and finding many of the talks illuminating and refreshing. It could be that the overall quality of work has improved, or that I make better choices about which panels to attend. Either way, this morning I’m following a series of panels about improving indigent representation, and have just come out of a conversation with the folks who run the campaign to End Justice Fees.
Those who followed the report on Ferguson are not strangers to the problem, but the public at large is likely ignorant of the immense (to the tune of billions of dollars!) toll of court fees and warrants. Even to me–who thought nothing would surprise me after learning about pay-to-stay and the resulting lawsuits–some of the details were shocking. The campaign’s website offers a wealth of information on the different things people get charged for: electronic monitoring, probation (yes, you pay for the pleasure of being monitored!), and–much to my horror–legal defense. Remember Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Warren Court case that required states to fund the defense of the indigent? Well, it turns out that, in 42 states, free representation means free for those who pay the fees (three figure amounts that many defendants cannot afford.)
Just like I found out in Cheap on Crime about pay-to-stay schemes, the absurdity of padding the pockets of municipalities and counties by charging the poor, rather than the rich, is in plain evidence. The fees are rarely recouped, resulting in crushing debt that kills the spirit of countless families and does not make up for the deficits. Figuring out the expense of keeping this ridiculous system in place is difficult (I wish someone took this on! I would, but my plate is full), but even though the numbers are elusive, I don’t think it’s outlandish to assume that pursuing lawsuits against hundreds of thousands of people for not paying what, for them, is a lot of money, but for the system is pennies, is not an economically efficient scheme. That this is costly beyond the obvious is evident from yet another horrible data point: in the Alabama Appleseed survey of people with court debt, they found that 38% of respondents had to resort to actually committing a crime in order to be able to pay the court fees (which are sometimes imposed for mere infractions or traffic violations.)
The good folks from End Justice Fees have come to the conclusion that advocacy works better than litigation for eliminating these fees. Here are some of the ground that they’ve made in California, per their website:
CA AB 199 makes the balance of any court-imposed costs assessed prior to July 1, 2022 unenforceable and uncollectible and vacates any portion of a judgment imposing civil assessments charged by traffic courts
Eliminated 17 additional criminal administrative fees and vacated $534 million in outstanding debt (2021).
California’s Families Over Fees Act repealed 23 criminal administrative fees and vacated $16 billion in outstanding debt (2020)
California ended the assessment of new juvenile fees (2017) and discharged outstanding fees (2020)
Ordinance eliminated local criminal administrative fees imposed in San Francisco (2018)
San Francisco made all jail phone calls free for incarcerated people and ended commissary markups (2020)
San Diego eliminated fees for phone calls and video visits (2022)
I’m also happy to report that, per their presentation, we are among the minority of states that do not charge people for their own representation which, under Gideon, indigent folks should pay for free.
The crux of the problem, with litigation, is that Bearden v. Georgia, the case often used to argue against punishing the poor for being poor, requires an investigation of means before incarceration–but the practice in many places is to arrest people for the purpose of assessing their means, which is technically a violation of Bearden but municipalities and courts claim is the only practical way to get ahold of the person.
This strikes me as the sort of initiative that decent people of all political stripes can and should get behind. It should yield the sort of coalitions I covered in Cheap on Crime and bring about more justice on an everyday level without slogans. Want to “dismantle” “abolish” “repeal” “defund” stuff? Here’s a good place to start on the ground and deliver immediate relief to people struggling with financial craziness.
I spent the last week at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in Los Angeles. It’s a conference I rarely attend, because I far prefer intimate workshops to gigantic venues, but I was invited to be a discussant on a panel that interested me greatly titled Paying for Your Time: Economies of Displacement in the Criminal Legal System. Seven years ago, when my book Cheap on Crime came out, I attempted to bring together two literatures that seldom interact: Public choice economics, which predict that economic downturns will lead to decreased punishment capacity and thus to decreased punishment, and Marxist social history, which predicts that economic downturns lead to loss of legitimacy and thus to increased crackdown on, and oppression of, the poor. In Chapter 7 of the book I offer a third prediction: a shift in our perception of the subjects of the criminal justice system from wards of the state to burdens on the state’s budget. This can manifest in both benign and sinister ways. Benign, when our attention is drawn to aging and infirm people in prison and we start seriously consider the utility of their incarceration given the health care expenses involved; sinister, when we decide that the way for such folks to become less burdensome is to regard them as consumers and charge them for the “services” they receive. The three papers on the panel all examined this sinister mechanism and offered grim reminders of how low-level haggling over expenses and hounding people with these outrageous debts can and does ruin lives.
A classic, nefarious aspect of this is pay-to-stay, a scheme by which people are charged for their own incarceration as if they were paying for voluntary lodging. In Cheap on Crime I wryly observed that people in prison and jail don’t really have the funds to pay the exorbitant fees (pay-to-stay in the Riverside jail at the time I wrote the book, for example, amounted to $140 per night; in Fremont, it was $155) and that the next logical conclusion–a lien on their future earnings–would do wonders for their reentry prospects. Unfortunately, it turns out that I was right, and this absurd practice has just become more popular with time. In their paper Insult to Injury, April Fernandes, Brittany Friedman and Gabriela Kirk track the litigation efforts of states who chase people with disabilities after they get out of prison or jail and sue them to receive, in arrears, the “accommodation fees” for their prison stay, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars that these people don’t have. The authors received, through FOIA requests, documentation in many such cases, and they show how physical and mental disabilities further complicate people’s ability to defend themselves against this outrage. In a heartbreaking presentation, they shared handwritten documents by pro-se defendants in these cases, who don’t understand why they are being persecuted and are not entitled to representation in these cases. I’m not surprised; I literally wrote the book about these schemes and I don’t understand either. I still vividly remember how shocked I was when I realized that courts have already examined the constitutionality of pay-to-stay and found it a-ok; seeing the real impact on real people was a shocker, and the futility of the exercise made me wonder whether states weren’t actually losing money on this litigation.
The second paper dealt with another top-down scheme aiming to fill municipal coffers: parking tickets. In a truly ingenious project, Kasey Hendricks and Ruben Ortiz triangulated all the parking tickets written up in the city of Chicago with the traffic regulations, weather reports, you name it, as well as neighborhood demographics and the identity of the ticket issuer (Shaw and McKay, the great criminological mappers of Chicago, would be very proud of this piece.) They discovered that more than 13% of the tickets were erroneous. They also discovered that mistakes in parking enforcement are often a function of the ticket issuer: cops don’t know parking regulations as well as parking officials, and because cops disproportionately write tickets in neighborhoods inhabited by undocumented immigrants, these folks bear the brunt of erroneous enforcement. Because not speaking English, and not wanting to voluntarily embroil oneself with the authorities, are both barriers to contesting tickets, erroneous enforcement proceeds.
The third paper, by Kate O’Neill, Tyler Smith, and Ian Kennedy, examined the extent to which incarceration based on low-level financial obligation and defaults has a gendered dynamic. They investigated which counties in Washington State rely on monetary sanctions such as fines and fees and examined the correlation between this reliance and women’s incarceration. Their reasoning behind this hypothesis (which their data support) is that women disproportionally live in poverty, and that women’s incarceration disproportionally relies on low-level financial violations. The connection between financial violations and incarceration is more complex than this: one driver of family disintegration is the criminalization of failure to pay child support (also a gendered thing) and women also disproportionately find themselves saddled with various financial obligations involving the incarcerated men in their lives, such as dealing with the bail bonds industry. But the question, “is this necessary?” permeated the conversation.
I had many thoughts to offer on these excellent papers, which revolve around three themes. The first, which I called “Blackstone wept,” had to do with the question whether the relatively new distinction between criminal and civil law still holds water in a world full of crimmigration, civil asset forfeiture, and §1983 lawsuits. Finding oneself as a civil defendant in these cases is just as daunting and soul-destroying as being a defendant in a criminal case, with the added complication of having no right to counsel and none of the due process guarantees from criminal procedure. It strengthens my view that the “Civil Gideon” initiative in San Francisco is essential, even as not doing these mean-spirited things in the first place would certainly be better.
My second thought had to do with the decreasing importance of the public-private divide. In a paper that got considerable attention at the time, I questioned the wisdom of focusing critical and reformist energy on the private prison industry, vile as it is. My thinking about this issue was shaped by three eye-opening days that I spent at a public choice economics workshop. While in the belly of that particular beast, I ate and drank at the expense of (I think) the Koch brothers and took in some libertarian perspectives on the government-versus-free-market debacle. I came to realize that the government is shaped by very similar savings-and-greed incentives to the ones of the private sector. To my workshop instructors, this was wonderful, and to me, it was horrible, but it was true nonetheless. Some of the worst atrocities of the prison system have been perpetrated in government facilities; the private prison industry hasn’t cornered the market on scrimping and saving at the expense of a minimal standard of living for its wards. That all these mean, insidious persecutions are perpetrated by local government has strengthened my belief that, if there’s a loophole that allows someone to make a quick buck at the expense of the basic humanity of someone else, it must be immediately closed, regardless of whether the Machiavellian party is a private entrepreneur or a government paper-pusher.
The third thought, and the one that really hits me in the gut, turns back to the utility of these persecutions. I honestly cannot imagine that it is a worthwhile, profitable exercise to hound people with mental disabilities for money they don’t have; to chase after tickets issued to people who do not speak English for nonexisting parking violations; or to pay for the incarceration of women who are not actually endangering public safety because of their failure to pay this or that fee. So what is the point of this cruelty? Or perhaps the cruelty is the point? And if so, it’s another reminder to my rabble-rousing friends that we must cultivate enough love in our hearts for two wars: the long-term dismantle-abolish-defund stuff we’re so fond of talking about, and the actual, short-term, emergency, person-to-person immediate help to combat this awfulness, which from a bird’s-eye view seems like small potatoes but can completely overwhelm and wreck someone’s life.
As an aside, the visit to Los Angeles was glorious, as I got to stay at the Los Angeles Athletic club, where I swam in their spectacular pool (lots of backstroke, so I could gaze at the chandelier!); chat with old and new friends about viewpoint diversity, how to encourage empowerment and resilience in our students, what religion means behind bars, etc.; enjoy the Academy Museum and the majestic Angkor exhibit at the California Science Center; take in jazz near the La Brea Tar Pits; and visit the atelier of one of my favorite designers, Jerry Jacob, the creative genius behind Ito888. I’ll be back, Angelenos!
Good news! AB 2730 (Villapudua) is on its way to the California Senate. The gist of the proposal is:
This bill would would, subject to appropriation by the Legislature, create the California Antirecidivism and Public Safety Act pilot program for the purpose of providing opportunities for job training and work experience to individuals during incarceration to ensure their readiness for employment upon release from incarceration. The bill would require the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to establish and implement a 5-year pilot program under which individuals sentenced to state prison, and scheduled to be released to parole or postrelease community supervision within 2 years, would be eligible to participate. The bill would require the pilot program to provide for the housing of the program participants in a community campus setting. The bill would require program participants to have access to evidence-based programs suitable for serving their rehabilitative, workforce training, and education needs, as specified. The bill would require the department, on or before March 1, 2027, to submit a comprehensive report to the Legislature that evaluates the effectiveness of the pilot program, as specified. The bill would repeal these provisions on January 1, 2028.
The idea is nothing new from a global perspective. As Cal Matters’ Nigel Duara explains, it is inspired by Scandinavian prisons, but I vividly recall working on precisely this sort of thing alongside Israel’s Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I’m not sure how the program works now or how well it is funded, but back in the day the idea was this: ninety days before any incarcerated person was to be released, representatives of the Authority would meet with them and come up with a release plan that involves housing and employment. The Authority partnered with an assortment of diverse entities on the outside–agricultural enterprises in Kibbutzim, Yeshivot looking for students, big construction contractor firms, and lots more–and tailored an employment plan for each person. They made sure the person started receiving orientation and training before being released, and the prospective employers were briefed on how to make people feel welcome. They also sponsored a wide variety of housing initiatives, including subsidized housing that partnered two university students with one formerly incarcerated roommate.
It is also nothing new from an historical perspective. One of the most well-known prison reformers, Alexander Maconochie, was Warden of Norfolk Island (see image above) in the mid-19th century and introduced a points system that rewarded good behavior with gradual freedoms and skill acquisition. He transformed a horrific penal colony into a success story and ended up being a victim of his own success, removed from office by law-and-order folks who didn’t like hearing that the prisoners had toasted the Queen’s birthday with alcohol.
Here are some thoughts on what is and is not in the bill, which is a very general one-pager:
Who is in the program? The bill states that, at least during the five-year pilot period, the participants will be chosen by the warden or his/her designate. The criteria are not specified in the bill. I worry that this means that wardens concerned about optics will exclude long-term prisoners who could most benefit from a good introduction to the outside world.
How long does the program last? It looks like the prison is budgeting for the last two years of one’s sentence,
What else does someone need before they go into the outside world? According to Alessandro de Giorgi’s work–money to survive and a place to live. The main problem people face in the first few months on the outside is abject poverty. And since this program doesn’t provide any extra funding, I wonder how we can accomplish that.
If there’s no money, how can prisons make this happen? While rehabilitative prison programming, which now relies mostly on volunteers, is quite uneven in quality, some programs, such as Alliance for CHANGE, already provide useful, pragmatic training for reentry, including training on how to use smartphones and the Internet, as well as budgeting, managing outside bureaucracy, and the like. CDCR should approach this in a collaborative way, seeking to scale up what is being done in these volunteer programs for the benefit of the whole prison. What this also means is that, if the quality of incarceration has to improve, the quantity has to be decreased, and the best way to do that is to incarcerate fewer people for shorter periods. Presumably, if this program works and its graduates are less likely to get back to committing crime, it should pay for itself.
What about staff/guards? CCPOA has, perhaps surprisingly, lent its support to this project, telling CalMatters that the guards have front-row seats to everything that doesn’t work: programs that have “no correlation to the needs of the communities to which inmates will be released” and housing scenarios that produce “pressures […] from fellow inmates [that] can be too great to keep to the straight and narrow.” They know that “[p]rison politics can often be inescapable when programs and housing are delivered in the same environment as those who have no intention of improving themselves” (and one only wishes they were so enlightened when it was time to get vaccinated.) But I also think that, in separate transitional housing, CDCR should seriously consider hiring, training, and placing differently.
How to assess the success of the project? This is a very tricky issue. If the folks who enter the program are selected by the warden, rather than randomly assigned to the program, then an experiment with randomized experiment and control groups is impossible, and much of the success of the program may rely on self-selection. So, even if the pilot cohort will be successful, this will raise serious questions about the ability to scale this up to the entire prison population. Whoever is doing this evaluation study will have their work cut out for them (I don’t think it’ll be me, but we’ll see.)
What about the politics of this? Will it pass through the Senate? I don’t know. Everything is policitized these days, even things that shouldn’t be. It should be everyone’s goal, from the staunchest law and order fanatic to the bleedingest of progressive hearts, that less recidivism is good for everyone: taxpayers, potential victims, you name it. There is no reason this should get anything less than enthusiastic support from all quarters; the question is only whether the reallocation of CDCR’s budget will be done in a way that sets this up for success.
Back when hadaraviram.com was California Correctional Crisis, I used to offer election endorsements for your consideration, focusing on the criminal justice propositions. This election has offered a grim opportunity to contemplate the probable victory of two seasoned and experienced politicians, whose management of the COVID-19 crisis in prisons has reflected an astounding moral eclipse.
A while ago, I posted an endorsement against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recall. We were all experiencing collective distress over his reluctance to do anything useful to save lives behind bars from COVID. My reasoning was this: the rest of the ballot was a list of egomaniacal clowns with no political experience, many of whom could not even spell their statements. And, as I said there:
I’m not an idiot, and I do understand the concept of the lesser evil. If you are so warped in single-issue agitation that you can’t see the qualitative differences between Newsom–an experienced and capable politician–and the rest of the lot, you need better glasses.
I wrote that post in August. in November, we found out that Newsom, the champion of science-forward, vaccine-forward policies in schools and everywhere else, thinks that unvaccinated guards are a-ok, and goes as far as to support them in their (devastatingly) successful appeal against a vaccine mandate. It was one of the ugliest examples of justice delayed becoming justice denied, can easily be attributed to the fact that the prison guards contributed $1.75 million to his anti-recall campaign, and has disillusioned me. I’ve come a long way from cheering for the then-Mayor of San Francisco who spoke at my 2005 PhD ceremony, and I’m feeling so full of bitterness and bile over the unnecessary loss of life that, this time around, I offer no endorsement for the gubernatorial position. Vote for whoever you want; Newsom will likely win.
The other person to resent is Attorney General Rob Bonta, who is the darling of all the progressive voting guides. Bonta and his employees are the architects of the prison system’s defense against the COVID lawsuits, both regarding San Quentin and more generally in federal court. Their bad-faith in court appearances and representations, ugly games, and shocking lack of regard for human life has soured me on Bonta to the point that I make no endorsement, even though on paper he is the better candidate of the lot and will likely win. I explain my position in detail here. The short version is this: Bonta thinks that he works for us only when he legislates or creates policy, and that when his office litigates, he is the Tom Hagen of the prison guards. That’s an unacceptable perspective for a public servant.
I try not to be a one-issue voter, but having experienced the COVID-19 prison catastrophe up close it is very difficult to justify voting for Newsom and Bonta. Follow your conscience/calculus.
By contrast to these two, one public official shines as a person of profound understanding and conscientious behavior, and that is Phil Ting. I endorsed Phil’s assembly campaign in 2018 and am happy and proud to endorse him again; his conduct during the COVID-19 crisis was nothing short of exemplary. As Chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, Ting presided over a hearing in which, finally, Kathleen Allison was being asked hard questions about her policies and the way CDCR was handling itself. He has also been very sensitive to issues of parole and one of the only politicians with enough guts and public responsibility to realize that long-term aging prisoners are the best release prospects from both a medical and a public safety standpoint. Vote for him again.
There are two criminal justice issues on the ballot. One of them is the ridiculous Prop D, likely thrown into the ballot to add a prong to the Chesa Boudin recall effort by creating the (false!) impression that the D.A.’s office is not responsive to victims’ needs. There is a long tradition in CA of deceiving the voters to believe that there is a need for a victims’ bill of rights and services, when one has existed since 1982 (I explain all this in Chapter 3 of Yesterday’s Monsters.) Just like Marsy’s Law and other deceptive initiative tricks, this is money allocated to no good cause, creating duplicative services that already exist. The Chron is far too gentle on this. Don’t be swindled – vote NO on D.
Finally, speaking of swindling, you already know my position on the Boudin recall effort. There’s a well-oiled, well-funded machine here trying to roll back important reforms, and exploiting people’s exasperation at the misery and turmoil in town, which are NOT Boudin’s fault by a longshot. Don’t be deceived! Vote NO on H.
Today brings a special offering from the Tenth Circuit: Janny v. Gamez exposes (and finds unconstitutional) some religious coercion in reentry programming. The facts:
Mark Janny was released from jail on parole in early 2015. His parole officer, John Gamez, directed Mr. Janny to establish his residence of record at the Rescue Mission in Fort Collins, Colorado, and to abide by its “house rules.” After arriving at the Mission, Mr. Janny learned he had been enrolled in “Steps to Success,” a Christian transitional program involving mandatory prayer, bible study, and church attendance. When Mr. Janny objected, citing his atheist beliefs, he alleges both Officer Gamez and Jim Carmack, the Mission’s director, repeatedly told him he could choose between participating in the Christian programming or returning to jail. Less than a week later, Mr. Carmack expelled Mr. Janny from the Mission for skipping worship services, leading to Mr. Janny’s arrest on a parole violation and the revocation of his parole.
That this offends the First Amendment should be obvious–but apparently wasn’t to the parole officer. And I think it would be a mistake to view this through a narrow prism of preferential treatment for evangelical Christianity. I say this because, in Yesterday’s Monsters, I devoted a considerable amount of the narrative to the way the parole commissioners treated Susan Atkins, Bruce Davis, and Tex Watson, all of whom are born-again Christians. I wrote:
A charismatic, proselytizing religion, characterized by the consistent responsibility to offer ministry to others and draw them closer to a personal relationship with their Savior. Offering testimony in this religious context is surprisingly similar to expressing and performing “insight” before the Board. The act of Christian testimony often includes references to previous life, and maximizing one’s bad acts prior to conversion plays an important rhetorical role in highlighting the magnitude of the transformative experience. It can be analogous to the “I once was blind, but now I see” narrative of insight, with the important distinction that the insight is specifically religious. But for the Board, accepting a religious conversion wholesale is a dangerous proposition. The hearing transcripts of Davis, Watson, and Atkins demonstrate various ways in which the Board is uncomfortable with the role of religion in the inmates’ lives: it is out of the Board’s scripted plan for the inmate; it is insincere; or, it is too sincere for the prison environment.
As I show in the narrative, the Board flunks Susan Atkins for ministering to her fellow inmates (literally a captive audience–but offering testimony is part of the mandates of evangelical Christianity); Bruce Davis for preferring the programs he runs in the prison to the official psychological counseling and for having “replaced Manson with Jesus”; and Tex Watson for bonding with a relative of his victims over their shared faith. So I don’t think what’s going on here is some sort of bias in favor of Christians.
Back in the 1990s, I remember talking to a prison reentry pioneer in Israel who explained that he’d partner with anyone who offered a positive path of redemption: a secular kibbutz, an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, a general contractor offering construction jobs, whoever had something to bring to the table. And I think it’s a great approach–provided that people like Mark Janny, who want their reentry without a side helping of accepting Jesus as their personal savior, have a choice.
This morning I spoke with David Brancaccio of Marketplace Morning Report about the perversions and frustrations of the job market for formerly and currently incarcerated workers. The broadcast version is above – here’s the longer version from Marketplace:
There’s a striking scene in Brett Story’s documentary “The Prison in 12 Landscapes” that captures the complicated and exploitative aspect of rehabilitative prison labor programs: An incarcerated firefighter, explaining how they’re not allowed to talk to others on the job, adds that — because of their criminal record — they have a slim chance of becoming a firefighter upon leaving prison.
It’s an experience that’s common not just for prison firefighters, but for people who work making telemarketing calls, care for elderly or infirm people in prison, and more, according to UC Hastings law professor Hadar Aviram.
“There are many limitations on people working in these occupations, and because of that, the public is unaware of the fact that many of the people that they interact with every day are working as incarcerated people,” Aviram said in an interview with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio.
While there are laws in place to protect formerly incarcerated people from hiring discrimination, Aviram noted that many barriers to employment remain, including the scarcity of rehabilitative work programs and their stringent terms and conditions.
“The programs themselves are very selective, it’s difficult to get into them, not all of them are evidence-based,” Aviram said, “so oftentimes they will train people to do jobs that they can’t actually get on the outside.”
Below is an edited transcript of Brancaccio’s conversation with Aviram on the other jobs prisoners commonly do, the challenges facing formerly incarcerated people who are trying to find work and what Aviram thinks can be done to increase their chances of finding meaningful jobs that take advantage of skills learned while in prison.
David Brancaccio: In this film, we see a California wildfire at first. It turns out that one of those working on the fireline, to keep it from spreading, is a person in prison, in a special prison work program. Would a program like that be common or fairly rare?
Hadar Aviram: Here in California, it’s extremely common. And among the people who saved probably thousands of lives in the last summer, when we had the wildfires, were many, many incarcerated people working as firefighters.
“The range of occupations that people have in prison”
David Brancaccio: It’s interesting, right? Because often people don’t know that, in fact, there’s a ban on people who are incarcerated speaking with members of the public while out there fighting the fire.
Aviram: Yes, there are many limitations on people working in these occupations and, because of that, the public is unaware of the fact that many of the people that they interact with every day are working as incarcerated people. A lot of the customer service on the phone, a lot of the furniture, things that are being manufactured — sweatshirts for dozens of Ivy League universities are made in a prison in Kansas, where people are getting paid 50 cents a day. It’s really astounding, the range of occupations that people have in prison. And I think that firefighting is an especially interesting example, because they are saving lives and they are working shoulder to shoulder with professional, non-incarcerated firefighters. The big irony, of course, is that then they get out and, at least until recently, they couldn’t get a job as firefighters, despite being trained, because they have a criminal record.
When formerly incarcerated people are unable to get jobs
Brancaccio: I mean, that’s the thing. There’s, of course, a move that we’ve spent some time covering on this program to ban employers from, for the first initial part of a job application, asking if you have a criminal record, but employers have a way finding out anyway, or it comes up during the background check.
Aviram: Absolutely. I was one of the big pushers for this kind of, we call it “ban the box” initiatives, to screen people without knowing their criminal record. But, it turns out, colleagues of mine at the Urban Institute did a study and they found out that rather than employers discriminating on the basis of criminal records, they have started discriminating on the basis of race as a proxy for criminal records. So, for example, they’ll get job applications, and they don’t know which of the people have a criminal record, but they will interview the person called “Brad” rather than the person called “Jamal,” under the assumption that they are using this as a proxy for the criminal record that they don’t have an access to. It’s very frustrating, because you’re trying to create equal opportunities for everybody, but these things have such a protean quality that they pop up no matter what kind of protections you introduce in the workplace.
“Oftentimes prisons turn to these work programs because they think they’re going to be rehabilitative or whatever. But for the most part it’s economic considerations of the prison itself.”
Hadar Aviram, UC Hastings law professor
Brancaccio: What do you do about that? I mean, you know, there’s an ongoing national discussion, at some level, about what we’re addressing here. But, in part, when people have worked alongside people that they find out have criminal records, and they see firsthand that they’re like the rest of us, sometimes that can help break down these stereotypes?
Aviram: Absolutely. And this is a truth that has been found in studies all over. I mean, people have done studies, for example, of members of fundamentalist churches that, you know, will be railing against single mothers and gay people, but then they have a gay uncle or a niece who’s a single mom and they love them to bits, and that softens, a little bit, this approach.
And the same thing holds for people with criminal records. I just saw a study done at a college where there was a strong correlation between students who personally knew fellow students who were formerly incarcerated and their opinions about: Would they befriend somebody with a criminal record? Would they be willing to date somebody who had been in prison? So, truly, personal acquaintances and education and exposure is the most important thing that we can do to break down these barriers.
Brancaccio: Back to this notion of labor done by people in prison: When the phone rings at our house, it could be someone who is incarcerated at the other end of the line?
Aviram: Yes, absolutely. This is just one of many, many, many occupations that people engage in in prisons. Phone solicitation, customer service, a lot of manufacturing of everyday items that you wouldn’t even have an idea come from prison. And, of course, a lot of the work inside prisons. I don’t know that a lot of people know this: We have a high population of people who are aging and infirm in prison. And oftentimes the people taking care of them are trained caregivers who are incarcerated themselves. So a lot of the things that we think the state is providing, it’s actually people from inside the prison who are incarcerated themselves who are doing it.
Is prison labor, by definition, exploitative?
Brancaccio: What’s your sense, having studied this — I mean, is it, by definition, prison labor, exploitative? I mean, no one’s paid market rates for that labor.
Aviram: This is a complicated question, because there’s the world that we would want to live in, in which everybody gets minimum wage and in which you are actually trained for the reality of the marketplace. And there’s the realities of the world we’re in, in which prison labor, to different extents, is exploitative, and we therefore try to sort of improve people’s lot within the conditions that they’re in.
We have to keep in mind the fact that, to some extent, prison labor is training people for conditions in the market on the outside. But the problem is that oftentimes prisons turn to these work programs because they think they’re going to be rehabilitative or whatever. But for the most part it’s economic considerations of the prison itself. The programs themselves are very selective, it’s difficult to get into them, not all of them are evidence-based, so oftentimes they will train people to do jobs that they can’t actually get on the outside. Up until recently, the firefighting was one such example, but there are many other examples. The programs that do have occupations where people can work on the outside, like marine technology or carpentry, are highly selective; very, very few people can get in. Overall, a more realistic prospect for people coming out is to become independent contractors and work for themselves.
The kind of work formerly incarcerated people end up doing
Brancaccio: That’s what people end up doing? Working for themselves?
Aviram: Exactly. For example, you’ll find people that are putting together landscaping companies, house work companies. And there are some examples that are really amazing, of nonprofits that people have put on the outside, where they’re working in the marketplace and just doing amazing things. Right next to Hastings, which is where I teach, is a neighborhood called the Tenderloin in San Francisco, which, during the pandemic, became pretty much an open-air drug market — lots of homeless people, lots of misery, mental health, substance abuse, oftentimes people overdosing. And the mayor was upset by this, and a couple of times they sent the police to clean up the neighborhood with everything that stems from that. That was extremely difficult, because there were no solutions for people other than just sort of cleaning up the aesthetics.
And then a nonprofit stepped in called Urban Alchemy. They operate public restrooms, which is incredibly important in these kinds of neighborhoods. They operated safe sleeping sites during COVID. They calmed down violence, they actually revived people with Naloxone who had overdosed multiple times every week. They did amazing things. And what enables them to do this work more effectively and more peacefully than the police, and almost without any show of force, is the fact that they are former lifers, that the people who work at Urban Alchemy acquired these peacemaking and mentoring skills that they use every day on the job in decades in prison. They were elders and mentors on the yard when they were inside, and they retain this kind of calm mentorship role on the outside. And they have done such an amazing job that the change in energy in the neighborhood is palpable.
Brancaccio: Those are special skills that are in demand. It’s a shame that some employers don’t fully recognize this.
Aviram: Exactly. There are many ways in which we look at a criminal record or a previous prison stay as a liability. This is of course difficult, because at any given moment, 1% of the entire population of the United States is incarcerated. So we have a lot of people who actually have acquired skills and strengths where they were that we can use in the marketplace. I’m not just thinking about occupations that are entry-level jobs, I’m thinking even about entry into, say, the California bar, as lawyers. Think about what somebody brings in, coming in with an insider perspective on a criminal justice system, reassuring their clients about what’s going to happen to them, you know, being able to present a realistic perspective. There are so many strengths that you acquire.
One of the most successful programs we have in California is called marine technologies, it’s people who work underwater fixing ships and underwater structures. And this is partly a skill where it’s a great advantage to be used to being in a very overcrowded environment. This is difficult for a lot of people. But people, unfortunately, who spent time in our grossly overcrowded prisons have acquired this skill. This is a market strength that is being undervalued and stigmatized for no good reason.
Brancaccio: I was reading about that marine program. Recidivism, going back to the ways of crime, is near zero for people who’ve gone through that program.
Aviram: Those are good jobs. If you get a job like that, there is no reason for you to commit crime, because you have gainful employment. We have to think more evidence-based about these kinds of programs and strengths in the market and prepare people for that.
Brancaccio: Those programs often can be expensive within the prison. Sometimes when budgets are tight, as you’ve written, that’s the program that gets cut.
Aviram: Exactly. It’s one of the downsides. And this is something that I wrote in my first book “Cheap on Crime,” that we, overall, saw the prison population shrink since 2009. This was a result of the the recession of 2008. But one of the side effects of that that was more sinister was that there were drastic cuts to rehabilitative programming. And that created a big difference, a big gap, between prisons that are set in urban centers, where there’s lots of volunteers and do-gooders that step in and create these programs. Here, for example, in San Quentin [State Prison], we have Silicon Valley entrepreneurs volunteering to teach people the internet, which is very difficult when you don’t have internet behind bars. So we have all of this programming because of the volunteers, because they’re stepping in to fill in the gaps that the state cannot fill. But there are many, many prisons in the United States that are located in these remote, rural locations, very, very difficult to get there, and very difficult to get quality programming that actually prepares people to get good jobs once they get released.
The factual question the court must resolve is whether CDCR acted with deliberate indifference by failing to protect the health and safety of petitioners, who are several hundred members of the San Quentin prison population. The Petitioner’s lawyers–some of them from private law firms, some of them from the Public Defender’s Office, some of them from the First District Appellate Project–will lay out the evidence of the devastation at San Quentin, which ailed thousands of people (more than 75% of the prison population) and killed 28 prisoners and one staff member. An important focal point of the hearing will likely be the OIG’s scathing report from February 1, which details the gross mishandling of the CIM transfer into Quentin (including email screenshots.) There will also be evidence of the lived experience behind bars, which will come from currently and formerly incarcerated witnesses. Given the obvious magnitude of the disaster, it is likely that the Attorney General representatives, who are arguing for CDCR, will focus on the ameliorative steps they took in the aftermath (masks? posters?) and argue that the cumulative effect of their behavior in the crisis falls short of the deliberate indifference standard. They are also likely to argue that, when the contagion broke at Quentin, we knew a lot less than we know now about ventilation (compare to this much newer report by AMEND about conditions at SATF) and that it is unfair to judge their mishandling of the crisis in hindsight.
The last two days featured case management conferences, in which Judge Howard has tried to encourage the parties to cull their presentations so that the hearings can proceed in a timely manner. Part of me wishes that the whole thing were televised, so as to keep a record of what happened in the prison (we will provide such a record in Chapter 3 of #FESTER.) But the hearing is not purely ceremonial–it has real import to real lives in real time–and so, it has to be conducted efficiently.
The first difficulty is that some of petitioners’ witnesses are currently incarcerated. This raises logistical challenges because, apparently, it is complicated to set up functional Zoom rooms in prison, and because West Block is currently under lockdown. The Quentin COVID numbers for today (above) do not betray the cause of this, as there is only one active case, but our records reveal two more cases a couple of weeks ago, so it makes sense that a prison wing is quarantined. In addition, I’m sure petitioners are concerned about retaliation against the witnesses, which adds stress (but also gravitas) to the testimony of those who are going forward. There was some debate today about hesitancy to testify, and the AG representative reminded that witnesses must testify. I trust the judgment of the petitioners’ lawyers in this matter.
The second issue is time. The hearing begins on Thursday and the parties have to prep for that as well as continue negotiating factual stipulations and culling the list of witnesses.
These factors are still significant today, but there are a few additional ones. The population at Quentin tends to be older and serve longer sentences, which means a lot of the people who end up at Quentin are in the process of preparing for parole and resentencing hearings, and to do so, they must rack up rehabilitative programs and chronos (laudatory write-ups) for their dossier. Quentin has a wealth of programming that is unavailable in other facilities (no thanks to CDCR; thanks to the many Bay Area do-gooders who volunteer in prisons.) Shifting people between prisons when there is no medical reason to do so–and there hasn’t been in months–is going to sabotage these releases and ultimately cost more, in terms of health risk and money, than no remedy at all. The only worthwhile remedy to consider would be releases, which has been an uphill battle all along, but which are essential to prevent not only a recurrence of COVID (note that there’s a steady stream of transfers from jails, to the tune of hundreds of people every week,, and that the vaccine uptake rate in jails is abysmal) but also future pandemics.
In short, this is in some important ways not unlike the financial considerations I discussed in Cheap on Crime: We simply cannot afford to lock that many people up, because it is impossible to provide them minimal guarantees of health and safety under these conditions.
I will cover the evidentiary hearing with great interest and concern in my next posts. Tune in tomorrow for new information on vaccination in jails, complete with a review of the lousy, low-quality data obtained from sheriffs, courtesy of the excellent Aparna Komarla of the Davis Vanguard‘s superb project COVID-19 in California Jails and Prisons.
Against this backdrop, the choice to focus now on Ramirez and his heinous crimes is a curious one, and the series does not offer a lot in the sense of narrative or cinematic innovation to justify the subject. The story is told from the perspective of two intelligent and sympathetic LAPD detectives–then-newcomer Gil Carrillo and veteran Frank Salerno–and several retired crime scene technicians, who in four episodes follow through the trail of horrific murders. The still shots from the various murder scenes are enhanced through cinematography that somewhat brings them to life and accompanied by chilling music. Thankfully, at least the victims themselves–both those deceased and those who survived–are portrayed with restraint and respect, and on occasion (albeit not always, which struck me as somewhat distasteful) their relatives comment on their lives, evoking sympathy and humanity. These graceful interview scenes lift the series from a sequence of excessive gore, and I wish there were more of them.
As to Ramirez himself, the show does not delve much into his own mind beyond short, clichéd quotes about the “inherent evil in all human kind” and “Satan [as] a stabilizing presence” displayed between scenes. Having read and watched a lot of the Manson literary and cinematic canon, I think a deliberate choice was made here not to glorify Ramirez in a similar way. At some point, one of the detectives even said that they considered whether Ramirez was a Manson copycat, which strengthens my belief that this approach was carefully considered. The choice not to follow the legacy of Mansonist efforts to delve into the minds of heinous murderers a-la Dahmer, only recently continued with Aquarius and Mindhunter, means the focus of the show is mostly on the police investigation.
But even here, the show’s coverage of the LAPD’s eponymous “hunt” offers some contradictions. Carrillo and Salerno are sympathetic, interesting interviewees; Carrillo’s background is explored in depth, including his early prescient conclusion that seemingly unrelated crimes were perpetrated by the same person. He attributes this insight to a class he had taken, in which Robert Morneau referred to “a deviancy that says, ‘I like to see the frightened look on your face.'” Rather than digging into the motivation, this illuminated Carrillo’s crime scene analyses and explained why the murders were perpetrate in a particular way (i.e., why the killer had waited for the victims to see him, rather than kill them from behind or in their cars.) But at the same time, we get glimpses into what appears to be epic incompetence in interagency collaboration. A golden opportunity to zone in on the killer through a distinctive sneaker shoeprint was wasted, even though only one pair of black sneakers of that brand had been shipped to Los Angeles. Similarly, the opportunity to fingerprint a car that the suspect had touched in the course of a traffic stop was squandered. And amazingly, a clever trap at Ramirez’s dentist’s office did not function. Eventually, Ramirez was caught not by police officers, who allowed him to walk before them unnoticed after his appearance was already well known, but by alert members of the public. The focus on Carrillo and Salerno’s solid crime scene investigation draws attention from the sad conclusion that, had the LAPD had their act together and collaborated, Ramirez would have been caught earlier and lives would have been saved. Having studied the Manson murders in detail, it seems that little was learned since the fiascos of the Tate-LaBianca investigations, which were also characterized by department siloing and insularity (Bugliosi is full of braggadocio about his own heroic role in the case and very eager to throw blame onto the LAPD, but at least in that instance the objective facts seem to support his perspective.)
Even as the focus on audacity, deductive work, and targeted legwork draws attention away from omissions and organizational hurdles, Night Stalker is a reminder of what good policing should be. It is poignant to watch an investigation in the 1980s, with 1980s technology, as the FBI pieces together last week’s insurrection at the Capitol and attempts to track down the perpetrators, a job much easier than Carrillo and Salerno’s because of the plethora of social media evidence and the availability of facial recognition technology. It is also poignant to think about the most recent example of excellence in policing: Capitol police officer Eugene Goodman’s clever, creative, and courageous act of baiting and tricking the mob away from the unguarded door behind which the legislators hid, armed only with a nightstick and facing dozens of angry insurrectionists yelling racial epithets at him. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t think the problem is too little or two much policing; it’s the wrong kind of policing altogether, which relies on crude, humiliating, and ineffective methods like stop-and-frisk at the direct expense of the classic crime solving work features in the Night Stalker. Give me a police force full of Eugene Goodmans, Gil Carrillos, and Frank Salernos, and I’ll be a happy camper. If the show reminds us (and the FBI, and the LAPD) that good policing is valuable and scarce, then it has been a worthwhile endeavor.
Something is rotten in the state of California. Rotten throughout, from top to bottom. In today’s post I juxtapose for you four pieces from the last couple of days, which illuminate just how much trouble we’re in.
Scene 1: The SATF Horror and the Geography of Prison Remoteness
Throughout the summer, the public gaze was laser focused on San Quentin. There was a good reason for this; at 2,239 cases and 29 deaths, the outbreak at Quentin was the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the nation and the worst medical prison disaster in the country’s history. But as has been the case throughout this ordeal, once attention turns somewhere, the government’s or anyone else’s, the virus has already found opportunities elsewhere. By the time the litigation surrounding the Quentin catastrophe matured into an order and started moving toward fashioning remedies, the pestilence metastasized elsewhere–whether through a careless employee or a botched transfer, we won’t know. The CDCR population infection count shows numerous large outbreaks, to the tunes of hundreds of people, in prisons located in rural areas. Jason Fagone’s recent Chron story turns the focus to the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF) in Kings County, the largest prison in the state, which is operating at 128% of capacity. Not only is the outbreak there horrible, and has already claimed lives, but the conduct of prison authorities there seems absolutely appalling:
In just the past two weeks, 713 men in custody at SATF [now 851 – H.A.] have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to CDCR’s web tracker, and as of last week, 150 staff members were infected. Half of the facility’s 4,400 prisoners have caught the virus since August. Three have died.
One day last week, when prison staff tried to move a new man into an empty spot in Meyer’s eight-man cell, he got nervous, he said in an interview via JPay, a prison email service. Days earlier, another man sleeping mere feet away from Meyer had developed COVID-19 symptoms and was removed by staff, and Meyer suspected that his new cellmate might also be infectious. Meyer approached the officers’ station and complained, saying he didn’t want to be housed with a potentially contagious person. That’s when he was handcuffed, Meyer said.
Two days ago I talked with Sam Lewis of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition about the possibility of a vaccine for incarcerated populations, and one of the points he brought up was the proximity of San Quentin to white, wealthy Marin County. I think Sam was right to say that Quentin receives an inordinate amount of attention, but I suspect race and class play into this situation in ways that have more to do with political culture, proximity, and opportunity. Quentin is extremely close to the Bay Area, where all kinds of do-gooders like me have easy daily access to the prison; if there’s no traffic, it takes approximately 35 minutes to drive to Quentin from my house. Given that, for decades, prison programming has been slashed–most recently, this was one of the negative effects of the recession–the availability of a cadre of academics and activists as volunteers produces aricharrayofprogramming (go ahead, click on each link, and I could offer more.) Because parole hearings emphasize programming and encourage people to talk in “programspeak”, and because of the paucity of programming elsewhere in the system, people are desperate to come to Quentin and avail themselves of these opportunities as much as they can if they ever want to be approved for parole.
By contrast, California’s other large prisons are located in rural areas, mostly in poor towns that were persuaded to accept prison siting and become a “company town” because of the promise of jobs. These places are not squeaky wheels, and for Bay Area or Los Angeles do-gooders they are difficult to access. For example, during the Pelican Bay hunger strike, my students had to drive 8-9 hours to visit the strikers, which implies huge barriers for visitors without the means to drive or stay at a hotel. These places are not “squeaky wheels”, and it’s quite difficult to get the programming “grease” there. Also, it means that the voices raising serious concerns about the outrages that happen in these rural prisons are far less amplified by voices of high-profile, concerned progressive politicians.
Scene 2: Inaction Figures
The Chronicle is on a roll, continuing with a hard-hitting, data-intensive piece by Nora Mishanec. Mishanec managed to obtain a demographic breakdown of the thousands of people who were released by CDCR since Newsom promised 8,000 releases by the end of the summer. It’s not summer anymore, of course, and even when the plan was proposed it was already underwhelming–too little, too late, too piecemeal, and too restrictive. I am sorry to say that this sad excuse for pandemic relief played out exactly as I had predicted, and please believe me that I take no pleasure in having been 100% right.
This graphic from the Chron story gives you an idea of who was released and who was not. Take a look at the circle in the top left. The vast majority of people who have been released had only months left on their sentence back in early July. It is now early December, and these folks would have gotten out by now anyway–they just got a wee push on the way out the door to hasten their release. This is something that happens all the time in California prisons, pandemic or no pandemic: every month thousands of people churn in and out of the system, the folks whose sentences have ended to be exchanged for folks coming in from jails (The population reduction here is artificial, and stems from the halt of transfers from jails–but the carceral apparatus as a whole is bursting at the seams, and of course now the jails are seeing their own COVID-19 horrors and are grossly over-capacity. Something’s gotta give, and there are already jail lawsuits.) Only 0.8% of the people who were released were deemed “COVID high-risk medical”, when a full quarter of the population on the eve of the pandemic was people aged 50 and over.
Why, you might wonder, are so few of the people who got released in the over-50 bracket (1,390 out of 7483)? The answer is in the bottom right. People convicted of violent crime who, unsurprisingly, serve longer sentences and, also unsurprisingly, are older because of it, are underrepresented. Those are also the folks at highest risk of contagion and serious complications. But this plan was not designed with public health in mind–it was designed to avoid headlines like “Newsom Releases Murderers, Yikes.” And so here we are.
Scene 3: Insult to Injury
If they’re not laboriously and efficiently going over people’s files and releasing grandparents back to their families, what, pray tell, are state officials busy doing? I’m so glad you asked: The best and brightest at the California Attorney General’s Office are busy not only petitioning the California Supreme Court to review the population reduction order in Von Staich and jamming the wheels on hundreds of habeas petitions, they are petitioning the court to depublish the decision itself. Yes, you heard it right. Dozens dead, tens of thousands infected, and the most pressing order of business is to obliterate from bureaucratic memory that there were compassionate, humane, knowledgeable judges, who recognized a human rights crime when they saw one, and acted accordingly.
You are incredulous? I get it. So was I. Here’s the whole thing for you to read.
What more is there to say about this? At every junction, when the opportunity emerges to do the right thing, these folks are doing the exact opposite. We are going to pay dearly for this concerted cruelty when the time comes to get buy-in for vaccination (that is, if anyone there might ever see prisons for what they are, which is confined, crowded spaces, and actually prioritize “murderers, yikes.” Want to know why it is important to vaccinate? here’s my op-ed in the Chron about this.) By the time the vaccine comes to the prison gate, people will not believe CDCR that it is in their benefit to take it, and while I find this awful and deeply disappointing, I deeply understand where the suspicion and resentment come from.
Scene 4: No Bad Deed Goes Unrewarded
What is going to happen to all these folks, who have worked so hard for months to keep aging, infirm people languishing behind bars, vulnerable to the pandemic? Gosh, I’m so glad you asked, because California’s AG Xavier Becerra, whose signature decorates everything you’ve seen defending CDCR in courts since March, is being tapped for a position in the Biden cabinet.
Look, I’m not a member of the no-lesser-evil brigade, and in November I cheerfully and without reservations voted for Democrats, even Democrats who have deeply disappointed me, because the alternative was to keep a despotic, sociopathic, semiliterate career criminal in office. For four years I was a vortex of disdain for the repertoire of cruelties of the Trump Administration, and I’m thrilled the people I voted for won. Elections are a buffet at a roadside motel, not a personalized meal. But when you’re handling what we call a “Big Bad” in TV tropes, the other side automatically becomes “the good guys,” and critique of them is muted, or at least softened–even when the courageous leaders of La Résistance forget about the burden of proof or flip-flop about the death penalty. I suspect it won’t be long before we forget how Monsieur et Madame Blanchisserie Française, the delectable taste of Yountville gastronomy still fresh in their mouths, proceeded to close our children’s playgrounds with not a shred of medical evidence connecting them to outbreaks. I get it. We’re grownups, politicians are politicians even when they are generally on the right side, and people should not be expected to be perfect. But I’m frustrated that the nature of California politics creates the illusion that we are a blue, progressive state, in the face of everything that has been going on.
Why is it that we appear so blue when our prisons are such a horror show? My colleague Vanessa Barker offers a convincing explanation. By contrast to the East Coast, or even the Pacific Northwest, California’s political culture is both deeply polarized and populistic. Our red counties, which are, after all, where most of our prisons are, are deeply red; jails there are run by red sheriffs and prisons by red CDCR officers. A lot of decisionmaking happens on a local level. Even when a prison is located in a blue county, such as San Quentin in Marin, prison officials refuse to collaborate with county health officials, citing jurisdiction. Moreover, we tend to legislate our criminal justice arena via referendum, which creates a lot of the horrors that I recount in Chapter 2 of Yesterday’s Monsters: a salience of a particular class of victims as the moral interlocutors of criminal justice, inflammatory rhetoric, and a lot of money backing up fear and hate.
The consequence of this is that our elected officials, who are so right on so many things (immigration, healthcare, climate action) are so often so wrong about criminal justice. Some of what we have going on is so deeply ridiculous–to name just one example, moratorium on a death penalty that should have been abolished eons ago, and because of populist stubbornness we can’t reap the huge economic benefits of abolition–and it is difficult to explain to lefty friends on the opposite coast how come people who appear to be such heroes on the national stage act in such villainous ways on the local stage.
This week, I recommend that you keep your gaze on some of the newest outbreak sites. Beyond SATF, there are also serious outbreaks in PVSP (643 new cases), HVDP (473), MCSP (416), CTF (284), and VSP (298). Dozens of other facilities have “only” dozens of cases. The only CDCR facility with no cases at present is RJD. The death toll systemwide has risen to 90.
Bay Area newspapers are reporting a first-of-its kind unemployment fraud, in which unemployment claims were filed, and paid, on behalf of prisoners. The latest in the series is this article from the Sac Bee, which purports to explain “How inmates pulled off giant California unemployment scam.” But even having read it, I’m unclear on what exactly happened, and especially on what they mean by “a spider web.” Here’s what we know:
Court records show a handful of inmates contacted friends and relatives on the outside, supplied them with Social Security numbers and other information, and persuaded them to file for pandemic relief on behalf of 30 different inmates. The outsiders had the unemployment payments — in the form of Bank of America debit cards issued by EDD — mailed to them.
“The cards came pre-loaded with upwards of $20,000,” said Sean Riordan, deputy district attorney in San Mateo.
Riordan said the outside accomplices then went to ATM machines and withdrew their pre-arranged cut — usually $3,000 or $4,000 — and arranged for friends or family to deliver the cards to the inmates at the jail. In one case, an outsider was found to have used an ATM in Las Vegas to collect his cut.
“It was thousands of dollars,” Riordan said.
Accomplices arranged for the remaining funds to be delivered to the inmates’ jail accounts, which could be used to buy extra toiletries or other items.
That people commit fraud, behind bars and on the outside, is not difficult to understand, and I’m sure the COVID-related deprivations and difficulties produced the kind of conditions that act as a Petri dish for these kinds of schemes. What I don’t understand is this: to what extent were the people whose names were used in this fraud (the New York Times story names Scott Peterson, convicted murderer of his wife Laci Peterson) part of the fraud? When the article say that people’s “names were used,” was it with or without their consent?
Moreover, how does all of this map onto the bigger picture of COVID relief structures? We already know that CARES Act relief is available for prisoners, because it took a lawsuit to make it happen. I also know from family members of incarcerated people that several facilities are interfering with their population’s ability to complete the claim forms. In one case I heard of, when the family member called the San Joaquin County Jail, they were told the jail would not accept any check if the IRS mails it inside, and that “they [jail staff] don’t care what law was passed.” If this is a widespread problem, as the lawsuit suggests, unemployment fraud scams appear a lot less surprising. What I want to know, though, is whether there’s some connection between the two phenomena, and whether the financial scales of the CARES Act sabotage and the unemployment fraud are on par.
If you, or a family member, are having difficulties with prisons or jails undermining your CARES Act stimulus claim, email me and tell me your story, or post it in the comments.