Free Phone Calls from Prison – And Not a Moment Too Soon

It’s an especially happy new year for everyone incarcerated in California, as CDCR and all county jails gear up to provide everybody phone calls free of charge. This long overdue change was heralded on September 30, when Governor Newsom signed the Keep Families Connected Act, sponsored by Senator Josh Becker and numerous grassroots organizations. I’ve spoken about the importance of this bill on KQED and on KCBS this week (I think both segments will air in the new year) but I wanted to also write here so I can expand on the history and meaning of this change.

As many regular readers know, I’ve been constantly rankled by the well-meant, but shortsighted, push to divest from private prisons. I don’t think private prisons are the ultimate evil in U.S. incarceration (though they are definitely a nauseating symptom); all the horrors Chad Goerzen and I talk about in our new book FESTER occurred in public prisons and jails. More importantly, in reality, whoever pushes for divestment has too naive a perspective on how the market works. Public prisons are all but privatized on the inside. The utilities are privatized. Healthcare is provided by private contractors. Commissary is often essential as supplementation because the food is inedible. Anything beyond “bare life”, as Agamben called it, is monetized. In Cheap on Crime I spent a whole chapter explaining how this came to be: in the last few decades, and increasingly since the financial crisis, the basic conceptualization of incarcerated people has shifted from wards of the state to consumers of services. Accordingly, everything, including the actual stay in jail, is monetized, and costs are rolled onto the “customers.”

This has been especially notorious in the context of phone call. There is a long and atrocious history of litigation surrounding the dirty deals between government agencies and phone companies, and anyone who has been incarcerated, or who has called someone who is incarcerated, knows what the upshot was. There’s a lot of cumbersome bureaucracy one has to deal with to even create an account with the phone company (I personally spent hours on the phone with GTL trying to set up my account. Their robocalls are not customer friendly, and I can only imagine people despairing of them if they try to call from work or while they try to survive in some other way.) And that’s if people want to be able to accept collect calls from prison. For those who don’t, there’s the issue of accounts of the people inside. While having the conversation, both parties can hear the “dings” charging the money every few minutes (ka-Ching!). The phone calls get disconnected and one has to call again (ka-Ching!) And if it turns out the phone call was disconnected because the account is depleted, you have to deal with that right away (ka-Ching!) True to the logic I explained in Cheap on Crime and elsewhere, singling out the private sector is making a naive mistake. It takes two for tango, and you bet the only reason this extortive system existed for as long as it did was that sheriffs AND phone companies both stood to gain.

Beyond the obvious issue that people in prison don’t tend to be flush in terms of personal wealth, and therefore there’s a class justice aspect to the new legislation, there are a few more, which expand the conversation. The first is that, beyond phone calls, California’s plant is not conducive to keeping contact with families. Our prisons are located in remote, rural counties, and many people’s families live in dense urban areas. If an Oakland family wants to visit their relative, who is incarcerated in, say, Pelican Bay, they have to plan for an 8-hour trip and a night at a hotel. Public transit is nonexistent and hotels jack up the prices. We also don’t offer vacations at home, which many prison systems in the world do. Until recently, when tablets were provided to people for video visits (partly to simplify complex in-person visitation protocols during the pandemic) it was very difficult for people to stay in touch with their families. The phone call costs were just part of this problem.

There is also the fact that contact with one’s family is known to be the main factor in recidivism prevention. One of my main conclusions in Cheap on Crime was that saving money by eliminating rehabilitation programs, reentry efforts, and the like–what I called “tough ‘n’ cheap”–ends up costing more money by driving the “revolving door” phenomenon. When we talk about “justice reinvestment” it really should be exactly that: in order to save, we have to spend in the right places. Whatever we spend in phone bills we will recoup in people who come home to a supportive family and a helpful community and get the help and love they need during the first few years after release, when the risk of recidivism is at its highest point.

Finally, there is the serious problem of knowing what is happening behind bars. Phone calls are essential not only for keeping in touch with the outside, but also for notifying supporters, lawyers, advocates, and journalists about things that happen away from the public eye, where negligence, incompetence, and sometimes downright cruelty and sadism can produce terrible civil rights violations. In the early months of the San Quentin COVID-19 outbreak, prison authorities prevented people from making phone calls, assuming they would infect each other through the phone (we now know COVID-19 is airborne, but at the time, as some of you might remember, this was not yet widely known and lots of folks were obsessing about cleaning surfaces.) Consequently, for several weeks we didn’t know what was going on, and concerns about housing, food, adherence to masking protocols, etc., were high (and, as it turned out, justified.) Chad Goerzen and I talk about this in FESTER (which comes out from UC Press in 2024.)

For all these reasons, I think this is a terrific initiative. I really hope people use it in ways that are beneficial to their reentry and nourishing for their relationships.

More Good News: Bonta Drops State Appeal in Quentin Cases

While I was focus on witness prep for the #SmithfieldTrial, my friend Allison Villegas shared a piece of good news: on Thursday, the Attorney General filed a notice that he is dropping the state’s appeal in In re Hall et al.

To recap what happened: Since the outbreak at San Quentin erupted in late May/early June 2020, hundreds of people incarcerated there litigated, asking to be delivered from the environment of infection, hospitalization, fear, misinformation, neglect, ineptitude, and death that characterized the prison’s response to the outbreak. Our litigation led to the landmark decision In re Von Staich, in which the Court of Appeal ordered that the population at Quentin be reduced to 50% of design capacity (as the physician group AMEND SF recommended.) We later had a reversal of fortune at the hands of the CA Supreme Court, which ordered an evidentiary hearing (a year after the fact, but waves of COVID continued to ravage the prison.) At the evidentiary hearing, things looked even bleaker for the states, as witnesses testifying from Quentin via Zoom revealed layer after layer of what they suffered at the hands of nincompoops, COVID denialists, and a prison administrative system in which the custodial and the medical sides have no understanding of each other. In October 2021, Judge Howard issued a tentative ruling in which he accepted every claim we made about the horrific and unconstitutional abuse that the men were subjected to, and wrote that the Eighth Amendment was violated in no uncertain terms, but… did not give us any relief, because presumably the whole case was “moot” as “the vaccine changed the game for COVID-19 at San Quentin. With a nearly 80 percent inmate vaccination rate, COVID-19 has all but disappeared from inside the prison. Although COVID-19 remains a risk within San Quentin, it appears at present no more than, and perhaps even less than, the risk faced by the community at large.”

This was, in itself, outrageous, and not exactly true even when it was written: the Delta variant began making its way through the prison. Shortly after, we saw the shortsightedness of not getting relief when Omicron swept through the system. To add insult to injury, while the petitioners chose not to appeal the decision (a choice I still feel quite crummy about), a surprising thing happened: the state appealed, even though we actually received no relief!

Back in summer 2020, Rob Bonta, then an Assemblymember from San Mateo, stood shoulder to shoulder with us at the press conference, speaking so movingly about the preventable disaster at Quentin that he was quoted in the guardian. But by March 2021, when he was appointed Attorney General, he apparently forgot all this. At the time, thinking the same person would keep the same conscience, I made a list of all the things he could do to help, and I confess that “refraining from appealing a decision in which the prisoners got no relief only to save the honor of CDCR at the taxpayers’ expense” was not something that even occurred to me needed to be said! But lo and behold, the AG office did appeal the ruling, God knows why, which prompted me to ask what I still think is an excellent question: What, actually, is the Attorney General’s job? Does the Attorney General work for all Californians all the time–including Californians behind bars–or does he become a hired gun when he’s in litigation? Does it make sense to posture as a science-forward, vaccine-forward AG when the time comes to require vaccines in schools, while at the same time becoming the Tom Hagan of the prison guard’s union when they don’t want a vaccine mandate because they are “his client”?

Thursday’s decision to pull this tasteless, tone-deft, and frankly, disgusting appeal, comes two years too late, when it doesn’t make news or waves, but it at least gives back a modicum of decency to an office that showed absolutely none throughout this entire crisis. We write extensively about the AG’s role in curtailing releases and supporting COVID denialists in uniform in Chapter 7 of #FESTER.

How to Talk to Our Kids About Prison

Today we took our five-year-old son to visit Alcatraz. We had been talking about prisons for a while, and I’ve been telling him some of what we have been doing on COVID-19 in prisons, and we had the opportunity to make a family trip of it with a young relative who is visiting.

In the days before our trip I thought to myself – what a good dilemma to have, whether and how to expose my kid to the realities of incarceration. Many, many children nationwide (almost 200,000 in California alone) have no choice but to know all about the prison or jail experience, because a parent, a sibling, or another loved one is behind bars. I still remember the haunting opening scene from Brett Story’s film The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, in which we see mothers and young kids aboard a bus that drives all night to a remote prison. Megan Comfort’s book Doing Time Together tells the stories of the families, and Kay Levine and Volkan Topalli examine criminal trials attended by the defendants’ children as intergenerational punishment.

With my own fortunate son I’ve used two wonderful books, which do not sugarcoat the prison experience, but mediate it in age-appropriate ways. Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson’s Milo Imagines the World tells the story of a young boy and his older sister as they ride the New York City Subway on their way to visit their incarcerated mother. It’s a very moving and empathetic book, offering empathy and connection. We have also read Emma Bland Smith and John Ely’s The Gardener of Alcatraz, which recounts the true story of Elliot Michener, who was incarcerated on The Rock in the 1950s. We also plan to read Mariame Kaba’s Missing Daddy and watch the special Sesame Street episode about children of incarcerated parents.

While we walked around the prison, we talked about the realities of living there. We compared the size of the cells to the rooms in our house, and talked about what it would be like to live in a room with no toys and very little furniture. When we got to the visitation block, we talked about kids who get to see their parents only through a glass; and when we got to the glum exercise yard, we talked about how much we value time outside in the natural world. My son walked away from the experience feeling that prison was not a good place to be, and that it was important to be kind to everyone and offer them hope, even if they’ve done bad things in the past.

Prison-Community Transmissivity Model: COVID-19 Management in Prisons Would Have Prevented Almost 12,000 Deaths in CA

It’s been a very busy week, but an accomplished one: Chad Goerzen and I finished writing FESTER and sent the manuscript off to University of California Press. We are very proud of the book and look forward to the reviews, which are sure to make it even stronger.

Among the many things we do in this book is a model of prison-community transmissivity. Because the correlation between prison and community cases (which we were tracking here throughout the pandemic) is bidirectional, we rely on the Bradford Hill factors for causal inference in epidemiology. Among the tools we use is a counterfactual model, in which we create concentric rings around each of the following: every correctional facility (e.g., San Quentin); every surrounding community (e.g., Marin County); and the wider community beyond. We can add and subtract rings to show the effect of infections in one ring on the others.

Our model shows that, due to the extraordinarily high prevalence of COVID-19 cases inside CDCR facilities, particularly during the year 2020, these facilities had a large influence on their regions, far more than their relatively small population and isolation would suggest. In Marin County, we predict that avoiding the Quentin outbreaks would have prevented 58 deaths, 22% of the COVID-19 deaths; and throughout the states, without the outbreaks in CDCR facilities, we could have prevented 11,974 deaths, or 18.5% of the COVID-19 deaths in California for this period. Furthermore, the outbreaks in San Quentin and CDCR occurred before vaccinations were publicly available and before effective treatments for COVID-19 were developed, making them particularly high impact on mortality.

In the next few weeks, I will give a few talks in which I’ll elaborate on the model and on the other tools we used to expose the experience and roots of what we consider a very serious human rights crime. On September 13 I’m giving a virtual talk at the University of Arizona, and on October 10 an in-person talk at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Law & Society. I’ll advertise these via the Events tab on the blog and would love to see my readers in the audience to discuss what we can learn from this disaster.

In Memoriam: Leslie Sebba

It’s been more than a week since we lost Leslie Sebba, my beloved mentor and teacher at Hebrew University’s Institute of Criminology, and only now have I found the time to write. I spent the entire week at the Law and Society Association’s Annual Meeting in Lisbon, amidst a heatwave, and throughout the week my heart was heavy with the palpable absence of Leslie, who attended the meeting almost every year as a member of our Punishment and Society CRN. And at the same time, there was the uncanny feeling that Leslie was there, because the conversation revolved around ideas that he helped develop and interrogate throughout his professional life. We paid tribute to Leslie at some of the panels, though I was restless with grief because I was unable to attend the funeral and the Shiv’a and tell his family a bit about how inspiring, kind, and special he was.

My first encounter with Leslie’s work was as a law student at HUJI, where I took his course “rights of prisoners and residents of closed institutions.” HUJI’s law curriculum, at the time, was very German, in the sense that there wasn’t a lot of critical theory and empiricism; we sat in big hallways, 150 or even 300 of us, and were essentially lectured at by some of the era’s civil rights luminaries (Ruthie Gavison, Mota Kremnitzer, David Kretzmer.) Occasionally, they asked us a question; sometimes I managed to shine, which made me feel an inch taller, but I wouldn’t go as far as to actually ask a question myself, or (heaven forbid) bring myself to attend office hours. And here was something completely different: an elective course taught by a gentle, absentminded soul, a kind smile perpetually on his lips, a preemptive forgiveness for student laziness or poor behavior, and a gentle door always open for those interested in learning more. The whole thing was bathed in a quiet, gentlemanlike, and at the same time fervent care for the human rights of the most vulnerable people in society, and in big part planted the seed for my later decision to change affiliations and move over to the criminology side of the building. No longer a law student at a formalist, traditional institution, but rather a grad student at a small, rigorous empirical department, I proceeded to take more classes with Leslie throughout my master’s, and his penology course, in particular, was an exquisite tour de force. Leslie was one of the most knowledgeable and well-read people I ever met. It is thanks to him that my education included not just the American classics (though they were certainly there – the entire Johnston, Savitz, and Wolfgang prison canon) but also a lot of European and Pacific materials. I still credit my unorthodox approach to the American abolitionism movement to the fact that, thanks to Leslie, I’m well read on Scandinavian abolitionism from the 1970s. And it is greatly thanks to him that my own students learn a lot about New Zealand’s approach to restorative circles; he had us read primary research about that system when it was hot off the press.

Leslie’s own work, which he assigned with a light, humble hand (he could’ve easily had us read everything he wrote, which was just so, so good) touched on many of these subjects that came to interest me. For one thing, he was a true pioneer of victimology. While his HUJI colleague Menachem Amir published an extremely controversial book examining the concept of “victim precipitation” in sexual assault (and was skewered by feminists), Leslie’s interest in victims was far more humane. In his groundbreaking book Third Parties he tries to piece together the various theoretical legal and criminological strands underpinning the victims’ rights revolution of the 1980s and 1990s. Now, it all seems super lucid and obvious, but when it had just come out in 1996 it was a novel and well balanced effort to critically assess how much of the “victim bills of rights” that were cropping up like mushrooms after the rain was empty rhetoric and how much it would actually improve the lot of victims, especially of violent crime. His pioneering contributions to victimology were also in, basically, making room for the field as its own criminological school; he was the founding editor of the International Review of Victimology and taught a fascinating and popular course on the subject.

Third Parties was emblematic of Leslie’s approach, which straddled the worlds of law and criminology. Leslie possessed the rare and useful mix of someone who could analyze doctrine with unrivaled clarity and sharpness and, at the same time, entertain curiosity about how it plays out in the field and open-mindedly examine critiques. His vast international interests meant that he was preoccupied with international and comparative questions quite a bit; he looked at the worrisome trend of importing American punitivism such as Third Strikes laws and the notion of solitary confinement as an international human rights crime. He also had a crystal clear and lucid approach to Israeli penology, tracing the arc of punitivism back to the amnesties of the 1950s and constantly making the tie between domestic crime control and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Leslie, who had a keen nose for bright and innovative minds like his own, introduced us to the writings of Malcolm Feeley, Jonathan Simon, and David Garland. It was thanks to his gentle encouragement and prodding that I mustered the cojones to attend a concentrated class, in English, from a visiting Malcolm Feeley, leading to intellectual connections that would chart the rest of my professional life. Leslie saw something in me, even as I was a night school grad student in a special master’s program for cops and prison guards (the only hours I could make while working full time as a military public defender), and it is no exaggeration to say that, if I’ve achieved a modicum of success, it is truly thanks to him. While still at the Institute, I was his research assistant as well as his teaching assistant; I was green behind the ears and truly knew nothing, and he gave me responsibilities and kudos far beyond what someone at my age and experience level merited.

Leslie also exposed me to the idea that first-rate theoretical games are fun, but they are completely meaningless if they don’t improve the lives of real people on the ground. The first project with which I helped him was a collaboration with Israel’s Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority, which had just been founded at the time. We were looking for ways to enshrine the right to meaningful labor in Israeli law. Leslie’s other work, on children’s rights, was also done in partnerships, and he was a valued and respected participant and member in initiatives of human rights organizations ACRI and Adallah.

What is truly magical about Leslie the person is that all these incredible world-improving accomplishments lived within a humble, gentle, self-effacing soul. Leslie was never driven by his ego; he supported and trumpeted his students and collaborators, worked well in groups, helped organize panels, and was happy to sit in the audience when a junior collaborator presented his work. His gentle, fatherly mannerisms belied a keen mind always devoted to improving justice. And he took great pleasure in his work – while lecturing, he always seemed to be having an interesting, enriching conversation within his own mind (it was not rare for him to pose a question and, in the same breath, answer it in two contradictory ways with a bemused face.) A great light has dimmed and the world of law, criminology, and criminal justice is impoverished for his departure. What is remembered, lives.

AB 2730 Proposes a Prison-Release Continuum

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 job skills are provided? The Cal Matters article mentions truck driving, which means leaving prison with a Class A commercial driving license (a great asset on the job market.) But I wonder if CDCR shouldn’t also look at programs it already offers to very few people and consider vastly expanding them. Two examples of programs that produce a 0% recidivism rate (!) are carpentry and marine technology, and our incarcerated firefighter program could also use a considerable expansion. I’m also not entirely clear whether this is only about the provision of jobs or also about actually connecting people with openminded employers, so that they can have a guaranteed job on day one. This is how it’s done in Israel and should also be done here, given the mixed blessing of Ban the Box.

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.

June 2022 Election: Blog Endorsements

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.

Ninth Circuit Strikes Down Guard Vaccine Mandate

In an unfortunate, albeit not unexpected, decision, the Ninth Circuit reversed Judge Tigar’s vaccine mandate. You can read the decision in full here.

The reasons, in short, are as follows: the judges considered CDCR’s efforts in “making vaccines and booster doses available to prisoners and correctional staff, enacting policies to encourage and facilitate staff and prisoner vaccination, requiring staff to wear personal protective equipment, and ensuring unvaccinated staff members regularly test for COVID-19. . . symptom screening for all individuals entering the prisons; enhanced cleaning in the facilities; adopting an outbreak action plan; upgrading ventilation; establishing quarantine protocols for medically vulnerable patients; and testing, masking, and physical distancing among inmates” sufficiently ameliorative to reduce their misdeed below the threshold for an Eighth Amendment violation and “[a] decision to adopt an approach that is not the most medically efficacious does not itself establish deliberate indifference.”

Chapter 6 of our book, which discusses COVID prison litigation, is called “The House Always Wins.” This decision is a textbook example of the pathologies of prison litigation and why it fails to address problems in real time. It doesn’t even matter whether the litigation is happening on the federal or state level, because the basic problems are the same: the courts focus on the prison setting more than on the law, continuously contort the Eighth Amendment to defend prison administration, and ignore the basic regulatory requirements in the free world, assuming the prison is so different that they don’t apply. In addition, there is an interagency “game of chicken” that stalemates any efforts at providing timely help during an emergency: the natural actors that should quickly intervene in such situations are the governor and the prison authorities. Since neither has any incentive to do anything helpful, and since the people entrusted with the immediate care of the inmates are in a union that has been completely politically captured, the courts have to make noises of stepping in, but dragging their feet means that dynamic situations change and transform long before they have a chance to intervene.

I think that what happened with this Ninth Circuit decision mirrors what happened with the San Quentin litigation. Recall that, back in November, Judge Howard found that the botched transfer from Chino constituted an Eighth Amendment violation, but the vaccines changed the game and rendered relief moot. I suspect that the Ninth Circuit judges were affected by the fact that, due to the new variants and new endemic realities of COVID, the diminishing returns of vaccination mean that the urgency behind vaccinating the guards (which had already begun to fade by the time Judge Tigar decided to act) is far less salient than it was in winter 2021, when their opposition to vaccination was at its strongest and their compliance could have made a real difference. In other words, this is a classic demonstration of how justice delayed is justice denied.

The other issue is the inherent limitation of litigation, which is backwards-looking. In the Quentin case, Judge Howard explicitly said that he did not look to the next variant or to the next pandemic; his job was just to assess the violations of the past. As we see again in the Plata case, this fundamental trait of litigation is unfortunate for dynamic situations because, as Wes Venteicher reports in this morning’s SacBee:

Now another wave could be coming. The corrections depnartment reported its largest week-over-week increase in new cases, measured as a percentage, in the last week of April. New cases increased by 820%, reaching 322 infections from the prior week’s low figure of 35. About 97,000 people are incarcerated in the state’s 34 prisons. The biggest increases in the last two weeks have been at San Quentin State Prison, Pelican Bay State Prison, California Health Care Facility in Stockton, California Medical Facility in Vacaville and Ironwood State Prison in the southeast corner of the state, according to a corrections department infection tracker.

Ultimately, the only way to learn lessons for the next variant, the next pandemic, the next health crisis, is to conclude the obvious: it is impossible to save lives and provide decent healthcare to 100,000 people in California if the people entrusted with their care do not prioritize their wellbeing. Given that we do not seem to be able to attract people who have the prisoners’ best interests in mind to fulfill custodial positions, from the top, through the unions, to the rank-and-file, the only tenable conclusion is that we cannot and should not incarcerate nearly as many people as we do now. This will be the main conclusion of Fester, though we do make many other recommendations.

The House Always Wins: Quasi-Judicial Immunity in the Valley Fever Prison Case

This morning at the Western Society of Criminology Annual Meeting I’ll present Chapter 6 of our upcoming book FESTER, which I’ve tentatively titled The House Always Wins. In this chapter we show how, in both federal and state litigation for COVID-19 healthcare, prison authorities and the guards’ union run jurisdictional circles around the prisoners and their advocates, playing forum battles and jurisdictional whack-a-mole. This morning brought in its wings a fresh example of the same situation: on February 1, Judge Tigar (who also presides over the COVID class action Plata v. Newsom) granted the current and former federal receivers of the prison healthcare system (Clark Kelso and Robert Sillen) a motion to dismiss a class action involving the valley fever outbreak of the mid-2000s. Sillen was appointed Receiver on February 14, 2006, effective April 17, 2006, and was fired by Judge Henderson after two years (it later turned out that Sillen and his employees were overpaid to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.) Kelso was appointed his successor on January 23, 2008, effectively immediately, and is still occupying that position.

The installment of the receivership created an uneasy division of labor between CDCR–a state department–and the federally-appointed Receiver, who was now vested with the authority to oversee and manage healthcare in prisons as well as with the powers of an officer of the (federal) court. Here is what happened next, which Judge Tigar quotes directly from the Ninth Circuit decision:

In 2005, California prison officials noticed a “significant increase” in the number of Valley Fever cases among prisoners. The federal Receiver asked the California Department of Health Services to investigate the outbreak at Pleasant Valley State Prison, the prison with the highest infection rate. After its investigation, the Department of Health Services issued a report in January 2007. It stated that Pleasant Valley State Prison had 166 Valley Fever infections in 2005, including 29 hospitalizations and four deaths. The infection rate inside the prison was 38 times higher than in the nearby town and 600 times higher than in the surrounding county. According to the report, “the risk for extrapulmonary complications [was] increased for persons of African or Filipino descent, but the risk [was] even higher for heavily immunosuppressed patients.” The report then explained that physically removing heavily immunosuppressed patients from the affected area “would be the most effective method to decrease risk.” The report also recommended ways to reduce the amount of dust at the prisons. After receiving the health department’s recommendations, the Receiver convened its own committee. In June 2007, the Receiver’s committee made recommendations that were similar to those from the health department.

In response, a statewide exclusion policy went into effect in November 2007. The inmates who were “most susceptible to developing severe or disseminated cocci” would be moved from prisons in the Central Valley or not housed there in the first place. The prisons used six clinical criteria to identify which inmates were most likely to die from Valley Fever: “(a) All identified HIV infected inmate patients; (b) History of lymphoma; (c) Status post solid organ transplant; (d) Chronic inmmunosuppressive [sic] therapy (e.g. severe rheumatoid arthritis); (e) Moderate to severe Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) requiring ongoing intermittent or continuous oxygen therapy; and Inmate-patients with cancer on chemotherapy.” Inmates were not excluded from the Central Valley prisons based on race. The Receiver refined the exclusion policy in 2010 and created a list of “inmates who [were] at institutions within the Valley Fever hyperendemic area that [needed] to be transferred out.” The record does not indicate that the 2010 policy excluded inmates from the outbreak prisons based on race.

In April 2012, the prison system’s own healthcare services released a report examining Valley Fever in prisons. The report concluded that despite the “education of staff and inmates” and the “exclusion of immunocompromised inmates,” there had been “no decrease in cocci rates.” The authors found that Pleasant Valley State Prison inmates were still much more likely to contract Valley Fever than citizens of the surrounding county. From 2006 to 2010, 7.01% of inmates at Pleasant Valley State Prison and 1.33% of inmates at Avenal State Prison were infected. By comparison, the highest countywide infection rate was 0.135%, and the statewide rate was just 0.007%. From 2006 to 2011, 36 inmates in the Central Valley prisons died from Valley Fever. Prison healthcare services also found that male African-American inmates were twice as likely to die as other inmates. Each year, about 29% of the male inmates in California are African-American, but 50% of the inmates who developed disseminated cocci between 2010 and 2012 were African-American, and 71% of the inmates who died from Valley Fever between 2006 and 2011 were African-American.

Following this report, the Receiver issued another exclusion policy –one that would effectively suspend the transfer of African-American and diabetic inmates to the Central Valley prisons. The state objected, but the district court ordered the prisons to comply with the new exclusion policy.

Hines v. Youseff, 914 F.3d 1218, 1224-25 (9th Cir. 2019)

In Hines, incarcerated people infected with valley fever attempted to sue CDCR officials for mismanaging the outbreak; the lawsuit failed due to qualified immunity. The officials prevailed because they followed the orders of the Receiver. This week’s decision dismissed a similar lawsuit against the Receiver.

The valley fever victims argued, on the merits, that the Receivers were neglectful in their preventative approach; the Receivers countered that, as officers of the court, they have quasi-judicial immunity. The plaintiffs attempted a sophisticated attack on this argument, claiming that the Receivers should not have directed CDCR’s preventative policies, and that their mandate was limited to providing medical care. The argument failed: Judge Tigar found that “prevention of disease is, and always has been, within the Receivers’ jurisdiction.”

Ironically, it is precisely this wide mandate that aided the Receivers’ success in dismissing the case. Because they were acting within their authority, writes Judge Tigar, and because said authority is quasi judicial, they can enjoy immunity. Weirdly, “Plaintiffs do not argue that the other exception to judicial immunity – for actions “not taken in the judge’s judicial capacity” – applies here”—I think that’s precisely what I would have argued in this case, as Sillen and Kelso were acting as medical officials rather than judicial ones.

If this seems overly technical, it’s because it is. As I observe in chapter 6 of FESTER (more to come on that in the next few days), the particular gymnastics of each courtroom failure are less important (albeit technically interesting.) What’s important to observe is that the Byzantine nature of California’s correctional healthcare system, which, ironically, stems from the effort to create patchwork remedies for the system’s own ineptitude, then stands in the way of recourse for this very ineptitude.

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Hat tip to Allison Villegas, who sent me this decision.

Impending Closure of Death Row

A couple of days ago I spoke on KCRW about the announced closure of death row at San Quentin. Here’s the story as it appeared on the KCRW website, followed by some additional thoughts from me:

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Governor Gavin Newsom announced this week a plan to shut down the notorious death row at San Quentin State Prison. The plan would move the prison’s most condemned inmates to other maximum security prisons over the next two years, in an effort to create what Newsom calls a “positive and healing environment” at the Northern California prison. 

San Quentin has the largest death row population in the nation — nearly 700 total. And while California hasn’t executed anyone in more than 15 years, Newsom also signed an executive order imposing a moratorium on executions in 2019. 

The facility was originally a ship, and in the mid 19th century, prisoners themselves built the prison, explains UC Hastings law professor Hadar Aviram. “It’s a dilapidated facility, there are no solid doors, there are bars on the doors, ventilation is terrible. So it’s a facility that was built for 19th century standards. And just because of inertia, we are still incarcerating people in the same condition.”

She points out that the facility is located in a geographically beautiful area surrounded by expensive real estate. “In many ways, [it’s] a waste to have a prison there where people don’t enjoy the seaview and are incarcerated in terrible conditions.”

However, she notes that people currently aren’t being executed due to the moratorium, and since 1978, the state executed only 13 people, and more than 100 died of natural causes during that time. 

“Just during this moratorium that Governor Newsom introduced, more people died on death row from COVID during the horrific outbreak at Quentin than we executed since 1978. So I’m sure that is giving some pause about the utility of the exercise of keeping people there,” Aviram says. 

Because San Quentin is so old, inmates there suffered from coronavirus more than those at modern and well-ventilated facilities like the state prison at Corcoran, she says. Plus, it houses lots of people who are aging and infirm, who were thus already immuno-compromised and vulnerable to the virus.  

Emotional and political reasons may be driving votes

California voters approved a ballot measure in 2016 to speed up executions, and the measure included a provision allowing death row inmates to be relocated to other prisons where they could work and pay restitution to their victims.

Aviram says over the years, there have been several attempts to abolish the death penalty through voter initiaties, but they always lost by small majorities. 

Through inquiries, polls, and conversations with people, she says she realizes: “People are voting for the death penalty largely for emotional, sentimental, political reasons. They are more in love with a fantasy of having a sentence that’s reserved for the worst of the worst, and can deter people.” 

She describes death row in California as “basically a more expensive version of life without parole that costs us $150 million a year.”

She adds, “It’s probably a good idea to think of the death penalty as undergoing the same process as some of the people who have been sentenced to death, which is rather than an execution, the death penalty is going to die a slow natural death itself, just from disuse and from this gradual dismantling.” 

However, some district attorneys continue asking for the death penalty in capital cases, though the state doesn’t execute people anymore, as they hope the governor might revive the policy, Aviram points out. However, she says, “I think that because of the national trends … it is extremely unlikely that it’s going to come back.”

Newsom’s reimagining of prisons and what’s missing

When the governor says a “positive and healing environment,” Aviram says this means a life where inmates find meaning and usefulness (do some jobs). 

But this doesn’t completely eliminate the death penalty, she says. “Because there is still one very big and expensive piece of the death penalty that is still with us — and that’s death penalty litigation.”

“We have this facility where people are sentenced to death and are still litigating themselves post-conviction, and that litigation is actually the lion’s share of the expense. So it’s only really going to go away if and when all of those sentences are commuted, and these people are no longer litigating their death sentences at the state’s expense. So that is the missing piece.”

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Some more thoughts: First, it’s been interesting to follow the fanciful, but often idle, talk about the real estate potential of Quentin. Readers who have been to Quentin know how beautiful the village is and how glorious the waterfront vistas are. There are plans to close four prisons, but no definite plans for Quentin. Any prospects of selling that land are to be viewed with ambivalence. On one hand, what a waste to have a prison so close to the water, without windows to enjoy the view – a place that combines suffering with beauty. On the other hand, it would be a terrible loss for the folks housed at Quentin, dilapidated and dangerous as it is, to be strewn about prisons in remote locations in the state, far away from the progressive energy of volunteers and rehabilitative programming richness of the Bay Area that people so desperately need for making parole. In my wildest fantasies, we close Quentin down, transform it into a resort/retreat for nonviolent communication and community healing, rebuild with huge ceiling-to-floor glass walls overlooking the ocean and gorgeous walking trails, and offer all the men well-paying jobs running the resort.

About the money: I predicted much of this demise, based on national trends, in Cheap on Crime, and still think that the deep decline of the death penalty is in no small part due to the financial crisis of 2008. The fact that we still spend a sizable pile of money on death row, despite the moratorium, is not surprising, and shows that the disingenuous efforts to save money via Prop 66 didn’t fulfill their purported purpose. In 2016, when giving talks about this, I used to draw the triangle of home improvement; write in its three corners: good, fast, and cheap; and tell people, “you can have two.” We can’t compromise on having a “good” death penalty (one in which there are no constitutional violations and factual mistakes), and so, it cannot be fast or cheap. The big savings will only roll in when we get rid of the litigation piece.

There’s no better proof that the death penalty is on its last leg than the fact that Joseph Diangelo, the Golden State Killer, was sentenced to life without parole. If not the most notorious and heinous criminal in the history of California, then who? And the logic in Diangelo’s case applies to everyone else–why the death penalty? So they can continue litigating at the state’s expense and die a natural death? Whose interests does this serve?

About the actual job of relocating death row people to other prisons/general population: this is going to be a complicated and delicate job, and my fear is that it will be entrusted to folks who are not tuned in to the complexities. They would be moving people who have been effectively “at home” in solitary confinement in unique conditions, many of them for several decades, into facilities with much younger people and a very different energy. There could be animosities and alliances that are difficult to predict and go beyond crude racial/gang affiliations. This is true, generally speaking, for every prison transfer (long time readers remember the fears and concerns surrounding CDCR’s plan to comply with the landmark decision in Von Staich through transfers to other facilities); in the case of the death penalty, there are other factors, not the least of which is the unique combination of notoriety and frailness of the people to be transferred.

There’s also the question whether dismantling death row, what with its symbolic hold over the Californian imagination, slows down the dismantling of the death penalty itself. Without the physical reminder of the remnants of this archaic punishment, and with the growing resemblance of the death penalty to the two other members of the “extreme punishment trifecta” (life with and without parole), does the effort to abolish the death penalty lose its steam? The uphill battle for activists will be to spin this development to argue that the death penalty has been defanged beyond its utility; now that we’re left with only its negative aspects (to the extent that some people think it has advantages) it’s time to stop hemorrhaging state funds for incessant litigation.

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Today I’m at the Annual Meeting of the Western Society of Criminology, speaking about FESTER. My panel starts at 8:15am island time in the Waianae room – come say hi!