I have been remiss on the issue of Covid in prisons

Can I blame this on the presence of Covid in the world in general? In my life? In the lives of my loved ones? Or is it because my focus has shifted to creative writing on subjects not related to prisons? I am not sure.

Because the volunteer work I was doing behind prison walls stopped (due to Covid), I suppose I have thought less about this issue. Also, frankly I at times easily delude myself and imagine that people (wardens, state, county and city officials) are doing the right thing.

Well, I can’t give myself any comfort.

This pandemic, climate change, health issues, other creative endeavors all have distracted me and, well, I just wanted to believe things weren’t awful. (“I want to believe.”) After all, haven’t we seen some prison systems doing early releases? Didn’t the jail in Albuquerque report on excellent safety measures to give a sense that it was properly handling this virus? Aren’t the judges being more lenient and granting bail options so that jails and prisons aren’t overcrowded?

Here’s what I learned once I started paying attention again.

According to the UCLA Law Covid Behind Bars Data Project, as of September 2021, there have been 199.6 Covid deaths per 100,000 people in prisons and jails — compared to 80.9 per 100,000 in the total general population in the US.

In short: more than twice as much Covid has killed in prisons and jails compared to outside the walls.

There have been protests in some jails and prisons on this issue – per Time Magazine these protests have been in the Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana, the St. Louis City Justice Center and in the Santa Clara County (California) jails, to name a few. How many protests do not make the news?

As a former active war protestor, I know how many protests did not make the news. So I doubt the general public (or me) know the extent of this.

I question myself – is there a reason why I have drawn in and tried to just focus on myself, my family, our health? When we all come out of the pandemic, will we be more callous?

Prisons and Covid and the Vaccine

So, we are learning now that Covid may have exposed HALF the prison population to the disease.

In Pennsylvania, a blogger recently writes that when the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections finally tested the prison population, the prison in which he is incarcerated has close to 50% positive rates with deaths ensuing. http://s-stopp.com/covid-numbers-treatment/

It is reported by PBS and The Marshall Project that 20% of persons in state and federal prisons have tested positive for Covid and 1700 have died (as of mid-December). https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/1-in-5-prisoners-in-the-us-has-had-covid-19-1700-have-died https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/12/18/1-in-5-prisoners-in-the-u-s-has-had-covid-19 This data is based on those who have been TESTED. Many have not.

Thus, these numbers are considered to be undercounted.

I will be brief: When we see the priorities on who gets vaccines, we do not see any prioritizing of prisons even though with close confinement – and the inability to easily have regular access to laundry, soap, hand sanitizers, fresh air and so forth – these institutions should have the same priority as nursing homes.

The American Medical Association has also asserted that prisoners and correctional staff are high-priority populations for the vaccine. In part this is because medical care is so limited in prisons . In part this is because of the close quarters in which prisoners live and the officers work.

As of early December, prisons were the location of the 5 highest Covid clusters. People in prison do not deserve to be infected simply because they are incarcerated and are unable to properly follow guidelines for protecting their health and the health of others. https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/covid-19-vaccine-distribution-must-prioritize-prisoners-virus-killing-more-ncna1250461

It is my hope that they will not be left behind to be ground zero for exceedingly high deaths in comparison to the general population. We are already in a crisis in the United States and in the world. Let’s not compound it by ignoring a population that needs the proper resources to protect itself from the virus.

This higher exposure to Covid is NOT supposed to be part of their punishment.

Expect an onslaught of prison deaths in the Fall of 2020

I have been remiss at writing on this blog for a while. My “prison reform energies” this past year have been focused on local politics, assisting with ensuring the reduction of the use of solitary, mandating body-cameras for law enforcement, and preventing the return of capital punishment. As a mentor to an incarcerated individual, I have worked with him to encourage writing about his experience. I will make every effort to assist him finding a publisher. He and others have been in lockdown for weeks now as the prison attempts to contain the rise of inmates and guards with COVID-19. Meals are hard-boiled eggs and sandwiches, delivered to the cells or dorms. There is no recreation. Quarantining the COVID-19 inmates to one particular tier hasn’t stopped the rise in cases.

Meanwhile, though, as COVID-19 increases for freed Americans, especially in Texas, Arizona and Florida, it rises exponentially for inmates. The prison I referenced in the first paragraph has had numbers of COVID-19 cases increase from 14 a month ago to 40 two weeks ago to now around 120. This is happening everywhere.

As we all become fixated on the national election, I suspect very little attention will be paid to those in prisons and jails. Indeed, a local reporter last week reported an increase of COVID-19 cases in New Mexico to around 500 for that day. He added to the effect of, “don’t worry, people, most of these were prisoners.” It seems as if the general public is so worried about itself – family, jobs, income – that folks behind bars are not even an afterthought or are simply expendable.

We need to allow early release for nonviolent offenders, confining them to home monitoring. Elder inmates, especially those with pre-existing conditions, should be released to family or some sort of halfway house or nursing facility. Persons in jails pretrial (not even convicted) who can’t afford bail should be released with some alternative incentive to show up to court. Those in jails and prisons for technical violations – violating parole or probation rules (about one-third of those locked up in New Mexico) -should be freed immediately under the former supervision of their parole or probation officers. Inmates close to their release dates – say within 6 months – should be freed.

Prisons and jails can not afford financially to care for staff and inmates with COVID-19. Medical staff – sometimes contractual, sometimes part-time – do not have the resources to handle the increased illnesses. Social distancing is impossible. Masks need to be cleaned properly and replaced. It will only get worse.

I hope I am wrong about the pending disaster. I really do.

#prisonsCOVID, #prisonersCOVID, #prisonreform

Good neighbors – isn’t that what we want?

I believe that people who have minimal experience with the criminal justice system – and with those incarcerated – are terrified of having a halfway house or job program for former offenders in their neighborhood. But, in the end, most people are released from prisons and without rehabilitation, recidivism is at least 70% in America.  Wouldn’t we be safer and former offenders better off if there were a strong effort within the prisons and jails to offer effective rehabilitation?  The needs for job training, education (beyond 3rd grade reading level, which I understand is the average for incarcerated individuals), anger management, counseling and restorative justice are overwhelming. Without a multifaceted approach to those in prisons and jails, it is not surprising that many released from these facilities do not succeed on the outside. When one is released with resources, their lives, and the lives of their families, can move forward and neighborhoods are safer.  Take a look at these successful programs.  I believe we can do better here in America, too. https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-48885846?fb

The injustice of the bail system

The purpose of bail is to ensure that people charged with crimes show up in court.  Disproportionately, people of color and low income people are in jail awaiting trials because they can’t afford bail.  Recently, a young man reports on the CBS Sunday Morning show that he was in jail for months for riding his bicycle on the sidewalk. He was unable to post bail and lost his job.  It’s a matter of income, pure and simple. We know the folks who are charged with crimes, arrested, and are able to post bonds. Let’s think of the recent array of people charged with or serving time for crimes related to their connections to the Trump administration.    https://www.cbsnews.com/video/the-bondage-of-bail/

The Eighth Amendment specifically states:  Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.  Yet, the American system of “justice” in fact imposes excessive bail, the result of which forces many to plead guilty just to get back to work, their families, their freedom.  Collateral consequences of a guilty plea are rarely explained but include building a “criminal history,” job discrimination and we still have the “three strikes” law where a third felony can result in sentences up to life.

Let’s talk a minute about the profits made by incarcerating individuals pretrial. First, of course, is the bailbond industry, a $2 billion – yes BILLION – a year industry.  Then, there are the private jails and prisons, profit-making entities, CoreCivic and GEO.  Both spend millions on lobbying politicians to continue the growth and now are housing immigrants crossing the border.  Recent data shows their profits are also billions annually.

Profits are made due to charges by saving on health care, including mental health (needed by more than a million), nutrition (think beans, plastic-wrapped sugar filled “foods,” low grade meats and no fresh fruits or vegetables), reading materials (whereas prison libraries dramatically increased in state prisons beginning in the 70s) and a lot more people in solitary.

Is it fair – is it sane – that more than half the folks in jail today are pre-trial? Is it fair – is it sane – to keep people out of their communities, away from jobs and family – due to high bails – when research shows more than 95% show up to their court dates regarding of the bail situation. Some states such as California are pretty much doing away with this discriminatory system.   I won’t rant anymore. Here are some resources if you want some more information:

The Bail Project  https://bailproject.org/why-bail/

Equal Justice Under The Law https://equaljusticeunderlaw.org/



Is this “compassionate release?”

So, it is deemed fair and equitable to deny “compassionate release” from prison to a man who has lupus, liver failure and has served 15 of 16 years of his sentence, right? No. Read more. For those that don’t know, the Congress enacted a provision for compassionate release from federal prisons when inmates are frail, elderly or near death. The goal was to show some compassion for individuals who posed no risk to society, to reduce the prison population and to reduce costs of caring for these individuals. Did you know that recent research shows that around 12% of inmates are age 55 and older? Here’s more information: https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/03/07/old-sick-and-dying-in-shackles

Is death the answer?

This past year has been troublesome for me personally so I have not written much here even though my plan was to constantly highlight social justice matters. I am going through old boxes to downsize and organize and part of what I find is that for decades I have argued to abolish the death penalty. For a brief time in the U.S., the death penalty was found to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, but it revived itself fairly quickly.

For so many reasons, this is not the answer to the crime problem. First, research shows it does not result in reduced crime. In fact, some research suggests that crime increases when government condones death as a remedy to a problem. Next, while victims’ families and friends may be satisfied by vengeance, in the end their loss is still tragic and does not end. Instead, another family suffers the same consequence. Third, it costs millions above and beyond costs of imprisonment to incarcerate on death row and for all of the appeals. Fourth, can’t society learn from those on death row in order to understand those who commit capital offenses – and move toward prevention? And most significant to me, the death penalty primarily affects the poor and people of color. This type of lawful discrimination is unconscionable.

It’s not just me. Here are other thoughts. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/01/03/what-to-know-about-the-death-penalty-in-2018


FILM REVIEW: “13TH” shocks, disturbs

13th-documentary-trailer-poster.jpgThe Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”

America has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners.

Since the 1980s, seven times as many people are now behind bars.

For African American males without a high school diploma, around 80% will end up in jail or prison. Why aren’t the alternatives chosen more often: drug court, mental health treatment, house arrest, community service, restorative justice, close supervision by parole and probation, halfway houses, fines, restitution?

These facts alone should provoke thought. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) explores these disturbing truths in her eye-opener documentary, “13TH” (2016, 100 minutes).

Nominated for Best Documentary Feature for an Oscar, it is a film that compels the viewer to dig deep and realize why there is a connection between mass incarceration and poverty, and in particular why the impact is so forceful on people of color.

Many of you know that I rode my bicycle from Albuquerque to Baltimore to raise awareness of the value of re-entry programs and how they reduce crime, benefit families and result in of course fewer crime victims. They also save the taxpayers so much money since programs cost around $20,000 a year on average and incarceration is more in the $80,000 range (and much higher for federal prisons and facilities for juveniles).

I’m still working on this issue, and one way is to encourage you to see this film. It’s on Netflix and from time to time is screened in local theaters around the country, often in the film festival context. Perhaps after the Oscars, it will find a larger audience.

“13TH” explores the link between slavery, the Thirteenth Amendment and today’s massive system of incarceration. DuVernay has succinctly pieced together historical events, archival news footage and imagery along with expert opinions establishing an unexpected link: the link between an amendment intended to guarantee freedom and the utter lack of free movement of those incarcerated.

I winced as I watched the deconstruction of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation.” Filled with disturbing and terrifying images of black men, the film predicted the rise of racism, injustice, the torture and death of people like Emmett Til and Medgar Evers and the lack of balance in the criminal justice system when race and poverty are factored in.

Post-civil war freedom came with a price: more incarceration for petty matters requiring involuntary servitude identical to slave conditions, restrictions on voting, the rise of the KKK just as the black middle class was gaining strength and the demonizing of African American males. The murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, the early civil rights movement leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the later so-called wars on crime and drugs, including Clinton’s promotion of Three Strikes laws and mandatory sentencing, are all connected in this film to the end result: mass incarceration.

Think about this: why were penalties for possessing and dealing crack so much more severe than the same for cocaine until the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010?

When states and the federal government turn over to for-profit companies the detention and monitoring of inmates and former offenders, are there any “for profit” incentives for those businesses to ensure successful re-entries and reduce recidivism? This documentary explains what ALEC is and shows its influence on lawmakers that results in increased incarceration and corporate earnings rising at the same time.

Contemporary opinions are sought from many, including U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, New Gingrich, professor Henry Louis Gates, Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist, professor and political activist Angela Davis, civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander and writer (“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”) and others.
It is beyond chilling just hearing the words of George Zimmerman when he calls the police about teenager Trayvon Martin, heading home after buying candy: “He’s got his hand in his waistband….and he’s a black male.”

Ponder all of the meaning and the consequences of this mindset.  Wonder why we still are not having open, honest discussions about race.

Here’s a link to the trailer. https://youtu.be/V66F3WU2CKk

Sources: Next America: Criminal Justice Project, IMDb, “13TH”

Prison release


We wait in the prison visitors parking lot after checking in at the main gate. We have to show ID which is examined carefully and explain tediously who we are picking up and our relationship to the person.

I am a mentor to the young man I am picking up. I will take him to a re-entry program after checking him in with the county parole and probation office. He, of course, will enjoy his first lunch as a free man and a phone call to his mother who is several hundred miles away in another state before I drop him at the program’s residence.

A mother and her two nephews sit in a battered old Chevy while I pace the lot. A father is in a nearby older SUV, dozing while his mixed-breed dog (appears mostly collie) stares at my nervous walking back-and-forth across the lot.

A third car, a modest sedan, is quite a distance away and I can’t see who is in the car at first.

I was told to arrive at 9.30 am sharp. The mother with the nephews was told 8.30 am. I learn later that all four of the groups there were given different times to arrive: 8 am, 8.30 am, 9 am, 9:30 am. I guess it depends on whom we talked to.

Eventually, a man and woman get out of the distant car and begin their own pacing in the lot, but at a distance from us.

Each has different concerns and worries. Eventually we coalesce into an awaiting group as the clock ticks and it is now close to 12:00 pm. We are becoming impatient and the two young boys are hungry.

I walk up to the guard gate with one of the mothers, Beverly, to ask what the delay is. We learn that the prison is doing a second count since they thought someone had escaped when their count indicated they were one person short. He was in the library but after they found him there they have to count again.

I hope my face doesn’t show how ridiculous that sounds to me. Can’t they just add one to the previous count and see that all inmates are present and accounted for?

There is a tiny public bathroom in the front of the guard building. I use it first while Beverly waits. As I exit the bathroom I hear my phone ringing in my blue jeans pocket. I must have “pocket-dialed” so I pull out my phone to quickly hang it up before whomever I dialed answers.

A guard comes out of the building, approaching me. “Ma’am. No phone calls allowed except in the parking lot.” I respond, “I’m sorry. I pocket-dialed my phone so I was just hanging up the phone. I wasn’t making a call.” The phone is already back in my pocket. “Ma’am. No phone calls allowed here.”

Again – I put on my poker face. Arbitrary and unfair decisions of correctional officers and administrators abound. I do not want to be the cause of this young man losing his early release because I want to point out another absurdity.

I head slowly back to the parking lot so that Beverly doesn’t think I abandoned her when I told her I’d wait for her outside the bathroom. The guard, arms crossed, continues to stare at me for my ignorance of a rule, telling me, “Move, on, ma’am.”

When we get back to the visitors lot, I tell the mother/aunt that we have probably another hour to wait so she takes her nephews to the McDonalds that is about a 15-minute drive from the prison. They get back a bit before 1 pm.

She, the walking couple, even the dad with the dog and I are all now talking together since we have been relegated to waiting close to 4 hours (close to 5 hours for two of the families). I learn their stories.

The son of the mother with the nephews has been in for a decade for drug crimes. He was to get out six months ago after he completed a drug program but was told to go back to his old housing unit for a few weeks. He refused since he believed his successful rehabilitation would now make him a target; authorities told him he disobeyed an order and had to be punished another half year. Meanwhile, though, he didn’t know he had six months added on to his sentence so six months ago his mom was there waiting for his release for a few hours before she was told, “Not today, ma’am.” Her drive is several hours each direction.

The pacing couple’s son has a complex background of psychological issues and despair and addiction and they are unsure he will have success on the outside. They are unwilling to take him in to their home so will drive him to the other side of the state where a sister is tentatively agreeing to give him a chance.

The elderly dad (with his dog) has a look of trepidation and doesn’t share much information. He seems beaten down, as if perhaps he has followed the same trail as his son. He does say that his son has served day-for-day so has no parole and can leave the state. They are heading to Georgia.

A guard drives out to the visitor’s lot. “The second count is over. Maybe another half hour.” It is 1.30 pm.

Finally, nearing 2.30 pm, four smiling men come out of the front gates, each carrying a satchel, all wearing flip flops. I see that the young man whom I am picking up has lost a lot of weight but otherwise looks fairly well. Each of us in this briefly bonded group introduces our freed men to the others and wishes good luck to all. Then, we all head out on our separate ways.

If we help our incarcerated youth, we help all of us

The National Institute of Justice, which is based at the Harvard Kennedy School, has just issued a significant report that calls for a drastic overhaul of the juvenile justice system, and in particular the youth prisons.  An alternative model that is community-based will ensure safer communities and brighter futures for troubled children.

If you would like to learn more about this, you can check out the link below the photo (which I am posting courtesy of the Annie E Casey Foundation)  and read the full report.photo-courtesy-of-the-annie-e-casey-foundation