Posts Tagged ‘prisons’

In late March, Texas Governor Rick Perry sent a letter to the Department of Justice (PDF) bemoaning the fact that his state would have to comply with key provisions of federal legislation intended to reduce sexual violence in prisons and jails.  This federal legislation–the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA)–was passed back in 2003, and ten years of effort have been put into researching and refining rules related to its implementation.

Image courtesy of tiverlucky FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of tiverlucky FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Now it’s time for states to come into compliance with the law, and Perry has taken the opportunity to play politics with its mandates instead of doing the right thing and making his prisons and jails safer for his communities.  The governor’s arguments against PREA implementation are not only myopic and disingenuous, but are also couched in the type of snark and sarcasm that so often passes for political discourse these days.

Let’s see what he had to say.

Point #1

The governor’s letter begins with this false claim:

The rules [of PREA] appear to have been created in a vacuum with little regard for input from those who daily operate state prisons and local jails.

In fact, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC), which was created by the PREA legislation, sought input from correctional officials at all levels of the system for years before implementation of the law began. According to the NPREC:

The NPREC was a bipartisan panel created by Congress as part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. The Commission was charged with studying federal, state and local government policies and practices related to the prevention, detection, response and monitoring of sexual abuse in correction and detention facilities in the United States. Consistent with the Act, the Commission’s recommendations are designed to make the prevention of rape a top priority in America’s jails, prisons, lockups, juvenile facilities, and other detention facilities. The commission submitted its report to the President, Congress, The Attorney General, The Secretary of Health and Human Services and other federal and state officials on June 23, 2009.

Representatives from Perry’s own state department of corrections have even gone so far as to praise the federal government’s efforts to gather information about local prison and jail operations as part of developing implementation rules:

…during one of several public comment periods, Texas corrections department head Brad Livingston wrote to the Department of Justice in 2010, “it is apparent the Department of Justice gave careful consideration to the comments submitted by many interested parties during 2010, the TDCJ has few issues relating to the proposed national standards.”

Far from being created in a vacuum, the opposite appears to have been the case. To claim now that the state cannot comply because of a lack of input by correctional experts is disingenuous, to say the least, and an outright falsehood in the worst case.

Point #2

The governor goes on to contend that his state is leading the effort to reduce sexual assaults in prisons through its Safe Prisons Program:

Since 2001, TDCJ [Texas Department of Criminal Justice] has started the Safe Prisons Program, created and tested zero tolerance policies, added additional video surveillance, established a PREA ombudsman and developed comprehensive sexual assault training for staff and offenders.

The sad fact is that Texas prisons are among the least safe in the country today. Based on data collected from 2009 to 2011 as part of PREA, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found one correctional unit in Texas as having the highest rate of sexual assault in the United States, and five other Texas prisons or jails as being particularly violent as well – a higher number than any other state in the survey.

Point #3

Next, the governor asserts that he is under “threat of criminal penalties” if he does not certify that all jails and prisons in his state are in compliance with PREA’s requirements by May of this year. This is another disingenuous statement, given that he does have other options under the law. According to the National PREA Resource Center:

Pursuant to the PREA statute, the governor has three options: 1) submit a certification that the state is in full compliance; 2) submit an assurance that not less than five percent of its DOJ funding for prison purposes shall be used only for the purpose of enabling the state to adopt and achieve full compliance with the PREA standards; or 3) accept a five percent reduction in such grants.

He is looking at losing funding if he doesn’t comply, but he could choose to simply assure that a portion of federal funding his state currently receives for prison operations could be used to bring facilities into compliance. That doesn’t sound like a threat. It sounds like a reasonable measure to help states improve their practices.

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It’s pretty clear that all this is just political grandstanding. Instead of taking his obligations seriously in this area, Perry is choosing to turn his correctional system into just another opportunity to score political points with his base. Ironically, he is also choosing to operate a correctional system that is incredibly dangerous, not only to the inmates it confines, but to the public at large, including his political supporters.

One of the driving forces behind PREA is the idea that the chances of successful inmate rehabilitation are significantly reduced when inmates are subjected to sexual violence while incarcerated. Considering that Dallas and Houston are perennially among the top ten cities with the highest rates of crime in the country,  as is the state of Texas overall, you would think that rehabilitating offenders, and reducing the likelihood of them engaging in repeated criminal behavior, would be a high priority.

Further, research on the benefits of preventing sexual violence in correctional environments also make clear that such efforts are important, not only on humanitarian grounds, but also because they can result in significant cost savings as well:

Prevention dollars, if appropriately targeted, save therapeutic intervention dollars. To capture these “savings,” however, inmate safety must be a top priority. Prioritizing safety requires the establishment of reasonable standards of safety and safety benchmarks for prisons, followed by measuring performance on safety accurately and reliably and reporting performance data in ways consistent with standards of transparency and accountability. Safe, humane prisons can be expected to yield immediate savings by avoiding the costs of treating the consequences of physical and sexual assault, and longer term savings if the people leaving prison are less impaired with emotional and psychological difficulties created by the prison environment.

Instead of wasting money on programs that apparently don’t work to reduce sexual violence in prisons (the Safe Prisons Project), and wasting time complaining to the DOJ about having to comply with PREA, the governor should set his sights on taking responsibility for what he is allowing to occur in his jails and prisons.

I’m just glad I don’t live in Texas.

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Image courtesy of tiverlucky FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of tiverlucky FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In many of the corrections courses I teach, we frequently end up having some variation of the below conversation:

Student: We need to build more prisons because crime is increasing.

Me: Actually, crime isn’t increasing, and there’s little consensus that prisons work to reduce crime rates anyway. In fact, many who research the relationship between incarceration and crime feel that we’ve gone too far in our use of prisons, which has lead to overcrowding.

Student: But if our prisons are overcrowded, we need to build more.

Me: Or, we could stop over-relying on prisons as a primary way to deal with crime.

Student: But, if people don’t believe they’ll go to prison, they’ll just commit more crimes.

And on it goes.

I don’t fault my students, of course. They’re just learning about the system and how it works, and I expect them to bring their ideas about correctional practice to the classroom. I also expect them to challenge what they’re learning and to think critically about all of the new information they’re being exposed to in their studies.

It’s certainly no wonder that students are frequently convinced that a) crime is on the rise, and b) we need more prisons. Both of those points are commonly misconstrued in the media and, more significantly, by ill-informed politicians seeking to whip the public into a frenzy over crime issues as a way to secure funding for this or that pet project.

True, the evidence is somewhat mixed on whether or not prisons actually reduce crime. There’s some research showing that the incapacitating effect of imprisonment does reduce certain forms of criminal behavior.  The relationship between incarceration and crime rates is complex, though, which makes studying it quite challenging.

But some leading academics have pointed out the illogical elements of pro-prison arguments. On this point, Dr. Joan Petersilia of Stanford University wrote that:

…if there were a close correlation between crime rates and incarceration, the prisons would have begun emptying out in the late 1990s, when crime in most of its forms began to decrease.

As we know, that’s not what’s happened at all. Incarceration rates have soared to the point where the US  leads the world in the use of imprisonment. According to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (PDF), the incarceration rate in the United States (including both jails and prisons) was 920 per 100,000 residents in 2012, down slightly from the 1,000 persons per 100,000 rate in 2009.

The reductions in imprisonment rates is welcome, but will that translate into increases in crime as some fear? Not necessarily, at least according to a 2013 summary by the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. According to the below infographic that summarizes state data on 2012 imprisonment rates, 29 states simultaneously reduced both the rates of imprisonment and crime.

PSPP_pop_webgraphic_FINAL

The Pew infographic also makes a direct comparison between data from two states (Maryland and Arizona) that both experienced more than a 20% drop in the crime rate but also had very different rates of incarceration. Maryland reduced prison use by 11% while Arizona increased their use by 4%.

This highlights the complex relationship between incarceration and crime rates – but the overall message is clear:  it is possible to reduce prison use without increasing crime.

In my opinion, we’re at a point where reducing our reliance on prisons is not only a good idea, it’s a necessity. We’re spending billions of dollars annually to house, feed, and clothe inmates, many of whom could be safely and effectively supervised in the community at a fraction of the cost. As Dr. Petersilia also noted in her article above, informal discussions with correctional administrators around the country have disclosed their belief that fully 10-15% of their current prison populations could be safely released to the community.

When we couple all of this with the advancements in evidence-based practices, such as Cognitive Behavioral Interventions, it becomes apparent that we now have tools that can indeed reduce our reliance on incarceration while also increasing our ability to successfully intervene with correctional clients in community-based settings.

What are your thoughts? More prisons, less prisons? Leave a comment and share your opinions below!

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The LA Times ran a story at the end of last week about a California Supreme Court decision that forces LA County to release thousands of inmates early due to overcrowding. Predictably, jail officials cried foul, claiming that early release would lead to increases in crime and would negatively impact public safety.

Image courtesy of tiverlucky FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of tiverlucky FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The essence of their argument goes something like this: The longer someone is incarcerated, the less crime there will be in the community. This seems logical enough on its face. if someone is in jail, then they’re not out committing crimes on the street.

But, the logic of the argument breaks down when we look at incarceration as a system.

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Concrete and sunshineIt’s a bit dated, but this independent documentary about prisons and society does a nice job of exploring some important themes that educators might find useful in the classroom.  Concrete and Sunshine focuses on the prison-industrial complex in California, but it also provides the basis for a broader discussion of prison issues generally, including the use of solitary confinement, the role of reentry services, and prisons as a form of social control.

A discussion guide is provided as well (PDF) that can help spark debate and dialogue in both high school and college-level courses.

For $1.99, you can stream the video here, or purchase it for $9.99.

 

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Dealing with senile dementia and related problems is a huge challenge for the correctional system. As sentencing practices have evolved toward longer prison terms, the average age of inmates has also increased and, along with that, the prevalence of dementia-related illness.

According to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch (PDF):

  • The number of US state and federal prisoners age 65 or over grew at 94 times the rate of the total prison population between 2007 and 2010.
  • The number of prisoners age 65 or older increased by 63 percent. The total prison population increased by 0.7 percent. There are now 26,200 prisoners age 65 or older.
  • The number of US state and federal prisoners age 55 or older nearly quadrupled between 1995 and 2010, growing by 282 percent, while total number of prisoners grew by less than half, 42 percent.

This has led not only to rising healthcare costs, but also to the need for innovative ways of dealing with dementia among aging offenders. Different jurisdictions have tried various ways of doing this.

On one extreme are states like New York that provide a high-level of expensive care for inmates who have dementia-related illnesses. This can run over $90,000 a year per inmate, which far exceeds the average costs of approximately $41,000 for other inmates in the same system (in the federal system, costs are between $21,000 to $33,000 per inmate per year, on average).

On the other extreme are states like Louisiana and California, that rely on other inmates to provide support and assistance to inmates suffering from dementia. These inmates, called Gold Coats, act as protectors, gophers, and personal care attendants. They’re given some training and are paid about $50 per month for their services.

Given public demand for ever-longer prison terms, the problem of how to manage these inmates is only going to get worse over time, and more expensive.

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In the wake of the Breivik sentencing in Norway this past summer, some have raised concerns about the statutory limitations on sentence length there, especially for such a horrific offense. Questions about this also gets at some themes I’ve discussed recently on Quora on similar topics (Prisons: Why is it a good idea to put criminals together in a prison? What are some alternatives?).

Essentially, the use of prisons emerges in part from societal consensus about the goals of sentencing, and the answer to the question about the Norwegian sentencing system likely lies somewhere in there as well.

There are essentially five goals of sentencing, retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, restoration, and rehabilitation. The last of these, rehabilitation is probably one of the most controversial. In the U.S., for example, rehabilitation is considered a secondary goal, after retribution. Americans want their prisoners punished first and rehabilitated second.

This appeals to a societal sense of justice and fair play that has considerable cultural inertia in our country. Any talk of prioritizing rehabilitation ahead of retribution very typically generates complaints about how doing so will endanger public safety, ignore the needs of crime victims, and – most damning of all – coddle criminals.

Never mind that certain forms of rehabilitation have been shown through research to reduce the risk of future offending, we want our pound of flesh first and foremost

The same is not true the world over, though. Norway, by contrast, has a very progressive approach to sentencing that prioritizes rehabilitation as a primary strategy for reducing future criminal behavior. That doesn’t mean they don’t use prisons, it just means that the conditions of confinement are geared toward reducing the risk that an offender will return to a life of crime after release.

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Bastoy Prison, Norway

Unlike many U.S. jurisdictions that use determinate sentencing (the sentence stated by the court is the actual sentence that will be served), Norway uses an indeterminate system that relies on an assessment of whether or not the offender is rehabilitated as a basis for release from prison.

As you noted, the stated maximum prison sentence in Norway is 21 years, but that can also be extended in five-year increments if the prison system determines that an offender is not rehabilitated by the end of his or her initial term. They can be extended in this way, every five years, indefinitely. So, essentially, there is an ability for an individual to serve life in prison, it’s just decided on an installment basis.

The outcomes of this approach seem to be positive in terms of reducing the risk of reoffense. I couldn’t find a more authoritative source, but this Guardian article about the Norwegian prison system claims that the recidivism rate of Bastoy Prison is about 16%, the lowest in Europe, versus about 40% in the U.S. 

Sentencing practices and the conditions of confinement in Norway aren’t without controversy of their own, however. There’s been heated debate across Europe about the perceived injustice of Norwegian inmates living in relative “luxury” while the living conditions of law-abiding, but impoverished or elderly people, aren’t nearly so comfortable.

The question of whether prisoners should enjoy better living conditions than law-abiding people, even if those conditions are part of what leads to more positive rehabilitative outcomes, is a legitimate one. At this point, at least, Norway has chosen an approach that it generally believes will have the greatest positive impact on crime.

Limits to the length of prison sentences are simply one component of that approach.