EN ESTAS HABITACIONES OSCURAS
DONDE VIVO PESADOS DIAS
CON QUE ANHELO CONTEMPLO A VECES LAS VENTANAS:
CUANDO SE ABRIRA UNA DE ELLAS?
Y QUE HA DE TRAERME?
PERO ESA VENTANA NO SE ENCUENTRA,
O YO NO SE HALLARLA, Y QUIZAS SEA MEJOR ASI.
QUIZAS ESA LUZ FUESE PARA MI UNA TORTURA.
QUIEN SABE CUANTAS COSAS NUEVAS MOSTRARIA
SIN CONSIDERACION SIN PIEDAD
SIN PUDOR EN TORNO MIO HAN LEVANTADO
ALTAS Y SOLIDAS MURALLAS.
Y AHORA PERMANEZCO AQUÍ EN SOLEDAD,
MEDITANDO EN MI DESTINO
LA SUERTE ROE MI ESPIRITU
TANTO COMO TENIA QUE HACER
COMO NO ADVERTI QUE LEVANTABAN ESOS MUROS
NO ESCUCHE TRABAJAR A LOS OBREROS
NI SUS VOCES
SILENCIOSAMENTE ME TAPIARON EL MUNDO.
Private prisons depend on high rates of incarceration to make profits.
Companies such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), GEO Group and Management and Training Corporation (MTC) have admitted that their industry risks include drug decriminalization, reductions in crime rates, immigration reform, and prison reform.
About 2/3 of private prison contracts nationwide require that their facilities maintain 80-100% occupancy, no matter the level of crime in the U.S.
Together, the two largest private prison companies CCA and GEO Group received a total of $3 billion in revenues in 2010. That year, each of their top executives received annual packages of over $3 million.
For-profit prisons are more dangerous than government prisons due to an incentive structure that favors cost-cutting over treating prisoners well.
One study found that twice as many attacks take place in private as in public prisons, in addition to a higher frequency of sexual harassment by guards. At Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi, there are an average of three injuries a day due to violence.
The federal government is increasing its use of private prisons to lock up people for immigration related offenses.
Most of these 400,000 prisoners a year are placed in private Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons, where they have inadequate medical care, facilities, work opportunities, and rights.
CAR prisons use isolation at double the rate of government prisons because of cramped, over-flooded jails and contracts that require 10% of the population to be in isolation.
Prisoners are put in isolation for complaining about the food, writing petitions, not “speaking English in America,” or just no reason at all.
Private CAR prisons have huge medical shortages – sometimes there is only one doctor for 2000 people.
Allow me to paint a picture for you of a small room, only 60 or 70 square feet large. Inside this room, a bed, toilet, and sink are nailed to the cement floor. Surrounding them are four windowless, cement walls, all lit by an angry fluorescent light that never goes off. Living in this cell, it is common to go weeks without seeing another person’s face – only their hands as they slide masses of unidentifiable food under the door. Yet it is not quiet. In a constant symphony of the crazed, the people next to this cell bang and bang on their doors, yelling and screaming and smearing feces on their faces.
This is the sad reality of solitary confinement in Texas today.
It is not a reality that fits well into the America that I have been told about, and not one I like to consider. America, as taught to me and my peers in history classes growing up, is a country that values freedom, family, and the opportunity for self-betterment. It should, supposedly, give everyone the chance to become a valued member of society. Yet the above image shows an element of the Texas jail system that is a disgrace to everything our country – and the state of Texas – claims to stand for.
Here are the facts, according to a report released by the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project: In Texas, 6,564 people live in solitary confinement. Of these, 33% are in jail for non-violent crimes due mostly to gang affiliation, even if they are low-level or inactive members. The average length of stay is 3.7 years, at which point most inmates have developed psychiatric symptoms such as hallucinations and physical outbursts or lost their ability to interact with other human beings.
Inmates in solitary confinement are not allowed to try to improve themselves. They are not allowed to get treatment for mental illness, addiction, or anger management. They can’t even attend religious services. One man cried on a medical trip to Galveston because it was the first time he’d seen the sun in years. Many are driven to suicide. Is this the point of jail, or is this just torture?
Solitary confinement isn’t just bad for prisoners. It is bad for all of us. Most violent crimes against guards come from those living in solitary confinement. When inmates from solitary are released, they are often sent straight back into society, where they are 25% more likely than other prisoners to commit crimes again. This is not the kind of person I want moving into my neighborhood, and yet we Texans pay $46 million a year for this program that does not work.
The good news is that some states are finding ways to remove solitary confinement from their jails. In the past five years, Maine, Illinois, Colorado, Mississippi, New York, and California have taken steps to vastly reduce such forms of punishment to great success. They are saving money, making their jails and neighborhoods safer and treating their prisoners with the decency all humans deserve. It is high time that Texas do the same. We should care about the livelihoods of those we send to prison and give them a chance to return as useful and safe members of society. If we can’t do that, we should at least care about the safety of our neighborhoods and the correct use of our tax money.
Before becoming an intern at the ACLU, I was content to ignore the fact that the state and country in which I am so proud to live sanction such draconian measures. But we must confront the facts: it does. Now, we need to start considering what our use of solitary confinement says us as Texans and Americans. Let’s end a form torture that helps neither our prisoners, our guards, nor our communities. Let’s be people who act on the values we so proudly teach our children. Let’s end the use of solitary confinement.
Ellen Trinklein is a communications intern at the ACLU of Texas’ home office in Houston, where she’s pursuing B.A.s in German Studies and Policy Studies at Rice University.
Topping the list of potential Texas prison closures is the Dawson State Jail, a high-rise building on the bank of the Trinity River in downtown Dallas. The Texas Tribune reported this week that more than two dozen organizations signed a letter urging legislators to shutter the facility, citing failures in oversight and provision of healthcare. (UTMB provides actual healthcare services at the unit, but an investigative report last year found that staff “did not follow proper procedures by failing to call for help” in a high-profile death case.) In addition, whereas closing the Central Unit took longer than expected to wind down operations, the contract with Corrections Corporation of America to operate Dawson runs out at the end of this fiscal year. So the budget savings would be both more certain and immediate than closing the century-old, state-run Central Unit. No doubt there are other criteria for judging potential prison closures, but Dawson seems to be a likely candidate by almost any measure.
On Feb 10, 2013, we held a Symposium in Austin to find a cure to our state’s addiction to mass-incarceration. We learned from the best and most experienced: folks at the grassroots level, from the ACLU of Texas professionals who deal with the Texas Legislature every day and from an ACLU professional who has won victories in Florida, a state not unlike ours. Listen to what they think needs to happen in Texas.
Hope and Naz Mustakim | One Couple’s Battle Within a Broken Immigration System
Howard Simon | Using Electronic Communications to Enact Social Change
Panel Discussion| Key Policies to Focus on in 2013
ACLU of Texas | 75 years of protecting your liberty
Mass-incarceration is not the answer to all of our social problems like drug addiction or undocumented immigration, yet our country spends billions to lock people up instead of investing in real solutions. Want to help us end mass-incarceration in Texas? Be our eyes and ears in your part of the state when you join the Community Action Network. We need people like you to stand with us. Together we can make a difference.
The DPIC reports 43 total executions around the country in 2012, with 75% of them carried out in Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Mississippi. This constituted the second lowest number of executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
Texas carried out 15 executions, the highest in the country. The executions included the controversial case of Marvin Wilson, who was declared intellectually disabled and executed despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that executing the mentally disabled is unconstitutional.
Six inmates received stays of execution. The executions were stopped pending review of DNA evidence, the mental competency of the inmates, and claims related to ineffective legal counsel. Three people received reduced sentences and were taken off death row.
The TCADP report found that the use of the death penalty is geographically isolated to only a few counties in the state. There were nine new death sentences this year, over half coming from the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. Texas jurors in 4 capital cases rejected the death penalty, choosing to sentence defendants to life without the possibility of parole.
TCADP also highlighted the arbitrary nature of the death penalty in Texas and the disproportionate impact on African-American and Hispanic defendants. Over the last five years, 75% of new death sentences have been given to people of color.
Since 1982, Texas has executed a total of 492 people – 253 of the executions were carried out under Governor Rick Perry. There are seven executions already scheduled for 2013, starting with the January 29th scheduled execution of Kimberly McCarthy.
Attend the ACLU of Texas Symposium & Lobby Day Feb 10th & 11th in Austin to call for changes in the Texas criminal justice system. Click here to sign-up.
Being released from prison isn’t just about being free. Former inmates face serious obstacles to rejoining society as productive members.
Mental health issues, lack of education, and minimal work experience are huge barriers on the path to a “normal life.” The latest national data indicates that about two-thirds of released prisoners are arrested within three years.
Housing services, legal clinics, employment services, educations assistance, and other services are only a few clicks away with this new tool. See the website in action by double clicking the video below to watch it full screen.Or try it out for yourself.
The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition works on issues across Texas’ criminal and juvenile justice systems to create stronger families, less taxpayer waste, and safer communities
The ACLU and Human Rights Watch recently released the report Growing Up Locked Down which looks at the practice of placing youth in solitary confinement (22-23 hours a day isolated from human contact in a small cell). The report outlines a myriad of concerns associated with this practice.
Holding youth in solitary confinement causes psychological, physical harm, and social and developmental harm. Isolated youth exhibit mental health issues such as increased risk of suicide, self harm, and exacerbation of existing mental health issues. Youth held in this form of confinement also rarely receive the kind of exercise necessary for a normal young person leading to physical harm. Finally, youth in solitary confinement often do not have significant contact with family members, do not have meaningful educational services, and rarely receive counseling and other basic services. This problem is particularly dramatic for youth with intellectual disabilities or mental health issues. The report recommends a number of reforms to address this litany of issues, but in general this practice simply should be used minimally or never.
In Texas, youth are placed in solitary confinement in the following settings:
County (adult) jails
State run juvenile facilities
County run juvenile facilities
Juveniles certified as adults may be placed in solitary while incarcerated in state prison facilities
In each of these settings, youth face the same risks of harm identified in the national report. In some cases, for example youth housed in county jails awaiting trial, the youth awaiting trial are placed in solitary confinement without a criminal conviction. In county jails, youth are placed in solitary confinement to protect the youth from the adult population in these facilities, but ironically this protective placement causes many other problems.
To address these issues in Texas, the ACLU of Texas is asking legislators to support two important reforms. First, the ACLU of Texas along with a number of partner organizations is working to end the use of solitary confinement as punishment. Solitary confinement has such a negative impact on youth, it should only be used in emergency or dangerous situations for short stints of time. It should not be a punishment for failing to clean one’s cell or having contraband reading material.
Second, we are asking legislators to create basic review for any youth placed in solitary confinement. Drawing on the example of West Virginia, we have recommended that legislators pass a bill requiring the following:
Any facility that houses youth in solitary confinement must create an oversight committee or an Administrative Segregation Committee
An Administrative Segregation Committee will include at least one medical professional (either a mental health or medical expert)
The Committee will review initial placement of all youth placed in solitary confinement in the facility
The Committee will continue to regularly review the placement of the youth for the duration of placement
The Committee will create a Behavior Improvement Plan for the youth which provides a graduated return of privileges and a roadmap for the youth to leave solitary confinement and return to a less isolated setting
Americans expect that they will not be found guilty without a fair trial. A similar principle applies to sentencing of individuals found guilty of a capital offense which, according to our laws, includes the opportunity to provide evidence that the death penalty is too harsh in the circumstances of their case. On August 22, 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the execution of John Balentine for precisely this reason. The cancellation came just one hour before his execution was set to take place.
Balentine’s lawyer, Lydia Brandt, has argued that extenuating conditions in his childhood, such as violence and delayed emotional development, were not considered when the district court of Potter County handed him the death penalty. According to Brandt, Balentine’s lawyers in his original trial and early appeals failed to present evidence that could have persuaded jurors to give him a life sentence. Brandt cited a recent court ruling from Arizona regarding the issue of ineffective counsel, Martinez v. Ryan, to request a review of his case.
There are two phases in the death penalty trial. First, the jury decides whether the defendant is guilty. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, then the jury decides the punishment. This is called the sentencing phase. In the sentencing phase, attorneys can present mitigating evidence to prove that the defendant should not have to face the death penalty. The majority of death penalty cases involve defendants who have experienced extraordinary circumstances, such as traumatic life experiences or intellectual disabilities, that sometimes convince jurors the death penalty isn’t deserved.
While the system allows for the presentation and consideration of mitigating evidence, the system is also plagued by “randomness” and wantonness, according to a 2011 report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). The report looks at how capital cases are arbitrarily assessed and reveals how factors other than the severity of the crime or the guilt of the criminal can influence the decision to use the death penalty.
Ineffective legal representation often plays a role in death penalty cases, as well. In many cases, defendants who are unable to pay are represented by inexperienced or over-burdened attorneys. The DPIC has compiled a long list of cases in which the competency of the lawyer or the right to an attorney is at issue.
The Texas Defender Service is an organization that works toward access to competent defense and ensuring a fair criminal justice system in Texas. There current cases of interest include Duane Buck, Marcus Druery, Yokamon Hearn, Ricky Kerr, and Scott Panetti.
John Balentine was the fifth prisoner on Texas’ death row to receive a stay of execution in 2012. There are nine more executions scheduled this year, with two scheduled in September. Robert Harris is scheduled to be executed September 20th, and Cleve Foster is scheduled for execution September 25th.
The University of San Francisco Law School and the Center for Law and Global Justice recently published a report comparing the American criminal justice system with that of other countries. The results were not flattering.
Compared to the rest of the world, the United States incarcerates for longer periods of time for less serious offenses. That’s why the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, despite the fact that several European countries actually exceed the United States in prison admissions per capita per year. According to the report, the sentencing practices of the United States are not only out-of-step with the rest of the world and fail to address rehabilitation.
Drug offenders in America are incarcerated for much longer than their international counterparts. Possession of one kilogram of cocaine could earn an American offender a decade in prison, while an offender in Britain would only receive a six-month sentence for the same offense.
And America has many more prisoners serving life sentences without the possibility of parole than any other country in the world. There are about 42,000 prisoners in the US serving life sentences, compared to 59 prisoners serving life in Australia and 41 in England. In most countries life sentences are reserved for extremely heinous crimes such as multiple homicide, whereas in America life sentences can be meted out for much less. Thanks to habitual offender statutes (California’s “three strikes law” being an infamous example), Americans can receive decades in prison for stealing a pair of shoes if the infraction is the third strike.
The report also blames our high incarceration rates on lack of judicial discretion and mandatory minimum sentencing, the frequent use of consecutive sentencing, and the rise in prison privatization. Private prisons hold about 6 percent of state prisoners and 16 percent of federal prisoners. Private prisons benefit financially from laws that require longer sentences, and the industry therefore lobbies against shorter sentences.
The report makes several recommendations to shorten prison terms and bring our sentencing practices more in-line with the rest of the world:
• Abolishing mandatory minimum sentences in favor of more flexible sentencing guidelines;
• Reserve life without parole sentences for only the most extreme cases;
• Retroactively applying new sentencing laws when the new law would reduce the sentence of an offender; and
• Consider international legal standards when codifying sentencing laws.