Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The 'Shock Of Confinement': The Grim Reality Of Suicide In Jail

Yes but...Jail sucides have decreased by about 64 percent in the past thirty years.  This is a little known fact that's never mentioned.


The case of Sandra Bland has raised anger and suspicions nationwide since she was found dead in a jail cell in Hempstead, Texas, two weeks ago. Bland's family and supporters have rejected the medical examiner's finding of suicide, and the criminal district attorney for Waller County, Texas, says he's recruited two outside lawyers to assist in the investigation of her death. The local investigation has been reviewed by the FBI, and local prosecutors have pledged to bring the case to a grand jury next month.
If it turns out Bland did commit suicide, experts in jail mortality say it wouldn't be as surprising as her family believes. The grim reality is that jails have high suicide rates — higher than prisons. Part of the reason, says corrections expert and consultant Steve J. Martin, is what he calls the "shock of confinement." Jails often house people who've never been in serious legal trouble before, and it can have a traumatic effect on them.
"It overtakes your being in the sense that normalcy is gone," Martin says.
Martin has worked in corrections for decades, and he's the court-appointed monitor for New York's reform effort at Rikers Island. He says jail can be especially traumatic for someone who's usually a straight arrow. He imagines what would be running through the mind of his daughter, a high-achieving college student, if she were locked up.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Prosecutors Rally Against Sentencing Reform, Say Build More Prisons

Nervous federal prosecutors attempted to rally opposition Friday to criminal sentencing reform in response to President Barack Obama’s week of issuing commutations and making pro-reform speeches.
The president and a bipartisan alliance in Congress say inflexible penalties for various drug crimes should be reduced or eliminated as a matter of fairness. But the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys says elected officials should make no such change.
Obama, who on Thursday became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, would threaten public safety if he signs legislation allowing judges greater discretion, they warned.
“The federal criminal justice system is not broken,” Steve Cook, the association's president, said at a lightly attended event in the nation's capital. “What a huge mistake it would be,” he said, to change sentencing laws.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

I don't see how politicizing the BOP will help matters. The unique thing about the BOP is that its leaders are promoted from within its ranks and have a thorough knowledge not only of agency operations but of corrections in general. I think that's a major reason the BOP has been at the forefront of corrections innovation during the past 40+ years.
State corrections organizations may appoint directors with little or no knowledge and experience of corrections and of the agencies they'll be in charge of.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015


News about a pair of escaped killers from a New York state prison and the subsequent manhunt exposes an unstated paradox about the value of prisons in our society.  The ensuing fear among the local populace begs an important question.

Which one thing is more crucial, a prison's recidivism rate or its escape rate?  Given media publicity and people’s reaction, it seems escape rate would garner more votes.  Recidivism however is the standard.

It’s time to admit that recidivism is a flawed success measure.  It tells us very little other than the fact that a person hasn’t returned to prison.  Is it because they reformed or didn’t get caught?  We know that a person can avoid incarceration for a variety of reasons, including witness intimidation, while continuing to victimize.

Measuring recidivism results from an unrealistic mission thrust upon prisons by a group of religious zealots more than two hundred years ago.  In 1790, American Quakers in Philadelphia established a new type of prison.  The Walnut Street Jail reformed the way punishment was administered in our country.  Inmates were to be rehabilitated through penance (hence the term penitentiary), and abstinence from alcohol.  The Bible was the only reading material allowed.

A mission, developed more than two hundred years ago to redeem drunkards and social misfits, remains to this day.  Churches are not held responsible if they don’t turn sinners into saints.  Hospitals are not held responsible if they fail to cure someone of cancer or severe bodily trauma.  Prisons however are condemned for not turning criminals into responsible citizens.

It seems we ask too much of prisons.  We ask them to succeed where other social institutions have failed.  We ask them to make people accept social norms they’ve rejected and ridiculed.  An institution with an outdated mission and judged by invalid measures will always be proclaimed a failure.

We instinctively know the value of prisons.  People who are securely confined don’t prey on our communities. Reducing victimization should trump reducing recidivism.

After the Attica Prison uprising of 1971, the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) was created and ushered in a new era of reform.  The success has been phenomenal.  Thanks to new architectural designs, better staff training, classification systems, and management methods promoted by the NIC, prisons have become much more peaceful in the past 30 years.  Between 1980 and 2003 the state prison homicide rate dropped from 54.0 per 100,000 inmates to an astounding 5.7 per 100,000.   This occurred despite an inmate population explosion.

The direct supervision model of institution design and management, promoted by NIC, focuses on managing the environment and can be viewed as a microcosm of community-oriented policing in prison and jail.  Officers are in constant and direct contact with inmates and get to know them so they can respond to trouble before it escalates into violence.  Negotiation and communication become more important staff skills than brute force.

It seems that prison reformers should rejoice at such good news but they persist as if nothing’s changed since 1971.  Prisons must be managed humanely, and constitutionally, plus provide education, vocational training and other treatment options, including community transition.  However they should not be held responsible if a people return to crime after their release.  Personal behavior is linked to personal responsibility.  

We should realize that incarceration is our least used option.  The vast majority of our corrections population (more than 80% in some states) is under community supervision rather than locked up.  Contrary to what we’re often told, we spend ten times more on education and on public welfare than on prisons. 

We’re also told that prisons hold scores of non-violent, low level offenders.  A person’s current offense doesn’t paint a complete picture of criminal history, circumstances of the crime, or plea-bargaining.  Al Capone’s only major conviction was for tax evasion and he had a history of illegal booze violations.

Reformers want to be “smart on crime” but they demand that the system do what it already does.  The vast majority of offenders are under community supervision.  We spend a lot more on education and social welfare than on prisons and those that are locked up are generally the ones that should be.

It’s time to realize that the criminal justice system shouldn’t be a gatekeeper for prisons.  It should confront and prevent crime.  Workable strategies should be developed in concert with citizens, social services, faith groups and others at the neighborhood level.  This bottom up approach is better than the current top down approach of legislative and court action favored by reformers.

We need justice reform but we won’t succeed by focusing on the wrong problems and proposing flawed solutions.  The criminal justice system should be evaluated by its ability to protect the community rather than on its success at redeeming souls.