Author: MWN

Kids left behind: Mass incarceration and the impact on U.S. children

By Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

When we talk about mass incarceration in the United States, we often focus on the problematic effect it has on those who are imprisoned within the system.  But the consequences of mass incarceration reach far beyond the 2.3 million Americans who are currently behind bars.  When one person is sent to prison, that person and everyone in his or her social world — parents, siblings, spouses, kids — feel the impact.

When children lose a parent to incarceration, the results can be devastating.

According to a recent report by Sadhbh Walshe of The Guardian, there are currently 10 million children in the United States with a parent who has been in prison or on parole or probation.  The majority of these children are children of color.  Among black children, 1 in 5 has a parent in prison.  By contrast, only 1 in 111 white children has an incarcerated parent.  As a result, mass incarceration has become one of the primary forces driving unequal outcomes for poor children of color.  As Walshe points out:

“These children are often deeply traumatized by the experience.  Their school work suffers, they can become emotionally withdrawn or aggressively act out.  The negative consequences tend to be exacerbated if they are unable to maintain meaningful contact with the parent they love while he or she is in prison.”

A report by the Sentencing Project revealed that kids of incarcerated parents are more likely to drop out of school, have disciplinary problems, and become incarcerated themselves.  Moreover, these children often lose contact with their incarcerated parents.  As of 2004, 59% of state inmates and 45% of federal inmates had never been visited by their children.  More than half of all prisoners in the U.S. are located 100-500 miles away from their homes.  This distance only makes visitation more difficult for the families of prisoners.

To reduce negative impacts on children, the Sentencing Project suggests prison programs that promote parent-child bonding, reentry assistance, and sentencing reforms that revise “tough on crime” policies that leave people locked up for excessive periods of time.  Placing prisoners closer to home and implementing better visitation policies would also help.

However, Walshe makes a great point: “Unless we stop using incarceration as a one-stop shop for all social ills, stop being “tough on crime” and start being tough on the causes of crime, it’s impossible to see how this cycle of despair will ever end.”

Michael Morton tells his story

by Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

Michael Morton is a free man.

In a recent 60 Minutes segment, you see footage of Morton being released from prison and stepping out into the warm Texas sunshine for the first time in 25 years.  “The sun felt so good on my face, on my skin,” Morton recalls, “I felt like I was just drinking in the sunshine.”

In 1987, Morton was convicted of brutally murdering his wife, Christine.  He was sentenced to life in prison.

But he was innocent.

Morton’s case gained national media attention last year when he was exonerated based on DNA evidence — a bandana found near the scene of the crime had traces of Christine’s blood and the DNA of another man.  That same man’s DNA matched that found at the crime scene of another murder that happened in 1988 near where Christine was killed.  Morton was in prison when the second murder occurred.

An investigation by the Innocence Project revealed prosecutorial misconduct in Morton’s case.  Key pieces of evidence were withheld by the prosecution — pieces of evidence that would have cleared Morton’s name. The District Attorney at the time of Morton’s trial, Ken Anderson, is now under investigation.

“I don’t have a lotta things really driving me,” Morton says to the 60 Minutes reporter, “But one of the things is, I don’t want this to happen to anybody else. Revenge isn’t the issue here. Revenge, I know, doesn’t work. But accountability works. It’s what balances out. It’s the equilibrium.”

Check out the full 60 Minutes report here.

DOJ: Sexual misconduct at Walnut Grove youth facility among worst in nation

By Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

After reports emerged of physical and sexual abuse, inadequate medical care, and extended isolation of youth at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (WGYCF) in Mississippi, the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal class-action lawsuit against GEO Group, the private prison corporation that operates the facility.

Last month, a settlement reached in the WGYCF case required the state of Mississippi to remove all youth from WGYCF and move them to another facility.  On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released its report on the Walnut Grove investigation.  According to a DOJ press release:

“The United States conducted an in-depth investigation, including an on-site inspection of WGYCF, accompanied by expert consultants in the areas of corrections, medical care and mental health care.  Evidence reveals systematic, egregious and dangerous practices at WGYCF exacerbated by a lack of accountability and controls.  The Justice Department found reasonable cause to believe that a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct exists in several areas, including:

  • Deliberate indifference to staff sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior with youth;
  • Use of excessive use of force by WGYCF staff on youth;
  • Inadequate protection of youth from youth-on-youth violence;
  • Deliberate indifference to youth at risk of self-injurious and suicidal behaviors; and
  • Deliberate indifference to the medical needs of youth.”

The DOJ found that sexual misconduct at WGYCF was “among the worst that we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.” (more…)

States decline offer from private prison corporation

by Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

Earlier this year, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) sent letters to 48 states offering to buy their public prisons.

According to CCA’s letter, allowing the corporation to purchase and operate corrections facilities would help states “manage challenging corrections budgets” and generate millions in savings.  That may sound like a good idea to some states, but here’s the catch: States would have to sign a 20-year contract with CCA and keep correctional facilities at a 90% occupancy rate or higher.

Last month, I pointed out several serious concerns with CCA’s proposition. In addition, a report by the ACLU of Ohio revealed false advertising in CCA’s letter:

“Much of CCA’s letter was devoted to touting its recent purchase of Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut, Ohio. In 2012, the Lake Erie facility became the first publicly owned prison in the nation sold to a private prison company. While this is certainly a dubious distinction, CCA took some liberties with the facts.

Most notably was CCA’s assertion that it would save states money, which has been refuted repeatedly. While CCA claims it will save Ohioans $3 million per year, a recent report analyzing the state’s contract shows that taxpayers will actually lose money over the next 20 years. Of course, this is not earth-shattering news, as other fiscal analyses in Ohio and Arizona have produced similar results.”

Thankfully, several states have already declined CCA’s offer. Although the states refused to say why, California, Texas, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee all rejected the proposition. According to Greg Bluestein with the Associated Press, this may be “a sign that privatizing prisons might not be as popular as it once was.”

Let’s hope that Bluestein is right and that more states will reject CCA’s offer.

Former narcotics cop: “End the drug war, spend money on schools instead.”

In the New York Times opinion piece below, former narcotics cop Neill Franklin discusses the need to end mass incarceration and the failed war on drugs. Franklin, now the executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, was a police officer for 34 years with the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department. Alan and I had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Franklin speak at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference this February. MWN

Spend Money on Schools Instead

by Neill Franklin

If we have any hope of healing the deep wounds of race in this country, we’ve first got to stop the bleeding caused by mass incarceration and the other ill effects of the failed “war on drugs.”

Thanks to our ramped up “war on drugs,” when I walk in my old neighborhood I see houses where one or both parents are behind bars or on probation or parole. It didn’t use to be that way.

Our prohibition policies, and the “us vs. the man” mentality they have caused in our communities, have badly damaged how young black men are perceived — and not just by white people. As an African-American narcotics cop in Baltimore, even I fell victim to fear and apprehension when I encountered a group of black teenagers on the street. Making drugs like marijuana illegal has made them incredibly lucrative, and it’s not hard to see why many teenagers choose to enlist in the dope game and play for the chance at moving up the chain and raking in tax-free money rather than donning a McDonald’s uniform.

Even if our drug policies aren’t successful in reducing drug use, they are successful in turning whole communities into criminals. Nearly one in three black men can expect to spend time behind bars. For many black teenagers, getting arrested is a rite of passage.

But it wasn’t always this way. (more…)

Ernie Lopez: “Free, but not cleared.”

Ernie Lopez

by Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

Last year, Friends of Justice wrote a post about the NPR and PBS Frontline research on child death cases. Based on the dozens of cases investigated, NPR and PBS Frontline found that flimsy evidence is often used to convict individuals in child death cases. They found numerous individuals who had been wrongfully convicted based on faulty forensic science.

Ernie Lopez was one of those individuals.

Lopez, a child care provider, was watching six-month old Isis Vas in October 2000 when the baby collapsed. Lopez called 911 and Isis was rushed to the hospital, but she died the next day. Baby Isis was bleeding and bruised when she arrived at the hospital, and forensic scientists testified that Isis had been abused before her death. According to NPR, “Lopez was indicted on capital murder and sexual assault charges. Prosecutors tried him on the sexual assault count, and he was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison.”

The extensive research conducted by NPR and PBS Frontline, however, uncovered a previously unknown factor in Lopez’s case: “Isis Vas had a severe blood clotting disorder, one that caused bruising and bleeding that mimicked the signs of physical and sexual abuse.” (more…)

Did the Religious Right enable Guatemalan genocide?

Pat Robertson

In January, former Guatemalan military dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt was ordered to stand trial for his role in almost 2,000 deaths and 1,400 human rights abuses that occurred during his rule as de-facto president from 1982-1983. Montt, according to the New York Times, faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for his part in Guatemala’s brutal 36-year civil war which resulted in the deaths of nearly 200,000 people.

According to Bill Berkowitz of Talk2Action.org, televangelist Pat Robertson enabled the Guatemalan genocide.

Montt was a favorite among conservative evangelicals, including Robertson who “praised Montt for his ‘enlightened leadership.'” Berkowitz argues that the Religious Right played a large role in U.S.-Central American relations during the 1980s. In an attempt to end communism and expand evangelical Protestantism in Central America, the Religious Right supported military dictators and policies that were “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.”

Take a moment to read Berkowitz’s enlightening essay posted below. MWN

Guatemala’s Former Leader Charged with Genocide. Pat Robertson Enabled It.

by Bill Berkowitz

Nearly thirty years ago, Guatemala’s ruthless dictator, José Efraín Ríos Montt and televangelist Pat Robertson were practically tied at the hip. Now, Guatemala’s judicial system is debating how to handle charges of genocide against the former military dictator, while Robertson, who had praised Ríos Montt for his `enlightened leadership,’ appears to have turned his back on his old friend.

In the early 1980s, José Efraín Ríos Montt, a military general was a favorite of the Reagan Administration and U.S. Christian conservative evangelical leaders – particularly televangelist Pat Robertson — and organizations. Ríos Montt was one of a series of military dictators that masterminded the murders of perhaps as many as 200,000 Guatemalans — including tens of thousands of Mayan people — as well as the destruction of a numerous Mayan villages. (more…)

Victory for Walnut Grove

According to a federal consent decree, the state of Mississippi will no longer house juveniles at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility. The juvenile facility, located in Walnut Grove, MS, is run by GEO Group, the second largest private prison corporation in the U.S.

In November 201o, the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal class-action lawsuit against GEO Group when reports emerged of sexual abuse, improper medical care, extended prisoner isolation, and violence among inmates at Walnut Grove. According to the ACLU press release, youth at the facility were “forced to live in barbaric and unconstitutional conditions and [were] subjected to excessive uses of force by prison staff.”

The consent decree requires the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) to remove all youth under the age of 17 from the privately-run Walnut Grove facility and house them in a publicly-operated facility instead. The state is required to provide rehabilitative services for the youth and implement measures to protect them from sexual and physical abuse. Under this decree, the state of Mississippi is also prohibited from placing any youth in solitary confinement. MWN

Ground-Breaking Federal Consent Decree Will Prohibit Solitary Confinement of Youth Convicted as Adults, and Bar Their Incarceration in Violence-Ridden, For-Profit Prison Run by GEO Group

By KAREN WILSON

Children under the supervision of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) will no longer be housed in a privately run prison or subjected to brutal solitary confinement under the terms of a groundbreaking settlement of a federal class action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The lawsuit charged that conditions at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, which houses youth convicted as adults, are unconstitutional. The facility is operated by GEO Group Inc., the nation’s second largest private prison corporation.

“This represents a sea change in the way the MDOC will treat children in its custody,” said Sheila Bedi, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “As a result of this litigation, Mississippi’s children will no longer languish in an abusive, privately operated prison that profits each time a young man is tried as an adult and ends up behind bars.” (more…)