Tag: mass incarceration

Why is Kent McKeever wearing an orange jumpsuit for Lent?

Alan Bean with Kent McKeever
Alan Bean with Kent McKeever

By Alan Bean

This Wednesday Bill Jones and traveled to Waco to visit with Joel Gregory, the former pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas who, though white as white can be, spends a lot of time preaching to African American preachers.  After a delightful lunch in the faculty dining room at Baylor, we also dropped in on Kent McKeever, an immigration attorney who works with Mission Waco.  Kent was wearing an orange jumpsuit.  He will be wearing the same outfit throughout the 40 days of Lent.  You can find his blogging on his unusual Lenten fast here, but I have pasted his first entry below.

Day One

Kent McKeever

I decided to spice up Lent for myself this year.  Instead of giving up sweets or coffee or just TV when there aren’t sports on, I am choosing to wear an orange prison/jail uniform for the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday (minus Sundays because they are “little Easters” in which we celebrate our God who sets us free).  Why, you might ask, as I have been asking myself.  The next 40 days will surely reveal some answers to why, both for me personally and for anyone who chooses to join me in this journey as you read about my experience or support the ones who are truly imprisoned in countless other ways.  But here’s a start at why I have chosen to spend 40 Days in Orange. (more…)

Holder calls for an end to mass incarceration

By Alan Bean

In a speech delivered to the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder signaled that the Obama administration wants to move away from the philosophy of mass incarceration.

Holder’s analysis of the criminal justice system is reminiscent of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow except that Alexander’s bold racial claims are softened considerably.  Nonetheless, the AG acknowledged that the criminal justice system is systematically unfair to people of color.

The speech highlighted three particular initiatives: those designed to cut down on the incarceration of low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no association to major drug cartels; policies designed to expand the compassionate release of aging prisoners who pose no threat to public safety; and encouraging alternatives to incarceration.

Holder clearly understands that we are locking up far, far too many people and appears to understand that the costs go far beyond the inordinate price tag that comes with mass incarceration:

Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.  And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.

I was pleased to hear the AG acknowledge that federal prosecutors are making too many federal criminal cases.  Having covered a number of federal cases, Alvin Clay, the Colomb family, Ramsey Muniz, and the IRP-6, I know how easy it can be for the federal government to make a weak case stick.  Federal prosecutors have been handed sweeping powers that translate into a 98% conviction rate.  They can’t simply indict a ham sandwich–add a little mustard, and they can get a conviction!

It will be interesting to see if Holder’s critique of mindless prison expansion impacts the immigration system in a meaningful way.

Finally, I was pleased to note that Holder has given the blessing of the Obama administration to the sentencing reforms currently enjoying bi-partisan support in Congress.

Below, I have pasted the conclusion to Holder’s groundbreaking call for a new criminal justice regime, but I urge you read the entire speech. (more…)

Another conservative decries mass incarceration

By Alan Bean

When I first became aware of the horrors of mass incarceration fifteen years ago, hardly anyone in Middle America was discussing the problem.  Things have changed.

Just last week, Michelle Alexander addressed the Biennial Convention of the American Baptist Churches in Kansas City.  American Baptists are far more progressive than Southern Baptists, to be sure, but it took some guts for denominational leaders to invite an outspoken advocate of radical reform to address a predominantly white audience.  I congratulate them.  Part of me hopes Michelle didn’t ruffle too many feathers; the other part hopes she did. (more…)

Grits begs Texas legislators to close unneeded prisons

The state of Texas is poised to make some really bad choices and Scott Henson of Grits for Breakfast is sounding the alarm.

A plea to Texas budget conferees: Close two prison units, don’t buy empty cells we don’t need

 This is a plea to the ten conference committee members on the budget from both chambers of the Texas Legislature, who for the record are:
  • House: Pitts, Crownover, Otto, S. Turner, Zerwas
  • Senate: Williams, Duncan, Hinojosa, Nelson, Whitmire

Let’s talk for a moment about prisons. First the House and Senate have both agreed in the base budget to fund 5% employee raises for correctional workers. Please don’t start slashing at those wage hikes to pay for prison units you don’t need. Including the extra money to bail out Jones County, the House decision to buy a prison instead of closing two will cost Texans an extra $116.8 million in incarceration costs over the biennium for those line items compared to the Senate budget. Close the privately-run Dawson State Jail and Mineral Wells pre-parole units as suggested by Senate-side budget writers and tell the folks in Jones County they’re on their own, just like so many other counties that built speculative prisons and jails they now can’t fill. (more…)

How the NRA got rich pushing mass incarceration

PictureBy Alan Bean

The graph to the left shows how the prison population exploded after 1980. Part of the blame for this nightmarish experiment with big government must be laid at the feet of Wayne LaPierre and the NRA.

The goal was to raise money for the cash-strapped anti-gun regulation organization.  Accusing the Clintons (both of them) of being soft-on-crime was a great way to catch the attention of conservative Americans shocked by the apparent demise of the Reagan revolution.  Banging the drum for more prisons, mandatory minimum sentences, and the defunding of  rehabilitation, re-entry and alternatives-to-prison programs fit the tenor of the times.

In 1992, when the NRA’s “lets-build-more-prisons” campaign got underway, Bill Clinton, like every other American politician, was doing his best to talk tough on crime.  The NRA’s goal was to talk tougher, even if that meant spewing utter nonsense and supporting ruinous policies.  You rarely see mass incarceration identified as a massive tax grab, but that’s exactly what it is.   (more…)

Task Force to Host Historic Restorative Justice Conference at Harvard Law School

By Pierre R. Berastain

Over the past year, the Massachusetts Restorative Justice Task Force has prepared to convene a daylong restorative justice summit at Harvard Law School. On November 3rd, 2012, Building Communities of Care Wherever We Are will seek to equip participants with tools to build restorative justice and transformative practices in their communities, schools, youth centers, domestic violence and sexual assault centers, faith communities, and prisons, among other contexts. The conference will be held from 8:30am to 5:00pm in Milstein East in Wasserstein Hall at Harvard Law School at 1585 Massachusetts Ave in Cambridge, Mass.

The initiative comes at a particularly important time given the alarming statistics that reflect the inefficiency of the criminal justice system, mainstream domestic violence and sexual violence programs, and the inimical zero tolerance policies implemented in school districts nation-wide. Today, for instance, the United States comprises five percent of the world population, but holds 25 percent of world prisoners. According to the NAACP, “Combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, one in every 31 adults is in some form of correctional control.” The cost of these correctional programs amount to over seventy billion dollars annually. The system disproportionately impacts people of color — or people of the global majority. For instance, according to the NAACP, “five times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate of Whites.” And according to The Sentencing Project, “African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).” These issues have special implications in Massachusetts, which spends six times more per prisoner than per public school pupil — a greater disparity than in any other state. In 2007, Massachusetts spent $78,580 per prisoner and only $12,857 per pupil. The disparities in justice and the surging cost of our punitive criminal justice system demand new paradigms of addressing offenses in our society.


Gramma Jesus, Jubillee theology and the New Jim Crow

Dr. Iva Carruthers

By Alan Bean

Yesterday, I spent eight hours listening to Texans talk about the impact of mass incarceration (more on that in a moment).  This morning I am sitting in a McDonald’s in Beaumont, Texas eating an Egg McMuffin and listening to the weather channel compete with FOX news.  I usually tell the young woman behind the counter (if, as is usually the case, she is African American) that FOX is insulting to our president and that upsets me.  But I don’t have the energy for that this morning.

I am in Beaumont to visit Ramsey Muniz, the Latino political leader serving a federal life sentence for his part in a non-existent narcotics conspiracy.   Normally, visitors are allowed to enter the visitor’s area at 8:30, but this morning we were told that we would have to wait three hours to see our loved ones because “we’re doing a fog count.”

It isn’t foggy in Beaumont.  Seasonably humid, perhaps, but you can see for miles in any direction.  The sign on the prison door says, “No visitation until 11:30.”  No, “we apologize for the inconvenience,” or “please accept our apology, but . . .”  This is prison, folks.

I informed the four twenty-something attendants in the visitation area that this kind of messaging combined with a totally unnecessary “fog count” constitutes an insult to the families who have come to visit.  They reacted as if I was being a smart-ass (which I was).  The rules are the rules.  Fog counts are very serious business.  Some inmate might wander off in the fog.  The fact that there is no fog this morning changes nothing.

So I got in my car and drove fifteen miles to this McDonald’s.  I can afford the $3.50 in gas; most of the other visitors cannot.  They will sit in the parking log for three long hours, trying to keep the toddlers entertained.  The shame and disgrace of incarceration clings to the families of the incarcerated.

Which brings me back to yesterday’s full day of testimony concerning prisons, inmates, inmates-in-waiting (the children of the incarcerated) and the mechanics of the New Jim Crow. (more…)

Why Obama lost the debate

By Alan Bean

My guess is that Mitt Romney will soon be neck-and-neck with the president in most swing states.  Nationally, the GOP candidate may soon move a point or two ahead.  Debates don’t always such deep impact, of course, but this one was different.  Barack Obama’s lead in the polls was based on two factors: a Democratic convention where everyone stayed on message, and an infamous video that made Romney look like a heartless, out of touch, let-them-eat-cake plutocrat.  Romney sank in the polls because he looked like a jerk.

Last night, Romney redefined himself. (more…)

Imprisoned by the walls that divide us

By Alan Bean

The United States of America is an uncommonly religious nation.  More to the point, we are an uncommonly Christian nation, at least insofar as stated religious affiliation is concerned (whether we actually reflect the soul of Jesus Christ is another matter altogether).  In the midst of startling ethnic diversity, three great cultures dominate: Latino, African American and Anglo.  Many things divide these three segments of the human family, but religion is not one of them.  Brown, Black and White, we are all overwhelmingly Christian.  In theory, we should all moralize and vote in a distinctly Christian fashion.  We should share a common moral discourse.

But we don’t.

Latinos, Blacks and Whites are all divided by internal political and ideological disputes, of course, but valid generalizations are possible.

For instance, Latinos, as a group, are deeply concerned about mass deportation, Blacks agonize over mass incarceration, and Whites, for the most part, give little thought to either issue.

Stout walls have gone up between us. These fortifications simplify our moral worlds by ensuring that we don’t have too much worry on our plates. But the walls lock us into tiny, constricted worlds.  We are deep in denial, imprisoned by fear and self-imposed ignorance.

There is nothing surprising in this.  Humans have a limited capacity for pain and complexity.  We worry more about our dogs and cats than the plight of the poor and the prisoner because puppies and kittens rub against our legs and demand our attention.  We love our immediate families with a singular intensity because we share a common history and anticipate a shared destiny.  We don’t care so much about other people’s kids because we don’t know them and most likely will never know them. (more…)

Standing up for guilty defendants

Michelle Alexander says the criminal justice reform movement should shed its fixation with innocence.  In her groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander suggests that reformers start focusing on normal defendants.  Since most criminal defendants done the deed, that means going to bat for guilty people.  Why would we want to do that? (more…)