Tag Archives: jail

Justice in Erie County, New York

Lest anyone think jail problems are just a southern phenomenon, the Buffalo News reports that Erie County, New York’s two jails have a few problems, too:
The U.S. Justice Department, after an almost two-year investigation, finds that Erie County’s two jails routinely violate the constitutional rights of their inmates and subjects them to brutality as well poor care on several levels.

In a 50-page report, the Justice Department says the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and the Correctional Facility in Alden have failed to correct their numerous problems, even after being warned of them for years by other regulatory agencies.

The Justice Department called the effort by Sheriff Timothy B. Howard’s Jail Management Division to run the two facilities as “woefully inadequate” and said it has led to a “pattern of serious harm to inmates, including death.”

“We conclude that the conditions of confinement violate the constitutional rights of inmates,” the Justice Department said in a letter to County Executive Chris Collins, who had refused to cooperate with the probe.

It turns out the Erie county government went well beyond just not cooperating.

Maybe if we weren’t locking up more people than any other country in the world, we might not have so many problems with jails.

Prison Reform

US_incarceration_timeline-clean.gif We’ve locked a lot of people up since 1980, making the U.S. the world leader in prison population (both total and per capita), and the south the leader of the U.S. Locking up a lot of non-violent offenders, especially drug offenders, hasn’t bought us much safety and has caused a lot of problems.

Fortunately, somebody is trying to do something about it:

Washington, DC–Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) today introduced bipartisan legislation to create a blue-ribbon commission charged with conducting an 18-month, top-to-bottom review of the nation’s entire criminal justice system and offering concrete recommendations for reform. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), Ranking Member on the Judiciary Committee, is the principal Republican cosponsor.
You can follow the progress of S.714 online; it’s currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Meanwhile, Jim Webb explains the problem in Parade:

America’s criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace. Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness. Our failure to address this problem has caused the nation’s prisons to burst their seams with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods have become more dangerous. We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives.

We need to fix the system. Doing so will require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long and of how we address the long-term consequences of incarceration. Twenty-five years ago, I went to Japan on assignment for PARADE to write a story on that country’s prison system. In 1984, Japan had a population half the size of ours and was incarcerating 40,000 sentenced offenders, compared with 580,000 in the United States. As shocking as that disparity was, the difference between the countries now is even more astounding–and profoundly disturbing. Since then, Japan’s prison population has not quite doubled to 71,000, while ours has quadrupled to 2.3 million.

The United States has by far the world’s highest incarceration rate. With 5% of the world’s population, our country now houses nearly 25% of the world’s reported prisoners. We currently incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the average worldwide of 158 for every 100,000. In addition, more than 5 million people who recently left jail remain under “correctional supervision,” which includes parole, probation, and other community sanctions. All told, about one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail, or on supervised release. This all comes at a very high price to taxpayers: Local, state, and federal spending on corrections adds up to about $68 billion a year.

Our overcrowded, ill-managed prison systems are places of violence, physical abuse, and hate, making them breeding grounds that perpetuate and magnify the same types of behavior we purport to fear.

And Arlen Specter gets into details in an op-ed in the Philadelphia newspaper:

The U.S. criminalizes conduct that would be better left to treatment and penalties other than imprisonment. Take drugs. The number of jailed drug offenders has soared 1,200 percent since 1980 despite the fact that many of these offenders have no history of violence or high-level drug distribution. Many are behind bars under sentencing guidelines that leave judges no choice.

In another example of dubious penology, too many mentally ill people are treated as miscreants or felons rather than as patients in need of treatment. There are four times as many mentally ill people in prison than in mental health hospitals. Many of these individuals end up back on the streets.

This is not about people convicted of violent crimes. We need to make sure that dangerous criminals and second-time offenders with a history of violence go to jail. As a former prosecutor who served two terms as D.A. in Philadelphia, I’m a strong proponent of incarcerating violent criminals for public safety and deterrence. And I support the death penalty in especially egregious cases.

But I also believe we need to restore judicial discretion in low-level drug cases and other nonviolent crimes. With our federal prisons at 140 percent capacity and with 7.3 million Americans incarcerated or on probation or parole – a number equivalent to 1 in every 31 adults – the issue cannot wait.

The question we started with, jail deaths in Lowndes County jail, is only a symptom. The problem is much larger. Fortunately, we can do something about it.

Georgia does not have a member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but that means there’s no reason not to contact any or all of the members of that commmittee. Here they are.

U.S. Leads the World and South Leads the U.S.: In Prisons

incrt.gifAccording to the U.S. Department of Justice, the number of sentenced inmates incarcerated under state and federal jurisdiction per 100,000 population has increased from 139 in 1980 to 507 in 2007. That’s more than tripled.

That also gives the U.S. the highest per-capita prison population of any country in the world. Also the biggest prison population; bigger by far than China or Russia:

The United States has the highest incarceration rate and the biggest prison population of any country in the world. Even though the United States represents only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prison inmates.
prisonstudies-org.jpg And in the U.S., according to the Institute for Southern Studies, the South has even higher prison populations per capita.
When it came to locking people up, Louisiana leads the South, and the South leads the nation. Simply put: the South has more of its population in prisons or jails than any other part of the country.

Since 1980, the country’s prison population has quadrupled to more than two million, with the South accounting for nearly half of that increase. The prison population increase can be attributed largely to “tough-on-crime” criminal justice policies enacted in the 1980s and 1990s. Among them are mandatory drug sentences, “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” laws for repeat offenders, and “truth-in-sentencing” laws that restrict early releases. These draconian policies uniquely hurt the South, especially where enacted with key backing from “get-tough-on-crime” lawmakers (resulting in, among other things, the disenfranchisement of millions of potential Democratic voters).

208px-Federal_Prisoner_Distribution.png The effects of the Drug War and its resulting surge in incarceration were also especially hard-felt in the South. By 2000, nine of the 20 states with the highest incarceration rates were in the South. And by 2008, 10 of the 20 states with the highest rates were in the South. Prevention, treatment and re-entry programs have been slashed while prison budgets continue to rise.

The racial disparity of these policies has been tremendous: Nationally, black adults are four times as likely as whites to be under correctional control. One in 11 black adults — 9.2 percent — was under correctional supervision by 2008. And because the majority of African Americans live in the Deep South (the highest populations are in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia respectively), the racial disparities of “get-tough” policies have been disproportionately felt there.

It seems that crime and punishment is now a dominant industry in the Deep South. By 2008, the top five states with the highest adult incarceration rates were in the South: Louisiana leads the way, with one out of every 55 residents behind bars. Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, and Alabama finish off the top five.

So, even if, as the VDT says, jail deaths in Lowndes County, Georgia, are no higher than in Fulton or DeKalb Counties, why are the jail populations in all those counties so high in the first place?

Is it because there are more criminals in the South? Apparently not:

Dealing out longer sentences and putting more people behind bars have been the hallmarks of Southern states, Gelb told CNN. “The huge differences between states are mostly due not to crime trends, or social and economic forces,” he said. “The rates are different mostly because of choices that the states have made about how they respond to crime.”
The ISS article goes on to suggest several alternatives already tried and shown to work in Texas and other states.

Jail Deaths Studied

The VDT studied jail deaths back in 2006:
Recent reports of the death of an inmate in the Lowndes County Jail have a number of citizens questioning the causes and numbers of deaths that have occurred at the jail in the last several years.
They found that the number of deaths per inmate population per year in Lowndes County was similar to those for Fulton County and DeKalb County. However, there’s a lot more context that the VDT did not include.

Perhaps for reasons of space, the VDT did not include a list of inmate deaths. Here is George Rhynes’ attempt at compiling a complete list of jail deaths in Lowndes County, 1994-2009.

More generally, beyond comparisons with Atlanta counties, how do Lowndes County inmate populations compare with those elsewhere? That’s a longer story for another post.