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As New York Decarcerates, The Number of People Under Supervision of Parole Rises

If Donna Hylton were still on parole, it would be a parole violation for her to socialize or speak with Topeka Sam (right, wearing glasses) without prior authorization from her parole officer
Victoria Law

As New York Decarcerates, The Number of People Under Supervision of Parole Rises

Crime in New York City is at historic lows. The overall number of people in the city’s jails recently dipped below 9,000 for the first time since 1982. Yet the number of people locked up for violating the terms of their parole is on the rise.

That is the conclusion of Less is More in New York City, a new report from Columbia University’s Justice Lab about the impact of parole violations on prison and jail populations. Since 2014, the number of people in New York City’s jails, including Rikers Island, has dropped 21 percent. But the population locked up for technical parole violations, such as missing an appointment with a parole officer, associating with people with felony records or failing a drug test, has increased 15 percent.

The report takes a snapshot of a single day to illustrate its point: On November 16, 2017, state parole violations made up 16 percent (or 1,460) of people in the city’s jails. Indeed, parole violators are the only part of the New York City jail population that has increased over the past four years.

“In New York, people released on parole are more likely to return to incarceration not for new convictions, but for violating the conditions of their parole,” the report notes.

At the state level, the report reveals, the number of people returned to prison for parole violations increased 21 percent between 2015 and 2016. For every 10 people who successfully completed their parole in New York State, nine were reincarcerated for parole violations. In 2016, those people made up 29 percent of the state’s prison population. But their violations were not necessarily new crimes; instead, nearly half were technical parole violations.

Chart: “Less is More in New York: An Examination of the Impact of State Parole Violations on Prison and Jail Populations”
Justice Lab — Columbia University

Even New York Governor Andrew Cuomo acknowledged the tremendous impact of parole violations, noting in his 2018 State of the State briefing book that, in 2012, 33 percent of people released from prison were remanded within three years for technical parole violations. “New York jails and prisons should not be filled with people who may have violated the conditions of their parole, but present no danger to our communities,” he stated.

Vincent Schiraldi, the report’s author and a senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Justice Lab, is also a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation. He notes that a parole violation generally results in two months in jail while officials hold hearings to determine whether to revoke parole. In other words, people spend an average of two months behind bars waiting to learn whether they will be returned to prison. Schiraldi told In Justice Today that roughly two-thirds end up being sent back to prison; the other one-third are released. But in that time, formerly incarcerated people struggling with reentry can easily lose newly secured jobs or housing.

Author and activist Donna Hylton spent 27 years in prison for kidnapping and murder, followed by five years on parole. She is still in contact with many of the women she was incarcerated with at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York’s women’s maximum-security prison, including those who are now navigating reentry and parole. Two months may be an average, notes Hylton, but she knows of cases in which the jail time stretched even longer. She recounted working with a young woman whose parole violation stemmed from her drug addiction. “She spent almost nine months waiting for a hearing,” Hylton said. Though the woman was ultimately not remanded to prison, those nine months behind bars resulted in her child being placed in foster care. “She’s now trying to put her family back together, put her life together,” Hylton said, “Incarceration and re-incarceration should not be the response to addiction. A lot of technical violations are because of that.”

Vonda Seward, the former statewide director for reentry services for the New York State Division of Parole, agrees. “When we talk about technical violations, most of them are drug-related,” she told In Justice Today. “Going to jail or prison is not the answer to getting high.” But, she noted, parole officers err on the side of caution to avoid risking a future crime. “When you work for parole, you’re only as good as your last successful case.”

“Incarceration and re-incarceration should not be the response to addiction. A lot of technical violations are because of that.”

At the same time, both Schiraldi and Seward note, parole officers have limited ability to help with the plethora of parolees’ pressing needs, such as housing, employment and health care. But that doesn’t mean they won’t threaten parolees with violations for not finding resources on their own.

That’s what happened to Donna Hylton. In January 2012, with her parole officer’s initial approval, Hylton left a transitional program to reconnect with family. When she realized that her family’s home was still unhealthy and that she could not stay with them, she was left without housing. Her parole officer told her that unless she found a homeless shelter or a residence that the parole officer approved, she would be sent back to prison. Fortunately, Sister Mary Nearney, a Roman Catholic nun and founder of numerous programs for incarcerated women, whom Hylton had met while in prison, came to her rescue. In February 2012, Hylton moved in with Sister Nearney until she was able to find her own apartment. “I was an exception,” she notes. “So many other people don’t have that.”

Lack of housing is a common barrier for people returning home from prison, and for those on parole, it can easily become a pathway back to prison. That’s something Topeka Sam, director of the Ladies of Hope Ministries, a faith-based reentry program for women, learned firsthand after establishing Hope House, a transitional home for formerly incarcerated women in the Bronx.

In the fall of 2017, she was prepared to accept the house’s first residents — five women scheduled to be released on parole from the New York state prison system. But then the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which operates the state’s prison and parole systems, refused to approve Hope House because Sam herself is formerly incarcerated and currently on federal probation (though her probation officer approved her efforts to create Hope House). Sam told In Justice Today that most of the women whom she is now unable to house went to shelters; one woman remains in prison for lack of approved housing.

The Justice Lab report offers several policy recommendations for decreasing the number of people jailed for parole or probation violations, including shortening parole terms, requiring a hearing before jailing someone for a technical violation, creating a high legal threshold for jailing people for less serious parole violations, and using graduated sanctions and rewards rather than the threat of immediate incarceration.

But, Seward said, these recommendations won’t happen without pressure from Governor Cuomo. “We can continue to show reports and data,” she said, “but if the governor doesn’t put his foot down on what he wants, it’s not going to get done.”

Correction: This story has been edited to note that only the number of people violating the terms of parole, not probation, is on the rise.

Florida Prisoners are on Strike to Protest Price Gouging and Their ‘Current Slave Arrangement’

Resident gardening in a California prison
Justin Sullivan/Getty

Florida Prisoners are on Strike to Protest Price Gouging and Their ‘Current Slave Arrangement’

Prisoners in Florida are in the midst of a huge and risky protest: They started a strike and boycott on Martin Luther King Jr. Day meant to last through the month.

The protest challenges exorbitant prices at canteens; urges Florida to extend parole, as an incentive for good behavior, to all prisoners; and demands payment for prisoners’ labor. But the tactic has sparked heavy pushback from the Florida Department of Corrections. Prisoners have told outside strike organizers that the department is trying to stifle the strike by retaliating against those who are participating and cutting off their communications with each other and with family and friends on the outside.

In their original statement outlining the motives for the strike, posted on the website of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Florida prisoners said they would stop working their prison jobs and boycott the canteens starting January 15 “until the injustice we see facing prisoners in the Florida system is resolved.” That includes what the prisoners describe as the “current slave arrangement,” in which they are made to work without pay.

According to data collected by the Prison Policy Initiative, jobs that support prison facilities in Florida can pay as little as nothing at all; at most, prisoners make 32 cents per hour for work such as laundry, maintenance, or food service, and a high of 55 cents per hour for producing goods, such as sewn products or farm crops, that are sold to government agencies and outside businesses.

Apart from the obvious injustice, prisoners say, empty pockets make reentry difficult. Prisoners who are released are given just $50 and a bus ticket. “[T]he reality is it’s not enough to do anything with!” they argue in their statement. Getting paid for work, on the other hand, would allow them to save up for life after prison.

Prisoners are also protesting marked-up prices at the canteen, where, for example, they say a case of soup costs $17. In a San Francisco Bay View articleabout the action, Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, who is incarcerated at Florida State Prison, wrote that items like a stick of deodorant, toilet paper, and packs of oatmeal cost significantly more in Florida prisons than in the Texas prison system, where he was previously held. According to Johnson, a bottle of water costs more than six times more in Florida than in Texas — 99 cents versus 15 cents.

“Coupled with Florida prisoners receiving no wages, [prisoners] must purchase basic hygiene supplies, seasonal clothing, shoes and supplemental foods and beverages from a grossly overpriced commissary and package system, which weighs heavily on their loved ones,” Johnson wrote. “Otherwise prisoners must do without.”

“We intend to sit down and refuse to work, have an economic protest,” one in-prison organizer said in an audio interview shared with The Nation ahead of the action. “We want to create an environment where someone can do their time, be rehabilitated, and enter into society with some type of hope.”

It’s been difficult for organizers to get a full count, but people confined in at least 14 Florida prisons have participated in the strike, according to Karen Smith of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, one of the groups that helped organize the strike. “As far how many people are participating, there’s just no way of knowing,” she told In Justice Today. “All we see is the letters we get back.”

Smith’s organization has gotten multiple reports through letters from incarcerated people that the Florida Department of Corrections has taken steps to repress the strike, including putting people in solitary confinementand shutting down phones. Prison officials have even threatened those who communicate with her organization and other outside entities with “Security Threat Group” status, which would label them as part of a gang for the remainder of their sentences, limiting their placements and privileges.

Johnson recently wrote in a second San Francisco Bay View article about a warden “unleash[ing] swift retaliation” against him because of his first article on the strike, which prison officials said in a disciplinary report amounted to “inciting a riot.” Johnson sent a letter to the Abolitionist Law Center saying he was being “literally tortured” by being denied heat in 30-degree weather and given a non-working toilet.

Smith says the crackdown reflects the movement’s increasing power. “Prisoners are just getting organized, so the state is just starting to use these tactics,” Smith said.

In response to an inquiry from In Justice Today about the use of confinement and threats of Security Threat Group status, a spokesperson for the Florida DOC said, “Inmates are rarely put into single man cells. However, inmates will receive a disciplinary report should they refuse to do their assigned work duties.” The spokesperson also asserted, “No Florida inmates participated in work stoppages or strikes. All daily operations are continuing as normal, including inmate phone privileges.” The spokesperson confirmed that prisoners “are not paid” for laundry, cooking, and maintenance duties.

Smith is confident the DOC won’t be able to stop the strike, nor to stem the growing tide of organizing inside prisons. “I don’t think any of their tactics are going to make it impossible for this movement to continue on,” she said. “In recent years, it’s just been growing.”

“We intend to sit down and refuse to work, have an economic protest…. We want to create an environment where someone can do their time, be rehabilitated, and enter into society with some type of hope.”

Even prisoners who have been put on lockdown say they’re still participating in the protest. “We’re getting word back that there’s whole camps on lockdown,” said Smith. “Any amount of lockdown time is a win for a prison strike, because officers are triple-staffed and performing duties that the prisoners would have, and that’s expensive. That’s the whole point of this disruption: to disrupt their business as usual and hurt their profits.”

Prison uprisings have a long history in this country, with a swell of organizing in recent years. In 2016, on the 25th anniversary of the Attica Rebellion, people confined in state and federal prisons in 24 states, including Florida, went on strike to protest what they called slave labor conditions. Prisoners make, on average, just 14 cents to $1.41 an hour across the country, and in many prisons earn nothing at all. In August, in response to organizing for another protest, all of Florida’s prisons were put on lockdown, an unprecedented step.

Smith says one reason the current strike might not be making headlines is that it’s less visible than some other prison protests. “Some actions of the past were really visible because things were literally on fire and there were major physical uprisings, dorms were torn down,” Smith said. The Florida prison strike, by contrast, is harder to track because the prisoners are engaging in non-violent protest. Smith also noted that the DOC can transfer inmates from other locations who may not be part of the strike to have them perform work duties. It’s “a replaceable workforce,” she said. “So it’s a challenge.”

But, she argues, people housed in Florida prisons will continue to fight against exploitative labor practices. Currently, her organization, Support Prisoners And Real Change, and another called the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons are working on next steps for the rest of the year. “Right now, the focus is economic,” she said. “The way you do that is with strikes and boycotts.”

“This isn’t a one-and-done, one-day mission accomplished,” she said. “This is going to be a lot of work.”

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Pennsylvania’s Death Row Prisoners Argue That the Right to Execute Does Not Include the Right to Isolate

Flickr user jmiller291 (CC BY 2.0)

Pennsylvania’s Death Row Prisoners Argue That the Right to Execute Does Not Include the Right to Isolate

Historically, whenever a Pennsylvania court handed down a death sentence, it was effectively condemning the defendant to live the rest of his or her years in isolation. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections mandates that people on death row be held in solitary confinement. And Pennsylvania isn’t the only state to do so: A recent survey by The Marshall Project found that of the 2,802 state prisoners sentenced to death nationwide, 61 percent are isolated for 20 hours or more per day.

On January 25, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, along with three other law firms, filed a federal class action lawsuit challenging this policy’s constitutionality.

The five plaintiffs have each spent over a decade in solitary confinement. These men spend between 22 and 24 hours per day in a “small cell, the size of a regular parking spot,” where the lights are never turned off, according to the complaint. One of the plaintiffs has been in solitary for 27 years. Nearly 80 percent of Pennsylvania’s 156 death row prisoners have been there for over a decade.

“There is a difference between saying this person can be put to death, and saying our constitution actually allows people to be tortured while they’re in prison,” said Susan Lin, an attorney at Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin, one of the law firms that filed the suit.

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, who frequently touts himself as a criminal justice reformer in media interviews and on academic panels, is the lead defendant in the lawsuit. This practice is hard to square with his reform-minded reputation.

This isn’t the first time Wetzel has been a defendant in a lawsuit challenging his department’s policies on solitary confinement. In 2016, he was sued for keeping an intellectually disabled man, Arthur Johnson, in solitary for 37 years. The federal court judge ruled that because there weren’t adequate grounds to consider the man a threat to other prisoners or guards, his prolonged isolation constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

The new ACLU-led lawsuit challenges mandatory solitary for death row prisoners as violating both the Eighth Amendment and the constitutional right to due process. The suit argues that just because a person is death-sentenced, he or she is still entitled to a process to determine the necessity of isolation.

Civil rights attorneys are using this due process argument more frequently in similar suits challenging mandatory solitary. “We are increasingly recognizing that solitary confinement is a form of torture, that it is categorically a different kind of punishment than just being in prison,” said Johanna Kalb, professor of law at Loyola University in New Orleans, who has written about long-term isolation, “There is a liberty issue when you’re put there without a meaningful process.”

The United States Supreme Court declined to hear a similar argument in 2015, in part because the case became moot when Virginia executed the defendant, Alfred Prieto, before the high court could rule on his final stay application. In Prieto’s case, a trial court ruled that the conditions he and other prisoners on death row faced in solitary were “dehumanizing” and “undeniably severe.” As such, the trial court ruled that prison officials should either decide whether a person needs to be in solitary on a case-by-case basis, or make the conditions of solitary more humane.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, shot down this decision. In a 2–1 ruling, the court maintained that Prieto “can only be deprived of that to which he is entitled.” Due process doesn’t apply, the court decided, because it is explicitly written into Virginia state law that people sentenced to death should be placed in solitary confinement; thus he was not entitled to any other placement.

That same year, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, in a concurring opinion regarding a death-row prisoner’s legal challenge on an unrelated issue, that the “near-total isolation” of solitary “exacts a terrible price.” He went on to quote Dostoyevsky: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Solitary confinement for people on death row is often justified by the belief that prisoners sentenced to death are too dangerous to live among the general population. But according to Kalb, “The data increasingly shows us that this just isn’t true.” For example, since Colorado stopped automatically housing death-sentenced prisoners in solitary in 2014, prison officials have reportedthere was no rise in the level of violence.

A Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spokesperson, Amy Worden, declined to comment on the ACLU lawsuit or the state’s policy, but in a statement wrote that the DOC is “undertaking changes that will allow more out-of-cell time in capital case housing units.”

As research on the psychological and physical detriment caused by long-term isolation proliferates and a national movement to limit the use of solitary confinement gains traction, abolishing these policies is critical, Kalb explained. “In some ways, this is a very mild and moderate ask,” she said. “Don’t put people in it automatically. Look at them as individual people.”

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