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How Florida’s Dire Prison Staff Shortage Hurts People Inside

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

How Florida’s Dire Prison Staff Shortage Hurts People Inside

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

How Florida’s Dire Prison Staff Shortage Hurts People Inside

by Ryan M. Moser

In response to a shortage of Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) officers, Governor Ron DeSantis on September 9 sent the National Guard to nine state prisons, highlighting an ongoing crisis throughout an overcrowded and understaffed criminal legal system.

The 300 guard members will temporarily provide security, hand out supplies, and perform other duties normally reserved for correctional officers. But while much has been reported about DeSantis’s decision to bring in troops, less has been said about how the lack of basic funding and oversight has impacted those stuck inside the nation’s third-largest state prison system. Chronic staff shortages and high employee turnover rates have plagued the state for years, resulting in dangerous conditions for staff and incarcerated residents. Mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder resulting from physical violence are common. Restricted movement due to a lack of supervision at facilities causes interruptions in programs and education.

The staff shortage is evident at facilities such as Dade Correctional Institution, where this reporter was once incarcerated. Although FDC policy requires four correctional officers per 250 incarcerated residents, large groups of men in the chow hall are usually supervised by only one officer. Chaos often ensues as hundreds of people move without direction. Prisoners in cell blocks are routinely assaulted and robbed.

Dade C.I’s. nearly 1,500 residents are often trapped indoors because there is not enough staff to open the recreation yard or the education building for programs. Officer trainees on probation walk around unescorted and execute rudimentary searches, unable to prevent violence or even perform routine tasks like security count.

“We don’t get outside enough because they are always short on officers,” James Stine, an incarcerated resident serving a life sentence, told The Appeal. ”Being trapped indoors every day without exercise affects our physical and mental health.”

Florida’s 50 prisons hold roughly 80,000 incarcerated people. While DeSantis has bragged about efforts to incentivize new recruits with $33,400 salaries and small bonuses, the system remains at a breaking point.
This problem isn’t unique to Florida—there have also been staff shortages in Nebraska and Arizona, which have forced facilities to cut back on the hours they operate. At Riker’s Island, New York City’s largest jail, guards reportedly don’t show up for work, leaving prisoners to open doors, feed meals, and dictate who goes when and where. The problems have energized a preexisting movement to close the facility.

In the Sunshine State, evidence of staff shortages go back to the summer of 2021 when the FDC announced that more than 3,500 imprisoned people and more than 1,500 staff at three correctional institutions would “be temporarily reassigned to a neighboring institution” because they didn’t have enough officers to adequately staff shifts. Since then, some politicians, including Republican former state Senate President Wilton Simpson, have advocated for more prisons to be closed in order to consolidate incarcerated residents into better staffed facilities.

The FDC is the state government’s largest department and the nation’s third largest state corrections system. After health care and education, the FDC’s $2.9 billion budget is Florida’s third largest annual expense.
Morale has been low in recent years, as mandatory overtime and COVID-19, combined with the usual day-to-day stressors of working in a correctional institution, have led to many resignations. When prisons and jails are under-staffed, other employees are required to work extra shifts. Overtime cost the FDC $103 million in 2021 alone, according to a local news report from WFTS, the Tampa area’s ABC affiliate. To retain officers, the FDC has switched to shorter shifts, raised pay, and offered $1,000 hiring and referral bonuses. But 40 percent of new employees still leave after only one-year and 60 percent after two years, according to WFTS. As of November of 2021, the FDC had over 5,500 vacant security positions, WFTS reported.

Prison employees have told me that the situation had grown so desperate that high-ranking prison officials had been asking service workers if they wanted to work as guards.

“Administrators headhunt prison medical staff and cooks to become correctional officers,” a registered nurse told me one day when I was residing at Everglades Correctional Institution. “They just need bodies.”

Correctional officers are routinely encouraged to work extra shifts, and it’s not uncommon to see many guards sleeping inside their Plexiglas officer stations due to exhaustion. This creates unsafe living conditions for prisoners, in addition to the fact that overworked employees are often upset that they have to put in overtime.

“I work a lot of sixteen-hour shifts,” said one pregnant officer at Everglades C.I., sharing with me how tired she was every day. “If you refuse or make up an excuse to leave, the sergeant can write an incident report for abandoning your post.”

Because of the dire need for more correctional officers, many veteran guards are forced to work late while missing birthdays, soccer games, and other special life events. But ultimately it’s the incarcerated residents who suffer from the ancillary effects of a labor crisis inside prison.

“Nobody gets to go to education programs or chapel if there aren’t any extra staff,” said Stine, the incarcerated person serving a life sentence. “We just sit around bored and get into trouble.”

In the news

A Florida court exonerated Sidney Holmes for a robbery he did not commit. He had served more than 30 years of a 400-year sentence. [Maurice Possley / National Registry of Exonerations]

March marks Women’s History Month and the anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court decision establishing a constitutional right to counsel. Appeal alum Emily Galvin-Almanza writes about the women who invented the idea of the public defender more than a century ago. [Emily Galvin-Almanza / Teen Vogue]

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon signed a bill banning medication abortion pills. People who violate the law, which takes effect Jul. 1, face up to six months incarceration and a fine of up to $9,000. The bill provides an exemption to protect the mother “from an imminent peril that substantially endangers her life or health.” [The Guardian]

Judge Eleanor Ross sentenced former sheriff Victor Hill to 18 months in prison for violating the civil rights of six pretrial detainees. Hill ordered his staff to strap the detainees in restraint chairs for hours. [Robin Kemp / The Clayton Crescent] From The Appeal: People detained at the Clayton County Jail speak out about horrific conditions.

In 2015, an Alabama police officer killed 16-year-old A’Donte Washington, but prosecutors charged his friends with murder, including LaKeith Smith, who was only 15 when the crime occurred. Currently serving a 55-year sentence, a judge reduced his sentence on Tuesday to 30 years. [Marty Roney / The Montgomery Advertiser] From The Appeal: Police killed Jacob Harris. His friends are serving time for his murder.

ICYMI — from The Appeal

The number of people on the sex offense registry in Florida is spiking due to multiple factors, including strict residency bans in some cities. But, Steven Yoder reports, South Florida leaders seemingly won’t admit a problem exists at all.

That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, donate here.

As Florida’s Unhoused Sex Offense Registrant Population Booms, Group Asks UN for Help

South Florida's political leaders have celebrated their commitment to the unhoused—but won't admit that those placed on offense registries are increasingly becoming unhoused.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis
City of Fort Lauderdale

As Florida’s Unhoused Sex Offense Registrant Population Booms, Group Asks UN for Help

South Florida's political leaders have celebrated their commitment to the unhoused—but won't admit that those placed on offense registries are increasingly becoming unhoused.

On Nov. 1, Fort Lauderdale, Florida’s leaders paused during a city council meeting to highlight that they’d declared November to be “Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Month.”

“Homelessness was one of the main reasons I ran for office,” said then-vice mayor Ben Sorensen, who led the proceedings. “If we all pitch in and support each other and support some of the least of these, we can do amazing, amazing things.” The city recognized 18 organizations for their work with the unhoused and tweeted out a happy photo of the group.

But Sorensen didn’t mention that the city’s own rules are, in part, driving up homelessness. An ordinance forbidding most people on the state’s sexual offense registry from living within 1,400 feet of schools, daycares, parks, or playgrounds puts all but 1 percent of residences off limits to those on the offense registry and forces hundreds to live on the streets. Today, a sample of the city’s unhoused people on the state registry shows that a majority camp on a commercial strip on a major highway in north Fort Lauderdale.

Sorenson also did not acknowledge that the Florida Action Committee (FAC), a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of people placed on sexual offense registries, had, for months, been asking city and county leaders for a plan to house registrants. In the days after the Nov. 1 meeting, FAC escalated its actions. On Nov. 14, the group petitioned the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, alleging that the U.S. public sex offender registry contravenes provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The declaration bans “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The group asked the UN to investigate and attached a petition that’s been signed by almost 4,500 people.

“The act of placing human beings on a public shaming list for life and subjecting them to the crippling and dehumanizing consequences, when that list has been proven through empirical research to be ineffective at preventing recidivism or reducing sexual offending, is cruel and degrading,” the group wrote to the UN.

If the UN determines the complaint is admissible, it will be sent to the U.S. government for a response and could eventually be referred to the UN’s Human Rights Council for further action. As yet, FAC has heard nothing back from the UN, Gail Colletta, the group’s president, told The Appeal.

For those following the issue in South Florida, the fact that FAC felt it needed international help likely comes as no shock. In September 2020, a group of organizations dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated people reenter society issued a report to the state legislature about the explosive rise in homeless registrant numbers across the state, which has seen a 312 percent spike since 2011.

More than a quarter of Broward’s registrants are homeless, according to a 2021 report by the state’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA). Currently, there are no homeless shelters in the county that accept people on the registrant list. OPPAGA data show that Florida registrants averaged age 50 in 2018, with one in seven older than 65, numbers that almost certainly have increased due to residency bans and the state’s lifetime registration requirement.

Last November, FAC wrote to the Broward Homeless Initiative Partnership, the county’s lead agency on homelessness, requesting a meeting to discuss doing away with Fort Lauderdale’s residency ban. The group attached a roster of 331 people listed on the state sexual offense registry as homeless in Ft. Lauderdale and offered the results of a second analysis showing that a grand total of three rentals were available to them. Separately, FAC contacted Mayor Dean Trantalis, Vice Mayor Sorensen, and the city manager for help. They have yet to get a response, Colletta said.

The Appeal contacted Trantalis to ask why so many registrants are homeless and about his plans to address the problem. City spokesperson Ashley Doussard responded that no registrants appear on city aid workers’ roster of the unhoused, but declined to answer follow-up questions. Sorensen, who no longer holds office, didn’t respond.

Registrants sleeping outdoors don’t get much attention from the city’s service providers either. The city doesn’t have enough housing for the elderly or families generally, says Carl Falconer, CEO of Fort Lauderdale’s TaskForce Fore Ending Homelessness.

“I don’t think we’ve kind of gotten far enough down the list yet to help resolve the issue for registered ‘sex offenders’ versus everybody else who I guess I would say is a higher priority for the community to try to help them get into housing first,” he told The Appeal.

Registrants’ exclusion from housing is bringing with it other problems. A tsunami of homeless registrants with serious health needs is likely in coming years. Residency bans increasingly keep even older registrants who aren’t homeless from getting help. Barbara Spragg, who heads the group Justice Transitions, FAC’s nonprofit arm,  told The Appeal that residency bans are “wasting our tax dollars.”

“The statistics are there that none of this is working,” Spragg said. “It’s ridiculous to put that kind of money there when we should be putting it on the front end, and we should be putting it in rehabilitation and therapy and catching abuse before it happens.” Indeed, a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that there’s “no empirical support for the effectiveness of residence restrictions” and that they may “aggravate, rather than mitigate, offender risk.”

Whether FAC’s plea to the UN will get the attention of Fort Lauderdale’s political class remains to be seen. On Nov. 3, the mayor spoke at an annual symposium intended to let homeless people tell the city what they need. It was held at Holiday Park–which most homeless registrants are forbidden to enter.

In LA Jails, Mentally Ill People Are Chained to Tables and Rarely Get Psychiatric Care

Los Angeles County is imprisoning more people with mental illness than it did a decade ago—but is failing to provide them with basic treatment. The U.S. Department of Justice says the county jail system is decrepit, dangerous, and unfit to house anyone—let alone people with mental illness.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department

In LA Jails, Mentally Ill People Are Chained to Tables and Rarely Get Psychiatric Care

Los Angeles County is imprisoning more people with mental illness than it did a decade ago—but is failing to provide them with basic treatment. The U.S. Department of Justice says the county jail system is decrepit, dangerous, and unfit to house anyone—let alone people with mental illness.

This piece is part of a series of stories on the increasing number of people with mental illness imprisoned in Los Angeles County jails. To read the first piece in the series, click here.

During the few hours that people with mental illness are allowed out of their cells in the Los Angeles County jail system’s high observation housing, they are shackled to tables. Some don’t have real clothing—just tear-resistant suicide gowns to prevent them from harming themselves. Others smear feces on the walls of their cells. Flooded toilets are a regular occurrence. People scream and pace back and forth. Cells overflow with garbage. In certain housing units, mesh screens line the railings of the upper levels to prevent people from jumping.

This is what thousands of people endure every single day in Los Angeles, where an average of 5,700 people with mental illnesses were incarcerated in 2022, according to data from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), which oversees the jail system. Many of those people are held in the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, which has been called the largest mental health institution in the country. But many of the people inside are not getting the treatment they need, according to reports from local and federal watchdogs and experts who spoke with The Appeal.

Data obtained by The Appeal from the county’s Department of Health Services (DHS) shows that on Aug. 10, 2022, about 6,400 people with mental illnesses were imprisoned in county jails—most of them people of color. As of that date, at least 4,500 people were considered so mentally unwell and likely to harm themselves that they needed to be checked on at least every 30 minutes or less.

The number of people with mental illness inside the jail system has skyrocketed over the past decade, according to data from the LASD. Roughly 2,500 more people with mental illnesses are locked up in county jails today compared to 10 years ago, despite the fact that in 2015 the county created an Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR) to reduce the number of people with mental illness trapped in jail.

In October, the Office of Inspector General (OIG), a county agency tasked with overseeing the jails, filed a report stating that the steady increase of people arrested with mental health needs has filled housing units to capacity. When the housing units are full, the report states, “new patients who present with moderate or severe mental illnesses—some of whom are tethered throughout the entire intake process—are required to remain in the Inmate Reception Center” or the central booking location until housing becomes available. Overall, the report says that between 2019 and 2022, the sheriff’s department implemented only seven out of the 111 reforms the OIG recommended during that same time period.

In 2015, the Department of Justice put the Los Angeles jail system under a mandatory federal monitoring program, which required that LASD address inadequate mental healthcare and excessive force by guards inside the jails. Nicholas E. Mitchell, the independent monitor enforcing the DOJ’s federal consent decree, said last fall that the county still had not met basic benchmarks for humane treatment more than seven years after the DOJ mandated reforms. A report Mitchell authored in September 2022 states that the county was not providing meaningful group therapy to incarcerated people and that some of the most severely ill people were not getting required out-of-cell time.

In February, the county asked to push back deadlines for meeting certain federal requirements by three years. In a scathing response filed Feb. 27, attorneys for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division condemned the county for allowing conditions in the jails to reach a crisis level.

That there is a mental health crisis in the Jails is undisputed: Suicides are spiking, hundreds of individuals wait weeks for mental health housing, and only a fraction of the nearly 200 individuals who require psychiatric inpatient care at any given time can access it,” the Department of Justice wrote. “Those who require high-observation mental health housing (HOH) wait weeks in near-total isolation to move to such specialized housing. Should they eventually arrive at HOH, these individuals receive virtually no out-of-cell time, either for recreation or treatment. Under these conditions, individuals decompensate, strip naked, smear feces, and physically hurt themselves.”

On the same day the DOJ excoriated the county, the American Civil Liberties Union also filed a motion asking a federal judge to hold Los Angeles County, the Board of Supervisors—the county’s highest governing body—and the sheriff in contempt of court for failing to fix the abhorrent conditions inside county jails.

Attorneys, community activists, and mental health experts who spoke with The Appeal said that people are not getting adequate treatment inside the jails and questioned whether it is possible to treat mental illnesses inside jail at all.

“Effective therapy cannot happen in jail, because jail is a traumatic experience inherently,” said Liz Sutton, a licensed clinical social worker who runs a program that helps get incarcerated people with mental health needs released into outpatient care. “Any sort of support groups they might be doing, it’s not helping. It’s a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. It’s not possible to do anything there.”

Sutton said she receives packets of information on incarcerated people entering the program she manages. The packets contain information on what treatment people received in jail. Sutton said the packets often show that incarcerated people receive life-skills training, like how to make a budget, but rarely, if ever, therapy or similar services, like Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

A 2020 report by the RAND Corporation estimated that more than 60 percent of people incarcerated with mental health issues—at least 3,300 people—could be diverted from jail. Advocates say there is a simple solution to the county’s capacity problem: move people out of the jails and into treatment.

“Treatment in the jails is not effective,” said Ivette Alé-Ferlito, executive director of La Defensa, an intersectional feminist organization that works to divert funding out of the criminal legal system and implement alternatives to incarceration. “Those dollars go a much longer way in providing care outside of the jails. We’re talking about folks going in traumatized, going in with mental health needs, that are only retraumatized once they’re inside. This is a threat to their health.”

In a statement emailed to The Appeal, a spokesperson for Los Angeles County said that officials are committed to reducing the jail population, improving conditions inside the jails, and providing a higher quality of care for incarcerated people.

The spokesperson said it is challenging to safely provide structured out-of-cell time to people who are experiencing severe mental illness and listed several actions the county is taking to address these concerns. These include appointing a DOJ compliance officer to comply with the conditions of the consent decree, taking steps to increase mental health and jail staff, expanding mental health treatment resources at the county’s Pitchess Detention Center, and investing in community-based mental health care to reduce the number of people with mental health conditions who become incarcerated.

“The County is fully committed to a higher quality of care for those who must remain in custody,” the spokesperson said, “but it needs the authority and collaboration of the courts to reduce the jail population by permanently changing the rules around cash bail, increasing diversions to community-based programs, and giving the Sheriff’s Department more flexibility in releasing individuals from custody when appropriate.”

Department of Health Services (DHS) data reveals insights about the thousands of people with mental illness locked in Los Angeles County jails every day.

Nearly 85 percent of people with mental illness in Los Angeles jails are men. The data only lists two genders, male and female, and does not capture the full spectrum of gender identities.

About 40 percent of incarcerated people with mental illnesses in Los Angeles County are Hispanic. Nearly seventeen percent are white. Thirty-eight percent are Black, despite the fact that only 9 percent of county residents identify as Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Roughly 80 percent of people are listed as between the ages of 26 and 59. But the data becomes more specific for younger people. Nearly 800 people were aged 21 to 25. Another 116 people were 19 or 20 years old. Twenty-six teenagers aged 16 to 18 with mental illnesses were incarcerated in Los Angeles on Aug. 10, 2022.

Most people with mental illnesses in Los Angeles jails are held in the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, a massive, windowless building complex that houses more than 2,600 mentally ill people.

Nearly 1,500 others are incarcerated in Men’s Central Jail, a dangerous and decrepit facility that county officials have vowed to close. A court-appointed monitor has called the conditions in Men’s Central Jail “deplorable” and stated that during a 2021 site visit, the cells were “poorly lit” and “overflowing with garbage.”

Both Twin Towers and Men’s Central Jail are over capacity. A 2015 report on jail conditions by the Health Management Associates, a consulting firm, stated that both facilities “have structural designs that complicate the ability of correctional staff to provide a safe and secure environment, interfere with the staffs’ ability to clinically monitor the status of the patient-inmate population, and create barriers that complicate the ability to meet the health care service needs of the individuals housed in these facilities.”

Los Angeles County has held some people in these conditions for more than two decades. According to the DHS data, five people with mental illness have been incarcerated since 2000. Another 126 people with mental illness have been incarcerated for five to ten years. A majority of those detained in county jails—over 60 percent—were incarcerated more recently, in 2022. California jails hold both people awaiting trial and people serving full prison sentences post-conviction. Yet jails, which are designed for short-term, pretrial stays, typically do not have the same types of programming and facilities—like classrooms—as prisons.

“That members of our community could be locked up for years under the supervision of one of the most deadly, scandal-plagued Sheriff’s departments in the nation should deeply alarm the public,” said Brian Kaneda, deputy director of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a statewide organization committed to shifting state spending on incarceration toward things that prevent people from interacting with the criminal legal system in the first place, such as housing, healthcare, and jobs.

The data also reveals the level of care people in the jails are receiving. Almost one-third are in the jail system’s general population and on psychotropic medication, meaning they are receiving medication to treat mental illnesses but remain housed with the rest of the incarcerated people.

About half of incarcerated people are in moderate observation housing, which means that they are considered ill enough that jail staff are supposed to conduct safety checks on them every 30 minutes. According to a 2021 report from the court-appointed monitor, people in moderate observation housing have mood instability, psychotic symptoms managed by medication, and pervasive patterns of self-injury. Moderate observation units have mesh screens along the railings of the upper levels to prevent people from jumping.

Nearly one-fifth of incarcerated people are in what the jail system calls “high observation housing,” meaning they are considered significantly impaired and require safety checks every 15 minutes. People in this level of care are given suicide-resistant blankets, gowns, and mattresses. The more than 1,200 people in high observation housing are considered some of “the sickest patients in the Department’s care,” according to a 2021 report from the court-appointed monitor. The county says people held at this level are largely unable to communicate and are in persistent danger of hurting themselves.

When monitors visited the jails in 2021, they said that they “observed no therapeutic group programming being offered” to people in high observation housing and saw people handcuffed to individual metal tables in the shared dayroom for their required out-of-cell time. Those who remained inside the cells were generally sleeping, pacing, or awake but unresponsive.

Almost 200 people are designated as needing the department’s highest level of care—the forensic inpatient unit. These people suffer from severe, debilitating symptoms and require safety checks every 15 minutes. Court-appointed monitors say that people in the forensic inpatient unit have more out-of-cell time than people in high observation housing. But space in the forensic inpatient unit is extremely limited and people who need this higher level of care are often left waiting in high observation housing. According to a motion the county filed in federal court last month, there are currently 124 people on a waitlist for forensic inpatient care.

“Patients requiring [forensic inpatient] level of care may display symptoms such as smearing or throwing feces, banging one’s head against the cell door, not eating or drinking, severe self-mutilation, and suicidal and/or homicidal behaviors,” a 2018 report from the county OIG states. But because forensic inpatient beds are so limited, correctional staff “face daily decisions about which, if any, [forensic inpatient] patients have stabilized just enough to discharge in order to admit another, even more acute and endangered patient.”

This cycle puts both staff and incarcerated people at risk. The report states that staff members in the high observation housing unit are “frequently assaulted with feces, urine, and other bodily fluids” and sometimes physically extract people from their cells, which can further traumatize incarcerated people.

“A man told me he was in suicide watch, came off, and didn’t see a doctor for a month,” said Mark-Anthony Clayton-Johnson, the executive director of Dignity and Power Now, a grassroots organization that supports incarcerated people and their loved ones. Clayton-Johnson also inspects the jails in his capacity as a member of the Sybil Brand Commission, another county agency that monitors local incarceration facilities.

“We’ve seen people’s cells smeared with feces—that person is on a waiting list to get a bed in the more intensive observation section,” Clayton-Johnson said. “He is number 34 on a list of over 100 people. He’s been on it for a month. Men’s Central Jail is a dungeon. It is inhumane and it needs to be closed. But now we’re moving people with very serious needs into there because we don’t have places to get them out.”

The most recent federal monitor’s report noted the county is still not complying with several of the requirements from the 2015 settlement agreement. On Feb. 17, the county proposed “alternative timelines” for satisfying the requirements it was told to meet more than seven years ago.

In the filing, the county argued it has made significant improvements since the DOJ began monitoring the jail system. The county argued that the current timeline—which, among other requirements, orders the county to provide ten hours of unstructured out-of-cell time and ten hours of therapeutic or programmed time per week to people with mental illness by June 2024—is arbitrary and unrealistic.

Instead, the county proposed what it called a “sensible” timeline that kicks the deadline for complying with the DOJ mandates to July 2026. A federal judge has yet to decide whether to grant the county’s request for an extended timeline.

The county called this proposed timeline “aggressive” and said that it requires expanding the number of beds available for non-jail diversion programs to “at least 3,700.” The county had an opportunity to hit that number last summer, when Supervisor Holly Mitchell filed a motion to find funding to expand the ODR’s capacity by 3,600 beds.

The ODR takes people experiencing mental illness, substance use issues, or houselessness out of jail and connects them with permanent supportive housing, case management services, and treatment. The office has been extremely successful: One 2019 report by the RAND Corporation found that of a group of 96 participants, 74 percent remained stably housed after one year and 87 percent had no new felony convictions.

But the county ignored Mitchell’s motion and instead chose in October to expand ODR by only 750 beds, bringing ODR’s total capacity to nearly 3,000 beds.

In a statement shared with The Appeal, the spokesperson for Los Angeles County defended the work officials have done to expand ODR so far.

“That 750-bed expansion is the largest in ODR’s history, and it is estimated it will take until December 2024 to fully utilize those beds,” a spokesperson said. “That’s because the County does not have the authority to unilaterally release people from jail; that requires court action. In the meantime, we are not standing still.”

The county noted that it significantly increased ODR’s budget last year and said ODR is just one of many tools the county is using to advance its “Care First, Jails Last” agenda. But advocates say that the county has yet to act with the urgency needed to address the crisis in the jail system.

“The time for tinkering at the margins is over. We are in a state of crisis,” said Alé-Ferlito of La Defensa. “The answers are in plain sight for the county.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

HIV Activist, Forced to Register as Sex Offender, Appeals to New York’s Highest Court

Robert Suttle was required to register as a sex offender in Louisiana after being convicted of exposing someone to HIV. But despite the fact that New York does not require its own residents to register after such a crime, the state is forcing the label on him anyway—and the Manhattan DA’s office is fighting him.

Elvert Barnes via Flickr

HIV Activist, Forced to Register as Sex Offender, Appeals to New York’s Highest Court

Robert Suttle was required to register as a sex offender in Louisiana after being convicted of exposing someone to HIV. But despite the fact that New York does not require its own residents to register after such a crime, the state is forcing the label on him anyway—and the Manhattan DA’s office is fighting him.

In 2009, Robert Suttle was convicted in Louisiana of illegally exposing someone to HIV without their consent. In most other parts of the country, Suttle would only need to live with a conviction on his record. But Louisiana is one of a handful of states that forces those convicted of such a charge to register as sex offenders, a label that carries life-altering shame and stigma. Suttle has since moved to New York, but the designation still haunts him. He sued to remove the label, but the state’s lower courts have thus far held that Suttle must remain on the registry, even though New York has no HIV-specific criminal laws.

But now, Suttle has asked the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, to invalidate a law he says unfairly criminalizes people with HIV. In November, an attorney representing Suttle filed leave to appeal, castigating the lower court’s decision to keep Suttle on the sex offender registry.

“The decision permits, if not requires, New York courts to enforce laws of foreign jurisdictions through SORA, no matter how unconstitutional or contrary to New York’s laws and policies,” the brief states. “It specifically undermines the constitutional and statutory mandates that HIV+ persons have a right to privacy in their status.”

In a phone interview, Suttle told The Appeal that the onerous requirements that come with being forced to register as a sex offender have added significant hurdles to his life.

“It’s almost like they just throw you into this situation and just throw away the key, and there’s nobody there to really explain to you, which is what the system just doesn’t do anyway,” Suttle said. He added later: “I’ve been just trying to hang in there, with the hopes that I will be able to sort of move beyond this and really go out and get the things that I want in life.” Suttle told The Appeal in September the charges stemmed from a brief relationship in the early 2000s.

Across the country, HIV-related criminal laws have come under increased scrutiny as science on HIV—and its prevention—have advanced. Highly effective HIV-preventative drugs have proliferated. Medicine regimens can now prevent people living with HIV from passing the virus to their partners.

Legal experts have also argued that such laws, known as “HIV criminalization” laws, disproportionately impact Black and brown people living with HIV, target LGBTQ people in particular, and violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Center for HIV Law and Policy (CHLP), a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of people with HIV, said as much in a December brief to the New York Court of Appeals in support of Suttle. In the filing, CHLP attorney Jada Akers argued that both Louisiana’s HIV criminal statute and New York’s treatment of Suttle contravene the ADA.

“The NY Courts cannot just collectively bury their heads in the sand and ignore the fact that the underlying Louisiana conviction for which Mr. Suttle has to now register as a sex offender in New York is clearly due to a discriminatory law,” Akers wrote in the brief.

Louisiana is one of 14 states that have repealed or amended their HIV-related criminal statutes in the past decade. Texas was the first in 1994. Last year, New Jersey became the third state to repeal its HIV criminal statute fully. That law, while enacted, let prosecutors charge people who did not report their HIV status to sexual partners.

In 2014, the New York State Board of Examiners of Sex Offenders decided that Suttle had to register as a sex offender due to his conviction in Louisiana.

Suttle challenged that decision in court, but a state appeals court unanimously ruled in October that the board had decided correctly. Now that Suttle has brought his case to the New York Court of Appeals, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office—which previously said it would not fight Suttle’s efforts—has filed briefs opposing him.

In a brief filed in court, Assistant District Attorney Kelly Fulham wrote that, while the Manhattan DA’s office opposes the law impacting Suttle, prosecutors were legally bound to enforce it.

“People support a legislative amendment to the foreign registration provision that would remove the registration requirement in circumstances like these,” she wrote. “Under the statute as currently enacted, however, the Board’s determination that [Suttle] must register is consistent with [state law].”

In an emailed statement to The Appeal, a spokesperson from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office said prosecutors’ hands are tied. The spokesperson said that the office does not support HIV criminalization but, due to the “confines of the law,” has no choice other than to oppose Suttle.

The spokesperson added that the DA’s office previously sent a proposal to the state legislature to change the law and prevent people like Suttle from being forced into these situations.

But legal experts from CHLP hit back at the DA Office’s claims. Kae Greenberg, a staff attorney at CHLP, told The Appeal that prosecutors should have “the courage to take a potentially unpopular stand in the midst of a political minefield,” since removing Suttle from the offender registry is “in the interest of justice.”

And, given the ongoing national rise in anti-LGBTQ hatred, Greenberg said the DA’s present position is a treacherous one to take.

“Currently, as other statutes that are still on the books in other states criminalizing abortion come back in full force, as states rush to criminalize drag shows and gender-affirming care, the ‘my hands are tied’ argument is a dangerous one to be made by an elected official tasked with promoting the safety of all New Yorkers,” he said.

LA is Locking Up More Mentally Ill People, Despite Diversion Efforts

In 2015, Los Angeles County created a program to reduce the number of mentally ill people trapped in jail. But since then, the number of people with mental illness incarcerated in LA has instead increased significantly.

Los Angeles County's Men's Central Jail
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department

LA is Locking Up More Mentally Ill People, Despite Diversion Efforts

In 2015, Los Angeles County created a program to reduce the number of mentally ill people trapped in jail. But since then, the number of people with mental illness incarcerated in LA has instead increased significantly.

This story is the first in a series on the mental health crisis in Los Angeles County jails. The articles were produced in collaboration with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

In 2015, Los Angeles County created an Office of Diversion and Reentry to keep people with mental and physical health needs out of the county’s jails. Upon creating the program—which connects people with mental health needs to supportive services instead of jail—county officials trumpeted it as a new era for justice in the most populated county in the United States.

“Our priority is to expand diversion services that work, like mental health, like drug abuse treatment and housing to keep vulnerable individuals out of the criminal justice system,” former supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said on the day the county created the office.

But since then, the number of people with mental illnesses in the county’s decaying, overcrowded jail system has instead increased significantly, according to data obtained by The Appeal.

The numbers suggest that Los Angeles County has so far failed to rise to the standard it set for itself more than seven years ago. Data from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) shows that in 2015, more than 3,700 people with mental illnesses were locked up in county jails. By 2022, that number increased to almost 5,700. In that time, the total jail population decreased from roughly 17,000 to 13,800—which means the share of people with mental illness in the jail system rose from about 22 percent to 41 percent in that time period.

Seven community activists, mental health professionals, and attorneys who spoke with The Appeal said the number of incarcerated people experiencing mental illnesses has grown because of the county’s longstanding failure to adequately invest in resources that could prevent people from coming into contact with the criminal legal system in the first place—like affordable housing, mental health care, youth programs, and job opportunities.

That decadeslong lack of care has ballooned into the situation Los Angeles is experiencing today, where the number of people experiencing mental health issues is rising and more people are becoming unhoused. At the same time, advocates say the county’s jail system has become decrepit, dangerous, and unfit to house anyone—let alone people with mental illness.

“We are reaping what the county has sowed,” said Ivette Alé-Ferlito, executive director of La Defensa, an intersectional feminist organization that works to divert funding out of the criminal legal system and implement alternatives to incarceration. “It’s a reflection of the state of the county and the world in terms of the impacts of sustained trauma and generational divestment from supportive services. Families grow more and more fractured. More and more people are being displaced. And things that would actually ensure healthy communities are not being funded.”

While the creation of the Office of Diversion and Reentry has been a major step forward for the county, experts say it is not being funded at the pace of the problem. The office has successfully gotten thousands of people with mental illnesses out of jail, but absent significantly more funding or fewer arrests, the number of incarcerated people suffering from mental illness will likely continue to rise. Los Angeles County’s most recent adopted budget was $44.6 billion. The Office of Diversion and Reentry accounted for around half a percent of that.

“The Office of Diversion and Reentry does an incredible job getting people out, but they don’t stop the flow of people going in,” said Mark-Anthony Clayton-Johnson, the executive director of Dignity and Power Now, a grassroots organization that supports incarcerated people and their loved ones. “The only thing that will do that is community beds and community treatment that is not rooted in this carceral logic.”

In a written statement, a spokesperson for Los Angeles County said that it has invested heavily in solutions to reduce the number of incarcerated people with mental illness. The county stated that ODR is just one of several programs and departments that provides services to residents in need and noted that the county is obligated to fund various programs at appropriate levels.

“Measuring only ODR’s $280.3 million annual budget as a percentage of County spending ignores the hundreds of millions in additional funding for individuals experiencing homelessness, many of whom suffer from mental illness, for example,” the County of Los Angeles said in an emailed statement. “It is also worth noting that ODR had for many years struggled with a structural deficit that we were finally able to close last year through the budget process with an infusion of $20.6 million. In total, we increased ODR’s budget by $109.6 million, a 64% increase.”

In a separate written statement, the sheriff’s department, which oversees the county’s jail system, said that it is committed to working with other county agencies, improving the safety and security of incarcerated people, and providing a constitutional level of care.

“We support the efforts of ODR and other partners in seeking solutions for appropriate placement in our communities while balancing public safety,” the department said. “Our jails and our population have seen changes over the last few years requiring an even greater focus on our increasing mentally ill population.”

Los Angeles County is home to the largest jail system in the country, with more than 14,000 people incarcerated in the county jails in 2022. Nearly half of them are being held pretrial, meaning they have not been convicted of a crime. The jails have been called a human rights disaster by advocates and jail staff alike, and the appalling conditions inside the jails—including a lack of mental health care, excessive force complaints, and suicides—prompted the Department of Justice to put the jail system under a mandatory federal monitoring program in 2015.

That same year, the county’s Board of Supervisors created the Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR) with a goal to keep people experiencing mental illness, substance use issues, or houselessness out of jail. ODR uses several different programs to divert people from jail. One program connects pretrial detainees with permanent supportive housing, case management services, and treatment. Other programs take people who have been found incompetent to stand trial out of jail and place them in community-based care, which ranges from acute inpatient treatment to open residential services.

Since its creation, the office has been extremely successful. One 2019 report by the RAND Corporation found that of a group of 96 participants, 74 percent remained stably housed after one year and 86 percent had no new felony convictions.

But while ODR helped the people it could on a relatively shoestring budget, conditions in the jails remained poor, and the county continued to lock up more people with mental illnesses. In an attempt to reduce the county’s reliance on jails, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors in 2019 adopted a “care first, jails last” approach to public safety and established an Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group. The following year, the committee published a report with 114 recommendations detailing how the county could reduce its reliance on incarceration and instead invest in community care. But in the three years since the group released its proposal, little progress has been made.

“That roadmap has been in the county’s hands since March of 2020,” said Alé-Ferlito from La Defensa. “We’re coming up on three years and we’ve seen very little traction in actually moving the implementation of these recommendations.”

In 2021, the county voted to close one of its jails—the squalid and overcrowded Men’s Central Jail (MCJ). But officials have slow-walked closing that facility too. In September 2022, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an emergency motion stating that the jail system’s main booking location, the Inmate Reception Center, was so overcrowded people were being chained to chairs for days at a time and forced to urinate and defecate on themselves.

“Everyone is on edge because it is crowded, we can’t sleep, deputies treat us like we are subhuman,” Diego Bolton, an incarcerated person, told the ACLU in a sworn statement. “Everywhere in the area there is blood and pee on the floor and people have to sleep on the floor.”

After the ACLU filed its motion, the sheriff’s department opted to reduce overcrowding and long wait times at the booking center by moving people from the booking center to other facilities.

Those sites include MCJ—even though the county has agreed to close it, said Melissa Camacho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California. According to data from the LASD, as of February 24, almost 3,600 people were being held inside Men’s Central Jail—nearly 70 beds over the jail’s recommended capacity.

Camacho said that when she visited the central booking center last summer, she witnessed people peeing in cups and laying in puddles of urine. In addition to the unsanitary conditions, she said it’s likely people with mental health needs are going weeks or months without seeing a psychiatrist or getting medication.

“If they were on medication up to the point of arrest and booking, they may be taken off cold turkey and left off for weeks and months,” Camacho said. “You can imagine the deterioration those people experience.”

On Tuesday, the ACLU filed a motion asking a judge to impose sanctions on the County Board of Supervisors and the sheriff and to find them in contempt of court for failing to comply with a court order requiring them to address the appalling conditions at the booking center. The motion states that jail staff have been tethering people with mental illness to gurneys and have repeatedly failed to provide people in the intake center with the medications they were prescribed prior to being arrested.

“After almost five decades of an endless cycle of promises followed by excuses and failures, and generations of class members enduring abysmal conditions, the time for talk is over,” attorneys for the ACLU of Southern California wrote. “While the Board [of Supervisors’] inaction means there is a dire shortage of community beds and treatment for people with serious mental illness, there continues to be no shortage of these same people suffering inhumane conditions in IRC day after day.”

The county has not yet responded to the motion in court.

Advocates say Los Angeles County's Inmate Reception Center is overcrowded and unsafe.
ACLU via court documents

Advocates say solutions are within reach and question the county’s reticence to fully fund ODR when the program has been so successful.

A 2020 report by the RAND Corporation estimated that more than 60 percent of the jail’s mental health population—over 3,300 people—could be diverted from jail. ODR hit its maximum capacity of 2,200 beds in 2021, and the office was forced to turn away people it could have helped divert from jail. Last October, the board of supervisors agreed to fund an additional 750 beds—a far cry from the number of beds needed to close Men’s Central Jail.

“You never hear of us running out of jail beds,” said Liz Sutton, a licensed clinical social worker who runs a program that helps get incarcerated people with mental health needs released into outpatient care. “The money is going to incarcerating people, so that’s where people end up. We need money to go to mental health care, we need more psych beds, we can’t staff programs to the extent necessary because there isn’t enough funding.”

Los Angeles County allocated nearly $214 million from its general fund to ODR’s budget in its 2022-2023 Final Budget. In comparison, the county gave nearly $3.6 billion to the sheriff’s department from that same funding source—nearly 17 times that of ODR and about 8 percent of the entire county budget.

The Appeal gathered data on every settlement the county made that involved the sheriff’s department in the 2022 calendar year. A review of that data shows the county spent nearly $84 million—more than a third of the money the county gives ODR—settling lawsuits against the LASD. Additionally, data from Los Angeles County litigation reports shows that the county has spent nearly $400 million on lawsuits involving the LASD between fiscal years 2014 and 2020.

In one of those cases, sheriff’s deputies violently restrained, tasered, and punched a man named Eric Briceno, killing him. Briceno was in the midst of a mental health crisis when his mom called for help. In another case, the county paid the family of Rufino Paredes $1.9 million after Paredes died by suicide in a county jail.

“There seems to be unlimited money for settlements over people who die in custody, but not for programs that would reduce overcrowding and make deaths less likely,” said Camacho of the ACLU.

So far this year, the sheriff’s department says four people have died in its jails. In 2021, 55 people died in custody—a rate of about one death per week, according to a report from the Office of the Inspector General, a county agency tasked with overseeing the jails.

“We just don’t have the correct view of the emergency situation that exists,” Camacho said. “This isn’t OK if it persists while we work slowly to get rid of it. This is urgent. People are dying on their watch.”

This story previously stated that the Office of Diversion and Reentry did not respond to requests for comment. After publication, a spokesperson for Los Angeles County clarified that the Office of Diversion and Reentry contributed to the county’s statements for this story. This story has been updated to reflect that.

How The ‘Violent Felon’ Label Can Unfairly Brand People for Life

Politicians often vilify so-called violent criminals. But the “violent felon” label can mean someone committed anything from a murder to a purse-snatching or verbal threat—and doesn’t line up with what science tells us about violence.

Mitchel Lensik via Unsplash

How The ‘Violent Felon’ Label Can Unfairly Brand People for Life

Politicians often vilify so-called violent criminals. But the “violent felon” label can mean someone committed anything from a murder to a purse-snatching or verbal threat—and doesn’t line up with what science tells us about violence.

This story was produced with support from The Academy for Justice at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.

In February 2012, 19-year-old Trenton White allegedly tried to shoot at a moving car, but instead hit an OfficeMax building in Gadsden, Alabama. White was found guilty of one count of robbery, three counts of the discharge of a gun at a building, two counts of attempted murder, and assault in the second degree. Despite shooting no one, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

In January, after serving 11 years, White died in a segregated unit—effectively solitary confinement—at the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Jefferson County, Alabama. La’Marcus Myles was detained in the cell next to White’s. The men often talked through the walls.

“He was a real cool, chill guy,” Myles told The Appeal. “He was young and made mistakes.” Myles claims incarcerated people in segregation don’t get any water, just a cup of ice once a day that they melt down to drink. They can’t drink the water from the tap because it’s black. Myles says he has rats in his cell. “It’s just unreal,” Myles’s wife, Rhonda, said in an interview.

White’s mistake more than a decade ago certainly could have hurt or killed someone—but it didn’t. But White was given a near-life sentence anyway and eventually died in prison for a choice he made as a teenager. White’s situation is not unique: Most people languishing in America’s prison system are stuck inside cages for situations remarkably similar to White’s. But despite the fact that many politicians in both major parties have in recent years expressed a commitment to reforming the prison system or decarcerating America, alleged violent offenders like White have typically been cut out of those efforts, no matter the circumstances of their cases.

As John Pfaff wrote in “Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform,” only 5 to 6 percent of the roughly 1 million people in state jails and prisons are categorized as nonviolent drug offenders. More than half are behind bars for what are technically classified as violent offenses.

In an interview, Pfaff told The Appeal that the habit of labeling someone who may have taken part in a split-second act of violence as permanently dangerous and unfit for rehabilitation or release is harming society.

“Violence is a phase, not a state of being,” Pfaff told The Appeal. “The idea that when you do a violent act, that’s who you are—that’s at odds with basic human nature.”

Despite the fact that allegedly violent criminals make up the majority of the prison population, politicians still tend to hold up nonviolent drug offenders as exemplars of the sort of people impacted by the legal system. In 2018, former President Donald Trump—far from a “soft on crime” politician—granted clemency to Alice M. Johnson, a grandmother serving a life sentence for a nonviolent, first-time drug offense. She was released later that year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, politicians also deprioritized or fully carved out violent offenders from early release programs designed to help with social distancing. In 2021, President Joe Biden launched a project to grant clemency to many of the people released during the pandemic—but stated that only nonviolent drug offenders were eligible.

But the majority of people trapped in prison typically look far more like Corey McCullough, who took part in a 2003 weed deal that left a man, Ean French, dead. At McCullough’s trial, another man testified that he was the one who shot and killed French—not McCullough, who was not at the scene at the time of the murder and had no prior knowledge the shooting would take place. Despite this, prosecutors pursued murder charges and successfully tarred McCullough as a permanently violent individual. After they stacked his previous charges for nonviolent drug crimes, McCullough was sentenced to 60 to 99 years. He recently had a clemency petition rejected and, due to the seriousness of what he was ultimately accused of, finds himself in a bizarre conundrum: Officials like to hear contrition, not claims of innocence.

“When you’re trying to get a pardon or a commutation the powers that be don’t want to hear that you’re innocent, they look at that as if you’re not taking responsibility for your actions,” McCullough told The Appeal.

The FBI, which acts as the nation’s clearinghouse for arrest statistics, lists four categories that count as so-called violent offenses: robbery, aggravated assault, sexual assault, and murder. While the latter two charges are inarguably serious, the majority of the nation’s allegedly violent offenders sit in prison for the former two categories, which are flimsily defined and easily abused by prosecutors. “Aggravated assault,” for example, can mean an act of severe physical violence—or simply displaying a weapon “in a threatening manner.” In 2020, an 18-year-old Utah resident named Gavin Johansen, for example, was nonfatally shot by law enforcement and charged with “aggravated assault on a peace officer” for simply pointing a realistic airsoft gun at a police officer without firing it.

Robbery, too, is vaguely classified. The FBI defines a violent robbery as “taking, or attempting to take, anything of value under confrontational circumstances from the control, custody, or care of another person by force or threat of force or violence and/or by putting the victim in fear of immediate harm.” Misconstrued verbal threats or a particularly forceful purse-snatching could lead to someone being labeled a “violent” criminal for life. That is not a hypothetical: Earlier this month, a 21-year-old man in Ohio was charged with felony robbery after knocking an elderly woman to the ground while trying to steal her handbag.

Even when it comes to more serious charges, the lines are arbitrary and calcified by legalese. Someone labeled a murderer may have stalked and killed another person—or been charged with “felony murder,” a set of laws that allow prosecutors to hold people responsible if, while they are committing a separate felony like a burglary, another person happens to die or be killed by a third party.

Worse, the legal distinctions between violent and nonviolent crime vary by state and are also different at the federal level, leading to a confusing patchwork of classifications.

New York State defines burglary of a store as nonviolent, but burglary of a residence as violent. That means that if someone steals a package from a porch, they might be deemed a violent criminal. Meanwhile, in both New York and California, “negligent homicide”—often resulting from reckless driving—is considered nonviolent, even though it causes a death.

Federally, the FBI does not classify burglary as a violent crime—even though New York State does in some cases. That changes the data. According to federal authorities, 55 percent of people in federal prison are incarcerated for violent crimes. In New York State, that number is far higher—because more offenses, like burglary, are defined as violent.

Beyond the legal distinctions, there’s the perception—especially among politicians and the media—that a violent crime makes someone a violent person who’s irredeemable. Pfaff pointed out that car insurance companies have more sense than politicians, in that the most expensive driver to insure is a 16-year-old boy, since children are less experienced drivers and more prone to making rash decisions.

“Yet 55-year-old politicians—who would have no trouble getting car insurance—act like people don’t change,” Pfaff said.

But these inscrutable distinctions have life-and-death consequences for people accused of violent crimes—they are typically given longer sentences and denied clemency at higher rates. At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Justice’s clemency petition guidelines state that for people imprisoned for violent felonies, “a suitable length of time should have elapsed” before a pardon or commutation “in order to avoid denigrating the seriousness of the offense or undermining the deterrent effect of the conviction.” The guidelines suggest that federal officials will more likely grant clemency in cases where the offense was “very old and relatively minor.”

Even Democrats who say they’re committed to prison reform have shied away from releasing anyone tagged with a “violent” label. President Barack Obama’s clemency initiatives commuted or pardoned 1,927 people’s sentences—the highest total since President Harry Truman. But Obama’s initiatives focused almost exclusively on people convicted of nonviolent drug charges.

Politicians who do grant clemency to “violent” individuals are often tarred as anti-public-safety. In 2019, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, a Republican, granted more than 600 pardons and commutations, including for violent crimes where the imprisoned person had shown growth and change. Bevin said he was guided by Christian lessons of forgiveness.

“I’m a big believer in second chances,” he told the Washington Post that year. “I think this is a nation that was founded on the concept of redemption and second chances and new pages in life.”

The commutation list was not without some issues—95 percent of those Bevin pardoned were white and one person pardoned was the relative of a large campaign donor. But Bevin’s detractors, mostly prosecutors on some of the cases, painted the governor as coddling murderers and insulting the memories of their victims.

“What this governor did is an absolute atrocity of justice,” one local prosecutor told the Post. “He’s put victims, he’s put others in our community in danger.”

Bevin’s acts were highly sensationalized in the media. Most notably, the Louisville Courier Journal won a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for a story critical of the clemency actions, despite the fact that more than two dozen legal and public health scholars sent an open letter to the Pulitzer board begging the committee not to give the piece an award—especially amid the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Lifting up this type of coverage of criminal justice issues is especially harmful at a time like this, when those in overcrowded prisons and surrounding communities are increasingly vulnerable to the devastation of COVID-19,” the letter stated. “Rewarding this kind of coverage risks discouraging leaders to use their clemency power to save lives.”

The sensational criticism did have real impact: After Bevin left office, the Kentucky legislature passed a bill restricting when the governor is able to commute or pardon sentences.

It took years of activism for Michael Thompson, serving 40 to 60 years in prison for selling weed in Michigan, to get clemency from Governor Gretchen Whitmer—even after the drug became legal in that state. Thompson’s release in 2021 was presented as a triumph, an uncontroversial and fully just outcome. But Whitmer’s office had been aware of his case for years, and activists pushed people to inundate Whitmer’s office with letters. In those years, Thompson had a severe bout of COVID and recalled having to wash his clothes in the toilet, among the many indignities of prison.

During that time, Thompson’s friend on the inside, Robert Cannon Jr., was desperate for his freedom too. As a teenager, he’d gotten into a fistfight, and the other man had died. The Michael Thompson Clemency Project, a nonprofit started by Thompson, was trying to secure his freedom. While Thompson was inside, he and Cannon discussed politics and current events and helped plan a special celebration to honor George Floyd, who’d recently been killed by Minneapolis Police officers. Thompson could attest to how much his friend had changed. Cannon got multiple certificates behind bars and counseled other men. He loved to read and write poetry. He was hopeful he’d walk out a free man someday. But Cannon had been labeled a violent offender. On August 19, 2021, Cannon died in prison at the age of 62.

“This is too little too late for him, hopefully other people can be helped by his story,” his fiance, Delores Ingram, wrote on his testimonial page on the clemency project’s website. “Everybody loved him; he always helped and inspired people. He was an asset to society even while incarcerated.”

The Criminal System is Full of People With Psychopathy. It Fails to Help Them.

An associate professor of psychology and a clinical lecturer in law at Yale explain how they've seen the criminal legal system treat psychopathy as a moral failing—instead of a treatable mental illness.

Ye Jinghan via Unsplash

The Criminal System is Full of People With Psychopathy. It Fails to Help Them.

An associate professor of psychology and a clinical lecturer in law at Yale explain how they've seen the criminal legal system treat psychopathy as a moral failing—instead of a treatable mental illness.

America’s criminal system has become one of the country’s largest mental health service providers, leaving the nation’s jails and prisons overfilled with people experiencing severe mental disorders, including one of psychology’s most notorious diagnoses: psychopathy.

By one popularly cited estimate, up to 25 percent of America’s imprisoned people meet the criteria for a diagnosis of psychopathy, compared with 1–2 percent of the general population. While some may argue this is because criminal courts are able to identify psychopathy and protect society from it, the reality is that psychopathy largely flies under the radar when questions of guilt and punishment are considered by the courts. As a result, many people with psychopathy will eventually re-enter society with their condition wholly unaddressed—if not substantially worsened by their time in the system.

The fault lies in the criminal system treating psychopathy as a moral failure. By doing so, the system ignores the strong science behind how psychopathy develops and how it can be managed. This willful ignorance ultimately puts society at risk.

In the popular imagination, psychopathy is a uniquely nefarious condition marked by a volatile combination of unwavering callousness, sadistic tendencies, and moral deficits that inevitably lead to homicidal ideation. Popular media depicts people with psychopathy as serial killers and mass murderers, with fictional characters like Michael Myers and Hannibal Lecter featured alongside real-world examples of presumed psychopathic individuals, like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy. These depictions share a common trait: pure evil.

But psychological studies reveal a very different picture. Psychopathy is not understood as a moral deficiency but as a cognitive-affective impairment marked by an inability to incorporate emotional, empathetic, and consequential information into one’s thinking. Simply put, individuals with psychopathy have limits on the kinds and amounts of information they can process when thinking and making decisions, making them more likely to act impulsively and seemingly without thought. These people do not consciously choose the path of evil over good. Instead, they have a profound incapacity to process information necessary to make sound decisions.

Despite Hollywood depictions, the vast majority of people with psychopathy are neither wantonly homicidal nor particularly good at self-care. Most struggle to maintain meaningful interpersonal relationships, hold down jobs, or provide for their own basic needs, all of which are hallmarks of other severe psychological illnesses.

Certainly, people with psychopathy can pose a danger to others. In fact, some of the prevailing diagnostic indicators of psychopathy include troubling and dangerous traits like deceitfulness, manipulativeness, self-interestedness, aggressiveness, reckless disregard for the safety of others, and remorselessness. But contrary to popular belief, violent behavior is not a requirement for a clinical diagnosis of psychopathy. The behaviors associated with this disorder need to be considered to appropriately address the individual and protect society.

Failing to account for psychopathy’s root causes limits our ability to treat it—just as a doctor could not effectively treat a cough and fever before first knowing whether the symptoms were caused by COVID-19, the flu, or the common cold.

The criminal system, however, is not equipped to handle the detail and complexity of mental illness. The courts mostly consider mental illness only if it prevents someone from appreciating the criminality of their acts. In practice, only two kinds of mental illness can meet this standard: either cognitive defects resulting in intellectual impairment or illnesses like schizophrenia that result in psychotic misinterpretations of reality.

Research has found that there are greater findings of guilt and more severe punishment among defendants with a psychopathy diagnosis. Prosecutors view psychopathy as proof of a person’s inherent dangerousness and depravity, fueling the moral imperative to seek retributive justice on behalf of the victimized. Judges tend to view psychopathy as a moral stain that heightens the risk of future offending and diminishes prospects of rehabilitation. Because of these views, defense attorneys are apt to hide a diagnosis of psychopathy using the dual protection of medical confidentiality laws and attorney-client privilege. Some states, such as Oklahoma, have expressly carved psychopathy and other personality disorders out from their lists of mental illnesses that make a person eligible for mitigation—effectively eliminating the possibility of therapeutic interventions and guaranteeing incarceration instead.

The system’s myopic focus on psychopathy as an irredeemable moral failure ignores growing research that indicates that psychopathy, as rooted in impairments in thinking and feeling, may be more manageable than previously thought.

Research indicates that appropriate interventions in childhood and early adolescence for people displaying psychopathic traits can reduce the risk of developing psychopathy in later adolescence or adulthood. Other studies show that, for people with diagnosed psychopathy, therapeutic interventions that are targeted to the person’s information-processing difficulties can lead them to act more empathetically or, at least, less antisocially. This leaves open the possibility that psychopathy could, with further research and investment, be managed within an appropriate treatment setting, such as a forensic hospital. That situation marks a compelling alternative to long periods of untreated incarceration within jails and prisons, whose abhorrent conditions only worsen psychopathy and its effects.

Locking away anyone with a mental illness, including psychopathy, without treatment does not make society safer. Instead, studies show that the practice only promotes recidivism and more antisocial behavior. If the criminal system’s role is to ensure public safety, it must treat and manage psychopathy—and all mental illnesses—through evidence-based approaches, rather than merely passing moral judgment. If it does not, our jails and prisons will continue to be incubators of public danger.

New Jersey Prison Staff Pushing Incarcerated People to Fight, Complaints Allege

The alleged “fight club” is one of many issues people say plague South Woods State Prison’s “Restorative Housing Unit,” a disciplinary wing that advocates call solitary confinement by another name.

Emiliano Bar via Unsplash

New Jersey Prison Staff Pushing Incarcerated People to Fight, Complaints Allege

The alleged “fight club” is one of many issues people say plague South Woods State Prison’s “Restorative Housing Unit,” a disciplinary wing that advocates call solitary confinement by another name.

New Jersey’s prison watchdog agency has received reports that staff at New Jersey’s South Woods State Prison’s “Restorative Housing Unit” (RHU) are committing acts of violence and egging on fights between incarcerated people, the state’s Corrections Ombudsperson confirmed to The Appeal. Ombudsperson Terry Schuster told The Appeal via email that on Feb. 3, his office sent five of those complaints to the Department of Corrections’ Special Investigations Division (SID) to be formally investigated.

“The allegations relate to security staff using excessive force and encouraging violence between incarcerated people,” Schuster said. “We received individual contacts from several people incarcerated on the RHU throughout January and escalated five of them—different alleged incidents that suggested a pattern—to SID for a formal investigation.”

“We passed them on because they were concerning,” he said.

In a written statement, the Department of Corrections told The Appeal it was “aware of talk in the community about allegations of a ‘fight club’ at the prison,” but called the accusations ”false rumors.” The department added that it maintains “a zero-tolerance policy regarding the mistreatment or exploitation of incarcerated people.” Anyone who believes they are being exploited or abused should contact SID or the Office of the Ombudsperson, reads the statement.

“At this time, there is no merit to these allegations,” the department said. “Any suggestions of a ‘fight club’ or of incarcerated persons being encouraged to fight at South Woods State Prison are not based in fact or supported by information from verified sources.”

When asked about the status of a SID probe, the DOC said it does not comment on investigations as a matter of policy.

Complaints to the ombuds office spiked since the start of the year. From Jan. 1 to Feb. 7, 25 people incarcerated in the South Woods RHU or their family members contacted the ombuds office. About half of the complaints since January have alleged “violence, threats, harassment, disrespect, and retaliation,” said Schuster, who cautioned that his office had not yet confirmed the veracity of the allegations. From October to December 2022, 15 people housed in the South Woods RHU or their loved ones had contacted the ombuds office.

The state’s Dignity Act, which Governor Phil Murphy signed into law in 2020, grants the ombudsperson the authority to, with some exceptions, conduct scheduled and unannounced inspections of prisons, investigate complaints, communicate with incarcerated people, and examine prison records. The ombuds office is independent from the Department of Corrections.

There are nearly 140 people housed at the RHU at South Woods, Schuster said. People are sent to the unit for violating prison rules, which can range from assault to refusing to follow an officer’s direction.

“I want to be cautious about suggesting that I can say anything conclusively right now, except that as the RHU population has gone up, our office has seen a spike in contacts, including many that sound concerning for reasons related to safety and protection from harm,” Schuster told The Appeal.

New Jersey first began using RHUs in 2021, less than a year after the state’s then-new Isolated Confinement Restriction Act (ICRA) went into effect. The law places limitations, with some exceptions, on the use of “isolated confinement”—defined as more than 20 hours in a cell during a 24-hour period. The law also institutes protections for vulnerable populations, including elderly prisoners, those 21 and younger, and people with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities. Under the law, a person cannot be held in isolation for more than 20 consecutive days.

Local advocates say the RHU is the DOC’s euphemism for solitary confinement, what had previously been called administrative segregation, or “ad seg.”

“As far as we can tell, the only thing that the DOC did was to change the name of the administrative segregation housing units to ‘Restorative Housing Units,’” said Amos Caley, the lead organizer for the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, which advocated for the legislation, in an email to The Appeal. “Isolated confinement and the culture of brutality continues unchecked.”

Schuster said additional staff have recently been added to “increase access to recreation, showers, and other out-of-cell activities.” He said his office this year will monitor out-of-cell time and the implementation of the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act.

In a statement to The Appeal, the DOC defended its use of RHUs, which, they said, “is designed to encourage incarcerated people to improve behavior patterns.”

“Incarcerated persons in the RHU are afforded the opportunity to participate in authorized out-of-cell programming and congregate interactions, structured activities, and educational programs to prepare them for reintegration into general population,” the department said.

Over the last several years, prison guards at multiple New Jersey prisons—including South Woods, Bayside State Prison, and the all-women Edna Mahan Correctional Facility—have been accused of abusing incarcerated people. In some instances, officers have been criminally charged. The state’s former corrections commissioner, Marcus Hicks, resigned in 2021 following public outcry over an attack on several women housed in Edna Mahon’s RHU.

While incarcerated in New Jersey, Antonne Henshaw, co-founder and director of a reentry aid group called the Transformative Justice Initiative, was in and out of solitary confinement, spending a total of about seven years in isolation. Shortly after Henshaw came home from prison, he joined the campaign to pass the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act. In solitary confinement units, he said, violence is “par for the course.”

“You’re gonna get tuned up before you get put in a cell,” said Henshaw. “A lot of times I went to the hole I hit every corner on the way there as if I fell. If you’re going to the hole, it’s going to be rough. It’s going to be rough. That’s just what they do.”

If you or a loved one were victimized at the South Woods RHU, please contact the author at

Disclosure: From 2018 to 2019, Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg worked for New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, which advocated for the passage of the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act. The author is also on a short-term contract as the Storytelling Coordinator with Second Look, a campaign to create a pathway for incarcerated elders to be resentenced . Amos Caley is the group’s campaign organizer. 

Louisiana Imprisons Children in a Former Death Row Unit. The Kids Say it Haunts Them.

Last year, the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice began transferring children to Angola, the state’s most notorious prison. Since then, kids say they’ve suffered through horrific conditions and routine mistreatment.

msppmoore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Louisiana Imprisons Children in a Former Death Row Unit. The Kids Say it Haunts Them.

Last year, the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice began transferring children to Angola, the state’s most notorious prison. Since then, kids say they’ve suffered through horrific conditions and routine mistreatment.

Children held at the Louisiana State Penitentiary—better known as the notorious Angola prison—have been locked in their cells for days at a time, only allowed to leave to shower, according to a 15-year-old who was detained at the unit. During his time there, he says guards twisted his arm and sprayed him and others with mace.   

The teen, identified as the alias Daniel D. in court records, made these claims as part of an ongoing federal court case filed by the ACLU, law firms, and a legal clinic at the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. They’re demanding Louisiana close the prison’s recently created unit for children detained by the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ), which is tasked with rehabilitating children in their care. Louisiana only began transferring children to the unit last year after kids escaped from another of the state’s facilities. The OJJ says there are currently five kids confined at the Angola site.

According to court documents reviewed by The Appeal, Daniel and another teenager, identified by the alias Edward E., reported that they have been subjected to cruel treatment inside the facility. In one example, Daniel said after a child hit a guard, Department of Corrections (DOC) and OJJ officers “came into the classroom and started grabbing all the kids.” 

“DOC guards grabbed and twisted my arm,” he said. After this incident, Daniel says he and the other seven children present were locked in their cells, alone, for at least three days; they were only permitted to leave to shower.

At other times, Daniel said he and other kids have been confined to their cells for entire weekends, except for when they needed to shower. Every day, they’re locked in their cells starting at 5 p.m. until about 6:45 a.m. the next morning, Daniel said in his statement. 

An OJJ spokesperson said in an email that providing The Appeal with a schedule for the young people held at Angola would pose a security risk. “In general, the youth go to school, participate in counseling, have recreational activity time, utilize the dining hall for all their meals, and participate with both in-person and virtual visits with family,” they wrote. 

Daniel told the court that when it’s cold outside, there is no hot water and the children can’t shower. The power often goes out when it rains—and the kids are then not allowed to attend school, he said. On those days, they’re locked in their cells except for lunch and dinner.

Liz Ryan, administrator for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, told The Appeal after this article was initially published that her office is worried about the recent reports of abuse at Angola.

“We expressed our concern when the state announced plans to move youth into an adult maximum-security prison and have offered resources and support to help officials identify alternative measures,” Ryan said in a written statement. “Children do not belong in adult prisons.”

Earlier this month, the ACLU and other legal representatives submitted Daniel and Edward’s statements to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana as part of their ongoing litigation to shut down the youth unit at Angola. 

When asked by The Appeal to respond to the allegations made in the court statements, an OJJ spokesperson wrote that the agency cannot comment on pending litigation, and reiterated their commitment to the children held in their facilities. 

“We take the responsibility to ensure safety at our facilities very seriously, and we strive to create an environment for successful education and rehabilitation of the youth in our care,” they  said via email. 

Seventeen-year-old Edward was transferred from a juvenile facility to Angola in October. He has been diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD, and bipolar disorder. Since he arrived at Angola, he says his nightmares related to his trauma history have gotten worse.

The food is “worse than any other facility I have been to,” and often has hair in it, Edward said. On one occasion, a kid threw his plate on the ground after finding a hair in his food. The next day, Edward said the staff “blended all of [the child’s] food together and fried it into a food loaf.”

“It never even crossed my mind that these kids would be subjected to this really inhumane punishment with food that I think is meant to strip people of their dignity,” Edward’s attorney, Hector Linares, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, told The Appeal. “That one got to me, like got under my skin.”

Edward also stated that being housed in the prison’s old death row unit haunted him.

“It is very depressing to be here knowing this is the former death row,” Edward told the court during his stay in the unit. “When the lights go out at night, I think I see shadows going past.”

Last year, a few days after several kids escaped from one of the state’s secure facilities for youth, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, announced a plan to move about two dozen kids to a building on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The “Transitional Treatment Unit” at Angola would serve young people who need a “more restrictive housing environment,” according to OJJ, while the agency worked to develop a permanent location. 

Local groups, along with the ACLU, attempted to stop the transfers, but in September, Chief District Judge Shelly D. Dick ruled that the moves could commence, even though, she acknowledged, the children would likely suffer “psychological trauma and harm.”  

In her ruling, Dick wrote that the OJJ is “charged with a rehabilitative, not punitive, mission,” and that the unit at Angola “will provide all necessary programs and services to youth.” The unit is designed to be “therapeutic and rehabilitative while maintaining discipline, safety, and security.”

The judge dismissed concerns raised by the ACLU and their partners that kids at Angola would be subjected to “excessive or abusive solitary confinement.” Then-OJJ Assistant Secretary Otha “Curtis” Nelson Jr. had told the court, the judge wrote, that “legally, no child can be confined in their room for more than 8 hours and then only after an assessment; the child must be checked on an hourly basis; once the child has calmed down, they are released back into the general population.” During his testimony, Nelson also said, “We don’t punish kids placed in our custody.” Nelson is now deputy secretary of OJJ.

Incarcerating children at Angola is antithetical to the OJJ’s duty to help children in their facilities, said Kristen Rome, co-executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. 

“There is no question that these children have been placed in prison,” she told The Appeal. “The impact of a Black child having to go to that facility and be incarcerated in a former death row camp—there’s no way for us to know what that impact will be. But what we do know is that it will not make them better.”

Edward and Daniel described an environment rife with isolation, violence, and inadequate mental health and educational services. Both also reported that they were subjected to collective punishment. In one unit, Edward said, if a child “acted up,” everyone would lose recreation time and be locked in their cells instead. After a kid hit a guard in the dining hall, Daniel said, the staff “started macing all of us.” Daniel added that the guards exacted a particularly brutal punishment for the boy who had struck the guard—they maced and punched him while he was on the ground.

Nancy Rosenbloom, a senior litigation advisor at the ACLU National Prison Project, told The Appeal that the state has not given kids the rehabilitative programs that it promised in court.

“It’s outrageous that the state would put several witnesses on the stand in federal court to say, ‘Just trust us, judge. We’re going to provide all of the legally required services,’ and then simply not do it,” she said.

The state also said fabric would surround the perimeter of the facility to comply with federal law, which requires that incarcerated children and adults cannot see or hear each other. Private attorney Christopher Murell told The Appeal that when he visited Daniel, the cloth was already shredding and ripped apart. Murrell said the fabric is attached to a giant fence with spools of razor wire on top. 

“You know you are walking into a serious, felony institution when you walk into the area where the kids are being held,” he said.

Since Edward and Daniel provided their statements, both have been transferred out of Angola, according to the ACLU. However, they can be sent back to Angola for any number of reasons, including committing certain acts of violence against a staff member or possessing marijuana, according to OJJ policy. The agency can also send kids with serious mental illness or significant developmental disabilities to Angola. 

The possibility of returning to Angola hasn’t left Daniel’s mind. 

“Even if they transfer me to another facility, I am worried they will ship me back here to Angola,” he said. 

Black children, as Daniel and Edward identify, are disproportionately represented throughout the juvenile justice system, particularly in Louisiana. As of August of last year, over 80 percent of the more than 320 kids sent to juvenile detention facilities in Louisiana were Black, even though they make up less than 40 percent of the general population, according to OJJ data. More than 100 young people were detained for non-violent, misdemeanor, or “technical” reasons, the OJJ says.

The Appeal filed public records requests for information on the ages and races of those held at Angola, but the agency has said they have no records responsive to the request. When asked for the racial make-up of the five youth currently held at Angola, an OJJ spokesperson told The Appeal via email that due “to the confidential nature of juvenile records, OJJ cannot release identifying information pertaining to youth to the media.”

Gina Womack, executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), said in a written statement that the significance of housing children of color at Angola should not be lost on the public.

“The fact that Black children are being locked in cages on a former plantation for enslaved Africans is already an immeasurable offense, but to also learn that they are being held in solitary confinement without necessary services, education, or even recreation, is unconscionable,” she said. 

In November, activists with FFLIC attempted to confront the governor at a public meeting and present him with their petition demanding that he shut down Angola’s youth unit. They were denied entry to the meeting until after he left, according to the group.  

“We have said time and time again that nothing good can come from housing youth in Angola, but the governor and the Office of Juvenile Justice have been determined to ignore what’s right,” Womack said. “Under their leadership, Louisiana has become even more of a shame to our nation—and this abuse has only added to our reputation as a failure in education and child wellbeing.”

This piece has been updated to include a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice.

As Trust in Police Wanes, Cops are Replacing Human Witnesses With Robots

As more people criticize or refuse to cooperate with police, writers Emily Galvin-Almanza and Khalid Alexander argue most departments aren’t taking that criticism to heart—they’re replacing human sources and interactions with computer-generated evidence instead.

Parker Coffman via UnSplash

As Trust in Police Wanes, Cops are Replacing Human Witnesses With Robots

As more people criticize or refuse to cooperate with police, writers Emily Galvin-Almanza and Khalid Alexander argue most departments aren’t taking that criticism to heart—they’re replacing human sources and interactions with computer-generated evidence instead.

In the past few years, as we’ve been distracted by historic crises and political disruption, many Americans may not have noticed the deepening of the surveillance state in which they live. Major cities have announced hefty investments in surveillance technologies, such as cameras for subway cars in New York City and aerial drones in Cleveland. Police officers in Nebraska leveraged private Facebook messages to press felony charges against a mother who allegedly helped her daughter access an abortion. And criminal evidence obtained via gunshot detection technologies, such as ShotSpotter, has been used in more than 100 cities, at times contributing to wrongful prosecutions and perpetuating our nation’s toxic history of oversurveillance of communities of color

We should all be spooked. Whether on your street or your social media feed, police are watching, and the American people are not only falling prey, but also footing the bill. 

Unless voters and leaders in the tech world take action, this problem will not go away. From 2015 to 2018 alone, the number of surveillance cameras in the U.S. jumped from 47 million to 70 million—a nearly 50 percent increase. And some projections now say that, as of 2021, that number has reached about 85 million. Even more sinister is what this trend in surveillance technology indicates: a need, on the part of American police, to substitute machines for the consent and collaboration of the public they are supposed to protect. 

As the public’s appetite for police responses to certain situations has declined since George Floyd’s murder, police officers have increasingly relied on facial recognition software, gunshot detection technology, and other automated surveillance technologies (such as triggerfish and stingrays) to maintain control, manufacture probable cause, and arm prosecutors with buckets of “evidence.” For example, with ShotSpotter, police now don’t need a witness to make a 911 call in order to create probable cause for a response. They can simply rely on overinclusive loud-noise detection in lieu of human participation and consent to achieve their desired outcomes.

To regain control over how technology is used in our criminal legal system, we must do three things immediately: 

  1. Demand cops disclose camera locations and functionality in all jurisdictions.
  2. Establish citizen panels to vet how law enforcement uses camera footage and social media monitoring tools. 
  3. Ensure that providers of AI technologies such as ShotSpotter and Clearview AI grant public defenders access to these tools to help stanch these technologies’ role in fueling mass incarceration. 

To understand the link between artificial intelligence and overpolicing, take the case of Michael Williams. In August 2020, Williams was accused of killing a young man from his community after a silent clip of security footage showed him driving through an intersection at the exact moment surveillance microphones allegedly registered a loud noise. According to the AP, prosecutors said the device’s secret algorithm had identified the bang as a gunshot, and Williams spent nearly a year in Cook County Jail for a crime he did not commit. 

Given that, as of 2016, more than a quarter of law enforcement agencies across the country had access to facial recognition technology, it should come as no surprise that this form of surveillance poses similar threats. In 2020, Michigan resident Robert Williams was wrongfully arrested and held for nearly 30 hours due to a flawed facial recognition match, causing him to unwillingly join the ranks of an untold number of people whose lives have collided with the criminal legal system purely due to flawed, nonconsensual monitoring technology.

This issue is not new. Police have long preferred mechanisms of manufacturing consent that lie within their control. Dog searches, for example, have been called “probable cause on four legs” by police and have been seen as a means to give police an excuse to search any person they choose. That pretext gives cops a reason to bypass getting the community’s consent for police activity. 

This seizure of power through manufactured evidence is unacceptable. To ensure local law enforcement officials aren’t abusing surveillance technology, people have to first gain the means to know what police are doing behind the scenes—through, for example, a public approval process for all forms of police surveillance, as activists demanded in Oakland, California, in 2018. Communities can also seek to enact even stricter regulations, like banning facial recognition software, as Bellingham, Washington, did in 2021. If police are sidelining ordinary people by using technology, regular citizens can reclaim a seat at the table through municipal and county government processes, demanding oversight of the sort of technology employed. 

It was, in fact, ordinary people concerned about overpolicing and community safety in San Diego who brought widespread attention in 2020 to a little-known surveillance network of over 3,000 camera-equipped “smart streetlights” around the city—which was being routinely accessed by law enforcement. Approval for the devices passed through City Council with relatively little attention—they’d been pitched as little more than a cost-effective “energy saving” system, rather than the panopticon they truly were. But the network then turned out to be the beginning of then-mayor and aspiring gubernatorial candidate Kevin Faulconer’s push to turn San Diego into a so-called smart city. But what Faulconer considered smart, community members impacted by overpolicing considered dangerous. 

Outraged by the lack of public input, activists formed a diverse anti-surveillance coalition called TRUST SD and demanded an immediate end to Faulconer’s “smart city” experiment. As a result of these efforts, the city placed a moratorium on its multimillion-dollar smart-streetlights program. An ordinance requiring public review of surveillance tech finally became law in August—after activists spent three years organizing and pressuring local officials. And while this was an important win for transparency, it is only the beginning of what promises to be a continued battle against the unscrupulous use of tech in public safety.

When we think about what truly creates safety, it’s not police activity and violent jailing. Instead, offering people resources, support, better healthcare, and the means to lift themselves out of poverty have been shown to improve safety in ways overpolicing simply cannot. How many jobs programs, free clinics, or affordable apartments could a city’s surveillance budget fund? There is much to be learned from the example of San Diego’s path to better citizen protection, but perhaps the most important lesson is that we cannot substitute police tech for the participation of community members in shaping our shared idea of safety.

How Georgia’s Sex Offender Registry Traps People in Debt and Homelessness

I was arrested in 2011 after engaging in sex work to survive and later forced to register as a sex offender. Since then, social stigma, footage laws, and crushing monthly court debts have made it difficult to get back on my own two feet and succeed after prison.

Milad Fakurian / Unsplash

How Georgia’s Sex Offender Registry Traps People in Debt and Homelessness

I was arrested in 2011 after engaging in sex work to survive and later forced to register as a sex offender. Since then, social stigma, footage laws, and crushing monthly court debts have made it difficult to get back on my own two feet and succeed after prison.

In 2011, after six years of engaging in sex work to survive, I was arrested and charged with, at age 19, pimping, pandering, and exploiting a minor who was over 16 years old. In 2012, I was convicted and sentenced to 30 years, with 14 to be served in custody, and forced to register as a sex offender. As my public defender so appropriately described it, I was depicted by the media as a sort of Guido the Killer Pimp and accused—I maintain falsely—of terrible acts befitting only a terrible person.

It’s well known that police target sex workers, criminalizing their means of survival and contributing to sex offense-related convictions and statistics. In particular, police target BIPOC and LGBTQ sex workers—especially the many disenfranchised, ostracized, and homeless teens and young people engaged in the trade for survival. These sorts of arrest patterns by law enforcement only act to control bodies, cater to the public’s hunger for spectacle, and pad conviction rates, all while furthering a general rhetoric of perversion and predation. 

No one seemed interested in the facts of my case, nor in my long history of childhood sexual abuse and compulsory sex work—least of all the police and the media. I didn’t know at that time that I was fulfilling a narrative around crime and sex offenses. Nor did I know about the vicious re-incarceration cycle of the registry and potentially lifelong monetary peonage to the criminal (in)justice system.  

But I do unfortunately know one thing now: Sex offender registries are debt traps that cause mass homelessness and mass incarceration. After years estranged from society and divorced from a solid employment history, the cost of rebuilding a life from rubble and debris is exorbitant (housing, furniture, vehicle, insurance, food, clothing, medications and medical expenses, etc). And that’s without factoring in registry and parole/probation-related costs.

In Georgia, a first-time technical violation by someone on the sex-offender registry is a felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Under the state’s recidivism statute, a second violation triggers a 30-year prison sentence and there is no parole eligibility. It is so difficult to secure housing with a sex offense conviction that the outskirts of at least four Georgia cities have encampments populated by people on the registry. Those placed on the list can apply to be removed 10 years after they’ve completed their full sentences, including probation.

I know the statistics and have lived the struggle. So when I became eligible for work release at the beginning of this summer, I put in my application immediately. It was urgent that my placement in a transitional center (TC) be completed so I could start earning money as quickly as possible. A transitional center is a residential recovery house run by the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC). Prisoners within 15 months of their parole or maximum release date can apply for placement in a TC, where they may have their own clothes and leave the facility each day for work release. 

To apply, I had to send character references to my institutional case managers and higher-ups at the GDC—I took care to make sure the documents arrived at just the right moment to keep me at the top of the pile. But in September my application was denied; I was told I couldn’t be placed on work release while still receiving gender-affirming treatment I’d won through litigation.

I was panicked when I found that the GDC won’t assist me in best situating myself for a meaningful and successful reentry. The GDC will turn me over to the Department of Community Supervision, which will commence trying to break me, both financially and mentally. As a citizen on the sex offender registry, I’ll be paying for my ankle monitor, mandatory treatment classes, monthly urinalysis tests, biannual polygraph tests, and of course my parole officer’s valuable time. These charges will accumulate to at least $400 to $800 per month. If I cannot keep up with these fees and with rent simultaneously, it doesn’t matter which bills I choose to pay. 

It’s terribly easy to land on the sex offender registry in this country. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that children are accused of committing roughly a quarter of all known sexual offenses and more than one-third of all sexual offenses against kids. At this time, there are more than 200,000 people on the registry for conduct that occurred when they were a minor. Earlier this year, Tracy Alvord, the executive director of the Georgia Sexual Offender Registration Review Board, stated that more than 30,000 people are registered with the board. 

According to a 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, formerly incarcerated people are roughly 10 times as likely to experience homelessness as members of the general population. But sex offender registries only make this issue worse. Returning citizens who must register find themselves squeezed by draconian, restrictive “footage laws” that limit the places we can even consider living. Sex offenders in Georgia are not able to work within 1,000 feet of public parks, schools, childcare facilities, or any other places where minors are known to congregate. Law enforcement will sometimes even prohibit registered persons from working in restaurants. Multiple studies have linked sex-offender registries to increased rates of homelessness.

I was released on parole in 2018, but within a few months, I found myself back in custody for failure to register as a sex offender. I had a decent place to live, a car, and a full-time job as a server. All of my pertinent details were registered with the local sheriff’’s department and my parole officer. However, the cost of living combined with the cost of supervision and complying with the registry was making me juggle bills (paying for the ankle monitor or the lights; paying for rent or my polygraph; paying for gas or my urinalysis). And there was absolutely no mercy or accommodation from my parole officer. 

I needed a second job, direly, and not for petty pay. I needed some serious money. Every single place I wanted to work—and that wanted to hire me—was turned down by the sheriff’s department and by parole because it was too close to prohibited places for people on the registry. Finally, I had enough. I wasn’t going to be homeless again—been there, done that before. So, in late March 2018, I accepted a job at an animal hospital in Columbus, Georgia, without formally reporting the job to the state. I was arrested after working there for almost two months because the animal hospital was about 730 feet from a daycare, rather than a solid 1,000. What difference does the state think the extra 200 feet would make for a person determined to sexually offend? I was working at the animal hospital because I was determined to survive, to make something of my life, and to redeem myself from my past. Instead, I got another criminal charge—and one step closer to a life sentence—all because I’d failed to log a second job I’d taken on to pay the fees the state had imposed on me.

Research suggests that registries are ineffective at deterring new crimes and may even lead to greater rates of recidivism. Criminal convictions and placement on the registry impact credit scores, employment opportunities, housing accessibility, and in some cases admission to institutions of higher education. Those issues don’t even factor in social stigma, discrimination, potentially being doxed, and moral panic from others in society. Rather than reducing crime, studies suggest registries instead increase crime rates, due to the employment and housing instability they cause. 

Various studies have found that people who are convicted of sex offenses are among the least likely to repeat offend. In 2019, for example, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report analyzing a group of people formerly incarcerated for rape or sexual assault. Over a nine-year period, only 7.7 percent of those studied were rearrested for a second rape or sexual assault. If those on sex-offender registries do reoffend, they are statistically far more likely to be rearrested for nonsexual crimes, suggesting that employment and financial stability become far harder for people once placed on a list. The issue is that data must fight against popular opinion.

Many people may feel that these collateral consequences are justified. Many also see the registry as a rightful continuation of the punishment process. But it’s important to remember that registries were intended to protect the public—not to perpetually punish the people on them. Citizens are being financially and socially harmed in perpetuity because of a broken, harm-relishing system.

I, like many in similar shoes, am simply terrified of the future and what it means for me as a person on the sex offender registry. I worry about securing a safe place to live and a decent-paying job, about how I will restart my life and do something meaningful, beautiful, and redemptive with it. I am arguably not the best person, but am certainly better than my worst moments. Part of the rhetoric, the sort of sales pitch, around incarceration and punishment (and the criminal legal system at large) is that there is and must be rehabilitation. The offender registry—and its endless stream of debts—isn’t letting me get another chance.

Jail Deaths Have Spiked, But Atlanta’s Diversion Program May Lose Funding

Deaths at the Fulton County Jail have quadrupled compared to last year. Despite this, county commissioners are threatening to cut funding to one of the Atlanta area’s main pre-arrest diversion initiatives.

Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat
Fulton County Sheriff's Office

Jail Deaths Have Spiked, But Atlanta’s Diversion Program May Lose Funding

Deaths at the Fulton County Jail have quadrupled compared to last year. Despite this, county commissioners are threatening to cut funding to one of the Atlanta area’s main pre-arrest diversion initiatives.

So far this year, 14 people detained by the Fulton County Sheriff have died, either at a nearby hospital or at one of the county’s jails. That number is more than four times the amount of people who died in custody all of last year, the sheriff’s office told The Appeal via email. 

The first person to die this year was a 32-year-old veteran. In January, he had been detained for less than a week when he died by what appears to be suicide at the Fulton County Jail, according to jail incident reports obtained by The Appeal. 

Records from the sheriff’s department show an increasingly quickening pace of deaths. Most of the year’s deaths—11—have occurred in the last four months. Four deaths occurred in November, the deadliest month to date. 

All fourteen people were Black, according to jail records. More than half were detained at the county’s largest lock-up, the Fulton County Jail. 

Amelia Joiner, chief counsel to Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat, wrote in an email to The Appeal that “as these custodial deaths are still under investigation, no further information or statements will be made available regarding these matters at this time.” She added that detainees are entering the jail in worse health than in decades past and that they “are using the crumbling facility to create dangerous weapons.” However, only three of the deaths were suspected or confirmed homicides.

Local criminal justice reform advocates say the rising death count underscores the urgent need to release hundreds of people and invest in programs that keep people out of jail. But the county seems to be moving in the opposite direction. This summer, the city of Atlanta, the sheriff’s office, and the County entered into an agreement to transfer up to 700 people from the overcrowded Fulton County Jail to the Atlanta City Detention Center. 

And now, County commissioners are threatening to defund the Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative (PAD), a joint initiative between multiple Atlanta-area governments, in retaliation for the group’s public opposition to the jail expansion, Moki Macias, the group’s director, told The Appeal. The commissioners will hold a public hearing on the county’s proposed 2023 fiscal year budget at their 10 a.m. meeting today, and will vote on the budget next month.

“The commissioners would not be talking about removing funding from PAD if we had not publicly said that we didn’t think expanding the jail was the best solution,” said Macias. 

Commissioner Marvin Arrington confirmed as much in a phone interview with The Appeal. Arrington, a long-time PAD supporter who helped bring the program to Atlanta, said he would not vote to eliminate their funding, but understood his colleagues’ frustrations with the group. 

“We are funding PAD and then our sheriff is telling us that he needs the Atlanta jail,” said Arrington. “And [PAD is] fighting us on that. I don’t think anybody wants to get rid of PAD funding, but it’s fair game for discussion.”

His recommendation to the group, he told The Appeal, is that they “not bite the hand that’s feeding them.” 

Instead of arresting a person and taking them to jail, multiple Atlanta-area police departments can divert people accused of certain crimes related to substance abuse, extreme poverty, and mental illness to PAD. If the person agrees to partner with PAD, PAD works to connect them with services and, if necessary, housing. Prosecutors can also refer people to PAD. If a judge agrees, this results in the person’s release from jail.  

PAD’s $7.8 million budget comes from both private and public sources, according to a budget document the group shared with The Appeal. Fulton County provides PAD with $400,000 to help participants meet their most immediate needs, including obtaining food, clothing, transit passes, identification, and shelter. The city of Atlanta provides more than half of the group’s funding. (The Atlanta Police Department, just one of the multiple departments that refers people to PAD, had a $276 million budget in the 2022 fiscal year.

“When people have a history of cycling through our local jails because of behavioral health concerns or poverty, then the things that keep them out of jail when they are referred to us are exactly the things that Fulton County pays for,” Macias said. “It is making sure they have a place to sleep. It is making sure that they have food to eat so they don’t have to shoplift it.” 

But despite the ongoing human rights crisis at the jail, several commissioners suggested eliminating the County’s share of the group’s funding at their most recent meeting and questioned the group’s transparency and efficacy. PAD, however, publishes monthly and annual reports on its website

From the start of this year through October, police officers diverted 120 people to the group who would have otherwise been held at the Fulton County Jail, saving the County an estimated $520,000 in what it would have cost to detain them, according to a report released by PAD this week. If each of the 120 had been arrested, most would have been charged with trespassing. In total, law-enforcement diverted people to PAD 295 times during that same time period, according to the most recent monthly PAD report available online.

Of the 26 participants referred by law enforcement in October—the most recent month for which a report is available online— PAD secured emergency housing for 21 of them. 

Instead of increasing the number of jail beds, PAD and other groups say many people could be safely released. Around 4,200 people booked in the Fulton County Jail from January to October were charged with misdemeanors as their most serious charge, according to a study ordered by county and city officials as part of the agreement to lease additional jail beds. Over 3,400 people were charged with offenses eligible for diversion. 

While numerous police departments exist in Fulton county, just three—those for the city of Atlanta, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), and Georgia Tech university—can currently refer people to PAD directly. Between January and October of this year, the Atlanta police department alone could have diverted more than 650 people to PAD instead of booking them into the jail, according to the report PAD released this week. 

For people arrested outside of PAD’s business hours, local prosecutors can divert them after they are booked into the jail. But from January to October, the Fulton County District Attorney and city solicitor diverted no cases to PAD, and the county solicitor diverted one, according to Macias. 

“If the police department and the solicitor and the prosecutors for both the city and the county were diverting more people to us then we would not have the kind of overcrowding problem that we have,” said Macias. 

More diversions may have also meant fewer deaths. One man in the jail’s mental health unit died in a suspected homicide, for instance. He had been held for just over two months on charges of loitering and a misdemeanor charge of obstructing law enforcement. 

So far, three people from the jail’s mental health unit have died this year, according to incident reports. As The Appeal previously reported, the jail’s medical provider documented that in September people in the unit were living in deplorable conditions. Most were severely malnourished, and all had scabies or lice—or sometimes both.  

With their clients’ lives at risk, Macias says potential funding cuts won’t dissuade the group from speaking out. PAD is encouraging its supporters to attend today’s meeting where the proposed county budget will be discussed. Commissioners are expected to vote on the budget next month. 

“I wholeheartedly reject the idea that somehow we should not be advocating and weighing in on the decisions that we’re making about incarceration,” she said. “We are never going to not advocate, especially for the people who are struggling with mental health and are struggling with substance use or are simply trying to survive on the street, and instead are wasting away in that jail.”

Clarification: This piece has been updated to reflect the total number of people law enforcement referred to PAD from January to October 2022.

How ‘Alternatives to Incarceration’—Like Probation—Expand Criminalization

In September, an Iowa judge sentenced Pieper Lewis, a Black teenager who was trafficked and sexually assaulted, to community supervision after she pleaded guilty to stabbing one of her abusers to death. Some hailed the sentence as compassionate. But facts about supervision say otherwise.

StockSolutions via iStock by Getty Images

How ‘Alternatives to Incarceration’—Like Probation—Expand Criminalization

In September, an Iowa judge sentenced Pieper Lewis, a Black teenager who was trafficked and sexually assaulted, to community supervision after she pleaded guilty to stabbing one of her abusers to death. Some hailed the sentence as compassionate. But facts about supervision say otherwise.

In 2020, Pieper Lewis was a 15-year-old from Des Moines, Iowa, who’d fled an abusive home only to be preyed upon by an adult man and subsequently trafficked. That year, Lewis fatally stabbed one of her abusers, a 37-year-old man named Zachary Brooks, in what she has always maintained was an act of self-defense. 

Lewis’s case made national headlines in September of this year, when she was ordered to pay $150,000 to Brooks’s family, despite the fact that Lewis says Brooks had confined and abused her. On Sept. 13, Polk County District Court Judge David M. Porter sentenced Lewis, then 17, to five years of probation without early release and 200 hours of community service a year for three years, and ordered her to be placed at the Fresh Start Women’s Center in Des Moines, where she would wear a GPS tracking device, pending a deferred judgment. The story gained further notoriety when a GoFundMe for Lewis surpassed the restitution amount, raising more than half a million dollars. 

Lewis’s case stands out not only for the abundance of support she has received online but for the fact that, unlike many other criminalized survivors, she was not originally sentenced to prison. Commentary on the case, as well as the GoFundMe copy, has suggested that Porter’s sentence was “compassionate” or one that would help Lewis avoid prison. Yet less than two months after this sentence was delivered, Lewis allegedly cut off her ankle monitor and fled the women’s center, strongly suggesting that she herself did not find her “alternative” to incarceration particularly humane or compassionate. She was rearrested on Nov. 8

The original sentence Lewis received, although meant to keep her out of prison in the immediate future, assigned her to a correctional services facility where she was mandated to pay rent. The GPS monitor she was supposed to wear in the facility placed her in a digital prison, restricting her ability to travel and monitoring where she was at all times. Media Justice, an organization working to end the use of electronic monitoring systems (EMS), reports that the use of EMS has no proven effectiveness in reducing the likelihood of people on supervision ending up in prison, arguing that switching out prison for carceral technology functions more as a means to police behavior than to provide support. And lastly, although judgment on her case was deferred, if Lewis failed to participate in the center’s programs sufficiently, if she re-offended, or if she was otherwise unable to meet the conditions of her deferred judgment, she could likely be ordered to prison after all—as subsequent events have shown. Under supervision, Lewis was once again at great risk of being criminalized, just as she had been while awaiting trial.

The logic of community supervision as an “alternative to incarceration” (ATI) is irrational and relies on the subjective paternalism of judges and prosecutors. A probation violation does not mean that someone deserves to go to prison, yet many ATI sentences hand power over a survivor’s future choices to a complex network of correctional service providers. The criminalization of poverty, homelessness, substance use, gender nonconformity, and sex work have contributed to the expansions of policing that target Black and undocumented youth disproportionately. For criminalized survivors in particular, walking the tightrope of probationary restrictions—including strict reporting requirements and regular court fees—can put survival out of reach and result in a level of “permanent criminality.” Supposedly “compassionate” alternatives can keep someone trapped in poverty and chained to the legal system for much of their lives.

It is undoubtedly better to have the opportunity to not go to prison. Basing advocacy or demands for reform, however, on such a scarcity of imagination creates the conditions for prison by other names. The experiences that led up to Lewis’s act of self-defense indicate a cascading set of failures on the part of institutions that were designed to protect her. In light of these failures, Judge Porter claimed the sentence would ensure that she would not go “back into the lifestyle that you thus far left.” Yet the immense pressure of supervision—particularly if her crowdfunding campaign had been unsuccessful—may have just as easily left Lewis incapable of leaving this incident behind, as it so often does. 

Like others who have defended themselves against abusers, Lewis’s experiences before this case suggest that she survived abandonment and violence across multiple societal and carceral systems, including her family, the police, youth and shelter services, and the courts. In Lewis’s case, her interactions with systems of policing began early on, in foster care and then as an adoptee at age 3. Many adoptees and survivors of foster care have highlighted how supposed “child welfare” industries collude with carceral-therapeutic services and police to produce what can better be referred to as the “family policing system.” Scholars like Dorothy Roberts, who advocate for the abolition of family policing, have said that the high number of Black children who find themselves in “need” of adoption is by design. Roberts has written that many “child welfare” systems and policies instead prey upon low-income Black families. 

According to Lewis’s plea deal, she fled her home three times in 2020 because of her unstable home life. A doctor who testified during her trial stated that her adoptive mother had been emotionally abusive. During Lewis’s second attempt to leave, she stayed at Youth Emergency Services Shelter, where she was sexually assaulted. Abuse is not uncommon within systemically under-funded shelter services.

That an “alternative” like probation could be seen as a helpful program to a sexual-assault survivor criminalized for defending herself is farcical. After receiving her sentence, Lewis joined almost 4 million people in the U.S. who are on probation or parole, also known as “community supervision” programs. Criminalized survivors, who often have limited networks of support and who often provide care to others and therefore don’t have flexibility in their schedules, are particularly failed by such traumatic forms of carceral control. Fees, program participation, submission to drug testing, abiding by curfews, and finding and maintaining employment are just some of the aspects of supervision that set people up to fail. A technical violation often means jail. For criminalized survivors who are undocumented, disabled, or pregnant, movement restrictions can have life-threatening consequences.

Recently, some politicians and advocacy groups have suggested expanding the use of ATIs in response to demands to defund or decarcerate the country’s punishment systems, but such programs are not a solution. Lewis’s ordeal in particular shows that ATIs are often synonymous with imprisonment—and that they function as expansions of the prison industrial complex (PIC). Thus, laws and campaigns that favor ATIs in sentencing reinforce the legitimacy of prosecution and correctional control and sustain bureaucracies oriented around keeping people in the criminal legal system. ATIs themselves are a reform and, as such, are extremely limited in how much they can reduce mass criminalization. 

Choices between prison or another form of imprisonment are not ones based on visions that prioritize freedom, healing, and self-determination. Those in positions to develop decarceral policies and institutions, as well those organizing to end the PIC, should resist being misled into thinking that correctional “services” can correct for organized abandonment, a term abolitionist writer Ruth Wilson Gilmore uses to refer to the manifold consequences of capitalism, white supremacy, and cisheteropatriarchy—the sort of abandonment typically experienced by survivors at the intersections of these forces. 

Like other criminalized survivors, such as Bresha Meadows, Cyntoia Brown, Chrystul Kizer, and Tracy McCarter, Pieper Lewis had an experience that highlights the utter incapability of the carceral state to solve the structural issues of anti-Blackness, gender violence, childhood abuse, and houselessness. Of course, Lewis’s case and life are ongoing—she is an imperfect victim and the solutions for abuse, trafficking, and sexual violence are not simple. But a starting point is to prioritize the protection of Black youth and survivors. Simply being “better than prison” is not an effective measure of justice, and it is even less so when we recognize that “alternatives” are leading millions—like Pieper Lewis—back toward incarceration.

Cops Are Asking to Kill People With Robots. What Could Go Wrong?

This Remotec Andros model, used by the Israeli military to disarm a bomb, is armed with a shotgun attachment.
Levg / Wikimedia Commons

Cops Are Asking to Kill People With Robots. What Could Go Wrong?

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

The U.S. military has been killing people with robots for decades now, and the nation’s local police now seem eager to get in on the action.

Drone strikes abroad have become so commonplace that the mainstream news media barely bothers to cover them anymore. For years, the military has also been using bomb disposal robots, which are basically glorified radio-controlled cars with tank-treads that can be used to safely dismantle explosives from a distance. These robots have proliferated across local law enforcement in recent years, as military technology so often does. In 2016, the Dallas Police Department took the extraordinary step of mounting a bomb to its bomb disposing robot and using it to kill a mass shooting suspect.

Since that incident, civil liberties groups have raised concerns that law enforcement would seek to use robots to kill people in greater numbers. Police are now showing that those fears were not unfounded. In the last few months, at least two different cities have officially proposed allowing police officers to kill people using robots. In September, the Oakland Police Department discussed the possibility of using a Remotec Andros Mark V-A1 robot equipped with a shotgun to kill suspects during “high-risk, high-threat” events, as local journalist Jaime Omar Yassin and The Intercept reported. After public outcry over potentially being shot to death by a ‘roided-out Mars Rover, the department abandoned the idea. For now anyway.

The same debate is now playing out across the Bay. On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to enact a policy that will allow its officers to kill people with robots. The ordinance’s language states that the robots “will only be used as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available to SFPD.” The department’s policy had previously explicitly banned police from unleashing drones and robots that could use force against people.

After one San Francisco supervisor, Dean Preston, issued some mild pushback to the proposal, the San Francisco Police Officers’ Association (POA), the city’s police union, posted a scathing Twitter thread claiming Preston did not want to stop mass shooters. The final vote was 8-3.

Other departments seem likely to follow suit. Local cops now own thousands of Andros Mark V-A1 bots, according to The Intercept’s report last month. Local police have also increasingly used drones to monitor all sorts of activities, from peaceful protests to drug deals.

The proliferation of police robots has sparked pushback from civilians, elected officials, and civil rights groups alike. In 2021, residents and local politicians castigated the New York Police Department for its use of a so-called “Digidog”—an unarmed, four-legged, robotic “dog” built by Boston Dynamics—after footage of its deployment in two separate incidents went viral. The city has since canceled a $94,000 contract to lease the robo-dog. While Boston Dynamics was one of multiple companies that signed an open letter last week condemning the use of armed robots, other companies haven’t drawn such a line in the sand. As TechCrunch noted this week, a Philadelphia company named Ghost Robotics sells its products to the U.S. military and seems totally fine with the strapping of rifles to its robo-dogs.

On Monday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital privacy nonprofit, issued a scathing statement slamming the San Francisco Police Department’s request for killer robots.

“This is a spectacularly dangerous idea and EFF’s stance is clear: police should not arm robots,” the organization said. “Police technology goes through mission creep–meaning equipment reserved only for specific or extreme circumstances ends up being used in increasingly everyday or casual ways. We’ve already seen this with military-grade predator drones flying over protests, and police buzzing by the window of an activist’s home with drones.”

As EFF noted, the language governing police use-of-force policies tends to be extremely broad, including for the use of robots. While departments often claim that military technology will only be used in rare circumstances, the actual rules are often written to give cops leeway to do virtually whatever they want with the technology. In San Francisco, the policy would allow the department to deploy armed robots during nearly any situation—cops could use these weapons to kill people remotely so long as they claim to fear for their lives.

Likewise, the American Civil Liberties Union has long warned against the arming of police robots. In addition to the many other reasons these machines could be harmful, the ACLU has noted that officers likely do not have the same tactical or situational awareness when using a remote-controlled device. The simple misreading of a person’s movements or other cues could lead to someone getting hurt—or worse.

“When officers are acting remotely, they don’t have live, 360-degree, multi-sensory, intuitive situational awareness, and their perception of a situation is more likely to be flawed or confused, and force used inappropriately and/or on the wrong targets,” the ACLU warned in 2016 after the Dallas police killing-by-robot. “Signals may also be degraded due to communications and control problems with the robot.”

To get a true sense of the terrifying possibilities of this dystopian future, one need only to look at the military’s propensity for using drones to kill innocent people. Remote weapons make it easier for soldiers to kill people from afar, and news reports have shown us how severe the consequences can be when state actors misread critical evidence.

In 2021, the New York Times released a series of investigative reports detailing horrors committed by military drone pilots. The Times noted that people were often attacked or killed remotely based on misunderstandings or flimsy evidence. In one incident, officials authorized a drone strike on the home of Basim Razzo, an innocent man, after just 95 minutes of surveillance, killing his wife, daughter, brother, and nephew. In those few minutes of monitoring, the Times reported that the military made stunning errors, such as interpreting the opening of a gate or the absence of women as “ISIS activity.” Razzo survived but needed major surgery to correct multiple shattered bones and remove pieces of shrapnel from his body.

Despite these horrors, the U.S. military continues to use remote weapons with troubling frequency. And now, after Americans failed to stop the widespread use of this technology overseas, it may be coming home.

This story has been updated to reflect the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ approval of the new use of force policy regarding police robots.

Colorado Prisons Hold People in Painful Metal Shackles for Weeks, Report Says

A soon-to-be-released report reveals that metal “four-point” restraints are often used for multiple days in a row, including on one person who was held for 39 straight days. A new state bill would set stricter parameters.

The Colorado Department of Corrections uses these metal shackles to restrain people.
Courtesy of Disability Law Colorado

Colorado Prisons Hold People in Painful Metal Shackles for Weeks, Report Says

A soon-to-be-released report reveals that metal “four-point” restraints are often used for multiple days in a row, including on one person who was held for 39 straight days. A new state bill would set stricter parameters.

Lindsay lay on her back, restraints pinning her arms and legs to a thin vinyl mattress. It was 2019, she told The Appeal, and she could see a narrow window but nothing beyond it. The cell at San Carlos Correctional Facility in Pueblo, Colorado—a prison designated for those with mental and behavioral health issues—was otherwise bare. She said she’d been placed in the shackles after attempting to hurt herself.

Lindsay, who asked that we use only her first name to protect her privacy, was one of dozens of people in the Colorado prison system held down using painful, metal four-point restraints over the past two years, according to a report released today by the nonprofit legal aid group Disability Law Colorado (DLC). For the report, which The Appeal obtained prior to publication, DLC studied the Colorado Department of Corrections’ (CDOC) use of such restraints in the four facilities where they’re permitted. Between July 2020 and June 2022, DLC found that the CDOC had “a pattern and practice” of using the restraints, deploying them 136 times, including on one person who was strapped to a cot for 39 straight days. Another was shackled in this manner for 90 days over a nine-month period.

In Lindsay’s case, she says she was permitted to get up from the bed only to use the bathroom. Sometimes, a corrections officer would sit her up and free one of her arms to eat; at other times, food was fed to her. Once a day, a mental health provider entered the cell to check on her. When Lindsay asked when she could be taken off the restraints, she says she was told she had to wait until she could be safe. She remained shackled for a week.

“It didn’t help my mental health at all,” Lindsay, now 23 and out of prison, told The Appeal. “You’re really cut off from the world, cut off from your support that keeps you going every day.”

Clinical four-point restraints—so named because they hold down a person’s arms and legs, though they can also include a chest strap and/or belly chain with padlocks—are utilized across the country, ostensibly as protection when individuals threaten to harm themselves or others. Colorado’s system is notable because of its use of agonizing metal restraints, instead of cloth or padded ones. Worse, the state’s publicly available policy sets no limits on how long restraints can be employed and provides no clear criteria for when someone can be released.

On average, DLC’s report said people were restrained for a period of four to seven days during the time period studied. In some cases, shackled individuals were forced to wear adult diapers. Two people were restrained more than 16 times. At San Carlos, 28 people were restrained an average of 3.4 times each.

“It’s horrific,” Meghan Baker, DLC’s facilities team leader, told The Appeal. “What did [CDOC] do between nothing at all and clinical four-point restraints? The answer should be several things.” She has compared the restraint cells to execution chambers and solitary confinement. “In no way does it resemble anything that calls to mind ‘treatment,’” she said.

The American Nurse Journal says four-point restraints should be considered a “last resort” and only used for “as long as [the patient] poses a danger.” The National Commission on Correctional Health Care’s guidelines suggest that people shouldn’t be restrained for more than 12 hours—and not in metal shackles.

People held in "fourt-point" restraints are strapped to vinyl mattresses in rooms like this.
Courtesy of Disability Law Colorado

DLC’s report comes as the Colorado state legislature is considering a bill to ban the use of metal or hard plastic restraints (as some other states do), require that all other efforts are exhausted before four-point restraints are employed, compel more frequent staff check-ins, and mandate that people cannot be shackled for more than four hours at a time.

State Representative Judy Amabile, the bill’s prime sponsor, told The Appeal that she understands the restraints are “sometimes useful for the person and for the system to have that as an option.” But, she added, its current application feels abusive.

“We’re not meant to be torturing people because they’re sick,” she said.

In an emailed statement, a CDOC spokesperson told The Appeal that individuals on four-point restraints are closely monitored.

“These are not minor mental health issues,” the agency said. “The four-point restraint is only used after all other lower level interventions have been unsuccessful and/or the individual is putting themselves or others at imminent risk, and it is used for the shortest time possible.” CDOC said it is participating in conversations about the state legislation. The CDOC said it could not comment on any imprisoned person’s specific story due to Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations.

When Tyler Himelstieb—who has since testified in favor of Amabile’s bill—was transferred to San Carlos, he told The Appeal he arrived with a dangerous coping mechanism: smashing his head against his cell door. The move to a new facility overwhelmed the now 35-year-old Himelstieb, so he banged his head. On July 24, 2020, he was taken to the hospital for stitches and medication. Upon returning to prison,  a clinician informed him she was restraining him for being a danger to himself.

“I thought it was going to be four hours or something,” he said. But despite remaining calm, he said “it ended up being approximately 20 hours.”

Himelstieb says he was in pain throughout the ordeal. When the metal cuffs cut into his skin, a nurse applied gauze around his wrists and ankles—and then re-secured the restraints. “I could barely lift my hands above my shoulders because my shoulders were so sore” afterward, he said.

Lindsay, too, says she supports the state legislature’s efforts to reform the practice. She says the longest period for which she was restrained while was incarcerated lasted two weeks. She says she’s so traumatized from her experiences that they continue to impact her health.

“It scares me to want to seek out professional mental health help,” she said. “Sometimes, yeah, I have suicidal thoughts, self-mutilation thoughts, but if I seek out help am I going to be strapped down to a bed?”

How Imprisoned People Forced to Pick Cotton Got ‘Prison Slavery’ Bans on the Ballot

On Election Day, voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont will decide whether to close loopholes in their state constitutions allowing the forced labor of incarcerated people.

Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, exists at the site of a former slave plantation.

How Imprisoned People Forced to Pick Cotton Got ‘Prison Slavery’ Bans on the Ballot

On Election Day, voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont will decide whether to close loopholes in their state constitutions allowing the forced labor of incarcerated people.

Curtis Davis knows what it’s like to be forced to work while incarcerated. Davis, who helped place measures to ban forced prison labor on ballots in five states this year, served more than 25 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola.

While there, Davis told The Appeal, he was forced to pick cotton, okra, and other crops but was paid only 2 cents an hour. It was grueling work: He was forced to walk miles to and from the worksite, arriving at 7 a.m. and leaving at 5:30 p.m., frequently laboring in the hot, humid summers of New Orleans.

“It was like I was teleported back in time,” Davis said. Once cleared for work by a prison doctor, people incarcerated at Angola can be legally forced to work—and subject to severe punishment, including solitary confinement, if they refuse. At least as of 2012, most imprisoned people at Angola were required to perform field labor for at least 90 days.

Davis said he saw people suffer from dehydration and exhaustion. Prisoners have complained of a lack of water. When he tried to refuse the work, he was told he could be compelled by force. Desperate, one day he purposefully dropped a weight on his foot to avoid the labor, he said. But when he went to the doctor, he said he was charged with destruction of state property.

“I was like, ‘I know my rights, I’m not a slave,’” Davis said. “And they say, ‘But yes, you are.’”

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections did not respond to multiple messages from The Appeal seeking comment on the working conditions at Angola and Davis’s time at the prison.

The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution bans slavery, but has a loophole that often goes unnoticed: Slavery is still allowed “as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Many state constitutions, including Louisiana’s, include similar carveouts. That’s “legal jargon for, ‘if we can get you convicted of a crime, we can put you back into slavery,’” Davis said.

When Davis—now a founding member and executive director of the grassroots criminal justice reform organization Decarcerate Louisiana—was released from Angola in 2016, he swore to do everything he could to repeal the 13th Amendment. But a change to the U.S. Constitution requires approval by two-thirds of each chamber of Congress, as well as ratification by 38 states. To make progress toward those goals, Davis and other advocates are waging a state-by-state campaign to alter state constitutions so that they no longer enshrine slavery for people in prison. Now they face a big test of their efforts: On Tuesday, voters in five states—Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont—will weigh in on ballot measures to amend their constitutions and eradicate slavery.

The language for each measure varies significantly by state. Some proposals appear to be stronger than others. In Alabama, residents are being asked to vote in favor of a much larger revamp of the state constitution that includes eliminating the provision allowing slavery in cases of conviction. A yes vote in Oregon would repeal language allowing servitude for the punishment of a crime, but allow a court to order people into “education, counseling, treatment, community service, or other alternatives to incarceration[.]” Tennessee’s ballot measure proposes amending the constitution to say that “slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited,” but the proposed language contains a carveout noting that the section would not “prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.” Vermont’s language is the cleanest: Voters there would amend their constitution so it simply states that “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.”

Davis is the lead organizer for Louisiana’s Yes on 7 campaign, which refers to Amendment 7 on that state’s 2022 ballot. The ballot language there is arguably the most complicated, following efforts by organizers to bring Republican lawmakers on board by trying to clarify that people wouldn’t be able to use passage of the ballot measure to challenge their convictions. Louisiana’s current constitution states that “slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except in the latter case as punishment for a crime.” The updated language, if passed, would still state that “slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited,” but would include the caveat that the section “does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.”

Some are concerned a judge could use that to sentence people to slavery or otherwise expand its use. Democratic state Representative Edmond Jordan, who represents Baton Rouge and initially sponsored the proposal, has since turned around and disavowed the measure.

“The way that the ballot language is stated is confusing,” Jordan told the Associated Press. “And the way that it was drafted could lead to multiple different conclusions or opinions.”

Davis disagrees with these arguments. “This is disingenuous at best and intellectually dishonest at worst,” he said at a virtual press conference in October. “If slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited period, then the otherwise lawful activity of the criminal justice system would be something other than the two outlawed first parts of our amendment.”

Davis and other advocates have lobbied the state legislature to act but have faced repeated defeats. A bill first introduced in 2021 did not make it out of committee. One state representative, Republican Alan Seabaugh, called it one of the most dangerous bills he had seen that session.

Now advocates “want to let the people decide whether or not Louisiana should be a slave state,” Davis said.

If the ballot measure passes and accomplishes what Davis hopes, it will be a particularly potent symbol. Louisiana has the nation’s highest incarceration rate. And anyone convicted of a felony and sent to prison there is also technically sentenced to “hard labor.” Prison work in the state dates back to before the end of the Civil War, when Louisiana built its first penitentiary and then leased out the prisoners to work for slaveholders. Angola itself is on a former slave plantation, and when the state took control in 1901, those incarcerated were housed in old slave quarters and forced to work in the existing cotton fields.

“Profit—and not rehabilitation, retribution, or deterrence—became the guiding penological goal of Louisiana State Penitentiary,” Loyola University law professor Andrea C. Armstrong wrote in 2012. Angola has a long history of brutal conditions. Clyde Carter filed a lawsuit in 2016 alleging that he was forced to work in the fields even after he injured his knee, while Jason Hacker filed one in which he claimed he was forced to work despite being legally blind due to cataracts in his eyes. In return for this grueling labor, prisoners can be paid just a few cents to $1 per hour.

Angola has also been a site of organizing among incarcerated people. In the 1950s, 31 prisoners cut their Achilles tendons to protest the conditions. After two welders refused to build a lethal injection gurney in the 1960s, 37 others refused work in solidarity. And in 2018, a group of prisoners at Angola went on strike and refused to perform field labor after prisoner Kristopher Schoeing protested working with a back injury, according to other prisoners. “They don’t want to work for free [because it’s] modern-day slavery,” Ron, a prisoner, told The Appeal at the time.

Advocates for eliminating slavery from state constitutions have already experienced some success. In 2018, Colorado voters approved a ballot measure removing such language from their constitution. Voters in Nebraska and Utah did the same in 2020. These measures enjoyed robust support: In Colorado, 65 percent of voters were in favor, while the ballot measures in Utah and Nebraska passed with a 61-point and 36-point margin, respectively. And Colorado lawmakers passed a bill this year that guaranteed minimum-wage protections to prisoners working in an off-site program, although it applies to roughly just 100 people.

The Yes on 7 campaign in Louisiana is scrappy and has few resources. But it’s been deploying all of the tools it can, including media coverage and social media posts. Davis said organizers have blanketed community locations like barbershops, beauty salons, churches, and rotary clubs to talk to people about the issue. A big part of the campaign is simply education—when Davis tells people that slavery is still legal, he said they react with shock.

“I tell them, ‘Man, I was a slave for 25 years in Angola prison,’” Davis said. “‘I picked cotton at the point of a gun.’” He added separately: “We have to spend 10 minutes on that issue sometimes, just trying to get people to understand what it is we’re saying, because it sounds so foreign to everybody.”

The campaign is up against moneyed interests, given that many stakeholders, from private corporations—reportedly including multinational agricultural companies and livestock-auction groups—to the prisons themselves, profit off of prison labor. States may be nervous to end their exceptions to banning slavery out of fear they would be required to pay prisoners minimum wage for their labor. In California, a bill to change the state constitution passed the State Assembly without opposition, but it failed to advance in the state Senate after an analysis by the California Department of Finance found it would cost $1.5 billion to pay prisoners—including those who fight wildfires— minimum wage.

In Oregon, some law enforcement leaders, including Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill, have come out against that state’s effort to ban prison slavery, known as Measure 112. As part of the Oregon secretary of state’s annual voter guide, the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association said it opposed the measure, since some jail work programs may be considered involuntary servitude under the new language. While not condoning slavery, the group has warned that the measure “will result in the elimination of all reformative programs and increased costs to local jail operations.”

But despite some of the political pushback, Davis is undeterred. He said he hopes to put the same question on 20 state ballots next year. The end goal is to remove slavery entirely from enough state constitutions by 2024 that if those same states voted to ratify an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning slavery once and for all, it would pass. Advocates have some allies in Congress: In 2020, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and former Missouri Representative Lacy Clay proposed legislation to change the 13th Amendment. Despite being introduced multiple times since then, it has yet to make it out of committee.

“It’s only a first step,” Davis said. “This doesn’t correct everything in one fell swoop.” But, he added, “We believe that America can be what it’s supposed to be.”

Chesa Boudin Looms Over the Race for the Oakland Area’s Next Prosecutor

Pamela Price is running a progressive campaign to change the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office in California. She’s winning. But her opponent, longtime prosecutor Terry Wiley, is trying to paint her as the next Chesa Boudin to score votes.

Pamela Price (Left) and Terry Wiley (Right)
Price Campaign / Wiley Campaign

Chesa Boudin Looms Over the Race for the Oakland Area’s Next Prosecutor

Pamela Price is running a progressive campaign to change the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office in California. She’s winning. But her opponent, longtime prosecutor Terry Wiley, is trying to paint her as the next Chesa Boudin to score votes.

On June 7, Pamela Price, a career civil rights attorney who has been living and working in and around Alameda County, California, since 1978, received the highest percentage of votes in the primary race for county District Attorney. But because Price was unable to secure a majority of the vote, only earning 43 percent, she will face distant runner-up Terry Wiley in a runoff. The race will determine the next prosecutor for the more than 1.6 million people who live in Oakland, Berkeley, and their surrounding suburbs.

Price’s civil rights career has spanned decades. In 1977, while an undergraduate at Yale University, Price joined the legal case Alexander v. Yale, which would ultimately become a landmark case establishing that sexual harassment in education constitutes illegal sex discrimination. Since then, Price has focused on cases of sexual and racial discrimination and opened a private practice in 1991. In 2018, Price ran for DA as a progressive challenger to incumbent Nancy O’Malley, but lost after police unions spent heavily to support O’Malley’s campaign.

Terry Wiley, meanwhile, is currently the third highest-ranking member of the Alameda County District Attorney’s office and has worked in the office for the past 32 years. Most notably, he prosecuted the historic Oakland Riders Case, in which four Oakland Police officers were accused of kidnapping, planting evidence, acts of violence, and other serious misconduct, but were either acquitted or had their charges dropped. (One of the officers fled and is still wanted by the FBI.) As head of the felony trial team, Wiley says he cut the rate of children in custody by two-thirds. He was also the first African American to head the office’s recruitment and development division and is campaigning on having increased diversity within the prosecutor’s office.

This election is historic for many reasons. For one, both candidates are African American, and the winner will be the first African American District Attorney the county has ever had. It is also the first time in 13 years that the prior DA did not appoint the next DA, thus giving that incumbent name-recognition during the next election cycle. Former DA Jack Meehan, who held the job from 1981 to 1994, was succeeded by Tom Orloff, his former assistant DA, who ran unopposed. Orloff served from 1994 to 2009, retired before the end of his term, and appointed current DA Nancy O’Malley, who has served since 2009.

Both candidates claim to want to change the culture in the office: Wiley has said he will focus on the 2,000 repeat offenders who commit the majority of crimes in Alameda County, increase the number of people referred to drug treatment and mental health care programs, expand job training and union internship programs in the community, and focus on anti-Asian violence, domestic violence, crimes against children and hate crimes. But Wiley has also gained support from many establishment voices, such as Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and the California Police Chiefs Association. To combat police misconduct, he says he would push for more police training to “root out bias.”

While it may seem then that Wiley has the upper hand, Price, who crushed Wiley in the primary race, has support from local civil-rights leaders Angela Davis, Elaine Brown, and Susan Burton. (Rapper and actor Common has also endorsed her.) Price’s platform sits to Wiley’s left. She says, among other measures, that she will release significantly more reports on how her office handles cases, increase funding to her office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, reduce reliance on “ineffective prosecutions” to curb gun violence, stop charging children under 18 as adults, keep Alameda County a “sanctuary” community for immigrants, prioritize holding police and prosecutors accountable for misconduct, increase funding for reentry strategies, and invest in public health and social services. She has said that, if elected, she will not seek the death penalty against any person. However, in 2018, Price said she would not prosecute any misdemeanor cases if elected, but later reversed her position during that election cycle.

The role of the district attorney is to prosecute criminal violations of state law and county ordinances. Therefore, the DA determines the outcome of criminal trials for one of the most populous counties in America. While outgoing DA O’Malley has not appointed a successor in the race, one of the two candidates—Wiley—appears far more likely to carry on the tough-on-crime traditions of what has historically been a scandal-plagued DA’s office.

Just across the bridge in San Francisco, progressive prosecutor and former San Francisco County DA Chesa Boudin was recalled in June after a conservative-backed smear campaign just two years into his tenure. Despite the bad-faith attacks on Boudin’s record, Wiley has used his recall as a battle cry to Alameda County voters as he campaigns for public safety, warning voters to beware that Price will implement Boudin’s prosecutorial strategies and subsequently cause an increase in violence and crime should she win.

In an interview with The Appeal, Wiley said he felt Boudin’s policies “left victims behind” and would be dangerous in higher-crime areas, such as parts of Oakland.

“[Price] would be Chesa Boudin on steroids in Alameda County,” Wiley said. “And I say that because when you look at the serious and violent crimes, it is much more serious and much more violent and it is in much higher volume in Alameda County. Therefore the cost to the citizens of Alameda County is going to have a much greater impact.”

Price’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

But Alameda County is not San Francisco. Its voters have a different ideology, and its population is more diverse, with about double the percentage of Black residents, and a median household income of about $15,000 less. And despite the fact that he has hit Price and Boudin for being “soft on crime,” the county’s most populated city, Oakland, reached more than 100 homicides for the first time in a decade in 2021, while Wiley was a prominent leader in the DA’s office.

What happened across the bridge is not the only point of contention in the race. The health and safety troubles at Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail, the fifth-largest jail in the country, remain a heavily debated topic. Since 2014, at least 58 people have died while in custody there, with seven of those deaths occurring in 2021. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office has been the subject of civil-rights lawsuits over the facility, and in 2022 a federal judge placed the jail under external oversight for the next six years.

Price has vowed to launch a criminal investigation into the jail and stated in an interview with KPFA’s Jesse Strauss that “unfortunately, for decades, our sheriff, our district attorneys have just been … partners essentially in allowing lawless and criminal behavior to take place at that county jail facility.” She continued, “Where you have people dying in jail, that’s beyond mismanagement, that becomes criminal activity that has to be investigated by the district attorney’s office.”

In September, 47 Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) deputies were stripped of their guns and their ability to make arrests after an audit revealed they didn’t pass psychiatric evaluations. Of the 47, 30 worked at Santa Rita Jail. The audit of the department was only triggered after Deputy Devin Williams Jr. was accused of committing a double homicide in Dublin, California. Williams had failed his law enforcement psychological exam. Had the murder not occurred, these officers may have still been managing Santa Rita Jail and patrolling the county.

In an interview with The Appeal, Wiley said he feels “any death that occurs inside a locked facility like Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County is unacceptable” and that “there is a systemic problem within the sheriff’s department” because of the number of people who were allowed to graduate and become deputy sheriffs. However, he also stated he believed there “were no cases that we prosecuted that involved any of those 47 deputies.”

Price, meanwhile, has taken a far clearer stance against misconduct at the jail or ACSO in media interviews.

“Once you make it clear to people that you are going to be watching what they do, then things will change,” she told KPFA. “And so the DA does have the ability to open a criminal investigation.”

But it’s not just the sheriff’s office that is plagued with misconduct. Last year, an attorney from the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office filed a motion to remove the entire DA’s office from a murder case, which claimed that O’Malley refused to fire attorneys accused of wrongdoing and fostered a “troubling and extensive pattern of misconduct” at the office. The motion alleged that O’Malley’s office had withheld exculpatory evidence, made improper arguments to the jury, and committed other acts of misconduct.

The motion did not mention another high-profile recent incident, in which a prosecutor was found to have secretly recorded attorney-client conversations. Wiley told KPFA that the prosecutor-in-question is still working in the District Attorney’s office. When asked if he would further discipline the attorney if he were to be elected, Wiley stated he would not and added that the individual is a “hard-working, excellent DA who made a mistake.”

It’s important to note the human costs of these mistakes. Many cases went through the Alameda County DA’s office in which victims were later exonerated, including that of Ronald Ross, who served almost seven years for an attempted murder conviction before his innocence was proven. Johnny Williams, falsely convicted of child sexual assault, served 14 years before DNA evidence exonerated him. Deshawn Reed, falsely convicted of a double-murder, served seven years. In other cases, the DA’s office dropped charges or failed to convict high-profile defendants: In 2021, Patrick Willis, who served almost 10 years of a life sentence for an alleged double-murder, had his case dropped entirely after he’d been granted a new trial. In 2020, a state appellate court reversed the murder conviction of Shawn Martin, after a prosecutor in O’Malley’s office was found to have improperly quoted the law at trial. A jury acquitted Martin the following year.

Price has taken a hard stance against the misconduct alleged at the DA’s office under O’Malley and Wiley. She has also criticized the closeness between the DA’s office and members of law enforcement. Since O’Malley took office in 2009, her office has charged just one officer for a fatal shooting. Wiley tried the case. While both candidates have said that Attorney General Rob Bonta should investigate on-duty shooting cases to increase objectivity, Price has taken a far stronger stance against prosecutorial and police misconduct.

“We will no longer have a double standard in Alameda County where if you are a regular resident and you violate someone’s rights, we come after you with the full force and the power of the state, but if you are a law enforcement officer and you violate someone’s rights, even to the point of death, that we give you a pass,” she told KPFA. “That cannot happen.”

Virginia Women’s Prisons Force People to Remove Pads, Tampons During Strip Searches

Women told The Appeal they found the routine practice degrading and dehumanizing. Prisons around the country have long humiliated people for menstruating.

TitiNicola via Wikimedia Commons

Virginia Women’s Prisons Force People to Remove Pads, Tampons During Strip Searches

Women told The Appeal they found the routine practice degrading and dehumanizing. Prisons around the country have long humiliated people for menstruating.

During strip searches in Virginia prisons, people who are menstruating must remove their tampon or menstrual pad in front of corrections staff, according to five formerly and currently incarcerated women who communicated with The Appeal.

“No matter how much you’re bleeding, whether you’re dripping on the floor, it doesn’t matter,” Stephanie Angelo, who was recently released from a Virginia prison, told The Appeal in a phone interview. “You still will be strip searched fully.”

When people menstruate, they can use tampons, menstrual pads, or both to collect menstrual blood. A tampon is inserted by gently pushing it into the vagina, often at a particular angle to minimize pain or discomfort. During insertion, some people prefer to sit on a toilet, or stand and put one foot up on an object, such as a toilet lid. Once the tampon is inserted, a string attached to the tampon, used to pull the tampon out, is visible. Removing a tampon can involve anything from painfully pulling out a dry tampon to dealing with a heavily blood-soaked one.

Women told The Appeal that they are sometimes not given access to toilets or sinks to wash their hands during or immediately after a strip search.

During strip searches, they must remove all their clothes, shake them out one at a time, and hand them to the guard, explained Shebri Dillon, who is incarcerated at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. They open their mouths and shake out their hair. The women are told to turn around, squat, and cough, and then they are ordered to spread their buttocks. If they’re wearing a menstrual pad or tampon, they have to remove it and are then provided a new one, according to women who spoke with The Appeal.

Strip searches are, ostensibly, conducted to look for contraband, which are items incarcerated people are not permitted to have, even if they’re legal in the outside world, like cell phones. However, numerous investigations of correctional facilities from across the country have shown that banned items are more often brought into jails and prisons by staff members than by visitors or imprisoned people.

In Virginia prisons, strip searches have occurred after someone returns from a work assignment (which may be in the prison or off-site), before and after visitation, before and after outside medical appointments, and during shakedowns, according to currently and formerly incarcerated women.

Shakedowns—which occur, at minimum, every few months—are when correctional officers search “every cell from top to bottom,” Leighann Cobb, who was released from Virginia Correctional Center for Women in May, wrote in an email to The Appeal. During shakedowns, officers look for drugs, but also for “altered clothing” (such as jeans that have been hemmed) or for more than the allowed number of sheets or bowls, according to Cobb.

“Basically they come in and trash the place,” she wrote.

Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) spokesperson Benjamin Jarvela wrote in an email to The Appeal that he “cannot get into the specifics of how” the searches are conducted. Such “security information,” he wrote, “can be used by inmates, friends, and family to determine ways to defeat those policies and introduce narcotics, weapons, and other contraband into secure facilities.”

The Appeal also asked how much contraband has been collected from incarcerated people’s vaginas, but that, too, “is included in the security operations information we are not commenting on,” wrote Jarvela.

Strip searches of incarcerated people must be performed by “two staff of the same gender as the inmate (or the desired gender preference of the present staff for transgender or intersex inmates),” he wrote. If a person is denied “access to hygiene facilities after a search,” the department encourages them to report that immediately, he wrote.

The department’s search policy for incarcerated people, which The Appeal obtained through a public records request, does not appear to specify if tampons or menstrual pads have to be removed during a strip search, although parts of the document were redacted. The policy does state that all items, including dentures and wigs, must be removed, and that the incarcerated person “will spread their legs; bend over, spread their buttocks, squat and cough, and raise arms, penis, scrotum, and breasts during the visual inspection.”

Women told The Appeal that they don’t believe removing tampons and pads is a necessary security measure and is, rather, indicative of a culture of dehumanization.

“It’s about degrading folks,” said BeKura Shabazz, founder and president of the Criminal Injustice Reform Network, an advocacy group in Virginia. “You don’t have to treat anybody in that manner.”

Dillon said she has not been strip searched while menstruating, but she once stood outside the door when another woman was told to remove her tampon. Dillon said she could not see what was occurring, but she heard the exchange between the woman and staff members.

“She begged not to have to pull her tampon out,” Dillon told The Appeal in a phone interview. “When she came out, her eyes didn’t leave the floor.”

Dillon said two women recently told her about an incident in which they began to menstruate and informed an officer they needed to return to their building to change their undergarments. The officer, she said, took them and a member of the kitchen staff who is not incarcerated into the “inmate bathroom, with the door cracked open, where other inmates could see in, and made them drop their panties.”

The department is aware of the incident and it is under investigation, Jarvela said.

Police officers, jail guards, and correctional officers have long used menstruation to humiliate and demean people. In 2011, correctional officers and cadets ordered hundreds of women in an Illinois prison to strip—including the removal of their tampons—as part of a cadet training exercise. In 2016, a San Antonio police officer removed a woman’s tampon during a search on a public street. Marshall Project reporter Keri Blakinger has written about menstruating while incarcerated in New York, including that sometimes people were made to remove their tampons during strip searches.

Inside Virginia prisons, degrading searches are part of an incarcerated person’s everyday life, according to the women who spoke with The Appeal.

Cobb said if she was menstruating during a strip search she had to remove her tampon in front of two staff members, show it to them, squat and cough, and then insert another tampon.

“It’s dehumanizing,” she told The Appeal in a phone interview.

In a letter to The Appeal, Julie, who is still incarcerated and requested that The Appeal not use her real name out of fear of retaliation, detailed the first time she was strip searched at a Virginia prison, about five years ago.

After she told the officer she was menstruating, the officer asked if she was wearing a tampon, and she said she was. The officer ordered her to “take it out,” and pushed a metal trash can toward her, Julie wrote. She removed her tampon and put it in the trash can. The officer ordered her to turn around, squat, spread her buttocks, and cough. Once the search was over, the officer gave Julie her bra and underwear, and, after she asked for a new tampon, she was given a menstrual pad. As the officer handed Julie a new uniform, she asked, “Are you going to leave that like that?” and told her to wrap up the bloody tampon.

“I had to reach into the trash can with my bare hands, retrieve the bloody tampon and roll it up in toilet paper before depositing it back into the trash can,” Julie wrote.

Since then, she’s been strip searched many times. After a strip search, she wrote, she often goes to sleep “to avoid, to forget what I’ve just been through.”

“You don’t get used to it,” she wrote. “You can only find better ways to cope with the emotional fallout each time.”

Anne, who is also currently incarcerated and requested that The Appeal not use her real name out of fear of retaliation, said that she feels “denigrated” when she is menstruating during a strip search. But the entire strip search process, she said, is mortifying, especially when they have to bend over and spread their buttocks. Sometimes officers laugh at them during strip searches, she said.

“The laughter part of it,” she told The Appeal in a phone interview. “It’s humiliating, and it makes you feel—like me, I’m aware of my self-worth, but not all women can say that, that they have self-worth.”

When asked to respond to these allegations, Jarvela wrote that laughing at an incarcerated person during a strip search “could potentially be harassment” and should be reported through the grievance process. Harassment during a search “falls under the auspices of the Prison Rape Elimination Act and would be investigated immediately,” he wrote.

The search practices described by currently and formerly incarcerated women in Virginia raise issues regarding both hygiene and mental health, according to Carolyn Sufrin, an associate professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and founder of Advocacy and Research on Reproductive Wellness of Incarcerated People.

“I would have concerns about the traumatizing impact that it has, in terms of someone’s dignity to manage their menstruation while being under surveillance,” Sufrin said.

Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women
Courtesy of Rob Poggenklass

In addition to incarcerated people, visitors’ and employees’ menstrual cycles are also under surveillance. In the summer of 2019, a Virginia prison warden fired a dental hygienist after a body scanner identified a foreign object in her vagina, which was her tampon. Last month she won a sex discrimination suit against the department of corrections. Jarvela told The Appeal in an email that the department has no comment on the verdict.

In 2018, the department announced that visitors to Virginia prisons would be banned from wearing tampons or menstrual cups. After public outcry, the policy was suspended before it even went into effect. Just a few months later, however, in January 2019, a department official told lawmakers in a hearing that people wearing tampons were being denied contact visits because “We can’t tell what’s in someone as they go through a body scanner.” Later that year, the state enacted a bill requiring the VDOC to create a policy that permits visitors to wear tampons or menstrual cups.

The state’s current policy on visitor searches, which The Appeal obtained through a public records request, details several authorized search methods, including frisking, to detect contraband. (Some parts of the policy were redacted.) If an officer feels an “unnatural object” while frisking a visitor and the supervisor is “in doubt about the identity of the item,” the person will be offered a 55-minute video visit, according to the policy. The visitor can also elect to have a strip search. In this section the policy states that visitors will not be asked to change or remove adult diapers, “feminine hygiene products,” or medical devices.

The policy also states that if a visitor goes through a body scanning device and there’s an alert that cannot be “explained satisfactorily” they will be offered a 55-minute video visit. The VDOC confirmed that these video visits are provided free of charge.

Susan (who requested that The Appeal not use her real name to protect an incarcerated loved one from retaliation) said in an email that when she went for a visit in July an officer told her that her tampon showed up as an “anomaly” on the body scan. She was allowed to have a face-to-face visit only after she removed her tampon and went through the scan again.

“There’s so much I could say about this and so much that’s wrong with it,” she wrote to The Appeal. “But the DOC does what they want to because they don’t have to answer to anyone, there’s no oversight, and no one holds them accountable.”

Susan wrote that before each visit she has to undergo an extensive search. In addition to going through a body scan, she has to remove her shoes, and an officer inspects the inside of her mouth. To use the restroom during a visit, she has to leave the visitation room and then get scanned again before returning.

“I understand there’s a contraband issue,” she wrote, but “clearly the problem doesn’t lie with the visitors.”

Halloween is Over and It Looks Like No One Got Fentanyl Candy After All

Law-enforcement spent weeks scaremongering about opioids showing up in candy this Halloween. Despite the media frenzy, no drugs seem to have actually turned up.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department claimed the fentanyl smuggled above was destined for children on Halloween.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department

Halloween is Over and It Looks Like No One Got Fentanyl Candy After All

Law-enforcement spent weeks scaremongering about opioids showing up in candy this Halloween. Despite the media frenzy, no drugs seem to have actually turned up.

It is now Nov. 1, which means Halloween is over, rent is due, and the children of some of America’s more permissive parents probably got to sneak a few Twizzlers for breakfast. And, if one of the most alarming news stories this fall was correct, scores of children should be dead or hospitalized from exposure to so-called “rainbow fentanyl,” the candy-colored opioid pills that cops and TV news channels around the nation warned would be getting handed out to trick-or-treaters this year.

Of course, this does not appear to have panned out. So far, there has not been a single credible report of a child actually finding or ingesting “rainbow fentanyl” in their Halloween hauls. According to a search of news headlines this morning, the police officers, politicians, and media outlets that pushed this narrative appear to have abandoned the story and moved on, without acknowledging the role they played in whipping up a clearly false panic in the first place.

For those who aren’t addicted to the 24-hour news cycle, this is all probably not a surprise. Anyone with a basic understanding of economics knows that drug dealers are in the business of making money. They’d have little interest in giving away thousands of dollars of free product just to kill innocent children. But this obvious fact did not stop law enforcement officials, Republican politicians, and credulous TV news reporters from fueling a months-long media obsession with “fentanyl-laced Halloween candy” anyway.

Drug-panic narratives always benefit cops and tough-on-crime politicians, which is why these groups always capitalize on crazes like this. You can’t defund the police or boot Republicans from office if they’re the only ones protecting your kids from fent-laced Gobstoppers, after all. And the messengers likely knew just how easy it would be to pull one over on the public, considering the media and average Americans’ willingness to believe almost anything about fentanyl—including that cops all over the country have overdosed simply by touching the drug, which is effectively impossible.

The candy panic began earlier this year when an August 30 press release from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) claimed the agency had intercepted rainbow-colored fentanyl in 26 states. The agency said the drugs had ostensibly been trafficked into the U.S. by Mexican drug cartels in “a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults.”

Given that the alleged pills seemed to be flooding American streets just ahead of October, local cops and TV news reporters smelled a perfect opportunity to create a sensational “news” story about evil drug dealers and foreign boogeymen fomenting chaos and societal destruction by giving out free opioids to kids on Halloween. On Oct. 6, a group of U.S. Senate Republicans released a pre-Halloween PSA using the issue to score cheap political points.

“The powerful drug cartels are coming after your kids, your neighbors, your students, your family members, and your friends,” Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn said in the clip.

With elected officials giving an additional air of credulity to the story, local media dug in. “‘Rainbow Fentanyl’ – Warning parents about the dangers of a new form of drug for Halloween,” yowled one headline from WTHI-TV10 in Terre Haute, Indiana. In the piece, Indiana State Police Sergeant Matt Ames said that—even though they had received no reports of rainbow fentanyl—parents should still be afraid.

“Make sure that you’re going to houses that you know, make sure that the lights are on, and make sure that after you’re done the trick or treating that the parents actually go through the candy with the child,” he said.

More depressingly, WPTV in West Palm Beach, Florida encouraged concerned parents to only let their children trick or treat directly at police stations.

“If you still have concerns, a number of community organizations and law enforcement agencies hold ‘Trunk Or Treat’ events on site,” the station said, before noting that the Martin County Sheriff’s Office in South Florida was hosting such an event.

The panic further kicked into overdrive on Oct. 19, after the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department announced that authorities had intercepted someone trying to smuggle teal-colored fentanyl pills in candy boxes at Los Angeles International Airport. The LASD’s press release then warned that the drugs could wind up in children’s bags at the end of the month.

“If you find anything in candy boxes that you believe might be narcotics, do not touch it and immediately notify your local law enforcement agency,” the department warned.

And, like all moral panics, Fox News fanned the flames at every opportunity, trotting out “experts” to spread misinformation about fentanyl, blame the nonexistent crisis on President Joe Biden, and even suggest that parents ban their kids from trick-or-treating. Most of this coverage contradicted the network’s own reporting on October 11 rightly explaining that this entire narrative was completely unfounded.

As Halloween approached, numerous media outlets tried to quell the fear to no avail. Even the DEA—arguably the progenitor of the entire panic—attempted to tamp down the alarm they had unleashed. At an October 27 press conference in front of Pasadena City Hall in Los Angeles County, the DEA’s local Special Agent In-Charge, Bill Bodner, told the press that drug dealers were not simply giving out free opioids for no reason. Instead, he said, the drugs just might accidentally wind up in kids’ bags.

“So a bag of Skittles that contains fentanyl pills goes into a drug dealer’s home and there happens to be kids in that home,” he said. “It’s Halloween time and maybe that child then takes that bag and takes it to school with them and that’s where we have the danger of fentanyl in my mind.”

But the phony “rainbow fentanyl” narrative gained so much traction that there were sure to be sightings. On Halloween, a hoax spread on social-media that multiple children had died in Buffalo, New York, from laced candy. The Buffalo Police Department announced this morning that the news was false and that the department had “no reports of incidents at this time.”

Later in the day, the Byesville Police Department in Ohio announced on social media that a parent had turned in a suspicious candy bar that allegedly had a pinhole-sized prick in the wrapper. A field test on the bar came back positive for both methamphetamine and fentanyl, according to the department. But when the cops ran a test on a candy bar they purchased from a local gas station as a control, it also came back positive for the same drugs. This strongly suggests the test itself was faulty, which would make sense, as police field-tests are notoriously inaccurate and regularly produce false positives.

So, what have we learned here as a society? Probably nothing at all, sadly. There’s no time to sit back and reflect—Christmas won’t come if Santa’s elves all die from touching fentanyl.

Sheriffs Offered Caribbean Cruises and Florida Retreats as Part of Jail Telecom Contracts

Smart Communications, a for-profit Florida company that sells phone, videochat, and email-like services to prisons and jails, told at least one sheriff’s department that it can live “the resort life” on a trip to Florida.

Smart Communications has offered multiple sheriff's departments trips to Florida and cruises from Tampa (shown above) to the Caribbean.
Ajay Suresh via Flickr

Sheriffs Offered Caribbean Cruises and Florida Retreats as Part of Jail Telecom Contracts

Smart Communications, a for-profit Florida company that sells phone, videochat, and email-like services to prisons and jails, told at least one sheriff’s department that it can live “the resort life” on a trip to Florida.

Members of five sheriffs offices across the country were offered cruises from “Tampa Bay to the Caribbean” as part of jail telecommunications contracts with the vendor Smart Communications, according to documents obtained by The Appeal.

Smart Communications is a for-profit company that sells communications services including phone, video call, and email-like messages to people incarcerated in publicly funded prisons and jails. It contracts with the public agencies that operate those facilities, often sheriffs offices, to secure the exclusive right to operate within them. Its Florida-based CEO and founder, Jon Logan, is already controversial among critics of the criminal legal system—Logan has faced scrutiny for posting lavish images of himself on Instagram on board his yacht, driving luxury cars, and wearing expensive suits, among other high-end pursuits funded by selling expensive communications services to incarcerated people. In the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center, Smart Communications charges people $3.00 for a 30-minute video call, $.50 per electronic message, and $1.00 per electronic image.

Activists and families of incarcerated people have long criticized Smart Communications’ digitized mail services—which scan hard copies of prison mail, create searchable databases of imprisoned people’s communications, and prevent imprisoned people from receiving original versions of items like birthday cards or drawings from children—as invasive and lacking humanity.

But some of the company’s other offerings are sure to irritate legal reformers: trips to Florida and cruises that set sail from Tampa Bay. The sheriff’s offices of Washoe County, Nevada; Fairfax County, Virginia; Webb County, Texas; Brazos County, Texas; and Dawson County, Georgia—five counties for which The Appeal was able to obtain contract data—gave Smart Communications contracts to operate telecommunications services in jails. As part of the bidding process, Smart Communications’ proposals promised “complimentary rooms” for sheriff’s department staff on an “Annual Technology Training Summit Cruise” that “sails out of Tampa Bay to the Caribbean” each year. The documents say the cruise provides sheriff’s office staff with “accredited workshops and training classes.”

In a 2021 email obtained by The Appeal, a Smart Communications employee offered employees of the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office a free trip to the company’s annual training summit in Tampa, Florida from April 6 to 8 of that year. That event, however, did not appear to include a cruise ship.

Representatives for the Fairfax County, Washoe County, Dawson County and Brazos County Sheriff’s Offices said that members of their departments have not attended and will not be granted permission to attend any Smart Communications cruises, despite their contracts allowing them to do so. The Webb County Sheriff’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In some cases, contracts included language explicitly verifying an office’s right to complimentary tickets to the cruise as described in Smart Communications’ vendor proposal. The Fairfax County Sheriff’s contract, for example, reads: “Customer shall have the capability to send up to 8 individuals… to attend the Annual Training Summit.” A proposal from Smart Communications stated that the complimentary tickets were at least an $84,000 value.

In other cases, the right to attend the training cruise was not explicitly stated in the contract. The Washoe County contract mentions that Smart Communications will “Provide initial and on-going training for… staff.”

In at least one case, Smart Communications’ cruises even drew scrutiny from a rival prison telecom provider. In an email obtained via a public records request, Bill Pope of NCIC, a different firm that operates phones in prisons, contested Washoe County’s award of its telecom contract to Smart Communications. Pope complained to a county employee that he was told that he was not allowed to give out free binders to county staff, as they would be considered “gratuities.”

“In Smart Communications’ RFP response… cruises valued up to $105,000 have been offered to Washoe County employees and family members,” Pope wrote. “Would this not also be considered a gratuity?”

The offices mentioned in this story may not represent all sheriffs entitled to Smart Communications’ trips. The company contracts with at least 100 government agencies according to its website. Of that number, The Appeal reached out to 26 of those agencies. The Appeal was able to obtain documentation for five government counties.

The jails in those five counties—the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center, the Washoe County Detention Facility, the Brazos County Detention Center, the Webb County Jail, and the Dawson County Detention Center—incarcerated approximately 3,000 people in 2018, according to federal data. According to a report from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, more than one in three families of incarcerated people go into debt to pay for calls and visits to prisons.

Asked to comment on Smart Communications’ promises of Caribbean cruises in its vendor proposals and telecom contracts, elected officials and activists were alarmed.

Virginia State Delegate Patrick Hope, who represents Virginia’s 47th District, which includes the Fairfax County Sheriff’s office, told The Appeal that “[c]omplimentary Caribbean cruises are not complementary. These so-called ‘training summit cruises’ are paid for through a mark-up in the jail contract. This is a gross mishandling of funds that … come mostly from low-income families… It may be legal but it’s a loophole in the law that should be closed.”

Bianca Tylek, Executive Director of Worth Rises, a nonprofit with a long history of activism on prison telecom issues, told The Appeal that the offers of cruises are troublesome.

“In some senses this is not surprising,” she said. “For many sheriffs, kickbacks are almost an accepted part of practice. Kickbacks from these companies are like legal bribery. But there’s something particularly grotesque about the idea of offering vacations on the backs of people who are incarcerated and suffering.”

In response to an inquiry from The Appeal, Logan, Smart Communications’ CEO, stated that the technology summit cruises have never occurred.

“There has never been a technology summit cruise,” he said via email. “So, I’m not sure what you could write about something that has never happened?” Asked why cruises are mentioned in proposals to government agencies if the “cruise has never happened or is not going to happen,” Logan did not respond directly.

He added instead that the company has “never done a summit cruise. We do however have technology summits all the time that we provide to agencies, both customers and non-customers of Smart Communications… We view this as a win-win to inform agency leaders on new technologies and also learn what pain points they have so we can help innovate new technologies.”

Logan added that The Appeal was “welcome to come visit me at our headquarters in Florida and join a technology summit and be part of the future of incarceration innovation and reform with us.”

Smart Communications’ offer of Caribbean cruises is one of the most lurid examples of a decades old phenomenon of prison and jail telecom providers offering kickbacks as part of government contracts.

Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, told The Appeal that the company’s actions are indicative of a larger trend within the prison contractor industry.

“Smart Communications is the most shameless actor in an industry full of companies that have become increasingly more creative in the kickbacks they offer to jails,” she wrote.

Shawn Weneta of the Virginia ACLU took care to point out that culpability for the system as it exists lies not just with unscrupulous companies, but also with the public officials who continue to contract with them. Speaking about the Fairfax County Sheriff’s decision to work with Smart Communications, he alleges, “There’s a reason why phone calls in prisons and jails are so expensive.” He added: “And it’s not because the vendors who win contracts are providing the best service and rates to poor families. It’s because the phone provider has to provide sheriffs and their staff with Caribbean cruises.”

Smart Communications is far from the most significant player in prison telecommunications in the United States. It operates in 115 facilities compared to the thousands that for-profit behemoths like GTL and Securus, which offer multiple services including phones, video visits, tablets, and email for incarcerated people, operate in.

In the last few years, several major cities have made prison calls free. Last year, Connecticut became the first state to make calls free entirely. Currently, the FCC can cap the cost of interstate calls, which it has restricted to a maximum of 21 cents per minute, but cannot regulate in-state calls, video, or messaging, which constitute a majority of prison and jail communication. In March a bill advanced out of the U.S. Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that would allow the FCC to address these issues. The Senate has yet to hold a full vote on the measure.

While the cruises may not actually take place, Logan made it clear to that Smart Communications regularly holds training summits. Invitations include all-expense paid offers to attend these summits. These events, Logan assured The Appeal, happen regularly.

An invitation sent to a member of the Fairfax County Sheriff’s office includes a picture of a jet ski. Smart Communications’ Logan said in a statement that receiving complimentary invitations to such training events are “in no way contingent on doing business with Smart Communications.”

In 2021, a representative for Smart Communications emailed the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia to offer a “complimentary training event (… including travel, hotel accommodations, meals & excursions) held at our headquarters in Tampa Florida April 6th-8th!” At the end of the message, the company noted that attendees will be “Living the resort life.”

DOJ Finds Orange County Sheriff, DA Violated Civil Rights Using Illegal Jailhouse Informants

After a six-year investigation, the DOJ says Orange County law-enforcement unconstitutionally used jailhouse informants to elicit confessions and incriminating evidence from people for years.

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer
Orange County District Attorney's Office via YouTube

DOJ Finds Orange County Sheriff, DA Violated Civil Rights Using Illegal Jailhouse Informants

After a six-year investigation, the DOJ says Orange County law-enforcement unconstitutionally used jailhouse informants to elicit confessions and incriminating evidence from people for years.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced today that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office (OCDA) in California routinely violated civil rights and tainted numerous criminal cases by operating a jailhouse informant program that flouted multiple amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

In a 63-page report, the DOJ says OCSD and the DA’s office used confidential informants to illegally conduct criminal investigations inside the Orange County Jail without defendants’ lawyers present, provided informants with benefits for cooperating with law-enforcement, hid records of their informant use, and failed to disclose their use of informants in court or to defendants’ lawyers.

“We have determined that there is reasonable cause to believe that the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct—the operation of a custodial informant program—that systematically violated criminal defendants’ right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment and right to due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment,” the DOJ’s report states.

The agency said the department routinely violated the 1963 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Massiah v. United States, which held that it is illegal to use a jailhouse informant to elicit incriminating information from someone without their attorney present once the defendant has been charged with a crime.

During the six-year investigation, the Justice Department found that sheriff’s deputies rewarded informants with “benefits that made their jail time easier” and “reduced charges or sentencing requests.” But this information, which prosecutors had a constitutional duty to disclose to the defense, was not shared with defendants and their attorneys.

“In a number of cases, prosecutors themselves were unaware of evidence that had to be disclosed,” the DOJ said, despite the fact that the 14th Amendment requires that prosecutors seek out such evidence and provide it to the accused.

In some cases, the same informant testified in several different cases about a person who had confessed to them, according to the DOJ’s investigation. While this should have raised concerns about the informant’s credibility, prosecutors “did not question” their reliability, the alleged confession’s legality, or if the person was promised incentives for testifying, the report says.

Those close to the criminal legal system in Orange County have been waiting for the results of the DOJ’s case for more than half a decade. The investigation’s seeds began roughly eight years ago, after extensive police and prosecutorial misconduct was revealed during the trial of Scott Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to killing eight people in a 2011 mass shooting. According to a 2016 story by The Intercept, Dekraai’s attorney, public defender Scott Sanders, requested information about a jailhouse informant that Dekraai had allegedly confessed to while locked up. The records revealed that the informant had been part of a massive, undisclosed network of informants organized by OCSD and the DA’s office.

“Since 2014 we have been in a battle to expose the civil rights violations in our county,” Sanders said in a statement to The Appeal. “Today the DOJ came down forcefully in recognizing what occurred. This report presents important findings that these two agencies deprived many defendants of their constitutional rights, and are still doing enough to protect the rights of the accused.”

The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division says it opened its investigation in 2016 in response to the Dekraai case “amid serious concerns that the custodial informant program operated by OCDA and OCSD had undermined confidence in the criminal legal system in Orange County.” The DOJ says it pored over thousands of documents dated from 2007 to 2016 and conducted dozens of interviews, including with 17 OCDA prosecutors.

Out of the known wrongful convictions since 1989, jailhouse informants were used in 133 cases across the country, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence—evidence that can undermine the state’s case—in the overwhelming majority of known wrongful convictions since 1989.

This is also not the only recent scandal involving the Orange County Jail. In 2018, local defense attorney Joel Garson uncovered that law-enforcement had been illegally listening to and recording confidential phone calls with a client. Garson told The Appeal in 2019 that he “found out there were thousands of phone calls to attorneys that were also recorded,” despite the fact that it is a felony in California to covertly record conversations between attorneys and their clients. In 2019, Orange County released a grand jury report  that admitted the DA’s office had accessed the illegal recordings but exonerated all of the parties involved.

Current Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer worked in the OCDA’s office for multiple stints in his career, including between 2008 and 2010. In a statement today, Spitzer—a Republican who has criticized George Floyd protesters and railed against Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón’s decarceral policies—said he was grateful for the DOJ’s investigation, cooperated fully, and blamed the informant program on his predecessor, longtime DA Tony Rackauckas. Rackauckas, who was once Spitzer’s close ally, fired Spitzer in 2010 after alleging that Spitzer had bullied other employees and committed other acts of workplace misconduct.

“I have made it unequivocally clear that I refuse to accept the ‘win-at-all costs’ mentality of the prior OCDA administration,” Spitzer said. “The violation of a single defendant’s constitutional rights calls into question the fairness of the entire criminal justice system—and I have terminated cheaters who violated defendants’ rights and I will continue to do so.”

The DOJ, however, says Spitzer and Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes have a lot more work to do. The report states that the prosecutor’s and sheriff’s offices should implement reforms to identify and address impacted cases and to prevent these violations from occurring again.

“Even now, almost six years after the Dekraai recusal ruling, OCDA has failed to undertake a sufficient inquiry into the scope of the custodial informant program in Orange County,” reads the report.

Nearly Half the People at Crowded Atlanta Jail Haven’t Been Formally Charged With a Crime, ACLU Says

Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat says the county needs more jail beds to fix the jail's crisis. But a new ACLU report says that significant numbers of people in the jail can be released.

Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat
Fulton County Sheriff's Office via Facebook

Nearly Half the People at Crowded Atlanta Jail Haven’t Been Formally Charged With a Crime, ACLU Says

Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat says the county needs more jail beds to fix the jail's crisis. But a new ACLU report says that significant numbers of people in the jail can be released.

Nearly half of the approximately 3,000 people sitting inside the overcrowded Fulton County Jail in Atlanta have not been formally charged with a crime, according to a new analysis by the national American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Georgia. The analysis comes as the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office has signed a contract to house up to 700 people at the Atlanta City Detention Center—but the ACLU says the data shows significant numbers of people inside the Fulton County Jail can instead be released.

The City Council should have obtained the information in the report before agreeing to lease more jail beds, Tiffany Roberts, director of the public policy unit at the Southern Center for Human Rights, said today during a press conference. The council should “course correct” and repeal the contract, she said. The Southern Center for Human Rights has filed numerous lawsuits against the sheriff over poor conditions in the county’s jails and consulted with the ACLU on the report.

“There is a better way forward that embraces not only policy changes in the criminal legal system, but also a shift in priorities, placing the care of people in crisis above scoring cheap political points for law and order rhetoric,” she said.

The ACLU analyzed the population at the facility on Sept. 14 of this year. On that day, the jail held 2,892 people—roughly 300 people more than its capacity. More than 90 percent of detainees were Black, even though Black people make up about 45 percent of the county’s population, according to the ACLU.

The ACLU found that about 45 percent of people detained at the jail had not been indicted. Georgia law requires that a person who is arrested and denied bail must either have their case heard by a grand jury within 90 days or be granted bail. (For capital offenses, prosecutors can request one 90-day extension.) A grand jury can then vote to indict or issue a “no bill,” which means the charges are dropped. If a person is held past 90 days without an indictment, the incarcerated person can petition the court to have bail set.

For people who have not yet been indicted, they can’t engage in plea negotiations, Roberts told The Appeal in a phone call after the press conference. They’re “basically in limbo and nothing else can happen.”

More than 15 percent of people detained at the jail had been held without an indictment for more than 90 days; 83 people had been detained for more than one year; and seven people had been held for over two years, according to the report.

Hundreds of people were locked up after being accused of minor offenses. More than 200 people at the jail were solely charged with misdemeanors; they were detained for an average of almost three months. Others were there because they were too poor to pay their way out. Close to 300 people were detained, sometimes for months, because they could not afford the bail set by the court, according to the ACLU.

Of those with a bail set at or below $20,000—which would mean paying at or up to $2,500 to be released—143 had been detained for more than three months; almost 90 had been held for more than six months. Forty-six people with bail at or below $20,000 had been held for more than one year and 13 people had been detained for more than two years, according to the report.

The sheriff’s office has reported that because of overcrowding, hundreds of people have been sleeping on the floor. In August, the Atlanta City Council approved an agreement with Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat and Fulton County to transfer up to 700 adults from the jail to the Atlanta City Detention Center, pending an analysis of the jail’s population by the Justice Policy Board, a partnership between local governmental agencies and nonprofits which is tasked with developing alternatives to incarceration for Fulton County and the City of Atlanta. The sheriff has called that study, which will be more comprehensive than the report released today and is not yet complete, a “stall tactic” that is delaying transfers, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which has reported extensively on the fight over the local jail.

“The building is deteriorating by the day,” Labat said during a recent Atlanta City Council meeting. “I’ve been sounding this alarm for 365 days if not longer.”

But local groups say to alleviate the crisis at the jail, the sheriff doesn’t need more jail beds; people must be released. Organizers have worked for years to shut down the Atlanta City Detention Center and oppose the Sheriff’s plan to transfer people from the Fulton County Jail to the facility.

In 2019, former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed legislation that created a task-force to study closing the city’s jail and turning it into an “equity center” to address homelessness, mental illness, and poverty in Atlanta. But, due in part to the sheriff’s requests to use the jail, those plans have stalled, and the city has instead floated the idea of selling the mostly-empty jail to the county. The city council is now considering turning a local hospital site into an equity center in place of the jail.

The city’s process has infuriated justice reformers. On October 3, more than 60 nonprofits and civil-rights organizations sent an open letter to the Atlanta City Council and Mayor Andre Dickens warning that the city’s agreement with the sheriff would “result in more people being locked up.”

“The Fulton County Sheriff claims that additional space is needed to alleviate overcrowding in his jails,” the letter stated. “But Fulton County’s claim of overcrowding is a manufactured crisis.”

‘Habitual Offender’ Laws Imprison Thousands for Small Crimes—Sometimes for Life

Data obtained by The Appeal show nearly 2,000 people in Mississippi and Louisiana are serving long—and sometimes life—sentences after they were labeled “habitual offenders." But most are behind bars for small crimes like drug possession.

Left: Fate Winslow eats a pastry and drinks coffee. Right: Winslow and his daughter Faith Canada share a hug.
Faith Canada

‘Habitual Offender’ Laws Imprison Thousands for Small Crimes—Sometimes for Life

Data obtained by The Appeal show nearly 2,000 people in Mississippi and Louisiana are serving long—and sometimes life—sentences after they were labeled “habitual offenders." But most are behind bars for small crimes like drug possession.

This piece was produced thanks to a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

For most of her life, Faith Canada had only known her father, Fate Winslow, behind bars. She didn’t have much hope she’d see him as a free man—thanks to Louisiana’s so-called habitual offender laws, he was serving life without the possibility of parole for a marijuana conviction. But a few days before Christmas in 2020, Winslow, then age 53, walked out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The Innocence Project New Orleans had taken on his case and took advantage of a change in Louisiana law that allowed for claims based on ineffective counsel to apply to sentencing, rather than just verdicts.

Winslow took his daughter to lunch. “He really wanted to try the McDonald’s fish sandwich,” Canada told The Appeal. It’s one of her favorite memories. They listened to Boosie Badazz in the car. The rapper had served five years on drug charges alongside Winslow in Louisiana State Penitentiary, widely known as Angola.

Father and daughter talked about life. A few years earlier, she’d lost her son during childbirth, and doctors told her she couldn’t get pregnant again. Winslow told her he believed a miracle would happen. “He really wanted a grandchild,” she told The Appeal. “We mainly just caught up on everything and he told me how much he missed me.”

At lunch, they took photos. Winslow grinned ear to ear, showing off a piece of his sandwich. Another picture shows the two hugging, with the same wide smile Canada inherited from her father. Before the outing, virtually the only pictures of him were in an orange uniform, frowning in mug shots that marked his four arrests over the course of decades. Winslow’s last arrest, in 2008, sealed his fate as a habitual offender sentenced to die in prison.

That year, he’d been living on the streets when an undercover officer tried to buy $20 worth of pot from him. Winslow, who said he accepted the offer because he was hungry, got cannabis from a dealer and gave it to the police. Winslow’s cut was $5. The dealer was not arrested even though the marked $20 bill was found on him.

Winslow, who is Black, went to trial. Two Black jurors voted not guilty. Ten white jurors voted guilty. Even though his previous crimes were nonviolent and separated by decades, Winslow was convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. “It was a very small amount of marijuana. It was ridiculously small,” a juror recalled years later. But it didn’t matter. Following the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the much-criticized law proposed by then-Senator Joe Biden that significantly increased funding for police departments and prisons, Louisiana and many other states began to punish repeat offenders more harshly regardless of the severity of their crimes.

In the nearly 30 years since the passage of the crime bill, habitual offender statutes fueled some of the worst excesses of the prison system. The laws created a much larger geriatric incarcerated population whose healthcare costs billions nationally, ripped families and communities apart, overburdened understaffed facilities, and normalized the idea that swathes of the U.S. population are irredeemable.

Yet, according to an investigation by The Appeal, these nearly 30-year-old policies are still punishing people like Winslow based on their “habitual” status, rather than on how much of a threat they may pose. The Appeal took a deeper look at Louisiana and Mississippi, states that changed their laws in 1994 or 1995 and now have some of the highest rates of incarcerated people in the country. The Appeal sent freedom of information requests to both the Mississippi Department of Corrections and Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections for data on people serving 20-year-plus sentences and, where possible, information regarding whether their sentences had been enhanced by a habitual offender statute. We broke the data down by race, crime, time served, and sentence. In total, datasets suggest there are close to 2,000 people currently serving long sentences enhanced by habitual offender statutes in these two states.

A small number of these people in these two states committed serious crimes. But most are serving 20-plus years primarily because of habitual offender status, where the triggering offense was drug possession, drug sale, illegal gun possession, or another crime besides murder or rape. Scores of people are serving virtual or literal life sentences for nonviolent drug possession.

“There’s got to be something said for someone who breaks the law over and over,” Kevin Ring, president of the nonprofit Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), told The Appeal. “But as with most things in the U.S. system, we just take a sledgehammer to the problem and lose all sense of proportionality.”

Despite walking back his “tough on crime” history during the 2020 presidential campaign, President Joe Biden has yet to do anything concrete, such as a mass clemency offer, to begin to rectify the consequences of the old policies. In fact, he recently pledged to funnel more money to state and local police, even as misguided pro-incarceration policies from 30 years ago are still destroying lives like Canada’s and Winslow’s.

“It was a fourth offense from [nonviolent] stuff he did when he was younger,” Canada, now age 23, said. “For that you took him away.”

During the 2016 and 2020 elections, many high-profile Democrats tried to deflect from the impacts of the 1990s “tough on crime” spree that culminated in the 1994 crime bill. In 2016, former President Bill Clinton blamed Joe Biden.

“Vice President Biden [. . .] was the chairman of the committee that had jurisdiction over this crime bill,” Clinton said to a group of Black Lives Matter protesters. But in 2019, Biden blamed Bill Clinton.

“I made sure there was a setup in that law that said there were no more mandatories, except two that I had to accept,” Biden said at a New Hampshire presidential campaign stop. “One was the President Clinton one of ‘three strikes and you’re out,’” Biden said.

Although federal prisoners make up roughly 12 percent of the U.S. prison population, the federal government led the way on mass incarceration by way of example.

“The federal prison population is still the largest prison population, compared to any state,” Inimai M. Chettiar, federal director of the nonprofit Justice Action Network advocacy group, told The Appeal. “And, there’s also public and national attention paid to federal policy, in a way that isn’t paid to smaller states.”

There were concrete features of the federal bill that gave states funds to hire more officers and build more prisons. “The federal crime bill not only increased the federal prisoner population but gave financial incentives to states to increase prison populations,” she said. In 34 states, the average length of stay for people convicted of crimes released from prison jumped 36 percent between 1990 and 2009, according to a 2012 Pew Charitable Trusts study.

“This idea that the crime bill generated mass incarceration—it did not generate mass incarceration.”Joe Biden, Nashua, New Hampshire, May 14, 2019

Habitual offender laws precede the 1990s “tough-on-crime” bonanza, but they became widespread throughout the country after the passage of the ‘94 crime bill. After Clinton popularized “three strikes and you’re out” during the 1994 State of the Union address—arguing that anyone convicted of a serious, violent crime after two prior convictions should be sent to prison for life—many states either introduced habitual offender laws or made existing ones harsher.

In Louisiana, a second offense allowed prosecutors to seek more prison time. (The state’s habitual offender law was first enacted in 1928 but was made more punitive in the 1990s.) That’s how one person named Fair Wayne Bryant was sentenced to life in prison after being accused of trying to steal a pair of hedge clippers. He had prior convictions for attempted robbery, possessing stolen goods from a RadioShack, trying to forge a $150 check, and breaking into a home and stealing.

There are few people who habitually commit murder or violent rape. There’s a 5.3 percent recidivism rate among sexual offenders three years after they’re released, according to the Justice Department. A 2019 study found that despite a handful of high-profile cases, people convicted of murder are unlikely to commit another homicide, since “most murders are opportunistic and singular.” Those offenses also carry years to decades in prison, so that’s not where habitual offender laws have the greatest impact. Instead, the statutes entrap people who’ve been in trouble with the law multiple times regardless of how serious their crimes are.

Fate Winslow was sentenced to life without parole for a pot conviction two years after President Barack Obama admitted in 2006 to inhaling when he smoked weed. “That was the point,” Obama sassily said when asked.

In 2017, the Hattiesburg Police Department in Mississippi surrounded the apartment of then-34-year-old Allen Russell. When he didn’t respond to their calls to open the door, officers broke into the house and found Russell pulling himself into the attic. They flung a chemical agent into the attic to smoke him out. Police said Russell was a person of interest in a murder. While at his home, the officers found five baggies of cannabis, and in 2019, Russell was convicted of possessing more than 30 grams of the drug. Prosecutors brought in his prior convictions: two home burglaries in 2004, for which he spent eight years in prison, and a 2015 gun possession charge, for which he served two years. Because of the state’s habitual offender laws, the pot charge generated a sentence of life without parole. Russell is still in prison.

In the mid-1990s, Mississippi instituted some of the most restrictive habitual offender laws in the country and virtually did away with parole for repeat offenders. “Essentially, the federal government gave financial incentives for states to implement stricter sentencing requirements around ‘three strikes, you’re out,’ and to limit parole eligibility,” Russ Latino, president of the nonprofit political advocacy group Empower Mississippi, told the Mississippi Free Press in 2021.

According to data analyzed by The Appeal, as of August 4, 2021, there were nearly 600 people in Mississippi who were serving 20 years or more with no parole date and were considered habitual offenders.

The state also has the third highest incarceration rate in the country. The state prison population more than doubled between 1994 and 2008, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. after the state did away with parole for people convicted of multiple crimes. Jake Howard, the MacArthur Justice Center’s legal director in Jackson, Mississippi, said the law is still used as a cudgel for prosecutors to strike plea deals, greatly discouraging trials. “It’s a stick to make people plea,” he told The Appeal. “If you plead guilty, they might drop that habitual charge.”

Pressuring suspects into giving up their right to trial is especially striking given the racial breakdown. In Mississippi, 75 percent of “habitual offenders” are Black, while 25 percent are white. (Other racial groups make up a negligible number.) That’s a higher racial disparity than the already high race disparity of the prison population overall: In 2018, 58 percent of Mississippi’s prison population was Black. Black people are only 39 percent of the state’s population.

One of the five people affected by these laws and convicted of first-degree murder, Jacolby Newell, was convicted of committing a 2013 burglary with two other men, during which one of the group shot and killed someone else. Newell will serve a total of 46 years and is not eligible for parole because an earlier burglary charge was counted separately—in this case, Newell’s “two strikes” were enough to result in almost half a century in prison. Another of the five, Devin Thornton, was labeled a habitual offender based on a previous felon in possession conviction and was given 40 years.

Another handful of habitual offender cases involve attempted murder. In 2013, James Smith was charged with sexually assaulting two young boys and will serve 72 years in prison without the possibility of parole after he allegedly cut one of the boys’ throats. (The boy survived.) In February 2016, 38-year-old Virgil Jarvis and his girlfriend got into a fight—and as she fled the scene in a car, Jarvis ran alongside the vehicle and fired his gun, hitting her in the arm. She was treated for her injuries and left the hospital that night. Jarvis was sentenced to 27 years. In addition to the shooting, he was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and with methamphetamine possession and is not eligible for parole.

Ten more Mississippi men were charged with second-degree murder and sentenced with habitual offender enhancements. Troy Roberts was sentenced to 30 years after he shot his wife during a fight—he was labeled a habitual offender because he was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon. Another man, Stephen Hagin, says he was hallucinating from drug use when he killed another man over a $100 meth deal. Hagin is now serving 40 years as well as an additional eight for having previously stolen a car.

As many criminal justice researchers have long pointed out, violence is usually a young man’s game. Based on 2015 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Marshall Project reports that homicide rates peak at 19, while forcible rape is most common among 18-year-olds. A 60-year-old who’s been in prison for decades is not likely to throw on a mask and gun down a bank teller. According to a 2017 report from the United States Sentencing Commission in which more than 25,000 people released from prison were monitored over an eight-year period, only 13.4 percent of people over age 65 were rearrested, compared to 67.6 percent of people studied who were younger than 21.

Of the nearly six hundred habitual offenders in Mississippi, 20 total men were convicted of rape and given long sentences without parole because of their habitual offender status. Of that number, seven were convicted of statutory rape. One man was convicted of both charges. One is serving a 100-year sentence for attacks he allegedly committed in 2000. But with or without habitual offender laws, people who are convicted of murder or rape are already likely to serve significant time in prison: In Mississippi, first-degree murder, for example, can carry a life sentence with or without parole.

The majority of habitual offender convictions analyzed by The Appealare linked to possession of drugs, possession of firearms, or contraband in prison.

In the most extreme cases, multiple people convicted of drug crimes were given virtual life sentences because of their habitual offender status. Perry Armstead is serving 63 years for five charges of cocaine possession and sales. Keith Baskin is serving 60 years for possession of cannabis with intent to distribute. Timothy Bell is serving 80 years after being convicted of possessing a firearm as a felon and selling meth twice. Malcolm Crump is serving 56 years for selling meth on three occasions. Paul Houser got 60 years for meth. Anthony Jefferson got 60 years for possession of cannabis with intent to distribute.

In other words, these people charged with drug or gun possession are all serving longer sentences than some people charged with far more serious crimes. Worse yet, that list does not include the people in Mississippi sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent drug crimes due to their habitual offender status.

In 2014, Kevin Allen sold $20 worth of pot to his best friend, not knowing that police had squeezed the friend—whom Allen had known since the late ’90s—to work as an informant. The friend testified against Allen at trial. “He set me up,” Allen told The Appeal. Allen says the pair haven’t talked since facing off in court.

Eleven jurors voted guilty, while one voted not guilty. Allen expected to be sentenced to 20 years, but prosecutors activated Louisiana’s habitual offender law to sentence him to life without the possibility of parole. “When they gave me life, I couldn’t believe it,” Allen said. “Why? I didn’t kill nobody. Didn’t rob nobody.”

Before 1994, Louisiana mandated life without parole for a third conviction of violent or drug felonies—however, after 1994, life without parole was mandated if any one of four felonies was on the list of violent or drug offenses.

There are nearly 900 people serving sentences longer than 20 years in Louisiana because of habitual offender statutes who aren’t eligible for parole. (Overall, there are more than four thousand people serving life without parole in the state.) Like Allen, more than two-thirds of offenders serving life in Louisiana are Black.

We both [know], no money, no justice. That's just the way the world is.Fate Winslow, as told to The Intercept in 2018

According to data acquired through a freedom of information request, the most serious crimes are in the minority. Less than 3 percent of those imprisoned due to habitual offender status were convicted of first-degree murder. Slightly less than 5 percent are serving time for second-degree murder. Almost 6 percent are serving time for rape. Meanwhile, 12.6 percent are serving 20-plus years because of habitual offender statutes triggered by a drug crime. Of those serving decades for drug crimes, 49 people were convicted for possession, 34 for possession with intent to distribute, and 31 for distribution.

One of those men convicted of drug possession is Eugene Jarrow. Jarrow pleaded guilty to armed robbery in the 1970s. In 1988, he was convicted of cocaine possession with intent to distribute. More than 10 years later, in 1999, he was found guilty of marijuana possession and attempted cocaine possession and, because he was considered a habitual offender, sentenced to life without parole. He’s 61 years old.

In October 2000, Rene Decay was allegedly caught with over 400 grams of cocaine, and also charged with attempted possession of 400 grams. In addition, he was charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He was sentenced to 40 years for cocaine possession, 20 years for attempted possession, and 15 years for the firearm, to be served consecutively. A trial judge overturned the first sentence and resentenced him under the habitual offender statute to life without the possibility of parole just for that single incident.

In 2005, Blaine Blanks broke into a home. When the homeowner returned home, Blanks ran off with a single earring and some meat he had found in the freezer. Later that year, when detectives searched his mother’s home, they found a plate that turned out to have cocaine residue on it. Blanks was sentenced to 24 years.

Fate Winslow and Jee Park, executive director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, stand outside Angola prison the day Winslow was released.
Innocent Project New Orleans

Many of these cases make little logical sense. Fate Winslow’s sentence made so little sense to his daughter Faith Canada that she took criminal justice courses in college. One day, she walked into class, and to her great shock, they started discussing her father’s case. “At the end of class, I stood up and asked if I could say something,” she recalled. When she told them Winslow was her father, the other students and the professor were speechless. “It’s so, so wrong,” she remembers the professor saying afterward.

In 2019, lawyers with the Innocence Project New Orleans took up Winslow’s case. Earlier that year, a court ruling set precedent for an appeal challenging Winslow’s sentence, rather than his conviction.

One day, Canada got a call from her dad. “Baby, I’m getting out !” Canada recalled him saying. “l’ll see you! I’m ready to start my life over, get everything together.”

Canada said he “was so excited. So excited! When my dad got out, he was in his happiest moments. You never saw him frowning. Always such a good heart.” The Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit that lobbies for people in prison for drug crimes, helped him financially. He insisted on buying his daughter a car. “It was sweet,” Canada said. “Make sure it’s a good car!”“Make sure you check the oil!” he fretted to the mechanic.

On a Wednesday in May 2021, five months after Winslow got out, Canada got a phone call from her aunt. Her father’s body had been found in a car. He’d been shot dead. Canada says she started screaming.

Since then, it doesn’t appear that police have found any serious leads in the case. “They don’t care,” Canada bluntly concluded about law enforcement. Every time she’s called police for information, she says, she’s given the runaround.

The Shreveport police department in Louisiana has previously faced criticism over its low clearance rate of homicides. In 2016, there were 46 murders and officers made 11 arrests. The same police department that took all of one night to arrest and send Winslow to prison for life for $20 of pot has yet to find his killer, close to two years later. The Appeal sent a request for comment to the Shreveport PD and did not receive a response.

A few months after her father’s death, Canada became pregnant, just as her dad had prayed she would. She had a healthy baby boy in March 2022. “I can’t wait to tell him all about his grandfather and how much he wanted him,” Canada said. She still cries all the time. “You took him away, he came back, you took him away again, and he’ll never come back now. I’ll never be daddy’s little princess.”

How Prison Visit Restrictions Force Parents to Make Tough Decisions

Patrick Stephens, a formerly incarcerated writer, explains how arbitrary, byzantine, and punitive visiting rules tear apart the families of the incarcerated—especially after the pandemic.

Nenad Stojkovich via Flickr

How Prison Visit Restrictions Force Parents to Make Tough Decisions

Patrick Stephens, a formerly incarcerated writer, explains how arbitrary, byzantine, and punitive visiting rules tear apart the families of the incarcerated—especially after the pandemic.

The pain and frustration in Anthony Perez’s voice was palpable. 

“I haven’t seen my daughter since she was born and now she’s two,” he said. It was March 2022 and this was the response I’d received when I asked Anthony—who lived alongside me in New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility at the time—when he would finally get to see his daughter in person. The child, Athena, was born when the facility began its COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020—and after Perez had already been incarcerated. Dealing with the deficiencies of the prison was hard enough. In fact, Perez would later be taken to an outside hospital after a serious COVID-19 infection. But dealing with the visitation shut down and the restrictions implemented when they did return added an exponential increase in stress. 

No physical contact was allowed. Visitors were separated from the incarcerated person by tables that ensured social distancing was maintained. At one point, hugs were only allowed briefly at the beginning and the end of every visit. None of that made Perez feel any better. None of those conditions made it any easier to see his daughter. “I didn’t want the first time I saw my daughter to be like that,” he said, “where I couldn’t even hold her.” 

As an incarcerated father myself, I could empathize with his frustration. I thought back to summer 2021 when my own son surprised me with a visit on Father’s Day. 

He was seated in the open visiting pavilion just outside of the regular visiting room and when I approached, he stood up to embrace me.

“Wussup Dad?” he said. 

The guard looked pained to have to prevent our impending hug. 

“No, no, no,” the corrections officer said. “You can’t do that.” 

It had been a little while since I had last seen my son. It seemed unfair that with all he had to deal with during my decades-long absence, even a hug was beyond his reach. But now, listening to my friend express his pain, I felt lucky that I had at least seen my own son be born. I felt fortunate that I held him just moments after he was delivered and that throughout my incarcerated years, I was able to hold him, talk to him, and even cook for him.

We take these things for granted, these normal familial interactions, but inside incarcerated spaces—especially during a deadly pandemic, when prison visitation and social-distancing rules had become stricter, more arbitrary, and confusingly enforced—every human contact is precious.

Antonio is a bright eyed 4-year-old who loves to visit his father, Hector Roman, who was also incarcerated at Sing Sing alongside me. And of course, like most 4-year-olds, he doesn’t always understand prison’s notoriously arbitrary rules. He sees his father and, like always, he wants to run to him. He wants to sit in his lap and have his father throw him in the air. When daddy says, “Poppy, we have to follow the rules,” he relents, but moments later he is back to pushing the boundaries. 

For Roman, it is hard to be on a visit with his son like this. There is little to no opportunity to physically engage with him. The Osborne Association’s Children’s Center—where parents could play games or do other activities with their young children—has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic. So the regular visiting room it is. But in that space, with six feet of table separating you from your child, the emotional barriers associated with parenting from behind an invisible wall become more tangible.  

“I didn’t want him thinking that Daddy doesn’t want him next to him,” Roman told me.

And disobeying the rules has serious consequences. At Sing Sing, unauthorized contact with a visitor can result in the immediate termination of the visit. Additionally, the incarcerated individual can be sent into quarantine for nearly two weeks if exposure is expected and the imprisoned person is not fully vaccinated. In quarantine, you are isolated from the general population and recreation is limited to one hour per day. You have one hour to shower and use the phone and kiosk before being shuttled back into a cold cell.

The prison can also suspend someone’s visiting privileges entirely. This can be a problem for men like Roman, who participate in the Family Reunion Program (FRP), where incarcerated people can spend time with their families in trailers. That all participants in FRP must maintain an acceptable visiting pattern, even when visiting under COVID-19 restrictions, is less than ideal. (According to a 2016 policy directive, family members who wanted to apply for the FRP needed to demonstrate a “recent and consistent visiting pattern,” which meant visiting at least three times within 12 months.)

“He shouldn’t have to come to [regular] visits just [to qualify] for the trailers,” says Roman. “Especially since we’d been satisfying the visit pattern prior to COVID.” From Roman’s perspective, there should have been a “visiting pattern waiver” allowing vaccinated participants in good standing prior to the pandemic to continue to participate, even if visits were disrupted due to social-distancing. It is a reasonable suggestion. But reasonable is not the forte of the criminalizing apparatus at play. 

“I go from playing with my son all day on the trailer to not being able to touch him on the regular visit,” Roman said. “How do I explain that to a 4-year-old?” 

For Nigel Francis, the incarcerated parent of two girls:  Madison, 16, and Niomi, 2, achieving the necessary visits to satisfy the FRP visiting pattern under the visiting restrictions became increasingly difficult. 

“They only allow two adults and one child now,” Francis told me. “How do I choose between my daughters? I have to do twice the visits just to satisfy the visit pattern requirements. How many times do I ask their mother to bring them up?”

It is a fair question, especially given the lopsided nature of the restrictive policies enacted to allegedly protect incarcerated people from COVID-19. While the policies have made it far more difficult for families to visit their loved ones, the rules do relatively little to address the real pandemic-related threat to incarcerated people—prison staff. Indeed, incarcerated people spend very little time with the people that visit them. Thus, the opportunity for infection is lower when compared to the possibility of exposure within the prison. Inside of prison, especially following a visit, incarcerated people are within close proximity to multiple officers whose very job is to pat them down and strip-frisk them. You can’t be socially distant and conduct a strip-frisk. Add to this the disturbing reality that many officers were initially reluctant to get vaccinated.

For Joseph Wilson, an incarcerated organizer and co-founder of the Sing Sing Family Collective (SSFC), the discrepancy is fertile ground for legal action. “It’s a violation of equal protection,” Wilson said. “My family has to get tested every time they come here, even if they have proof of vaccination. Why should we still have social-distancing in the visit room when I confront officers every day who don’t want to wear their masks or even protect themselves [by getting vaccinated]?” For Wilson, it is the height of hypocrisy. Beyond that, it represents deep negligence. The people charged with the care of incarcerated people are unwilling to take the necessary steps to protect their health and consequently the health of others. Half-jokingly, Wilson adds, “If I’m going to get COVID, I’d rather get it from my wife than from an officer.”

But most incarcerated fathers are not interested in waiting for a court to tell them they can be active parents during visitation. Their families are being impacted in the here and now. To them, the restrictions seem to unduly restrict their ability to assist their wives in whatever small way they can or bond with their children. 

In the case of Anthony Perez, he feels like less of a husband and a father the longer he’s prevented from fully embracing his daughter. His wife will have to travel by train and get their baby Athena up early for the trip. When they finally get to the prison, his wife will have to keep Athena with her the entire time. 

“That was my job, holding the baby so my wife could get a brief rest,” Perez said. It is a difficult pill to swallow when even the smallest of husbandly duties is denied to you. But even more painful is thinking about the time he missed bonding with his daughter. With some discomfort, he reflects that his daughter only hears his voice over the phone. 

“She knows my name, but I feel like a stranger to my own daughter,” he said. 

L.A. Ended a Zero-Bail COVID Rule, and Now the Jail Population is Growing

In June, a judge ended an emergency order to slow the spread of COVID-19 in LA’s jails, enraging civil-rights advocates.

Visitor7 via Wikimedia Commons

L.A. Ended a Zero-Bail COVID Rule, and Now the Jail Population is Growing

In June, a judge ended an emergency order to slow the spread of COVID-19 in LA’s jails, enraging civil-rights advocates.

On June 14, as a new subvariant of the COVID-19 virus began to spread rapidly around the country, the Los Angeles County Superior Court announced a plan to rescind a zero-bail policy designed to ease overcrowding in jails during the pandemic.

The so-called Emergency Bail Schedule (EBS) policy—which was first inspired by a set of emergency rules enacted by the California Judicial Council in the spring of 2020—set bail to zero for a number of nonviolent misdemeanors in order to release the county’s lowest-level offenders and lessen jail crowding overall. But now, despite the fact that the spread of COVID-19 continues, the Los Angeles County Superior Court believes it’s time to begin charging people to exit jail once more.

“The EBS was not conceived as a part of California’s efforts at zero cash bail reform,” the court said in a press release. “They are completely different. Zero-dollar bail initiatives seek, as a matter of public policy, to permanently eliminate cash bail as part of bail reform. The Court’s EBS did not eliminate cash bail and was intended to be a temporary response to the pandemic-related dangers inherent in pretrial incarceration.”

The move has enraged civil-rights activists, who say the zero-bail policy demonstrated that the county should cancel cash bail for good. Even though many of those advocates believe that the EBS did not go nearly far enough to actually solve the problem of over-incarceration in Los Angeles—or the mass spread of COVID-19 in jails—they readily admit that it was a step in the right direction. Meredith Gallen, a Los Angeles County public defender and member of the public defender’s Union Local 148, told The Appeal that she wished the zero-bail order had led to permanent, systemic change in the county jail system.

“This [was] an opportunity to set a precedent,” she lamented. “For people who are engaged in progressive reform and [are] concerned about cash bail … [we] viewed this as an opportunity to set a precedent that would last for longer and we could learn from.”

In theory, cash bail—which is returned to whoever pays the bail once litigation is complete—is not a punishment itself and is designed to guarantee that a person charged with a crime returns to court. In practice, however, even small bail amounts trap poor people in the jail system, while those with access to money often walk free no matter the severity of their crimes. In California, where the median bail amount is more than five times the national median, cash bail keeps thousands of indigent people in detention, even though they have yet to be convicted of a crime.

When the EBS was first enacted, LA County reduced its jail population by almost 30 percent—from 17,000 to about 12,000, its lowest number in decades. Since the policy was terminated on June 30, when there were 13,232 people in the jail system, the number has increased. According to the county sheriff’s website, the total jail population was 14,471 as of September 6. According to the county’s website, 144,592 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in the county jail system as of that same date. Twenty-three people have died of the disease.

Nearly half of those held in LA’s jails are pretrial, meaning they are waiting behind bars because they cannot pay their bail. In a report published in 2017, Human Rights Watch calculated that every person in pretrial detention costs taxpayers an average of $114 per day. The same report described some of the severe consequences for people who have to wait behind bars for months, or even years, before their case is resolved. That list includes losing their housing, getting fired, having their children sent into foster care, and going into debt. While in confinement, people are also often unable to pay child support or take their medications regularly, and they are susceptible to violence by other incarcerated people and by guards.

Those held in pretrial detention also miss out on the critical opportunity to properly prepare for trial. Studies have shown that people who are held in jail before their trials are more likely to be convicted than those who are not detained pretrial. According to a Columbia Law School finding, there is “significant evidence of a correlation between pretrial detention and both conviction and recidivism.”

Proponents of cash-bail argue that zero-bail policies let people who could be a danger to society back onto the streets. But Ivette Alé-Ferlito, an organizer and campaign coordinator for the JusticeLA Coalition, a grassroots organization dedicated to ending mass incarceration in Los Angeles, says that’s simply not accurate.

“The bail schedule isn’t determined by the facts of the case,” they said. “Most judges aren’t looking at facts of a case at arraignment…. They’re just running risk assessments without strengths or needs.”

Instead of conducting thorough hearings that actually assess an individual’s potential danger, Alé-Ferlito says, judges are using pieces of information “founded with biased data,” such as employment status, education level, age, and arrest records, to determine whether a person might pose a risk if released back into society.

John Raphling, a senior researcher on criminal justice at Human Rights Watch, argues that there’s no relationship at all between the current bail system and public safety. “Pretrial detention isn’t being used for public safety,” he said. “It’s being used to get people to plead guilty.” Raphling explained that indigent people feel pressured to accept guilty pleas as a means of resolving their case and getting out of jail as soon as possible.

For Raphling, the real risk is that the general public does not recognize that the world on the “inside” and the rest of society are actually interconnected.

“They cycle in and out,” he says, in reference to the many people going in and out of custody all the time. “They’re going to get COVID and bring it home to their families. They’re going to get it at home and bring it into the jail.” He added: “It’s not just the people in jail who are getting sick. It’s not.”

Gallen, with the public defender’s office, said that the spread of COVID inside jails has everything to do with the notorious inefficiency that already plagues the judiciary. When her clients have COVID and are being held in isolation, she said, they are unable to video conference or talk on the phone with their attorneys, let alone visit in person. “That obviously contributes to [the] backlog,” she notes.

The county could vote to make a zero-bail law permanent, but few, if any, county politicians have floated plans to institute such a policy. In the meantime, advocates wish the courts were making better use of the mechanisms for release that are already in place. One example is the Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR), which directs people with mental illnesses or substance-use disorders away from the criminal system and into rehabilitative programs. A 2019 study by the RAND Corporation found that 86 percent of the people surveyed who’d gone through ODR’s programs had no new felony convictions after 12 months.

“We all believe in ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ but for certain communities, those privileges are not extended to them,” Alé-Fertito said. “And it isn’t a privilege, it’s a right.”

People Say They Languish in Texas Prisons’ ‘Mental Health’ Unit

“They were destroying me,” said one person placed in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s “Program for the Aggressive Mentally Ill Offender.”

Larry D. Moore via Wikimedia Commons

People Say They Languish in Texas Prisons’ ‘Mental Health’ Unit

“They were destroying me,” said one person placed in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s “Program for the Aggressive Mentally Ill Offender.”

In the nine months after Edee Davis arrived at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s William P. Clements Unit near Amarillo, Texas for mental health treatment, she says she only attended three peer-group sessions facilitated by a counselor.

But, in grievance forms obtained by The Appeal, Davis says mental health staff lied and said she’d attended more.

Davis was supposed to be receiving acute mental health care under a voluntary TDCJ program called the “Program for the Aggressive Mentally Ill Offender” or PAMIO. The program is part of the TDCJ’s broader system of managed care, through which the prison agency partners with Texas universities to provide detainees with health care.

In a grievance form filed in March 2022, and reviewed by The Appeal, Davis accused a counselor of falsifying her participation in counseling sessions.

“My mental health files in medical (I recently reviewed) are full of false reports on me and my attendance in groups I have never been to,” Davis wrote in an April letter to The Appeal. “There is no mental health treatment here.”

“The PAMIO program has received national recognition for the innovative approaches to these challenging patients,” a December 2019 Fact Book from the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center says, in a section touting the university’s care for incarcerated people. A TDCJ policy document outlining the scope of the program says the purpose of the program is to “provide a structured cognitive-behavioral program for aggressive mentally ill inmates in Restrictive Housing (Administrative Segregation) and G5 custody in order to achieve a less restrictive housing assignment.”

The document describes PAMIO as a program offered to prisoners with “history of aggressive and/or disruptive behavior.” The program is designed to provide an environment for mental health care, including group therapy, to some of the offenders that TDCJ has deemed most “aggressive.” After completing the program, those detained in PAMIO are supposed to be evaluated for a less restrictive housing assignment.

But according to letters sent by prisoners over four months, the conditions seemed to be the exact opposite of the helpful, rehabilitative area TDCJ claims to provide. Prisoners, their family members, and former staff members described the PAMIO program as a shadowy purgatory, where those detained sit in their cells for days and weeks on end without treatment, showers, or recreation time.

A TDCJ spokesperson wrote in an email that in April 2022, the program time was cut from 18 months to one year. But actual completion of PAMIO can take much longer than the previously scheduled 1.5 years if those incarcerated suffer setbacks to their treatment. Phone access is scant, leaving the incarcerated even more cut off from possible connections to the outside world. Even once they opt out of the program, they may sit in their solitary cells for months, awaiting transfer to other facilities.

“You have to take a bath in the sink with a rag and a cup. And they bring your meals to the cell and they open this little slot in the door,” Davis told The Appeal. “I’m in my 60s, they were destroying me. Since I’ve been out my health is starting to improve,” she added.

Tens of thousands of people are held in solitary confinement each day in U.S. prisons, and on any particular day, between 55,000 and 62,500 people have spent more than two weeks in isolation, according to a 2020 report. Research has found that people placed in solitary confinement suffer myriad health consequences and, according to one study, are even 24 percent more likely to die in their first year after release from prison. A disproportionate number of people who spend time in solitary have a serious mental illness.

The PAMIO program, which a TDCJ spokesperson said currently has 33 medical staff and a capacity to treat 246 people, is just one of many of the programs across the country that gets tax dollars to assist those with mental illness yet, according to those enrolled, it exacerbates their conditions. Across the country, these programs often resemble unregulated limbos, shielded from oversight, where incarcerated people with mental illness suffer continued abuse.

Of the 10 lawmakers contacted by The Appeal for this story, none agreed to an interview. The chief of staff of one member of the House Corrections Committee did not even know what the PAMIO program was.

Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, told The Appeal that programs like PAMIO, which isolate prisoners, are more likely to aggravate mental illness. When the program was described to him, he noted that “prisons, in general, are perhaps the worst place on earth to try to provide effective mental health care.”

“Nobody’s innately violent,” he added. “People are violent for reasons and they’re not uniformly or constantly violent. They react to certain kinds of settings and situations and provocations. And when they’re mentally ill, oftentimes those reactions are directly tied to their mental illness, that makes them more challenging, but it doesn’t mean you lock them up in a cell and leave them there.”

During the more than 1.5 years that Taylor Goldston worked in the PAMIO program, she tried to ameliorate the monotony that the incarcerated people experienced. Goldston, a former mental health clinician medical worker who worked in the PAMIO program from August 2019 to May 2021, told The Appeal that she would bring incarcerated people pencils, and books even though her supervisor said doing so was prohibited.

Goldston and another former medical provider, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation, confirmed that prisoners can go weeks without showers or recreation time.

Goldston told The Appeal that any behavioral slip-up could impact a prisoners’ progression through the program and that some corrections officers looked for reasons to demote incarcerated people.

Kenzie Haywood volunteered to enter the program, rather than be housed in “administrative segregation” in another unit. Haywood wrote to The Appeal that psychology departments in other TDCJ facilities advertise PAMIO as a more permissive environment in which to receive treatment than that offered in other facilities.

“The reason why PAMIO attracts offenders to it is due to the activities that are ‘supposed’ to take place once you are accepted,” Haywood wrote. He thought he would be receiving regular individual and group counseling sessions, arts and crafts, and group recreation.

When he arrived, he found a vastly different situation.

“Some of the cells that offenders are assigned to are plastered with feces, blood, urine, semen, food and all types of other unidentifiable gunk,” Haywood wrote in a letter to The Appeal.

Some in the program alleged that even their basic medical needs were not being met.

“I have rashes and sores all over my body from not being able to shower/bathe properly,” Edee Davis wrote, adding that she lost 35 pounds between June 2021, when she entered the program, and March 2022. Davis, who identifies as transgender, said she received no access to LGBTQ mental-health treatment.

Attempts to file grievances are often unsuccessful according to Davis and Marco Lee, an imprisoned person who is enrolled in a different mental health program held in the Clements Unit.

“Numerous inmates have exhausted their administrative review and directly contacted outside agencies,” Lee wrote in a June letter to The Appeal.

“In addition to the grievance process, inmates are able to submit inquiries to the Office of the Independent Ombudsman,” a TDCJ spokesperson wrote in an email.

When the pandemic hit, group counseling sessions were replaced by time in individual cells and worksheets. Healthcare providers then had to visit each prisoner’s cell and walk each person through the lesson, a time-consuming process that added further strain to the medical staff.

“It’s not very efficient,” the former medical provider who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation said.

That medical worker and another who worked in Clements, but not in PAMIO, and also requested anonymity, said when they requested more resources, they received directives to increase productivity. A spokesperson for Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center wrote in an email to The Appeal that PAMIO did not have a required staff-to-program participant ratio.

TDCJ has long faced staffing shortages that have plagued operations; as far back as 2005, the staff turnover rate was above 20 percent. Corrections officers had a turnover rate of 40.3 percent – representing a nearly 7 percent increase from 2020 to 2021, according to a study released in March by the state auditor’s office.

Even before the pandemic hit, staff shortages impeded the medical workers’ ability to provide the level of services advertised by the program. The pandemic further exacerbated such issues, TDCJ has previously said to other media outlets.

A study released in February from the University of Texas at Austin’s Prison and Jail Innovation Lab found that as of January 2022, Texas prison staff had the highest rate of deaths from COVID among prison systems in the U.S., and Texas prison staff had the 2nd highest number of COVID infections in the country.

In September, TDCJ increased the pay of corrections officers at maximum security units, including Clements, by 3 percent. Hoping to reduce CO vacancies, the agency raised the salaries for them as well as food service workers and laundry managers at all TDCJ facilities by 15 percent in April. Under the updated pay scale, the newest COs will earn an annual salary of $41,674.

TDCJ declined records requests The Appeal filed related to staffing numbers in the PAMIO program. The agency claimed the information was confidential due to a state statute barring disclosure of information “collected, assembled, or maintained by or for a governmental entity for the purpose of preventing, detecting, or investigating an act of terrorism or related criminal activity.”

Alycia Welch, the Associate Director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Appeal that the conditions of the job, combined with a stressful environment, make staff retention difficult.

“Working at a fast food chain, for instance, may pay very similarly to a frontline corrections officer position,” Welch said. But prisons are crowded and hard places to work and staff are working with people who are “potentially not receiving the services and resources that they need. And so, you know, conditions where people are getting aggressive, and you’re having to sort of argue with people. I mean, that’s tough conditions to be working in.”

The former PAMIO worker said that the approaches of both TDCJ and medical supervisors exacerbated the difficult work environment.

“The problem here is very complicated,” the medical worker wrote in a text. “Between the triangle of the inmates, TDCJ, and Tech, there isn’t solely one to blame. All three contribute to varying degrees. The reality is the population comes with significant challenges to work with, which seems to be a factor in staffing issues.”

“[Assaults on] staff members and other inmates still happen,” the worker continued. “Not to mention the sexual harassment/violating acts toward other staff members. Some do not take any accountability for their actions, which is a main reason why they are incarcerated.”

But the complaints vocalized by the prisoners and their families cannot be explained by being short-staffed alone.

Haywood alleged that corrections officers would concoct “bogus” offender reports if they heard a prisoner complaining. Davis alleged that those who wrote to The Appeal were punished.

Goldston said that after a prisoner attempted suicide during her time at the program, a superior quipped to the man that maybe he would “get it right next time.” (A spokesperson for Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center wrote in an email that “we are unaware of any such occurrence.”)

The other medical provider who spoke to The Appeal for this article confirmed hearing about the incident but didn’t feel that remark is emblematic of the program’s current culture.

A TDCJ spokesperson wrote in an email to The Appeal that PAMIO is volunteer based and participants can opt out. But those who finish the program or attempt to opt out may face lengthy waits before receiving a transfer. A spokesperson for Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center wrote in an email that “if an inmate desires to be released from the program, TDCJ is notified. TDCJ is then responsible to transfer the inmate to another facility.”

In September 2021, Savannah Eldrige emailed Carrie Culpepper, the Chief Nursing and Quality Officer for TTUHSC. Eldrige, who is a nurse and member of the Texas Center for Justice and Equity’s Statewide Leadership Council, asked why her stepson, Ernest, was still being held in the housing unit designated for PAMIO while not receiving care.

“[He’s] saying that the conditions and environment in building 12 are making it hard for him to cope due to the consistent disruptive behavior, mistreatment and tossing of feces by some of the more severe patients,” Eldrige wrote in the email, which was viewed by The Appeal. In May, Eldrige sent another email, stating that she had not yet received a response to her inquiry.

Eldrige, an advocate who communicates with a number of incarcerated people, said that TDCJ regularly stymies her attempts to learn more about the incarceration programs, and she’s often forced to file records requests.

“I just feel like there should be more transparency and working with family members who are trying to help their loved ones who I always say are the first responders in this fight,” she said. “Because many people come out to the family, we need to know how to help them. And we can’t if we don’t know what’s going on,” Eldrige told The Appeal.

Around the time Eldrige sent her follow-up email, guards also abruptly told Ernest he would be transferred. Eldrige said the men were prevented from bringing personal items, such as legal documents and hygiene items, to their new units.

This lack of transparency links to a broader oversight problem related to how the program is managed, Welch said.

“We don’t have any correction oversight here in Texas, and so there’s no external body who’s looking at these types of programs,” Welch said, naming PAMIO. “There’s no external body asking, ‘What are they doing,’ ‘What data is coming out from them,’ ‘What are the outcomes that we’re seeing,’ which really keeps the public in the dark about what’s going on inside of these facilities.”

Virginia Prison Still Failing to Provide Adequate Health Care, Incarcerated Women Say

Women at the Fluvanna Correctional Center say they’ve been threatened with disciplinary action for asking about symptoms at medical appointments.

Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women
Courtesy of Rob Poggenklass

Virginia Prison Still Failing to Provide Adequate Health Care, Incarcerated Women Say

Women at the Fluvanna Correctional Center say they’ve been threatened with disciplinary action for asking about symptoms at medical appointments.

Women at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Troy, Virginia, say healthcare at the prison is dangerously inadequate. A decade ago, attorneys filed a class action lawsuit that alleged the prison’s healthcare system violates the Eighth Amendment’s constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Even though the suit was settled in 2016 on the condition that prison officials deliver on a number of reforms, prisoners say they still struggle to access medical care.

Virginia prison officials are not compliant in two of 14 assessment areas and only partially compliant in another four assessment areas, according to the court-appointed monitor’s most recent report, filed in June. The department has challenged the monitor’s findings in court filings and in statements to The Appeal.

“The end of this case is really, ultimately, in Virginia’s hands,” said Deborah Golden, one of the attorneys representing the women at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women (FCCW.) “They just have to comply with what they agreed to do.”

Although jail and prison officials are constitutionally obligated to provide adequate medical care to incarcerated people under the landmark 1976 Supreme Court decision Estelle v. Gamble, medical neglect in jails and prisons is pervasive. Inadequate care sometimes has fatal consequences. While most abuses are hidden from public or judicial scrutiny, the lawsuit and ongoing court monitoring reports give the public a uniquely close glimpse at the state of American prison healthcare. And as the monitor’s findings and recent statements from women at FCCW suggest, even independent oversight can be ill-equipped to quickly overhaul a prison’s healthcare system.

The lawsuit is not just about the women at FCCW, said Shebri Dillon, who is incarcerated in the prison. It’s also about protecting the lives of prisoners throughout the country who are often seen and treated as less than human.

“This place can be cruel and cold and callous, and not at the hands of the ones stuck here, but the ones who come in here to work,” Dillon wrote to The Appeal in a message sent through the prison’s electronic messaging service. “It is our responsibility to say something.”

In a June report, the court-appointed monitor found that VADOC had not yet made a number of promised changes to its health care services. As part of his investigation, the monitor spoke with 12 women incarcerated at the prison.

Four reported that when they used the call button in their cells, security staff was delayed in responding or did not respond at all. Two women said that they or a cellmate had to urinate or defecate in bags when no one responded, because most cells at the prison do not have toilets. Five women reported they’d been given the wrong medication and were given the proper medication after they pointed out the error to the nurse.

In declarations to the court submitted by attorneys for plaintiffs in the class action suit, women at FCCW say medical providers treat them with hostility, belittle their symptoms, and delay necessary care. Women at the prison say a punitive and hostile culture permeates medical services at FCCW.

In February, flyers appeared in the infirmary warning patients that if they raised issues other than what the appointment was scheduled for, they’d be charged with “lying or giving false information to an employee and/or intentionally delaying, hindering, or interfering with an employee in the performance of duties.”

Punishments for these violations can be severe, resulting in confinement to one’s cell for up to 30 days; losing access to commissary or phone privileges for up to 60 days; or losing up to 180 days of time earned off of one’s sentence (known as good time credit.)

The monitor’s report stated that the policy “seeks to punish patients” for getting routine medical care.

Virginia DOC

In a declaration to the court, Joyce Reynolds, who is incarcerated at FCCW, said that during a March medical visit with a nurse about her blood pressure and diabetes, she told the nurse she was having pain in her hands and legs. Reynolds thought it could be related to her diabetes. The nurse told her she could not talk about things not written on her sick call and if she did it again, she’d get a disciplinary charge.

In another incident, Reynolds described seeing a spine specialist outside the prison, who asked Reynolds to squeeze his hands and say if she had any pain. When she said she did, he referred her to a hand specialist. At a follow-up appointment at the prison,the nurse who’d given her the prior warning “was upset that I had been referred to the hand specialist,” Reynolds said. The nurse told her “not to bring up anything other than the stated reason for my appointment at outside appointments as well.”

“She told me that I am supposed to say no when asked by the doctor if I had any pain other than the one I’m there for,” said Reynolds in her declaration to the court.

VADOC spokesperson Benjamin Jarvela wrote to The Appeal in an email that, “Overall, there is little, if anything, in Ms. Reynolds’ records that corroborate any of her allegations. Without a HIPAA release from this patient, however, we cannot comment further.”

Jarvela denied anyone would be threatened with disciplinary action for raising legitimate medical questions.

“These critics will no doubt portray this flyer, which was nothing more than a well-intended reminder of long-standing policies, as an attempt to punish inmates for seeking healthcare,” Jarvela wrote in an email to The Appeal. “What it actually says is that requests for health care services should be legitimate.”

The notices were posted as part of a pilot program “to protect the clinic, staff, and patients from overutilization,” according to Jarvela. He said that one person was written up as a result of the program, but the security staff chose not to process the charge.

“This flyer had no demonstrable impact on the number of sick calls and there was no change in the behavior of those who were misrepresenting their conditions, so the pilot was written off as a failed attempt and the flyers were removed,” he wrote to The Appeal.

Jarvela contested the veracity of several of the declarations—“the sheer volume of false narratives here is troubling,” he wrote to The Appeal—and challenged their legitimacy because they were not signed in person. The women said they were unable to sign the declarations because of visiting restrictions due to COVID-19. However, Jarvela notes, visitation was open at the time the declarations were taken.

VADOC has defended the quality of the care they provide. Last year, the prison had far fewer deaths—three—than many other prisons in the state and there have been zero COVID-19 fatalities since the start of the pandemic.

The department has claimed that the new monitor, who was appointed in 2020—Homer Venters, former Chief Medical Officer of the NYC Correctional Health Services—is using different metrics for compliance than the former monitor. Based on the former monitor’s metrics, “FCCW continues to achieve compliance in each area of the Settlement Agreement,” Jarvela wrote to The Appeal. “The Department will continue to work with the new monitor and these changed standards.”

Still, women at FCCW say problems persist when seeking care in the prison—and when they go see specialists outside the prison.

An imprisoned woman named Rashanda Walker says she began radiation treatment for breast cancer in February 2022. On one occasion, she was shackled for three hours as she waited for her treatment, according to her declaration to the court. While she waited in a van outside the hospital, she was not allowed to use the bathroom or eat, even though she hadn’t had breakfast.

Jarvela told The Appeal in an email that, “For security reasons, our exact processes for transportation of inmates are not made public,” but noted that the settlement agreement allows the use of handcuffs when transporting incarcerated patients to outside medical appointments.

After finding the wait unbearable, Walker says she asked the officers to take her back to the prison. She was charged a $5 copay for missing the appointment. In 2020, prison officials eliminated copays for in-house providers, but incarcerated people may be charged for an outside consultation if they refuse to attend the appointment, according to Jarvela. The court-appointed monitor has found that the department was in compliance with the co-pay policy outlined in the settlement agreement.

Walker also says she was supposed to apply Aquaphor to her skin before her radiation treatments, but the prison didn’t fill her prescription until she was three or four weeks into her treatments. By then, she had already developed radiation burns, which became infected, leading her to be admitted to the infirmary for a week, according to her statement.

The infirmary was filthy, Walker said. The showers had not been cleaned and there was blood and food on the floor. While in the infirmary, she says she often had to change her own bandages. In the most recent monitor’s report, Venters wrote that several women had told him “there have been intermittent but repeated instances in which only one nurse is working in the infirmary.”

In response to The Appeal’s request for comment on Walker’s allegations, Jarvela wrote: “VADOC does contest these allegations and would like to offer further comment. However, because the plaintiffs have refused our requests to provide releases to discuss their medical care with you, we are not permitted to comment further. It is unfortunate, disappointing, and sad that plaintiffs and their attorneys are deliberately obstructing us from discussing the truth regarding these matters.”

Dillon, who’s incarcerated at FCCW, told The Appeal in a phone call that the experience of going to outside medical appointments is “dehumanizing.” She said she’s strip-searched before she leaves for outside appointments, and when she returns, ”You are made to squat, cough, spread, move things around.” During trips to appointments, Dillon said her wrists are chained to her waist and her ankles are shackled together.”

At doctor’s appointments, the chains only come off if the provider requests it, Dillon said. The shackles remain on even when they go to the bathroom—if an officer permits them to—the shackles remain on, she said. When asked to respond to these allegations, Jarvela reiterated that they cannot discuss these security procedures.

“Usually somebody will go in [the bathroom] with you,” Dillon said. “So you get to urinate while somebody holds on to your chains.”

Florida’s ‘Loud Car’ Ban Gives Cops a New Excuse to Harass Drivers

Tuan Nguyen via Unsplash

Florida’s ‘Loud Car’ Ban Gives Cops a New Excuse to Harass Drivers

Tuan Nguyen via Unsplash


by Jerry Iannelli

In November, the city of Philadelphia announced it was banning police from making so-called “pretextual stops,” in which officers pull someone over for a minor traffic infraction, a broken taillight, or an expired registration, often as an excuse to search their car or otherwise harass them. Multiple municipalities have explored similar moves in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd Uprising, building on data showing that police pull over people of color at much higher rates than white drivers. Overall, traffic stops are the most common way people interact with cops, and also the most common way civilians experience police violence. Civil liberties groups have lauded the moves as an important step in the campaign to rein in racist policing.

Florida, however, seems to be sprinting in the opposite direction of progress. On July 1, a new law took effect statewide, giving police new powers to pull people over just for driving a car that an officer thinks is too loud.

Under the law, HB 1435, police officers can stop and ticket any car that can be heard past 25 feet, or that is deemed “louder than necessary” when driving past churches, hospitals, schools, or any residential homes. (Separately, HB 1435 also includes language letting police crack down on public gatherings larger than 50 people.)

Numerous civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and Florida Immigrant Coalition, lobbied against the bill before it was signed into law on May 26. Rights groups have fought against similar “loud stereo” bans enacted in Florida municipalities: In 2010, the ACLU of Florida secured a $50,000 settlement from the city of Sarasota on behalf of a man who’d had his car impounded under a draconian local noise ordinance. As part of the settlement, the city agreed to stop enforcing that law.

A previous version of Florida’s “loud car” law had been on the books from 2005 until 2012. That version of the law, however, included a carve-out for vehicles making noise for “​​business or political purposes.” In 2012, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the entire statute, stating that it infringed on political expression.

Florida’s HB 1435 eliminates that confusion by banning all noise that a cop considers too loud. If that standard seems vague, that’s because it is. How will officers know if they heard a “loud car” from a distance of 25 feet or, say, 28 feet? How loud is “louder than necessary”? How will people accused of having “loud cars” defend themselves when that determination is up to an officer’s discretion? The ambiguity of HB 1435 gives Florida officers a perfect excuse to make “pretextual stops” based on unverifiable claims that someone’s music was too loud.

The fight against pretextual stops has been ongoing for years, but police reformers and abolitionists breathed new life into the movement after the murder of George Floyd. In its “Motion for Justice” political platform, the Vera Institute of Justice nonprofit recommends lawmakers “decline cases based on pretextual stops” and that such a policy is “an important step toward racial justice.”

Sandra Bland was pulled over for failing to signal a turn,” Vera notes on its website. “Eric Garner was stopped for selling loose cigarettes. Philando Castile was pulled over because his brake lights were out. Each one the victim of a pretextual stop: when someone is detained for a minor infraction while police seek evidence of a more serious crime.”

Studies show that police deploy pretextual stops disproportionately against people of color. A 2020 study in the journal Nature Human Behavior found that pretextual stops for contraband “suffer from persistent racial bias.” The study also found that these racial disparities became less pronounced at night—suggesting that it’s harder for cops to determine the race of a driver in the dark. Around 10 percent of all police killings each year involve traffic stops, according to data collected by Mapping Police Violence, a nonprofit research group. In 2020, criminologist Jordan Blair Woods argued that cities and states could move traffic enforcement away from armed police officers entirely. In 2021, a Florida lawmaker introduced a bill based on Woods’ proposal, but that measure never passed. The state has now gone in the opposite direction.

It may strike some as strange that Florida, of all states, is cracking down on loud cars, booming music, and outdoor parties—things that make Florida, well, Florida. But this is just the latest front in a miniature Cold War that has raged for years in Florida’s beach communities, where the older, whiter, and richer residents who own homes and investment properties work tirelessly to fight off the younger, less affluent, and more racially diverse people who come to vacation.

The state’s weak Democratic Party has barely put up a fight in the face of this erosion of civil liberties. Some lawmakers have even cheered the crackdown. In Miami Beach—the gay-friendly, Democrat-voting, nightlife capital—city officials have for years tried to shut down Black-friendly Spring Break, Memorial Day, and other party events, at the urging of the same class of landowners. The Miami-Dade County chapter of the NAACP has repeatedly criticized the city for allegedly discriminating against Black visitors, following its use of everything from police, to citizens’ vigilante groups, to curfews, to stunt airplanes and its own loud car ban, to drown out Black events. In response to the enactment of HB 1435, Miami Beach said it will roll out a pilot program to install noise detectors around town and catch anyone who plays a stereo too loud.

Similar dynamics have played out across the state: In a racist dog whistle, Florida Rep. Tom Leek, the Ormond Beach Republican who proposed HB 1435, said earlier this year that he filed the bill after parties that, in his words, had become “invasions” in his own Volusia County. That proponents of the law use such terms is no accident—the only reason to make a rule like this is to use it against people you don’t like.

In the news

At least 20 counties in 18 states are using, or want to use, COVID relief money to build or expand jails and prisons. [Lauren Gill / The Nation]

In January, prison journalist, activist, and mentor Phoeun You was paroled after serving 25 years in prison for a murder he committed when he was 20. But he wasn’t set free. Instead, he was sent to the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility in Bakersfield. Without a pardon from Governor Gavin Newsom, You will be deported to Cambodia, a country he left as a young child. [Frances Madeson / Capital & Main]

In 2019, former Broward County, Florida, sheriff’s deputy Christopher Krickovich slammed a Black teenager’s head into the pavement and punched his head. On Monday, a jury acquitted Krickovich of misdemeanor battery. [Associated Press]

A pilot program has started at the County Jail No. 3 in San Bruno, California, that has detained people locked in their cells for all but 45 minutes a day. [Joe Eskenazi / Mission Local]

When there is so much loss, what can you say? Scalawag has published a guide on what to say when loved ones are grieving. [Scalawag Editors and Scalawag Community]

At least five women have said that a nurse at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement jail in Georgia sexually assaulted them. [José Olivares and John Washington / The Intercept]

ICYMI — from The Appeal

At least 60,000 people aged 50 or older are released from U.S. prisons each year, and as Hope Corrigan reports, the challenges formerly incarcerated people face in securing eldercare leave many with nowhere to turn.

Bryce Covert reports on the challenges of uplifting positive outcomes from bail reforms, how the lack of positive coverage plays a role in the backlash movement, and why media is so fixated on negative bail reform coverage.

Police officers in San Diego have arrested a man 160+ times, mostly on low-level charges. As Kelly Davis reports, his story offers a window into a system that immensely harms so many people who are chronically homeless or have mental illness.

Law enforcement agencies spend hundreds of millions each year on militarized sweeps of sex-offense registrants. The evidence shows the operations do little to prevent sexual violence. But as Steven Yoder reports, they’re a powerful tool for copaganda.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has earned praise recently for investigating Trump and vowing not to prosecute abortion seekers. This glossy coverage, however, has largely ignored Willis’’s tireless efforts to incarcerate Black educators, writes Anna Simonton.

That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, please donate here.

Why the U.S. Marshals Spend Millions on Sex-Offense Registrant Sweeps

The real aim of these operations might be to boost support for cops.

The U.S. Marshals' sex-offense registrant sweeps don't seem to actually prevent sexual violence.
U.S. Marshals Office of Public Affairs via Flickr

Why the U.S. Marshals Spend Millions on Sex-Offense Registrant Sweeps

The real aim of these operations might be to boost support for cops.

Gary, a 62-year-old on Texas’s sex-offender registry, dates the problems with his neighbors to a visit by police in 2018. After a successful real estate career he lives in a relatively safe neighborhood outside Dallas, identifies as a conservative, and has friends on the police force. He’s donated to police charities, once giving $10,000 to the family of an officer killed on duty, he tells The Appeal.

He was convicted of child pornography possession in 2007, spent five years in prison and 10 years on probation, and hasn’t reoffended since, state records show. “It’s very serious,” he said of his offense. “It’s wrong. I take responsibility.” (Gary isn’t his real name, which he asked to have withheld to protect his company and family.)

That day four years ago, a team of local officers and U.S. Marshals showed up at his home in full tactical gear and a tactical vehicle with the Marshals’ logo, he says. They were checking the addresses of those on the registry. Gary showed them his license and they left—the whole thing took perhaps five minutes.

Since 2006, the federal government has funneled millions into sometimes-massive operations to verify the addresses of those on sex-offender registries. It’s hard to tell how often these happen–the Marshals Service didn’t respond to multiple requests from The Appeal about how many operations they ran in the latest fiscal year. But a look at how authorities talk about the operations–and the flattering press coverage they generate–indicates their importance in selling the public on more police. Worse, studies show they likely do nothing to improve public safety or make incidents of sexual violence less likely.

Meanwhile programs with proven track records in preventing sexual violence or successfully reintegrating people previously punished for a sexual crime get little federal help.

In Gary’s case, the raid poisoned his neighbors against him, his wife, and their 2-year-old son—most wouldn’t speak to them for months, and some still don’t. Today his wife is terrified whenever someone they don’t know knocks.

“Law enforcement have an impossible job … and so I have the ultimate respect for them,” Gary said. “But I felt that wearing the tactical vests was clearly an act of intimidation and clearly an act to embarrass the hell out of me with my neighbors.”

These sweeps have their origin in a few terrible but rare crimes. The 1994 kidnap and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka by a neighbor led to the federal passage of Megan’s Law in 1996, which required states to create public lists of those with a sexual crime in their past. Ten years later, missing-children advocates convinced Congress to create more uniformity between state registries by passing the 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, named for a child abducted from a Florida shopping mall and murdered in 1981 by a stranger.

In the latest estimate, 105 U.S. children were the victims of stereotypical kidnappings by strangers in 2011, down from 115 in 1997. The vast majority of all child abductions annually are committed by family members.

Much of the debate in the run-up to the Adam Walsh Act was grounded in myth. In 2005, Florida Rep. Mark Foley, a Republican, sponsored the bill that would become Title I of the Adam Walsh law. “There is a 90 percent likelihood of recidivism for sexual crimes against children,” he said on the House floor that year. “Ninety percent … that is their record.” (In 2006 he resigned for sending sexually explicit instant messages to underage Congressional pages.) The actual rate is 12 percent over the course of eight years, according to a 2014 synthesis of 21 studies.

But the hyperbole worked, and the law passed. The act ratcheted up penalties for people convicted of sex crimes who don’t keep their details up to date. It requires them to register in person between one and four times a year and no more than three business days after any change of name, residence, employment, or student status. And it makes failure to register a crime punishable with up to 10 years in prison.

The law also designated the U.S. Marshals the lead agency responsible for checking that registrants are compliant, teaming up with state and local cops in “fugitive task forces” that knock on doors to check that they live at the address listed. As the enforcement arm of the federal courts, the Marshals Service is involved in almost every federal law enforcement initiative and conducts related tasks like tracking down those wanted for federal crimes, transporting prisoners, and carrying out other special missions.

In passing the law, Congress assumed that compelling registrants to keep their details up to date prevents sexual violence, an assertion federal agents themselves point to after operations. “The deterrent value of [knocking on doors] is huge,” U.S. Marshal Peter Tobin told the press in 2015 after a raid in Franklin County, Ohio, in which 10 teams of cops spent a week knocking on the doors of more than 1,600 registrants to verify their addresses.

These mobilizations also funnel federal dollars to local police. The Osceola County Sheriff’s Office in Florida noted in a release last November that the Marshals had funded 450 hours of overtime for the department during a five-month door-knocking sweep called Operation Squeaky Wheels. The Marshals’ 2022 budget request for “apprehending fugitives and non-compliant sex offenders” is $610 million, the largest item in the agency’s budget and an increase of 4 percent if enacted.

It’s hard to know how many of these operations—with names like Operation Spring Sweep, Operation Watchful Eye, and Operation Deviant Guard—the agency helps spearhead each year. The agency’s public affairs office didn’t respond to multiple requests for information on how much of that money gets shared with local cops and how many operations took place last year. The agency’s news releases announced six of them since April 2021, but the real number is likely far higher.

The flood of money doesn’t appear to produce much. In a typical sweep last summer in Florida, the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office announced that it had teamed with the Marshals to send out a “swarm” of cops to check on 555 people on the state registry over the course of eight days. They made a total of 16 arrests, according to a freedom of information request The Appeal filed with the state attorney’s office to ask about changes in the number of pending cases. Arrest warrants for two more people were pending. Neither the state attorney nor the sheriff’s office answered questions about what the arrests were for or the cost of the operation. But Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Brian Hester said in a press conference that the most common charge was for failure to report a change of address or vehicle.

In a May 2021 operation in Tennessee, Shelby County Sheriff Lloyd Bonner announced an “immensely successful” effort involving his department and the Marshals checking on 146 registrants. They nabbed a total of 10—not for repeat sexual crimes but for technical lapses like failing to update their addresses or driver’s licenses.

For the hundreds of registrants targeted, and sometimes their families, these are frightening intrusions. On November 29, 2021 at about noon, Ernest, a Missouri registrant, was at home on the 500-acre farm he owns. He and his mother, who lives with him, were outside when three SUVs came barreling down his lane and skidded to a stop. A team of six cops—three sheriffs and three Marshals dressed in bullet-proof vests—jumped out. “Me being a military guy—I got 22 years in the Marine Corps—immediately I focused on that rear Marshal who came out with his hand on his weapon,” said Ernest, who didn’t want his real name used in this story. They checked his license and license plates and left.

Ernest says he was in combat once in Somalia and twice in Iraq and played college football. “But them blasting onto my drive, I did not sleep at all that night and barely the next night,” he said. His mother was shaken up and suggested they buy a gun. Of the 105 people convicted of sex crimes targeted in that operation, five were arrested for failure to register, according to the Marshals.

Sweeps also generate a flood of uncritical press. “US Marshals and Scranton police nab 9 sex offenders,” a CNN headline from October declared, after cops went door to door checking home addresses of 219 registrants, arresting nine for being out of compliance and issuing arrest warrants for four others. The Marshals’ press release on which the story was based didn’t cite the technical lapses those arrested were being charged with–but the original offenses that they’d already been punished for. Most of those were committed more than 10 years ago, according to a review of their criminal records by The Appeal.

CNN’s reporter quoted the Scranton Police Department’s take on the effort: “The cooperation between the Scranton Police Department and our law enforcement partners is paramount in making our community safe for all citizens,” said Police Chief Leonard Namiotka.

...we spend much more money on registration, community notification, residency restrictions, and civil commitment than we do on any other forms of prevention.Michael Miner, University of Minnesota Institute for Sexual and Gender Health

Sweep announcements often convey danger and sell why cops are needed. That might explain why so many happen on or around Halloween–at least a dozen in the last 10 years, according to a search of news reports by The Appeal. “Operation Trick-or-Treat is a demonstration of the law enforcement community’s commitment to protecting the children of Nevada,” U.S. Marshal Christopher Hoye said of a Nevada sweep—though researchers showed in 2009 that the risk of sexual violence doesn’t rise on Halloween.

Cops also use the raids to promote the message that police are all that stands between families and mayhem. “We’re here to make sure your children and families are safe,” Florida Sheriff Marcos Lopez said in a Facebook video about last year’s Operation Squeaky Wheels. “Sexual predators and offenders … you better comply with Florida law, ‘cause I’m gonna tell you what, I’m gonna arrest you and book you in the county jail where you belong time and time again,” he added while pointing at the camera.

And federal officials use the operations to denounce criticism of cops. After one sweep in Utah three months after the police murder of George Floyd, then-U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah John Huber lambasted anti-police violence protesters during a joint press conference with the Marshals. “This extensive, expensive operation brings into focus how ludicrous the demands and chants of the activists are,” Huber said. “This type of operation shows how ridiculous the demands are to defund the police, to defund law enforcement. Who will protect our children in such a bizarre counter universe?”

What these efforts don’t appear to do is stop sexual violence. Studies in Minnesota, New Jersey, and South Carolina failed to find any significant differences in recidivism between registration-compliant and noncompliant sex offenders, according to a March 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Justice. Indeed, a meta-analysis of 25 years of findings released last fall by researchers at Florida International University and the University of Central Florida concluded that sex offender registration and notification laws themselves “demonstrate no effect on recidivism.”

A lot is at stake in how money to prevent sexual violence gets used: Every dollar invested in an unproven approach isn’t available to support one backed by evidence. Nicholas Newstrom is a St. Cloud University assistant professor who studies sexual violence and treatment for those who’ve committed sexual crimes. After those convicted served time for their crimes, “how do we support them to move on with their lives?” he asks. “Is there something we can do to help this person get a job, to help them have stable, healthy relationships?”

A wealth of research indicates that ex-offenders are more likely to stay crime-free when they have access to education, housing, transportation, jobs, and social support, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice & Criminology. Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA), a program funded by Vermont’s Department of Corrections and in a few locations around the country, gives ex-offenders a circle of volunteer supporters to help them navigate reentry barriers. A randomized control trial of CoSA in Minnesota found the program cut sexual offense recidivism by 88 percent and recidivism for other offenses by 49 to 57 percent. CoSA has no dedicated source of federal funding, though Vermont has used some federal reentry money to run its program.

Despite the research, “we spend much more money on registration, community notification, residency restrictions, and civil commitment than we do on any other forms of prevention,” Michael Miner, research director at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Health, said in an email.

These programs scrape by on a fraction of what the Marshals work with. The federal Rape Prevention Education Program is the main source of federal funding for sexual violence prevention programs and administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It grants funds to rape crisis centers to run evidence-based programs shown to cut sexual violence: One of those—Green Dot bystander intervention—was found to reduce incidents of sexual violence on high school campuses by at least 12 percent.

In fiscal 2022, RPE got $57 million, up $5 million from the year before and a record for the program—which was appropriate given that demand for its programs skyrocketed after the genesis of the #MeToo movement, according to the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence. It’s a sizable increase in the world of sexual violence prevention and one advocates were grateful for, says Terri Poore, NAESV’s policy director. Still, those programs would need almost triple that amount of money to see widespread change in social norms around sexual violence—around $150 million, she says. In NAESV’s 2021 survey of rape crisis centers, 57 percent reported that they’d actually lost funding in the most recent fiscal year, half said they’d had to lay off staff, and almost two-thirds reported that their staff’s average salary was under $40,000.

Newstrom says the Marshals’ compliance sweeps are an effort to show they’re doing something about sexual violence. “It’s harder to create an intervention where we’re teaching people about affirmative consent,” he said. “It takes more time, it takes more resources versus, ‘I can go out and knock on some doors and see who’s compliant or not.’”

But for now, those exercises continue to have untold consequences. Gary says despite how the police operation four years ago affected his family, he holds no resentment. “I put myself in a position to have to incur whatever response the government had,” he said. “I’m not crying in my beer. I did what I did.” But he worries about the registrants he’s known who hold lower-level jobs, live in apartment complexes, or rent a room from someone. “They could lose their residence and they could lose their job,” he said.

He added later: “And by the way, that’s what got me angry.”

More Money to Police ‘Hate Crimes’ Won’t Stop Mass Shooters

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has proposed ramping up "domestic terror" prosecutions to solve gun violence.
Senate Democrats via Flickr

More Money to Police ‘Hate Crimes’ Won’t Stop Mass Shooters

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has proposed ramping up "domestic terror" prosecutions to solve gun violence.
Senate Democrats via Flickr

More Money to Police ‘Hate Crimes’ Won’t Stop Mass Shooters

by Nneka Ewulonu

On May 26, the U.S. Senate voted down the “Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2022,” a proposal championed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that would have generally required the FBI, DOJ, and DHS to fund “whatever amounts are necessary” to ramp up so-called “domestic terror” investigations across the country.

“Today, the Senate is voting on the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act to help combat a serious cause of gun violence: Domestic terrorism and white supremacy,” Schumer tweeted shortly before the vote occurred. “It will give the government the tools to monitor, find, and arrest evil actors before they have a chance to inflict violence.”

While further ratcheting up hate-crime laws may be a popular idea among establishment Democrats, an important point must be made: hate-crime laws do not appear to be working to stop white-supremacist violence, and instead, only appear to funnel money to police officers instead of the sorts of social services that could actually address the underlying reasons why people commit acts of mass violence.

Ramping up hate-crime and so-called “domestic terror” provisions does little more than pacify mostly white, suburban voters—the kind that Schumer and his ilk openly prioritize—by making it seem like his party is Doing Something Serious about combating terrorism, when in fact statistics show these methods do little to solve the underlying issues at play at all.

Federal recognition of hate crimes is nothing new. On July 1, 1870, the Department of Justice was created to handle litigation and civil rights enforcement nationwide after the Civil War. The department’s first mission was tackling the KKK, and to great success; in the first few years of the DOJ’s existence, hundreds of klansmen were arrested, at times even encountering majority-Black juries, and imprisoned.

As Reconstruction faltered, however, civil rights fell onto the government’s backburner until the mid-20th Century Civil Rights Movement, when decades of movement building brought about the end of (institutionalized and legal) segregation, anti-miscegenation laws, and poll taxes. Nearly three decades later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that it is constitutional to increase sentences for people found to have committed crimes based on bigotry. The following year, President Bill Clinton signed the deeply criticized “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act” (better known as the “1994 Crime Bill”), which ratcheted up criminal penalties “not less than three offense levels” for anyone found to have committed a hate-crime at the federal level.

But these sentencing enhancements have not stopped or deterred many “hate crimes” from occurring—especially in hate-based mass shootings, where perpetrators often seem willing or even plan to be shot dead by law enforcement. In 2021, the FBI reported that there were 7,759 hate crimes, the highest number recorded since 2008. This figure, however, is often seen as a severe underestimate. A 2021 report from Movement Advancement Project estimated that, between 2013 and 2017, an average of 204,600 hate crimes occurred a year, but only 45,600 of those incidents were reported to police by the victim and described by victims as hate crimes. From there, the police designated only 15,200 as hate crimes. However, federal hate crime “reporting” requirements are weak and many law enforcement agencies report crimes either incorrectly or not at all. Local police ultimately only reported 7,500 so-called hate crimes to the FBI annually.

Even the 7,500 hate crimes reported to the FBI have flaws. While data suggests white people commit the majority of hate crimes in America, the FBI reported that Black people are disproportionately charged with committing hate crimes. In 13 states, Black people were listed as hate-crime offenders at rates 1.6 to 3.6 times the size of the states’ respective Black populations. The tools created to protect marginalized identities are instead being wielded disproportionately against those very same communities.

Whether by legal or societal designation, we should of course acknowledge the bigoted motivations of crimes when they occur. The intent of hate crime laws may be sincere, but their impact falls short. In a legal system that is so fundamentally unequal, hate crime designations are at best, a pat on the back, and at worst, the majoritarian state’s way of pacifying marginalized communities.

White, cisgender, heterosexual males sit atop of an American societal hierarchy that has historically been enforced by the cruel dehumanization and subjugation of marginalized communities. And while today the state no longer openly and directly sponsors these harms, the state also has no incentive to combat rogue hate-based violence.

Despite the fact that Right-wing and white-supremacist terrorists have committed the majority of “domestic terror” incidents for decades, the federal government did not introduce a strategy for combatting this current wave of violent extremism until 2021. Even that plan is largely problematic: while it aims to improve information literacy and some public-health-based approaches to countering violent extremism, significant other portions of the plan include increasing funding for state and federal law enforcement.

A recent study warned that a third of Americans believe the racist, antisemitic “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory—the idea promoted by both Fox News host Tucker Carlson and the shooter in Buffalo on May 14 that Jewish people, people of color, and immigrants are intentionally displacing white populations in western countries. It’s clear that this nation’s current mixture of political speeches, thoughts and prayers, and trending hashtags will not adequately address hate-based violence.

When hate-based mass shootings occur, a common refrain is that you can’t legislate away hate. But, as Martin Luther King Jr stated, “it may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless.” A recent study from Northwestern Medicine found that the Federal Assault Weapons Ban prevented 10 mass shootings while it was in effect, but could have prevented 30 mass shootings had the Ban not expired. Ironically, four years after the Ban’s expiration, the Supreme Court held, for the first time in American history, that the Second Amendment constituted an individual right to bear arms, a right arguably not found in the historical analysis and original intent of the amendment. The accessibility of guns may not cause individuals to subscribe to hateful ideology, but it is nonsensical to deny the harm caused by comparatively easy-to-access machines quite literally designed to injure or kill.

Today’s hate crimes from individual actors have replaced state-sponsored discrimination. Instead of fearing violence at polling places and lunch counters, we fear grocery stores, bible study, or simply going on a jog in our neighborhoods. Every incident furthers marginalized peoples’ fears to exist in public spaces; every subsequent pacifying act by the state—like indicting the Buffalo shooter on terrorism and hate-crime counts, while still allowing individuals to buy assault rifles like the ones used at Buffalo and Uvalde—perpetuates that terror.

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Between 2014 and 2019, 18 Illinois corrections employees who misused force or sexually harassed people incarcerated in the state’s prisons remained on staff. [Shannon Heffernan / WBEZ, ProPublica]

Adam Johnson writes on the role of white liberals in the campaign to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin: “The ‘I’m a progressive, but …’ demographic emerged, speaking the language of social justice,” he wrote. “But when it came to actually locking fewer people up in jail and prison, when it came to actually supporting electeds like Boudin who worked to decrease the incarcerated population, they balked.” [Adam Johnson / San Francisco Chronicle] From The Appeal: The Chesa Boudin Recall Was a Fight to Preserve the Status Quo

A panel of three Trump-appointed judges upheld an eight-year prison sentence handed down to climate activist Jessica Reznicek. [Natasha Lennard / The Intercept]

Ethics advisory board members for Taser manufacturer Axon Enterprise Inc. (formerly Taser International) resigned over the company’s now scuttled plans to equip drones with stun guns to combat mass shootings. [Jeffrey Dastin and Paresh Dave / Reuters]

New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who has decried the city as dangerous and led the charge to roll back bail reform, said people think crime is worse than it is because of sensationalistic headlines. “Eric Adams is right to push back against the Eric Adamses of the world,” writes Nick Pinto. [Nick Pinto / Hell Gate]

ICYMI—From The Appeal

In-person visitation is still banned at NY’s Broome County jail. The sheriff says it’s about COVID, but as Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reports, the policy has raked in big profits, as detained people turn to costly phone and video calls to keep in touch with loved ones.

That’s all for this week. Feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to support our relaunch, please donate here.

Young Thug’s ‘Racketeering’ Charges are Absurd

Frank Schwichtenberg via Wikimedia Commons

Young Thug’s ‘Racketeering’ Charges are Absurd

Frank Schwichtenberg via Wikimedia Commons

Young Thug’s ‘Racketeering’ Charges Are Absurd

by Jerry Iannelli

On May 9, an Atlanta-area grand jury charged rappers Young Thug and Gunna, two of the most popular music artists of this generation, with taking part in a massive, murderous, and allegedly organized criminal conspiracy. The Fulton County indictment alleges that 28 people associated with Young Thug’s record label—Young Stoner Life (YSL) Records—committed 56 different crimes, including armed robbery, carjacking, and murder. Gunna (A.K.A. Sergio Kitchens) is charged with receiving stolen property and multiple counts of drug possession. In the most high-profile charge, the Grammy-award-winning Young Thug (A.K.A Jeffrey Williams) is accused of hiring a rental car later used to kill a person.

State prosecutors allege the entire record label was, in fact, a “criminal street gang” that violated Georgia’s version of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, Act, an offshoot of the federal law passed in 1970 to take down America’s major mafia families.

If it sounds unbelievable that one of the most well-known record labels in contemporary hip-hop was in reality a mafia-style enterprise, that’s because it almost certainly is. While the federal RICO statute may be best known for taking down the Gambino crime family and the Hells Angels, the case against YSL is instead a perfect microcosm of how local and federal prosecutors often use RICO charges in contemporary America: Rather than reserve RICO statutes to take down rich criminal syndicates with actual structural power in U.S. society—like the Trump Organization or the architects of the 2008 financial crisis—prosecutors often use the law to push groups of (often low-income) Black and brown defendants to turn on one another or take plea deals to avoid decades in prison.

While Young Thug may now be a household name, Williams grew up in housing projects in Atlanta, cycled in and out of the juvenile legal system, and was unable to fix his missing teeth until finding success as a rapper. Additionally, the indictment lists incidents as far back as 2013, before Williams found mainstream success and before Kitchens’ career even began. Many of the 28 other people charged simply appear to be Williams’ friends from Atlanta, rather than the architects of a high-level criminal syndicate.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’s office alleges that YSL constitutes a “gang” because members often wear clothing with the label’s logo on them or get YSL tattoos. Prosecutors claim the group’s repeated use of “green heart,” “green snake,” and other emojis prove that YSL is a criminal enterprise. In multiple instances, prosecutors allege that lyrics to songs by Young Thug and Gunna are evidence of the group’s criminal intent.

Among many other examples, prosecutors claim that when Young Thug rapped “Hey, this that slime shit, hey, YSL shit, hey, killin 12 shit, hey, fuck a jail shit, hey” in the 2016 song “Slime Shit,” he was actually committing “an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.”

The indictment is arguably one of the most egregious RICO cases filed since 2016’s “Bronx 120” gang raid, in which scores of young Black men in the Bronx were swept up on “racketeering” charges despite the fact that many of those charged had no ties to gang activity at all.

Racketeering charges are serious—a single RICO conviction in Georgia leads to a mandatory five years and up to 20 years in prison. DA Willis has said that her office is seeking to place some people associated with YSL in prison for life. The nation’s original federal racketeering law was passed in 1970 to allow law enforcement agencies to take down, well, rackets—large criminal syndicates with economies unto themselves and the ability to corrupt local politics. Drug cartels with enough money and resources to corrupt local officials are a great example; so too are the old-school mafia families that had control of multiple black-market industries, like drug dealing, sex work, and gambling. (In the 1990s, Manhattan prosecutors alleged in a RICO case that the Lucchese crime family had monopolized New York City’s entire garbage-hauling industry, for example.) At the federal level, people involved with “criminal organizations” can be charged under the RICO statute if they commit or simply agree to commit just two crimes out of a list of 35, including murder, bribery, arson, money laundering, illegal gambling, fixing a sporting event, human trafficking, or selling drugs.

But laws are only as good as those who enforce them, and prosecutors have found creative ways to use RICO statutes to throw the book at whomever they please. In another high-profile incident, Willis, the same prosecutor going after YSL, in 2015 convicted 11 Black Atlanta school teachers of racketeering for cheating on standardized tests. Critics said the indictment was over-broad, stretched the bounds of what constituted RICO, and was discriminatory, given that educators of color were targeted even though cheating on standardized tests is common across the country.

While bulk-filing RICO charges against alleged gang members may seem like a messy prosecutorial tactic, the strategy often succeeds in forcing people to take plea deals. In the 2016 “Bronx 120” case, nearly all of the more than 120 alleged co-conspirators took plea deals. But a 2019 report by a CUNY School of Law professor found that more than half of the people charged in what prosecutors at the time called the “largest gang takedown” in U.S. history were not actually alleged to have been in a gang at all. Ultimately, two-thirds of the people charged were not convicted of any violent crime. And the vast majority of those charged pleaded to significantly less serious crimes than prosecutors had initially alleged.

Despite prosecutors’ best efforts, the 88-page indictment against YSL Records fails to illustrate how the label was an organized “racket.” As the New York Times’s Joe Coscarelli noted on Twitter, the indictment claims that actions ranging from speeding, posting on Instagram, and threatening a mall security guard all the way up to murder were part of one large “conspiracy.” While some of the charges alleged in the indictment are significant, the actions alleged hardly seem like the coordinated efforts of a mafia-style syndicate. When so many other true criminal enterprises exist in America, it’s hard to take an indictment like this seriously.

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New York Republicans wasted no time calling for a statewide reinstatement of the death penalty in response to the racist massacre at a Buffalo supermarket over the weekend. The state hasn’t carried out an execution since 1963, but in comments this Sunday, two GOP gubernatorial candidates expressed support for bringing capital punishment back to New York. [Nick Reisman / Spectrum News]

Celestine Chaney, a grandmother of six, was among the ten people killed at the mass shooting in Buffalo, New York. In total, 13 people, ages 20 to 86, were shot. All but two were Black. “My grandmother just passed and others lost their lives over nonsense over nothing, basically because of the color of their skin,” her grandson told CNN. [Alisha Ebrahimji, Dakin Andone and Amir Vera / CNN]

President Joe Biden told local elected officials to spend unspent COVID relief money on law enforcement. “Use these funds we made available to you; prioritize public safety,” Biden said. “Do it quickly before the summer, when crime rates typically surge.” [Shannon Pettypiece / NBC News] From The Appeal: As Brian Dolinar reported, many jurisdictions have already spent COVID relief money on law enforcement.

Pandemic-related trauma — isolation, death of loved ones, stunted emotional development — along with limited recreational and academic programs, are likely leading some young people to commit crimes. [Sylvie McNamara / Washingtonian]

New York City Police Department officers broke a 61-year-old grandmother’s arm after they thought she was filming them. [Nick Pinto / Hell Gate]

The New Jersey Supreme Court ordered 85-year-old ​​former Black Panther Sundiata Acoli to be released from prison, noting that his prison record for more than 25 years had been “exemplary.” In 1974, Acoli was convicted of killing a state trooper. [Ed Pilkington / The Guardian]

ICYMI—From The Appeal

Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reported on the story of Joshua Lee Smith, who claims in a civil rights lawsuit that he was left paralyzed after a trip to the hospital, during which staff accused him of faking his symptoms and instead called the police, who ultimately hauled him off to jail. Smith awoke the next morning unable to move, and only then received treatment for what doctors discovered was a ruptured abscess on his spine.

Tina Vasquez reports that as police chief of Morrisville, North Carolina, Patrice Andrews promised not to work with ICE, but then personally ordered the arrests of anti-ICE demonstrators who’d gathered to protest the deportation of Samuel Oliver-Bruno, a leader in the state’s sanctuary movement. Last year, Andrews was appointed police chief of the Durham police department.

That’s all for this week. Feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to support our relaunch, please donate here.

Can Residents Trust Durham’s Police Chief After She Cooperated With ICE?

Patrice Andrews once promised she’d never work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But in 2018, she directly ordered the arrest of immigration activists during an ICE deportation.

Durham Police Department via YouTube

Can Residents Trust Durham’s Police Chief After She Cooperated With ICE?

Patrice Andrews once promised she’d never work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But in 2018, she directly ordered the arrest of immigration activists during an ICE deportation.

On Friday, Nov. 23, 2018—the day after Thanksgiving—officers with the police department of Morrisiville, North Carolina, were ordered by Police Chief Patrice Andrews to arrest local residents protesting outside the town’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office. Those arrested were there to support Samuel Oliver-Bruno, a beloved Durham community member and a leader in the state’s sanctuary movement who had been detained inside the building. Oliver-Bruno had been avoiding deportation in “sanctuary” at CityWell United Methodist Church, in Durham, and he had left the church that day to attend what was supposed to be a procedural biometrics appointment. He was desperate to leave sanctuary and USCIS had told him that his petition for deferred action and relief from deportation couldn’t move forward unless he attended the appointment in person. But things didn’t go as planned.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in plainclothes were waiting for Oliver-Bruno in the USCIS building. They tackled him to the ground, setting off a chain of events that would lead to multiple arrests and to Oliver-Bruno’s deportation and eventual death. It was one of the most public and traumatic immigration enforcement operations the state had ever seen.

ICE agents forced Oliver-Bruno into a van behind the USCIS office, but supporters rushed to block the vehicle from leaving. A multi-hour standoff ensued between Oliver-Bruno’s supporters, ICE, and the Morrisville Police Department, eventually ending in the arrest of 27 people, including CityWell’s pastor, Cleve May, and Oliver-Bruno’s son, Daniel Oliver-Perez. Oliver-Perez, who was 19 at the time, was charged with assaulting, resisting, or impeding ICE agents because he clung to his father as agents tried to shove him into the van, leading to a scuffle. Oliver-Perez is still dealing with the fallout from his charges.

Andrews became Morrisville’s chief of police in 2016, two years before the raid occurred. In 2017, she assured Morrisville residents that her agency would not seek out undocumented immigrants for deportation. She also said that if ICE executed raids in the region, her department would not cooperate with the agency. This occurred during Donald Trump’s tenure as one of the most anti-immigrant presidents in modern American history—compared to many other pro-Trump sheriffs and chiefs around the country, Andrews appeared to embody progressive-minded law enforcement leadership.

But Andrews did, in fact, work with ICE the day Oliver-Bruno was detained, and the residents she arrested have not forgotten that she helped carry out those arrests side by side with the federal immigration agency. In October 2021, Oliver-Bruno’s supporters were dismayed to hear that Wanda Page, Durham’s city manager, had named Andrews as Durham’s new police chief. The announcement led to glowing coverage of Andrews’ 25-year career in law enforcement—none of which mentionedOliver-Bruno. For members of North Carolina’s sizable immigrant community, the announcement reopened old wounds.

The Sanctuary Movement first formed in the United States in the 1980s to offer protection to asylum seekers fleeing Central American wars. Some communities sheltered those targeted for deportation inside churches. The movement largely fizzled out, however—until Donald Trump took office, in 2017.

Under the Trump administration, North Carolina saw a barrage of immigration enforcement actions, some in direct response to sheriffs’ decisions not to honor ICE’s detainer requests. In one raid, federal immigration authorities posed as day laborers to detain undocumented immigrants.

Less public were ICE’s silent raids, in which the agency targeted undocumented immigrants for deportation as part of regularly scheduled check-ins. Under the Trump administration, immigrants across the country arrived for their check-ins only to be detained or given 30 days to leave the country.

These silent raids were largely responsible for sparking the formation of North Carolina’s sanctuary movement. In May 2017, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, a 45-year-old grandmother, became the first person in North Carolina to enter sanctuary because of ICE’s Trump-era policies. By August 2018, North Carolina had six immigrants in sanctuary, more than any other state in the country. One of these immigrants was Samuel Oliver-Bruno.

Oliver-Bruno entered sanctuary at CityWell United Methodist Church in December 2017, leaving behind his home in Greenville, North Carolina, his son, and wife, Julia Perez Pacheco, who relied on him for care. Immigrants in sanctuary are essentially detained in a church for months, or sometimes years, and they have to rely on members of the congregation for basic necessities such as food.

Entering sanctuary also comes with considerable risk. The only thing protecting immigrants in sanctuary from a raid is a 2011 policy memo that states ICE’s enforcement actions at sensitive locations, including “places of worship,” “should generally be avoided.” (Sanctuary also doesn’t end harassment from ICE, as evidenced by the agency’s threats to fine immigrants hundreds of thousands of dollars for their purported failure to “willfully” depart the United States.)

Oliver-Bruno was part of Colectivo Santuario, a national organization of immigrants in sanctuary who used video meetings and phone calls to organize and strategize for their freedom. Tobar Ortega, who was also part of Colectivo Santuario, knew Oliver-Bruno well. She told The Appeal that they often talked on the phone about their struggles. She said what she loved the most about Oliver-Bruno was his commitment to positivity.

“Despite the fact that he was in sanctuary and being in there was like being in jail, he still tried to be happy,” Tobar Ortega said. “Even in our hearts when we were sad, he tried to joke around and be happy. I have many memories of him hugging his wife and son. I always saw him smiling.”

Talking about Oliver-Bruno is hard for Tobar Ortega, mostly because she misses her compañero and the memories of what happened to him are painful. But she also knows the same thing could have happened to her.

“I thought, If he wins, then we’ll also win, [because] I was practically in the same [legal] situation as Samuel,” Tobar Ortega said. “The government knew of our despair. We were tired of being locked up, and the despair we felt pushed us to take risks. But we didn’t know it was a trap.”

Samuel Oliver-Bruno, seated above on a red couch, was the primary caretaker for his wife, Julia Perez Pacheco.
Tina Vasquez

Oliver-Bruno did not know that ICE had been monitoring both him and groups supporting North Carolina’s sanctuary movement. Once Oliver-Bruno was apprehended, ICE quickly snaked him through detention centers across the South before deporting him to Mexico just days after his arrest.

When Tobar Ortega learned of what happened, she “fell apart,” she said.

“I was in a very bad state,” Tobar Ortega said, growing emotional. “I was in a nervous shock. The pastor had to come help me that day, because I could not control myself. I felt so much fear, and I had so much hurt and pain for Samuel’s family.”

Sandra Marquina, whose husband, a pastor named Jose Chicas, was in sanctuary in Durham and was a Colectivo Santuario member, knew Oliver-Bruno’s wife, Julia Perez Pacheco.

“I remember she begged [officials] to be lenient with Samuel because his family needed him,” Marquina said. Perez Pacheco has pulmonary arterial hypertension, an aggressive and progressive condition caused by lupus, a diagnosis she received at 15. Oliver-Bruno was her caretaker. “They loved each other so much and we all cried when she spoke, because we knew she wasn’t doing well, health-wise, and it took a lot of strength for her to [speak out].”

Oliver-Bruno’s son declined to comment for this story, citing his ongoing legal issues. Back in September 2019, Oliver-Perez told me that waking up every day was a struggle because of grief, depression, stress, and fear for his future. After his dad’s deportation, he had to work full time to support his mom, derailing his plan to go to college. But his new criminal record made finding work difficult. He stopped going out with friends and stopped playing soccer, a beloved pastime he had shared with his dad.

“We feel alone right now without my dad, and because my mom’s family separated from us because of everything that happened, they’re scared ICE will come after all of us,” Oliver-Perez said in 2019. “My mom has a heart condition and can’t work at all, so my whole life is either being home with my mom or going to work so I can pay the bills.”

Oliver-Perez said there were days when he forgot that ICE took his father.

“Sometimes I’ll be getting off of work at night and I’ll feel excited that I get to go home and see him, but then I remember he’s not there,” he said.

In her role as Morrisville’s police chief, Andrews was not only present the day of Oliver-Bruno’s arrest but oversaw and directed the arrests of his supporters. She even arrested some of them herself. In audio from the March 6, 2020, courtroom trial of the arrested supporters, Andrews described a peaceful scene, one in which people were linked arm in arm and hand in hand, singing and praying together, around the ICE van that held Oliver-Bruno.

Andrews said during the trial that she worked hard to de-escalate the situation and had no desire to make arrests that day. At one point, she said, she recited the Lord’s Prayer with Oliver-Bruno’s supporters. But later, she said, walking through the crowd, she heard someone say, “Fuck the police.” This reminded her of her “post-Ferguson” policing days as an officer in Durham, she said in court testimony. On the stand, she said the person who made the comment wasn’t one of the people blocking the van and wasn’t among those arrested that day, but this is when Andrews decided to give two orders of dispersal, clearing the way for her department to begin making arrests.

Andrews declined to be interviewed for this piece, but, in a statement to The Appeal, Durham City Manager Wanda Page said it is important to note that Andrews was performing her “sworn duties” the day of Oliver-Bruno’s detainment and that her decisions “in no way implied her personal or professional support of the actions taken that day by ICE agents.”

“In fact, Chief Andrews shared with me that she repeatedly reached out to protest leaders on that day to, as she has repeatedly stated, ensure the safety of Mr. Oliver-Bruno’s supporters, the officers involved, and the general public in the immediate area, and to attempt to negotiate a peaceful resolution without making any arrests,” Page said.

One of the people arrested that day was Manju Rajendran, a longtime Durham community organizer and the interim executive director of Durham Beyond Policing. She said there were at least 200 people at the protest. She handed her toddler to her mother to join a large circle of people assembled around the ICE van.

Rajendran says that Andrews personally arrested her that day, and that the entire ordeal dealt a “serious blow” to the community’s sense of safety.

“I was really stunned to learn later that she had made a pledge a year earlier that she would not cooperate with ICE,” Rajendran said. “When presented with a choice in real life, she didn’t keep that commitment to the people of Morrisville.”.

When Page announced last year that Andrews was going to be the Durham police chief, those who’d been arrested created a petition to raise awareness about the role Andrews had played the day Oliver-Bruno was detained.

“How will she protect our community’s vulnerable undocumented immigrants?” the petition reads. “The actions she took on November 23, 2018 speak louder than any words she may share.”

Dave Jinorio Swanson and his wife, Kim, regularly visited Oliver-Bruno in sanctuary and grew close to his wife and son after he was deported. The day Oliver-Bruno was detained by ICE, Jinorio Swanson was arrested at the protest, and Kim, who was pregnant at the time, was pushed by ICE agents as they shoved Oliver-Bruno into the van.

“The reason for the petition is because what [Andrews] did was horrible, and I think she made some terrible decisions that day,” Jinorio Swanson said. “If it was that alone, I would leave things alone, if she apologized and vowed to never do something like this again, but the testimony she gave that outlined her reasoning for her actions made me incredibly nervous for the city of Durham and for our undocumented community members. She had so many options that day.”

Page said she doesn’t believe it’s “productive” to “re-litigate the actions taken by everyone involved that day,” but she said she does believe Andrews acted responsibly in her duties as chief “to protect the safety of everyone involved.”

“Freedom to peacefully protest is a sacred right that separates the United States from other countries, and both Chief Andrews and I strongly support this right,” Page said in a statement. “In this case, as she performed her duties, Chief Andrews was duty-bound to maintain order as U.S. agents carried out a warrant issued by a federal judge to arrest someone, who was, sadly, Mr. Samuel Oliver-Bruno.”

Tobar Ortega said Oliver-Bruno had “a very tough life” post-deportation and struggled with finding work while separated from his family. Then, in April 2020, he was in a horrific car accident that left him bed-ridden. In July 2021, he succumbed to his injuries and died in a hospital in Mexico, far away from his wife and son. There was one funeral in Mexico and one in Greenville, North Carolina, the community he called home for years before his life was upended by ICE. At the Greenville funeral, a laptop was set up at the front of the stage, allowing mourners to say their final goodbyes across space, time, and borders.

Page said that she and Chief Andrews understand the concerns presented in the petition, and that they feel “deep compassion” for Oliver-Bruno’s family and “those who were affected by the trauma of that day.”

“You can be assured that as the new chief of Durham’s Police Department, Chief Andrews is guided by Durham’s values that focus on equity and inclusion for everyone, despite their race, socioeconomic, or immigration status. That commitment includes her staff, who already receive ongoing training in de-escalation and racial equity,” Page said.

Back with her family in Asheboro, Tobar Ortega lives more than an hour away from Durham. She’s still adjusting to life outside sanctuary and recently described having symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. She said that after getting out of sanctuary she was initially afraid to leave her home, and she still struggles with the gnawing fear that law enforcement officials or ICE will arrive at any moment to separate her from her family.

“Me, Samuel’s family, all of us have been living through a nightmare,” Tobar Ortega said. “There is just no trust in the system, or in people who say they support us immigrants and then do not help us when they have the power to. We cannot have any trust in people like that.”

Can We Imagine a World Without Institutionalized Kids?

Chatiyanon via iStock

Can We Imagine a World Without Institutionalized Kids?

Chatiyanon via iStock

Can We Imagine a World Without Institutionalized Kids?

by Ras Stanford

I spent much of my early childhood touring the various residential congregate care facilities where my older brother spent ages 10 to 14. I became used to fawning at the residential treatment counselors for treats and scavenging old toys that the clients forgot. Above all, I refrained from seeking emotional help from parents, teachers, or doctors, lest I get spirited away to a facility, the way my brother and others in my community did.

The threat of being removed from my home was ever-present for me and my friends. Speaking up would leave us vulnerable to entering the child welfare or juvenile detention systems.

This phenomenon of whisking kids away from their communities, often for random offenses or emotional difficulties like truancy or self-harm, can prime youth for the prison system.

While a lot has changed in child welfare since I was a child, in 2017 a study found that 37.4 percent of U.S. children will have a child welfare involvement by their 18th birthday. For Black kids, the lifetime risk of child welfare involvement increases to over 50 percent.

Throughout the ‘90s and the 2000s, federal investigations, whistleblowers, and research revealed massive shortcomings in the handling of young people in these institutions, from excessive and forced medication to abuse from staff. There were also a number of high-profile incidents, including deaths of children due to restraints and a massive legal conspiracy to send vulnerable youth to inappropriate, often violent facilities.

Despite these issues, congregate care remains a primary source of behavioral health care for system-involved youth in the U.S. In fact, increasing numbers of parents are resorting to relinquishing their children to the foster care system in a desperate effort to meet their needs. This may be due to the fact that rates of depression, suicidality, anxiety, and alienation are spiking among American youth, while many families lack access to adequate mental health care. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the number of youth experiencing mental health crises has risen rapidly, exacerbating these existing issues. The number of children who have experienced the death of a caregiver, have lived through gun violence, or are facing housing insecurity has increased too.

As the youth mental health crisis rages on, this country’s weak youth support system faces a crossroads. Congregate facilities have faced steady reductions in their populations, as well as increased closures due to advocacy from survivors. In perhaps the most high profile example of this advocacy, Paris Hilton—who says she was abused as a teen in a Utah congregate care facility—has in recent years pushed to pass the Accountability for Congregate Care Act (ACCA), which would establish federal protections for youth in residential care.

At the same time, child welfare and behavioral health systems have been slow to adopt a wide range of accessible, effective strategies to address youth mental health issues, especially for low-income young people. Instead, local governments continue to send kids with complicated psychosocial cases to congregate care facilities.

Demi Burgess is a web developer who was sent to VisionQuest, a large youth-care agency accused of child abuse with facilities in several states. He told The Appeal he was removed from his home and sent to a VisionQuest facility in rural Pennsylvania after missing too many days of school.

“I was 17, I had missed a lot of school, and all of a sudden, I’m in a courtroom, getting sentenced, I’m in a holding cell, now we’re driving five hours away,” he said. To Burgess, this mirrored how adults in his community got booked and disappeared. The judge never asked why Burgess was truant, and his mother did not have the tools to advocate for him. “Kids [at VisionQuest] were as young as 12,” Burgess said. “If we follow the logic that getting booked puts you at risk for returning to prison, this puts kids in prison early, so when they get out they aren’t scared of returning.”

Municipalities must grapple with how they will reduce congregate care populations, while still addressing the massive mental health needs of our nation’s youth.

In a 2021 qualitative study engaging survivors of congregate care, the research and advocacy organization Think of Us recommended that residential facilities, group homes, and other similar facilities be completely abolished due to widespread abuse within those systems. A majority of the study’s participants supported abolishing the U.S.’s current child-welfare institutions and replacing them with systems that focus more heavily on foster care, work to place children with kin as much as possible, provide more support to foster parents, and accommodate childrens’ preferences as much as possible.

Some solutions are already being put to use across the country. Along with the pending ACCA legislation, 2018’s federal Family First Prevention Services Act increased funding for helpful alternatives like the recruitment of youth-friendly foster families and short-term crisis stabilization programs where youth can stabilize in short-term psychiatric stays rather than languishing in institutions for months and years. In Philadelphia, where I live, youth who have survived congregate care have successfully launched an ombudsman program meant to advocate for youth experiencing mistreatment within congregate care.

Expanding the use of community-based mentors, or advocates, for low to moderate level juvenile offenders has also proven effective in multiple states in reducing long-term reliance on systems for youth support. Other promising practices include peer support for parents of youth with behavioral issues and the creation of youth community-based clubhouses.

Speaking to The Appeal, Burgess recalled a cousin who was paired with a youth advocate in lieu of placement in congregate care. The pair spent quality time together instead. “He’d come home happy, talking about all the fun he just had with his advocate, and I’d think, ‘Wow, I want that.’ Maybe something like that—an adult who actually cared would have helped me with my truancy.”

In the news

Contact us at so we can feature your work here.

The New York Police Department created a Gun Recidivist Investigation Program list, known as the GRIP List, soon after Mayor Eric Adams took office, an NYPD supervisor with knowledge of the list told The Trace and Gothamist. The list is made up of people the department believes are involved in recent gun violence. [Chip Brownlee and Ann Givens / Gothamist and The Trace]

If Roe is overturned, “cops could claim a car accident, a failure to follow medical advice, or a horrible fall down the stairs was an attempted abortion, and thus an illegal act,” Appeal alum Emily Galvin-Almanza writes. Public defenders, she argues, will play a critical role in protecting and advocating for people in a post-Roe world. [Emily Galvin-Almanza/ Time]

The Texas legislative director of the anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life told CNN that they are discussing ways to circumvent local prosecutors who will not enforce anti-abortion laws, such as giving the State Attorney General or local district attorneys authority to prosecute if the home prosecutor refuses to. [Tierney Sneed / CNN]

A Louisiana legislative committee voted 7 to 2 in favor of a bill that would classify abortion as a homicide. [Greg Hilburn / Lafayette Daily Advertiser]

Black and Latino New Yorkers account for 88 percent of all arrests for fare evasions and 70 percent of fare evasion summonses, according to the most recently reported stats. [Christopher Robbins / Hell Gate]

ICYMI — From The Appeal

Bryce Covert writes that despite concerted attacks from conservative politicians and media, New York’s bail reform law mostly worked the way it was supposed to.

Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reports on what abortion bans may mean for pregnant people who are incarcerated.

That’s all for this week. Feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to support our relaunch, please donate here. Until next time, the work continues.

A Judge Finally Called BS on ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome’

Illustration by Claire Merchlinsky

A Judge Finally Called BS on ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome’

Illustration by Claire Merchlinsky

A Judge Finally Called BS on ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome’

by Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg

When Michelle Heale was sentenced for shaking to death 14-month old Mason Hess, she told the courtroom: “Innocent people are being sent to prison based on this flawed theory…This needs to stop.”

More than six years later, a New Jersey judge agreed with her.

In January of this year, Superior Court of New Jersey Judge Pedro J. Jimenez, Jr. ruled in a different case that prosecutors could not introduce evidence of the scientifically dubious theory used to convict Heale—”Shaken Baby Syndrome.” In that case, a father was accused of shaking his 11-month-old son, who was identified as D.N. in the judge’s opinion.

Jimenez wrote that the diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome, also known as Abusive Head Trauma, is “an assumption packaged as a medical diagnosis” and “lacks scientific grounding.” The parents had brought D.N. to the hospital because he appeared to be having seizures. Although he had a documented history of medical problems, including a hospital stay for the first seven months of his life, doctors concluded that he had been shaken.

“No study has ever validated the hypothesis that shaking a child can cause the triad of symptoms associated with AHT,” Judge Jimenez continued. “This diagnosis is akin to ‘junk science.’”

In February, Colin Miller, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, submitted an application to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Conviction Review Unit asking that they “correct an injustice and set Michelle Heale free.” Last month, he sent the office a letter detailing Jimenez’s ruling. Miller began work on Heale’s application after he read The Appeal’s investigation into her case, which was published in 2020.

Proponents of the Shaken Baby Syndrome diagnosis claim that shaking a baby produces a so-called “triad” of catastrophic injuries exclusive to shaking — subdural hemorrhage, retinal hemorrhage, and brain swelling. The diagnosis does not require the presence of other injuries such as bruises, grab marks, or damage to the baby’s neck.

The injuries are so severe, these experts say, that the baby would immediately collapse. The last person with the baby — a parent, babysitter, or daycare worker — is often the prime (if not the only) suspect. The person accused is then left to prove they’re innocent of a crime that likely never occurred. They are up against damning testimony, often from physicians, who say with certainty that the baby’s injuries are comparable to those sustained from falling out of a window or being thrown from a car. In comparison, the defendant’s account — that the baby went limp — often seems farcical.

On Aug. 28, 2012, Heale was babysitting Hess in her New Jersey home. She says she was feeding him when he suddenly went limp.

Heale called 911. “His whole body is lifeless,” she told the operator. Hess was then rushed to the hospital.

The emergency room doctor diagnosed him with pneumonia and found evidence of a possible bacterial infection. Hess was airlifted to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Their doctors quickly came to a different conclusion: Hess must have been shaken.

Hess was pronounced dead on Sept. 1. Although Heale, a mother of two, had no history of abuse, she was convicted of aggravated manslaughter and child endangerment and sentenced to 15 years in prison. At the time, her twins were six years old.

Studies and several exonerations have shown that there are many other explanations for the so-called triad, including accidental, seemingly inconsequential short-distance falls that may have occurred days or weeks before a baby’s collapse; trauma sustained during childbirth; or illness.

In Heale’s case, Hess was sick and had fallen in his home about a week before his collapse. The fall caused a bruise on his head that was visible during the autopsy.

Before Heale’s trial, her attorneys had contacted Chris Van Ee, a biomechanical engineer and accident reconstruction specialist, about her case. He wrote and sent them a report, but never heard back. The report was not introduced at her trial and he was not called to testify. In his report on Hess’s death, Van Ee wrote that the child did not have any bruises, skull fractures, or other injuries that would have indicated he was shaken.

Van Ee has testified as an expert in several criminal cases, including at the hearing held before Judge Jimenez to determine if the prosecution could introduce evidence of SBS against D.N.’s father.

Jimenez is not the first judge to question the SBS diagnosis. Another New Jersey judge acquitted a father who was accused of shaking his infant son. The father had said the baby unexpectedly went limp, at which point he’d taken him to the hospital. In the judge’s ruling he wrote that it was widely accepted in the scientific community that other causes can “‘mimic’ findings commonly associated with SBS.” His decision came down in the summer of 2018, about two months after the state Supreme Court refused to hear Heale’s appeal.

“There have now been two New Jersey courts that have deemed the same type of testimony used to convict Michelle Heale unreliable and inadmissible,” USC’s Miller wrote to the Attorney General’s conviction review unit in April. The most recent ruling further strengthens Heale’s innocence claim, Miller said, and he “again respectfully asks that her convictions be overturned.”

In the news

Contact us at so we can feature your work here.

At the White House Correspondents Dinner, comedian Trevor Noah, lambasted the New York Times for its coverage of bail reform. [Britni Danielle / Twitter] See also from The Appeal: Ethan Corey digs into the numbers in his piece, Does bail reform lead to more crime?

Florida authorities arrested Kelvin Bolton, a Black man, while he was staying in a homeless shelter and charged him with voting illegally. Bolton has thousands of dollars of unpaid court fines and fees, which prohibit him from voting. He had registered to vote while he was in jail during a voter registration drive. [Kira Lerner / News from the States]

The lead attorney defending the New York City Police Department in civil rights lawsuits stemming from the 2020 protests, was fired last week. Dara Weiss lost her job with the New York City Law Department after it was discovered that she had lied to the federal judge and forged multiple documents. [Nick Pinto / Hell Gate] A note from The Appeal: Hell Gate is a new worker-run publication in New York. Go support them if you can!

The Service Employees International Union, Local 1000 has asked a California court to keep a prison open because if it closes prison staff will be transferred or lose their jobs. [Shakeer Rahman/ Twitter]

The Los Angeles Police Department released video footage of an officer shooting Jose Barrera, who was holding a cell phone. Police then handcuffed Barrera and booked him for assault with a deadly weapon involving a firearm, although he did not have a weapon. The District Attorney declined to file charges. [Lexis-Olivier Ray / L.A. Taco]

ICYMI – from The Appeal

Jessica Phoenix Sylvia, a transgender woman, will be released from prison after almost twenty years in a men’s prison, but she won’t be going home — home no longer exists.

Using the skills he learned from as an educator on HIV/AIDS, incarcerated writer Patrick Stephens helped fight vaccine misinformation among correctional officers and incarcerated people inside New York’s Sing Sing prison.

That’s all for this week. Feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to support our official relaunch, please donate here. Until next time, the work continues.

How I Helped Fight Vaccine Misinformation While in Prison

One incarcerated author used skills from an HIV/AIDS group to push imprisoned people and prison guards to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Patrick Stephens helped teach other imprisoned people about the COVID-19 vaccine inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
Acroterion via Wikimedia Commons

How I Helped Fight Vaccine Misinformation While in Prison

One incarcerated author used skills from an HIV/AIDS group to push imprisoned people and prison guards to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

It was in the last week of April 2020, about a month after the beginning of the prison shutdown—a time when COVID-19 tests were not widely available—that I knew something was wrong. I was extremely tired and slept all day. I had slight chills, no appetite, and felt a constant disorientation. At first I thought it might be the beginnings of the flu, but there was no fever, congestion, or sniffles. Within ten days I felt good enough to get out of bed and even get back to exercising. That is when I knew something was really wrong.

My workout partner and I secured a flat bench and lined up our weights to do dumbbell presses. I was so happy to get back to working out after being laid up for weeks, but my excitement turned to dismay when I could not get through the early warmup sets without becoming uncharacteristically tired. My workout partner kept giving me side glances that vacillated between curiosity and impatience. I had lost weight during those ten days and thought I possibly just needed some more time to build back the muscle, but my cardio workouts were also abysmal. I could barely jump rope for more than thirty seconds at a time before my heart was pounding out of my chest.

Like many prisons, Sing Sing Correctional Facility, where I currently reside, has for years been awash in COVID-19 misinformation and general ignorance. As I kept struggling through the workout, my partner—just as unaware of COVID-19 as I was at the time—seemed to make increasingly judgmental faces at me. Back then, none of us really knew what the virus could do.

That weekend, even walking from the cellblock to the yard proved arduous, and I couldn’t walk laps in the yard without taking several breaks. I even had to stop to catch my breath three times returning from the yard to the cellblock. By this point, we had started hearing about the long-term effects of COVID-19, and I was growing concerned. For all I knew, my new condition was permanent, and I felt fear in a way that no flu I had ever encountered had inspired.

Fortunately, over the following months I was able to recover by continuing to exercise until my stamina returned. Unfortunately, my workout partner contracted COVID months later and realized firsthand what I had been going through during my recovery.

He spent the next eight days in the outside hospital, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. When he finally returned to the housing unit, he could hardly talk and looked frail compared with his once-impressive powerlifting physique. For a time, walking made him tired and even limited exercise required enormous effort.

“Bro, I’m sorry,” he said to me in his raspy voice. “I had no idea.”

Inside Sing Sing, one unsubstantiated COVID-19 claim seems to feed the next until whole conspiracies are concocted and reinforced out of thin air. “COVID is harmless,” some people mutter. “The deaths are being exaggerated. The government is trying to scare us into taking an experimental vaccine to either control us by taking away our liberties or, in the more dastardly version, control population growth.”

Despite all the news reports and even knowing people who had had COVID-19, many who lived and worked in the prisons thought, and still think, that the coronavirus is no worse than the flu. That belief, along with fear driven by misinformation, has driven vaccine hesitancy in correctional facilities. As of January 24, only 53.2 percent of New York’s incarcerated population had received any vaccine at all, according to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

I already knew that uncertainty about the safety of the vaccine was a concern for incarcerated people and officers alike. As early as summer 2020, I had been asking the dozens of people who lived or worked on my gallery how they felt, and only a few were unequivocal about their intention to take the vaccine as soon as one was offered. The vast majority expressed fear driven by misinformation and a general distrust of what I would call our biomedical-industrial complex.

I heard valid concerns, such as: “How did drug companies make the vaccines so fast? People have gotten COVID-19 after taking them. Even worse, people have died after taking them.”

But I also heard clear misinformation that was also rampant outside prison walls. “It makes you sterile. It makes you magnetic. It messes with your DNA. The vaccine includes a micro-bomb that is timed to go off in exactly twenty years.”

This is some of the nonsense that was circulating within the prison, largely from a handful of officers who were extremely resistant to being vaccinated. And although some of the incarcerated men did not buy into conspiracies, what they heard made them hesitant.

These were some of the concerns I also heard expressed by elderly, incarcerated Black Men, a demographic at disproportionately high risk to Covid-19 and among the most likely to die if they didn’t take the vaccine

Understandably, this hesitancy was also grounded in a long history of abuse at the hands of the medical establishment. The mutilation of Black bodies in the name of medical research, the abject cruelty of the Tuskegee Study (in which U.S. medical authorities experimented on Black men by withholding syphilis treatment from them without their consent), the nation’s long history of forced sterilizations of people of color, and increased rates of infant mortality after the Edmonston-Zagreb measles vaccine was administered in an experimental study, have all served to breed mistrust. But the terrible irony is that the mistrust keeps Black people out of doctors’ offices despite higher rates of preexisting conditions and lower life-expectancies than whites. Historically, Black people could not trust the healthcare system and yet could not survive without it. The inaccessibility of quality healthcare was the real killer.

But Black people weren’t the only ones afraid of the vaccine. One officer, a white male, felt the vaccine was unnecessary since he had already contracted the virus and had a high concentration of antibodies circulating in his blood. “If COVID-19 is so dangerous,” he said, “how come there were fewer [total] deaths last year [2020] than the year before?” (Importantly, that statistic is not true.)

One could hope that these represented fleeting fears that would eventually give way as more people took the vaccine and were fine. In light of reports that even some frontline workers were reluctant to take the vaccine, it could not be taken for granted that incarcerated people or corrections staff would eventually come around. Wishful thinking was not enough. Bribing people with food was not enough either. There needed to be some outreach to address the predictable, quietly growing reluctance.

The only solution was to help confront the misinformation head-on and engage these disseminators of misinformation and conspiracies in conversation. I held conversations with some vaccine skeptics—the discussions were often tense as my peers dug into their positions. But myself and others relied on skills we learned as peer educators for a preexisting education network, the Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education (PACE) Program, to present people with facts instead of rumors.

At the height of the AIDS pandemic in prisons, incarcerated men and women sought out credible information about HIV/AIDS to combat the misinformation and stigmas that were killing them. The PACE program was created in 1989 and has since expanded to multiple New York state prisons. Trained incarcerated facilitators educate the general population through class presentations or one-on-one conversations on various topics including HIV/AIDS prevention, testing, and the immune system.

So as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in prisons, we would use our PACE training to tell others about vaccines. For me, these were all informal conversations I had with small groups of people. I would pull up diagrams on my tablet to explain how different vaccines worked and the data that existed on vaccine efficacy. I also used my microbiology book from college to show the history of vaccines and the standard immunization schedules in America.

We can’t tell what direct effect our efforts had, but our peer educators were encouraged by the results we noticed around the facility. Even some of the officers were moving toward vaccination before mandates were issued.

Empowering incarcerated people through programs, like PACE, that focus on preventive health measures is indispensable during a health crisis like COVID-19 and should be replicated in other prison systems. PACE facilitators are uniquely situated, due to their research into the immune system, vaccines, basic genetics, and pathogens, to provide reliable voices to their peers and critical feedback to prison administrators.

About a month ago I encountered some evidence that some of our efforts were bearing direct fruit.

“Stephens, I did it,” an officer said as she opened the gate leading to the waiting area and the main lobby of the prison. I had recently spent a lot of time with her trying to persuade her to get the “Fauci ouchie”—I used diagrams showing how the vaccines worked and answered any follow-up questions that she had. Explaining the difference between DNA and mRNA and explaining the way DNA functions to make proteins was key to assuring this particular officer that the vaccine could not affect reproduction.

“Did what?” I asked.

“You know, the vaccine.”

“Oh, good for you. How do you feel?”

“OK, but I had a slight headache after.”

“You forgot to take the two aspirin before you went to sleep,” I responded. It was the advice that my mother, a registered nurse for more than 50 years and someone who had personally administered the vaccine to hundreds, had offered me.

“Yeah, I forgot.”

I started to walk away.

“You know what your problem is?” I asked jokingly.

She looked at me curiously. “What?”

“You people in blue don’t listen.”

More Black Representation on Police Forces Will Not Solve Police Violence

In the wake of more horrific police killings, it’s important to remember that Black cops cannot fix America’s fundamentally broken and racist policing system.

Black police officers cannot fix a fundamentally racist policing system.
Fred Moon via Unsplash

More Black Representation on Police Forces Will Not Solve Police Violence

In the wake of more horrific police killings, it’s important to remember that Black cops cannot fix America’s fundamentally broken and racist policing system.

On January 8, an off-duty sheriff’s deputy in North Carolina killed Jason Walker, a 37-year-old Black man. The cop who shot Walker, Cumberland County Sheriff’s Deputy Lt. Jeffrey Hash, told police that Walker had jumped onto his car and smashed his windshield. Witnesses later said they watched Hash respond by exiting his car and shooting the unarmed Walker dead. Sadly, Walker’s name joins the list of many others killed because of police violence. And on February 2, the most well-known name added to that list in recent weeks was that of Amir Locke, who was shot to death by the Minneapolis Police Department in his home.

In response to Locke’s death, people are once again demanding that policing be fundamentally altered—or abolished for good. One way of changing how police do their job, as some have suggested for years, is by having more Black representation on police forces. Joe Biden, for example, ran for president in 2020 on a platform that included providing more funding for departments to diversify their ranks. The basis of the argument is that Black police officers—because of their Blackness—are supposedly less likely to carry out the violence that the institution of policing represents. Therefore, they can be the ones to help overcome that violence, especially in Black and brown communities.

This argument is misguided. More police officers are not needed—and certainly not Black ones.

According to recent statistics, Black people are 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people, and more than half of police killings go unreported or misclassified. These are the realities Black people have been forced to live with due to American policing’s roots in violence, racism, and white supremacy.

Policing as an institution evolved from slave patrols in the early 1700s and from separate efforts to prevent labor organizing. Policing today remains centered around violence and the oppression of Black and brown people. The argument that a diverse police force can prevent violence is almost as old as policing itself. In fact, the NYPD’s first Black officer, Samuel J. Battle, joined the force in 1911 in an attempt to improve relations between the NYPD and Black New Yorkers. Battle instead faced severe racism from his own officers, including receiving a note with a likely fake bullet-hole in it telling him to quit. More Black officers followed Battle—but violence by police did not stop. And still, despite these statistics and history, some believe that with the “right” people—good people perhaps—policing can be done right.

In the late 1960s, Afro-American columnist John Lewis reflected on the abuse of power and brutality by police officers across the country. Lewis was particularly angered by the murder of a Black man named Elijah Bennett who was killed on October 8, 1968, by a white officer in Washington D.C. for merely crossing the street at the wrong place and time.

Lewis’s solution to violence by the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia —and police violence across the country—was to alter the composition of law enforcement in a way that included Black police officers.

“Black policemen,” as Lewis would go on to write, “do not shoot [B]lack [jaywalkers].” While they may not have explicitly shot Black jaywalkers, Black police officers certainly made their mark of violence against their own.

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice released a report titled The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society. The report noted that “the relationship between the police and the community is so personal that every section of the community has a right to expect that its aspirations and problems, its hopes and fears, are fully reflected in its police.” Not only were Black people pushing for increased police representation, but local and federal governments had joined the chorus.

In response, cities across the country began targeting Black people in recruiting campaigns. In Philadelphia, where communities had historically endured police violence, the city began urging its residents via billboards to “cop in, don’t cop out,” and to “join [Police Commissioner Frank] Rizzo’s team.” Despite these efforts, the outcome that followed was not what advocates for Black police officer inclusion and recruitment wanted.

Philadelphians later noted that those Black officers who joined were as brutal, if not more than, white officers. Even Black officers who perhaps thought of themselves as being pro-Black—or at least not anti-Black—engaged in aggressive encounters against Black Philadelphians who they viewed as a threat against law and order.

In 1967, the same year the commission released its findings, University of Michigan researchers Donald J. Black and Albert J. Reiss released a report underlining the distasteful feelings some Black police officers developed toward Black people. While the report revealed that Black officers were not as prejudiced as their white colleagues, additional findings from the report were unsettling. Accounting for 28 percent, a small but significant minority of Black officers who worked in predominantly Black precincts were either highly prejudiced or prejudiced towards Black people. Some of these officers not only fostered anti-Black attitudes toward other Black people, but also held the same violent attributes their white colleagues held. Referring to other Black people, one Black officer told researchers “These people are animals. They don’t do anything for themselves.” Another officer appeared to warn their white colleagues, “I’m talking to you as [a] Negro, and I’m telling you these people are savages. And they’re real dirty.”

The culture of racial discrimination in policing was alive and well within Black officers, even if present among a few. Nonetheless, when you have a profession vested by the state to use lethal force, be it 1 percent or 28 percent of Black officers who show prejudice against Black people as indicated by University of Michigan researchers, any percentage is too much when it could lead to police violence and in turn, a life lost.

With more Black people joining the police force, those who became police officers, as it turned out, were not joining the force to fight for civil rights and against systemic racism. One of the reasons they were joining, as legal scholar James Forman Jr. notes, was “because they needed a job.” And because they needed a job, they did what the job entailed: policing the public.

Economic factors such as employment and job stability heavily influenced the growth of policing as a profession for Black people. During the 1960s, with a rise in unemployment, policing appeared to be a stable profession. Black people entering the police force saw the job as a way out of poverty and an opportunity to achieve economic mobility they perhaps had not experienced before. Although police work paid humbly and did not bring in much wealth compared to other jobs on the market, it was far better than many alternatives for Black people. For the ones who joined the police force, this was their chance for a better life. But at what cost?

One thing has held true since Samuel J. Battle joined the NYPD in 1911 as the city’s first Black officer and decades later during the mass campaigns to hire Black police officers in the 1960s. Black representation did not yield the results some had hoped. And today, it may not be an effective strategy for addressing police violence like reformers are led to believe. Researchers have come to this same conclusion.

In response to the murder of Michael Brown in 2014, a 2017 study by Indiana University Bloomington researchers looked at whether more Black police officers was associated with a decrease in police-involved homicides of Black people. They found that results were mixed. In some cases, adding more Black officers was actually linked to an increase in violent encounters toward Black people. In other cases, adding an overwhelmingly large number of Black officers was linked to a decrease in encounters. Overall, “for the vast majority of cities, simply increasing the percentage of [B]lack officers is not an effective policy solution,” the researchers wrote.

Despite reformers’ belief that Black representation on the police force can curb police violence, this only adds representation to an existing historically violent institution. The root problems of violence still go unaddressed. And as historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad explains, we cannot use “the very instrument that reproduces anti-Black racism” and violence as the “same tool that saves Black people.”

Muhammad is right. Police have failed to protect against violence and they should not be expected to. After all, they perpetuate it. This may hold true even with more Black representation on the police force. Instead, alternative demands to address police violence beyond Black representation on the police force must be made today.

Shifting demands from surface-level reforms to what Black people need to survive might be more successful in addressing police violence. As Derecka Purnell and Marbre Stahly-Butts suggested in the New York Times in 2019, free public transportation, living wages, and quality housing do more to address the root causes of crime by helping people out of poverty. Putting resources and money toward social services, the creation of jobs, funding for healthcare responders, or better education systems might all be more effective.

Black people are dying, and they deserve demands that get to the root of what Black and oppressed communities need not just to live, but to thrive. As such, it is long past time that those demands stopped focusing on representation in an institution that has—time after time—discarded Black life.

When It Comes to Reporting Deaths of Incarcerated People, Most States Break the Law

Our team at the University of North Carolina analyzed death-in-custody reporting policies at every state and federal carceral entity. Data collection is a mess—and many states don’t follow the law at all.

Emiliano Bar via Unsplash

When It Comes to Reporting Deaths of Incarcerated People, Most States Break the Law

Our team at the University of North Carolina analyzed death-in-custody reporting policies at every state and federal carceral entity. Data collection is a mess—and many states don’t follow the law at all.

Death reporting in prisons has become even more opaque in 2022. For more than 20 years, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) at the Department of Justice (DOJ) has collected data on deaths of incarcerated people under its Mortality in Correctional Institutions program (MCI). The MCI, created in response to the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA) of 2000, has been criticized for years as inadequate and toothless. Nearly every state seems to comply with the law differently—and many do not comply at all.

But in spring 2021, the BJS quietly announced it was terminating that data collecting entirely. Since reporting runs roughly one year behind, this means that December 2021’s report on the 2019 calendar year will be the last.

Our team analyzed department of corrections policies that should align with the DCRA, which Congress reauthorized in 2014, and found that most correctional institutions do not maintain such protocols. There is reason to believe the law is not being followed. To address these problems, we suggest that data on deaths in custody should be managed by an independent agency housed outside the DOJ, and that when jurisdictions fail to adhere to the law, they should be penalized with grant-funding cuts.

The Origins of the Federal Death in Custody Act

The DCRA was designed to provide oversight of carceral record-keeping. The legislation arose after reporters began investigating and publicizing the excessive number of custodial deaths in the 1990s. Perhaps most notably, Mike Masterson, then an investigative reporter with the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, estimated in 1995 that more than 1,000 people had died in jails across the country over a four-month period. Masterson then traveled to Washington, D.C., to distribute copies of his report directly to lawmakers. The first version of the DCRA passed five years later in 2000.

The law requires state and federal law enforcement agencies to report deaths that occur in prisons and jails, or in police custody, to the U.S. Attorney General’s office every three months. In addition, the DCRA mandates that law enforcement agencies collect data on the circumstances surrounding an individual’s death in custody as well as their demographic information, including gender, race, ethnicity, and age.

States that fail to share this information can lose up to 10 percent of their funding under the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program, one of the main programs by which the federal government subsidizes state and local law enforcement agencies. Importantly, however, there appears to be no evidence that any state has ever been penalized for failing to comply with the DCRA.

Mortality in Correctional Institutions Reports

These reports are the only reports detailing deaths in custody nationally. However, the publication of these statistics lags behind the data collection; the most recent Mortality in State and Federal Prisons data available to the public is from 2019.

Further, past reporting has raised questions about the quality of the data itself. For example, a 2018 report by the Office of the Inspector General found that not all federal law enforcement agencies were submitting reports. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), for example, does not currently publish data reports on deaths of people in federal custody. As for state prisons, the DOJ decided that the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) would collect data for the department starting with the first quarter of fiscal year 2020. Carceral entities would report death information from their respective facilities on a quarterly basis to a centralized state agency that would collate and submit the information to BJA in compliance with federal law.

When asked for comment on the future of MCI data collection, BJS Public Affairs Specialist Tannyr Watkins referred The Appeal to the DCRA’s list of Frequently Asked Questions but did not provide comment on the sunsetting of the dataset. The agency did not say whether it plans to publish data collected from carceral agencies.

An Analysis of Death-Reporting Policies

We explored death-investigation procedures and reporting policies among correctional departments by reviewing the operational guidelines at 50 state prison systems, the District of Columbia Department of Corrections, the BOP, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We supplemented our analysis with information from state and federal records obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. In addition to policies on public reporting, we evaluated procedural obligations dictating whether correctional facilities must contact a medical examiner/coroner upon an individual’s death and whether obtaining an autopsy is necessary in all instances.

Our main objective was to understand how states report mortality information to higher authorities. Additionally, we surveyed reports and press releases from departments of corrections to understand how systems share mortality data on public-facing websites.

Most States Do Not Follow the Rules Set Forth in the DCRA

We found that internal policies on death reporting vary substantially across prison systems. Only 15 states mandate the reporting of deaths to courts or prosecutors. Of those 15 systems, just two (the Massachusetts Department of Correction and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice) require correctional facilities to report in-custody deaths directly to the U.S. Attorney General and the DOJ.

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We found that 38 prison systems maintain policies consistent with state requirements that frequently require notification of a medical examiner or coroner in response to the death of an individual in custody. However, of these jurisdictions, only 31 require this contact for all instances of death. Just eight systems explicitly require that an autopsy be conducted, with two (ICE and the Arizona Department of Corrections) mandating this for all death. While the absence of compliant policies does not inherently mean an agency is violating the law, neither does it allow for a degree of transparency aligned with the seriousness and finality of death.

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Thirty-six systems provide some public disclosure of the number of deaths in custody (e.g., through statistical reports or press releases). However, the content and breadth of the reports vary widely. In addition, reports do not always list causes of death—eight systems reported a number of deaths with no such information. Many states do not record the race of those who die while in prison custody, a key variable in understanding the role of incarceration in worsening health inequities. Twenty-eight systems issue press releases when an incarcerated person dies. Still, the frequency of press releases in states such as Louisiana, Mississippi, and Montana did not match the number of deaths reported in statistical publications.

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Our Recommendations

The failure of many states to standardize reporting protocols means that prison systems may inaccurately estimate deaths of incarcerated people in their custody. Available mortality data is neither transparent nor timely. This lack of information hampers public health efforts to respond to deaths in real time. Failing to provide current data on mortality also creates additional barriers to combating communicable diseases in carceral settings, such as COVID-19.

Government leaders require such data to make informed decisions about deploying resources to protect the health and well-being of both incarcerated people and members of the public. The absence of demographic-linked mortality data also obscures health inequities of overrepresented communities in carceral populations.

Incarceration worsens health, shortens life expectancy, and exacerbates preexisting medical conditions. Mortality data linked to race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, disability, and religion is crucial to understanding how incarceration heightens health inequities. Confronting these disparities requires data on health outcomes disaggregated by key demographics.

In the absence of accurate, timely, and transparent data, academia has responded with creative, interdisciplinary research methods. For example, students under the tutelage of Professor Andrea Armstrong at the Loyola University New Orleans, College of Law have worked to identify previously unreported in-custody deaths in Louisiana parish jails through records requests.

Similarly, the University of North Carolina’s Third City Project, led by founder and principal investigator Dr. Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, uses cause-of-death information to uncover hidden health disparities across U.S. prisons.

And yet, such an essential government function should not be the responsibility of researchers alone. Ideally, an independent agency housed outside the DOJ would manage the reporting of deaths in custody. Monitors could, among other things, draft model policies for corrections departments so they can adopt minimum reporting standards. One way to achieve this is to make in-custody deaths a “notifiable condition”—that is, a type of disease or cause of death of which authorities must legally be notified. In a December 2015 piece in the academic journal PLOS Medicine, a team of Harvard University researchers argued that these types of accountability and oversight structures could be applied to police killings and law enforcement agencies more broadly.

Jurisdictions that fail to adhere to the law should be penalized with grant-funding cuts. Financial consequences for noncompliance are necessary to achieve meaningful reforms in mortality-data transparency. Most importantly—given the growing acknowledgment that policing and incarceration adversely impact individual and public health—funding should perhaps be redirected from law enforcement agencies to public health programs designed to curb mortality and prevent incarceration. Specifically, dollars can be reinvested in communities that represent people who are dually affected by disparities in health and targeted by the criminal legal system. Thus, holding law enforcement agencies responsible for violating the DCRA is a solution that is simultaneously obvious, feasible, and without precedent.

Georgia’s Unique Death Penalty Law Is Killing the Mentally Disabled

Georgia is the strictest state in America when it comes to proving intellectual disability in capital cases. This month, the Supreme Court could save the life of a man who says he is mentally disabled—or let the state kill him.

Rodney Young sits at a table with an unidentified man.
Courtesy of Brian Stull

Georgia’s Unique Death Penalty Law Is Killing the Mentally Disabled

Georgia is the strictest state in America when it comes to proving intellectual disability in capital cases. This month, the Supreme Court could save the life of a man who says he is mentally disabled—or let the state kill him.

Before Rodney Young was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, he was a high school football star. Young, now 54, played running back for the Bridgeton High School Bulldogs in Bridgeton, New Jersey, in the mid-‘80s, leading the team to a state championship game and winning offensive MVP. According to those who knew him, he was one of the best running backs the school had ever seen.

“He was just strong and fast,” his former coach, Don Reich, told The Appeal.

Reich recruited Young to play for him while he was working in the school’s special education department, where Young was enrolled in a program for students with intellectual disability. Young excelled at running the ball, but his disability caused him to struggle with football’s rules, especially the team’s intricate defense that involved fast-paced play-calling and maneuvering. Reich said Young had so much difficulty understanding the team’s tactics that he avoided putting Young on defense altogether.

Off the football field, Young worked hard in his classes, but was unable to keep up with his peers. He functioned at a third-grade level, according to one of his teachers who testified at his 2012 trial. On a standardized state achievement test, Young scored 5 out of 25 on reading comprehension, and 1 on math. He scored a 440 out of 1600 on the SAT. At the time Young took the SAT, participants received 200 points on each section for filling out their names.

In 2008, Young drove from New Jersey to Atlanta and killed Gary Jones, the 28-year-old son of his former girlfriend, Doris Jones. At trial in Newton County, Young’s lawyers entered a plea of “guilty but mentally retarded,” arguing that jurors should spare him of the death penalty because of his intellectual disability. In February 2012, Young was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute an intellectually disabled person, the requirement in Georgia for determining “intellectual disability” all but guarantees that the disabled will die. Defendants must show “beyond a reasonable doubt” that they are intellectually disabled — a standard that is usually only reserved for convicting someone of a crime. In practice, that burden has proven nearly insurmountable.

In the more than three decades since Georgia’s law was enacted, there are no known cases in which a person found guilty of intentional murder in Georgia has successfully proved to a jury they were intellectually disabled.

Now, Young’s lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are fighting to get him off death row, alleging that the state’s rule for proving intellectual disability violates the Constitution. The civil-rights group filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court in November asking judges to review the law, which Young’s attorneys say creates an “unacceptable risk of unconstitutional execution.” Justices are expected to decide this month on whether to take up the case. If they do, their decision could save Young—and four other people on death row who say they are intellectually disabled—from execution.

Wayne Hendricks was the head of special education at Bridgeton High School when Young was enrolled there. He knew Young as a “big teddy bear” who came from a close-knit family. To Hendricks, the idea of Young tying Jones to a chair with a telephone cord then beating him to death with a hammer and baseball bat seemed incomprehensible. “It was kind of hard for me to believe that he would ever be accused of what he had been accused of,” he told The Appeal.

In 2012, Young’s lawyers asked Hendricks to travel to Georgia to tell the jury what he knew about his former student’s intelligence in hopes that the jury would determine Young ineligible for the death penalty. For the jury to decide that Young was intellectually disabled, Young would have to meet a three-prong test that showed his intelligence was subaverage, his disability had emerged before the age of 18, and that he had problems with everyday activities or life skills.

Hendricks’ knowledge of Young during high school, along with the knowledge of other teachers who testified, formed the bulk of evidence of Young’s intellectual disability. His school records had already been destroyed, per the school district’s retention policy. Young’s lawyers had opted against including testimony from an expert, such as a psychologist, over concerns that the prosecution could use it to their advantage.

On the stand, Hendricks testified that Young would have had to score between 60 and 69 on an IQ test to be placed in the special education program, a range deemed by experts to be indicative of intellectual disability. It was district policy that every student in the special education program be given a battery of initial tests to determine eligibility, and then tested again every three years. All special education students, including Young, were assigned a psychologist, learning disabilities consultant, and social worker, who met each year with their student’s teachers to ensure that the child still qualified for the program, testified Hendricks.

Young’s lawyers also argued that his lack of life skills showed his intelligence was subpar. Young lived in his aunt’s basement, relied on his girlfriend to pay bills, and would often walk around with uncashed checks, they said.

The prosecution was led by Alcovy Judicial Circuit District Attorney Layla Zon, who made headlines a few years later for keeping “Death Row Marv”—a talking toy figurine of a character from the comic book “Sin City” being executed in an electric chair—in her office. (Lawyers in a separate case argued the toy showed Zon was “pathologically obsessed” with the death penalty, though she has denied those accusations.) Zon sought the death penalty for Young ahead of her first election, rejecting his plea offer for life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In the courtroom, Zon was determined to convince the jury that Young was not intellectually disabled. Her argument relied on assertions that Young was able to do things like read and write letters, watch television shows on forensic science, and hold a factory job putting labels on cans—something she claimed, contradictory to scientific literature on the matter, proved Young was of average intelligence. To support her theory, Zon called two people who worked at the factory with Young to testify, remarking, “Isn’t it odd that if the defendant is really as mentally retarded as they claim he is, that these men can do this same job and Rodney’s capable of doing it as well?”

In one exchange with Hendricks, prosecutors asked him if he thought it was surprising that Young could use the internet. Hendricks told The Appeal he was frustrated that prosecutors challenged Young’s intellectual disability. “It was difficult for me because they were describing someone that they didn’t know as well as I did,” he said. “And sometimes you want to just scream or object to some of the things that they were saying.”

In Zon’s closing argument, she told the jury at least ten times that in order for Young to escape the death penalty, they had to find him intellectually disabled beyond a reasonable doubt. “If you’re in the back deliberating this case, and you say, you know, I just don’t feel comfortable calling him mentally retarded, this just doesn’t, we are taking a big leap here, you know, then that’s a reasonable doubt,” she said.

Rodney Young (second row, number 34) poses with his high-school football team.
Courtesy of Brian Stull

Georgia was the first state to prohibit the execution of people with intellectual disability, doing so 14 years before the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the practice in 2002. In 1988, legislators enacted the state’s “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for determining intellectual disability in death penalty cases, in response to the state’s 1986 execution of Jerome Bowden, who could not count to ten.

The measure was intended to ensure that intellectually disabled people were protected from execution. Under the then-new law, people facing capital murder charges would automatically be sentenced to life in prison if the jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that they were guilty, but intellectually disabled.

But the new law didn’t work. Lauren Sudeall, a professor at Georgia State College of Law, conducted a study of the measure, finding that of 14 capital murder cases in which the 1988 “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard might have applied, no one had succeeded in claiming intellectual disability.

The state’s legal standard “creates a scenario in which it’s very likely that someone who, in any other circumstance would be seen as intellectually disabled, wouldn’t be, and then is executed in violation of the Eighth Amendment,” Sudeall told The Appeal.

There was just one case since 1988 in which a Georgia jury agreed to grant an intellectual disability claim: an unintentional, rather than intentional, murder. In 1998, a woman named Vernessa Marshall and her boyfriend accidentally killed Marshall’s 10-year-old son Jamorio by taking turns beating him with a belt after the boy had stolen $5 from another student at school. Marshall had been classified early in her own schooling as intellectually disabled and continued to wet her bed and suck her thumb until age 10. Marshall was found “guilty but mentally retarded” and sentenced to life in prison.

In 2015, Georgia executed a man named Warren Hill, despite assertions from every mental health expert who had ever evaluated him—including those for the state—that he was intellectually disabled.

The state was similarly persistent in its efforts to execute Willie Palmer, who’d been charged with the 1995 killings of his estranged wife and stepdaughter in Burke County. He was tried four times for the crime. During his second trial in 2007, a defense expert testified that, at age 10, Palmer was unable to put his shoes on the correct feet without help, and could not read an analog clock in his teenage years. Palmer’s IQ scores were consistently low, leading the expert to conclude that Palmer was intellectually disabled beyond a reasonable doubt.

The prosecution didn’t call on an expert to respond, instead telling jurors, “If you don’t want to use a number, don’t use a number. You can declare somebody with an IQ of 130 mentally retarded in this courtroom today. Or you can declare someone with an IQ of 30 not mentally retarded in this courtroom today.” Although the jury found Palmer guilty of capital murder, Palmer’s legal team later learned that the state declined to present testimony from an expert who, during the first trial, had originally been set to testify that Palmer’s intelligence was within normal limits. But after finding out that Palmer had qualified for Social Security benefits early due to his disability, the expert changed his mind. The state did not share the updated opinion with the defense, however, charging that Palmer’s lawyers should have discovered it themselves.

Palmer went on to be tried two more times before the death penalty was taken off the table because of prosecutorial misconduct.

Another man named Warren King was sentenced to death for the 1994 fatal shooting of a convenience store clerk. As a child, King was enrolled in special education classes and held back several times. Georgia’s own expert witness did not challenge King’s claim of intellectual disability, but prosecutors did. The state told the jury King was simply “not as well educated as he ought to be.” To bolster their claim, prosecutors used the fact that he had a driver’s license. King was found guilty in 1998 and remains on death row.

Other death penalty states set less stringent standards that make it easier for people to prove intellectual disability, according to Sudeall’s study. Of the 27 states with the death penalty, 19 states have a “preponderance of evidence” standard—a standard of proof that requires showing there’s a greater than 50 percent chance the claim is true. Four other states have a “clear and convincing evidence” standard, which means proving that a claim is substantially more likely to be true than untrue. The rest don’t have a standard.

Researchers have found that 371 people facing the death penalty nationwide between 2002 and 2013 raised claims of intellectual disability. Fifty-five percent of those were successful. In North Carolina, that figure was 82 percent. The statistic was 57 percent in Mississippi. As of 2017, Georgia’s rate was 7 percent due solely to Vernessa Marshall’s case.

Only two states had lower success rates: Florida and Tennessee. Florida had enacted a strict IQ cutoff of 70 to gauge intellectual disorder. But the U.S. Supreme Court struck that standard down in 2014, writing that the state’s IQ cutoff violated “our nation’s commitment to dignity[.]” Tennessee, meanwhile, passed legislation last year making it easier for people on death row to challenge their death sentences on the basis of intellectual disability.

Several people have challenged Georgia’s statute in court in an attempt to put the state’s laws in lockstep with those of other death penalty states. But the Georgia Supreme Court has always upheld the burden as constitutional and the U.S. Supreme Court has never heard arguments on it, despite an admission from one of the bill’s original co-authors, lawyer Jack Martin, that the law was a mistake. Martin helped draft the bill when he worked with the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ advocacy group.

“It was sloppy draftsmanship, pure and simple,” Martin testified in 2013, during a legislative listening session on the statute. “I don’t think anybody intended that to happen.”

In a telephone interview with The Appeal, Martin said that the authors of the statute had meant for defendants to have to prove it was more likely than not they were intellectually disabled. The authors had previously sidestepped adding in clearer language because they were nervous the attorney general would withdraw his support. “We thought that that might hurt our chances of passing because it was such a new idea,” Martin said. “In retrospect, that was probably a mistake.”

Despite criticism from defense attorneys and disability-rights advocates, there has been little legislative will to change the statute. The last effort, in 2018, failed.

Without action from the legislature, Young’s lawyers have had to turn to the courts. But there has been little help there either. Last year, the Georgia Supreme Court rejected Young’s claim, ruling that he “failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that he should be spared from the death penalty because of his disability. One justice dissented, writing that the burden increases the risk that an intellectually disabled person will be executed.

U.S. Supreme Court justices will convene this month to review Young’s petition on February 25. The court can either decide not to hear his case, to accept the case for review, or to delay their decision until another meeting. Historically, this Supreme Court has not been kind to people on death row claiming intellectual disability. In the past four months, justices have greenlighted the executions of two men in Alabama who said they were intellectually disabled. Both have since been executed.

To Hendricks and Reich, two of the men who’ve known Young since high school, it seems obscene that the Supreme Court would need to debate whether he has an intellectual disability. “I don’t condone murder,” said Reich. “I just don’t think in this case, the death penalty is warranted.”

Editor’s note: This article originally stated that students in the special education program at Young’s high school were assigned psychiatrists. This is incorrect. They were assigned psychologists. Additionally, this article originally claimed that more than a dozen other people could be saved from death row in Georgia if the Supreme Court overturns Georgia’s intellectual disability law. In fact, Young’s lawyers have identified four other people who could be saved from death row in Georgia. This story also originally included a photo of a man erroneously identified as Rodney Young. We regret these errors.

Ex-Prison Boss Drunkenly Pulls Gun On Cops, Shows Two Tiers Of Justice

Former Arizona prison director Charles Ryan and Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel

Ex-Prison Boss Drunkenly Pulls Gun On Cops, Shows Two Tiers Of Justice

Former Arizona prison director Charles Ryan and Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel

Ex-Prison Boss Drunkenly Pulls Gun On Cops, Shows Two Tiers Of Justice

Meg O’Connor, The Appeal

On the night of Jan. 6, Arizona’s former prison director, Charles Ryan, drank half a bottle of tequila and got into a three-hour armed standoff that involved about 50 police officers. After a tense confrontation in which Ryan repeatedly pointed a gun at officers, Tempe police took Ryan into custody and brought him to a hospital — but he was never booked into jail. In the end, Ryan went back home like nothing had happened.

The incident began with a 911 call from Ryan’s wife, who told police she feared that her husband had injured himself. When police arrived, Ryan’s wife stepped out of their home and told police that Ryan had been “consuming half a bottle of tequila regularly at night for the past two years.” Ryan eventually stepped outside and pointed a handgun at two cops for over 30 seconds.

When someone points a gun at police officers, they often get shot. But instead, police went to incredible lengths to protect Ryan from himself, even as he put officers’ safety in danger.

First, police hit Ryan with a beanbag round, prompting him to return inside his home. In the ensuing hours, a swarm of law enforcement officers, including hostage negotiators and SWAT teams, descended on the upscale, gated community where Ryan lives. Police evacuated seven homes in the area. They spent hours urging him to come out over a loudspeaker. They brought a robot and an armored vehicle to the scene, and eventually used the robot to push open Ryan’s front door. Then they convinced Ryan to go to the hospital with them. 

This more compassionate, though in many ways still militarized and excessive, approach shows that police absolutely can peacefully de-escalate deadly situations if they want to. But the approach officers take is often based on their perception of the threat an individual poses, as well as the value they place on that person’s life — judgments that are inherently tied to race, class, and status. While all of this worked out in Ryan’s favor, it tends not to when the individual isn’t wealthy, white, and powerful.

Tempe police did not show the same restraint in January 2019, when they encountered Antonio Arce fleeing down an alley with a toy airsoft gun in his hand. Instead, an officer shot the 14-year-old boy in the back and killed him. After the shooting, the officer retired and now collects about $30,000 a year in retirement benefits. He faced no criminal charges, no official discipline, and no other form of accountability. This sort of disparate treatment is exactly what we’ve come to expect from the U.S. justice system. 

Tempe police submitted charges against Ryan to the county prosecutor’s office for aggravated assault on a peace officer. But Ryan’s fate is now in the hands of a fellow privileged white person who has made headlines after drinking: Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel. 

Adel — who decided not to charge the Tempe cop who killed Arce — has been embroiled in scandal since her election in 2020 to a full term as top prosecutor for the third-largest prosecuting agency in the country. That drama began on election night, in fact, with a trip to the hospital for emergency surgery after she fell and hit her head. Adel has denied the fall had anything to do with her very public battle with alcoholism.

In the time since, Adel’s office has colluded with Phoenix police to manufacture gang charges against Black Lives Matter protesters, a scandal that has triggered multiple outside investigations, resignations and demotions of both prosecutors and police, several lawsuits, and the dismissal of nearly 40 bogus cases against protesters. 

In August, the Department of Justice launched a pattern-and-practice probe into the Phoenix Police Department, citing, among other things, the fabricated charges against protesters. In September, the county sheriff forced Adel to admit that she wasn’t in the office because she was at an out-of-state rehab clinic getting treatment for alcoholism, anxiety, and an eating disorder. At the time, Adel asked the public to treat her with “patience” and “grace,” despite the fact that her office almost never shows such sympathy to less privileged people who are struggling with the same challenges. 

Adel returned to work after 19 days in rehab — though she has repeatedly misstated how much time she spent there — but a recent story by the Arizona Republic revealed that she has been absent from many events she was expected to attend. One staffer reported that Adel was slurring her words during an after-hours call in November, leading the employee to believe she was inebriated. 

Things took a sharp turn for the worse earlier this month. The top spokesperson for the county attorney’s office announced her resignation, citing frustrations over repeatedly being called on to defend Adel personally. Then, in a seemingly retaliatory move, Adel had the spokesperson escorted out of the building and ordered her not to have any contact with other employees. 

Now, five of the top-ranking officials within the county attorney’s office have sent a letter to Adel, county officials, and the state bar association calling on Adel to resign. The head staff outlined numerous issues with Adel’s behavior and absence at the office, and alleged that during work hours at 11 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 14, Adel made another drunken call to one of the office’s top prosecutors to talk about “pranking” an employee who had just resigned. 

Adel has vehemently denied the allegations and says she has no plans to step down. And why would she? Powerful people like Adel rarely have to face consequences for their own actions. Consequences are for other people — like the 62-year-old man struggling with substance use who Adel’s office sentenced to years in prison after he failed to return a rental car on time.

It’s against this backdrop that Adel is weighing charges for Charles Ryan, a man who retired as Arizona’s corrections director in 2019 after it was revealed that he had ignored serious safety issues in prisons and put people’s lives at risk. (Ryan faced no official punishment in that instance, either.) Although Ryan’s January actions would constitute a grievous crime in almost any other circumstance—pointing a gun at the cops is routinely punished by extrajudicial execution—Adel may see them as little more than regrettable indiscretions, akin to drunk-dialing a colleague. 

Ryan has already received such special treatment once, from the police who proved that it’s possible for them not to kill someone pointing a gun at them. Now, Adel will decide whether Ryan will get the same harsh treatment she’s doled out to so many others, or whether he’s deserving of the sort of compassion that Adel wants others to grant to her — a compassion typically reserved for powerful white people and few others.

In the news

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San Francisco police linked a woman to a property crime using DNA from her rape kit. District Attorney Chesa Boudin said his office learned last week that the police use DNA samples from victims of sexual assault to identify potential perpetrators in other cases. Boudin is calling on the legislature to ban the practice. Boudin’s office has dropped the charges against the woman. “This practice treats victims like evidence, not human beings,” Boudin said. “This is legally and ethically wrong.” [Megan Cassidy / San Francisco Chronicle]

New York City’s child protective services agency took Kenneth Watkins’s son when he was less than a week old. There were no allegations of abuse or neglect. Over the next few years, Watkins, who is Black, was forced to take parenting classes, attend countless court hearings, and have the minutiae of his parenting scrutinized — from the movies he showed his son (The Lion King) to the food he fed him (french fries). The court finally agreed to give Watkins custody of his own son, but ordered him to move out of his mother’s home, where he’d lived since before his son was born. With nowhere to go, he and his son, then a toddler, entered the shelter system. [Petra Bartosiewicz / New York Magazine]

Waverly Lucas says Suffolk County police ripped off his prosthetic leg. Lucas is now suing the department. Video shows the police tossing his leg in the back of their police cruiser. The department has still not returned his leg. Lucas was charged with possession of pain medication, which he said he has a prescription for and takes for his leg. “To rip that off, it’s like someone ripping off your skin,” Lucas told NBC New York. [Pei-Sze Cheng / NBC New York]

Shelby County, Tennessee, District Attorney General Amy Weirich told The New Tri-State Defender that Pamela Moses, who was sentenced to six years for voter fraud, brought the sentence upon herself by deciding to go to trial.  Moses was convicted of registering to vote while still on probation even though a probation officer had signed a certificate stating that her probation had ended. “I gave her a chance to plead to a misdemeanor with no prison time,” Weirich told the paper. “She requested a jury trial instead.” [Sybil C. Mitchell / The New Tri-State Defender]

Rebecca Hogue’s boyfriend killed her 2-year-old son while she was at work. Hogue was convicted of her son’s murder under Oklahoma’s “failure to protect” law. The jury recommended life without parole. The judge sentenced her to 16 months in prison. [Samantha Michaels / Mother Jones]

That’s all for this week. Feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to support our official relaunch, please donate here. Until next time, the work continues.

More in Explainers

A New Jersey Woman Claimed Innocence In ‘Shaken Baby’ Death. Now Her Conviction May Get Another Look.

Spurred by an Appeal investigation into Michelle Heale’s controversial 2015 case, a law professor is asking New Jersey’s Conviction Review Unit to “correct an injustice” and set Heale free.

A New Jersey Woman Claimed Innocence In ‘Shaken Baby’ Death. Now Her Conviction May Get Another Look.

Spurred by an Appeal investigation into Michelle Heale’s controversial 2015 case, a law professor is asking New Jersey’s Conviction Review Unit to “correct an injustice” and set Heale free.

Michelle Heale was babysitting 14-month-old Mason Hess in 2012, when, according to Heale, his body suddenly went limp. She called 911.

“He has no movement in any parts of his body,” she told the operator. “His whole body is lifeless.”

An ambulance arrived and rushed Hess to the hospital. He died days later.

Police and prosecutors claimed Heale, who had no history of violence, had shaken Hess, causing his death. Heale maintained her innocence, but in 2015, a New Jersey jury convicted her of aggravated manslaughter and child endangerment. When the verdict was read, Heale “was in complete shock,” she wrote to The Appeal.

Heale was sentenced to 15 years in prison. At the time, her twins were six years old.

Significant questions about Heale’s guilt have emerged in recent years, spurred by an investigation published in The Appeal in 2020 that tackled the questionable science her conviction had been based upon.

Now, Heale’s conviction may be on its way to getting another look. This week, Colin Miller, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, is submitting an application on Heale’s behalf to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Conviction Review Unit, asking that they “correct an injustice and set Michelle Heale free.” Law student Jasmine Caruthers assisted Miller in preparing the application.

Miller, who is also co-host of the wrongful convictions podcast, Undisclosed, began to investigate Heale’s case after reading The Appeal’s reporting.

“This is one of those cases where forensic science has gone haywire,” said Miller, comparing SBS to the discredited fields of bite mark analysis and microscopic hair comparison. False or misleading forensic science has contributed to more than 700 known wrongful convictions since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Former New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal created the conviction review unit in April 2019. Since its inception, the unit, which is headed by former prosecutor and family court judge Carolyn Murray, has exonerated just one person, Taron Hill. Hill was wrongfully convicted of murder in 2006 and was released in July. Over 450 applications have been submitted to the unit, according to the attorney general’s office, each involving a potential miscarriage of justice. Nearly 200 of those applications are in the screening process, and another 95 are awaiting screening. Nineteen applications are “currently under active re-investigation.”

Hill is one of 43 people who has been exonerated in New Jersey since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Heale’s supporters hope she will soon be added to that list.

At Heale’s trial in 2015, the prosecution relied on evidence that, at worst, has been discredited, and at best, remains highly contested.

Shaken baby syndrome, also known as abusive head trauma, is a theory first developed in the 1970s. Proponents claim that shaking a baby produces a so-called “triad” of catastrophic injuries exclusive to victims of SBS — subdural hemorrhage, retinal hemorrhage, and brain swelling. No other injuries, such as bruising or grab marks, need to be present for the diagnosis. The shaking is so violent, medical experts often testify, that the person last with the child must be the one responsible.

But studies — and a growing number of exonerations — have challenged the tenets of SBS.

“The imprimatur of that incorrect medical conclusion has led not only to wrongful convictions, but also a cascade of collateral harms: decades of incarceration or even imposition of the death penalty, the shattering of families,” said Laura Cohen, a Rutgers University law professor and co-founder of the New Jersey Innocence Project, in an email to The Appeal.

In a 2016 literature review, researchers examined 1,065 studies on SBS in an attempt to determine if shaking, with no external injuries, produced the triad of injuries. In total, 1,035 of those studies were excluded because they had examined fewer than 10 cases. The review didn’t identify a single SBS study that could be characterized as “high quality,” noting that most studies were unable to confirm whether subjects had been the victims of abuse.

A separate study, published by the Belgian Neurological Society, concluded that, contrary to expert testimony common in SBS cases, there are no retinal hemorrhages that are only present in abusive head trauma cases.

“[SBS] has never been validated,” said Keith Findley, co-founder and president of the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences and co-founder of the Wisconsin Innocence Project. While defenders of SBS often point to their clinical experience to support their diagnoses that shaking causes the triad, “that doesn’t confirm the shaking is the cause,” said Findley. “It just confirms that they call it the same thing every time.”

Courts, too, have become skeptical of prosecutions based on the SBS triad. In the summer of 2018, about two months after the state Supreme Court refused to hear Heale’s appeal, a trial court acquitted Robert Jacoby of aggravated assault. New Jersey prosecutors had claimed Jacoby had shaken his approximately 11-week-old son. But Jacoby maintained that his baby had unexpectedly vomited and gone limp, at which point he’d taken him to the hospital.

“It is now well established and widely accepted in the scientific community that there are other alternate causes or conditions that ‘mimic’ findings commonly associated with SBS,” the trial judge wrote in his ruling.

In Heale’s case, the prosecution’s medical experts told the jury that illness or an accidental fall — both of which Hess had experienced shortly before his collapse — could not have contributed to Hess’s death.

Alex Levin, then chief of pediatric ophthalmology and ocular genetics at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, testified that the injuries to Hess’s eyes provided a textbook example of the effects of shaken baby syndrome. The only other possible cause of the injuries, Levin claimed, was if “a television or something crushed his head, unless he was killed in a car accident, unless he fell 11 meters.” The prosecutor asked another witness, Lucy Rorke-Adams, then a neuropathologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, if there was any doubt that Hess had been shaken to death. Rorke-Adams replied, “No.”

Both Levin and Rorke-Adams have testified for the prosecution in SBS cases where the accused was later exonerated.

Contrary to testimony from the state’s experts, there were other viable explanations for Hess’s death, according to The Appeal’s 2020 investigation.

The day before Hess collapsed, he threw up at Heale’s home. His mother took him to the pediatrician, who diagnosed him with ear and upper respiratory infections, and prescribed antibiotics. His mother, who’d been friends with Heale for several years, offered to keep him home.

“R u sure i don’t want to get any of you sick,” she texted Heale. “Won’t be the first time, won’t be the last time. Everyone will be fine,” Heale replied.

When Hess was rushed to the hospital from Heale’s home, the emergency room doctor diagnosed him with pneumonia.

Hess had also suffered a fall at home about a week before his collapse, his parents testified. In the autopsy report, the medical examiner noted there was a bruise on his forehead.

“Mason just walked into the sliders… think the bump now looks bigger. Leaving the screen on now!!!” Heale texted Hess’s mother the day before his collapse, according to court documents. “Lol unreal,” his mother replied.

Several studies have concluded that symptoms once thought to be exclusively associated with SBS can be caused by something as simple as a short-distance, accidental fall. There can also be a delay between the fall and a child’s collapse or death, according to several case examples Miller cites in Heale’s application.

“You can have cases where initially everything appears okay and then it’s only later when you realize the impact this had,” said Miller.

Before Heale’s trial began, her attorneys contacted Chris Van Ee, a biomechanical engineer and accident reconstruction specialist. Van Ee prepared a report and emailed it to her attorneys, but never heard back, according to Heale’s application. In his report, Van Ee wrote that external injuries would be present on Hess if Heale had violently shaken him. “There are no reported skull fractures, bruises, or other injuries to indicate that Mason was abusively shaken with great force or otherwise assaulted,” he wrote. But his report was never presented at trial. 

“There was an expert — the leading expert — ready, willing, and able to testify,” said Miller, adding that Van Ee’s report presented evidence that Hess’s death was “far more likely” caused by a short fall than by shaking.

“Shaken baby syndrome is a diagnosis of exclusion, not inclusion,” said Miller. “This is something that certainly cannot be excluded as the cause of death.”

In many SBS cases, medical professionals and law enforcement dismiss evidence that supports alternate explanations for a child’s death, said Jessica Henry, a professor at Montclair State University and author of the book, “Smoke But No Fire: Convicting the Innocent of Crimes that Never Happened.”

“Once folks come in with this notion that the child is dead because there must have been some kind of abusive act, they stop focusing on the rest of the medical evidence that would suggest otherwise,” said Henry.

Heale hopes the attorney general’s office will review “all the facts of my case” and “recognize that I am not the woman portrayed by the prosecution,” she wrote to The Appeal.

Heale stays in touch with her twins, now 13, through phone calls, emails, and occasional visits. Before the pandemic, she saw her children two or three times a month, but over the last two years, she’s gone for months at a time without seeing them.

“Physically being away from my children and husband is the hardest part of being incarcerated,” Heale wrote to The Appeal. “Nothing can replace being home and involved with them on a day to day basis.”

Even as her faith in the legal system has deteriorated, Heale has tried to remain optimistic, buoyed by the support of her family and friends. On the first day of the month, she wrote, “Happy February…another month closer to home!”