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Adams’ Forced Hospitalization Plan Will Have Lifelong Consequences

Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Adams’ Forced Hospitalization Plan Will Have Lifelong Consequences

Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Adams’ Forced Hospitalization Plan Will Have Lifelong Consequences

by Jerry Iannelli

In New York City last week, Mayor Eric Adams announced a new plan to sweep away visible homelessness and mental illness. The plan directs police and other officials to haul off the city’s most vulnerable residents to medical facilities against their will, where they will be evaluated for forced psychiatric treatment, including involuntary hospitalization. After making the announcement, Adams then flew away to sun himself in Greece and enjoy some World Cup festivities in Qatar. But while the mayor partied overseas, advocates for those were left to worry that Adams’ new “anti-homelessness” plan will leave people trapped in poverty and struggling with their mental health.

As The Appeal’s Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg wrote last week, advocates fear that the heavy involvement of police in these removal efforts is likely to end in violence and criminal charges. But the harms are unlikely to stop there. Involuntary psychiatric commitment often leads to the loss of access to basic rights and services, including employment, parenting, education, housing, professional licenses, or even potentially the right to drive, experts told The Appeal. People forced into treatment can also be hit with thousands of dollars in medical bills.

Rather than helping the homeless and mentally ill get back on their feet, Adams’ plan could further destabilize the very people it claims to help, warned Beth Haroules, a senior staff attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union. 

“At the end of the day, I would want government actors, when exercising police power, to be very cognizant of the collateral consequences of being involuntarily committed and exposed to involuntary treatment,” Haroules said. “The collateral consequences are very extreme and traumatizing—and can in fact prevent a person from recovering and participating in society.”

Adams’ November 28 directive authorizes officers with the NYPD and city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to forcibly shuttle people “experiencing severe mental illness” from the city’s streets and subways and into hospitals for psychiatric evaluation. Like similar statutes in all 50 states, New York’s “Mental Hygiene” laws allows loved ones, medical professionals, certain state officials, and some nonprofit employees to force people into inpatient psychiatric hospitalizations or “assisted outpatient treatment,” by which courts can compel a person into a medication regimen, regular doctor visits, or other mental health treatments. 

These New Yorkers and hundreds of others like them are in urgent need of treatment, yet often refuse it when offered,” Adams said while announcing the policy. “The very nature of their illnesses keeps them from realizing they need intervention and support. Without that intervention, they remain lost and isolated from society, tormented by delusions and disordered thinking. They cycle in and out of hospitals and jails.”

Institutionalization can also violate someone’s civil rights. The involuntary commitment process is not a criminal proceeding, and individuals being evaluated for forced treatment do not gain the right to an attorney from the city’s Mental Hygiene Legal Service until after they have been hospitalized. The state can hold a person for up to 72 hours in a hospital setting before any official decision about commitment. People who fail—or are accused of failing—to follow medical orders after completing treatment can be reinstitutionalized. Those who have been wrongfully committed must work not only to clear the aforementioned societal hurdles, but also to fix incorrect information placed on their medical records.

Experts also told The Appeal the vague criteria of Adams’ proposal may lead to police sweeping up far more people than the mayor has claimed.

“We’re talking about people who could be in school or people in a professional career who could be at risk of losing their professional licensing or employment later,” said Lewis Bossing, a senior staff attorney with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. “Those could be people on a subway platform mumbling to themselves. It could be anybody really. It could be a parent, and then their ability to parent could be called into question. A lot of people could be swept up.” 

Studies on the efficacy of psychiatric commitment are mixed: Some say forced hospitalization or mandatory outpatient treatment helps stabilize people who are otherwise too unwell to seek treatment. But critics of the process say its potential to create trauma and breed further mistrust of the system outweigh its positives—a 2022 literature review of studies on forced commitment did not find evidence the process was more effective than voluntary care, for example. Studies have also found that people of color are more likely to be forced into treatment or hospitalization than whites—including in New York. And, to make matters worse, the city’s mental health providers are already underfunded, understaffed, and unable to care for the number of people currently being fed into the system, according to a recent investigation by Crain’s New York Business.

The Bazelon Center recently released a four-page statement outlining the harm Adams’ plan could cause. Studies cited in the statement show that people who’ve been involuntarily committed are more likely to attempt suicide and that young people who’ve been institutionalized are less likely to seek help when they feel suicidal. The statement also noted that many unhoused people have been hospitalized before, but often prefer sleeping on the street due to “squalid and dangerous conditions” in the city’s homeless shelters and hospitals.

“When it comes to mental health treatment, there is no evidence that court-ordered involuntary treatment in hospitals is more effective than quality community-based treatment,” the Bazelon Center wrote.

While medical professionals continue to debate the efficacy of forced psychiatric treatment, what’s clearer are the significant social and economic burdens associated with civil commitment, all of which seem likely to weigh even more heavily on people who are already poor or unhoused.

Under state law, people who have been involuntarily hospitalized in non-criminal proceedings can be held financially liable for the costs of their commitment, including both hospital costs and charges for services like ambulance rides. While that debt can be waived or charged to Medicaid, the process is often byzantine, faulty, or may not cover a full bill.

Hospital bills that stem from institutionalization can balloon even more rapidly for those who have private insurance or do not qualify for Medicaid. Infamously, after former NYPD Officer Adrian Schoolcraft was wrongfully committed in 2009 by his fellow officers in retaliation for whistleblowing, the hospital charged him $7,185 for a stay that was foisted upon him against his will. And for those attempting to secure employment or housing, medical debt can impact their credit score and make it much harder to get back on their feet. 

In a 2020 commentary piece in the American Journal of Psychiatry, psychiatrist Nathaniel Morris noted that hospitals have even sued formerly institutionalized people to collect medical debts. He warned that the burdensome costs of such treatment can push lower-income or indigent individuals into risky situations or illegal activity.

Psychiatric patients’ vulnerability, combined with the coercive nature of involuntary care, could also foster outright exploitation,” Morris wrote.

But the costs of institutionalization can also extend far beyond a hospital bill. In a sign of the continued social stigma surrounding mental illness, former students sued Yale University last week for allegedly pressuring people with mental health issues to withdraw from the school. Federal standards state that people with certain psychiatric disorder histories can be disqualified from obtaining a commercial driver’s license. Those with histories of psychiatric hospitalization can be barred from obtaining medical or other professional licenses. People who may be placed under guardianship after being institutionalized also lose the right to vote.

Instead of ramping up forced hospitalization of people who are unhoused or mentally ill, experts like Bossing of the Bazelon Center said the mayor should invest in non-coercive methods of support,  including permanent affordable housing, social services, and outreach programs.

“If we really wanted to help people meet their needs, we’d be really engaging them, and providing the housing and supportive services that they need,” Bossing said.


In the news

Kenneth Mejia ran for Los Angeles City controller decrying the bloated police budget. Teen Vogue’s Lexi McMenamin spoke with some of the organizers and volunteers who campaigned for him. “It’s gonna take a while for us to get there, but this campaign has proven that abolition is a winning strategy,” said Dannie Nunez. [Lexi McMenamin / Teen Vogue]

Hugh Ryan, author of The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison, writes on the intersection between prison abolition and the LGBTQ+ rights movement. “Let’s tear down these monstrous warehouses of human misery and spend that money taking care of people instead,” Ryan writes. “Let’s acknowledge that our modern movement is rooted in abolition.”  [Hugh Ryan / Lit Hub]

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors has approved the use of police robots that can be used to “incapacitate, or disorient” people suspected of crimes. They’re not the first police department to “flirt with such a techno-dystopian future,” writes Jennifer Stavros. [Jennifer Stavros / Independent]

A judge has finally dismissed the murder charge against domestic violence survivor Tracy McCarter. [Victoria Law / The Nation] 

This week Richard Reynolds’s trial against Connecticut corrections officials began. Reynolds is challenging his decades-long imprisonment in solitary confinement. Ken Krayeske / Twitter]

A Florida police chief resigned after she used her position to get out of a ticket during a traffic stop. [Associated Press]

ICYMI — from The Appeal

In 2016, Dallas police took the extraordinary step of mounting a bomb on a robot and using it to kill a mass shooting suspect. Now more police departments are following suit, with San Francisco officials approving such use of force by robots last week.

Advocates say putting police on the frontlines of efforts to force unhoused people into hospitals for involuntary treatment will put already vulnerable people at greater risk of brutality and criminal charges. 

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 now and your donation will be tripled here.

NYC Advocates Fear More Police Violence, Homeless Criminalization Amid Forced Hospitalizations

New York City Mayor Eric Adams issued a directive this week that puts police at the center of renewed efforts to remove people exhibiting signs of mental illness from public spaces.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority/Flickr

NYC Advocates Fear More Police Violence, Homeless Criminalization Amid Forced Hospitalizations

New York City Mayor Eric Adams issued a directive this week that puts police at the center of renewed efforts to remove people exhibiting signs of mental illness from public spaces.

Advocates are raising alarm over New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ new directive targeting people with perceived signs of mental illness for removal and forced hospitalization. While Adams has said the policy is intended to help the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents, community groups say the true intent is to disappear homeless people from the city’s streets and subways. They argue the new standards will only result in further criminalization and police violence against the unhoused population.

In February, the New York State Office of Mental Health published guidance clarifying that a person can be involuntarily hospitalized under state law if they appear to be mentally ill and display “an inability to meet basic living needs, even when there is no recent dangerous act.” At a press conference this week, Adams unveiled a memo stating that the city concurs with the state agency’s interpretation and directing police and peace officers to begin removing any individual who “appears to have mental illness and cannot support their basic human needs to an extent that causes them harm.”

Civil rights advocates say the directive’s vague language gives police carte blanche to detain unhoused people in New York, based on arbitrary and potentially inaccurate evaluations of their mental health. To officers, the mayor’s guidance serves as a “green light” that tells them, “You have my permission to do it, however you need to do it, to get [homeless people] off the street,” said Lisa Ortega, a community organizer with Take Back the Bronx, a grassroots activist collective.

Under the mayor’s plan, police officers will have prolonged contact with people prior to their hospitalization. The policy requires a peace or police officer to be present at the scene of all involuntary removal attempts to “ensure the individual stays on scene.” Officers must also “escort” emergency services personnel on trips to the hospital and ride in the back of the “transport vehicle.” The escorting officer can leave only after the person has been registered as a patient at the hospital.

The involvement of law enforcement in these potentially tense interactions only raises the likelihood of arrest and violence, said Rena Karefa-Johnson, who works with, a criminal justice reform organization. ( provides funding to The Appeal. The Appeal lists all donations over $2,000 on its website and adheres to the Institute for Nonprofit News’s policies on editorial independence and donor transparency.)

“Increasing points of contact with police for communities like Black communities, unhoused communities, brown communities, disabled communities, queer communities, inevitably leads to increased criminalization and state violence,” she said.

Police in New York City and across the U.S. are notorious for having brutalized, traumatized, arrested, and killed the very people who they were called to help. Studies have shown that police are significantly more likely to use force against people with mental illness. A Washington Post investigation found that from 2019 to 2021, law enforcement killed close to 200 people who were experiencing an emotional or mental health crisis.

“Police are trained in command and control,” said Beth Haroules, a senior staff attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union. “People who have a disability or are impaired in some fashion, they don’t respond simply to command and control.”

If an officer perceives an individual as aggressive or uncooperative during a removal attempt, they could face criminal charges, which would only entangle them in the legal system and make it harder for them to access housing and support. People in mental health crises routinely end up getting charged over encounters with police or medical personnel, according to a report published last year by Disability Rights New York and John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Despite the well-documented risk that police pose to people with mental illness, the mayor’s directive does not limit the weapons or force an officer can use during these removals.

“If you don’t immediately comply with a police officer’s order or directive, the situation is immediately escalated,” said Yung-Mi Lee, Legal Director of Criminal Defense at Brooklyn Defender Services, a legal clinic that provides pro bono representation to low-income New Yorkers. “The police officer will just automatically try to put handcuffs on.”

Involuntary removals and hospitalizations are already traumatic and often “marked by physical conflict,” said Timothy Clune, executive director of Disability Rights New York. The mayor’s plan will only exacerbate these existing issues, affecting both people with mental illness and those simply perceived to be mentally ill.

“Given the lack of expertise of those designated to make a determination that one ‘appears to be mentally ill,’ there is a high likelihood that people with and without other such disabilities will be erroneously removed and detained,” Clune said in a statement to The Appeal.

Adams has insisted that his directive is an overdue and compassionate response to help people the city has discarded. But to truly help homeless people, they should be given access to housing and community-based services, said Ortega, who is formerly homeless.

“They make it seem like you cannot get well or get an apartment until you’re A, B and C. But it’s really the opposite way around,” she said. “If you give someone a stable place to put their head, then they become conducive to, ‘okay, maybe now we can move forward and recover.’ It doesn’t work the other way around. It just doesn’t.”

Internal Report Details Severely Malnourished Detainees at Atlanta-Area Jail

The facility’s medical provider described people with mental illness wasting away in a unit overrun by an outbreak of lice and scabies.

Shaun Versey/Flickr

Internal Report Details Severely Malnourished Detainees at Atlanta-Area Jail

The facility’s medical provider described people with mental illness wasting away in a unit overrun by an outbreak of lice and scabies.

Early on the morning of Sept. 13, an officer at the Fulton County Jail in Georgia found a man slumped over on the floor of his cell in a unit that houses people with mental illness. He was covered in lice and feces, the officer wrote in an incident report obtained by The Appeal.

The officer had gone to the man’s cell to take him to the Medical Observation Unit for “psych observation,” amid concerns about his rapidly deteriorating health, according to her report. After finding his body, she radioed for medical help. Other staffers arrived and began performing CPR, but the man never regained consciousness. He was 35 years old. (The Appeal was unable to reach the man’s family by publication and is not naming him out of respect for their privacy.)

His court records point to a history of mental health issues that precede his time at the Fulton County Jail. He’d been arrested in Alabama in 2017 for allegedly stealing a car while he was homeless. After his arrest, the Alabama court ordered a competency evaluation and, while his case was pending, he cycled in and out of jail and court-approved placements in a treatment facility and group home. His trial on the theft charge was set for April 2021, but he didn’t show up and a warrant was issued, which would ultimately lead to him being held without bond in Georgia after a misdemeanor arrest in June.

In the days before the man’s death in the Fulton County Jail, officers had become alarmed by his condition and attempted to have medical staff intervene, according to the incident reports. The guard who found his body wrote that she had communicated with mental health staff and a sergeant about his “living conditions” and “voiced concern,” most recently on Sept. 8. A second officer reported that he’d told a “psych nurse” that the “situation needs some attention,” and had attempted to have medical staff move him to the Medical Observation Unit earlier that week. He had also shared his concerns with the same sergeant.

A newly obtained report from the jail’s medical provider reveals that the man’s final days were indicative of widespread neglect of the jail’s most vulnerable detainees, who were wasting away in squalid conditions. At the time of his death, more than 90 percent of people in his unit were so malnourished that they had developed cachexia, a wasting syndrome that typically affects people with advanced-stage cancer, according to the report by NaphCare, a private company that provides health care to the jail’s detainees.

NaphCare reported that the men were detained in filthy cells and most were barely functioning. Over 90 percent of detainees had not been “receiving essential medications” or completing their “ADLS,” which refers to “activities of daily living,” such as showering, dressing, using the toilet, and eating, according to the report, obtained by Atlanta-based civil rights group the Southern Center for Human Rights.

“They were literally physically, visually breaking down,” said Devin Franklin, Movement Policy Counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights and a former public defender.

The report also states that every person in the unit had lice or scabies—in some cases both—and that the outbreak was discovered “on or around” Sept. 13, the day the man’s body was discovered.

The records custodian for the Fulton County Sheriff’s office told The Appeal in an email that the report, which is not dated or signed and is not on letterhead, was created by the NaphCare health services administrator. Neither NaphCare nor Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat responded to repeated requests for comment.

Upon learning of the outbreak, the sheriff’s office “took immediate action” and implemented a decontamination plan that was completed by the end of September, according to the report. All impacted detainees were treated with a 98 percent compliance rate, it states.

The NaphCare administrator detailed a four-point action plan, which includes screening new detainees for vermin and implementing “door-to-door pill pass.” To address rampant malnutrition, the plan advised staff to “increase inmate diet orders to include supplemental nutrition as applicable.”

The NaphCare administrator also recommended that staff conduct daily rounds to identify vulnerable detainees and develop plans for “high-risk” people. There is no mention of individual follow-up with those suffering from malnutrition, or of how often rounds had been taking place before.

NaphCare, which provides medical care in jails and prisons throughout the country, has been repeatedly accused of neglecting the medical needs of detained people, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.

In 2019, 18-year-old Tyrique Tookes had been detained in the Fulton County Jail for about seven weeks when he told medical staff that he was experiencing excruciating chest pains. A physician’s assistant thought he might have heartburn and recommended fluids, Tums, ice packs, and ibuprofen. About a week later, Tookes died of cardiac tamponade, a condition where pressure is placed on the heart from a build-up of fluid. Last year, his parents sued NaphCare and several of the company’s employees, alleging that medical neglect had caused their son’s death.

Fulton County Jail continues to subject detainees to inhumane and sometimes life-threatening conditions. An investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution of the state’s five largest jails revealed that more people have died at the facility since 2009 than any of the other jails studied. As of late October, ten people have died at the jail this year, according to local news reports.

The latest revelations about detainee mistreatment contained in the NaphCare report come as community leaders, the sheriff, and local officials continue to fight over plans to address overcrowding at the facility. This summer, at the sheriff’s urging, the county, sheriff’s department, and the city of Atlanta entered into an agreement to transfer up to 700 people from the Fulton jail to the Atlanta City Detention Center, pending the completion of a jail population study. Labat has called the study a tactic intended to delay the transfers. But Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari said at a recent council meeting that they “need to understand why people are in there.”

“I will not in the blink of an eye damn people’s lives to be in jail without questioning it,” said Bakhtiari, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which has reported extensively on the Fulton County Jail.

Civil rights activists have spoken out against the impending transfers, saying the nightmarish conditions underscore the need to reduce the number of people detained, not invest further in incarceration. In an October letter to the Atlanta mayor and city council, dozens of local and national groups lambasted the transfer plan, saying it would “result in more people being locked up,” even though hundreds could be released.

Almost half of the roughly 3,000 people held at the jail have not been formally charged with a crime, according to an analysis of the population at the facility on Sept. 14, conducted by the national American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Georgia. Many of these people had been detained at the jail for months, with some held for more than a year. More than 200 people were detained only on misdemeanors.

“We all agree that this is a humanitarian crisis,” said Franklin from the Southern Center for Human Rights. “But we also think that you have to respond to [a] humanitarian crisis in ways that respect people’s humanity.”

Women Bear the Brunt of New York’s Prison Care Package Ban

New restrictions have made it harder to send food to incarcerated people. Advocates say the policy is doing disproportionate harm inside women's prisons, and to women on the outside who often serve as caretakers.


Women Bear the Brunt of New York’s Prison Care Package Ban

New restrictions have made it harder to send food to incarcerated people. Advocates say the policy is doing disproportionate harm inside women's prisons, and to women on the outside who often serve as caretakers.

New York’s new restrictions on prison care packages are imposing unique burdens inside women’s prisons, further straining the already tenuous connections many incarcerated people have to the outside. As New Yorkers are forced to turn to prohibitively expensive third-party vendors to send products to their loved ones, prisoners at these facilities are losing vital access to healthy food. Women in the community, who are disproportionately responsible for supporting people in both men’s and women’s prisons, are facing undue harm as well. They describe the package policy as an untenable financial burden and a threat to their relationships with loved ones inside.

Earlier this year, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYSDOCCS) began rolling out the new prison package policy, which officials claimed—despite some evidence to the contrary—was necessary to prevent drugs and other contraband from entering facilities. Under the newly enacted rules, friends and family members can no longer directly send or hand-deliver food packages. They must now purchase all packages through vendors, with the exception of two non-food packages sent by mail each year.

In the past, prisoners often relied on loved ones to bring or mail them fresh food, typically purchased from a grocery store. Now the entire system revolves around third-party vendors like Amazon and Walmart, or prison-specific providers like New York-based Emma’s Premium Services. The new policy has dramatically increased the cost of sending products into prisons, limited the variety of available goods, and left people to deal with large corporations that are unprepared or unwilling to abide by NYSDOCCS’s strict specifications for mailing packages. Incarcerated sources told The Appeal that very few women receive packages at all anymore and that those lucky enough to get food deliveries often share the products with other prisoners.

These restrictions on food packages threaten the health and well-being of all people in prison. But advocates say the policy is also doing disproportionate harm in women’s prisons by compounding existing inequities. People in women’s prisons already tend to have more precarious outside support systems than men, a trend that appears linked to multiple factors, including the astronomically high number of women—and other gender-expansive people housed in women’s prisons—who have experienced domestic or gender-based violence prior to their incarceration. Meanwhile, women on the outside are also bearing the brunt of the policy’s new costs and complications.

“I feel like, anytime something happens in prisons and jails, it always falls back on moms and women,” said Serena Liguori, executive director of New Hour for Women and Children–Long Island, a nonprofit that serves justice-impacted mothers in New York.

When Al-Shariyfa Robinson, who goes by Missy, was sentenced to 15 years to life in 2016, her mother Donna, 67, vowed to care for her daughter. But she was quickly struck by how difficult it was to do so. Even before the recent ban, navigating extensive NYSDOCCS rules and restrictions left her frustrated and distrustful. “I call them the Department of Corruption,” she said.

Over the summer, Missy, who has always suffered from an iron deficiency, was taken to an outside hospital for treatment, after several corrections officers expressed concerns that she looked unwell. At the time, Missy’s period had lasted for 45 days; she had lost so much blood that she needed an emergency transfusion.

Because Missy is “the property of New York State,” as Robinson put it, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, the prison where she’s incarcerated, never notified Robinson that her daughter was in the hospital. She found out days later, after Missy returned to the prison. Considering these constraints, Robinson found that one of the few ways she could support her daughter’s health was to provide her with nutritious food to supplement or replace the notoriously poor-quality, industrially manufactured prison mess hall food, which prisoners call “chow.” Chow is a fitting term, Robinson said in a text, because it’s “reminiscent of Dog S%$t.”

In the past, Robinson had brought Missy iron-rich foods on visits. She brought meats, and beets were “high on the menu,” Robinson said, though she also took pleasure in buying Missy her favorite snack: Entenmann’s brownie bites. But the package ban has made it impossible for Robinson to maintain this care.

Confused by the complexity of the restrictions and countless vendor websites and catalogs, Robinson initially opted to instead send Missy money for commissary, a prison store that offers snacks, packaged meals, and occasionally a limited selection of fruits and vegetables, all at a steep markup. The produce Missy bought there was often rotten and she would have to throw it away, she told her mother.

During a recent visit to see her daughter, Robinson decided she had to make a change. “I’m sitting across from her; she was starving,” Robinson told The Appeal. In October, she placed a food order with GROONO/S, a New York-based vendor. She paid $212 for around 24 pounds of food after shipping and handling, close to double what she’d paid in the past. “Half of that stuff in there was not worth $10,” Robinson said, adding that the meat she ordered was out of stock.

A recent screenshot of products offered by GROONO/S shows many beef items are out of stock.

Still, Robinson knows Missy is fortunate to have outside support in addition to the small salary she makes from working two jobs at the prison, which amounts to about $24 a month. Shortly after Missy arrived at Bedford, she called Robinson and asked if she could support 10 other incarcerated women. “She said, ‘Mommy, they don’t have anybody to take care of them,’” Robinson recalled.

For many incarcerated people, and particularly those who are serving longer sentences, outside systems of care inevitably fade away. This is an especially pervasive problem among women, who are increasingly receiving longer sentences and may face a greater likelihood of disciplinary action while incarcerated, which can prevent them from receiving time off their sentences.

Women in prison “are not taken care of like men,” said Ethel Edwards, who was previously incarcerated at Bedford Hills and Taconic Correctional Facility. “You go to a woman’s prison on Mother’s Day, and you see how many visitors there are. You go to a men’s prison on Father’s Day, and you see how long you wait to get into the prison because the line is going around the corner.”

This lack of outside support places many women fully at the mercy of the prison system. Some may have funds to buy food at commissary, but incarcerated sources told The Appeal that the store’s already high prices have shot up in recent months, making healthy options even more unaffordable. With the new package restrictions in place, more women are being left to rely exclusively on prison meals to get by. These challenges are especially daunting for people with medical issues, said Victoria Law, a journalist, contributor to The Appeal, and author of “Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women.”

“People who are pregnant, people who are menopausal, women who are getting older who have nutritional needs that they might not have had when they were 30 or 40, are now faced with this decision of like, do I spend this money on making a phone call home to my family? Or do I try to save it up to be able to buy this thing?” said Law. “And the family has to make that same decision.”

To Liguori of New Hour, the new package restrictions are just another way for DOCCS “to make people feel desperate and anxious and depressed and sad.”

“Not having access to food that’s good for you, like mandatory for your health, over 10 to 15 years … can lead to things that will kill you,” she said. “Isn’t the punishment just supposed to be being incarcerated and losing your freedom?”

But as Robinson’s struggles to provide for her daughter demonstrate, the gendered impact of the package ban isn’t only being felt inside women’s prisons.

Around one in four women, and almost one in two Black women have a family member who is incarcerated, according to one nationwide study. Meanwhile, nearly 70 percent of women supporting a loved one in prison reported that they were also their family’s only wage-earner. The increased costs and complications associated with the package ban only make those responsibilities more taxing.

“Most Black women like myself—we end up becoming the head of the household,” Robinson said. “And we do the best we can with what we have.”

Robinson currently helps support three households, in addition to herself and Missy, and has also provided assistance to multiple incarcerated family members in the past. She described it as a matter-of-course, an inheritance that she hopes will not pass to her great-grandchildren and future generations.

“I’m making sacrifices that at my age I shouldn’t have to,” Robinson said. “This is the story of my life.”

Voters Didn’t Buy the ‘Crime Panic’ Narrative. Democrats Should Take Note.

Americans around the country were unmoved by tough-on-crime rhetoric, and instead voted in a string of reform-minded candidates. The results show that it’s time for Democrats to rethink their approach on public safety.

Pennsylvania Senator-Elect John Fetterman
Governor Tom Wolf via Flickr

Voters Didn’t Buy the ‘Crime Panic’ Narrative. Democrats Should Take Note.

Americans around the country were unmoved by tough-on-crime rhetoric, and instead voted in a string of reform-minded candidates. The results show that it’s time for Democrats to rethink their approach on public safety.

As it turns out, repeatedly yelling “crime” at voters—both literally and figuratively—is not a winning election strategy. Republicans (and a few supporters of New York Republican Lee Zeldin in particular) learned that the hard way this week, after an embarrassing showing in a midterm election that they had portrayed as a referendum on the Democrats’ handling of crime. For a party typically skilled at whipping voters into frothing rage about absolutely nothing, their closing message of fear generated a wave of paranoid, squealing television clips—but failed to resonate with voters.

The results were likely unexpected for politicians on both sides of the aisle. In the lead-up to the election, right-wing fear-mongering had succeeded in putting mainstream Democrats on the defensive, with many jettisoning substantive reform in favor of “funding the police,” and, in some cases, helping to stoke the crime panic themselves. But the results of Tuesday’s elections suggest this political obsession with crime was largely a miscalculation by both parties. In fact, voters appear to have been much more motivated by other issues, with crime coming in a distant third on their list of priorities, far behind inflation and abortion, according to exit polling. Perhaps that’s one reason why scores of reform-minded candidates won major races this election cycle, despite a torrent of campaign ads trying to portray them as soft on, or even in favor of, crime.

On paper, the GOP’s plan read like a perfectly executed scheme: First, wildly exaggerate an actual—though unclear how significant—rise in crime to claim that the nation had descended into lawlessness. Then, blame Democratic-led justice reforms, despite an overwhelming lack of evidence and the fact that some of these reforms literally never happened. Finally, convince Democrats to respond to this bad-faith campaign by showing voters that they, too, are ready to get “tough-on-crime.” Democrats were never going to win this game: Once you buy into the idea that “getting tough” is the best response to crime, Republicans will always be willing to take more extreme measures.

As obvious as this trap was, some establishment Democrats fell for it with all the grace of Wile E. Coyote running into a brick wall with a tunnel painted onto it. In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul endured months of criticism from both Republicans and members of her own party over the bail reform laws the state passed in 2019, which banned cash bail and pretrial detainers for most small crimes. Both New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former cop, and Hochul’s opponent, pro-Trump toady Lee Zeldin, spent months falsely blaming the bail-reform laws for increasing crime. Hochul relented in March with a 10-point plan to roll back some of the measures.

Of course, instead of quelling her critics, conservatives smelled blood, redoubled their efforts, and lamented that her plan was still too weak. By the end of the race, Hochul had so fully bought into the Republican narrative that she insulted the city of San Francisco on television. In the days before the election, conservatives and the mainstream media were salivating at the idea of Hochul losing in an upset. In their estimation, New Yorkers were so concerned about crime that one of America’s bluest states was going to elect a guy who’d tried to overturn the 2020 election.

Instead, Hochul won by more than 300,000 votes. The public’s supposed fixation on crime didn’t sway the race, and that trend largely held across the country. In race after race, predictions of a “red wave” fueled by anger over Democrats Not Taking Crime Seriously Enough failed to materialize.

Plus, many of the Democrats who refused to take the GOP’s bait fared just as well, if not better. In one of the most striking examples, Pennsylvania Senate hopeful and noted medical quack Dr. Oz ran nonstop ads claiming his opponent, John Fetterman, took pleasure in releasing bloodthirsty murderers onto the streets for his own fun and enjoyment. But Fetterman stood by his commitment to reforming the legal system and the number of people he’d fought to grant clemency in the past. Even in a purple state like Pennsylvania, Oz’s messaging didn’t land, and Fetterman won by about five percentage points.

In the end, both parties horribly misread the extent to which crime was a motivating factor for voters. According to national exit polling, just 11 percent of voters said crime was the issue they cared most about this year. “Inflation” was first, at 31 percent, followed by abortion, at 27 percent. Among those voters concerned about crime, 57 percent said they trusted Republicans on crime, compared to 41 percent for Democrats. The splits were far higher in every other category polled. If Republicans were looking to capitalize on an issue that they had a clear advantage on, “crime” was the wrong choice.

National Election Pool (NEP) via ABC News

With those viewpoints in mind, it’s not surprising that many justice reformers won high-profile races across the country. In Los Angeles, Kenneth Mejia cruised to victory in his election for city controller after placing billboards around the city informing people of the amount of taxpayer spending on the LAPD compared to other public services. In Hennepin County, Minnesota, which includes Minneapolis, voters elected a former public defender as the new district attorney. Even in much redder Texas, voters re-elected prosecutors who support decarceral policies in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, and Dallas County.

Meanwhile, the Democrats who ran hardest on law-and-order were among those who performed the worst. In Florida—which, to be fair, is now solidly a red state—U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a former police chief who ran on having increased congressional funding for law enforcement, lost her Senate race against Marco Rubio by a whopping 17 percent. In Ohio, Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan denounced both police reformers and the Democratic Party as a whole, only to get trounced by the Trump-endorsed J.D. Vance, a man who looks like the result of a love affair between a Navy SEAL and a Care Bear. In Los Angeles, conservative Democrat, real estate magnate, and former anti-abortion Republican Rick Caruso spent a staggering $100 million of his own money to flood local media with messages about alleged lawlessness and his plan to add 1,500 cops to the LAPD’s ranks. But despite his historic spending, Caruso is currently locked in a dead heat with—and appears on track to lose to—U.S. Rep. Karen Bass.

Just a few months ago, the media and politicians from across the spectrum were calling San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s defeat in a conservative-led recall the death knell for criminal legal reform. In elections this week, so many left-leaning prosecutors won races that Fox News ran a piece on Thursday mewling that “George Soros backed” candidates had scored a “sweep.”

In a less stupid world, these somewhat surprising results would be a sign to the Democratic Party that it might be time to rethink their approach to crime and public safety. Voters, it seems, are not so consumed by fear of crime—or at least, not so easily manipulated into supporting tough-on-crime responses to it. To the extent Americans do care about crime, many appear unmoved by the Willy Horton tactics of the past, which treat crime as an issue to be cynically exploited, not substantively addressed. If 41 percent of voters who cared most about crime ultimately sided with Democrats, it’s safe to assume that some were voting for candidates explicitly because of their more progressive ideas on public safety, or in some races, in opposition to the draconian platforms supported by Republicans.

But give the Democrats an opportunity to shoot themselves in the foot, and they’ll take it. After Hochul’s victory on Election Night, U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler of Manhattan, a top ranking Democrat, suggested that the problem with his party’s approach on crime was that they hadn’t blamed it on Republicans enough—even though this blame-game approach had done little other than cause Hochul and the party a headache on the way to eventual victory. Why try to win people over with new ideas—and maybe even a more positive vision for the future!—when you can chuck the “soft-on-crime” potato back and forth until voters’ eyes glaze over?

In the face of this evidence suggesting Democratic voters might be eager for an alternative to tough-on-crime politics that frame the issue exclusively through the lens of policing and punishment, right-wing and centrist apparatchiks have already gone to work this week trying to pull the party rightward. In a Washington Post opinion piece Thursday, Rafael A. Mangual, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute—the group noted for starting the conservative “critical race theory” and trangender panics of the last few years—claimed the only way for Democrats to “blunt” the GOP’s advantage on crime was to ignore all signs of momentum for reform and follow the Republican “playbook.” The very same playbook that just helped them to the worst midterm elections performance of any party in decades.

“Democrats held off a red wave in Tuesday’s elections, but they should beware of misreading the vote,” the piece began. “The party still has a big problem on the issue of crime.”

As Political Ads Fearmonger on Crime, Victims Want Alternatives

Instead of co-opting victims’ voices, political candidates and elected officials should center them.

Michael Förtsch/Unsplash

As Political Ads Fearmonger on Crime, Victims Want Alternatives

Instead of co-opting victims’ voices, political candidates and elected officials should center them.

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

Crime has taken center stage in the final stretch of the midterm elections as candidates and super PACs flood the airwaves with hyperbolic and misleading attack ads designed to exploit voter fears.

Political campaigns have seized on this closing message a month after the release of the FBI’s annual crime data for 2021. These statistics were so incomplete that they couldn’t provide a reliable answer as to whether crime has remained level, decreased, or, as many of these ads have claimed, risen over the past two years. But the incomplete data picture did not dissuade political operatives from playing into fears about crime with incendiary, often racially charged messaging.

The hyperpoliticization of crime—and the lack of reliable data in debates about crime—are not new dynamics. Today’s political attacks nod toward many of the same failed solutions bandied about in the 1980s and 1990s at the height of the fear-driven “tough on crime” era. And even when decision-makers have attempted to make more reasoned and good-faith attempts to look at data to drive policy, FBI crime statistics, our main data source, are fundamentally flawed. Focusing on these statistics fails to capture what’s most important and misdirects our nation’s safety strategies. Luckily, more insightful data that could lead to new safety solutions is available from an often-ignored source: crime victims.

FBI statistics provide two main data points: the number of crimes reported to law enforcement and the number of crime “clearances,” which is essentially how many cases resulted in arrests. These are important but alone tell us very little. For starters, more than half of crimes are never reported to law enforcement. Additionally, whether a crime is “cleared” tells us nothing about whether it was actually solved.

The even bigger missing piece of the puzzle is information about people and outcomes, particularly regarding those who have been hurt.

Last month, our organization, the Alliance for Safety and Justice, commissioned a national study of crime victims. Among its unnerving revelations: For the vast majority of victims, the justice system provides neither justice nor help in the aftermath of crime. Four out of five victims who reported a crime to law enforcement said the crime was not solved, and half described the justice system as unhelpful during the investigation.

The survey also revealed a shocking gap in the government’s capacity to help victims: 96 percent of victims of violent crime did not receive victim compensation. Nearly half of those who said they wanted to relocate for safety could not. It is no wonder that many people hurt by crime report they do not trust the legal system to protect or assist them. It should be a wake-up call for lawmakers, who for too long have relied on oversimplified FBI crime statistics to come up with oversimplified prescriptions, like more policing and harsher punishment.

When we listen to victims, they tell us that we actually need proactive and healing solutions to address cycles of crime and violence. Victims do not think more arrests and incarceration work as well as prevention and healing services, like mental health care, re-entry support, crisis assistance, rehabilitation, and trauma recovery.

These preferences align with a new crop of safety programs growing across the country. Community-based organizations that respond to victims’ needs, mediate conflicts, and reduce crises are expanding. Trauma recovery centers provide services to victims in dozens of cities, which help them overcome challenges like PTSD, housing instability, and revictimization. Re-entry programs can reduce rearrest rates, and community violence prevention programs are helping to reduce shootings in numerous cities.

So as you’re bombarded with a final round of fearmongering attack ads about crime, remember that they are just one extreme example of our broken approach to public safety. To chart a better path forward, our decision-makers must engage with the people who know firsthand just how deeply flawed the current system is. Instead of co-opting victims’ voices, political candidates and elected officials should center them.

Brazilian Man’s Suicide Sends Shockwaves Through ‘Inhumane’ ICE Detention Center

Detainees at New Mexico’s Torrance County Detention Facility recently launched a hunger strike, motivated in part by the August death of a 23-year-old asylum seeker in custody.

Kesley Vial, a 23-year-old Brazilian man, died in August after being found unresponsive at an ICE detention center in New Mexico.

Brazilian Man’s Suicide Sends Shockwaves Through ‘Inhumane’ ICE Detention Center

Detainees at New Mexico’s Torrance County Detention Facility recently launched a hunger strike, motivated in part by the August death of a 23-year-old asylum seeker in custody.

SÃO PAULO – The August suicide of a young Brazilian man detained at a New Mexico Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility has spurred new calls for action among immigrants’ rights advocates and fellow detainees, who recently launched a hunger strike to protest alleged abuse and inhumane conditions.

Kesley Vial, a 23-year-old asylum-seeker from Brazil, was found unconscious in his cell at the Torrance County Detention Facility on Aug. 17 and taken to the University of New Mexico Hospital. He died a week later. Though an official cause of death has yet to be determined, the American Civil Liberties Union and New Mexico Immigrant Law Center—who are in contact with Vial’s family and with other detainees at the facility—say that Vial died by suicide.

Vial had been in ICE custody for around four months at the time of his death. Border patrol agents first detained him on April 22 in Texas, following a border crossing. He was initially held at an immigration center in El Paso, before being transferred to Torrance. The privately operated ICE facility in Estancia has attracted national controversy amid officially documented reports of safety risks and unsanitary conditions, with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) going so far as to call for the immediate removal of all detainees earlier this year.

Vial’s death has compounded the suffering that many immigrants in ICE custody say they’ve faced at Torrance. Some fear that another tragedy could unfold at any moment. Detainees and advocates now tell The Appeal that the only way to achieve justice is to shut the facility down.

Vial was born in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, and raised by his grandmother after his mother moved to the United States when he was a child. Vial spent part of his childhood in Galileia, a small city in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, before moving to Camboriú, in the state of Santa Catarina.

Victor Venâncio, a former classmate of Vial’s who still lives in Brazil, recalled studying together in 2008.

“He was a cool kid. A number of our childhood friends ended up going to the United States,” Venâncio told The Appeal in Portuguese during an interview.

After finishing school, Vial worked at a store and liked to play the guitar in his free time, a cousin told The Appeal in messages over social media. She asked to remain anonymous because she’d been advised not to speak to the press while Vial’s family considers its legal options. Vial was a “dreamer” and a “hard-working guy who could not harm anyone,” she said.

On April 22, border patrol agents detained Vial in El Paso after he crossed the border. He was taken to an immigration center and was kept there for a week.

At the detention facility in Texas, Vial was placed in a cell with an acquaintance from Brazil who had also been detained after crossing the border.

“I had not seen Kesley for seven years,” the man told The Appeal in Portuguese during an interview. “We had been friends in Galileia years ago.”

The man, who has since been released from ICE custody and asked to remain anonymous due to legal concerns, said that the facility in Texas was “tough,” and had “too many immigrants and only a few agents to handle all of them.”

After a few days in custody, the two old acquaintances parted ways. The friend was sent to another detention center in the South, where he said conditions “were much better.”

Vial, on the other hand, was taken to one of the worst ICE detention centers in the country. Indeed, since 2019 when Torrance began to receive asylum-seekers and immigrants, it has been the subject of intense criticism from detainees, non-governmental organizations, and federal officials alike.

In 2021, Nakamoto Group, ICE’s official inspection contractor, reported several issues at Torrance, including “numerous instances of sanitation and safety concerns” related to food preparation and chronic staff shortages.

“The current staffing level is at fifty percent of the authorized correction/security positions. Staff is currently working mandatory overtime shifts,” the report said.

Two detainees told inspectors they had “submitted sick call slips and had not been seen by medical staff.”

In February 2022, the Department of Homeland Security’s OIG carried out a surprise inspection at Torrance that resulted in an alert the following month recommending the immediate removal of all detainees from the facility.

The OIG report highlighted “critical staffing shortages that have led to safety risks and unsanitary living conditions” at Torrance. Inspectors identified serious problems concerning sanitation and hygiene.

But ICE did not accept OIG’s recommendation to remove detainees from the facility. Immigrants’ rights advocates say the situation did not improve after the report.

“The OIG does not have the power to order ICE to do something,” said Rebecca Sheff, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of New Mexico, in an interview with The Appeal. “The same conditions persisted and in some cases they got worse. Those were the conditions that Kesley faced there.” Sheff said less than 100 detainees remain at Torrance, most from Latin America, but also from Turkey and other countries.

Detainees have also reported being denied information about their immigration cases. This has led to a form of indefinite detention for some people, during which they have no idea how long they might remain incarcerated, or whether or not they’ll be deported. Vial tried repeatedly to get updates on his case, but couldn’t get clear answers, according to Sheff.

“At some point after he was ordered to be deported, he was put into a plane,” she said. “But without any explanation he was taken out of it later and brought back to Torrance.”

After returning, Vial began “manifesting psychological problems,” a fellow Torrance detainee from South America, who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation from ICE, told The Appeal in Spanish. A short time later, Vial was found unresponsive in his cell.

A photo of Kesley Vial placed at a vigil held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in September.
New Mexico Immigrant Law Center

Vial’s death sent shockwaves through Torrance. The South American detainee said he had “a nervous breakdown” after learning of the suicide.

“We just cannot understand why they kept him here for four months,” he said. “That was an evidence of this place’s incompetence to handle mental health issues. We fear it can happen again.”

In September, a group of detainees launched a hunger strike, motivated in part by Vial’s death and the continued refusal of officials to make changes.

Orlando de los Santos Evangelista, a 39-year-old native of the Dominican Republic, helped organize the strike. Reached by phone at Torrance in late September, he told The Appeal that Vial’s death had strengthened their resolve to fight against involuntary deportation and for their freedom.

“Even after that, the ICE authorities did not consider that things ran out of control and that they should release us,” de los Santos Evangelista said in Spanish. “We understood that they do not have a heart and they do not care about our safety.”

De los Santos Evangelista has been detained at Torrance since July 18, and said he has suffered “verbal and psychological abuse” on a daily basis. After starting the hunger strike, officers threatened to put the strikers in a small, isolated room, he said.

In a letter released on Sept. 22, the strikers wrote that on the day before Vial’s suicide attempt, an official came into a pod and told detainees that “everyone is staying locked up in here for up to two years.” The letter suggested the official had made similar threats to other pods, and that Vial had killed himself “because of the stress” the official had caused.

Earlier this week, the strikers announced that they had temporarily suspended their protest after some participants allegedly disappeared in the middle of the night. An advocate for detainees with the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center told the Santa Fe New Mexican that some strikers had been targeted in retaliation for calling attention to the conditions at Torrance.

Both ICE and CoreCivic have denied reports of a hunger strike, with a spokesperson for the private prison company claiming in a statement that “not one detainee has missed a meal.”

An excerpt from an open letter hand-written by immigrants detained at Torrance. Among their demands: "No more violation of our human rights (freedom)."
ACLU of New Mexico

Even after Vial’s death, the ACLU continues to receive complaints about “atrocious” conditions, including clogged toilets and sinks, cells dirty with human feces, a lack of access to drinking water, and detainees who cannot get medical attention for more than 24 hours after suffering a medical emergency, according to Sheff.

The detainee from South America, who has been detained at Torrance for more than two months, told The Appeal that he regularly received clothes that were poorly washed and stained, which caused skin infections. He described food that is nearly inedible and sometimes served raw.

“Given that I cannot stand it, I have been losing weight,” he said. “The last time I checked, I had already lost 24 pounds.” He recounted seeing a fellow detainee shivering with fever as staff ignored his calls for help. The man was taken to the doctor after seven hours, he said.

“The conditions are inhumane,” the detainee said. “I’m an immigrant, not someone who perpetrated a crime. There’s no reason for keeping me detained.”

Although Vial’s death led to renewed scrutiny of longstanding issues at Torrance, advocates say they have little hope that ICE will make changes voluntarily.

“The government cannot detain those people as a way of punishing them,” said Sheff. “They’re sending a message … Don’t come because we’ll treat you terribly. That is not acceptable under the law.”

Weeks after Vial’s death, his family and friends organized a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for his remains to be moved to Connecticut, where members of his family now live. The effort raised nearly $20,000, enough to pay for Vial’s body to be transported and to fly his grandmother from Brazil to be with the family.

In September, they held a velório—a Brazilian wake—for Vial. Photos posted on social media show grieving family members gathered around an open casket, with some, including Vial’s mother, giving him a last kiss. After 19 years apart, she was finally reunited with her son—if only to say goodbye.

Backlash on the Ballot: Three Prosecutor Races to Watch in November

A sign for a polling place in California.
Scott Beale/Laughing Squid via Flickr

Backlash on the Ballot: Three Prosecutor Races to Watch in November

Scott Beale / Laughing Squid via Flickr

Three Prosecutor Races to Watch in November

by Anna Simonton

The politics of criminal justice is overwhelmingly local. Although action at the federal level attracts headlines, it’s elected officials like district attorneys, county sheriffs, judges, and mayors, who have the most direct power over policing, prosecution, sentencing, and jail conditions.

Because some jurisdictions skew overwhelmingly in favor of one party, many local elections were effectively decided in primaries earlier this year. But a handful of prosecutor races on the ballot in November could have a major impact on efforts to transform the criminal legal system. Here’s a slice of what we’ll be watching over the coming weeks.

King County (Seattle), Washington

In King County, the next top prosecutor will likely determine the fate of reforms spearheaded by outgoing Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, including a restorative justice program that helps keep youth out of the criminal legal system. Voters in left-leaning Seattle elected a conservative city attorney last year, and the outcome in November’s county prosecutor race will clarify whether that was an anomaly or the new normal amid broader backlash to criminal justice reform.

Leesa Manion, Satterberg’s former chief of staff, has garnered progressive support, despite her relatively centrist platform. If elected, it’s widely believed she’ll stay the course Satterberg has laid. Her opponent, Jim Ferrell, is backed by police organizations and was among a group of mayors who took issue with Satterberg’s youth restorative justice program shortly after it launched, responding with alarmist claims that it contributed to rising crime in their towns. The data suggests this isn’t true, but Ferrell still opposes the program and has called for changes that could mean a return to felony prosecutions for kids who do things like steal a backpack. This would likely have a disproportionate impact on Black youth, who are already charged and incarcerated at far higher rates than any other group.

Despite King County’s progressive bona fides, an August poll indicated a widespread lack of awareness about the race and suggested it could swing either way, with 33 percent of voters undecided.

Alameda County (Oakland), California

In Alameda County, the outcome of a district attorney election could challenge the notion that Chesa Boudin’s recall in neighboring San Francisco was the beginning of the end for justice reform in the Bay Area. Civil rights attorney Pamela Price is running to replace retiring DA Nancy O’Malley, who has attracted criticism for rarely prosecuting cops who kill people and routinely fighting statewide reforms as the president of the California District Attorneys Association.

Price is facing off with Terry Wiley, who has worked in the Alameda DA’s office for more than three decades and has the backing of law enforcement associations. Both he and Price have pledged to never charge children as adults or seek the death penalty, but Price has gone further, saying she’ll aim to remove prisoners from death row and will never seek a sentence of life without parole. The two candidates also diverge on what to do about dangerous conditions in the Santa Rita jail. And Price supports eliminating cash bail to reduce the jail population, but Wiley says pretrial detention is necessary for many people incarcerated there.

A victory for Price would dovetail with the election of a reform-minded sheriff in June, potentially pointing toward a broader shift for a large county with a long history of police brutality, harsh prosecution, and high incarceration rates. But with more campaign cash on hand, Wiley could prevail.

Hennepin County (Minneapolis), Minnesota

Retiring Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman has come under fire in recent years for his inaction on police brutality—including his reluctance to prosecute the cop who killed George Floyd—his office’s mishandling of sexual assault cases, and his willingness to bring felony charges against Black men caught in police stings targeting low-level marijuana sales (which led to changes in his marijuana charging policies). Now the race to replace Freeman is the latest test of the momentum for change in Minneapolis after Floyd’s murder.

Former Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty is running against Martha Holton Dimick, a former prosecutor and judge whose campaign has focused on denouncing the “defund police” movement and raising alarm about violent crime. She’s also claimed Moriarty isn’t fit for the job because she “has just worked with criminals”—apparently her label for anyone being prosecuted in the legal system. Dimick’s rhetoric has won her the support of law enforcement.

Moriarty, who secured the Democratic nomination and is endorsed by a host of progressive organizations, has centered her campaign on challenging the notion that incarceration equates with public safety. “There are lots of evidence-based practices where people don’t go to prison or they have less contact with the system that have less recidivism rates,” she told the Minnesota Reformer. Moriarty has said she wants to rein in the office’s use of overcharging and reliance on guilty pleas, and limit cash bail.

Last year, 56 percent of Minneapolis voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have replaced the city police department with a Department of Public Safety. Dimick has touted this as proof that Hennepin County residents want elected officials who are tough on crime. But supporters of the measure have argued that winning the approval of nearly half of voters indicated a sea change in attitudes about public safety. A victory for Moriarty in November could prove them right.

And more!

These are just a few of the pivotal races taking place in November. The Appeal’s Meg O’Connor has written about the high stakes in the Maricopa County Attorney’s race, which may affect the criminalization of abortion in the nation’s fourth most populous county. In San Francisco, Boudin’s successor, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, is looking to secure a full term after her appointment this year. She’s facing a handful of challengers, including John Hamasaki, a former member of the police commission who is running to the left of Jenkins and recently picked up an endorsement from San Francisco’s Democratic Party. For a full list of prosecutor elections and other local races, check out the great primer Bolts published this week.

What elections or legislation are you following? If you have questions or story ideas about the politics of criminal justice, we’d love to hear from you—just send an email


In the news


Baltimore prosecutors dropped all charges against Adnan Syed, who was wrongly convicted of killing his high school classmate. Syed, the subject of the podcast Serial, was freed last month. The judge had placed him on home detention while prosecutors decided whether to drop his charges or retry him.[Alex Mann / The Baltimore Sun]

The taxpayers of Rochester will pay $12 million to the family of Daniel Prude. In 2020, Prude’s brother called 911 when his brother suffered a mental health crisis. When the police showed up, they laughed as they pushed Prude’s naked body into the pavement until he was braindead. Prude, who is Black, was unarmed. [Sean Lahman and Kayla Canne / Rochester Democrat & Chronicle] From The Appeal: “That was a lynching,” Prude’s brother told Meg O’Connor when she reported on Prude’s death in 2020. “That was cold-blooded murder.”

Radley Balko investigates the case of Charlie Vaughn, an intellectually disabled man who has spent more than 30 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. [Radley Balko / Substack]

Under Arizona’s near-total abortion ban, people face up to five years in prison for providing abortions. The fear of prosecution is already having a chilling effect, with pharmacists recently refusing to provide life-saving drugs to a child. [Bud Foster / KOLD News 13]

Police departments are trading in their cop cars for bigger, faster SUVs. [Alissa Walker / New York]

Southern Center for Human Rights is hosting a series of workshops for journalists who cover the legal system. The first session will be on Zoom on Wednesday, October 19. The class will give journalists the tools they need to move towards person-first language and balanced narrative framing. For more information, including how to register, click here.

ICYMI — from The Appeal

We are honored to be mentioned! The Appeal received an Honorable Mention for Best Non-Traditional News Source from New York University’s American Journalism Online Awards.

Ethan Corey takes a look at the FBI’s new crime data. He breaks down—with charts!—what you need to know.

Months after New York enacted a landmark law restricting solitary confinement, incarcerated people told Chris Gelardi of New York Focus that they’re facing similarly dehumanizing treatment at so-called “rehabilitation” units. This story was published in partnership with New York Focus. Read more in their investigative series on New York’s implementation of solitary confinement reforms.

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.

Solitary By Another Name: How New York Prisons Are Using ‘Therapeutic’ Units to Evade Reform

New York’s landmark solitary confinement reform law created a new, “rehabilitative” type of isolation unit. State prisons aren’t on board with the changes.

Matthew Ansley/Unsplash

Solitary By Another Name: How New York Prisons Are Using ‘Therapeutic’ Units to Evade Reform

New York’s landmark solitary confinement reform law created a new, “rehabilitative” type of isolation unit. State prisons aren’t on board with the changes.

This story was published in partnership with New York Focus. Read more in their investigative series on New York’s implementation of solitary confinement reforms.

When it’s time for Leroy Burton to attend the “therapeutic” classroom time offered to his unit at Upstate Correctional Facility, a state prison at the northern tip of New York, he puts his hands through a slot in the door to his cell. An officer on the other side cuffs his wrists, then opens the door so a second officer can pat Burton down, connect the handcuffs to a chain, wrap the chain around his waist, and use it as a leash to walk him down the hall. When they get to the room where the therapeutic programming is held, the officers order Burton to kneel on a box so they can place another pair of cuffs around his ankles. They guide him to his seat and shackle him to a table, where he stays for the duration of the classroom time — usually over two hours, he said.

Shackling is the rule, not the exception, for the more than 1,400 people incarcerated daily in units like Burton’s across the state. The prison agency has instructed superintendents to use restraints for all of them, despite state law that bans the practice without individualized safety assessments.

The units, known as residential rehabilitation units (RRUs), are a creation of a recent prison reform law, the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which limits the use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails.

The HALT Act invented RRUs — and set strict standards for them — so facilities, in theory, could have a relatively humane and rehabilitative place away from the general population to send those whom they are no longer allowed to keep in solitary. But in practice, state prisons are neglecting to follow the rules HALT imposed on RRUs — in some cases making them little better than the solitary confinement cells they’re supposed to replace.

RRUs and solitary confinement units together hold close to 2,000 people each day, more than the roughly 1,750 that were held in solitary before HALT went into effect.

Among HALT’s rules is a ban on placing restraints on RRU residents when they’re participating in out-of-cell activities; the only exception is if officials make an “individual assessment” that not cuffing someone would pose a “significant and unreasonable” safety risk. But New York Focus and The Appeal have found that, for more than five of the six months that HALT has been in effect, the prison system’s policy has been to shackle every one of the hundreds of RRU residents during out-of-cell activities, like they do to Burton.

“It’s really dehumanizing,” said Julia Salazar, chair of the state Senate’s corrections committee and lead sponsor of HALT. “They just want to do the easiest thing, not the most humane thing, when it comes to implementation” of the law.

For out-of-cell time, HALT mandates that facilities offer RRU residents at least seven hours a day, and that it must take place in a congregate setting with other incarcerated people. But men incarcerated in four different prisons told New York Focus and The Appeal that they rarely get anywhere near that much time out of their cell, and a vast majority of their out-of-cell hours consist of either time alone in a small outdoor cage or indoor activities during which they’re shackled to a table.

“[The prisons] don’t want an RRU unit where they can help people,” said Anisah Sabur, an organizer with the HALT Solitary campaign who recently visited an RRU. “They want to be in a space where you keep people locked in 23 hours a day.”

The revelations about RRUs follow two New York Focus investigations that found that the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which runs the state prison system, is routinely violating the core tenets of HALT.

Whereas HALT bars facilities from keeping people in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days, prisons have kept hundreds of people in solitary for longer than that since the law went into effect. HALT also prohibits putting people with disabilities in solitary confinement, but prisons have sent hundreds of people with mental or physical ailments to solitary, including dozens with the highest levels of health care needs.

In response to the investigations, DOCCS asserted that “continued allegations that the Department has intentionally violated any of the parameters of the HALT Act are patently false.”

According to Burton and other incarcerated people, prison staff have been attributing many of the HALT-violating practices, including the shackling of RRU residents, to orders from “Albany,” where DOCCS is headquartered.

“How are you going to listen to ‘Albany’ before you listen to the law?” wondered Burton.

‘Albany Said We Got to Handcuff You’

When it comes to RRUs — as with other aspects of HALT — DOCCS has spun a tangled web of contradictory policies and procedures: It has neglected to add HALT-compliant language to its departmental regulations, published directives and manuals that do mostly adhere to the law, and privately circulated an internal policy that seemingly violates HALT and contradicts the department’s own public directives.

The result is apparent widespread violations of HALT, as well as confusion among incarcerated people about how they’re supposed to be treated in RRUs.

DOCCS had a year from when former Governor Andrew Cuomo signed HALT into law to when the law went into full effect at the end of March. But the department waited until just a week before HALT’s enactment to propose updates to its own rules and regulations to comply with the law.

As a coalition of 56 legislators pointed out in a June letter to DOCCS, the department’s proposed regulations only mention RRUs once, and fail to include any of the standards HALT set for the units. Among the regulations’ omissions are any mention of HALT’s rule against shackling RRU residents during their out-of-cell time.

“DOCCS must revise the regulations to include all of the requirements for the RRUs required by HALT,” the legislators wrote.

DOCCS has yet to rework the proposed regulations. (The department said that it is “in the process of carefully reviewing” public comments on them.) But less than two weeks after the legislators’ sent their letter, DOCCS published a directive outlining RRU procedures and a “program manual” for RRUs, both of which incorporated most facets of HALT.

Yet despite those public-facing documents, incarcerated people report that DOCCS has ignored much of HALT’s stipulations for RRUs, including the rule against shackling residents during their out-of-cell time.

Burton, who has been in an RRU since shortly after the new units went online in April, said corrections officers have attributed the often-changing procedures to DOCCS headquarters: “‘Oh, now we got to handcuff you around the back.’ ‘Oh no, now Albany said we got to handcuff you and put the chains on.’ ‘Oh no, Albany said we got to put the shackles on.’”

Ahmed Greene, who has been housed in an RRU at Five Points Correctional Facility since April, said that prison staff shackle Five Points RRU residents to a table whenever they participate in indoor activities.

“When they have ‘program,’ you’re shackled to the table for three hours,” said Greene. “And when you come out for so-called ‘indoor recreation,’ you’re shackled to the table — can’t play cards, can’t play chess, nothing.” As a result, most people now decline to go to indoor recreation when given that option, he said.

Asked about the shackling, DOCCS told New York Focus and The Appeal that the department ordered prison superintendents to cuff all people in RRUs whenever they are “under escort and while participating in out-of-cell programming.” DOCCS said that the order is “in line with a provision of the HALT Law,” but it seemingly contradicts the requirement — outlined in HALT and DOCCS’s own directives and forms — that prisons come to an “individual” determination about someone’s safety risks before overriding the no-shackling rule.

When asked for a copy of the order to superintendents, DOCCS directed New York Focus and The Appeal to submit a public records request, which the department often takes months to fulfill. DOCCS did not answer questions about when it issued the order.

According to both Burton and Greene, staff began shackling people in their units (and attributing the practice to “Albany”) around mid-April — less than three weeks after HALT went into effect. They say the policy has remained in place uninterrupted for the past five months, suggesting that DOCCS published a mostly HALT-compliant public directive while privately ordering prisons to seemingly violate the law.

Salazar, the Senate corrections committee chair, said that her office was unaware of the internal DOCCS order to shackle RRU residents.

“There’s a presumption against [restraints],” Salazar said. “So for them to just issue a directive that’s not on a case-by-case basis, … I think it’s disingenuous.”

According to DOCCS, “any decision to implement new policies is not made arbitrarily, nor is it taken lightly.” The department said that it handed down the shackling order in response to “an escalation of violence that has occurred in not only RRUs, but other areas of the facilities.” The claim echoes complaints from corrections officers unions, which have launched an aggressive campaign to repeal HALT, arguing that prolonged solitary confinement is a crucial tool in preventing prison violence.

Some have raised questions about prisons’ claims of increased violence since HALT went into effect. As The Nation reported in August, DOCCS data show that, while officer write-ups for assaults on staff and incarcerated people increased (unevenly) in the months after HALT’s implementation, few of the allegedly assaulted staff reported sustaining significant injuries, and incarcerated people report officers frequently instigating violence themselves.

The Correctional Association of New York, an independent organization given authority under state law to monitor prisons, has issued six reports this year after visiting state facilities. (All of the visits took place before HALT went into effect.) During all of the visits, incarcerated people reported patterns of violence and abuse by staff.

According to Jennifer Scaife, executive director of the Correctional Association, the organization has been questioning DOCCS about its claims of upticks in assaults, prompting DOCCS to invite the Correctional Association to the next meeting of its prison violence task force later this month. Scaife said having “a seat at the table” will allow her organization to better gauge the relationship between HALT and prison violence.

‘They’re Trying to Circumvent the HALT Law Every Chance They Get’

Upstate Correctional Facility, where Burton is incarcerated, used to be one of New York’s “supermax” prisons — facilities dedicated to housing people in long-term isolation. Another supermax, Southport Correctional Facility, closed down shortly before HALT went into effect, its residents among the hundreds in state prisons the law has spared from prolonged solitary.

Meanwhile, Upstate has essentially become a large-scale RRU, with some 70 percent of its population housed in residential rehabilitation units. However, beyond the shackling rule, incarcerated people report that prisons have been ignoring other standards that HALT set for RRUs.

HALT mandates that facilities offer RRU residents seven hours of out-of-cell time, including therapeutic programming and recreation. But incarcerated people report only receiving a fraction of that.

According to Burton, prison staff open up recreation for RRUs at 8:00 every morning — but then close it within two hours. What’s more, they schedule the recreation time and classroom programming so they overlap, forcing residents to choose between the two. Whichever they choose, the Upstate RRU residents are only able to get out of their cells for around two hours a day — less than even the four HALT mandates for those in solitary confinement.

According to Greene, Five Points has done away with much of its RRU programming, stripping the RRU residents of roughly three hours of daily out-of-cell time. “Right now, we’re lucky if we get program once a week,” he said.

“So what’s the difference between being in SHU and being in RRU?” Greene asked, using the acronym for the prison system’s term for solitary confinement.

According to DOCCS, “all incarcerated individuals in RRUs are offered, but not obligated to take, the designated amount of out-of-cell time each day.” The department claimed that no one has filed grievances related to a lack of out-of-cell time.

But Greene told New York Focus and The Appeal that he and others at Five Points have filed several grievances related to conditions in the RRU. He said that, when sending grievances up the chain of command, corrections officers rewrite them to misconstrue what incarcerated people are actually complaining about.

For example, Greene said, he recently filed a grievance complaining that staff often bring phones to the RRU during programming or recreation time, forcing RRU residents to choose between using the phones and getting out of their cells. But when he received a response dismissing his grievance, he noticed that the summary of the grievance sent to prison supervisors only stated that he complained about not being able to use the phone on one specific day. “That wasn’t my grievance,” Greene said.

“No matter what you write, they’ll rewrite it in a way that it can be denied or dismissed,” he said.

HALT also mandates that RRU recreation time “take place in a congregate setting,” except in “exceptional circumstances” that create a safety risk. But Greene and Burton assert that their daily recreation time takes place in an outdoor cage that’s connected to their cell — and roughly the same size as it.

“They call it the rec pen — it’s a little pen in the back of the cell,” said Burton. “But I don’t even know if I consider this rec, because I’m still in the cell.”

Greene said Five Points RRU residents get congregate recreation time in the main prison yard once a week, but the rest of the time it takes place alone in the rec pen.

Two other men incarcerated in other types of non-solitary isolation units — which are supposed to, at minimum, adhere to the rules HALT sets for RRUs — have told New York Focus that their recreation time also takes place in small pens connected to their cells.

“We go from one concrete enclosure to another concrete enclosure,” said one of the men, who is incarcerated at Mid-State Correctional Facility. “We have no congregate activities or programs whatsoever,” said the other, incarcerated at Attica prison.

When it comes to the classroom programming, HALT mandates that it be “trauma-informed” and “therapeutic,” with the goal of “promoting personal development, addressing underlying causes of problematic behavior resulting in placement in” an RRU. But the quality of programming varies widely from prison to prison.

According to Burton and the man at Mid-State, their programming mostly consists of filling out packets of worksheets, which Burton called “childish and incriminating.” One of the worksheets asked about the first crime Burton ever committed. “Why would I tell you that?!” he exclaimed. The man at Mid-State said one of the worksheets asked about his favorite food.

Greene, on the other hand, spoke highly of his programming instructor, even though he’s only able to see her once a week.

“She actually advocates for us — for them to follow the HALT law,” he said. “She gets frustrated with it too, because she understands that this is supposed to be a real rehabilitative program.”

As part of the “therapeutic” nature of RRUs, HALT also mandates that staff conduct reviews of residents’ time in the units every 60 days — “to assess the person’s progress and determine if the person should be discharged from the unit.” But Greene said that he has never received such a review, despite asking for one and being housed in the unit for more than five months.

DOCCS countered his claim, asserting that “RRU reviews are completed at least every 60 days.”

Greene doesn’t buy it. “They’re trying to circumvent the HALT law every chance they get,” he said.

An Unprecedented Investment in Alternatives to Policing

Tony Webster via Flickr

An Unprecedented Investment in Alternatives to Policing

Tony Webster via Flickr

An Unprecedented Investment in Alternatives to Policing

by Nick Wing

Over the last year, states and jurisdictions have showered U.S. law enforcement with a tidal wave of new funding. Billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief aid have gone to pad already bloated police and prison budgets. President Joe Biden is now pushing Congress to funnel billions more to cops to support the hiring and training of 100,000 new officers.

The attention given to this spending spree is both deliberate and understandable. As politicians eagerly campaign on getting tough on crime, a sympathetic media has largely responded with positive coverage of their pro-police proposals. Justice advocates have stepped in to call out the harms that will likely follow.

But for all of the rightful concern, this focus on law enforcement spending has overshadowed a simultaneous—and seemingly more unprecedented—investment in alternative public safety responses.

Since 2021, around $500 million in new federal, state, and philanthropic funding has been directed toward initiatives that fall under the umbrella of so-called “community violence intervention,” or CVI, according to David Muhammad, executive director of the nonprofit National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR). This figure is neither exact nor final, Muhammad clarified, because much of this money has yet to be fully disbursed, and many states and jurisdictions are still developing plans to increase CVI funding.

While Muhammad said he was pleased by the recent progress, he was quick to note that the new money is the equivalent of a “rounding error in the federal budget.” Overall, he said CVI is still getting a small fraction of the dollars that go toward other violence prevention strategies, including initiatives like youth development and mentoring. The recent funding is also many magnitudes less than the influx of new money that has gone toward policing and other punitive responses to violence.

“There has been a significant increase, and yet we still need a lot more,” Muhammad told The Appeal.

CVI programs typically work by directly engaging community members at high risk of being victims or perpetrators of violence. Many popular evidence-based CVI approaches—such as Advance Peace or Cure Violence—involve street outreach to mediate conflicts and connect participants with services and support designed to address the root causes of violence. As the relatively young field of CVI evolves, programs have diversified into more specific areas, including addressing trauma through therapy, treating alcohol or substance use disorder, or supporting people who are reentering the community after incarceration.

The largest and most immediate boost of CVI funding has come from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA)—a $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package that provided hundreds of billions to states, counties, and cities to spend on pandemic recovery. As Brian Dolinar reported for The Appeal earlier this year, many jurisdictions have used this pot of ARPA money to fuel spending on police, prisons, and jails. In some cases though, it has also been used to fund alternatives to incarceration, including drug treatment centers, mental health crisis response teams, and CVI programs.

Not all of these CVI investments are equal. The lack of specific federal guidelines on “community violence intervention” spending under ARPA has allowed some jurisdictions to spend money allocated for CVI on things like squad cars, surveillance camera repairs, and controversial gunshot detection technology, according to recent reporting by The Marshall Project.

Muhammad held up Indianapolis as a city that is making one of the largest new investments in CVI. Officials there announced last year that they would be directing $150 million in ARPA funds to violence reduction programming. Although the mayor has said he wants to “put a priority on law enforcement,” the plan promises $45 million to grassroots groups and other community-based violence intervention efforts. The city has already begun awarding millions of dollars in new grants to dozens of local organizations.

In addition to the federal money through ARPA, the Biden White House has committed another $50 million in new CVI funding through its Community Violence Intervention Collaborative (CVIC). Officials haven’t begun distributing the money yet, according to Muhammad. States and philanthropies have also stepped up to substantially expand funding for CVI programs, he said.

The next few years will be crucial in determining whether the recent CVI investments become permanent. ARPA money is temporary, meaning jurisdictions will have to find more stable sources of funding if they want to maintain the new spending levels. While Muhammad said he’s optimistic that CVI initiatives will show promising results that could encourage future support, he noted that alternative approaches to public safety are often subject to extremely high levels of scrutiny, especially when compared to traditional responses like policing.

“We obviously need way, way, way more money, but this is also a young field, so we do need time to develop the infrastructure, train people, professionalize the field,” Muhammad said. “So as much as I think we need $100 billion, we’re not ready for $100 billion this second.”

There are broader questions about the role politics could play in promoting a more meaningful shift in our approach to public safety. One reason the public hasn’t heard more about this unprecedented CVI investment is that Biden and other Democrats appear to have made a strategic choice to campaign instead on their support for funding the police. This is bad political strategy, Muhammad argued. But there is still time to change course.

“Unfortunately, what we know is that Democrats are not good at messaging,” Muhammad said. “There is an opportunity to lift up a lot of places that have had success, both in increased investment but also in actual outcomes most importantly. I hope that the progressives, the left, Democrats eventually take advantage of that.”


In the news


Incarcerated people are striking in prisons across Alabama, led by Free Alabama Movement, a group that has been organizing from the inside against mass incarceration and inhumane prison conditions for nearly a decade. [@jaybeware / Twitter] For some historical context, check out The Appeal’s Anna Simonton’s story from 2016, published in In These Times.

A New York Focus investigation by Appeal alum Chris Gelardi finds that New York state prisons have sent hundreds of people with mental or physical disabilities to solitary confinement in possible violation of state law. [Chris Gelardi / New York Focus]

After months in a New York City shelter with her children, Leidy Paola Martinez Villalobos died by suicide. Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio and Rommel H. Ojeda report on the “bleak reality for a migrant family whose aspirations of grasping the American dream crumbled.” [Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio and Rommel H. Ojeda / Documented]

Rita Isbell’s brother, Errol Lindsey, was killed by Jeffrey Dahmer. Even though she’s depicted in Netflix’s new series, Isbell says Netflix never contacted her. “It’s sad that they’re just making money off of this tragedy,” she said. “That’s just greed.” [Rita Isbell / Insider]

ICYMI — from The Appeal

Congrats to Meg O’Connor on her Institute for Nonprofit News award for Best Investigative Journalism! If you haven’t yet, be sure to read Meg’s award-winning story on the culture of neglect that pervades NYPD’s Special Victims Division, and the tragic consequences the unit’s failures have brought.

Almost 2,000 people are imprisoned across Louisiana and Mississippi due to “habitual offender” laws, according to an analysis of data obtained by Tana Ganeva.

Meg O’Connor reports on Arizona’s abortion ban. Abortions may only be performed to save the life of the pregnant person—no exceptions for rape or incest. The law requires two to five years in prison for people who provide abortions. (Abortion funds still need financial support.)

Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reports on Louisiana’s plan to send “problematic youth” to Angola’s former death row unit.

Prison visitation rules were already difficult. But as formerly incarcerated writer Patrick Stephens notes, byzantine COVID-19 visitation limits have made seeing family almost impossible, while doing little to stop the spread of the disease.

Ethan Corey reports on the federal government’s failure to count thousands of deaths in law enforcement custody over the past three years.

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.

Louisiana Wants to Jail Kids at Angola Prison’s Old Death Row

An upcoming court ruling could decide the fate of a plan to detain “problematic youth” at a facility that previously housed prisoners awaiting execution.

msppmoore via Flickr

Louisiana Wants to Jail Kids at Angola Prison’s Old Death Row

An upcoming court ruling could decide the fate of a plan to detain “problematic youth” at a facility that previously housed prisoners awaiting execution.

Update: On Sept. 23, Chief District Judge Shelly Dick ruled that children in Louisiana’s juvenile detention facilities can be moved to Angola, even as she wrote that it “will likely have deleterious psychological ramifications.” Read the decision here. Our original story follows.

A federal judge is expected to rule this week on Louisiana’s widely condemned plan to transfer youth detained in juvenile facilities to a unit that once served as the state’s death row.

In July, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, announced a proposal to move approximately two dozen young people from the Bridge City Center for Youth, located outside New Orleans, to a building on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola.

The facility slated to detain youth previously housed the state’s male death row prisoners until 2006, when they were moved to another building at Angola, which is also the site of the state’s execution chamber. More recently, the unit held incarcerated women who had been displaced by flooding at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women.

The governor’s announcement came just days after several young people escaped the Bridge City facility. The transfers, Edwards said, would begin as soon as possible.

Since then, the state has said the plan would allow for the transfer of any “problematic youth” held at the state’s secure juvenile facilities, which can detain children as young as 10 years old. The state says they’re establishing a temporary “Transitional Treatment Unit” at Angola to detain young people who need a “more restrictive housing environment,” while they work to develop a permanent housing site.

Youth sent to Angola, the state’s oldest and only maximum security prison, would remain under the authority of the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) and be held in a separate building from adult prisoners.

In August, several law firms filed a class action suit, challenging the proposed transfers as unconstitutional and in violation of a federal law mandating complete separation between incarcerated adults and youth. In a response to the suit, the OJJ said it had purchased “blackout” fabric that can be wrapped around the fenceline of the youth housing facility to create the required separation. The court has barred all transfers pending the judge’s decision, which is expected this week.

“This is not simply a location change,” said Nancy Rosenbloom, a Senior Litigation Advisor in the ACLU National Prison Project, which has joined the suit. The transfers will send a message to youth “that they will be going into the grounds of a maximum security prison, one of the most notorious in the country, and that this is how they will be treated.”

Community members say the plan is emblematic of Louisiana’s profoundly broken juvenile justice system, which violates its mandate to rehabilitate young people in its care.

In March, The Marshall Project, ProPublica, and NBC News, published an investigation into a Louisiana juvenile detention facility where teenagers were physically assaulted by staff, held in solitary confinement for weeks, and denied court-ordered services. Last month, the Louisiana Illuminator reported that job applicants flagged as high-risk for sexually abusing youth would still be considered for employment in OJJ’s secure care facilities.

As both sides await the judge’s ruling, children in OJJ custody are fearful of being transferred to Angola, said Kristen Rome, co-executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, a nonprofit law office that represents youth in the justice system. Rome said it’s unconscionable that Angola, once a plantation for enslaved Africans, is now poised to incarcerate children, especially considering the majority of children held in OJJ secure care facilities are Black

Youth could be sent to Angola for a variety of behaviors, including committing certain acts of violence against a staff member or possessing marijuana, according to a policy approved by the OJJ deputy secretary in August. The policy would allow for the transfer of up to four youth classified as seriously mentally ill and states that youth with significant developmental disabilities should be referred to the unit on a case-by-case basis.

“For our clients, they’re terrified. They are calling us all the time. Asking a lot of questions,” Rome told The Appeal. “It’s clear that no one’s communicating with them.”

Some staff inside the juvenile facilities have attempted to reassure children that they won’t be moved, because they’re “one of the good ones,” said Rome.

The class action suit was filed on behalf of detained youth, including Alex A., a 17-year-old at Bridge City who the state has recommended for transfer to Angola because of alleged disciplinary issues. Alex has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and takes medication “related to the nightmares he has from trauma,” his mother told the court in a statement. He will be released from custody no later than 2024.

“The fear and uncertainty around the move to Angola has caused Alex to tear out his hair and to not be able to sleep,” Alex’s mother said.

In a hand-written statement to the court, Alex wrote that he attends school at Bridge City, where he receives accommodations for a learning disability. Math is his favorite subject and he checks out books from the school library, he wrote. He has weekly group and individual counseling sessions, and meets with a social worker every two weeks. Alex speaks to his mother every day by phone for 15 minutes.

“It is the part of the day I look forward to the most,” he wrote. “She is the only one that really listens to me.”

Alex wrote that he and others at the facility are “terrified” of being transferred, and that “youth break down and shed tears because of the prospect of being moved to Angola.”

Young people transferred to Angola will be held in windowless cells with floor to ceiling metal bars, according to the court filing submitted by the ACLU and others. The facility “is going to scream ‘prison’ to young people,” Vincent Schiraldi, an expert for the plaintiffs and the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, testified in early September. During a tour of the unit before the hearing, Schiraldi photographed fire exit plans posted on the walls that stated, “Reception Center – Death Row.”

A fire escape plan sign showing that the proposed juvenile detention unit once served as death row.
Vincent Schiraldi

An OJJ spokesperson told The Appeal in an email that the facility has been renovated to accommodate young people’s needs, including the creation of spaces for education, visitation, and mental health services. The facility is more than a mile away from the nearest adult housing unit and youth “will not see nor hear adult inmates,” the spokesperson wrote. However, in the case of a life-threatening medical emergency, children would be treated at the hospital on the prison grounds, according to the spokesperson.

“As OJJ has said many times, this is not an ideal solution, but it is the best temporary solution we have available to us to keep our youth safe, to keep our staff safe, and to keep our communities safe after recent incidents,” the OJJ spokesperson wrote.

The inside of a cell at the proposed juvenile detention facility.
Vincent Schiraldi

Opposition to the Angola transfer has been widespread. In July, an official with the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to the head of Louisiana’s juvenile justice agency, writing that the plan was “problematic” and could potentially violate federal law. Last month, advocates with Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children held a rally at the state capitol opposing the transfers. The state’s plan is “moving us backwards,” the group’s executive director and co-founder Gina Womack told The Appeal.

“They continue to perpetuate a damaging narrative about Black and brown youth to justify the ways in which they are mistreated and harmed,” she said.

In a letter to the governor and other state officials dated Sept. 20, leaders of Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice, a group of current and former youth correctional administrators, wrote that they condemn the plan “in the strongest possible terms.”

Young detainees engaging in “problematic behavior” do not yet have fully developed brains, and need education, support, and to “believe in their potential,” they wrote. This approach would lead to safer communities and lower recidivism rates; transferring young people to Angola, they warned, “will do the opposite.”

“Angola is perhaps the most infamous prison in the country, and exists in our national conscience as a quintessential harsh, merciless, and dangerous place for adults who may never be free again,” the letter’s authors wrote. “This lore is not lost on the children that Louisiana is now planning to send there.”

Pressure Mounts Against HIV Criminalization as Prosecutions Continue

Roughly 30 states still have some form of HIV criminalization law or sentencing enhancement on the books. Advocates say it’s long past time for change.


Pressure Mounts Against HIV Criminalization as Prosecutions Continue

Roughly 30 states still have some form of HIV criminalization law or sentencing enhancement on the books. Advocates say it’s long past time for change.

When Robert Suttle talks about his conviction for knowingly exposing someone to HIV, he doesn’t mince words.

“My character, the things that I’ve done in life that I’ve achieved, are counter to this perception of me as a criminal,” Suttle said. “It just doesn’t align.”

The criminal charges against Suttle stemmed from a brief, casual relationship in the early 2000s, after which he said his HIV status came into question through a mutual friend who knew he lived with the virus. The Shreveport Police Department investigated and eventually arrested Suttle at work in 2008, in front of co-workers who, he told The Appeal, were unaware he was gay and had HIV.

In 2009, Suttle was convicted and ultimately sentenced to serve six months in prison under a Louisiana law that makes it illegal to fail to disclose HIV status to sexual partners. Unlike most HIV criminalization laws, Louisiana is one of a handful of states that also requires people convicted under the statute to register as sex offenders.

As a gay Black man, Suttle sits at an intersection of two communities that police and the broader criminal legal system have historically targeted. He said it’s nearly impossible to describe how the ordeal changed his life. At the time of his arrest, Suttle was a clerk at the Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeal and not publicly out to his family. Thirteen years later, he lives in New York City and says he is still registered as a sex offender, a status he hopes to rectify in the coming years. He serves as chair of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation’s HIV Is Not A Crime Council of Justice Leaders, where he works to end prosecutions like the one that took so much from him over a decade ago.

Although some view the criminalization of HIV status as a relic of the HIV/AIDS epidemic’s early days and the bigotry, ignorance, and fear that defined the era, Suttle’s dedication to this work remains critical today. Roughly 30 states—including Louisiana—still have some form of HIV criminalization law or sentencing enhancement on the books, according to the Center for HIV Law and Policy (CHLP). And prosecutors continue to file charges under these statutes with stunning regularity.

“There’s almost not a week at this point that goes by where there isn’t a case,” said Kenyon Farrow, a public health activist who tracks HIV-related prosecutions. Farrow is also the managing director of advocacy and organizing for Prep4All, a grassroots group that organizes to increase access to HIV treatment.

But there are signs of progress. In a World AIDS Day address last December, President Joe Biden called for moderating and updating HIV criminalization statutes, saying it was time to “follow science.” In June, law enforcement officials and infectious disease experts gathered at the White House to discuss modernizing laws to better reflect the present-day reality of HIV and its transmission.

The nearly 50 prosecutors and infectious disease experts in attendance broadly agreed that criminalization does not serve public health, said Catherine Hanssens, CHLP’s executive director. CHLP helped convene the meeting, along with the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (APA) and the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. APA chair Dave LaBahn said that at the very least, laws need to be updated to account for scientific advances that both protect HIV-negative people from contracting the virus and prevent people with HIV from transmitting it.

Advocates say the goal of modernizing HIV laws must be to minimize the harms they cause, including their disparate impact on Black and brown people living with the virus. Public health experts warn that HIV criminalization statutes, originally touted as a measure to curb the virus’s spread, instead discourage testing and, by extension, hamper efforts to understand the true scope of the country’s HIV epidemic.

As the momentum for reform builds, the question now is how these changes will take shape.

In the past five years, states such as Georgia, California, and Virginia have reformed their laws to lessen punishments while still maintaining avenues for prosecution in some cases. HIV activists say these changes don’t go far enough and are in broad agreement in their support for fully repealing the laws. They also note that because many states also use general criminal laws to prosecute HIV-related crimes, reform efforts specifically targeting HIV criminal statutes may not be sufficient.

In one such case, a New York man was convicted in state court on an enhanced charge of aggravated assault after biting a police officer in 2006. Although similar incidents might have been considered simple assault, because the man was living with HIV, a lower court considered his saliva a “dangerous weapon.” He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but in 2012 the New York Court of Appeals overturned the conviction and he was released.

Advocates in recent months have also raised concerns about a molecular surveillance system, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses to monitor a number of data, including genetic changes to the HIV virus. Critics fear the system could have implications for criminal charges.

In January, New Jersey became just the third U.S. state to repeal its HIV criminalization law, after Illinois last year and Texas in 1994. Previously in Illinois, exposing others to HIV without their knowledge was classified as a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison.

When I wrote about HIV criminalization in Illinois last year, I found that an overwhelming majority of people charged in Cook County—home to Chicago—were Black, and that the law had repeatedly been applied in cases where there is no evidence of HIV transmission or transmission is exceedingly rare, namely when people spit on or bite a police officer during arrest.

But the disparate impact of Illinois’ law isn’t unique. Research has shown that HIV criminalization laws in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri, and other states are disproportionately used to target sex workers and Black and brown people living with the virus, according to the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law that focuses on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy. Experts say this phenomenon is particularly troubling given that Black men who have sex with men are most at risk of contracting HIV in the United States.

Nathan Cisneros, an HIV criminalization analyst at the Williams Institute, said charges are often filed in circumstances where transmission of HIV is extremely rare, such as through spitting or oral sex.

“HIV criminal laws appear to be trying to solve public health issues through the criminal legal system,” he said. “And I wonder—if, indeed, the problem is a public health issue—whether the most appropriate government mechanism for dealing with that issue is through the criminal system.”

One of the chief criticisms of HIV criminalization laws is that they have failed to evolve even as advances in treatment have turned the virus from a death sentence into a manageable chronic illness. Most statutes also don’t account for novel medications known as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, which are up to 99% effective at preventing transmission of the virus. States that do explicitly account for PrEP, such as North Carolina, use it as a means to exempt people living with HIV from prosecution if an HIV-negative partner takes the medication. Other states, like Iowa, make exceptions in cases where sexual partners take practical measures to prevent transmission of the virus.

HIV criminalization laws also largely fail to acknowledge the reality that people living with HIV can no longer transmit the virus if the amount of HIV in their blood is low enough to be considered undetectable—as is the case for many people who strictly adhere to regimens of antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV.

Tami Haught, managing director at the Sero Project, a national network of activists who aim to repeal HIV criminalization laws, has firsthand experience with how the laws can impact people living with HIV. Haught, who has lived with HIV for nearly 30 years, said her late husband for years lived with the fear that Haught’s family would push her to file charges against him after they were both diagnosed with HIV in the 1990s. Haught’s husband died in 1996 of pneumonia, kidney failure, and AIDS-related complications. But Haught said he also suffered significantly from fear, shame, and psychological trauma, in part due to the specter of being prosecuted under Iowa’s HIV law.

Haught testified before the Iowa Legislature twice in support of changing the law. In 2014, she helped update the state’s HIV statute to eliminate a 25-year prison sentence and allow for a tiered sentencing system, including felonies and misdemeanors, depending on the circumstances of the case.

While Haught said she’d prefer to see these sorts of laws repealed altogether, she acknowledged reform is rarely that simple.

“We don’t live in a [perfect] world, unfortunately,” Haught told The Appeal. “And there’s so much ignorance and lack of education, and that’s increasing around HIV. The lack of awareness is increasing to where I’m more for reform with specific guidelines on intent and transmission of HIV.”

Another central criticism of HIV criminalization is that the laws actually disincentivize people from getting tested. After all, people who don’t know their HIV status cannot “knowingly” expose others.

Farrow, the activist, said this is one reason reforms hinging on effective HIV treatment will not address racial disparities in prosecutions. This is especially true in the South, where recent CDC data shows the rate of new HIV infections is the highest—and where healthcare coverage for HIV-related medical needs is most lacking, according to Farrow.

“The likelihood that a person is living with HIV and maybe does not know their status is much higher in the states that, frankly, do a lot more of the criminalizing through the nondisclosure exposure,” Farrow said. “But they’re also the states that have done the absolute least to help people who are living with HIV get access to treatment.”

Advocates are also exploring new legal avenues to roll back HIV criminalization. In a 2021 Yale Law Journal article, Yale Law School fellow Joshua Blecher-Cohen argued that HIV criminalization laws violate the American with Disabilities Act, which explicitly applies to people living with HIV or AIDS. Although lawsuits challenging HIV criminalization laws under constitutional arguments have summarily failed, Blecher-Cohen wrote that lawsuits citing the ADA could pass muster.

For people like Suttle whose lives have been upended by HIV-related prosecutions, the damage has already been done. Still, Suttle said, change can’t come soon enough.

“It’s something I carry with me every day,” he told The Appeal. “Like most people who have faced the criminal justice system, they carry these traumatic experiences with them. I don’t think it’s something I’ll ever forgive.”

New School Year, Same School-to-Prison Pipeline

Rob Byron/Canva

New School Year, Same School-to-Prison Pipeline

Rob Byron/Canva

New School Year, Same School-to-Prison Pipeline

by Anna Simonton

As a new school year gets underway, debates over the role of police on campus are heating back up. In New York City, activists are decrying a plan to hire more than 800 additional officers to patrol schools. Education officials in Columbus, Ohio, are considering reinstating armed school officers. And Chicago parents and students are trying to maintain momentum for reducing the number of school police, a process that began two years ago.

Cops in classrooms are just one feature of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a term that describes a multitude of factors that funnel Black and brown youth into the criminal legal system. To kick off the fall semester, here’s a primer on the rise of the school-to-prison pipeline, its effect on students, and how communities are trying to change course.

Constructing the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Although white education systems have criminalized Black and brown youth in many different ways throughout history, the roots of the modern school-to-prison pipeline are often traced to “zero-tolerance” education policies passed in the 1990s amid a larger wave of tough-on-crime laws. Suspensions and expulsions exploded over the following decades. So did school police: Between 1975 and 2017, the number of public schools in the U.S. with police stationed on-site or regularly patrolling the campus increased from 10 percent to more than 60 percent. With police came a rise in arrest as a form of school discipline.

Suspension, expulsion, and arrest all fall under the umbrella of “exclusionary discipline.” These sorts of responses increase the likelihood that students will fall behind, drop out, or wind up in the criminal legal system, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Exclusionary discipline has not been meted out equally; during the 2017-2018 school year, Black students were suspended and expelled at more than five times the rate of white students. Arrest rates for Black students are comparable in most years. Black students with disabilities are typically disciplined even more disproportionately. Other students of color face similar disparities.

These trends mean that Black and brown students are often criminalized for doing things that historically have landed kids in detention, not handcuffs.

More Police, More Punishment

Across the country, students have been arrested for skipping school, roughhousing, and being “disruptive”—a catchall term used to describe actions ranging from talking back after having a cell phone confiscated to refusing to say the pledge of allegiance. Kids as young as five have been arrested for throwing tantrums. Students have also faced serious civil penalties for acting out. In Illinois, a ProPublica investigation found that police routinely ticketed students for things like shoving, littering, or using offensive language. The tickets come with hefty fines that, left unpaid, lead to mounting consequences.

Less common but especially horrific are the instances of police brutality that arguably would not happen if officers weren’t embedded in schools. Black students have been pepper sprayed, body-slammed, and violently thrown by school police. And even when students aren’t facing arrest or excessive force, they can be subject to aggressive policing tactics and surveillance.

The resources that school districts muster to police students often outweigh those dedicated to counseling, health care, and other support services. A 2019 report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that roughly one in five public school students in the U.S. had cops but no social worker at their school. Advocates say prioritizing resources in this way only sets students up to fail and ensures that they’ll face unforgiving and ineffective punishment when they do.

Schools Without Cops

Since 2020, amid the outcry over racist policing and violence following the murder of George Floyd, at least 50 school districts have ended contracts with police departments. Some have implemented alternatives like the “restorative justice coordinators” now on staff in Madison, Wisconsin, public schools. Some large school districts, including those in Los Angeles and Chicago, haven’t cut police out of the equation entirely, but have significantly downsized policing and redirected funding toward more supportive methods of addressing students’ behavioral needs.

The initial outcomes at schools that have eliminated police could encourage others to follow suit. Schools in Portland, Maine, are operating normally after removing police, according to the superintendent. And in Minneapolis, public schools have seen fewer disciplinary measures since replacing police with “unarmed public safety support specialists.”

For some reformers, the focus on school police is part of a broader campaign to do away with exclusionary discipline in all of its forms. The Black Lives Matter at School national coalition has called for an end to zero-tolerance policies. And The Sentencing Project has highlighted the opportunity for states to use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to close the school-to-prison pipeline by embracing restorative justice and trauma-informed practices. So far, 11 states and the District of Columbia have announced plans to use ARPA money to take steps in this direction.

Still, these changes have only come to a fraction of the nearly 14,000 school districts in the U.S. And, eight of the schools that ended contracts with police ultimately backtracked. But while setbacks are common, they can also be galvanizing. New York City advocates recently fought to save restorative justice programs that had been on the chopping block. Now they’re hoping to build off of that momentum to halt the planned expansion of school police, envisioning a day when their kids are welcomed back to school with care, not cops.


In the news


As part of Scalawag’s pop justice newsletter, Sezin Koehler takes a look at copaganda and Ru Paul’s Drag Race. [Sezin Koehler / Scalawag]

As a new school year begins, Frank Ornelas reflects on the horror of watching his son grow up behind bars. “‘Back to school’ especially drives home the fact that, since he was just the age of many high school seniors who are preparing for their transition into adulthood, my son has been forced to watch life through the news, from behind bars,” he writes. [Frank Ornelas / Truthout]

A sexual assault victim has sued the San Francisco Police Department for using the DNA sample she provided to identify her as a burglary suspect. [Tim Stelloh and Erick Mendoza / NBC News]

Incarcerated writer Christina Lynch interviews transgender rights activist Ashley Diamond about their work to protect trans women incarcerated in Georgia prisons. “As a trans woman of color inside a men’s prison, I’ve had to fight [the] same battles for survival and for my humanity as Ashley,” writes Lynch. [Christina Lynch / FilterMag]

ICYMI — from The Appeal

Since the end of a COVID-related zero-bail policy in July, Los Angeles County’s jail population has begun rapidly returning toward pre-pandemic numbers. As Nili Blanck reports, nearly half of these people are being held pretrial—jailed because they can’t pay bail.

Also in LA, Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reports that the ACLU is seeking federal intervention at the county’s jail booking center after attorneys reported overcrowding, filthy conditions, and inhumane treatment of people with mental illness.

“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” featured reporting by Meg O’Connor and Jerry Iannelli on the ways “Law and Order: SVU” has misrepresented the New York Police Department’s handling of sex crimes.

For more on how the actual “SVU” operates, read Meg’s December story on the NYPD’s troubled Special Victims Division, which has since been announced as the target of a Department of Justice investigation.

And be sure to check out Jerry and Meg’s newsletter column on the role “SVU” and Mariska Hargitay—the actor behind the beloved Olivia Benson character—have played in laundering the reputation of a failing department.

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.

L.A. County’s Jail Booking Center Has Become a ‘Living Hell,’ Detainees Say in Court Filing

County officials agree that conditions have deteriorated at L.A.’s Inmate Reception Center. But they’re resisting calls for substantive change.

A photo submitted by the ACLU showing detainees crammed into a room of the Inmate Reception Center in Los Angeles.

L.A. County’s Jail Booking Center Has Become a ‘Living Hell,’ Detainees Say in Court Filing

County officials agree that conditions have deteriorated at L.A.’s Inmate Reception Center. But they’re resisting calls for substantive change.

Inside the Los Angeles County jail’s booking center, people with severe mental illness are chained to benches or chairs for days on end, often forced to defecate and urinate on themselves, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) alleged in a filing submitted in federal court last week.

The Los Angeles County jail system’s Inmate Reception Center (IRC) has become so overcrowded that detainees are left to sleep on the ground, most of them without blankets, according to the ACLU. The floor is covered in garbage and urine. The men are denied showers and clean clothes. The toilets are clogged and smeared with feces.

“It is a living hell in here,” Gilberto, a detainee, told an ACLU attorney who visited in August. Gilberto, who has asthma, said that since he’d arrived at the IRC four days earlier, he had not been given an inhaler, which he typically uses three to four times a day. “The deputies treat us like animals and don’t give two shits about us.” (The Appeal is only using detainees’ first names to protect their privacy.)

Gilberto’s sworn statement is among a set of interviews and observations the ACLU submitted to Federal District Judge Dean D. Pregerson on Thursday, following visits last month to the IRC by attorneys with the ACLU’s National Prison Project and the ACLU of Southern California.

The ACLU is asking the court to order Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and the County of Los Angeles to limit custody at the IRC to no more than 24 hours and to ensure detainees are held in sanitary conditions with access to drinking water, working toilets, and medical care. The filing argues that the county should be compelled to act under the terms of a 1975 class-action lawsuit that successfully challenged rights violations at the Los Angeles Men’s Central Jail.

Each year, tens of thousands of men entering the Los Angeles County jail system—the largest in the country— are processed at the IRC before being sent to another facility. Detainees are supposed to spend less than 24 hours at the booking center, but in recent months people have been held there, in inhumane conditions, for more than a week, according to the ACLU.

On Monday, the county and sheriff’s office filed their response to the ACLU’s allegations and agreed that conditions inside the IRC “have deteriorated dramatically in past months.” However, they opposed the ACLU’s request for a 24-hour cap on detention. Instead, they proposed a limit of 36 continuous hours in only the clinic area, where nurses conduct medical screenings for new arrivals. This would not apply to people in holding cells. In a reply submitted to the court on Monday night, the ACLU reiterated the need for a 24-hour limit for everyone held at the booking center.

The county and sheriff say conditions at the IRC have worsened because the facility “has been overwhelmed with new inmates entering” the jail system, including a “skyrocketing number” with serious mental health conditions. These detainees require specialized housing, known as Moderate Observation Housing or High Observation Housing, both of which have been “in short supply,” they told the court.

The county and sheriff say they’ve already begun to address this issue by double-bunking detainees with mental illness who had previously been held alone in two-person cells. They’re also converting more county jail beds to mental health beds.

In an email to The Appeal, the sheriff’s office said they could not comment on pending litigation. The County Board of Supervisors did not respond to requests for comment.

The reversal of a zero cash bail policy for most misdemeanors and low-level felonies has also contributed to a “surge” of people churning through the IRC, according to the response from the county and sheriff.

The Los Angeles County Superior Court instituted a zero cash bail policy in April 2020, at the start of the pandemic. The number of people being processed through the IRC quickly fell by nearly half, from about 86,000 in 2019 to about 45,000 in 2021. The policy “had a profound effect on the county’s overall jail census,” the county and sheriff told the court.

Since the reversal of the bail policy in July, the number of people coming through the booking center “approximates the pre-pandemic 2019 pace,” according to the county and sheriff.

The county could reduce the number of people entering the jail system by voting to implement and make permanent the zero cash bail policy, Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told The Appeal. With more than 14,000 people currently detained in Los Angeles County jails, the system is operating almost 20 percent over capacity. (The county and sheriff told the court that while there is a bottleneck at the IRC, overcrowding is not an issue at other facilities.) Nearly half of all people held in the Los Angeles County Jail System are awaiting trial and are presumed innocent.

Kendrick also urged the county to provide adequate funding for community-based programs that serve people with mental health disorders. A 2020 study commissioned by the county found that over 60 percent of detainees with mental illness could be safely placed in community programs if they existed and had the necessary resources.

The ACLU has asked the court to order the county to justify why it has failed to adequately fund “programs to provide an additional 1000 beds in the community for people with mental illness who would otherwise be in the Jail.”

During Kendrick’s visit to the IRC in June, she reported seeing nine men chained to chairs. Several appeared to be detoxing, and at least two people appeared to be “floridly psychotic or disassociating, speaking to themselves or others only they could see,” she wrote in her declaration to the court. In the past month, some people have been chained to chairs for almost seven consecutive days, according to the ACLU.

The ACLU is requesting a four-hour limit on the time a person can be chained, but the county and sheriff oppose a cap and have defended the practice. In their response to the court, they claimed that individuals “tethered” to “cushioned chairs” had been identified as “high risks for engaging in a suicide attempt or self-directed violence,” or were “acting out due to mental illness or intoxication.”

When the ACLU visited the IRC in August, people with mental illness told attorneys they were rapidly unraveling.

Chuck, who has bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, told an ACLU attorney that he hadn’t received any of his medications since he’d arrived at the booking center days earlier. He was afraid to eat the food because “voices say to me it is poisoned.”

“I have been crying on and off since I have been here,” he said. “I was thinking about suicide but don’t want to tell anyone because if I do they will chain me to [a] chair.”

A 61-year-old man said he had defecated on himself, but wasn’t allowed to shower. Since arriving at the IRC, he said he hadn’t been given his medication for depression or paranoid schizophrenia. He repeatedly asked to see a mental health specialist, but was told he couldn’t see one until he was transferred to another facility. “Throughout the day, I will break out into tears,” he wrote in a statement submitted to the court.

Another man described being put in a holding cell on his first night with 40 to 50 other men, packed in like sardines. “We only got out when we started screaming, kicking the windows and threatening not to eat,” he told an attorney with the ACLU. Since arriving, he said he had not received his psychiatric medication for depression, leading him to “feel despair.”

“This is cruel and inhumane,” he said. “No human should be treated this way.”

Trans Man Forced to Undergo Genital Exam at New York Prison: Lawsuit

Prison officials allegedly used solitary confinement to get the plaintiff to submit to an invasive examination prohibited under federal law.

John Smith, a pseudonym used by a transgender man suing New York's Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, looks out a window in New York City.
Phoebe Jones / Legal Aid Society

Trans Man Forced to Undergo Genital Exam at New York Prison: Lawsuit

Prison officials allegedly used solitary confinement to get the plaintiff to submit to an invasive examination prohibited under federal law.

This story was published in partnership with New York Focus.

For months after a New York judge sentenced him to prison in late 2019, John Smith, a transgender man, tried to ward off attempts by jail and prison officials to touch his genitals, he says. (“John Smith” is a pseudonym being used in court filings and this article to protect his privacy.)

At a women’s facility at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex, where he stayed for three months before being sent to state prison, corrections officers tried to subject Smith to a genital examination, according to a federal lawsuit filed Monday. He refused it. Before his incarceration, Smith had worked at an LGBTQ services organization, he told New York Focus and The Appeal, where he learned that the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, prohibits jails and prisons from conducting exams solely to determine someone’s genital status.

The doctor at Rikers honored Smith’s objection to a genital exam. But state prison officials were more insistent. In January 2020, Smith was transferred to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in the Hudson Valley. When he arrived, staff subjected him to a standard intake strip search, then a secondary strip frisk, during which a female officer ordered Smith to manipulate his genitals, leaning in to closely inspect them. Officials then sent him to the prison medical ward, where, as part of an examination, a doctor lifted his waistband to view his private parts.

After the examination, Smith was sent to a waiting room. Minutes later, he was brought back into the exam room, where the doctor and a nurse told him that, even though prison staff had already looked at his genitals three times, the prison superintendent had ordered an additional exam to see what his genitals looked like, according to the lawsuit. The doctor again looked inside his pants, the lawsuit alleges, and the nurse attempted to pull them down without asking. Smith refused further examination.

Instead of finishing the intake process, prison officials then placed Smith in “medical lock,” a solitary cell in the medical reception area where people — typically those with contagious illnesses — are confined for 23 hours a day.

In addition to the well documented mental anguish that solitary confinement places on people, the heat in the medical lock cell made it unbearable, Smith said. There was poor ventilation, and the location of the room’s window made airflow impossible. Even though it was January, it felt like “sitting in a sauna in the middle of summertime,” he said. When Smith tried to remove some clothes to cool down, prison officials ordered him to put them back on. Officials only gave him ice and water during meal times, despite his requests for water throughout the day. For several days, they denied him the proper dosage for his hormone treatments, which made the heat sickness worse, and they frequently misgendered him, the lawsuit alleges.

According to Smith, several prison officials — including the sergeant in charge of administering PREA regulations — told him that they placed him in medical lock because he had refused the superintendent’s orders for a full genital exam. Smith repeatedly reasserted his rights, but the prison continued to insist that he undergo the exam, he said. At one point, a case worker threatened to place him in a long-term solitary confinement unit if he continued to object, and told him that he wouldn’t be able to participate in a prison program that could reduce his sentence.

Smith held out for more than a week, including three days during which officers denied him his one hour outside of the cell, according to the lawsuit. But after eight days in medical lock, officials took an emotionally and physically drained Smith to see another doctor, who convinced him to undergo a final, formal genital exam — which, she assured, would only be visual, according to the lawsuit. With Smith’s legs in stirrups, the doctor allegedly touched his genitals with her finger, causing him to jump off the exam table. She then proceeded to penetrate Smith with a cotton swab. After the exam was finished, officers finally released Smith from medical lock.

The doctor took detailed notes on Smith’s anatomy and the apparent progress of his genital transition, but the records don’t provide a medical reason for the exam, nor do they mention that he consented to being touched, according to the lawsuit.

“The horrific mistreatment suffered by our client … is an example of the all too common abuse that transgender people face in the carceral system,” said Erin Beth Harrist, director of the LGBTQ+ law and policy unit at the Legal Aid Society, which filed the lawsuit in partnership with a private firm. The suit names a number of Bedford Hills officials, including the doctor who allegedly performed the exam, the case worker who allegedly threatened to punish him for not acquiescing to it, the PREA sergeant, and the superintendent.

“Officials’ complete disregard for established laws and rules, and use of solitary confinement to force Mr. Smith to commit to an unnecessary, prohibited, and degrading search, speaks volumes about the transphobia that persists in New York state prisons and jails,” said Harrist.

Citing the pending litigation and medical privacy laws, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which runs New York state prisons, declined to comment on Smith’s allegations.

A September 2021 audit of Bedford Hills by a U.S. Department of Justice contractor concluded that relevant staff were aware that, in accordance with PREA, they’re prohibited from ordering a physical exam “for the sole purpose of determining [an] inmate’s genital status.” But Smith says that’s exactly what happened to him.

Smith’s case is just one of many allegations of abuse of transgender people in New York correctional facilities. The mistreatment likely illustrates a lack of policy framework and oversight, including surrounding issues of the most urgent concern to incarcerated trans people, such as housing placements. DOCCS only guarantees an “individualized assessment” based on no specific criteria when deciding whether to place someone in a men’s or women’s prison. While DOCCS officials are required to take an “inmate’s own views” into “serious consideration” when determining their placement, they frequently default to placing them in facilities that match their gender assigned at birth, rather than their gender identity.

The lack of guidance on housing affects local jails, too. In a report published this month, a task force convened by New York City asserted that city jails house gender non-conforming people in units inconsistent with their gender identity in a “vast majority” of cases.

But even in situations with robust legal or policy frameworks — like the administration of hormones and other gender-affirming health care, or the administration of strip-searches — the laws or policies dictating the proper treatment of gender non-conforming people in New York prisons and jails are often ignored.

In 2019, a trans woman sued the Steuben County jail for denying her access to her hormone therapy and failing to protect her from the predatory behavior of men she was locked up with. In 2021, a trans woman alleged that Jefferson County jail officials physically and sexually assaulted her, ripped off her hair piece, and subjected her to an unnecessary and aggressive cavity search by a male officer. And in March, a trans woman sued Broome County jail officials for refusing her hormone treatments and placing her in medical lock, where men could see her using the bathroom.

For DOCCS’s part, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a New York City-based organization dedicated to gender self-determination, has asserted based on interviews with incarcerated people that state prisons rarely follow department directives governing healthcare for trangender prisoners.

Making matters worse, oversight bodies have failed to provide guidance. The State Commission of Correction, the government agency that oversees jail and prison conditions across New York, has published no minimum standards related to the incarceration of transgender and other gender non-conforming people, despite years of urging by advocates. In 2019, the New York Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the commission pointing to an email correspondence with a Rensselaer County jail official, who asserted that they would be “wasting [their] time dealing with transgender policy issues until the Commission [of] Correction begins requiring” them.

In response to a query from New York Focus and The Appeal, a State Commission of Correction spokesperson wrote in an email that “New York State is committed to equal treatment of transgender and non-conforming individuals,” and pointed to the commission’s two anti-discrimination regulations, which are each one sentence long.

State legislators are trying to make up for some of the lack of policy guidance. Senator Julia Salazar and Assemblymember Nily Rozic, both Democrats, introduced a bill in May 2021 that would, among other things, establish a presumption that people incarcerated in prisons and local jails should be placed in facilities that most closely align with their gender identities, unless they opt out of such a placement. The bill didn’t make it out of committee before the end of the current legislative session. Salazar told New York Focus and The Appeal that she plans to reintroduce it next session.

The forced genital exam has deeply affected Smith. After the incident, he transferred from Bedford Hills to a facility that administers the sentence reduction program that he’d nearly been banned from. Smith was eager to resume his life after his release in September 2020. But the trauma hasn’t been “that easy to shake off,” he said.

“It was heavy on my mind. I thought about it. I felt dirty,” Smith said. Post-traumatic stress from sexual abuse he experienced as a child — which he said he repeatedly told prison officials about — worsened, and his body image distorted. He developed trouble eating and sleeping and an aversion to physical touch. “At one point I just gave up on life,” he recalled. He lost weight and confined himself to his room, placing a portable toilet near his bed so he wouldn’t have to leave.

Today, Smith mostly interacts with his grandmother, whom he helps take care of, and a friend, whose child he babysits, but he is still struggling. He hopes his lawsuit will help other people avoid the distress he has gone through — especially those who, unlike him, may not be aware of their rights under PREA.

“[Officials] feel like they can do or get away with pretty much anything that they want to,” Smith said. “If it makes you feel bad as an individual, or makes you feel inhuman, you should not have to sit there and accept that.”

Judge Strikes Down New York Jail’s Prolonged COVID Visitation Ban

The ban had helped the Broome County Sheriff rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits from detainee video and phone call fees.

Jason Farrar/Flickr via Creative Commons 2.0

Judge Strikes Down New York Jail’s Prolonged COVID Visitation Ban

The ban had helped the Broome County Sheriff rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits from detainee video and phone call fees.

This article was published in partnership with New York Focus.

The Broome County Supreme Court on Thursday struck down the county jail’s ban on in-person visitation, which had been in effect for more than two years. The ban left detainees to rely on costly video and phone calls in lieu of face-to-face visits, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars for the sheriff’s department, The Appeal and New York Focus reported in June.

In May, Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier, a local nonprofit, filed a class-action suit arguing that the jail’s visitation ban violated the due-process rights of detainees. The policy—which the sheriff’s department defended as a COVID-19 mitigation measure—subjected detainees to “excessive costs and fees” that made communication “effectively unavailable” for many of the people held at the jail, the suit charged.

In a ruling authored by Sixth Judicial District Justice Oliver N. Blaise, III, the court found “irreparable harm will result if in-person visitation for pre-trial detainees and visitors at the Jail is not resumed promptly with adequate safety protocols.”

The Broome County Sheriff’s Department had argued that the visitation ban would minimize exposure to COVID-19, and had noted that incarcerated people could still communicate with their families using jail tablets.

Under the terms of the injunction, Broome County Jail must resume visitation by Sept. 5, with protocols that are “the least restrictive means given the circumstances,” Blaise wrote. The details of the reopening plan remain to be seen.

Last month, the judge requested visitation proposals from the plaintiffs and the defense. The sheriff’s plan would prohibit all physical contact and allow each detainee only 30 minutes of in-person visitation per week. His proposal would also require visitors to show proof of vaccination and present a negative COVID test administered within the previous seven days.

Josh Cotter, an attorney with the nonprofit Legal Services of Central New York who filed the suit, said the sheriff’s plan would make visitation nearly impossible for many families. He noted that despite the sheriff’s professed concern for protecting against the virus, the jail has not taken other common-sense steps to protect the health and safety of detained people: Those in the jail are tested for COVID only if they exhibit symptoms, and staff aren’t required to get vaccinated.

In February, New York Focus reported that the Broome County Jail had one of the lowest testing rates of any jail in the state. Between Aug. 3 and Aug. 10, Broome County jail only conducted three COVID-19 tests.

With visitation closed at the Broome County jail, detained people have had to rely on expensive phone and video calls and electronic messaging to stay in touch with their loved ones. The sheriff’s department takes a cut of those communications fees, and the profits for the department have added up alongside the costs to detained people.

Between January and October 2021, the Broome County Sheriff’s department took in more than half a million dollars from detainee phone calls and tablet use, according to records obtained by Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier (JUST), which runs a visitation program at the jail. JUST’s founding member Bill Martin first published the financial records on his blog, Just Talk.

A 15-minute collect phone call to someone with a local area code can cost as much as $10, according to the complaint. Detained people receive just one free five-minute phone call per week. The cost of calls varies from jail to jail throughout New York, and legislative efforts to provide calls free of charge have stalled.

At Broome County, video calls cost 25 cents a minute, according to a copy of the jail’s contract with Global Tel Link, a telecommunications giant that operates in prisons and jails throughout the country. Each email sent on a tablet costs 25 cents, and each attached photo costs 50 cents. In most cases, it also costs 5 cents a minute just to use the tablet. Under the contract, the jail gets 44 percent of gross revenue generated from phone calls, 20 percent of gross revenue generated from video calls, and some tablet access charges. Each deposit into a detainee’s account for messaging and video calls also comes with a fee of $3.33.

COVID-related visitation bans are still in effect at other New York jails, including those in Allegany County and Chemung County, according to their respective websites. The jails did not return calls from New York Focus and The Appeal. Other facilities have implemented stringent new rules governing visits. Visitation resumed at Cattaraugus County jail this month, for example, but children are prohibited from touching their parents or moving much at all. “The child must sit in the chair, and stay seated during the visit,” the sheriff’s website reads. “Children are not allowed to stand, kneel, or lay on the chair.”

Cotter said the court’s ruling could spur other New York jails to resume visitation more than two years after the start of the pandemic.

“We hope [the lawsuit] sends a message to other jails who may be denying in-person visitation that what they’re doing is not right,” Cotter said.

Calls for Action After Reports of Inedible Food at Virginia Prison


Calls for Action After Reports of Inedible Food at Virginia Prison


Calls for Action After Reports of Inedible Food at Virginia Prison

by Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg

Politicians are demanding greater oversight over the Virginia Department of Corrections, following The Appeal’s report that women at one state prison say they’re served moldy and spoiled food.

“We should not be treating people that are incarcerated differently when it comes to consumption of food,” Delegate Patrick Hope, a Democrat, told The Appeal.

Hope says specialists with the state health department should conduct inspections of prison kitchen and dining facilities. Currently, those inspections are conducted by Department of Corrections staff. Earlier this year, Hope sponsored a bill to create an official ombudsman and oversight body to monitor conditions inside the state’s prisons. The bill did not make it out of committee.

“There’s no oversight, there’s no transparency, no accountability to the Department of Corrections outside of themselves,” said Hope. “They govern themselves, they police themselves, and they think everything’s running smoothly.”

Women incarcerated at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women (FCCW) have told The Appeal that they’ve found bugs in their food and on their trays, that portions are “toddler-size,” and that they’re served food that is inedible.

In the wake of The Appeal’s story on those allegations, Jay Jones, a former state delegate who previously sought the Democratic nomination for attorney general, called on Virginia’s Attorney General to investigate the situation at FCCW. A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office told The Appeal in an email that they cannot comment due to pending litigation.

“Just because you’re incarcerated does not mean that you should be subjected to inhumane conditions and not be afforded the basic sort of comforts of being a member of our society like food and shelter,” Jones told The Appeal in a phone interview this month.

More than 25,000 people are currently confined in Virginia’s prisons, about a five percent increase from last year’s population. Although the Virginia Department of Corrections is one of the state’s largest agencies, the department tends to operate by its own rules, said Hope.

Department of Health inspections of correctional facilities would provide the type of independent oversight that’s missing from Virginia prisons, according to Hope. The department of health inspects thousands of establishments across the state—including some local jailsand publishes a publicly accessible database of reports, but no such database exists for inspections conducted by the department of corrections. A facility inspected by the state health department may be subject to civil penalties for repeated violations, as noted on their inspection reports.

In July, The Appeal filed a public records request with the Department of Corrections for kitchen, food preparation, and food inspection reports for FCCW for this year. The department responded with a June “dietician’s report on food service,” along with a menu for each month. A dietician employed by the Department of Corrections found the prison in compliance with each assessment area, including whether proper serving utensils were used, whether salt, pepper, and sweetener were offered, and whether temperature control sheets had been properly filled out.

“Full portions observed on sample trays,” the dietician wrote. “Variety of fresh fruits and vegetables on all meal services.”

In response to questions about continued allegations of inedible food and the possibility of external oversight, a Virginia Department of Corrections spokesperson wrote in an email to The Appeal that the department “does not engage speculation and hyperbole.”

Still, women incarcerated at FCCW maintain that they continue to receive substandard food at mealtime. Stephanie Angelo wrote to The Appeal in July that they had “been getting rotten black slimey [sic] potatoes.” Recently for dinner, she said they received just “one piece of broccoli for the vegetable serving and the other day was one single slice of squash.” Last week, Angelo said they were given moldy hamburger buns.

This month, Shebri Dillon, who’s incarcerated at FCCW, wrote to The Appeal that they were “still getting molded food, rotten oranges, etc. and small portion sizes.” Dillon supported Hope’s idea to make the state health department responsible for conducting inspections of prison food service facilities.

“Historically, power that goes unchecked becomes abusive,” she wrote. “Even though we are just talking the kitchen here, it is power as it weaponizes the food. I think having outside oversight can be a game changer.”


In the news


In 2015, Trent Bouhdida was sentenced to 16 years for selling an ounce of marijuana to an undercover police officer. Last week, the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency—which is stacked with former cops and prosecutors—denied his clemency petition. Marijuana was legalized in Arizona in 2020. [Katya Schwenk / Phoenix New Times]

For more than a year, journalist Indigo Olivier investigated the enmeshed relationships between weapons manufacturers, like Lockheed Martin, and universities. “Many college STEM programs around the country have become pipelines for weapons contractors,” Olivier wrote. [Indigo Olivier / In These Times]

New Mexico state Sen. Jacob Candelaria sued the New Mexico Department of Corrections for withholding records on its decision to hire a company to photocopy prisoners’ mail and provide them copies, not the originals, of their letters. [Dan McKay / Albuquerque Journal]

In Siskiyou County, California a lawsuit alleges that the sheriff has conspired to “drive a disfavored racial minority from the County.” Asians make up only 2.4 percent of the county’s adult population—yet they accounted for over 28 percent of Sheriff’s Department traffic stops in 2021, according to the complaint. [Sakshi Venkatraman / NBC News]

When people in crisis contact the newly launched 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, law enforcement may be called in some circumstances, the hotline’s executive director told NPR’s Aneri. [Aneri Pattani / NPR]

A Utah judge ruled that internal police interview records (known as a Garrity interview) from a 2018 police shooting should be made public. Four years ago, West Jordan police officers shot and killed 23-year-old Michael Glad. Now, the truth behind the killing may finally come to light. [Paighten Harkins / The Salt Lake Tribune]

ICYMI — from The Appeal

In a report last week, a federal monitor issued a damning condemnation of substandard healthcare in Illinois prisons. As Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reports, the monitor reviewed 25 deaths, concluding that some were “allowed to deteriorate without intervention.”

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.

Report Details ‘Cruel’ and ‘Unconscionable’ Treatment of Patients in Illinois Prisons

A federal monitor says substandard healthcare persists—with horrific consequences—more than a decade after a lawsuit was supposed to compel changes.


Report Details ‘Cruel’ and ‘Unconscionable’ Treatment of Patients in Illinois Prisons

A federal monitor says substandard healthcare persists—with horrific consequences—more than a decade after a lawsuit was supposed to compel changes.

Last year, on the day before Christmas, a 45-year-old man with cancer was lying on a mattress on the floor of an Illinois prison, with feces on his hands, according to a report filed in federal court last week.

A nurse at the prison gave the patient sanitary wipes to clean himself. “Pt refuses to get up off floor to be assisted with cleaning,” she wrote in her notes, according to the report. “Says I’m fine down here you can go on now. Educated on sanitary hygiene. Will [continue] to encourage hygiene and sanitation practices.”

Later that day, the man was dead.

In the months before his death, the man often complained of severe pain, had lost more than 20 pounds, and was incontinent, but medical providers took little action, according to the report.

His death is one of more than two dozen contained in the latest report filed by a court-appointed monitor tasked with overseeing long standing issues of inadequate health care in Illinois state prisons. More than a decade ago, Uptown People’s Law Center, a Chicago-based civil rights firm, and others filed a class action lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), alleging that healthcare in the state’s prisons was so poor that it violated the constitutional rights of incarcerated people. In 2019, the plaintiffs and IDOC entered into a settlement agreement, which mandated that correctional officials implement a number of reforms.

But incarcerated patients are still waiting for many of those changes to materialize. Earlier this month, federal District Court Judge Jorge L. Alonso found IDOC in contempt of the court’s order to complete a valid implementation plan to improve healthcare services. Shortly thereafter, the court-appointed monitor, Dr. John Raba, filed his fifth report—a damning condemnation of the substandard care that Illinois prisons continue to provide.

People in IDOC custody, Raba wrote, “died from dehydration and malnutrition …. or were allowed to deteriorate without intervention.” Their care was “unacceptable.”

The most vulnerable patients—people with life-threatening illnesses and elderly patients with dementia—face particularly poor treatment, according to Raba’s report. More than 1,000 people age 65 or older were incarcerated in Illinois prisons as of last December.

People with dementia, the monitor found, signed living wills or “do not resuscitate” orders when “they clearly were not of sound mind and could not willfully and voluntarily do so.” In several cases, they “appeared mistreated, neglected, or abused.”

IDOC has pushed back against the monitor’s findings. In a statement sent to The Appeal, IDOC said that the monitor “has advocated that the Department create a healthcare system that far exceeds community standards.” The department maintained that it “takes the physical and mental healthcare of incarcerated individuals very seriously.”

To help comply with the consent decree, IDOC said it hired Dr. Jane Leonardson, “a nationally recognized correctional healthcare expert.” After conducting her own review of the same records provided to the monitor, Leonardson concluded that Raba’s report “included extensive inflammatory and inaccurate statements which are unsupported and are meant to cast unfair doubts on the entire IDOC healthcare system,” according to an IDOC statement.

When The Appeal asked to review Leonardson’s version of the report, an IDOC spokesperson clarified in an email that she had not drafted her own version, and had only “assisted the department in responding to the Monitor’s report.”

In March, IDOC entered into a three-year contract with Leonardson for an estimated $1.95 million, according to a copy of the contract IDOC provided to The Appeal. Over the course of three years, she’ll be compensated for an estimated 3900 hours of work—around 25 hours a week—at a rate of $500 an hour. As a consultant for IDOC, Leonardson is tasked with, among other duties, assessing departmental policies, assisting with developing a quality assurance program and, when necessary, providing expert testimony.

An IDOC spokesperson declined a request for an interview with Leondardson on the doctor’s behalf.

As part of the court-appointed monitor assessment, Raba examined the records of 25 people who died in IDOC custody or who had been in custody shortly before their death. He found that medical providers repeatedly ignored patients’ symptoms, delayed necessary diagnostic testing, and, in effect, left people to waste away until their death. The monitor called one doctor’s care of a 70-year-old cancer patient “incompetent and cruel.”

For six months, another prisoner, a 49-year-old man, repeatedly complained of back pain. Medical staff told him to drink more fluids, cut down on sugar, and stretch, according to the monitor’s report. When he was finally sent to the hospital, he was diagnosed with brain and bone cancer, and respiratory failure.

When the patient was returned to prison, he “complained of pain consistently on most days,” but the nurses often withheld his prescribed pain medication. He died last August, about a month after being released from prison.

In what the monitor described as “unconscionable” treatment by medical staff, an elderly man with dementia was housed in “what appeared to be the equivalent of solitary confinement.”

The man had been admitted to the infirmary not as an official “patient,” but as a “security hold,” a term used to describe individuals who cannot live in general population for any number of reasons, including an inability to care for themselves. Because medical staff never considered him a patient, he was expected to care for his own daily needs, such as drinking, eating, and bathing.

Between March and August of last year, he lost almost 60 pounds. He fell multiple times and often refused food, according to the monitor’s report. But even as his condition worsened—including a brief hospitalization for a possible seizure—medical staff did not admit him as a patient and rarely examined him.

Last September, the man was found unresponsive in his cell and was taken to the hospital. His temperature was in the 70s. Because of his malnourishment, he had developed severe hypothermia and gone into cardiac arrest, according to the monitor’s report. He died later that month.

The medical staff’s treatment of the man constituted elder abuse and should be investigated, the monitor wrote.

If the people described in the report were housed in a nursing home and not a prison, their inadequate care would “trigger a state investigation, and the home would immediately be shut down,” Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, wrote in an email to The Appeal.

“IDOC clearly wants to continue their misconduct with impunity, hidden behind prison walls,” he wrote. “Their complete disregard for the health and safety of people in prison should disgust every taxpayer in Illinois.”

Who Will San Francisco Blame for Crime and Disorder Now?

Servando Miramontes via Flickr

Who Will San Francisco Blame for Crime and Disorder Now?

Servando Miramontes via Flickr

Who Will San Francisco Blame for Crime and Disorder Now?

by Nick Wing

Brooke Jenkins was appointed as San Francisco’s interim district attorney just over a month ago, following the recall of her former boss, Chesa Boudin. After voters booted Boudin from office, Mayor London Breed installed Jenkins, a “tough-on-crime” prosecutor who became something of a paid spokesperson for the recall campaign. She has promised to support law enforcement and ramp up punishment for certain crimes.

Jenkins and other recall supporters blamed Boudin’s progressive leadership for crime and disorder in the city, with Jenkins going so far as to say that the city’s crime rate was “directly linked” to his reform policies. But, with a “tougher” new DA at the helm, the city’s issues with lawlessness, whatever they may be, aren’t simply disappearing.

“Crimes continue to happen under [Jenkins’s] leadership, ranging from gun homicides and assaults of elderly people in the AAPI community to Walgreens thefts caught on video,” Rachel Marshall, Boudin’s former communications director, wrote in an Appeal column last week.

Jenkins and her supporters might say she needs longer than a month to turn the city around. But Marshall writes that it’s only a matter of time before voters realize the DA cannot prevent individual crimes and “lacks power to substantively tackle” broader issues of “homelessness, dirty streets, and visible substance use.”

Marshall and other reformers argue that more severe punishment is ineffective at addressing these problems and only makes them worse, especially in the absence of more robust investments in treatment, housing, and social services. This may seem like common sense to anyone familiar with how the American legal system actually operates. But the entire recall campaign was structured as a rejection of that argument. With Jenkins’s help, recall supporters pushed the idea that San Francisco just needed a stern hand; an adult in the room to clean up the streets and scare criminals and other undesirables straight.

Jenkins is now appeasing her supporters’ lust for punishment by undoing Boudin-era reforms and rolling out a slate of new “tough-on-crime” policies. Last week, Jenkins announced that her office would seek to more harshly punish people charged with certain drug crimes. This is all part of what she’s branded as a crackdown on “open-air drug markets” in the Tenderloin, a historically high-crime—yet rapidly gentrifying—neighborhood that Mayor London Breed vowed to “take back” in 2021.

Critics of this return to the War on Drugs, including former San Francisco DA and police chief (and current Los Angeles County District Attorney) George Gascón, say it’s destined to fail. Others have noted that the current strategy looks a lot like other ineffective crackdowns in the Tenderloin over the past 50 years.

But if critics are correct and “tough-on-crime” policies once again fail to deliver results, will San Franciscans blame Jenkins for persistent crime and disorder, just as they did Boudin? Last week, political strategist and writer Jamison Foser asked on Twitter, “Will the news media that helped [conservative prosecutors] raise the bar for progressives now help them lower the bar for themselves?”

Whatever happens in the coming months, Jenkins will almost certainly benefit from double standards in both media coverage and public opinion, which tend to hold “tough-on-crime” officials blameless for the very same issues that routinely get pinned on reformers. We’ve seen this pattern play out repeatedly in recent years, columnist and Appeal contributor Adam Johnson explained in June.

“If crime and murders increase under reformers, the reform is to blame,” Johnson wrote. “If crime and murders increase under the most well-funded police departments and harshest DAs on Earth, they simply need more funding and to be even harsher.” Following this logic, Jenkins can’t lose.

Although San Francisco remains a remarkably safe city, at least according to historical crime trends, residents who voted for the recall have regularly stated they do not “feel” safe around town. As The Appeal’s Jerry Iannelli wrote in June, this sentiment may be understandable, even if it flies in the face of statistical reasoning. San Franciscans, like residents of many U.S. cities, are living in a place where visible poverty and mental illness are spiking thanks to runaway economic inequality, unaffordable housing, and the complete failure of our social safety net and services.

The resulting fears are real, even if they aren’t directly correlated to hard crime data. Jenkins may be able to use these feelings to her advantage as she campaigns for a full term as DA. By cosplaying as the proverbial “new sheriff in town,” she can send a message to voters that she’s “doing what’s necessary” to protect them from the swirling mass of chaos and insecurity that is American life. When she begins revoking plea deals and demanding harsher sentences for people arrested with over 5 grams of drugs, her supporters can celebrate that “bad guys” are facing a stiffer form of “justice.”

Even if these “tough-on-crime” policies don’t materially improve safety in the city, some residents might at least feel safer knowing that more people—disproportionately those who are vulnerable, lower-income, and Black and brown—are being punished and caged. That is, after all, what so many proponents of these policies want. And if that doesn’t make them feel safer, Jenkins can always crank up the “toughness” until enough of them do.


In the news


Former political prisoner Albert Woodfox, who spent more than four decades in solitary confinement, has died at the age of 75. [Ed Pilkington/ The Guardian]

The U.S. Attorney General’s office has announced federal charges against four officers who were involved in securing the warrant for Breonna Taylor’s home. [Emma Bowman/ NPR]

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren. In his executive order, he blasts Warren for his public support of gender-affirming healthcare and his refusal to prosecute abortion providers. Warren called the removal illegal and said, “I’m not going down without a fight.” [Colin Wolf / Orlando Weekly]

Border patrol agents have been confiscating asylum seekers’ turbans and refusing to provide them with their religiously-required vegetarian meals. [John Washington / Arizona Luminaria]

At the St. Louis City Justice Center in Missouri, officers have repeatedly pepper-sprayed people on suicide watch, several times because a person wanted to keep on their underwear, according to use-of-force reports. [Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg/ Grid]

A 17-year-old girl and her mother from Norfolk, Nebraska face multiple multiple felonies after the teen had a medication abortion. Facebook provided data to law-enforcement as part of the investigation. [Jason Koebler and Anna Merlan / VICE]

ICYMI — from The Appeal

Caleb Brennan writes about the expansion of “assisted outpatient treatment”—or AOT—which usually entails a compulsory regimen of psychiatric medication. People who fail to comply can be detained by law enforcement and face possible involuntary hospitalization.

Heather Tirado Gilligan looks at Advance Peace, a community-based program to stop gun violence without the use of police.

San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins has “moved quickly to abandon and undo Boudin’s most impactful reforms,” Rachel Marshall, former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s communications director and policy advisor, writes for The Appeal. Marshall was one of more than a dozen people fired since Jenkins took office.

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.

Brooke Jenkins Can’t Have It Both Ways

The new San Francisco DA is mixing “tough-on-crime” rhetoric with phony progressivism. Neither will solve the city’s problems.

Interim San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins at her swearing in ceremony in July.

Brooke Jenkins Can’t Have It Both Ways

The new San Francisco DA is mixing “tough-on-crime” rhetoric with phony progressivism. Neither will solve the city’s problems.

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

Since her appointment as San Francisco District Attorney, Brooke Jenkins has tried to temper her tough-on-crime rhetoric by claiming that she believes in reform, too.

After publicly exiting the DA’s office in 2021, Jenkins became the face of the ultimately successful effort to recall her former boss, District Attorney Chesa Boudin. During the campaign, Jenkins gave cover to “liberal” white San Franciscans who favored harsher approaches in a legal system that disproportionately harms people of color.

But even as Jenkins built her tough-on-crime credentials, she claimed she would achieve both safety and reform. Local media largely played along, even though Jenkins’s record and her initial actions as DA resoundingly contradict that claim. Since becoming DA, Jenkins has struggled to point to a single reform she supports.

Although Jenkins has described herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” this is a term of art used to delineate a movement of decarceral, reform-minded prosecutors, including Boudin. It is not “progressive” to call for increased “consequences” (read: incarceration) for property crimes, or more “accountability” (read: incarceration) for drug dealing. Using the term in this way renders it completely useless. Jenkins may be hoping to use “progressive” vibes to mask a regressive criminal justice approach, but this is a slap in the face to those of us who worked in the trenches to advance the reforms she is now undoing.

Moving Backwards

During Boudin’s administration—in which I proudly served—San Francisco saw a nearly 40-percent reduction in the jail population, historic efforts to hold police accountable, and increased support for crime survivors.

Upon taking office, Jenkins moved quickly to abandon and undo Boudin’s most impactful reforms.

She started by firing 15 staffers in a single day. My termination was somewhat predictable (I was Boudin’s communications director and policy advisor). But Jenkins also fired the lawyers reviewing excessive prison sentences, those prosecuting police officers, and the data director who promoted public transparency. She also demoted the Chief of Victim Services, who had expanded language access for victims from the Asian American Pacific Islander community.

Jenkins’ appointment has also triggered resignations, including four victim advocates, one prosecutor, and a longtime staffer. Most of these staffers were hired before Boudin. Many more have told me they’re looking to leave.

Jenkins has said she wants “discretion” to set cash bail and charge kids as adults. She has attacked Boudin’s policies limiting gang and strike enhancements, and ridiculed his use of diversion programs. After almost a month in office, Jenkins has yet to clarify her new policies in these areas, and has dodged questions about what changes she’ll make. Her refusal to detail specifics has allowed her to conceal her lack of commitment to reform.

The Limits of Tough Talk

Despite Jenkins’s mantra that she will bring safety and reform to San Francisco, a tough-on-crime approach will achieve neither.

While campaigning for the recall, Jenkins claimed the city’s crime issues were “directly linked” to the DA’s policies, and happily joined critics in blaming Boudin for almost everything bad that happened in San Francisco.

But Jenkins changed her tone once she was announced as Boudin’s replacement. In an interview with the New York Times, Jenkins asked the public to “be patient” and “temper their expectations” about her ability to address the very problems she had been so quick to lay at the feet of Boudin. “No district attorney can snap their fingers and do away with all crime,” Jenkins admitted.

Now that it no longer benefits Jenkins to hold the DA responsible for crime—she is up for election in November—she has been forced to acknowledge the more complex realities of the job.

Despite her posturing during the campaign, Jenkins must know that the criminal legal system is ill-suited to address many of the problems the recall campaign exploited to attack Boudin. Homelessness, dirty streets, and visible substance use may be frustrating to many in the city, but the district attorney lacks power to substantively tackle these problems. What happens when San Franciscans notice Jenkins isn’t fixing them?

Jenkins already seems to be trying to move the goalposts. In a San Francisco Standard interview last month, she said her “benchmark” for success would be “what the residents of San Francisco feel.”

It’s telling that Jenkins wants to be judged on intangible feelings rather than concrete results. Amid incessant fearmongering by law enforcement and the media, public perceptions of crime and safety have become largely divorced from reality. Even if her tough rhetoric does nothing to improve actual safety in San Francisco—and there’s no reason to believe it will because incarceration does not promote public safety—Jenkins is banking on it at least making voters feel safer. It’s a cynical strategy. But in the current political environment, when feelings increasingly don’t seem to care about facts, it could be effective.

What’s Next for Criminal Justice in San Francisco?

There is no question that the resurgence of a “lock ‘em up” mentality will perpetuate harms against those who always suffer most from punitive criminal justice policies—particularly people of color, who have borne the brunt of mass incarceration and the drug war.

But in addition to causing harm, this approach bodes practical disaster for San Francisco. The city’s jails continue to suffer from woefully inhumane conditions, despite years of declining populations. Recent reports suggest these facilities lack the space and staffing to accommodate an increased reliance on incarceration.

The criminal courts—already facing a lengthy pandemic-related backlog—are no better equipped for an influx of cases. Without reasonable plea offers, low-level cases will only further bog down the system, making the swift “accountability” Jenkins champions even harder to achieve.

Nonetheless, Jenkins used her first day in office to announce a new policy prioritizing drug crimes. Though Jenkins was skimpy on details, the message was clear: The War on Drugs is back in San Francisco. Within days, her office had filed 17 stand-alone charges for possession of drug paraphernalia—the first such charges in years. After public backlash, Jenkins announced she would dismiss those cases, claiming they were filed without her approval. This week Jenkins announced new directives that would deny some drug defendants access to diversion programming. She also said she intends to seek pretrial detention for some people charged with selling drugs—potentially in violation of state law.

Jenkins also talked tough on drugs at a July press conference in the Tenderloin, where she spoke about the need to “clean up” the neighborhood. During her appearance, journalists reported that people continued to openly sell and use drugs just across the street, apparently unmoved by Jenkins’s rhetoric. Like its predecessors, the latest War on Drugs is destined to fail—and leave devastation in its wake.

Now Jenkins is in the hot seat. By the standard she and her fellow recall supporters set, the issues she previously blamed on Boudin are now hers to solve—or not. San Francisco’s streets remain dirty and unhoused people still have nowhere else to live. Crimes continue to happen under her leadership, ranging from gun homicides and assaults of elderly people in the AAPI community to Walgreens thefts caught on video.

So far, Jenkins has offered mostly rhetoric in response, as she tries to preserve her reputation as both “tough-on-crime” and a reformer. But Jenkins can’t have it both ways. Tougher rhetoric and policies won’t make San Francisco any safer. And phony progressivism won’t bring reform.

It’s only a matter of time before San Francisans realize they’ve been sold a bill of goods.

Advancing Peace, Against the Odds

In Stockton, California, a police-free gun violence prevention program is standing firm against the tough-on-crime backlash.


Advancing Peace, Against the Odds

In Stockton, California, a police-free gun violence prevention program is standing firm against the tough-on-crime backlash.

“Tough-on-crime” rhetoric is once again on the rise in California, as politicians respond to constituent fears over a perceived—and in some categories, actual—increase in crime. In Stockton, a Central Valley city less than two hours away from San Francisco, headline-grabbing shooting incidents have accentuated a broader uptick in violence that has affected jurisdictions nationwide since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of late-July, Stockton had tallied 30 annual homicides, a small increase from this point in 2021.

Elsewhere in California, voters in some cities have cited concerns about crime as a justification for backlash against criminal justice reforms. In June, San Franciscans recalled progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin in a race dominated by narratives that blamed “soft-on-crime” policies for disorder in the city. Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón now appears to be on the verge of facing his own recall, in an effort similarly propelled by claims that harsher punishment—and more aggressive policing—are necessary to deter crime.

But despite this backlash, Stockton officials remain committed to an approach designed to address the root causes of the violence that has plagued their city for decades—all without the involvement of law enforcement.

Since 2018, Stockton has been a host site of Advance Peace, a nonprofit organization that seeks to interrupt cycles of gun violence by working closely with the people most likely to be perpetrators or victims of shootings. Rather than coercing these individuals with threats of arrest and decades in prison, Advance Peace offers them an array of services, including therapy to address trauma they may have endured during previous episodes of violence. Perhaps most controversially, the program provides eligible participants a monthly stipend of $1,000—a feature right-wing critics have ridiculed as “cash for criminals.”

The work of Advance Peace begins with months of on-the-ground research by the organization’s staff to identify the highest-risk individuals in target neighborhoods. Outreach workers—known as “neighborhood change associates”—then make inroads to recruit them as “Operation Peacemaker” fellows. Over the course of this 18-month program, fellows develop a close relationship with their outreach workers, who provide counseling and mentorship to help them build a life outside of gangs, guns, and the underground economy. Neighborhood change associates are also tasked with mediating conflicts before they escalate into violence and brokering peace after shootings.

Getting people in the program is hard and sometimes dangerous work. “There’s been dudes who brandish firearms at me” on first contact, Julian Balderama, a neighborhood change associate in Stockton, explained. In those cases, Balderama says he waits a few days before checking in again. “The ones that don’t want to be a part of it, those are the ones that we really, really need in here.”

Becoming Part of the Solution

Advance Peace revolves around the work of people like Balderama. In his mid-40s, stocky and powerfully built, he was talkative, warm, and quick to laugh on a recent day as he pulled his car up to a low-rise apartment building a few blocks from Stockton’s downtown. His client, a 22-year-old named Mark, was already on the sidewalk, wearing black sweatpants and a black t-shirt despite the early June heat.

Mark climbed into the backseat. He’d lost his job three weeks ago and was about to start a new one, but he’d fallen behind on rent. Balderama was taking him to his landlord’s office to pay his back rent, using money provided by Advance Peace.

In the car, Balderama and Mark made plans to go to a local community college to sign him up for classes. Mark is one of about 10 clients that Balderama has on his caseload at any given moment. Each of Stockton’s five neighborhood change associates manages a similar number of fellows. Later in the day, Balderama was picking up another client and taking him to his home to do laundry. Ensuring basic needs are met—clean clothes, food, and stable housing—is a crucial component of keeping fellows out of the cycle of gun violence, Balderama said.

“I know my brother is going to look out for me and I’m gonna look out for him,” Mark said of Balderama.

Balderama’s devotion to this work is motivated in part by the feeling of redemption it gives him. His past contribution to the city’s violence started at age 14, when his brother was murdered. More recently, he was released from Pelican Bay State Prison in 2017, after serving 27 months on drug charges. Upon returning to Stockton, Balderama said he was determined to do better by his wife and three children. He started informally negotiating conflicts between rival gang members, working to defuse them before they blew up into violent confrontations. Advance Peace heard about Balderama’s mediations and hired him in 2018.

Now Balderama’s days revolve around his clients—young people who are still in the life he’s since left behind. He spends his mornings conferring with other neighborhood change associates about what’s going on in the city, identifying hot spots where tempers might boil over into violence, and discussing strategies to alleviate tension.

Following this more compassionate approach, Advance Peace has become one of a handful of programs that have been associated with reductions in gun violence. A study examining the first two years Stockton’s Advance Peace program found that the organization’s work contributed to a 21 percent reduction in gun homicides and assaults compared to averages in the years before the program’s launch.

The success of Advance Peace, and community-based violence prevention programs like it, is completely dependent on “the relationships, the credibility and the expertise” of its outreach workers, explained Shani Buggs, an assistant professor with the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, Health.

By leveraging their lived experience, neighborhood change associates are able to understand “who’s likely to be at high risk for violence involvement,” said Buggs. People like Balderama “have influence over those individuals, can reach them, can talk to them, can get to the center of the crises if something breaks out.”

Julian Balderama throws up a peace sign on the streets of Stockton, California.
Advance Peace

Stopping Gun Violence Without Cops

Advance Peace first launched in Richmond, California, in 2009 when the city’s homicide rate was nine times the national average. The program combined elements of two existing approaches to gun violence prevention. One is Operation Ceasefire, which also offers services like counseling and job training to people who are typically responsible for an outsized share of gun violence. The other is Cure Violence, a program that conducts conflict mediation and has been implemented in 20 U.S. cities.

But there are key differences between these programs. Ceasefire works on a more traditional carrot-and-stick model, employing police surveillance and the threat of arrest and prison against participants who fail to change their ways. And while Cure Violence mediates conflict and offers support to clients, it provides a different range of services and does not provide direct financial assistance.

Advance Peace, in contrast, was built on the belief that the specter of punishment may not always be enough motivation for people to undertake the incredibly difficult work of personal transformation—especially if nothing is done to address the root causes of violence.

Based on that approach, the program’s monthly stipend is intended to provide a degree of financial stability to fellows who are often economically insecure and relying on the drug trade or other illegal activities to get by. Advance Peace works to equip fellows with the tools to achieve longer-term stability through life-skills classes and guidance navigating social services. There are also courses involving cognitive behavioral therapy and substance abuse treatment, meant to address the psychological and emotional trauma associated with a lifetime of bearing witness to violence.

There is growing evidence that this model works. A 2019 evaluation found that Richmond’s Advance Peace program was associated with a 55 percent decrease in firearm homicides and hospitalizations, between 2010 and 2016. Preliminary research published in June by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health and members of Advance Peace suggests that outreach workers in Sacramento, Stockton, and Richmond, helped to mitigate a pandemic-related increase in firearm homicides in neighborhoods where the program was active. In 2020, the Center for American Progress held up Richmond’s Advance Peace program as a model for jurisdictions looking for alternatives to the criminal justice system.

Can ‘Ragtag, Ex-Gangsters’ Succeed Where Policing Fails?

Advance Peace is currently operating in nine U.S. cities: Five in California—Woodland, Fresno, Vallejo, Stockton, and Richmond—as well as Ft. Worth, Texas; Lansing, Michigan; Orlando, Florida; and Rochester, New York. Plans are also in motion to launch new sites in New York City and a handful of other locations.

The organization has been selective about expanding, said Khaalid Muttaqi, chief operating officer of Advance Peace. Jurisdictions must make a minimum three-year commitment to Advance Peace, and they cannot pick and choose which parts of the program they want to implement—they take all of the program or none of it.

This can be a sticking point for cities that typically operate on an annual budget, and tend to be more comfortable working directly with the police, Muttaqi explained.

“Homicide units, they have, you know, million-dollar budgets,” Muttaqi said. “So it’s hard for them to even imagine the possibility that a bunch of what they see as ragtag, ex-gangsters can possibly be more effective in the space of gun violence, intervention, and mediation than them.”

In Stockton, as in many U.S. cities, the police budget has been steadily increasing for years, with no corresponding effect on violent crime. Police spending reached $153 million in 2022, and the city’s proposed 2023 budget would raise police spending again, to 53 percent of Stockton’s entire general fund budget for the year. Advance Peace has meanwhile operated on an annual budget of around $1 million, none of which comes directly from the city.

Supporters of alternative approaches to violence prevention maintain that they could have a much greater impact if they were fully and consistently funded, and had even a fraction of a city’s law enforcement’s funding. Instead, they are forced to rely on unstable funding streams often subject to shifting political whims.

In Sacramento, for example, officials opted not to renew Advance Peace in 2021 after the end of its four-year pilot, even as evidence suggested it was associated with a significant drop in shootings. In the year since, the city has experienced elevated levels of gun violence.

Downtown Stockton, California. Police spending reached $153 million in 2022, and the city is proposing to increase it again next year to 53 percent of the entire general fund budget.
Wikimedia Commons

Defining Success

Muttaqi is open about the fact that not all of the people Advance Peace serves leave guns and violence behind them. In Sacramento, five fellows were arrested on gun-related charges during the 18-month fellowship. More than half were arrested on other charges. One fellow was shot and killed. “They’re hard to reach,” Muttaqi said. “And to be quite honest with you, they can be very hard to serve.”

While there is evidence that Advance Peace has been effective at reducing gun violence, it’s less clear which aspects of Advance Peace have the greatest impact. The program offers a multitude of services, and it’s difficult to determine which is most important to its overall success—or whether its effectiveness in reducing gun violence depends on all facets working together.

Even in the face of these promising results, Advance Peace continues to have its share of critics. Last month, lawmakers in Fresno moved to pull city funding for the program, following reports that a worker associated with Advance Peace had been arrested on gang charges. The city is now working to restructure its contract with the nonprofit, which received a federal grant of $300,000 in March to continue operating in Fresno.

In Stockton, Advance Peace is about to see its budget doubled, thanks to $1 million in new funding from state grants, which will cover salaries for four additional employees, Muttaqi said. But advocates say this won’t change the fact that they must constantly fight, against the odds, to continue their work.

“With the right investment and the right commitment … we can end urban gun violence in these neighborhoods,” Muttaqi said. “It’s not easy, but there’s actually a solution that we can point to.”

Update: This story has been updated with additional information about the services Cure Violence provides.

Bail Reform Helps Countless People. Why Don’t We Hear More of Their Stories?

Personal narratives can help the public understand the benefits of bail reform, but telling these success stories presents its own share of challenges.

Mehmet Akif/Pexels

Bail Reform Helps Countless People. Why Don’t We Hear More of Their Stories?

Personal narratives can help the public understand the benefits of bail reform, but telling these success stories presents its own share of challenges.

In a short video published in 2018, Tyler Hubbard recounts being arrested and charged with second degree aggravated assault in New Jersey after getting into a “big argument” with his mother’s husband. “That was basically my first time ever in the system,” he says in the video. “I was mainly thinking, ‘I hope I don’t lose my job.’ I wouldn’t have anything when I got out.”

Until the mid-2010s, Hubbard’s bail would have been set at upwards of $100,000, money he says he couldn’t have pulled together. But in 2017, New Jersey became one of the first U.S. states to virtually do away with cash bail. And that meant Hubbard was able to return home while he awaited trial—and go back to his job as an automotive technician—without paying anything.

“I would’ve been there a lot longer if things weren’t how they are,” Hubbard says. “Since I’m not in jail, I can continue working, follow my dreams.”

Hubbard is one of tens of thousands of people who have benefited from bail reform measures in places like New Jersey and New York, which passed a law in 2019 prohibiting judges from setting bail for a number of lower-level offenses. In total, at least 14 states and dozens of local jurisdictions have adopted policies aimed at reducing the use of cash bail. And while the data around these efforts remains scattered, studies have generally shown that the vast majority of people aren’t rearrested after they’re released. Instead, they go about their everyday lives and, with very few exceptions, return to court for their hearings.

But as common as these success stories are, personal narratives like Hubbard’s don’t make the news. In fact, when the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey set out to make the 2018 video highlighting the positive effects of bail reform, Hubbard was the only person it could find who was willing to publicly share his experience. “We knew it was helping people’s lives and we really struggled to tell the story,” said Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney at the ACLU-NJ.

The ACLU understood the power of personal narratives in defending the new bail reform law, and went so far as to hire a public relations firm to help find individuals willing to share their stories, something Shalom says the organization had never done before. But even with the assistance of a PR firm and the ACLU’s own connections to public defenders and other advocates, the search came up dry. “People didn’t want to tell the story,” Shalom said.

Many of the people who had benefited from bail reform had ongoing cases they didn’t want to endanger, said Shalom. Others, whose cases may have been quickly dismissed, didn’t want to have their names connected to an arrest that otherwise might have been behind them. Some didn’t even realize that something notable had happened to them. “It becomes a nonevent for people,” Shalom said.

Amid this void of positive stories, many news outlets have instead fixated on the occasional outlier cases involving people who have committed crimes after being released without bail. This barrage of sensational coverage has largely dominated the narrative around pretrial reform, and in its wake New York has twice walked back its 2019 bail reform law—allowing bail to be set in more and more instances. Meanwhile in New Jersey, lawmakers passed a law tightening bail rules for gun charges, and efforts are at play in other places in the country to walk back reforms.

Tyler Hubbard speaks about his experience with bail reform in a video published in 2018.
Brave New Films/YouTube

These negative stories have served to paint a misleading portrait of the effects of bail reform. The data out of New Jersey, for example, shows that both the pretrial jail population and overall crime fell after the 2016 law’s enactment. Overall, there is no solid data linking bail reform to higher levels of crime. But the lack of stories highlighting the positive impacts of bail reform also means that the public “lose[s] out on the real humanity that is implicated in these cases,” Shalom said. “The data is important and it’s compelling … but what really brings about important policy change is marrying the data and the humanity.”

The roadblocks the ACLU ran into in New Jersey have stymied advocates in the rest of the country, too. Cherise Fanno Burdeen, former CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute, worked on bail reform efforts around the country for 15 years before launching her own consulting firm. In all that time, “it was difficult to find people to tell their stories about bail reform,” she said.

The apprehension on the part of people who have been directly impacted, and potentially helped, by bail reform is understandable. Their cases are often still pending, and even though they may have been able to return home, they can risk jeopardizing case outcomes by talking to the press. “We’ve heard of stories of judges or prosecutors being upset when their cases are being broadcasted,” said Zoë Adel, research and advocacy manager at the bail fund Envision Freedom. “We never know what a judge might do to retaliate.”

And if the less punitive pretrial system is working in defendants’ favor, they’re likely going to their jobs and maintaining their housing. Having their names publicly connected to an arrest, even for something low level, could put both in danger.

There are plenty of reasons why people who have been arrested might not want their community to know, said Jackie Gosdigian, senior policy counsel at Brooklyn Defenders. She routinely has clients who “haven’t told their partner, haven’t told their family, they’re extremely ashamed of even having been arrested.” Her clients’ number one concern, Gosdigian said, is getting fired if an employer finds out by reading a story.

“They want to rebuild and get a job and do all of these things,” said Alex Staropoli, the director of advocacy and communications at the Fair Share Housing Center, who has worked on bail reform in past roles. “If you’re the poster child for this advocacy thing that highlights that you were … charged with a crime, that’s not necessarily the greatest blank slate.”

Many people may also not want to relive the “unbelievably traumatic process” of being arrested, handcuffed, and taken to central booking, and potentially waiting as long as 24 hours to be released, Gosdigian said. The trauma is so intense, she added, that when she meets clients who have been through it and are going to be released, she doesn’t push them to discuss the details of what happened to them.

Working with the press also takes time, which is a barrier for people who typically have more pressing priorities in their lives. “They have children, they have jobs, they have interviews, they have medical appointments,” said Scott Hechinger, civil rights attorney and founder of Zealous, a national education and advocacy initiative. Others may be in drug treatment programs or even just trying to stay on top of their cases. “They don’t want to add to that by trying to work with a reporter,” Gosdigian said.

Due to the less severe nature of their charges, some beneficiaries of bail reform may feel less driven to speak out, said Sarita Daftary, co-director of the advocacy organization Freedom Agenda. The vast majority of Freedom Agenda’s members “served time for really serious charges and for very long amounts of time,” Daftary said. “If you’ve been able to avoid some of the worst consequences of the system, then it’s just harder to build up the motivation to put your story out there.” If someone is charged with a lower-level crime, “you might be like, ‘I just want to leave this behind me entirely.’ If you spent 20 years in prison, maybe you can’t leave this behind entirely.”

The stories of those who benefit from bail reform are also rarely straightforward. Many people may be struggling to find legal employment, or navigating mental health issues or the pressures of providing for their families. “There’s always a fear that the opposition is going to try to pick apart those stories,” Staropoli said. “They are going to be attacked and people are going to look up their records.”

That fear is also front of mind for the public defenders and advocacy organizations who often serve as liaisons between directly impacted people and reporters. They “sometimes play a protective and gatekeeping role,” Hechinger said, which may lead them to say no without actually giving their clients the chance to say yes. Hechinger says his firm is working on training defenders and others on when and how to work with the media.

If cases are resolved more quickly, people may also not have as much ongoing contact with lawyers or services. Many are sent to supervised release, but those service providers have no responsibility to work with people to tell their stories. “It’s easier to access folks who are detained and caged pretrial, oftentimes because they’re literally inside and locked away,” Hechinger said.

There’s also the question of whether journalists are actually interested in telling positive stories about bail reform. Hechinger noted that journalists who have shown interest in the subject are still seeking “the sensational success stories”—the people who were released and went on to complete a college degree, get an amazing job, or even save someone’s life. But the reality is that success often looks far more mundane.

“The everyday normalcy of freedom, just waking up in your bed and putting on your own shoes … just having breakfast with your child, being able to run errands for those in need of caretaking, showing up at your job … that doesn’t sell,” Hechinger said. These sorts of stories may not get buy-in from editors who in many cases still subscribe to the old industry mantra, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

“We’ve been really wired to react more to fear than to anything,” said Fanno Burdeen. “I do think it is harder to get people to care about positive stories.”

But the media’s focus on bail reform horror stories—which comes at the expense of the thousands of people who’ve been able to continue their daily lives thanks to the new regime—seems at least partly to blame for the backlash to these laws. “When we don’t tell the positive stories … the negative stories hold a lot more weight,” Staropoli said. “Not having that constant or even collection of positive stories for what this policy has meant makes it harder to defend.”

Though instances of people committing crimes while on pretrial release are the incredibly rare exceptions to the rule, they become “the dominant story that’s being told, even when it’s not based in facts,” Staropoli added.

There are emerging signs that the coverage imbalance is having effects beyond its influence on public perceptions. When researchers with the Vera Institute of Justice observed court proceedings in three New York counties in 2020, they found that although fewer than a third of cases were for bail-eligible charges, judges set bail or ordered someone to be detained in two-thirds of them. Daftary has heard a couple of judges say outright in court that they don’t want to make the front page of the New York Post, on the off chance a defendant they release goes on to commit a crime that makes the news.

Without media coverage that humanizes the beneficiaries of bail reform in a way that accurately conveys the positive effects of these changes, some advocates fear that the victories they’ve won over the past decade could be in peril. In places like New York, that’s already come true.

“I just devoted 15 years of my life to putting bail reform on the map to try to eliminate pretrial incarceration,” Fanno Burdeen said. “And yet it has been among the easiest of reforms to reverse.”

Why Elderly Incarcerated People Struggle to Find Care After Prison

Thousands of elderly people are released from U.S. prisons each year, and advocates say states urgently need to scale up their capacity to provide them with compassionate care.

Amisha Nakhwa/Unsplash

Why Elderly Incarcerated People Struggle to Find Care After Prison

Thousands of elderly people are released from U.S. prisons each year, and advocates say states urgently need to scale up their capacity to provide them with compassionate care.

When Michael Jarrett was released to the 60 West nursing home in 2016, after over three decades in prison, it felt like he had died and gone to heaven. The home is a long-term care facility in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, that caters specifically to people affected by the criminal legal system. In a recent call with The Appeal, Jarrett, now 71 and facing various health issues, expressed relief at having a place to live that was not a prison or a shelter.

At 60 West, Jarrett can play games and participate in activities—which, before the pandemic, included trips to restaurants and sporting events. The facility also provides him with clothing and other essentials. After more than three decades of incarceration, Jarrett said it’s comforting to finally have a safe space for his personal belongings. He’s learned how to use a cell phone and a tablet with the help of the facility’s technology support staff, nicknamed the Geek Squad. But, most importantly, Jarrett said, he feels like the staff members at 60 West are invested in his well-being. “This place really tries to take care of the people that are here,” he said.

Across the country, the need for eldercare for people like Jarrett is growing rapidly alongside reforms aimed at reducing the elderly and infirm prison population. In New Orleans, District Attorney Jason Williams has prioritized releasing “geriatric lifers” and people who have been incarcerated since the 1960s and 70s. In New York, the Release Aging People in Prison campaign is pushing lawmakers, including Governor Kathy Hochul, to pass a comprehensive bill that would grant opportunities for parole to incarcerated people aged 55 and over who have already served 15 years or more. In Pennsylvania, state Representative Joshua Kail, a Republican, has introduced a bill to expand the state’s medical release program. These state-level efforts have built on broader advocacy that has arisen in the past few years urging the release of more elderly and medically vulnerable people from prisons and jails amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Proponents point to a variety of justifications for releasing elderly people from prison. Many of these individuals were incarcerated in their youth, and advocates say they have long since paid their debt to society. They also point to research showing that people tend to “age out” of criminal behavior—a phenomenon experts call the “age-crime curve.” (A 2010 report found that homicide rates peaked at age 19.) The move would benefit states financially as well; studies suggest it costs between three and nine times as much to incarcerate an elderly person as it does a younger person, owing to the expense of medical care.

But as the chorus of voices pushing for elder release grows louder, another problem has emerged: It is incredibly difficult to secure eldercare for the formerly incarcerated. Due to social stigma, a lack of preparedness for a rapidly aging population, and the perpetuation of excessive prison sentences and lifelong punishment, success stories like Jarrett’s are few and far between. A recent study estimated that at least 60,000 people aged 50 or older will be released from prison annually, and advocates say states urgently need to scale up their capacity to provide compassionate care for these individuals, who often have nowhere else to turn.

Michael Jarrett works in a flower box in the courtyard of 60 West, in Rocky Hill, Connecticut.
Courtesy of 60 West

The proliferation of elderly and infirm people in U.S. prisons stems from the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and 90s, when mandatory minimums and other stringent sentencing laws led to prosecutors seeking longer sentences than ever before. Spending decades subjected to poor diet, stress, and inadequate health care has hastened aging for many of these prisoners, compounding health problems and increasing the vulnerability to disease.

In 2012, the Human Rights Watch report “Old Behind Bars” shed new light on the rising number of elderly incarcerated people and helped frame the topic as a human rights and public health issue, according to Dr. Tina Maschi, a professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service. “The fact is that it went undetected and, when detected, there was a lack of an adequate response,” she said.

The problems associated with an aging prison population begin long before most individuals are considered for release. Some state departments of corrections have created prison annexes and sometimes entire facilities—often referred to as “nursing home prisons”—specifically to detain the elderly.

The Zephyrhills Correctional Institution, in Florida, is one of these. It houses elderly and infirm people, many of whom are bedridden, use wheelchairs, or are incapacitated. At the height of the pandemic, New York sent nearly 100 elderly incarcerated men to the upstate Adirondack Correctional Facility, creating a nursing home prison at a time when civilian nursing homes were among the most dangerous settings for COVID outbreaks. The California Men’s Colony, in San Luis Obispo, imprisons so many elders with Alzheimer’s and other cognitive disabilities that it has created a program to train the healthy incarcerated men to care for those with dementia.

Though most elderly prisoners will eventually be released, they face a variety of barriers to post-incarceration eldercare, largely stemming from a lack of resources and planning. Parole requirements vary by state and are often contingent on a parole board approving parolees’ living arrangements. Because many elderly parolees exit prison with serious health care needs that may require a skilled nursing facility, incarcerated people are sometimes cleared for medical parole only to spend months—or even years—further deteriorating in prison while they wait for a bed to open up.

After Colorado lawmakers passed a bill last year that streamlined the process of medical release, 23 incarcerated people were approved for parole but remained in prison because the state Department of Corrections could not find a nursing home willing to admit them. Many facilities reportedly cited their criminal records as a cause for denial. The state has asked for funding to incentivize skilled nursing facilities to accept people who have been cleared for release from prison.

In June, the Tampa Bay Times reported that, in Florida, many elderly people convicted of sex offenses end up living in motels after prison, because nursing homes routinely deny them admission. They are often forced to rely on an “ad hoc network of care,” the paper reported, including social workers and landlords, who struggle to provide for their medical needs.

Insufficient oversight of care facilities can lead to abuses of elderly people after prison. At California’s Golden Legacy Care Center, a formerly incarcerated resident was shackled to his bed and denied medical care, according to an LAist investigation. The outlet reported earlier this year that medical parolees from California’s Department of Corrections were being transferred to the nursing home even though Medicaid officials had deemed it “one of the most troubled facilities in the nation.”

As demand for nursing home services increases among an aging prison population, supply has failed to keep up. The home where Jarrett lives, 60 West, and its sister facility, MissionCare, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, are the only skilled nursing facilities in the nation that specialize in serving “hard to place” individuals, including the formerly incarcerated or people with substance abuse issues or mental illness. Both facilities pride themselves on providing comprehensive eldercare in a “safe, secure environment that is inclusive, compassionate and free of stigma.”

About half of the current residents at 60 West were transferred from the Connecticut Department of Corrections, but officials at 60 West estimate that they reject as many as one-third of all applicants for not meeting admissions requirements. Many other nursing homes in the state won’t even consider patients coming from prison, said Jessica DeRing, the administrator at 60 West, who previously worked at another long-term care facility in Connecticut.

“The majority of patients at 60 West come to us because no one else will take them,” DeRing said. Many of the people at the facility have medical needs, such as dialysis or cancer treatment. Some are sent there after their prison sentences end, but others have been given compassionate release, which is often reserved for people with a terminal illness. In some cases, incarcerated people are released to 60 West for short-term palliative care, giving family members an opportunity to say goodbye. A few months ago, Francis Smith, the longest-serving incarcerated person in Connecticut, was released to 60 West at the age of 97, after being sentenced for murder in 1950.

Unlike the “nursing home prisons” that hold many elderly and infirm incarcerated people, 60 West is not a carceral setting. The services it offers are not correctional in nature, and the facility does not remand people back to prison if their health improves. Some facilities take in incarcerated people who are very sick for the sole purpose of rehabbing them until they’re well enough to go back to the corrections system, said David Skoczulek, a spokesperson for 60 West. “That is not our mission,” he said.

Residents at 60 West can move around freely, have personal phones, and have the same federally protected rights as the residents of any regular nursing home, including freedom from restraint, the ability file complaints without fear of retaliation, the right to freely manage one’s own money, and privacy in living arrangements—none of which exist in a correctional setting.

Convincing the public to support this sort of eldercare for the formerly incarcerated presents its own set of challenges. In 2013, local officials and residents of Rocky Hill fought the proposal to create 60 West, arguing the facility was a prison, not a nursing home, Skoczulek said. Community members protested at the state capitol; real estate agents complained that property values around the facility would plummet; town officials sued unsuccessfully to block the project; even prison guards joined the opposition.

Local officials who supported the plan stressed that residents of 60 West posed no public safety threat, in part because only people who were medically debilitated would qualify for admission.

“The neighbors and other stakeholders that push back have this concept in their mind that these are walking, talking younger people,” Skoczulek said. “In reality, they’re very, very much skilled-nursing patients.”

Maschi argues that the persistent bias against people who have been in prison is dehumanizing and makes it harder for elders to find stable living situations after incarceration. “The fear creates barriers,” Maschi said, adding that those barriers prevent the public from extending compassion to people who are vulnerable or nearing the end of their lives.

As the incarcerated population ages, more states are taking notice of how geriatric people are treated in—and after—prison. Some officials have begun exploring the use of skilled nursing facilities to serve elders exiting the prison system, using 60 West as a blueprint. But this sort of expansion requires buy-in from state corrections departments and politicians, who are often opposed to decarceration efforts.

Officials in Virginia had approached the 60 West team to discuss the possibility of building a similar facility in their state, according to Skoczulek, but, since then, a Republican governor took office and the project appears to have been put on hold indefinitely. The leadership at 60 West has also been in conversations with officials in three other states about the possibility of expansion, Skoczulek said, but no new facilities have been approved.

Despite the lack of progress, DeRing is hopeful that more states will follow the 60 West model and commit to building up the necessary infrastructure to provide compassionate eldercare for people with criminal records.

“In my experience, the people who we admit aren’t the people that committed those crimes anymore,” she said. “That’s what many people don’t understand. We’re talking about 16-year-olds and 20-year-olds who committed a terrible crime and made one terrible mistake. And then they spent the next 40 to 50 years paying for it.”

For Jarrett, who uses a wheelchair after undergoing amputation of his legs, one of the joys of being at 60 West is learning to become self-sufficient. He’s spent the past 40 years living in communal settings and says he eventually wants an apartment of his own. For now, however, he’s happy to enjoy the little things many people on the outside take for granted.

“I’m looking forward to going to a real grocery store,” Jarrett said. “I could probably spend four hours just looking at everything that wasn’t there when I went in.”

Roaches, Mold, Inedible Meals: Prison Food Is Straight out of a Nightmare


Roaches, Mold, Inedible Meals: Prison Food Is Straight out of a Nightmare


Prison Food is Straight out of a Nightmare

by Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg

The general public seems to be almost voyeuristically fascinated by prison food. It’s a punchline in sitcoms and movies. A condemned prisoner’s last meal is widely reported, down to what they ordered to drink. An incarcerated person’s dietary requests—for organic meals, for example—become fodder for outraged tweets.

But this interest belies a much bleaker daily reality for prisoners across the U.S.

“Prisons are food deserts,” formerly incarcerated writer Michael Capers explained in an essay published in The Appeal this week. “Mess hall meals typically contain very little nutritional value, and most commissaries offer few, if any, fresh food options.”

In addition to the lack of access to healthy food in prison, many people are served meals that are altogether inedible. The Appeal has been in touch with several women at Virginia’s Fluvanna Correctional Center who said they’re provided food that is moldy, rotten, or spoiled. They often find roaches on the food trays. The portions are “toddler size,” one woman reported.

Although Virginia prisons provide meals for more than 22,000 people, there is little independent oversight of their kitchens or food preparation practices.

When The Appeal reported the women’s allegations to the state health department, a spokesperson responded in an email that it does not have regulatory authority over correctional facilities at the regional and state level. Although Virginia’s department of health does monitor conditions at some local jails, the state department of corrections conducts its own inspections of facilities like Fluvanna, according to the spokesperson. And while the health department publishes a database of inspection reports for the facilities it oversees, no such transparency exists for the state’s prisons.

In an email to The Appeal, a VADOC spokesperson disputed reports of substandard food at Fluvanna, writing that the facility’s kitchen is “regularly tested” and has “pest control measures” in place. According to the spokesperson, the prison’s “food service operations” were inspected in June and “received the best score possible.” When asked for a copy of the report, the spokesperson directed The Appeal to submit a formal public records request. The Appeal has submitted a request but did not receive a response by publication.

“I would not think twice about eating a meal at this or any other VADOC facility,” the spokesperson wrote.

VADOC’s denials conflict with several reports from women at the facility who say they continue to receive inedible food.

“I got rotten black potatoes on my tray today,” Stephanie Angelo wrote to The Appeal last week via the prison’s online messaging service. “They have been rotten at least the past 2-3 days.”

Rancid food is far from unusual in prison mess halls across the country. People in prison are routinely forced to pick through bugs and mold at meal time. A 2017 survey of more than 100 incarcerated people in almost two dozen states found that over 65 percent of respondents had been served food not intended for humans, or that was moldy, spoiled, or had bugs in it. Most states spend less than $3 a day on food per incarcerated person, according to a 2020 report by Impact Justice, a public policy and advocacy organization.

To survive these conditions, incarcerated people might try to smuggle some of the more edible food from the mess hall into their cell—maybe a banana or an orange. But these items are considered contraband, which can lead to disciplinary action if they’re found. Capers, who came home from prison in February, wrote in his essay that he received his first misbehavior report for taking vegetables from the mess hall that were otherwise going to be composted.

“I had just arrived at the facility and didn’t have much to eat in my cell,” he wrote. “I was faced with a stark choice: go hungry or break the rules.”

Many people end up spending what little money they have at the commissary, where options are typically just a step up from a vending machine.

Regina Watkins, who’s incarcerated at Fluvanna, told The Appeal she earns 27 cents an hour housekeeping, which comes to about $30 a month. She spends much of that money buying food at the commissary.

“I supplement what I make with what my family sends me,” she told The Appeal. “They send me what they can when they can.”

In February, Watkins said she got food poisoning after she ate coleslaw from the mess hall, and vomited for several days. Last month, she got food poisoning again after eating potato salad. Her experience is relatively common among prisoners. Incarcerated people are over six times more likely than those in the community to contract a foodborne illness, according to a 2017 study that analyzed data collected from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I try hard not to [eat the food] because I’m so afraid of it,” Watkins told The Appeal.

According to Watkins, the kitchen was recently closed for a few days for extermination, but just last week she passed two kitchen workers who were pushing a warming cart of food trays. One of them screamed, “It’s roaches on this cart!”

In conversations with The Appeal, Shebri Dillon said that after finding maggots in her cauliflower, she now only eats food that she can wash off. “I went to go eat it and looked down and it was moving,” she said in a phone call from prison.

“I understand that I am incarcerated,” Dillon said. “I don’t expect five-star food, but I also would expect food that’s at least edible.”

Correction: A previous version of this article contained a statement from Regina Watkins suggesting she buys 40 packets of ramen a month from the prison commissary.

In an email to The Appeal nearly two weeks after this story was published, a VADOC spokesperson provided a complete list of Watkins’s commissary purchases from January 1 to July 19, which he claimed indicate someone who is not “purchasing subsistence levels of food.” While the documents do show that Watkins has only bought 25 packs of ramen so far this year, they also confirm that she buys a variety of other foods each month. According to the VADOC’s records, Watkins has purchased hundreds of food items from the commissary so far this year.

In the news

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has created “a chaotic post-Dobbs landscape in many states across the country,” writes Jessica Winter. The victims of this human-made crisis will be women and other pregnant people. [Jessica Winter / The New Yorker]

Abortion funds still need financial support. Desperately. [Scalawag]

U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver ruled that the Arizona prison system’s healthcare system is unconstitutional. [Jimmy Jenkins / Arizona Republic]

The Savannah, Georgia, Police Department does not keep data on the effectiveness of ShotSpotter, which is supposed to help solve gun crimes. But that didn’t stop the Savannah City Council from voting to expand the program. ShotSpotter has been linked to numerous wrongful arrests. [Jake Shore / The Current]

“As an Arab American who has witnessed the chilling effect of surveillance on my community, three factors have inspired me to stand with the movement to defund the police,” writes Nadine Naber. [Nadine Naber / Truthout]

That’s all for this week. Feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, please donate to our anniversary campaign here. If you become a sustaining monthly donor at $25 or more, we’ll send you our brand new “Fire Your Bosses” t-shirt!

How The Prison Food System Denies People Healthy Choices

I wanted to have a better diet in prison. But when you’ve been stripped of your freedom, it can be impossible to make the “right” decisions.


How The Prison Food System Denies People Healthy Choices

I wanted to have a better diet in prison. But when you’ve been stripped of your freedom, it can be impossible to make the “right” decisions.

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

For my entire adult life, I’ve been haunted by a family history of heart disease. My father and uncle died of massive heart attacks at ages 46 and 27. I’ll turn 29 this year, and though that means I’m fortunate enough to have outlived my uncle, the premature deaths in my family are a constant reminder that my biological clock is ticking way too fast.

Last year, my health status nearly boiled over into a full-blown crisis. I was incarcerated at New York’s Fishkill Correctional Facility at the time, serving out the last year of my prison sentence. Even though I was exercising daily, doing my best to watch my diet, and taking two different medications, my blood pressure peaked to the highest level it has ever reached.

Although I had learned how to avoid certain risk factors, prison deprived me of the ability to make the changes I would need to do so. I wanted to do more, but I felt like there was nothing I could do to defuse the time bomb in my chest. There was simply no way to avoid the harmful and pervasive prison conditions that were contributing to my spiking blood pressure. This is the reality of incarceration: When you’ve been stripped of your freedom, agency, and choice, it can be impossible to make the “right” decisions.

Months earlier, I had decided to make a drastic dietary change by cutting out processed carbs and animal protein and eating as much fresh produce as possible. Basically, I wanted to become vegan. But I quickly realized how unrealistic that would be while incarcerated.

Prisons are food deserts. Mess-hall meals typically contain very little nutritional value, and most commissaries offer few, if any, fresh food options. Most people in prison don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables unless their families bring or send them. It’s hardly a sustainable option. While I was in prison, families were allowed to send their incarcerated loved ones two packages each month, totaling 35 pounds. Many of our families are financially strapped and can’t afford to send enough fresh produce to support a vegetarian or vegan diet, but even if money weren’t an issue, the care packages wouldn’t be enough to keep you nourished year-round. But they were something.

The poor access to good-quality food forced me to make hard decisions while I was incarcerated. I received my first misbehavior report for possessing what the prison labeled “contraband.” It was vegetables from the mess hall that were about to be composted. I was in Upstate Correctional Facility then, and the commissary had no fresh food options. I had just arrived at the facility and didn’t have much to eat in my cell. I was faced with a stark choice: go hungry or break the rules. This is still the only way that most people can get fresh food in prison. You have to steal it or pay someone to steal it for you. What would you do?

Each facility makes up its own rules about what foods it provides, which means the availability varies drastically from prison to prison. Eventually, I was moved to Franklin Correctional Facility, where there were better options and it was possible for me to maintain a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. The commissary there sold fresh potatoes and carrots and a frozen stir fry that contained a variety of vegetables and mushrooms. Bananas were 18 cents—which is not as cheap as it sounds, considering that the starting wage of an incarcerated worker in New York is just 16 cents an hour. More importantly, the prison gave prisoners access to fridges, so when I got fresh produce in a package from home, it would last more than three days. It was the best a vegetarian could ask for under the circumstances.

While Franklin may have been better for my diet, the environment at the prison taxed my health in other ways. Violence is the norm at Franklin: both prisoner-on-prisoner and officer-on-prisoner. The incessant brutality forced me to live in a constant state of vigilance. I could barely sleep because I had seen people get cut, stabbed, or doused in hot water while they slept. Certain officers turned the threat of violence into a sadistic game—especially if you made eye contact with them.

Eventually, I succeeded in getting transferred to Fishkill Correctional Facility. The conditions there were a marked improvement from those in Franklin. Still, my blood pressure began to creep upward. The commissary at Fishkill was the worst I had encountered. The majority of the food available was empty carbs packed with sugar. There were strict purchase limits on everything—even beans. Most importantly, the commissary offered almost no fresh produce. The closest you could get were raw onions, packaged corn, and fruit cups. I ended up becoming a pescatarian—not by choice but by circumstance.

I was released from prison in February and now have access to a wealth of healthy food. However, if I were still incarcerated, my situation would be worse than ever. In May, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision launched a new policy prohibiting prisoners from receiving care packages directly from friends and family. Now if people want to give their incarcerated loved ones food or other necessities—like toothbrushes, soap, or undergarments—they have to purchase them through specified external vendors, many of which mark up prices. Families can no longer bring packages on visits. All of this means that people inside have even less access than they did before to fresh foods such as lettuce, spinach, strawberries, and healthy bread. It also means that the cost of sending a care package has soared, because families cannot shop for them at their local supermarkets.

Though my release came before the directive was enacted, I can only imagine what the state of my health would be if I were still inside. I often think about the brothers and sisters I left behind and how they, too, may have the knowledge and the desire to make healthy changes, only to be denied the chance to do so by a cruel new policy that traps them even deeper in a poisonous prison system. I feared for my life while I was incarcerated, and now I fear for theirs. Too many people never make it back home to their families.

Justice Department Launches Investigation Into NYPD’s Troubled Special Victims Division

The probe will assess whether the SVD engages in a “pattern or practice of gender-biased policing," according to the DOJ.

John Angel/Unsplash

Justice Department Launches Investigation Into NYPD’s Troubled Special Victims Division

The probe will assess whether the SVD engages in a “pattern or practice of gender-biased policing," according to the DOJ.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday that it has opened an investigation into the New York City Police Department’s sex crimes unit.

“Over the last several months, we have learned concerning information from a variety of sources of historical issues about the way the Special Victims Division has conducted its investigations for many years,” said U.S. Attorney Breon Peace for the Eastern District of New York in a Justice Department statement announcing the probe.

The investigation will assess whether the Special Victims Division (SVD) engages in a “pattern or practice of gender-biased policing,” and the department will conduct a “comprehensive review of the policies, procedures and training for SVD investigations of sexual assault crimes,” according to the statement. The areas it will probe include:

  • How SVD interacts with survivors and witnesses, collects evidence, and completes investigations
  • How SVD allocates staffing and other resources
  • Any steps the NYPD has taken to address deficiencies in its handling of sexual assault crimes
  • The services and support offered to survivors of sexual assault.

The DOJ has informed New York Mayor Eric Adams and NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell of the probe.

Last year, sexual assault survivors asked the DOJ to investigate the NYPD’s repeated mishandling of sex crime cases. The DOJ press release notes that the department received information “alleging deficiencies at SVD that have persisted for more than a decade.”

“This investigation is happening because of the collective power of survivors,” Alison Turkos told The Appeal. Turkos reported an assault to the NYPD in 2017 and her case was badly botched. “Survivors who joined together to build community and work toward true justice and accountability. I love and trust survivors, I just wish the city of New York felt the same.”

As The Appeal previously reported, the NYPD’s sex crimes division has been plagued by problems for years. In 2018, The Appeal documented instances in which special victims detectives pressured rape victims into signing a form that closed their case against their will. In 2019, data showed that the NYPD closed nearly 500 rape cases — 25 percent of all rapes reported that year — due to an alleged lack of participation from rape victims. Then in 2020, the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau investigated several SVD sergeants and lieutenants over allegations that they had stolen company time and drank on the job.

And last year, five former high-ranking SVD officials told The Appeal that the NYPD has spent years neglecting serious structural problems that have long damaged sex crimes and child abuse investigations in New York City. In multiple cases, women were assaulted and children were killed after detectives failed to appropriately investigate reports of rape or abuse.

In March 2018, New York City’s Department of Investigation (DOI) released a report that found the division was understaffed and under-resourced for nine years, despite recommendations from an NYPD working group and warnings from the division’s leadership. The report included internal NYPD documents obtained by the DOI that “acknowledge that many sexual assault cases are not properly investigated due to staffing and resource limitations.”

The NYPD disputed the DOI report, calling it “an investigation in name only.” The department ignored many of the DOI’s recommendations. Then they removed the SVD commanding officer, Deputy Chief Michael Osgood, whose pleas to increase staffing at the division were ignored for years, even as caseloads skyrocketed.

In 2011, when Osgood said understaffing made it difficult for detectives to thoroughly investigate cases, a deputy commissioner responded that the SVD “did not have to investigate every misdemeanor [sex crime].” In 2017, there were 67 detectives assigned to investigate 5,661 adult sex crimes. For comparison, the city’s homicide squads had 101 detectives assigned to investigate 282 homicides in 2017.

In November 2018, Osgood was reassigned to a patrol borough in Staten Island. One week later, he retired.

“Based on information provided to the Justice Department, we find significant justification to investigate whether the NYPD’s Special Victims Division engages in a pattern or practice of gender-biased policing,” said Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke in the Justice Department’s statement.

This story is breaking and may be updated.

Supreme Court Overturns Roe, Opening Door for Mass Criminalization of Abortion

Police and prosecutors will now be tasked with enforcing state anti-abortion laws.

Fred Schilling/Supreme Court

Supreme Court Overturns Roe, Opening Door for Mass Criminalization of Abortion

Police and prosecutors will now be tasked with enforcing state anti-abortion laws.

The Supreme Court of the United States has overturned the landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade, opening the door for states to pursue the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of people who seek or provide abortions, as well as those who help others obtain them. The Court’s decision will potentially criminalize hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. In 2019 alone, more than 600,000 legal abortions were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The news, while devastating, did not come as a surprise. Abortion advocates had been bracing for the decision since May, when Politico published a leaked early draft of the opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito.

As it was before Roe, police and prosecutors will be tasked with enforcing anti-abortion laws. But unlike the decades prior to Roe, law enforcement now has more powerful ways to surveil and build their cases against pregnant people and abortion providers—by monitoring period tracking apps, social media posts, online message boards, and text messages, for example.

“I don’t think that people understand at this moment how much worse post-Roe America is going to be in comparison to pre-Roe America,” said Robin Marty, director of operations at West Alabama Women’s Center and the author of The New Handbook for a Post-Roe America.

Last week, the National Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion group, encouraged states to adopt model legislation that would drastically expand the enforcement regime in the wake of Roe’s reversal. If adopted, the laws would criminalize, among others, those who provide “instructions over the telephone, the internet, or any other medium of communication regarding self-administered abortions or means to obtain an illegal abortion.” The statute would also apply to those who host or maintain a website or provide internet service to a website that contains information on “how to obtain an illegal abortion” that is “purposefully directed at pregnant women” in the state.

In the lead-up to Friday’s ruling, some district attorneys had pledged not to enforce their states’ abortion bans. But National Right to Life’s model legislation would give state attorneys general the power to usurp their authority and initiate abortion prosecutions if a local prosecutor refuses. “[R]adical Democrat prosecutors have been elected in several counties in almost every State, who regularly refuse to enforce laws that do not meet their social-justice agenda,” reads the memo introducing the model legislation.

Congressional or federal action could stop this mass criminalization and human rights crisis, which advocates warn will fall hardest on people of color.

“Today the Supreme Court of the U.S. opens the floodgates for criminalization of Black women,” said Gina Clayton-Johnson, founder and executive director of the Essie Justice Group, an organization that fights mass incarceration, in a statement to The Appeal.

“The Justices today carve a discriminatory path for further isolation and have authored a future of incarceration and confinement for countless Black women in need,” she continued. “Given that a well-documented Black maternal health crisis renders hospitals less safe for Black pregnant women than for women of any other race, what is to be when every miscarriage becomes a crime scene, and every doctor becomes a criminal investigator?”

In May, a majority of U.S. senators voted against the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would enshrine the right to an abortion into federal law. Earlier this month, Senate Democrats called on President Biden to issue an executive order to protect abortion rights. As of this writing, he has not taken any action.

Abortion bans will trap untold numbers of people in the U.S. legal system. But they will also have devastating consequences for thousands of pregnant people who are already imprisoned. Of the 26 states that are certain or likely to ban abortion, ten have the nation’s highest rates of female incarceration, according to 2020 data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics: Idaho, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Arizona, Wyoming, Kentucky, Montana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and West Virginia.

While much is unknown about how abortion bans will affect pregnant prisoners, the impact is sure to be catastrophic, according to Carolyn Sufrin, associate professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

For instance, a pregnant person incarcerated in a state with an abortion ban will almost certainly not be permitted to travel to a state where abortion is legal, Sufrin told The Appeal in May after the leaked draft opinion was published.

Another complexity for people in prison is that some are incarcerated outside of the state where they were convicted, which will likely cause confusion over which state laws govern their access to abortions. Similarly, it’s unknown if a federal prisoner incarcerated in a state with an abortion ban would be subject to the state’s laws or not, Sufrin said.

It’s also unclear what abortion bans will mean for incarcerated people who become pregnant as the result of a rape, Sufrin told The Appeal. The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act standards direct correctional authorities in these situations to provide victims with “timely information about, and access to, all lawful pregnancy-related medical services.”

Many of these questions will likely be litigated. In the meantime, advocates say, pregnant incarcerated people will be forced to carry pregnancies to term against their will.

Without any universal mandatory standards of care for incarcerated pregnant people, some will go without prenatal exams, screenings for high-risk pregnancies, prenatal vitamins, and proper nutrition, said Evelyn McCoy of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. Because the shackling of pregnant people is still quite prevalent, some will be shackled during their labor and delivery, she said.

“Prenatal care is extremely challenging in a correctional environment,” McCoy told The Appeal. “The prenatal care, if they’re able to access it, is of very poor quality and insufficient to meet their needs.”

Anti-Abortion Group Urges States to Pass Sweeping Criminalization Laws Post Roe

Model state legislation proposed by a leading anti-choice group would impose felony charges for a broad new set of activities related to abortion.

Gayatri Malhotra/Unsplash

Anti-Abortion Group Urges States to Pass Sweeping Criminalization Laws Post Roe

Model state legislation proposed by a leading anti-choice group would impose felony charges for a broad new set of activities related to abortion.

As the nation awaits the release of a Supreme Court decision that is expected to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion, a national anti-choice group has published model state legislation that would vastly expand the criminalization of abortion. If passed, the laws would allow prosecutors to file felony charges against anyone who provides information, support, or transportation to a person seeking an abortion.

In a memo published last week, National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) urges states to adopt a sweeping anti-abortion law that includes both civil, licensing, and criminal penalties. The group writes that the measures are necessary to ensure that people in states with abortion bans cannot access the procedure, including by traveling to bluer counties that may become “sanctuaries for abortion-on-demand.”

Under the group’s model statute, abortion would only be permitted to prevent the death of the pregnant person. However, if a state chooses to also make exceptions for rape or incest, NRLC’s proposed law would require the victim to provide documentation to the attending physician that the crime was reported to law enforcement.

NRLC’s draft legislation offers a frightening window into the new forms of criminalization that could be pursued in a post-Roe future, said Robin Marty, director of operations at West Alabama Women’s Center.

“Any person who so much as even talks about how to obtain an abortion is going to be thrown in jail,” said Marty of the proposed law.

The group’s draft legislation includes a sweeping definition of “aiding or abetting” an abortion that would include, among others, people and groups that provide “instructions over the telephone, the internet, or any other medium of communication regarding self-administered abortions or means to obtain an illegal abortion.” Under the law, people would face felony prosecution for hosting or maintaining a website, providing access to a website, or providing an internet service to a website that contains information on “how to obtain an illegal abortion” that is “purposefully directed at pregnant women” in the state.

Since Politico published a leaked draft of the Supreme Court opinion in May, a growing number of prosecutors have pledged not to enforce their state abortion bans. To address this issue, NRLC’s model legislation contains a provision that would allow the state attorney general to initiate prosecutions if a local prosecutor refuses. The memo describes the measure as a response to “radical Democrat prosecutors” who “regularly refuse to enforce laws that do not meet their social-justice agenda.”

NRLC’s proposed law would expand racketeering statutes to allow for the prosecution of abortion providers, which the group likens to a criminal enterprise that engages in a “pattern of illegal abortion activity.” Due to the ambiguity of racketeering laws, such a measure could allow for the felony prosecution of people who have no direct involvement in providing abortions—but who may be determined to be “associated” with such entities.

The group also recommends a new slate of abortion “trafficking” charges, which seem intended, in part, to prevent minors from leaving the state to obtain an abortion. The proposed statutory language states that “regardless of where an illegal abortion occurs,” a person who transports “a pregnant minor who is a resident of this state, with the intent to deprive the pregnant minor’s parent of knowledge of, and to procure, an illegal abortion or to obtain an abortifacient” is guilty of a felony—promotion of illegal abortion trafficking of a minor.

If adopted, NRLC’s proposed legislation would create a vast enforcement and criminalization framework that will cut off “every piece of information or assistance” to pregnant people, said Marty.

“Every time you’re like, okay, this is the bottom and then it’s like, no, actually, we’re going to put you in jail if you post information on a website,” said Marty. “How much lower can we go?”

New York Jail’s Prolonged COVID Visitation Ban Drives Big Profits on Detainee Calls

More than two years into the pandemic, the Broome County Sheriff’s Office is still prohibiting all jail visits. The policy helped them take in more than a half-million dollars in 2021.

Jason Farrar/Flickr via Creative Commons 2.0

New York Jail’s Prolonged COVID Visitation Ban Drives Big Profits on Detainee Calls

More than two years into the pandemic, the Broome County Sheriff’s Office is still prohibiting all jail visits. The policy helped them take in more than a half-million dollars in 2021.

This article was published in partnership with New York Focus.

Rudy’s family lives just four blocks from the Broome County jail, where he’s been locked up for about six months. But they’re not allowed to come see him, because visitation at the jail is still suspended under restrictions the jail imposed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, Rudy relies on costly video calls to stay in touch with his kids, ages 7 months, 2, and 3.

(Incarcerated sources asked to be identified by their first name or an alias to protect their privacy.)

“My girl will hold the phone to them,” Rudy said of video calls with his family. “They’ll turn away. Look at it weird. They’ll look at me through the video chat and not really say anything, just stare at me.”

The Broome County sheriff’s website states that the visitation ban is “due to COVID-19 precautions.” But many of the state’s jails and all of its prisons have resumed visitations in some form, and Broome has not shown a particular concern with COVID-19 in other areas. In February, New York Focus reported that it had one of the lowest testing rates of any jail in the state.

Detainees and advocates suspect a less noble reason for the continued prohibition on visits: For each call Rudy makes, the jail takes a cut of the profits.

Between January and October 2021, the Sheriff’s department took in well over half a million dollars from detainee phone calls and tablet use, according to records obtained by the local nonprofit Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier (JUST), which runs a visitation program at the jail. JUST’s founding member Bill Martin, first published the financial records on his blog, Just Talk.

Last month, Legal Services of Central New York (LSCNY)—a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal assistance—filed a class action suit challenging the jail’s visitation ban. The suit alleges that the policy violates the due process rights of the jail’s detainees, subjecting them to “excessive costs and fees” that place a crushing financial burden on detainees and their loved ones. The costs are so high that communication has become “effectively unavailable” for many of the people held at the jail, according to the suit.

“This is making so much money for the jail, there’s no motivation for them to stop it,” said Jackson Hengsterman, the coordinator of a jail visitation program at JUST, which is a plaintiff in the suit. “They want to keep the income stream flowing.”

In response to questions for this article, Broome County Sheriff David Harder emailed, “No comment on matters pending in the court.”

Other than one free five-minute phone call per week, the sheriff has put a price tag on all modes of communication. A collect phone call can cost as much as $10 for a 15-minute call to someone with a local area code, according to the complaint.

A video call like the one Rudy and his family use costs 25 cents a minute, according to a recent copy of the jail’s contract with telecommunications giant Global Tel Link and obtained by JUST. Each message sent on a tablet costs 25 cents, plus an additional 50 cents for each attached photo. There’s also an additional charge of 5 cents a minute just for using the tablet in most cases. Each deposit into a detainee’s account for messaging and video calls—which the company has dubbed GettingOut—comes with a fee of $3.33.

Much of that money is kicked back to the sheriff: The jail receives 44 percent of gross revenue generated from phone calls and 20 percent of gross revenue generated from video calls and some tablet access charges.

The visitation ban has also made it harder for outsiders to monitor conditions in the jail. For years before the pandemic, JUST’s volunteer team of college students and retirees had regularly visited detainees to provide companionship, emotional support, and help connecting to services. Detained people also reported abuse and neglect to the volunteers, making the group something of a de facto oversight body for the jail.

“JUST’s visiting program has been instrumental in shining a light on the abuses and medical neglect prisoners face at the Jail,” the complaint reads. Its work has “exposed abuses that have eventually been the subject of lawsuits including: juvenile solitary confinement, discrimination against transgender people, and brutality against prisoners at the hands of corrections officers.”

When in-person visitation ceased in 2020, JUST was forced to switch to online messaging, phone calls, and video calls to communicate with people on the inside. The high costs of those services have led to monthly bills that can run up to almost $1,000, said JUST’s Martin. “We began to run all our money out,” he said. For the jail, however, “COVID has generated really excessive profits that aren’t being monitored.”

As of last month, more than 300 people were held at Broome County jail, the majority of whom have not been sentenced, according to the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services. The Appeal and New York Focus spoke with several people incarcerated at the jail who said the sheriff’s policy has taken both a financial and an emotional toll on them and their families.

Nate, who has not been convicted of a crime, has been held pretrial at Broome County jail for about 10 months. “When it comes to birthdays and holidays, I think around these times of year is when you really wish that you would have that in-person visitation,” he said in a video call. (Nate is not his real name.)

Raul, a father of three who is also detained pretrial, has been at the jail since February. “Jail is designed to break families apart, and this is just another way of doing that,” he said. “We’re stuck in here with no human contact with the outside world besides the officer.”

The exorbitant cost of communicating with their loved ones is part of a larger pattern of financial exploitation at the jail, people incarcerated there say. If they break a jail rule, they’re charged $25, Nate wrote.

Rudy says he buys food from the jail’s commissary to supplement the meager and often inedible meals they receive. One pack of ramen soup costs about a dollar, according to a commissary list the sheriff’s office provided to New York Focus and The Appeal, even though a 12-pack of ramen can sell for less than $3 in a grocery store.

“If you don’t buy stuff from commissary, you’re gonna end up starving,” Rudy said.

In addition to food, the commissary sells a variety of items, including religious texts: an English or Spanish language Bible sells for $11.50, a Koran for $27.95, and a prayer rug, typically used by practicing Muslims, for $22.95.

For some detained people, the commissary’s high prices can also make it difficult to keep up with basic hygiene. When detainees arrive at the jail, they’re given a package that includes, among other items, one plastic cup, toothpaste, a “flex toothbrush,” a plastic “safety comb,” and one four-fluid ounce “all in one shave and shampoo body wash,” according to the sheriff’s office. Once those supplies run out, people have to purchase replacements—unless they qualify as indigent, which means they have about a dollar or less in their account. The commissary charges $3.04 for deodorant, $2.72 for toothpaste, and over $3 for most kinds of shampoo.

Amanda has been detained pretrial at the Broome County jail since January. She wrote to The Appeal and New York Focus that she receives an indigent package every week, which includes ten sheets of lined paper, two stamped envelopes, one “flex pen,” the three-in-one wash, and toothpaste.

In Amanda’s first week of incarceration, she spent $200 on food and hygiene items, like shampoo and conditioner, she wrote. Lately, she’s been “living off tray food,” which is “never enough to fill your hunger.” Tampons are supplied by the jail, free of charge, but they’re “very rough” and only come in one size. She can’t afford deodorant, so she shares someone else’s.

Amanda has two children—a daughter, 6, and a son, 10—who are with her mother while she’s in jail. She hasn’t seen either of them in months. She said she’s spoken to her daughter twice, cramming “as much as possible” into the free five-minute phone calls provided by the sheriff’s office.

“My mom can’t afford to do video calls and neither can I,” Amanda wrote. “I’m in here completely alone.”

The Chesa Boudin Recall Was a Fight to Protect the Status Quo

Lynn Friedman/Flickr

The Chesa Boudin Recall Was a Fight to Protect the Status Quo

Lynn Friedman/Flickr via Creative Commons.

The Chesa Boudin Recall Was a Fight to Protect the Status Quo

by Jerry Iannelli

On Tuesday, Chesa Boudin, the self-styled “progressive prosecutor” in charge of the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, lost handily in a recall election bankrolled by local and national conservatives. The outcome was not particularly surprising, as polls showed that Boudin had been underwater ahead of the vote.

In the wake of Tuesday’s results, it seems inevitable that some will falsely claim this race was a referendum on the entire movement to reform the criminal legal system, rather than one high-profile defeat that is unfairly overshadowing scores of smaller victories in other parts of the country. But the reasons Boudin found himself in this predicament at all are important nonetheless.

Elected in 2019 on a promise to radically transform the city’s legal system, Boudin quickly became the target of a years-long smear campaign and bitter recall fight, driven by a burgeoning alliance between the local press, police unions, major conservative outlets like Fox News, and the city’s allegedly “progressive” class of wealthy tech investors.

For the wealthy backers of Boudin’s recall, “progressive” prosecutors are the perfect scapegoat for what they see as emergent threats. While Boudin and his counterparts in other jurisdictions have in some ways promised to transform society, it has become clear that they have limited power to do this alone.

Whatever policies progressive prosecutors may implement to make the legal system less unjust, the people who are most over-criminalized and policed still suffer disproportionately from a lack of housing, health care, clean air, transportation, and good jobs. And in the end, we cannot provide these things in earnest without substantially raising taxes on the wealthy or otherwise fundamentally changing the way society works. Although decarcerating America is certainly a worthy objective, simply not arresting the largely low-income and Black and brown people who populate America’s prisons is not enough.

But the status quo has created a pretty solid quality of life for, say, realtors who dumped money into the Boudin recall campaign. Many of the people who donated to the recall effort rely on heavy-handed cops to make their businesses work. Police are often agents of gentrification, and many of the city’s realtors seem fine with empowering law enforcement to displace and disappear homeless people if it means they can sell a few more warehouse lofts. Having to see poverty on your way to a Hawaiian barbeque beer hall kind of dampens the mood, after all.

Other major funders of Boudin’s recall included big players in Silicon Valley, like David O. Sacks, the founding COO of PayPal, who also invested in Facebook, Uber, SpaceX, Airbnb, and other major tech companies. Whether they realize it or not, these donors benefit financially when the poor are warehoused in prisons and jails, stigmatized as felons, or shot dead in the street, because those options are all far cheaper for the wealthy than actually funding social services.

Few people underscore this point better than William Oberndorf, the single largest donor to the “Neighbors for a Better San Francisco” political action committee, the biggest group pushing the Boudin recall. Obendorf is a “Never Trump” Republican who’s donated millions to GOP politicians, including Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney, and Jeb Bush. The fact that Oberndorf does not, for example, pay a massive marginal tax rate to fund housing for the homeless allows him to instead spend huge amounts of his income influencing politics and gambling on tech investments, all in an effort to preserve and amass more wealth.

It’s telling that wealthy San Franciscans have had a prolonged meltdown over Boudin’s tenure, even though his most ambitious policies have not been particularly transformational. Despite his rhetoric, Boudin’s office mostly fiddled with policies at the margins. And while his office might argue that he was forced to take a more constrained approach, Boudin ultimately shrunk drug-related convictions by a decidedly-not-transformational amount and even angered public defenders by requesting $2.3 million to ramp up fentanyl prosecutions. (Ironically, law enforcement and business groups later criticized the program for not prosecuting more fentanyl cases).

Likewise, a recent San Francisco Chronicle piece outlined how Boudin’s office actually failed to pump resources into preexisting restorative justice programs that could have reduced recidivism among arrested children. By underdelivering, it seems Boudin may have failed to mobilize his own base enough to combat a very predictable right-wing backlash.

But even with those failures in mind, Boudin’s stated ideology hinted at a world in which the indigent actually deserve some rights. His office, for example, stopped assigning cash bail for certain charges and the city did not burn down. What would stop Boudin or his successor from chipping away at the system even further?

The wealthiest San Franciscans simply could not allow this. So with a gigantic war chest, Boudin’s opponents mounted a transparently bad faith campaign to pretend the city was on fire, even though it was not. Conservative outlets like Fox News and Breitbart turned Boudin into a household name, reportedly mentioning his name more than 1,400 times in the last year.

Right-wing media, desperate to portray California as a failed state run by woke hippies, dubiously claimed that Boudin had done everything from releasing “an army of drug dealers” from prison to causing a spike in fentanyl overdoses in Humboldt County, more than 300 miles north of San Francisco. Other, less bombastic writers at the Wall Street Journal and Atlantic Monthly took plenty of bad faith pot-shots as well. So did the Chronicle—the local paper of record—with one particular columnist writing dozens of negative stories, including some that misleadingly bolstered the “progressive” credentials of Boudin’s opponents.

Local cops also went on something of their own wildcat strike, prompting reports that they had let crimes occur and discouraged victims from reporting incidents in order to create more bad headlines for the DA’s office. Last month, Boudin’s office told the San Francisco news site Mission Local that prosecutors had to rent their own U-Haul for an operation to break up an alleged theft ring after the SFPD claimed it was “too busy” to participate.

Local TV news was also complicit in smearing Boudin. Outlets allowed major retail chains like Walgreens or Safeway to wantonly lie so they could blame Boudin for a citywide spike in shoplifting that did not exist. Even random purse snatchings turned into headline news that could be used to point the finger at the DA’s office. In a particularly high-profile incident, KGO-TV, the Bay Area’s local ABC affiliate, ran a dead-wrong story blaming Boudin for dropping charges against a 16-year-old girl accused of carjacking a 75-year-old woman. The piece was completely inaccurate, but that did not stop right-wing pundits from picking up the story online.

Even self-professed “moderate liberals” and “progressives” joined in on the dog-pile. At the height of the crime panic last Fall, luxury stores in San Francisco’s downtown boarded up their windows—leading to screeds from centrist Democrats lamenting that their city was on the brink of anarchy because they could not see inside a Burberry store. Of course, this was little more than status anxiety: The city’s rich liberals benefit from the police just as much as its rich conservatives do.

In the lead-up to Boudin’s recall, some journalists sought to point out that the data overwhelmingly did not support claims of a crime spike in San Francisco. Despite these facts, in polls, many of the city’s residents said they no longer “felt” safe. Some on the left have frustratedly explained this as yet another case of mass delusion. But perhaps people could be excused for feeling some lack of safety right now—albeit for reasons that go far beyond the actions of any individual prosecutor.

Since March 2020, amid a failed national response to the pandemic, more than 1 million people have died, the economy has crashed, and Americans have learned—whether they’re willing to accept it or not—that we’re all one, particularly nasty germ away from potential societal collapse. Meanwhile, we’ve gotten no relief from a staggering list of other problems—poverty, inequality, a complete lack of affordable housing, unattainable health care, endless student loan debt, and mass shootings, to name a few. Americans are desperate for real, meaningful action on those issues, but the federal government has offered little more than a thumbs-up in response. No sane person would feel safe in such a country. But that’s hardly Chesa Boudin’s fault.

We could, of course, begin addressing these issues by breaking the stranglehold the uber-wealthy have over our public sphere. But, rather than allow those thoughts to enter the public consciousness, the media has helped make a progressive DA the scapegoat for America’s slow decline. And so, Boudin lost. Behind his defeat we see a new playbook for protecting an inequitable status quo that makes us all less safe. As long as the rest of us feel unsafe, the wealthy get to rest easy at night.

In the news

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The Queens District Attorney dropped charges against Prakash Churaman, who was accused of murder when he was 15-years-old. Churaman spent years locked up for a crime he says he did not commit. [Max Rivlin-Nadler / Hell Gate]

Scalawag is launching “pop justice,” a series that will “examine the way pop culture—music, film, television, TikTok, journalism—warps our understanding of policing and justice and ultimately stalls overdue calls for abolition.” [Ko Bragg / Scalawag]

In the wake of two high-profile cases of California women facing aggressive prosecution after losing pregnancies, state lawmakers are moving to restrict law enforcement from investigating people who suffer stillbirths or miscarriages. [Jessica Pishko / Bolts]

When abortion was illegal in California, Senator Dianne Feinstein served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. As part of her role, she determined prison sentences for abortion providers. “I really came to believe that the law is the law,” Feinstein told The Cut. [Rebecca Traister / The Cut]

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said that people charged with certain violent crimes should remain imprisoned because they are “guilty,” even though they have not yet been found guilty of any crime. [Gregory Pratt / Twitter]

ICYMI—From The Appeal

Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reports on the case of Danyel Smith, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2003 for the death of his son, in what prosecutors alleged was an open-and-shut case of “shaken baby syndrome.” Nearly 20 years later, a leading medical expert says the evidence shows no abuse took place. [The Appeal]

A new policy in New York severely restricts personal care packages sent to prisons, instead forcing people to buy them through vendors. Advocates tell Molly Hagan this will exacerbate inequities in prison and make it even harder for the incarcerated to get fresh food. [The Appeal]

That’s all for this week. Feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to support our relaunch, please donate here.

New York’s Prison Package Ban Places New Burdens on the Incarcerated

Advocates say the policy, aimed at eliminating contraband, will harm prisoners and their loved ones by making it much harder to send fresh food and other essentials into prisons.

Guard tower at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Peter Greenberg/Creative Commons

New York’s Prison Package Ban Places New Burdens on the Incarcerated

Advocates say the policy, aimed at eliminating contraband, will harm prisoners and their loved ones by making it much harder to send fresh food and other essentials into prisons.

Twice a month, Caroline Hansen wakes at 5 a.m. to make the three-hour drive from her home in Suffolk County on Long Island to the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York, where her husband is serving a sentence of life without parole. On one of these trips, she brings a 35-pound package of food.

Hansen is well-versed in the myriad restrictions that regulate these packages. She knows that all food given to people in prison, excluding fresh produce, must be hermetically sealed. She knows to buy bread without poppy seeds, nuts without shells, and oatmeal without raisins. She also knows these restrictions are always in flux, and there is a chance she runs afoul of them. But Hansen does her best to follow the rules because she wants to maintain a more intimate connection with her husband and make sure he gets fresh food—a rarity in prison. “My husband loves avocados,” she said. “I remember the first time I brought him an avocado, he was like, ‘I haven’t had an avocado in 25 years.'”

But now, Hansen’s routine—along with her husband’s access to fresh food—stands to be completely upended. In April, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYSDOCCS) implemented a new policy prohibiting all care packages containing food. Under the new rules, friends and family will only be allowed to send two non-food packages per year to their incarcerated loved ones. Those packages must be sent via the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, or UPS, meaning people like Hansen will no longer be able to hand-deliver them. All other packages will have to be purchased through external vendors.

The pilot program has already gone into effect at eight of the 12 correctional facilities within the Wende Hub. Starting this month, the restrictions will be phased in at two hubs every other week, until all state prisons are in compliance.

The new policy, known as the Secure Vendor Program, exists in other states in various forms. It follows a failed attempt in New York in 2018 to implement a similar rule change, which was reversed after just 10 days amid intense public outcry. Since then, corrections officers have advocated for the policy’s return, arguing that it would stem the flow of drugs and other contraband into prisons, which they blame for violence and overdoses.

But advocates say the move is an extreme and unnecessary measure that will severely restrict—and for many incarcerated people, eliminate—access to fresh food in prison, exacerbating the inequities of a carceral system that seeks to monetize every interaction between incarcerated people and their loved ones. They argue that much of the contraband actually comes into prisons from guards themselves, and have characterized this as a new extractive scheme that will only benefit private companies.

“It places so much more stress on the families who are literally already hauling bags of groceries from Brooklyn on the train, just so they can get what their loved one is asking for,” said Anna Adler, one of the co-founders of the Sing Sing Family Collective, a group of family members and incarcerated individuals at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining. “It breaks down a support system.”

Under the updated policy, families and friends can order care packages from any vendor—a departure from the failed 2018 directive, which had forced people to choose from a list of six approved vendors. Although these more open-ended guidelines carry their own complications, they’re a positive step that wouldn’t have happened without advocacy in New York, said Bianca Tylek, founder and executive director of Worth Rises, a nonprofit that successfully organized opposition to the 2018 directive. Still, Tylek sees the new package policy as the latest addition to a robust system designed to squeeze money out of incarcerated people and their families.

“Privatization has been really aggressive since the 1980s,” she said. “It feels like every year they come up with something new.”

The package program itself is the product of advocacy, in this case from the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, which has played a key role in rolling back criminal justice reforms in Albany. Citing incidents of violence and overdose in prisons, members of the Prison Violence Task Force (PVTF)—a new group formed within NYSDOCCS in 2021—began pushing for the policy this year. They have argued that packages coming from third-party vendors would be far less likely to contain contraband, like weapons or drugs.

Advocates like Wilfredo Laracuente of the Sing Sing Family Collective believe that the policy is more about retaliation than security. He pointed to the recent implementation of the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which limits the use of solitary confinement in New York prisons and jails, and noted that corrections officers are aggressively pushing for its repeal. “Now they can’t [use solitary] as a punitive punishment, they’re going to weaponize other things,” said Laracuente, who served 20 years at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.

Currently and formerly incarcerated individuals have expressed their own concerns about violence and drugs in New York prisons, but they’re worried that the new package policy will only make these problems worse. Amy Peterson, who works with Sweet Freedom Farm, a farming collective in Germantown that distributes fresh food to people in prison, recently spoke with a friend who serves on the Incarcerated Liaison Committee (ILC) at Eastern Correctional Facility. “You’re taking away resources from people,” Peterson recalled her friend telling her. “And when people don’t have what they need, bad things happen.”

While there is little disagreement that family and friends pass some contraband into prisons, advocates say they are being scapegoated for a problem widely believed to stem primarily from prison employees.

“We all know that most of the contraband comes in through the staff,” said Barbara Allan, who has been running peer support groups for families with loved ones in prison for over 50 years. “We’ve always known it.”

Indeed, official data suggests that drug use in prison continued and perhaps increased during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as visitation was halted and most families were forced to turn to vendors to send packages. Although New York prisons were closed or severely restricted to visitors between March 2020 and December 2020, NYSDOCCS reported that overdoses rose from 2019 to 2020, as indicated by an increase in officer use of the overdose reversal drug Narcan.

In the view of Michael Capers, an advocate who was recently released from prison after serving 12 years, any policy that seeks only to address the supply of drugs—however ineffectively—will fail to address the root of the problem. He described current prison programs for drug abuse, anger, and grief as inadequate and perversely, a privilege awarded for good behavior. If you struggle with substance abuse in prison, “you’re looked at as part of the problem for having this addiction and you’re penalized,” Capers said. “So if you happen to relapse while you’re in this drug program, you get removed from it.”

A section of the commissary menu at New York's Fishkill Correctional Facility, showing limited vegetable options.

Capers, who is studying to become a nutritionist, also raised concern about the new policy’s effect on the health and well-being of the incarcerated, who already suffer adverse health consequences due to the poor quality of prison food.

Outside of Hansen’s packages, her husband says his diet consists largely of white bread, imitation chicken patties, and canned vegetables. The portions are small and contain an alarming lack of nutrients—if they aren’t entirely spoiled or contaminated—and the monotony of eating the same thing for years on end can feel like its own form for punishment. Prisoners who have enough money can buy food at the commissary, but with a menu that consists mostly of packaged goods, it doesn’t provide a balanced diet.

By further tying a prisoner’s access to fresh food to their financial resources, the new package policy threatens to entrench existing health disparities behind bars, especially among Black and low-income people who are highly overrepresented in New York’s prison system. “What’s getting lost is the food system’s impact on the Black community,” Capers said, noting that effects of incarceration on people’s health and wealth extend beyond the individual, draining entire communities.

But if you view incarceration as a mode of extraction, all of this is by design, said Jennifer Fecu, an advocate who served 20 years at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. “The state of life we’re in, [even] if it’s near death, it doesn’t matter, as long as we’re generating funds,” she said. “Everyone is considered a body, and people inside really realize it.”

How Los Angeles Created the Playbook for a Nationwide War on the Unhoused

As politicians look to build public support for homeless encampment sweeps, they’re using tactics popularized in LA—the site of one of the nation’s most intense battles over the unhoused.


How Los Angeles Created the Playbook for a Nationwide War on the Unhoused

As politicians look to build public support for homeless encampment sweeps, they’re using tactics popularized in LA—the site of one of the nation’s most intense battles over the unhoused.

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

The forever war against unhoused people is heating up in cities across the U.S., and the key battleground is large encampments, particularly those in visible public spaces.

Last month, an encampment near New York City’s Tompkins Square Park was swept with the help of the NYPD, which arrested eight people. Late last year in San Francisco, Mayor London Breed declared a “state of emergency” in the Tenderloin neighborhood, igniting a series of encampment sweeps. And in Chicago, Fireman’s Park has become a frequent target for homeless removal.

With each of these clampdowns come newer, more aggressive strategies to erase visible poverty in neighborhoods with increasingly wealthy, gentrifying interests. And as politicians across the country look to build public support for sweeps, they appear to be pulling tactics from a playbook engineered in Los Angeles—the site of one of the nation’s most intense battles over homeless encampments.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, LA homeless communities in public zones like Echo Park Lake, MacArthur Park, and Venice Beach have been targeted for removal—all contrary to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance advising that sweeps can put the unhoused at higher risk for COVID transmission.

This escalation reached a flashpoint in March 2021, when more than 400 militarized LAPD officers descended on Echo Park Lake to destroy a large encampment. By the end of the two-day standoff, police had arrested or detained over 180 people and brutalized many more, including members of the media and random bystanders. In total, the city displaced 183 people during the operation, and spent more than $2 million in policing costs alone.

Officials sold the raid as a housing success with a “compassionate” approach. But the research we’ve conducted over the past 14 months as members of the After Echo Park Lake research collective suggests it did little except destabilize and scatter many of the people who had been living in the park. Instead, the operation appears to have served as a proving ground for new strategies for disappearing indigent people—all while channeling more funds toward police and dubious nonprofits and away from tangible, long-term housing solutions.

Here are three key tactics in this campaign playbook:

1. Use misleading rhetoric to portray raids as good for unhoused people.

The easiest way to sell mass displacement as a success story is to sugarcoat what’s actually happening. To do that, officials often intentionally misuse the word “housing” to sell carceral shelter and other precarious forms of living.

In the wake of the Echo Park Lake raid, outgoing Mayor Eric Garcetti touted it as “a successful housing operation unprecedented in scale.” City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell branded it “the single largest housing event in the history of the city.”

Comments like these ignore the fact that not all housing is equal, and rely heavily on the notion that forcing people into shelter of any kind is inherently better than allowing them to remain on the street. The reality is many unhoused people feel that entering a broken shelter system sets them on a path to nowhere, and is not worth the sacrifices to one’s safety, lifestyle, and autonomy. Many of the unhoused folks we spoke to for our study told us that shelters and other city-provided carceral housing options are far worse than encampment life.

Take Project Roomkey, the main program Echo Park Lake residents were being forced into. Although the initiative was trumpeted as a way to move unhoused people into temporary shelter amid the pandemic, in practice the program was carceral in nature and disastrously mismanaged. Los Angeles had access to immense resources to house people during this crisis and failed to create a system of stable, permanent housing. “That people prefer a tent to a hotel room tells you all you need to know about Project Roomkey,” said La Donna Harrell, an unhoused organizer and member of the research collective.

The apprehension unhoused people may have about these programs is often used to brand them as “shelter-resistant.” But the data we collected demonstrates that it is not individuals who are shelter-resistant, but the very system—one that churns people from one placement to another, creating the appearance of activity while doing little to change their housing status.

After Echo Park Lake research collective

For all the talk of “housing,” our research found that many of the unhoused residents vanished from LA’s homeless system entirely after the Echo Park Lake raid. Some were arrested or scared away with the threat of arrest in the weeks before the raid. Others were scattered into shelters or hotels for temporary stays, with many eventually being expelled or self-evicted.

Of the 183 people identified by the LA Homeless Services Authority as former residents of Echo Park Lake, only 13 of the 17 who were housed in February (as seen in the chart above) remain housed today, according to our research. In our subsequent research tracing the housing trajectories of 84 documented former residents of Echo Park Lake, we found that more in that group have died than have been permanently housed—a count of seven to four.

2. Fearmonger about encampments by conflating homelessness with substance abuse and mental illness.

When Echo Park Lake reopened after the raid in May 2021, O’Farrell released a statement that sought to portray the operation as a matter of humanitarian necessity.

“The situation at the Lake was not ‘commune-like,’ and it was naive and inaccurate to describe it as such,” he said. “It was unsafe, unhealthy, inhumane and deadly — with multiple fatalities, widespread drug usage and criminal activity, including reports of sexual assaults.” Breed and New York Mayor Eric Adams have used similar rhetoric while attempting to justify their moves to clear encampments in their cities.

Making unhoused people seem dangerous and undignified is a prerequisite for any larger scale project to displace them. Fearmongering of this sort is easy and effective, but it amounts to little more than villainizing people for suffering amid a lack of state resources.

This tactic only muddies the issue and shifts focus toward solutions that effectively launder state control as a form of care. It usually results in more money being diverted toward policing and enforcement and away from the root cause of the issue: the lack of stable and permanent (vs. “affordable”) housing, and the lack of political will to house people.

3. Outsource solutions to nonprofits that perpetuate the status quo.

Many cities working to clear unhoused people from public spaces have turned to what we refer to as the “mercenary model,” which empowers nonprofits to helicopter in under the guise of service provision—often while disingenuously positioning themselves as alternatives to police and other state agencies.

Urban Alchemy is one such “mercenary” organization that has experienced “explosive growth,” expanding from San Francisco to Los Angeles and other cities. In the months before the Echo Park Lake displacement, the city paid Urban Alchemy $350,000 to do outreach at the park, with the goal of moving people into “placements.” But with little available housing or interest among the park’s residents in voluntarily uprooting, Urban Alchemy ended up conducting what we call “outreach to nowhere.” Despite their lack of success, officials could at least claim that they had made an honest effort at a more humane solution.

A tent count report from Urban Alchemy emailed to O’Farrell’s office in January, obtained via public records request. (via After Echo Park Lake research collective)

Although Urban Alchemy promotes its use of outreach workers who are formerly incarcerated—and in some cases currently or formerly unhoused themselves—the organization is also the subject of multiple class action lawsuits for labor abuse and harassment.

Organizations like Urban Alchemy don’t represent material alternatives to policing, and do little to improve our current broken systems. Their primary purpose is to siphon off tens of millions of dollars in government contracts to perform what many see as sloppy, often hostile, forms of outreach. Rather than substantively address these criticisms, Urban Alchemy has called them part of a “made up” narrative.

The state’s eagerness to outsource this work to nonprofits only frustrates broader accountability efforts, as private organizations elude the meager transparency laws otherwise applied to public agencies. Despite its inefficiencies, this mercenary model is growing in popularity, largely due to support from politicians looking for the cover of a feel-good narrative that makes the clearing of encampments seem more palatable.

O’Farrell stands with Urban Alchemy outreach workers at Echo Park’s “Tiny Home Village.” The city of Los Angeles has spent nearly $50,000,000 constructing tiny homes. (via Coucilmember Mitch O'Farrell's office)

As pandemic-related tenant protections expire and inflation rates soar, issues of homelessness will likely only get worse in the coming years. Barring an unprecedented political and economic investment in addressing the root causes of this crisis, unhoused encampments will remain an inevitability.

The evidence so far suggests that cities, wholly captured by business interests, will face increased pressure to respond by simply disappearing homelessness. By now, it’s clear that elected officials are more interested in managing constituent “frustrations” over witnessing poverty than they are in addressing the underlying conditions that have made cities uninhabitable for poor people.

The cynical tactics of the Echo Park Lake playbook offer politicians an easy way to be seen as “doing something” without actually having to do anything. But we can’t sweep and criminalize our way out of this problem. Any effective response to homelessness must revolve around actual housing, robust service, and accountability—not deception, coercion, and force.

America’s Dark History of Criminalizing Queerness

Nikolas Gannon/Unsplash

America’s Dark History of Criminalizing Queerness

Nikolas Gannon/Unsplash

America’s Dark History of Criminalizing Queerness

by Adam M. Rhodes

Politicians across the country are launching a seemingly endless stream of cruel and baseless attacks on trans youth. Out of the hundreds of anti-trans bills that have been introduced in recent years, some make a familiar target of gendered bathrooms or the discussion of gender and sexuality in schools. Others target school sports or students’ pronouns, or take the extraordinary step of banning or outright criminalizing gender-affirming care for trans youth.

Earlier this month, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Greg Abbott exceeded his authority when he ordered the state’s child protective services agency to investigate the parents of transgender kids. That same day, a federal judge blocked an Alabama law that made it a felony for doctors to provide certain transition-related care to trans youth. In March, Idaho lawmakers halted a bill that would have made providing gender-affirming care punishable by up to life in prison, calling it an overreach.

To be clear, these bills reject decades of research that tout the importance of gender-affirming care, often using blatant misinformation about the reality of trans health care and who needs it to make their point. And even if they never go into effect, they are designed to make it nearly impossible to live happily and healthily as a young trans person. But that’s the point, isn’t it?

Aside from their reliance on misinformation, what makes these efforts so shocking is the way they weaponize the criminal legal system to terrorize trans youth and the people who love them. They will slap loving parents with criminal convictions, strip compassionate doctors of their licenses, and continue to push trans youth to their breaking point.

Amid the outrage in response to this campaign, some have said that anti-trans laws don’t reflect who America is. But the reality—as queer and trans people know all too well—is that the U.S. legal system has long targeted and punished queer people simply for existing.

Laws banning cross-dressing in the U.S. date back to the 19th century. Blackened windows at gay bars are a relic of a time when it was a crime for gay people to dance, drink, or kiss. In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, informal “three-article” rules required people to wear at least three pieces of clothing that matched their biological sex—whatever that is. Sodomy laws, which made sex between consenting gay adults a crime, lasted until a 2003 Supreme Court decision (one that experts say could be next on the chopping block using arguments of a leaked opinion that threatens to overturn the federal right to abortion).

The criminal legal system also has a history of using queerness as a weapon against defendants. In the capital murder trials of Bernina Mata, Wanda Jean Allen, and Charles Rhines, prosecutors and juries made sexual identity a primary issue, helping to secure death sentences against them.

Under this system, transgender women are commonly assumed to be sex workers in a phenomenon known as “walking while trans.” Police continue to brutalize queer people, even during the pride celebrations they so desperately want to be a part of. Study after study shows that queer people who enter the criminal legal system face particularly harsh treatment, including disproportionate sentencing and sexual assault and abuse behind bars. Trans people, for instance, are often housed in jails and prisons based on their “biological sex,” putting them at horrifying risk of abuse and assault.

As with these past efforts, the latest campaign against trans people is being driven by fear, ignorance, and a willful disregard for the facts. Transphobic legislators say they want to protect children from irreversible decisions about their gender identity and have raised undue alarm about the safety of puberty blockers and gender-affirming surgeries. But puberty blockers, for one, are not just relegated to trans youth. They have been used to treat early puberty in young kids, and endometriosis in adults, among other things.

The claim that surgeons are performing gender-affirming procedures on trans youth would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous, said Daye Pope, director of civic engagement at the trans advocacy group TAKE Birmingham, calling it an “outright lie.”

“We’re trying to really help people understand that all this health care takes years of therapy, of working with health experts and doctors, before a lot of these young people even access the bare minimum of care, which is puberty blockers,” Pope said. “So the idea that this type of legislation is to protect anyone, especially these kids, is just such a blatant falsehood.”

But when the overarching goal is to harm people based on their identity, facts typically tend to get ignored, said Kristen Browde, co-chair of the National Trans Bar Association. Just like past laws that have targeted queer people, she says their contemporary counterparts are designed to disproportionately harm the most vulnerable among us.

“The most at risk are the people who can’t afford to travel, can’t afford to reach out beyond their state’s borders,” Browde said. “And invariably, [it will be] the poor people of color, the young, precisely the type of people that the right wing loves to pick on almost every time; and it’s disgraceful.”

In the news

Contact us at so we can feature your work here.

In the wake of yesterday’s horrific mass shooting at a Texas elementary school, state Republicans are proposing arming teachers and increasing police presence at local schools. Police were reportedly at the school before the shooter entered, but failed to stop him. [Joshua Fletcher / Texas Tribune]

Two years ago today, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, sparking protests throughout the world. Despite the many pronouncements from elected leaders condemning Floyd’s murder, police violence has continued unabated. Just this year, police have killed more than 400 people. [Mapping Police Violence]

Author and former Rikers detainee Jarrod Shanahan talks to Hell Gate about his new book, “Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage.” Liberal jail reformers, he told Hell Gate, “placed their faith in the idea that you can remedy social problems by building better human cages.” [Alana Mohamed / Hell Gate]

Shootings in some Chicago neighborhoods have dramatically decreased due to the contributions of violence prevention programs, according to an analysis by street outreach organization Chicago CRED. [Pascal Sabino / Book Club Chicago]

Facebook is still allowing law enforcement agencies and individuals to post mugshots, including those of children and people who have not been convicted of a crime. [Jessica Schulberg / HuffPost]

Bindu Bansinath and Katie Heaney share ways people who seek or have abortions can try to protect themselves from prosecution if Roe v. Wade is overturned. [Bindu Bansinath and Katie Heaney / The Cut] Editor’s Note: Abortion is still legal in the United States. If you have an appointment, keep it. If you need an appointment, make one.

That’s all for this week. Feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to support our relaunch, please donate here.

Man Left Paralyzed After Hospital Denies Care And Calls Police: Lawsuit

Accused of faking his symptoms, Joshua Lee Smith was dragged from his hospital bed, called a “junkie,” and thrown in jail, his lawsuit says. Then, he woke up paralyzed.

A photo of Joshua Lee Smith with his fiancée and two daughters, provided to The Appeal by Mr. Smith's legal team.

Man Left Paralyzed After Hospital Denies Care And Calls Police: Lawsuit

Accused of faking his symptoms, Joshua Lee Smith was dragged from his hospital bed, called a “junkie,” and thrown in jail, his lawsuit says. Then, he woke up paralyzed.

On the evening of May 3, 2020, Joshua Lee Smith was visiting his children when his legs began to feel numb, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this month.

His family called 911, and an ambulance came to take Smith to Twin County Regional Healthcare in Galax, Virginia.

But at the hospital, the doctor and nurses accused Smith of faking his symptoms in an attempt to get pain medication, according to the lawsuit, filed on Smith’s behalf by the Georgetown University Law Center’s Civil Rights Clinic. Although Smith has struggled with substance use disorder since being prescribed opioids following back surgery in 2004, he insisted he wasn’t looking for pain medication.

“I was just scared to death because I didn’t know why my legs were starting to go numb,” Smith, now 42, told The Appeal. “I just wanted them to get to the bottom of the problem.”

But Smith said hospital staff maintained that he was seeking drugs. They told him he was being discharged and called the Carroll County sheriff’s office.

A deputy arrived and, with the help of three nurses, dragged Smith out of bed and put him in a wheelchair, according to the complaint. The next morning, he awoke on the floor of a cell at the New River Valley Regional Jail, unable to move and barely able to speak. He was rushed to a different hospital, where he received emergency surgery to repair what doctors discovered was a ruptured abscess on his spine. But the complaint alleges that medical care came too late. Smith says he is now paralyzed from the waist down and has limited use of his arms and hands.

“I basically require 24-hour care,” Smith said in a phone call from a hospital in North Carolina. “I can’t do anything for myself.”

Smith’s legal team alleges that excessive force by Carroll County sheriff’s deputies and medical malpractice by hospital staff at Twin County Regional Healthcare contributed to Smith’s paralysis. ​​Their suit accuses the defendants, including the executive secretary of the Virginia Supreme Court, of discriminating against Smith in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“What we’re looking to do is to hold accountable these actors who were dangerous to Mr. Smith and might be dangerous to others,” said Alexis Grady, one of the student attorneys for Smith.

In a statement emailed to The Appeal, a representative for Twin County Regional Healthcare said that while federal law prohibited them from discussing details of Smith’s case, they had “no reason to believe” staff had not followed proper protocol in assessing Smith’s condition on the night of May 3.

The sheriff’s office, court, and jail did not respond to requests for comment. The Appeal has filed public records requests for law enforcement reports and surveillance video related to Smith’s arrest and incarceration. At the time of publication, The Appeal had not received a response.

The deputy who responded to the hospital on the night of May 3 found that Smith had an outstanding probation violation from 2015 stemming from a “failure to appear” for a conviction for possession of a controlled substance.

“When I left the hospital and I told the officer I need medical attention, I expected him to do his duty and take me to another hospital,” said Smith. “They’re not supposed to deny you medical treatment.”

But instead, Smith said, the deputy drove to the courthouse for a bond hearing.

At the courthouse, the deputy, along with three other officers, pulled Smith out of the car and tried to stand him up, the suit alleges. When he couldn’t walk or stand, they put him on a rubber welcome mat and dragged him through the building to the magistrate. The officers called Smith a “piece of shit junkie,” according to the complaint.

Smith said he appeared before the magistrate on the ground, unable to stand. The magistrate ordered Smith to “stand up and talk to him like a man,” and told him that his bond decision would depend on it, Smith recalled. When he couldn’t stand up, the magistrate remanded him with no bond, according to Smith. (Smith is suing the magistrate, sheriff’s deputies, and jail officers, along with the hospital staff, but they are not named in the complaint because Smith’s legal team has yet to confirm their identity.)

Deputies cuffed Smith’s hands to his waist, shackled his feet together and tossed him in a van “like a sack of potatoes,” said Smith. They drove for about 40 minutes with Smith unsecured in the back, “hitting all kinds of bumps in the road.” Smith said that when he screamed out in pain, the deputy would tell him to shut up or turn the music up.

“I remember at one point when he hit that last bump, that’s when my legs, that’s when I felt nothing,” he said.

The next morning, Smith said he woke up alone on the floor of a jail cell, unable to speak. An officer dropped off breakfast.

“I couldn’t get enough wind to yell out for help,” Smith said.

Hours later, a nurse found Smith lying on the ground while doing her rounds, according to the complaint. Smith told her he was paralyzed. She poked his legs and checked his vitals.

“She advised them they needed to rush me to the hospital,” Smith said. “She probably saved my life, honestly.”

Smith was taken to the hospital for emergency surgery. Doctors found an abscess on his spine, which his legal team says had ruptured while he was detained.

“The next thing I know I woke up in Roanoke and I have a breathing tube down my throat,” Smith said. “I’m completely paralyzed and shackled to a bed.”

Smith had worked as a tattoo artist before his trip to the hospital in 2020. He now only has partial use of his hands.
Joshua Lee Smith's legal team

Days after his surgery, Smith was still intubated when an officer held an iPad up to his face for a bond hearing, according to the complaint. The magistrate told Smith to schedule another hearing when he was physically able to. That hearing has still not been set.

For the last two years, Smith has been living in and out of hospitals. At the time of his arrest, he was working as a tattoo artist. Now he can’t even sign his name, he said.

“I used to draw my fiancée pictures and write her little notes all the time, and do the same with my kids,” Smith said. “I can’t do that anymore.”

Smith told The Appeal he hopes his lawsuit will hold the hospital staff, deputies, and magistrate accountable.

“I’d just hate for this to happen to anybody else,” he said. “It’s like my life ended on that day.”

What Would the End of Roe v. Wade Mean for Pregnancy Behind Bars?

A Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to an abortion could force thousands of incarcerated people to carry pregnancies to term.


What Would the End of Roe v. Wade Mean for Pregnancy Behind Bars?

A Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to an abortion could force thousands of incarcerated people to carry pregnancies to term.

In a country where incarcerated people can still be shackled when they give birth, where they can be denied sanitary napkins or tampons at a guard’s whim, where gynecological exams can be more akin to assault than healthcare, what will it mean for prisoners if Roe v. Wade is overturned? 

Largely, that answer depends on where they are incarcerated. If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe, as it appears poised to do, states will once again be permitted to criminalize abortion. As a result, people could soon be subject to prosecution and prison time for seeking these medical procedures, providing them, or helping others access them.

If Roe is struck down, 26 states are certain or likely to ban abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive justice research organization. Among them are the ten states with the nation’s highest rates of female incarceration, according to 2020 data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics: Idaho, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Arizona, Wyoming, Kentucky, Montana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and West Virginia

Abortion bans will have particularly devastating consequences for thousands of pregnant people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails, according to Carolyn Sufrin, associate professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Low-income and Black and brown women, who are disproportionately represented in the criminal legal system, will likely feel the greatest impact from these policies.

If Roe is overturned, state and local lockups will likely abide by their state laws, Sufrin said, meaning that abortion may no longer be an option for incarcerated people in over half of the country. While some people in the community may be able to travel to another state to access abortion, it’s extremely unlikely that incarcerated people would have that option, she said.

“We are going to see this disproportionately impact incarcerated people,” Sufrin told The Appeal. “They’re going to feel the restrictions in an even more pronounced way.”

The incarcerated population would face many uncertainties in a post-Roe world, Sufrin said. For instance, it’s unclear if federal prisoners held in facilities throughout the U.S. would be subject to the law of the state where they’re incarcerated or the rules set by the Bureau of Prisons, a federal agency.

A similar question would likely arise for incarcerated people who are transferred to an out-of-state prison, which is often done to reduce overcrowding or to protect a prisoner’s safety. If someone convicted in a state that permits abortion is transferred to a state where it is banned, it’s unclear which law they’d be subject to, said Sufrin.

If an incarcerated person becomes pregnant as the result of a rape, federal Prison Rape Elimination Act Standards direct authorities to provide them with “timely information about, and access to, all lawful pregnancy-related medical services.” It remains to be seen what this would mean for people in states that ban abortion, according to Sufrin.    

Even with Roe intact, some jail and prison systems have made it nearly impossible for incarcerated people to obtain an abortion, sometimes forcing them to fight in court to access their constitutional right to abortion care. 

A study of 22 state prison systems, conducted by Sufrin and other researchers and published last year, found that prisoners in 13 states were required to pay for their own abortions—likely an insurmountable cost for people who may earn only pennies an hour. Three state prison systems prohibited incarcerated people from accessing abortions, even though courts have repeatedly established that Roe applies to prisoners. 

Considering the “abysmal” state of healthcare in U.S. prisons and jails, being forced to carry a pregnancy to term behind bars is a particularly dangerous prospect for incarcerated people, said Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. Several state prisons don’t have policies to screen or provide care for high-risk pregnancies, according to a 2019 survey conducted by Prison Policy Initiative

Issues of poor health care and medical neglect could be further compounded in jails, which tend to house a more transitory population. In recent years, there have been a number of high-profile cases of pregnant women dying or being forced to give birth alone in their cells, after staff ignored their pleas for help.

Last year, Erica Thompson was six months pregnant and on her way to the hospital when deputies arrested her and took her to Florida’s Alachua County jail, according to local news reports. At the jail, Thompson said she was having contractions and begged to be taken to the hospital, but the nurse only gave her Gatorade. Shortly after arriving, she gave birth in her jail cell and was then brought to the hospital, where her baby died just hours after being born. In an internal investigation, the sheriff’s office cleared itself of wrongdoing. 

If Roe is overturned, Kendrick said, more and more people behind bars will be forced to carry pregnancies to term in “systems that have proven historically that they’re incapable or have great difficulty in providing prenatal care.”

Editor’s note: Abortion is still legal. If you have an appointment, keep it. If you need to make an appointment, make one. The Supreme Court of the United States opinion is a leaked draft and not official.

‘Reborn Into A Strange New World’: A Trans Woman Prepares For Release After 18 Years In Men’s Prison

An incarcerated writer reflects on what her "going home" story will look like when home no longer exists.

Sayan Moongklang/iStock

‘Reborn Into A Strange New World’: A Trans Woman Prepares For Release After 18 Years In Men’s Prison

An incarcerated writer reflects on what her "going home" story will look like when home no longer exists.

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

My name is Jessica Phoenix Sylvia, and I am a trans woman who has been living in a men’s prison for the past 18 years.

After being incarcerated for nearly two decades on domestic violence charges, I am finally being released. I wish I had some wonderful “going home” story, but I don’t. I can never go home because home no longer exists.

The only world I know anymore is prison. For me, where I go after I leave here has more to do with where I won’t be than where I will.

The real world, as I remember it, is stuck in 2004. There was no Facebook, and I had a phone with a black-and-white screen. My official documents reflected my dead name, and I was living in bad faith, usually hiding my gender identity as a survival strategy even though I had come out as trans when I was 17. I am now 46.

Now it’s 2022, and I know nothing about the world outside these walls. I am an absurd time traveler from an alternative world with an incongruous history. My life skills are underdeveloped, and I have little understanding of routine activities.

My finely sharpened prison survival skills are useless in the real world. I know what to do if I am confronted by a violent person in the prison yard, yet the thought of learning to navigate Microsoft Word or Google Docs with a deadline looming makes me want to cry. Prison has disabled me. And as a trans woman who has spent so many years in a men’s prison, I have complex PTSD.

After several failed suicide attempts, I finally got the chance to access transition-related health care in 2017 and came out very publicly again that same year, vowing to live in good faith for the rest of my life as a proud trans woman. Despite having come out as a teenager, I frequently hid my gender identity as a coping strategy: I prioritized my safety over living in good faith.

Since transitioning, I have experienced a great deal of harassment and discrimination, which is why I decided to dedicate my life to speaking up and fighting back. I have been very active with the Trans in Prison Justice Project, a nonprofit working to end human rights abuses of incarcerated trans women, and other initiatives focused on a range of issues, from youth restorative justice to the intersection of incarceration and homelessness. In 2021, I led a campaign to bring awareness to the Washington State Department of Corrections’ refusal to respect trans identities, after being forced to use my dead name within the system.

I have put in a lot of work to become a better person. I like to think I have made a positive impact over the last several years.

Still, I am not sure I have the support I need. The last six months have been very difficult for me. In September 2021, I was sent to the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) for 71 days for allegations of inciting a group demonstration. While in IMU, my transition-related health care was interrupted.

The lack of necessary, gender-affirming health care has destroyed me. I feel disconnected and dissociate often. I have trouble focusing. I have not been myself, and I have trouble writing.

I also recently tested positive for COVID-19, which landed me in a medical isolation unit for two weeks. My inability to communicate with my typical support network took a heavy toll. Many of the folks who had been present in my life seem to have disappeared at my time of greatest need: just before my release.

As my release date approached, I had hoped to be connected to services that could provide me with essential resources—like food, clothing, and hygiene products—so I could be better prepared for life after prison. But instead, the system simply continued having its retributive way with me: Once it’s done chewing me up, it will spit me out.

I plan to make up for lost time with my elderly mother once I am released. She tells me about the computer desk she bought for me and how she will welcome me into her house with a room of my own. I will look out for her while I take time to rebuild my life skills and deal with the medical procedures I have scheduled. I also hope to write two books once I am released: one about name-change ceremonies for trans folks and a memoir. I intend to earn my bachelor’s degree, too.

With my release date approaching, I am excited but anxious. I wonder if my community custody officer will be understanding of my lived experience. I ask myself whether I will find the community and care I desperately need. After being surrounded by men for 18 years, I need mothering, daughtering, and sisterhood. I need to be touched by someone who loves me. I want someone to tell me that everything is going to be OK.

I remember being in the county jail as a 28-year-old and realizing that I was leaving the real world, not to return for years. I was scared and asked questions as I prepared myself for the harsh realities of prison life. Now, years later, I feel like I am doing the reverse: I am in prison, asking questions and preparing myself for life on the outside.

I know that the existence I have become familiar with is about to end, and I am about to be reborn into a strange new world. It is the one I left 18 years ago, but it is not the same world, and I am not the same person. 

I am an absurd time traveler from a strange, alternative world with an incongruous history, but here I go.

The Truth About Marijuana and the Criminal Legal System

Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

The Truth About Marijuana and the Criminal Legal System

Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

The Truth About Marijuana and the Criminal Legal System

by Katie Jane Fernelius

It’s 4/20, arguably the most notorious unofficial holiday for consumers in America after Black Friday. Denver, Colorado, hosts the Mile High 420 Festival. Revelers in San Francisco flock to Hippie Hill. Over here at The Appeal, we’re celebrating by tackling some popular myths about marijuana and the criminal legal system. Because this is apparently how nerds have fun.

Myth #1: Outlandish sentences for weed possession are driving the mass incarceration crisis.

Fact: Not exactly. There is a popular idea that habitual offender laws have been used to push scores of nonviolent drug offenders—disproportionately Black people—into unduly long prison sentences all because they dared to smoke weed. One reason this idea is so popular is that it’s convenient: If most people were in prison for marijuana possession, then decarceration becomes a much more simple and sympathetic argument. We’re talking about weed, after all.

While habitual offender laws have certainly driven many people into long prison sentences, the majority of those people are not there for marijuana-related charges. In California, for example, 80 percent of people in state prison are there because of a conviction for a serious or violent crime. People with convictions for violent crimes also make up the majority of state prison populations in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and elsewhere. (Though, it is important to note that in some instances “violent crime” can include acts without physical harm, like purse snatching or burglary.) And at the federal level, convictions for marijuana possession alone remain nominal, though not zero.

Myth #2: No one really gets arrested for weed anymore.

Fact: The tides are certainly changing when it comes to marijuana: More than half of Americans believe weed should be legalized, and recreational marijuana is now legal in 18 states and Washington, D.C. It would be easy to think that law enforcement has chosen to deprioritize weed when there are bigger fish to fry. But marijuana still plays an outsized role when it comes to arrests.

More people are arrested for marijuana than any other drug—and nearly 90 percent of those arrests are for possession alone, according to a 2020 report by the ACLU. Using data from 2018, the authors estimated that approximately 39 out of every 100 drug arrests that year were for mere possession of marijuana. This is an improvement from a decade earlier when the national arrest rate for marijuana possession was even higher, but the ACLU found that “racial disparities in those arrests have not improved, and in some jurisdictions, they have worsened.”

This suggests that weed remains a primary reason that people come into contact with law enforcement—and this is especially true for people of color.

Myth #3: Decriminalizing marijuana will fix all of these problems.

Fact: Decriminalizing weed is an important step in the fight to curb mass incarceration, but broad decriminalization wouldn’t have as much of an impact on arrests as legalization.

One reason is that “decriminalization” is not a uniform policy. In some locales, like New York City, possession of up to three ounces may no longer be a crime, but public use still is unless in mandated areas.

Also, the decriminalization of possession in public typically caps at a nominal amount of weed—like one to three ounces depending on the jurisdiction. If someone is found with any amount larger than that, they can still be arrested and, in some cases, charged with “possession with intent to distribute,” which can bring heftier prison sentences.

Certain jurisdictions now treat possession of smaller amounts of weed as a misdemeanor that carries a fine. While folks may not technically get arrested and jailed for this, they can still end up with a marijuana charge on their record, which could impact their ability to get employed. (Though some places, like New Orleans, are working to remove simple marijuana charges from people’s records as part of their decriminalization efforts.)

In many places, fines are used to fund public services, potentially incentivizing law enforcement to issue “tickets” for misdemeanors like possession of weed. This might seem preferable to jail time—and it is—but it’s still problematic. Study upon study shows that legal system fines and fees have a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities.

Decriminalization often amounts to a half-measure. By comparison, in places that have legalized weed, marijuana arrests have fallen by tens of thousands overall.

It’s important to remember that marijuana is still considered a Schedule I drug under federal law, alongside substances like heroin, LSD, and MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy. During the Trump administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions “rescinded the Obama-era guidance that deprioritized federal enforcement of marijuana possession in states where its use had been allowed,” meaning that even in places where marijuana had been legalized, people could still be at risk of being prosecuted under federal law. Reforming laws at the state and local levels is important, but certain hurdles will remain until marijuana is legalized at the federal level.

Myth #4: Legalizing weed will end racial disparities in the policing of drugs.

Fact: Although white and Black young adults use marijuana at approximately the same rate, ACLU data found that a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession than a white person.

The racial biases of our criminal legal system can’t get a lot more explicit than that. And while fully legalizing weed may seem like an easy way to address a key inequity that contributes to the alarming incarceration rate among young Black people, research by the ACLU suggests this may not be enough. Their eight-year study on legal weed jurisdictions found that a significant number of people are still getting arrested for marijuana—and Black people still make up a disproportionate number of those arrested.

The ACLU’s study of data from Massachusetts in 2018, the first year of licensed recreational marijuana sales, found Black people were still four times more likely to be arrested than white people for marijuana possession—an increase from 2010. Of the 312 people arrested for marijuana possession that year, nearly 30 percent were Black, even though Black residents make up only 9 percent of the state’s population.

So, even if fewer total people are being arrested for weed, that doesn’t mean these laws will necessarily do much to address the racial disparities in marijuana arrests.

In our fight for racial justice in the criminal legal system, it’s important to be honest about the role drug laws play in bringing communities of color into contact with law enforcement. The political decision to continue punishing common and often relatively risk-free drug use is functionally a decision to give police more excuses to harass, arrest, incarcerate, and extract money from people of color. This will be the case so long as policing exists in its current form. Tackling the criminalization of weed is one way to address the racist outcomes that define our criminal legal system—but this alone will do little to change the system itself.

In the news

Contact us at so we can feature your work here.

Starting April 21, adults in New Jersey aged 21 and older will be able to buy marijuana for recreational use. [Mike Catalini / WHYY]

Police officers in Santa Ana are being investigated after a video showed them blasting copyrighted Disney music from their patrol car earlier this month in an apparent effort to disrupt bystanders who were attempting to film them. Copyrighted music is typically flagged and removed by social media networks. [Nathan Solis / Los Angeles Times]

Christopher Blackwell, a regular contributor to The Appeal, got his college degree while incarcerated. He says it transformed his life and wants others to have the same opportunity. [Christopher Blackwell / The Marshall Project]

For decades in Texas, Midland County Assistant District Attorney Ralph Petty moonlighted as a law clerk for the same judges who heard his cases. He was disbarred in 2021, but victims of his misconduct continue to suffer. [Billy Binion / Reason]

Since New York’s modest bail reforms became law opponents have tried to undo them by sowing fear among the state’s residents—often with the help of the tabloid media. [Nick Pinto / New York Magazine]

The warden of the Allegheny County Jail in Pennsylvania made medical decisions for an incarcerated person while he was hospitalized, including designating him as a “Do Not Resuscitate” patient when he was on life support. The man’s family was never contacted. [Brittany Hailer / Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism]

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.

Illinois Advocates Call for Action After Prison Officials Mislead on Contaminated Water

Legionella bacteria was found in five Illinois prisons in March.

Stateville Correctional Center, in Crest Hill, Illinois.
Photo via Rw2/Wikipedia.

Illinois Advocates Call for Action After Prison Officials Mislead on Contaminated Water

Legionella bacteria was found in five Illinois prisons in March.

Community members are condemning the Illinois Department of Corrections for housing people in unsafe conditions after Legionella bacteria was found in five state prisons last month, with some expressing concern that state officials have misled the public about the extent of the contamination. 

On March 11, IDOC and the Illinois Department of Public Health released a joint press release announcing that Legionella bacteria had been detected in two prisons—Stateville Correctional Center and Joliet Treatment Center. Legionella is the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially fatal type of pneumonia.

But in response to The Appeal’s questions, an IDOC spokesperson confirmed that water in a total of five prisons had tested positive for Legionella in March. Lab reports provided to The Appeal show that test results for those facilities were returned between March 4 and March 11—all on or before the date of the press release. In addition to Stateville and Joliet, the bacteria was also found in Graham Correctional Center, Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center, and Stateville Northern Reception and Classification Center (Stateville NRC).

In the March 11 press release, IDOC said it had immediately halted the use of impacted areas and flushed out water to remove the bacteria. During a second round of testing on the contaminated water sources conducted late last month, officials again found Legionella in Kewanee and Stateville, according to lab reports IDOC shared with The Appeal. The bacteria was not detected in Graham, Stateville NRC, or Joliet. (The lab reports for Stateville NRC and Kewanee appear to list incorrect collection dates for the second sample.)

IDOC declined to explain to The Appeal why it included only two prisons in its first press release. The Illinois Department of Public Health did not respond to requests for comment. 

“I’m appalled that the IDOC seems to be more concerned with covering up the problem than with protecting the health of the people in their custody,” said Shari Stone-Mediatore, managing director of Parole Illinois, an organization that advocates for a fairer parole process, in an email to The Appeal.Exposure to deadly diseases in their drinking water and showers is not part of people’s prison sentence.”

The press release also lacked other critical context. Although the statement touted the department’s “quarterly testing” for the bacteria, it omitted the fact that the department only began testing for the bacteria in January. 

During the first round of testing, Legionella was found in over 20 percent of Illinois prisons where testing and analysis has been completed. Testing has yet to be conducted at nearly half of all IDOC facilities. 

IDOC’s initial statement fits a broader pattern of “fake transparency” from the department, said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, calling it “an attempt at transparency without really being transparent.”

According to IDOC, no one who came into contact with the contaminated water has shown symptoms or tested positive for Legionnaires’ disease. 

Some advocates are concerned that too few water sources were tested and the problem may be more widespread. The University of Illinois tested four water sources at each facility where the bacteria was detected, according to lab reports. To understand the full scale of the bacteria’s presence in a facility, officials should test at least 10 water samples from different floors and wings across the building’s water distribution system, according to Janet E. Stout, executive vice president of Special Pathogens Laboratory, a Pennsylvania-based water testing service that specializes in Legionella contamination.

Legionella bacteria can move from water to a person’s lungs through two primary methods. It can be breathed in through droplets of water—while taking a shower, for instance—or through aspiration, when water is swallowed and “goes down the wrong pipe” and into the lungs, said Stout. Person-to-person transmission of Legionnaires’ may be possible but is extremely unlikely, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Contaminated showers are a “big concern,” explained Aaron Packman, director of the Northwestern Center for Water Research. Showers were not tested at any of the prisons, according to IDOC.

Comprehensive water management systems can reduce bacterial growth, and improved air filtration systems can help reduce transmission of airborne infectious diseases, according to Packman. 

Even if a disinfectant is used to treat contaminated water, it may not completely eliminate bacteria from a building’s water system—particularly if it contains stagnant, warm water, according to Packman. 

“It’s such a ubiquitous problem,” said Packman. “There’s no way to completely eradicate Legionella and keep it out of the system.”

“These facilities are old—they’re in horrific disrepair."Kelly Cassidy, Illinois state representative

For years, people inside Illinois state prisons have struggled to access clean water. In the 1990s, radium was found in Stateville’s water at almost twice the level permitted by federal guidelines. In 2013, people at Stateville reported water that was “discolored and has a strange taste.” One person at Stateville was diagnosed with Legionnaires’ in 2015, and in 2020, two people incarcerated in Illinois’ Pontiac Correctional Center contracted the disease.

According to a lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners in February, the sink water in cells at the Stateville NRC smells “like sewage and has a faint, brown color.” Test results returned on March 9 showed that Legionella bacteria was detected in three of the four water sources tested at the prison, according to a lab report provided to The Appeal. But IDOC and the state health department omitted Stateville NRC from their March 11 press release.

Mills, of the Uptown People’s Law Center, one of the law firms that filed the suit, said he was unaware that Legionella bacteria had been found at the prison until he read The Appeal’s reporting. 

Local activists are now calling for greater oversight of the state’s prisons. Katrina Baugh, campaign strategy manager with Parole Illinois, told The Appeal that the Illinois Department of Public Health should create a unit within the agency that is tasked with monitoring and investigating public health conditions inside the state’s prisons, including the presence of contaminated water.

For all the prison system’s focus on “safety and security,” Baugh said, this would send an important message that “part of promoting safety and enacting justice is meeting people’s basic needs.”

Lawmakers are also working to improve transparency at the IDOC. Last month, the state House unanimously approved a bill that would give legislators greater access to the state’s prisons. The proposal appears to have stalled in the Senate. 

Illinois state Representative Kelly Cassidy told The Appeal that she introduced the legislation after IDOC did not allow her to visit a prison last summer.

“I don’t want to see the housing unit that is cleaned up for visitors,” she said. “If I’m getting concerns about black mold, I would like to be shown exactly where this person lives.”

Cassidy said her office frequently gets complaints about water in the state’s prisons, and applauded IDOC for proactively testing for Legionella bacteria.

“These facilities are old—they’re in horrific disrepair,” she said. “We’re now reaping the harvest of deferred maintenance.”

Read the test results from IDOC:

Buying a Home Is Hard. Doing It While Incarcerated Is Nearly Impossible.

Serving out a sentence in a Washington state prison, I was certain I’d never own a home. When my wife and I started the process, we found out just how difficult it would be.

Tierra Mallorca/Unsplash

Buying a Home Is Hard. Doing It While Incarcerated Is Nearly Impossible.

Serving out a sentence in a Washington state prison, I was certain I’d never own a home. When my wife and I started the process, we found out just how difficult it would be.

I moved to Washington state when I was 8 years old. My mom had arrived shortly before me, fleeing my father’s abuse in a rusty, dented Toyota pickup truck, with nothing but a tent and a bag or two of clothes. She pitched her tent on a farmer’s property, where she picked strawberries until she could afford a place for the two of us. To say we were poor would be an understatement.

As I got older, we made enough money to move to a trailer, then an apartment, and finally a rental house—but our financial status never really changed. We relied on food banks, food stamps, and duct tape to hold worn-out shoes together. I struggled in school and turned to petty crime to make ends meet. I soon became a regular in juvenile detention centers. By 22, I was in prison serving a 45-year sentence for taking another person’s life in a drug robbery. 

Facing decades behind bars, I was certain I’d never own a home. But 17 years into my sentence, I met Chelsea—the woman who is now my wife—and homeownership began to seem like a real possibility.

We started as friends, fell in love, and began to set and achieve goals, as normal couples do. At first, buying a home was just a dream, like the world travels we often talked about. We knew that having our own home was the only chance we’d have to build a stable life together once I got out of prison. Many landlords refuse to rent homes to people with felony convictions, which can make it virtually impossible to find a place to live after incarceration. But buying a home would take a lot more money than either of us had: Chelsea was a graduate student and I was in prison. Still, we saved every extra dollar we could. 

We weren’t even saving for a house at first. We just wanted to have something in the bank. Neither of us had ever had substantial savings, and it felt good to achieve that together. Once we had a little cash saved up, we learned how to invest it and eventually started to generate a return. After several years, we had saved $40,000. Our distant dream of buying a house was actually within reach.

I considered myself fortunate just to make it this far. Despite the difficulties I faced, I knew that few of my peers would ever get the opportunity to even consider buying a home. Research has shown that criminal convictions and imprisonment are associated with severe reductions in annual earnings, which can last a lifetime even after incarceration.

But Chelsea and I quickly learned that saving money was only the first of many barriers to buying a home.

American homeownership was designed to be a racist, exclusionary process—surely not something those in prison are meant to participate in. As we did more research, we found that many of the qualifications for a home loan are nearly impossible to meet while incarcerated, leaving the financial burden on the spouse who is on the outside.

When we tried to get pre-approved for a home loan we were informed we could apply for a Federal Housing Administration loan that would only require around 3.5 percent down. FHA loans are government-backed mortgages popular with first-time homebuyers because they typically require lower minimum credit scores and down payments than many conventional loans. But it was too good to be true: We were told FHA lenders take into account both spouses’ credit history and debt ratio. Given this, Chelsea would have to independently qualify for a conventional loan, as my incarceration and credit history would raise major red flags for most lenders. Requiring the spouse of an incarcerated person to be 100 percent responsible for a home loan presents a massive roadblock to homeownership.

Because we couldn’t access an FHA loan, we would have to come up with a much more substantial down payment, which we could only do thanks to a loan from a family member. Finally, we were able to begin looking for homes. We found a real estate agent who had an incarcerated family member, which made it easier to trust her to guide us through the process. Chelsea and our real estate agent worked hard to keep me in the loop, sending 30-second video clips, detailed descriptions of each home, and hundreds of photos over the prison’s email service, which charged us a fee for every communication.

It was hard not to get attached to every home we looked at. Chelsea liked the ones with the large open bathrooms and walk-in closets; I yearned for a garage, wooden floors, and a strong fence. We placed several offers, certain we had found our house, only to get the call from the agent telling us we’d lost out to a higher offer. 

“We’ll just have to keep looking,” the agent said.

After each rejection, we’d move on to the next one and start the process all over again. The further along we got, the more stressful decisions we faced. How much money should we put down? Should we insist on a pre-inspection? Should we offer to pay for closing costs in hopes of convincing the seller to accept our offer? We argued over those details, made up, and went right back to it. 

In January, I called Chelsea and finally heard the words I’d been waiting for: We won the bid!

It was a cute little Craftsman home built in the early 1900s in a beautiful area that Chelsea loved. We were going to be homeowners. 

Whatever relief we felt after completing the search quickly faded as we learned that the process was far from over.

When we started looking for a home, we were pre-approved for a loan at an interest rate of 3.25 percent. The rate had since risen to 3.9 percent—still historically low, but high enough to raise our mortgage payments by $300 a month. The additional cost nearly made the house unaffordable. From prison, it’s not like I could just pick up extra work to bridge the gap. But with housing prices rising every day, it felt like this might be our last chance, so we combed through our monthly expenses and found places to tighten our belts. We had come too far to lose the house now.

Ten days before we were scheduled to close, I contracted COVID-19. That meant I would be dragged off to medical isolation in prison—effectively solitary confinement—with severely restricted access to phone and email. Chelsea has full power of attorney in my name, but because my name was on the deed, she was told they needed my notarized signature on several pieces of paperwork, a nearly impossible task for someone with COVID-19 in prison. If we couldn’t find a way to produce my signature, the deal would fall apart and we could lose the $20,000 we had placed in escrow. 

As I unsuccessfully begged the guards to bring me the paperwork, Chelsea worked to convince the loan officer to allow her to sign on my behalf. In the end, the officer was able to switch the type of loan program, which let them accept a power of attorney signature. 

Coming that close to losing $20,000 of our savings was a stark reminder that incarcerated people are not meant to buy homes—and that those who marry us risk facing the same limitations.

I got out of medical isolation on Feb. 14, the same day Chelsea got the keys to our home. But this new chapter looks different for us than for most first-time homebuyers: I won’t be there to paint the walls with my wife. I won’t get to kiss her in the doorway of our new bedroom. I won’t get to see our dog dig his first hole in our yard. But it still felt like a triumph. We beat the odds and forced our way into a system that fought us at every step.

Let’s Bring Back ‘Prison Warehousing’

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, “prison warehousing”—which used to be a derogatory term—would look like an upgrade. At least warehouses care about the value of the goods they store.

Tyler Rutherford/Unsplash

Let’s Bring Back ‘Prison Warehousing’

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, “prison warehousing”—which used to be a derogatory term—would look like an upgrade. At least warehouses care about the value of the goods they store.

In the early 2000s, at the tail end of an era defined by mass incarceration and extreme sentencing, researchers started taking a closer look at the state of U.S. prisons, where the pendulum had long been swinging away from a rehabilitative model of corrections and toward a punitive one.

Numerous studies reached the same conclusion, finding that “prison warehousing”—the practice of locking people in cells for months and years and lifetimes without educational opportunities, vocational training, or substance abuse treatment—might be a bad idea. Guided by research showing that positive programming opportunities ease tension in carceral settings and reduce recidivism, U.S. legislators and prison officials undertook a two-pronged strategy, emphasizing the value of prison programs while beginning to roll back draconian policies that had left many people facing excessive sentences with little hope of release.

Amid that shift, we saw some improvement around so-called corrections policy in the U.S. Some systems replaced certain prison-mandated programs with new, more beneficial volunteer programs. Across the nation, academics and activists began shining a light on the racially charged sentencing practices of the past several decades. Calls to eliminate mandatory minimums and sentence enhancements and restore parole boards grew louder. After decades of carceral policy defined by misguided “tough on crime” narratives, it seemed that prisons were finally beginning to serve a purpose beyond the proverbial warehouses.

And isn’t that what most of us want? Regardless of why people end up behind bars, most Americans agree that prisons should serve a rehabilitative purpose: to help address the issues that led to incarceration and develop skills to prevent future criminal behavior.

Now two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, writing from the Washington Corrections Center, we can say that “prison warehousing”—which used to be a derogatory term—would look like an upgrade. What is happening now is far worse than warehousing. At least in a warehouse there is some attempt to preserve the value of the products on the shelf. People in prison during the pandemic, on the other hand, are being left to slowly degrade.

Before the pandemic, prisoners here at least had access to the basics: medical, mental health, recreation, and visitation. Those lucky enough to be housed at certain facilities might even have access to higher education courses, job skills programs, and environmental projects.

But those opportunities have all but disappeared over the past two years. Only extreme emergencies receive timely medical attention; mental health care, substandard even in the best of times, has been rendered virtually inaccessible to anyone not in the throes of crisis; gyms have been converted into quarantine units; visits remain extremely limited.

For most, the impact is tremendous. For some, it is unbearable. A portion of the prison where we’re housed is designated as a receiving center, meaning it is the first place prisoners come after conviction. They are housed in receiving units (R-Units) designed for short stays before transfer to the main institutions where they will serve out their sentences.

Because R-Units are intended for short-term housing, the conditions are sparse and generally overcrowded, and provide no opportunity for programming or services of any kind. Most prisoners in these units have one opportunity a day for a short recreation period and a phone call. They are typically allowed to shower only three times a week. They don’t have TVs or radios, and they’re lucky if they can find a book without half the pages missing. They are stuck three deep in cells no bigger than a walk-in freezer. And in the winter, it’s just as cold.

Under those conditions, a two-week stay in the R-Units—typical before COVID—can feel like an eternity. But amid the pandemic, with new restrictions on transfers and outbreaks leading to staff shortages, some prisoners have been there for over a year. Others with relatively short sentences will spend their entire incarceration between county jail and the R-Units.

During their incarceration, people in these units will likely receive few opportunities for rehabilitation. They may not get a single in-person visit from family. They may not attend a religious service, or be able to access the scarce mental health services available at a main institution. They may not have an appointment with a DOC counselor to discuss their re-entry plan. They will, in all likelihood, spend the vast majority of their time sitting in a cell and counting down the days until they are released. And when they re-enter society, they will do so after having been denied many of the very services that are supposed to help keep them from returning to prison.

While this example is extreme, there are thousands of prisoners across the nation facing similar situations. Those of us in permanent housing have now gone two years with little to no positive programming, separation from our families, and limitations on the simple things that make prison bearable. Mental health has deteriorated and tensions are reaching a breaking point. And if researchers are correct, this could affect recidivism in the coming years.

COVID has also made things worse for the people who work here. Officers are overworked and often forced to take mandatory overtime to cover for sick or unvaccinated colleagues. They have to deal with prisoners who are increasingly frustrated with the constantly changing conditions and circumstances. And while it may be hard for many of us to have sympathy for the guy who’s tossed your cell and thrown pictures of your family on the floor, none of this makes for peaceful living conditions.

But even if we’re not fans of corrections staff, the current situation isn’t entirely their fault. Prisons are simply not set up for pandemics. Single-cell housing is virtually unheard of, and overcrowded and understaffed facilities are the perfect environment for a perpetual outbreak.

The solution is simple—but difficult to sell to legislators afraid of being labeled “soft on crime.” Officials must first work to reduce the prison population to a manageable level by identifying individuals who no longer need to be incarcerated. Here in Washington State, the DOC sought to move in that direction with a proposal to increase the time that could be knocked off a sentence for good behavior.

Unfortunately, state lawmakers lacked the courage to pass the measure. Similar legislative efforts have met the same fate in other states.

For years before the pandemic, activists on both sides of the prison walls were cautiously optimistic that our carceral system might be realigning away from punishment and toward rehabilitation. There were even hopes in the year after COVID-19 hit that the terrible conditions inside prisons might usher in further reform, to limit the harms people face behind bars. The sad irony is that we now find ourselves wishing for a return to the days of “prison warehousing.”

‘It’s a Money Grab’: Billions in COVID Relief Going to Fund Police and Prisons

Less than two years after racial justice protests sparked calls to “defund the police,” states and jurisdictions are using pandemic aid to pad already bloated law enforcement budgets.

Los Angeles Police Department officers push back protesters in July 2020.
Michael Muthee/Unsplash

‘It’s a Money Grab’: Billions in COVID Relief Going to Fund Police and Prisons

Less than two years after racial justice protests sparked calls to “defund the police,” states and jurisdictions are using pandemic aid to pad already bloated law enforcement budgets.

If you’re from inner city Birmingham, Alabama, there’s a “99 percent chance” you have a family member or friend who has been incarcerated, according to Veronica Johnson, deputy director for the Alabama Justice Initiative, which has been fighting against a proposal to build three new prisons in the state. She has an uncle serving a 60-year prison sentence.

“I’m a regular person,” she told The Appeal. “There’s nothing special about me.”

In the fall of 2020, Johnson, who is Black, traveled to rural Brierfield, Alabama—“deep into Trump country,” she said—to talk to residents about a new prison the state was planning to put in their community. It was a Sunday, and Johnson, who was wearing a headwrap with locks hanging out of the front, recalled wondering, “Do I look too ethnic?” As she went from door-to-door, the people she spoke to largely agreed that their community didn’t have the infrastructure to handle a 3,100-bed prison.

“Those people stood by our side—we crossed political lines,” Johnson said proudly. It was the “ultimate satisfaction.”

That campaign jump-started Communities Not Prisons, a coalition of grassroots activists, faith leaders, farmers, and national organizations, which eventually halted the proposed prison. The activists believed they had won the fight, but then COVID-19 hit, bringing a flood of federal relief money to Alabama—and, with it, renewed talk of prison expansion.

This injection of funds was triggered by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package signed into law by President Joe Biden shortly after he took office. The money was intended to help the economy to rebound from the pandemic, but jurisdictions nationwide are moving to use the funds to recruit police, weaponize SWAT teams, and build jails—a move activists are calling a cash grab by law enforcement and its allies. During Biden’s State of the Union address on March 1, he said that as much as $350 billion from ARPA could be used to “fund the police,” a line that drew bipartisan applause from members of Congress.

In Alabama in 2021, the state Legislature approved $400 million in ARPA money to fund the prison projects Johnson and others thought they had stopped. Officials across the U.S. are pursuing similar plans to fortify the carceral state with funds ostensibly meant for COVID relief.

These moves come at a time when punitive responses to crime are facing an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy. People in communities of all sizes are organizing against the spending spree, building coalitions that cross racial and political lines. Some have even succeeded in using ARPA funds to build up mental health crisis response, behavioral health treatment, and other supportive services, which they say are more effective at improving public safety than police and prisons are.

Funding the Police

The effort to funnel federal COVID relief dollars toward law enforcement began less than a year after protests in 2020 in response to George Floyd’s murder made “defund the police” a national rallying cry. More than 20 cities took action to reduce police budgets on the heels of that movement, though many have failed to follow through on those cuts.

As the midterm elections approach, Republicans and Democrats now appear to be competing to see which party can be the most outspokenly pro-police. Republicans have blamed Democrats for recent increases in violent crime, which they say are a result of reduced police budgets—though, in reality, there appears to be no correlation between crime rates and law enforcement funding. Biden and leading Democrats have disputed claims that they want to “defund the police,” holding up the ARPA funds given to law enforcement as proof.

Amid the current political debate, “Republicans have easily, barely lifting a finger, pushed Democrats into an ‘anti-police’ corner,” Kay Whitlock, co-author of the new book “Carceral Con: The Deceptive Terrain of Criminal Justice Reform,” said in an interview with The Appeal. “The result is that denunciation of ‘defund the police’ as a strategy and slogan has taken root among mainstream Democratic Party politicians.”  

But Biden and top Democrats are now going beyond denouncing the “defund” slogan and are calling to substantially increase funding for law enforcement.

At a meeting last month with New York City Mayor (and former NYPD captain) Eric Adams, Biden encouraged cities and states to use ARPA funds “to keep our communities safe by hiring more police officers for community policing and paying police overtime.” The president also suggested law enforcement purchase acoustic surveillance technology designed to identify gunshots and dispatch police to the scene of a shooting, even as reporting has revealed that flaws in the technology can land innocent people in jail.

Private companies such as ShotSpotter, which sells gunshot detection devices like the ones Biden mentioned, are making big money off law enforcement purchases made with ARPA funds: to the tune of $3 million in Albuquerque, New Mexico; $2 million in Macon-Bibb County, Georgia; $1.2 million in New Haven, Connecticut; $171,000 in Syracuse, New York; and a proposed $7 million in Detroit.

In cities across the country, police are looking to pad their already hefty budgets by using federal dollars to pay for general expenses and new gadgets. In Fresno, California, police submitted a proposal requesting $6.8 million in ARPA funds to make improvements to the department’s headquarters and to purchase 33 patrol cars, 20 undercover vehicles, 15 SWAT sniper rifles, and a license plate reader, among other expenses. 

Alexandra Alvarado, a community organizer with Faith in the Valley, who has been advocating for housing justice in Fresno, sees this as a gross misuse of relief funds earmarked for COVID-related issues. Communities hit hardest by the pandemic “have the solutions,” she said. “They know what they need, and it’s most definitely not more police vehicles.”

‘Somebody Didn’t Win’

In Alabama, the fight over using ARPA funds for prisons could set a precedent for similar spending projects in other states.

Before the pandemic, the push for prison expansion in Alabama came to a head in 2019, when the U.S. Department of Justice released an investigation that found violence, deaths, and sexual abuse were occurring on “a regular basis” in state prisons.

Governor Kay Ivey, a Republican, responded with a plan to build three large new prisons, in Elmore County, Escambia County, and Bibb County, where Brierfield is located. Although the facilities were to be situated on state property, they would be financed by private underwriters and constructed by private companies, including CoreCivic—the second-largest private prison company in the U.S., reporting in 2021 a revenue of $1.69 billion.

In 2020, Johnson’s organization, Alabama Justice Initiative, founded by LaTonya Tate, launched the Communities Not Prison coalition to oppose the new prisons. They set up meetings with investors to convince them not to back the project. “It was on the cusp of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd,” Johnson said. “We told the banks not to participate in these unjust things.” One by one, they convinced the banks, and, in May 2021, Stifel Financial Corporation was the last financier to back out. Activists had hoped that the proposal was defeated.

When ARPA funds started flowing, however, backers of Alabama’s prison plan saw a new opportunity. In late September 2021, the Alabama Legislature passed a $1.3 billion prison-construction package that included $400 million from the American Rescue Plan—five times the amount budgeted for hospitals.

Communities Not Prisons and its allies sent a letter to Biden administration officials calling on them to block the spending.

In January, the Treasury Department released its final rule on the matter, stating that the construction of new correctional facilities was “ineligible” for ARPA dollars. But Alabama, apparently following its own rules, claimed that its proposal was “not impacted” by the decision.

The two sides are now in a standoff. As Johnson put it, “We feel like we won. They feel they won. Somebody didn’t win.”

Activists say it’s unlikely that the federal government will intervene directly. “It looks like Alabama is going to keep on trucking,” said Katie Glenn, a policy associate for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, which has joined the campaign against the prisons.

If Alabama simply ignores the Treasury’s guidance, supporters of proposals for prisons and jails in other states may feel emboldened to follow suit.

‘It’s a Money Grab’

Officials in some jurisdictions have been nothing short of gleeful over the prospect of using pandemic relief funds to expand carceral infrastructure.

In February, administrators of the Oklahoma County Jail were caught on a voicemail recording calling COVID-19 “our friend” and “the greatest thing that has ever happened to us.” The jail had already received $10 million in federal funding under the 2020 CARES Act, and during the recorded conversation officials expressed hope that they’d receive “another $150 million” from ARPA. More than a dozen people died in the custody of the Oklahoma County Jail in 2021, and several more have died so far this year.

Hannah Royce is part of an ad hoc group in Oklahoma City organizing against the new jail funding. “If we really cared,” she said, “we would prioritize issues that get people into the jail in the first place—mental health crises, needing a place to sleep.”

The pandemic stalled similar plans for a jail expansion in Penobscot County, Maine, until the possible windfall of federal funding put the proposal back on the table. An energetic group of local activists is mobilizing against the project, arguing that it is wasteful and unnecessary. Doug Dunbar, one of the leaders of No Penobscot County Jail Expansion, spent time behind bars in the county lockup years ago. He rejects the claim that Penobscot needs a new jail to incarcerate more people.

“We don’t have an overcrowding problem,” Dunbar said. “We have an arrest problem.”

He noted that at the 15 jails in Maine, the daily population dropped by about 40 percent in the seven weeks following the first COVID-19 outbreak. Now officials in Penobscot are considering a plan to add 100 beds to the jail using a portion of the $29.5 million in ARPA funds the county is receiving.

In Eau Claire County, Wisconsin, Sheriff Ron Cramer announced a plan in the fall of 2021 to use $6.2 million in ARPA funds to expand the local jail, arguing that the expansion was needed to manage COVID-19 risks. David Carlson, co-founder of C.C. We Adapt, a local agency that provides peer support and mentorship, said the plan reeks of opportunism.

“There was no concern about COVID-19 for months into the pandemic, [and] now Sheriff Cramer is using social distancing as his reason for building out the jail,” Carlson said.

“It’s a money grab,” he added.

‘Building Life-Affirming Institutions’

Around the country, some organizations have succeeded in directing federal dollars toward supportive services and alternatives to incarceration—though those programs are getting just a fraction of the funds allocated for police, jails, and prisons.

Late last year, officials in South Bend, Indiana, approved $2.7 million in ARPA funds to open a new crisis center. Jeff Walker is a member of Faith in Indiana, which helped to initiate the effort. He said the facility gives police a place to bring people who are struggling with issues related to mental health, substance use, or homelessness, “where they can receive diagnosis and treatment, instead of jail.”

In South Bend, as in many places across the nation, the people leading the campaign for carceral alternatives are themselves often familiar with the harms of the legal system. They’re people “who have family members in jail, who have seen them lose jobs and pay expensive fines for something that could have been treated,” Walker said.

As prison-abolitionist thinker Ruth Wilson Gilmore has said, “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” Now, two years into a devastating pandemic, the COVID relief funds in ARPA could present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build institutions that can make a meaningful and lasting impact in ways that increasing police budgets and expanding prisons cannot. By investing in infrastructure that supports and uplifts, rather than punishes and destabilizes, communities could begin to fundamentally realign their approach to public health and safety—but they’ll have to be willing to fight for it.

Illinois Prison Water Contaminated with Bacteria That Causes Legionnaires’ Disease

Corrections officials confirmed finding legionella at five facilities over the past 12 months.

Stateville Correctional Center, in Crest Hill, Illinois.

Illinois Prison Water Contaminated with Bacteria That Causes Legionnaires’ Disease

Corrections officials confirmed finding legionella at five facilities over the past 12 months.

Update: After publication, the Illinois Department of Corrections told The Appeal that water sources at all five prisons tested positive for legionella bacteria in March. For the latest on IDOC’s handling of contaminated water supplies, read our April 7 story.

Last week, officials in Illinois reported that they had detected legionella bacteria, which can cause Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially fatal type of pneumonia, in the water at two state prisons. The contaminated water was discovered during routine quarterly testing at Stateville Correctional Center and Joliet Treatment Center, according to a statement from the Illinois Department of Corrections and the Illinois Department of Public Health. The agencies said nobody is exhibiting symptoms of the disease. 

In an email to The Appeal, the Department of Corrections confirmed that legionella had also been found at three additional facilities—Graham, Kewanee, and Stateville Northern Reception and Classification Center—during quarterly testing over the past 12 months.

These are just the latest developments in a years-long fight for clean water inside the state’s prisons. 

“I’ve been hearing about contaminated water for years from prisoners,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, a Chicago-based civil rights law firm. 

Incarcerated people at Stateville and Northern Reception Center have reported that the water “smells like sewage,” said Mills. The two prisons are on the same campus. 

One positive sample was gathered from a cell at Stateville, according to Camile Lindsay, Chief of Staff for the Illinois Department of Corrections. She said that a second sample from a separate cell in the unit had come back negative for legionella, but she confirmed that the department had not tested any other cells in the unit. The only other water sources tested at Stateville were sinks in the “healthcare” and “dietary” units, which also came back negative, Lindsay wrote. 

Those who may have come in contact with the water are being monitored for symptoms and will be tested 10 days after their initial contact with the infected water, according to Lindsay.

“The water source is no longer being utilized and will be tested prior to usage,” she wrote. 

When contacted by The Appeal, the Illinois Department of Public Health referred The Appeal to the Department of Corrections. 

Asked if all water supplies in Illinois prisons were tested for legionella on a quarterly basis, Lindsay wrote that the department only tested “a sample size of water sources” at each facility.

Prisons can provide an ideal breeding ground for legionella. Outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease have been reported at prisons in California, Indiana, New Jersey, and Connecticut. While legionella bacteria tends to grow in human-made water sources, such as pools and hot tubs, it also grows in “large or complex water systems,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Contaminated water has been a long-standing problem in prisons throughout Illinois. In 2020, two people incarcerated in Illinois’ Pontiac Correctional Center were diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease. And in 2015, a person incarcerated at Stateville was diagnosed with the disease

Incarcerated people at Stateville “complained that the water is discolored and has a strange taste,” according to a 2013 report on the prison. In the 1990s, radium was found in Stateville’s water at almost twice the level permitted by federal guidelines. The prison distributed bottled water to staff free of charge, but not to prisoners. (A prisoner filed suit because he could not afford to buy water at the commissary, and lost.)

In December, protesters rallied outside Stateville to demand clean water for people held at the prison, according to local news outlet Injustice Watch. Then, in January, the Chicago Reader reported that the company responsible for lead testing on Stateville’s water did not follow federal protocols and did not test kitchen or cell faucets. 

Last month, the Uptown People’s Law Center, along with the law firm Jenner and Block LLP, filed suit, alleging that the sink water in cells at the Northern Reception and Classification Center smells “like sewage and has a faint, brown color.” Staff bring in gallon jugs of water for themselves, according to the suit. The Department of Corrections declined to comment on pending litigation. 

Mills said the department must conduct comprehensive water testing and address the prison system’s aging infrastructure, as corroding pipes can contribute to the growth of legionella bacteria. Many of Illinois’ state prisons were built decades ago; two prisons opened in the 1800s. 

“The IDOC should be doing a system-wide review of water sources,” said Mills. “This is something that should be tested regularly—all the time, the water in all these prisons. They’re all deteriorating, they’re all getting old.”

The Pandemic Isn’t Over Inside Prisons—and It Might Never Be

A cycle of hopelessness is taking its toll in prisons across the country, amid continued restrictions on the things that make life more bearable.


The Pandemic Isn’t Over Inside Prisons—and It Might Never Be

A cycle of hopelessness is taking its toll in prisons across the country, amid continued restrictions on the things that make life more bearable.

“Naw, fuck this, they’re going too far!”

My living unit in the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Washington, was on quarantine lockdown, and a disgruntled prisoner was protesting the administration’s decision to give him a new cellmate.

“Every one of us tested negative on this hall, now these guards wanna put someone new in my cell,” he continued. “I don’t know where this dude’s been.”

A crowd was gathering. People were frustrated and looking for a logical explanation for what was happening. 

Days before, an active COVID-19 outbreak in three connecting halls had sent us into lockdown. Dozens of prisoners had tested positive, and now guards were moving people from different parts of the facility in a dangerous game of musical chairs.

My unit was panicking. 

“This is exactly what happened last year,” another prisoner said, referring to a past outbreak.

“I’m not trying to end up in isolation—shit, it’s worse than solitary,” said a third. 

“Why do they keep doing this to us?” asked a fourth. 

The resignation set in. There was nothing we could do. It wasn’t as if the guards would listen to our concerns. Even if they did, the decisions were way above their pay grade. 

For many on the outside, COVID-19 may no longer be a constant source of anxiety and uncertainty. But in prison, we are still deep in the throes of the pandemic. In January, Washington’s prison system marked its highest-ever number of new COVID cases, with counts far exceeding any previous outbreak.

On the inside, the pandemic has led to severe restrictions on the things that make prison more bearable—visits, positive programming, recreational activities, educational opportunities. And there is no return to normalcy in sight. Although Washington’s incarcerated population was offered the COVID-19 vaccine in the spring of 2021, many of us were not able to get booster shots until mid-February, with officials ironically blaming the near-constant COVID-19 lockdowns. It would be confusing to give booster shots during an outbreak, they’ve said, because it would be unclear whether symptoms were due to the vaccine or to infection. 

Prisoners live in constant fear of testing positive for COVID-19 and being hauled off to quarantine, which can be functionally the same as solitary confinement—a recognized form of torture—or involve being crowded in close quarters with nearly a hundred people. Quarantine conditions are so inhumane that some prisoners have begun putting bleach or contact lens solution in their nostrils in hopes of evading a positive test. 

In February, I received a dreaded positive result. My head stuffed and foggy, I was told to pack up my personal property and inform my loved ones that I was sick and would soon be moved to a different part of the facility, cut off from regular communication. I didn’t have answers to any of my family’s questions. I couldn’t even tell them when I would be able to call next. I assured them there was nothing to worry about and promised I’d be back in a couple of weeks. 

In truth, I was incredibly sick and had no idea what to expect. As I packed up my things, I tried not to let my impending quarantine overwhelm my already cloudy mind. I had written about the torturous conditions of medical isolation in prison. Now I was about to experience them for myself.

Anxiety took over and questions began racing through my mind. Where was I going? How long would I be gone? How sick would I get? Would I receive proper medical treatment? Could I die? Would I be able to talk with my family? What was going to happen to the professional projects I’d spent years developing? 

I felt like I might have a breakdown. I had no control over my own health and safety. I was completely at the mercy of prison staff. I tried to take deep breaths, but my COVID-infected lungs wouldn’t cooperate. 

I was allowed one box of personal property, which I filled with writing materials, books, clean clothes, and food. I waited for hours with dozens of other COVID-positive prisoners to find out where we were being moved. Finally, we were led to another unit with temporary cells. I bunked with one other person, sleeping with my face a few feet from the toilet. 

We asked when we would be allowed out of our cells, but the guards didn’t have answers. They slammed the metal doors shut, and we began our isolation. 

We eventually learned that my cellmate and I would be let out together for only 20 minutes each day, to make phone calls, shower, and clean our living space. We always ran out of time, no matter how quickly we moved. I raced through showers and ran to the phone, barely able to dry off. I spent most calls trying to assure my partner that I was OK.

For the next 10 days, I had little to do except lie in our dirty cell, waiting for the experience to end. On the 11th day of quarantine—six days longer than the CDC currently recommends—I was released.

Three days later, when I was at the lowest risk of contracting COVID-19, a guard came to my unit and told us they were offering booster shots. 

It’s a mild relief knowing I am as protected from COVID-19 as I can be. But this protection will always be temporary. When the next variant comes, there’s no guarantee that I’ll be spared from getting hauled off to medical isolation again.

This cycle of hopelessness is taking its toll inside prisons across the country. We’ve been forced to go two years without full-contact visits, and our inability to hug and kiss our loved ones has strained many relationships beyond repair. Drug and alcohol treatment and other rehabilitative programs, many of them court-mandated, have been put on pause. 

We’ve been told these measures are necessary to protect prisoners from getting COVID-19, but as long as we remain crammed into overcrowded prisons, outbreaks are inevitable. No amount of forced sacrifice can change that. But prison officials can always take more from us, and we have no reason to believe they’re done trying.

How Corporations Turned Prison Tablets Into A Predatory Scheme

After giving tablets to incarcerated people, prison telecoms giants are charging prisoners and their families exorbitant prices on everything from emails to movies.

A still from a GTL promotional video showcasing their tablets in Alameda County, California.

How Corporations Turned Prison Tablets Into A Predatory Scheme

After giving tablets to incarcerated people, prison telecoms giants are charging prisoners and their families exorbitant prices on everything from emails to movies.

This story was published in partnership with Dissent Magazine.

In early March 2020, as COVID-19 infections started to spread in U.S. jails and prisons, Roger was serving out the final months of a 15-year sentence in Eastern Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Ulster County, about 100 miles north of New York City. (We are using pseudonyms for all incarcerated people and their loved ones mentioned in this article in order to protect their identities.)

By April 1, movement in the facility was restricted, recreation areas were closed, and visitations and educational programs were suspended. For several months, Roger recounted, “we were literally locked in our cells, as if we were in solitary confinement.”

Under such circumstances, it felt like a blessing that in 2017, New York had signed a contract with JPay, a subsidiary of prison telecommunication giant Securus Technologies, to distribute “mini-tablets” to the prison population. Roger got his in October 2019—at no upfront cost.

But there was a predictable caveat: While the tablets gave incarcerated individuals access to email, music, e-books, and even games, all of those services came with hefty price tags. JPay calculated that the profits from the associated fees would outweigh the cost of providing the tablets without charge; in fact, with roughly 50,000 incarcerated people slated to receive tablets in prisons throughout New York, JPay projected a net profit of about $8.8 million by August 2022, according to the state’s department of corrections.

New York wasn’t the only state to roll out a prison tablet program: Between 2017 and 2019, at least 11 other states entered into contracts with prison telecom companies such as Securus and GTL. To hear it from corporate spokespeople and corrections officials, the tablets promised hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people across the country access to new forms of communication, information, and entertainment.

“We have anticipation and hope to make it a good educational tool,” a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said when a tablet program was introduced in her state.

But in reality, the proliferation of prison tablets feeds into the broader trend of predatory corporations gouging incarcerated people and making billions off a captive market.

Over the past four decades, while the national prison population has swelled to unprecedented levels, corrections systems have provided inadequate funding for programs, services, and essential goods. At the same time, corrections officials have outsourced this spending to private corporations, which have turned prison services into a multibillion-dollar retail industry. Under the current system, incarcerated individuals are forced to purchase extra food, clothing, hygiene, and other goods from external vendors, who charge exorbitant rates for services as simple as phone calls, money transfers, and commissary transactions.

“When you go to jail you think, yeah, I got three meals, I got a shower and everything. [But] it’s not as easy as it sounds,” said Juan, who served nearly a decade in New York state prisons. “Prison is expensive,” he continued. “You need money to live in there.”

With average wages for prison labor stagnating at less than $0.40 per hour, most incarcerated people rely on financial support from friends and family. But these remittances are often a financial burden for the families of the incarcerated. According to a 2017 Prison Policy Initiative report, families spend billions of dollars each year just to cover the costs of phone calls and commissary purchases for their incarcerated loved ones.

The pandemic only compounded that burden. As workers were laid off en masse across the United States in 2020, the stream of money into prisons took a hit. “A lot of people weren’t getting financial support anymore,” said Michael, who was serving the last months of a two-year sentence in Connecticut when correctional facilities went into lockdown. “Their people [outside] were dying or were losing money.”

With commissary accounts drying up and institutions facing their own supply problems, panic spread at the New York prison where Roger was housed. “We were scared,” Roger recounted. “We believed that we were going to die in prison, you know, we’d be locked in there, and that staff would abandon the facilities.”

In the face of this disruption, informal lenders in the prison economy known as “jugglers” started charging double the usual rates. Many institutions imposed strict quotas on commissary purchases. In Fishkill, a medium-security facility in New York’s Hudson Valley, food sales were limited, including staples like pasta, rice, and soups, according to Carlos, who was nearing the end of a 10-year prison sentence when the pandemic hit. Some prisons also stopped or slowed the processing of mail and packages—which often contain food—citing staff shortages.

When families on the outside heard about those dynamics, sending money became an even higher priority. Fred, who was working at a restaurant in Queens when COVID first hit, recounted that not being able to visit his son, who has been incarcerated since 2018, had already caused serious strain. He made a point of matching his usual monthly contributions toward his son’s commissary and phone accounts—even though he was laid off in the very first weeks of the pandemic.

“I didn’t want him to feel abandoned,” Fred said, explaining how he went into debt to continue providing for his son while paying his own bills. In late April 2021, Fred said he still owed over $10,000, mostly to friends and family.

Lavern, who lives in Long Island with her daughter, and whose boyfriend has been incarcerated since 2019, says the emotional toll of not being able to see her loved one for months at a time was worsened by the financial strain. At the same time her income went down—she had to give up hours at the nursing home where she worked in order to care for her daughter after schools shut down—the costs of her boyfriend’s phone and commissary shot up. Without in-person visits, their phone calls grew longer and more frequent.

Between costs for phone calls, emails, and commissary, Lavern estimated spending over $600 per month to support her boyfriend during the first year of the pandemic.

All of these transactions were made possible by the software, tablets, and drive for profits of the prison telecommunications giants.

JPay made its first foray into prison tablets in 2012, when several facilities began to give incarcerated individuals the option to purchase devices for $140. Running on a modified version of Android, JPay tablets do not have direct access to the web—to download music and videos, or send an email, users have to hook them up to designated “kiosks” inside the prison.

In 2015, JPay was acquired by Securus, a prison telecommunications company that had raked in over $114 million dollars in profits in 2014 alone from its phone services in 2,600 prisons and jails across 46 states and the District of Columbia. Securus’s then-CEO Rick Smith hailed the merger as an opportunity to tap “into the fastest growing segments in corrections: payments, email, and most recently, inmate tablets.”

The acquisition also represented an attempt to diversify at a time when Securus was facing increased scrutiny from federal regulators and prisoners’ rights activists over its phone services. Six months after the JPay acquisition was announced, the Federal Communications Commission voted to cap local and long-distance calls from state and federal prisons at 11 cents a minute, while also prohibiting most of the ancillary charges Securus and other companies routinely tacked onto phone bills.

By 2019, it looked like the bet on the “prison iPads” market had already paid off. Between 2017 and 2019, JPay signed lucrative contracts with New York, Connecticut, and Missouri to distribute tablets to their incarcerated populations. GTL, JPay’s main competitor, had secured similar agreements with six more states. By then, both companies had decided to distribute the tablets for free.

Both JPay and GTL charge prisoners at every step of the communication process: In New York, each email sent or received requires a “stamp,” which costs $0.25—twice that if the message exceeds 6,000 characters, or if it includes a picture or card. For four stamps, friends and family can also send 30-second “video-grams” to loved ones inside.

Music, movies, e-books, and games can also be downloaded on JPay tablets for exorbitant fees. Songs are listed for as much as $2.50 each, and a single album can cost up to $46, according to state records. Renting a movie costs between $2 and $25. Until November 2019, when the company backed down in the face of public pressure, JPay was selling incarcerated individuals in a handful of states e-books sourced from Project Gutenberg, a database of free books.

As expensive as they were to use, tablets quickly became a hot commodity in prison, enticing incarcerated individuals with the promise of new opportunities for entertainment and connecting with loved ones outside. Chris, a self-described “old-head” who served a seven-year sentence in New York, noticed that younger prisoners in particular flocked to the JPay tablets: “They looked like kids in a candy store. They were on their tablets all day long.”

The devices’ appeal grew even stronger once the COVID-19 crisis brought prison life to a halt. “There was no rec, no programs on board,” Roger said. “It was very tense. People just wanted to sit down by themselves and not get in trouble, watch a movie or play a game.”

Between March and December 2020, Roger estimated having spent at least $900, or about $100 per month, on emails to his family and music and movie downloads, up from the roughly $30 per month he’d spent for the same services before the pandemic. And, according to Roger, that was far less than what some of his peers and their families were footing. Other sources corroborated Roger’s observation, saying that tablets became a “necessity” in prison, with some incarcerated people racking up bills as high as $1,000 a month.

This spending surged even as companies like JPay announced promotional offers when prisons went into lockdown. Beginning in April 2020, JPay offered temporarily discounted prices on selected movies and songs; it also established “free-reply Wednesdays,” allowing families to attach one free reply to paid emails sent from jails and prisons.

“Most free movies were garbage,” said Darrell, who was at Fishkill when COVID-19 first hit. By the time he came home, in September 2020, he had downloaded hundreds of dollars’ worth of movies and music.

“I felt ashamed of myself,” said Darrell, “because I let them loop me into something that I really didn’t want. But in order for me to stay out of other people’s way, in order for me to make it home, I said, let me do what I gotta do to stay inside my own cube, my own room.”

As Roger explained, “JPay knows that we are a captive consumer base.” Incarcerated people “have no choice,” he added. “If you want it, or you feel you need it for your mental health, you are going to have to buy it from us.”

Securus did not answer multiple requests for comment prior to publication.

In the neoliberal prison, legal scholar Hadar Aviram writes, the prisoner is increasingly treated not as a “ward of the state” but as a “consumer of institutional services.”

This process could now be at a turning point: With the pandemic still ongoing, the shift toward a greater reliance on technology will likely transform the lives of the incarcerated. If prison telecom companies have it their way, tablets will not function as tools for education and rehabilitation—as both companies and correction systems have disingenuously promised—but as another extractive scheme. Incarcerated individuals will be offered substandard services at astronomic prices.

There are already examples of what this sort of “high-tech” prison would look like. Citing the availability of tablets and concerns about contraband, prisons in Pennsylvania, Florida, and other states have replaced physical mail with e-mail and digital copies. Other facilities have already proceeded to replace in-person visits with paid video calls, making tablets the only points of contact between prisoners and their loved ones.

Privatization has long been pitched as a way to ease the pressure on public coffers. For incarcerated people and their families, however, this shift has left them shouldering more of the costs of life’s basic necessities. By squeezing more money out of those incarcerated and their families, companies like JPay and GTL amplify the negative economic impact of imprisonment, and siphon away resources that could be used to support loved ones after incarceration.

Some lawmakers are finally catching on. In July 2018, the New York City Council passed Intro 741, making phone calls from the city’s jails free and prohibiting the city from collecting revenues on phone services. Connecticut followed suit in 2021, becoming the first state to allow all incarcerated individuals a minimum of 90 minutes of free calls each day.

“This bill corrects a regressive policy that senselessly indebts families and turns the revolving door of recidivism,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas.

As JPay’s contracts with several states—including New York, Maine, and Indiana—are set to expire this summer, advocates see an opportunity to build upon those victories. The hope, they say, is to create a technology infrastructure designed to serve the needs of incarcerated users, not one engineered to exploit them and their families.

“Tablets under non-predatory terms could be a very good thing inside prisons,” said Katy Ryan, the founder of the Appalachian Prison Book Project.

But if prison telecommunications companies such as J-Pay are allowed to continue moving in the current direction, there’s no reason to believe these devices will be a positive force.

Editor’s Note: Dissent and The Appeal contacted Securus Technologies for comment on February 10 and followed up several times prior to publication, but the company did not provide a response. After publication, a spokesperson for Securus’s parent company, Aventiv Technologies, contacted Dissent and The Appeal to dispute several claims in the article. In particular, the company noted that emails now cost $0.25 to send in New York, instead of the $0.35 specified in their 2017 contract with NYS DOCCS. The company also said that video calls are not available in New York state. Finally, former CEO Rick Smith left his role in late 2017. We have updated the article to reflect these changes.

Additionally, the company asked Dissent and The Appeal to include a statement defending its business practices. Because the company did not respond to multiple requests for comment before publication, we are declining to print their statement in full. The statement claimed that the company “began an aggressive, multi-year transformation journey in 2019” to address the harms caused by its business practices. Critics of the company, however, have said that despite the company’s rebranding efforts, it has continued to exploit incarcerated people and their families. Last month, Mother Jones reported that the company told investors in 2021 that it was considering charging universities that used the company’s platform to provide prisoner education programs.

What Happened When Oakland Tried to Make Police Pay for Misconduct Decades Ago

In the '90s, the city passed a policy requiring the police department to pay some of their own legal costs. There’s no evidence that the department ever paid up.

The doorway to a police station in downtown Oakland, California.

What Happened When Oakland Tried to Make Police Pay for Misconduct Decades Ago

In the '90s, the city passed a policy requiring the police department to pay some of their own legal costs. There’s no evidence that the department ever paid up.

This story was published in partnership with Type Investigations, where Ahmad was an Ida B. Wells fellow.

On Dec. 3, 1993, Rashidah Grinage’s family of six was reduced to four. Her 21-year-old son, Luke, had gotten engaged that morning, and had recently interviewed for a new job. But when police arrived at her Oakland, California, home seeking to impound Luke’s dog, a gun fight broke out. Luke and his father, Raphael, a double amputee who used a wheelchair, were killed, along with an officer. It wasn’t until five years later that Grinage became aware of an audio cassette tape recorded by one of the officers, revealing that police had failed to follow protocol around de-escalation and resorted to force within minutes of encountering Luke.

Grinage vowed to hold the department accountable for its actions that day. “Back in 1993, I made a pledge to myself,” she told Type and The Appeal. “And that pledge was that the Oakland Police Department will truly regret that they ever came to my home.”

The year after she lost her son and her husband, Grinage joined a grassroots organization called People United for a Better Life in Oakland (PUEBLO), and immediately began working on proposals that focused on reining in police misconduct. One of the biggest issues she found was the steady, unchecked increase in the police department’s share of Oakland’s overall budget. The city used vague and inconsistent metrics to justify the increases, and asked few questions about how the department used the funds. The approach to the police budget in Oakland was “divorced from any benchmarks or deliverables,” Grinage said.

It would be more than a quarter-century until the uprising in response to George Floyd’s murder would make “defund the police” a nationally recognized slogan, and there was little scrutiny of U.S. cities that had made a practice of rubber-stamping police budget increases. But Grinage identified a frustrating trend that continues today: Police funding remains largely untouched, even when departments routinely cost their cities millions of dollars in excessive force lawsuits and civil rights settlements. Instead, it’s city taxpayers who usually get stuck with the bill.

Joanna Schwartz, a law professor at UCLA School of Law, studies this dynamic and through her research has demonstrated that police departments rarely take financial responsibility for lawsuits. In her study of 100 law enforcement agencies across the country, she found that 58 percent of cities with the largest police departments do not require them to contribute funds toward settlements and judgments. Of the cities included in Schwartz’s study, budgeting practices insulate at least 80 percent of their law enforcement agencies from any financial effects of misconduct payouts.

Recognizing this disconnect, activists across the country have pushed for policy changes that they say would disincentivize police misconduct by making police departments financially liable for payouts stemming from these cases. In Oakland, the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force—assembled in the wake of protests over police violence and racism in 2020—has put forth a recommendation, known as Rec 44, that would shift costs related to misconduct settlements away from taxpayers and toward police. While settlements and judgments are currently pulled from the city’s general fund, Rec 44 suggests alternatives, including automatically deducting funds from the union dues paid by officers or out of an officer’s retirement savings, until the city is reimbursed.

Any of these recommendations, if adopted by the city council, could create more accountability for police and provide a blueprint for other cities to follow. But Grinage’