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California jail hunger strikers: “We’re seeking humanity”

Alameda and Santa Clara County jail detainees round out the first week of a hunger strike for better conditions.

California jail hunger strikers: “We’re seeking humanity”

Alameda and Santa Clara County jail detainees round out the first week of a hunger strike for better conditions.

Sheri Costa’s life in Alameda County, California has always been touched by incarceration. Her father was in and out of prison her whole life, her ex-husband wound up in prison, and her brothers in law have been locked up. “It’s been a personal experience for me,” 56-year-old Costa tells In Justice Today. “It’s just been the norm in our family, which is sad to say.”

In 2015, her nephew Mario Martinez died in Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail two days before his 30th birthday. Martinez collapsed and died of acute asthmatic respiratory insufficiency while in jail fighting charges of attempted murder and possession of stolen property, according to SFGate. Costa and her family alleged that Martinez was neglected by medical providers in the prison, who worked for Corizon Healthcare, a private corrections healthcare provider that has faced lawsuits across the country for substandard care of people in custody.

These personal connections drive Costa’s support of currently incarcerated people in Alameda and Santa Clara Counties who started a hunger strike this week to protest the conditions of the local jails. The strike began Sunday in Oakland’s Glenn Dyer Detention Facility, and spread to Santa Rita Jail. Prisoners in Santa Clara County Main Jail and Elmwood Correctional Complex plan to begin striking in solidarity on Sunday, Oct. 22, organizing as part of Prisoners United of Silicon Valley, a prisoner-led group that is backed by outside community-based civil rights groups.

The strikers have five core demands: “End indefinite solitary confinement, “end subjective grievance practices, end abuse of discretion to lockdown, end insufficient and unsanitary clothing, and end insufficient food and starvation for indigent prisoners.” As of Thursday evening, Costa says the Alameda County Sherriff’s office had not contacted the community organizers who are supporting the prisoners to sit down and discuss the issues at hand.

“We would disagree that any of their demands are not being met,” Sergeant Ray Kelly, the Alameda County Sheriff’s public information officer tells In Justice Today. “They’re making it sound like our county jail [Glenn Dyer] is some kind of very oppressive environment, and I would disagree with that…there’s a lot of care that goes on in there.”

“Our number one priority is the health and safety of those that are hunger striking, while respecting their right to protest,” added Kelly. “At some point we’re going to have to have a talk or sit down with the protesters.”

On Tuesday, Costa and groups such as Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) rallied at the Board of Supervisors building in downtown Oakland. Marlene Sanchez, associate director of CURYJ who attended the rally, says these demands and issues have “been brought up before to supervisors, and they have been taking it really lightly, saying ‘no that stuff isn’t happening’….People have died inside and we still have not seen much change.”

Sanchez has heard from prisoners involved in the strike that the jails are serving them leftover food multiple days in a row, that many packages sent from loved ones are never received, and that they are not being provided with clean clothes (or a regularly opportunity to wash their clothing). Others tell her that people held in solitary confinement are sometimes not allowed out of their cells for more than two hours each month.

Kelly stipulates that the jails do not use solitary confinement, but instead use administrative segregation — which he says does not involve the same level of “sensory deprivation.” Advocates like Sanchez argue that these two labels describe the same thing, and research illustrates that prolonged isolation can have damaging mental health effects.

Costa hopes that the hunger strike will attract greater outside support for the prisoners, and draw a deeper understanding of how the mistreatment of jail detainees also effects their families. When one person breaks a rule and an entire facility is locked down for an extended period of time, she notes, families also pay the price.

“Most of these people are not even convicted,” Costa notes. “You’re taking humanity away from people who are sitting there because they can’t afford bail. They still deserve to be treated like a human being…We can do better than this.”

NYPD is one delete button away from losing its civil forfeiture records

Criminal charges are absent from 85 percent of all forfeiture cases in the city.


NYPD is one delete button away from losing its civil forfeiture records

Criminal charges are absent from 85 percent of all forfeiture cases in the city.

On Tuesday, an attorney for New York City revealed that the New York Police Department, the biggest police department in the country, is operating without a backup storage system for its database of civil asset forfeitures. NYPD records of cash and property — reportedly worth millions — could therefore be lost with the drop of a hat.

Civil asset forfeiture is a process in which officers seize items of value — cash, cars, cell phones, jewelry, and more — from people who haven’t been convicted of a criminal offense. Police argue that the belongings in question are possibly related to a crime, or located in the proximity of people who are accused or suspected of committing a crime. But in many cases, the property owners haven’t been arrested or charged with a criminal offense, let alone convicted of one. Every state has its own policies that govern what can be seized and when, and dictates what owners must to do to obtain what was taken from them, but few people have the financial means or resources to fight for their valuables. Forfeiture ultimately occurs when ownership of seized assets is transferred to the law enforcement agencies who collected them. Sometimes people have no choice but to relinquish their belongings, because the items in question are dubbed evidence by law enforcement.

The process is widely known as policing for profit.

In 2014, an organization of public defenders called the Bronx Defenders submitted a Freedom of Information Law Request to better understand the NYPD’s civil asset forfeiture program. The organization asked for the value of seized property and cash, as well as a break-down of how the money gleaned from forfeited assets is ultimately distributed. The organization sued the NYPD two years later, stating the “NYPD did not disclose the records sought, claim specific exemptions to disclosure, or certify that, after making a diligent search, it had determined that it does not possess the requested records.” Representing the NYPD in court Tuesday, City Attorney Neil Giovanatti said there is no way for the police to pull that information, but also disclosed that there is no back-up system for the $25.5 million-dollar tool used to track property and evidence. That admission shocked Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Arlene Bluth, who called the absence of a plan B “insane” and worthy of an New York Times exposé.

“Judge Bluth is right to be skeptical about the city attorney’s the-dog-ate-my-homework excuse,” Lee McGrath, senior legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice, told In Justice Today. The Institute tracks state-level forfeiture trends and champions reform. “New York City’s Police Department is famous for its data-driven policing. It should apply the same rigor to its own operations, particularly when the conflict of interest from its keeping forfeited property is so obvious.”

So who would bare the brunt of such a major loss? Poor New Yorkers struggling to retrieve what is rightfully theirs would suffer, but “the truth stands to lose the most,” McGrath said. “It is likely that the data would reveal exactly how NYC police are using forfeiture.”

Law enforcement agencies justify civil forfeiture as a critical tool to combat large-scale drug trafficking and heavy hitters in the drug trade. In reality, the vast majority of seizures and forfeitures involve poor people of color who have no involvement with cartels or the global drug market. Police departments and district attorneys rack up anywhere from hundreds to millions of dollars in forfeiture profits by shaking down poor people of color for small dollar amounts and property — not big-time drug dealers shuffling large sums of money across state lines. Because they haven’t officially been charged with a crime, property owners aren’t entitled to an attorney who will help them fight for what is theirs. In general, they are also too poor to enlist the help of a private lawyer, and bureaucratic hurdles to retrieve property also benefit law enforcement.

Civil asset forfeiture in New York City, which hasn’t rewritten its administrative code that dictates forfeiture policy since 1881, is no exception. The NYPD’s forfeiture program is portrayed as a public safety imperative, but criminal charges are absent from 85 percent of all forfeiture cases in the city.

In 2016, the Bronx Defenders filed a class action lawsuit against the city. “We often represent low-income people whose phones and cash wages have been confiscated and spend months trying to get their money back after their case is over,” Molly Kovel, former legal director of the organization’s Civil Action Practice, said of the lawsuit. “For people without access to an attorney, the hurdles they face to get their property back are simply too high, and they often give up. We hope this case leads to much-needed reform.”

If forfeiture records are lost, so too is proof that the NYPD is policing for profit, McGrath says.

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How to Make Change Happen

How to Make Change Happen

I am going to switch it up today. Instead of giving you this week’s stories of horrible injustice, which Lord knows there is a long list of those stories to tell this week, I want us to have a serious conversation about how we make change happen in this country.

As I reflect back on the past three years, I think I can squeeze dozens of important lessons that I learned down to one essential lesson — which is this — awareness and action are not the same thing. Making people aware of our problems is important, vital work, but awareness of a problem and solving that problem are not the same.

We’ve mastered awareness, but what I’ve learned is that people in power are willing to be painfully aware of police brutality, painfully aware of white supremacy, painfully aware of a prison industrial complex, abundantly clear about inequality and bigotry and racism — and still do absolutely nothing about it.

Politicians and lawmakers are willing to watch us take us a knee, watch us march, watch us picket and protest — and wait us out. They are willing and prepared to outlast us — and, in most cases, to do absolutely nothing about the problems we highlight and amplify.

Don’t get me wrong. I love social media, and it is an important part of how we make change happen. But we can’t retweet ourselves out of our most serious problems. We can’t Facebook share our way out of our most serious challenges. It’s just not working.

So let me tell you the four things we need to make change happen.

They’re all important, but the first one is essential, and I’ve grown to believe a significant reason why we’re stuck is because we’ve failed at this step.

The first thing we need to make change happen is a well-crafted plan. What’s our plan for change? Do you know it? Where can I find it? Can you share it with me? Do your friends and family members know it?

Here’s what I’ve learned about why we need to craft and communicate careful plans:

Whatever our plans are to combat police brutality and reform the criminal justice system, people sure as hell don’t know them. I just spoke at UC Davis outside of Sacramento this week and when I travel and speak across the country, and ask people if they can tell me what the local plan is to combat injustice and police brutality in their town, they usually have no idea. Sometimes they can tell me a few heartbreaking stories of injustice, but it’s a rare day when I ask people what the plan is that they reply with an informed answer. I’m not criticizing them! I’m criticizing us. If the people aren’t aware of the basic plans for change, we’ve failed.

To be clear, our movement has diagnosed the problems, we’ve even proposed solutions, but we’ve done a bad job at informing people of how we get from where we are to where we need to be.

And that’s a problem. Plans are only as effective as the ability for everyday people to repeat them back to you. The people don’t know our plans. They have not adopted them as their own. We won’t have change until we fix this.

Which leads me to the second thing we need — we need people. We need organized people who are on board with our well-crafted plans. What I’m finding is that even some of our most conscious, informed, woke men and women, have a desire for change, but aren’t really clear on what that means for them. We have to get to the point where our people and our plans are fully and completely merged. Too often, we rally people, and make them aware of problems, but fail to get them on board for well-crafted plans.

Yes, the more people you can have on board, the better, but I’m increasingly convinced that 50 organized people who are fully and completely on board for a well-crafted plan can get more done than 50,000 people who want change in an esoteric way, but have no real idea what that means for them.

You need a plan, you need people, and the third thing you need to make change happen is energy. Sometimes I use the word momentum. People have to be motivated and energized and prepared to fight for the change we want to see. People with momentum can get so much done. Momentum is easy to lose and almost impossible to fake. My theory on momentum is that the best way to produce it is through small, hard fought victories that lead to bigger battles, and bigger wins. Winning builds momentum. But here’s the thing — winning takes a well-crafted plan and an organized team. When we fight without those things we lose — which kills our energy and destroys any hopes for momentum.

And I’ll close with my final thought — it’s an important one — this modern movement, call it the Black Lives Matter Movement, or the movement to combat injustice, the movement for true equality in America — is one of the least funded movements in the history of movements. To win, we must be well-resourced. And here’s what I know — those who are mobilizing against us, be it police and prison unions, or prosecutor associations, or Trump and Sessions themselves– they are well funded — and they use that funding to lobby, organize, market, promote, fight laws, and do the hard work to make change happen. It just so happens that what they fight for (or against), quite successfully I must add, goes against the very values and ideas those of us in the justice community hold near and dear.

Let me close with this — we’re being out-organized and out-spent on the issues that matter the most. We’re losing on so many fronts not because losing is inevitable, not because we’re bound to lose, but because those who mean us harm have simply done a better job fighting for what they believe in. That’s a serious simplification of systemic injustice and inequality, but the root of it is true. The machines and mechanisms of injustice are well-crafted, well-oiled machines. To change them, we’ll have to be better — much better.

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