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Challenging lawmakers to go inside prisons and jails


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Challenging lawmakers to go inside prisons and jails

  • Boston Globe accused of ‘Willie Horton’-style fearmongering

  • New reports highlight behavior of Port Authority police in ‘lewd act’ arrests

  • Immigrants stay home, fearing mass raids

  • Phoenix prosecutor silent on police accountability, critics say

  • Jackson, Mississippi, prosecutor candidate wants to fix a broken system

  • A fight over fines and fees revenue in a Louisiana parish

In the Spotlight

Challenging lawmakers to go inside prisons and jails

Last week, FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) launched a campaign, calling on state and federal lawmakers to visit a prison, jail, or juvenile detention facility in the next 12 months. The challenge highlights the fact that although legislators make the laws governing when people can be sent to jail or prison, and for how long; when children can be prosecuted as adults and sent to adult prisons; and conditions of confinement, they are not required to actually step foot in these facilities to see them from the inside and hear from people incarcerated there.

In a letter sent to every federal legislator, FAMM’s president wrote, “Too often, lawmakers simply don’t know what prisons or jails are like—and they can’t know, unless they go and see for themselves.” 

Supporters of the challenge chimed in on social media, sharing their thoughts on why going inside prisons and jails, talking to incarcerated people and their visitors, and holding prison administrators accountable matters. 

Speaking on Twitter of the campaign, Sister Helen Prejean, the prominent anti-death penalty advocate, said: “I knew nothing about prisons until my first visit in the ’80s. Each visit is a reminder of what most of us try to ignore: the humanity of the incarcerated and the inhumanity of what we do to them. Insist that your lawmakers visit!”

James Forman Jr., law professor and author, urged his state lawmakers to visit and talk to incarcerated people on those visits, saying, “You will meet people you have tremendous challenges, tremendous needs … mental health needs, addiction needs, educational needs. But you will also meet people with great promise, great potential.” 

FAMM’s challenge, which was supported and joined by several organizations, comes amid the continuing revelations about conditions in Border Patrol detention facilities. These facilities, wholly unsuited for the long-term detention of children or adults, have forced attention to the problem of the large-scale incarceration of people crossing the border. Reports about the lack of space, nutritious food, and basic hygiene, and the prolonged detention of children and adults in these conditions, led some Democratic lawmakers to visit detention facilities in El Paso and Clint, Texas. And the vice president and some Republican lawmakers visited two detention facilities last week. Not surprisingly, the two groups did not reach the same conclusions

As Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told David Remnick of the New Yorker in an interview last week, conditions in one of the facilities were “the physical manifestation of Trump’s rhetoric in calling migrants animals. Because that’s how these women were being treated. Their hair was falling out, they had sores in their mouth due to the lack of nutrition in the food that they were being given.”

These conditions are nightmarish. They are also not unimaginable in a country that routinely subjects incarcerated people to inhumane conditions. 

John Pfaff, the law professor and author, wrote on Twitter:



In jails, prisons, and detention facilities across the country, in blue states and red states, in cities and in rural areas, people are held in unhealthy, violent, and dangerous conditions.

Despite being all around us, prisons and jails are often treated as being somewhere else. For years, maps on New York City subway trains did not show Rikers Island, the nation’s largest penal colony, even though it sits just a few minutes from LaGuardia Airport. It was literally erased. 

Lawmakers vote on legislation related to criminal statutes, to parole, and to sentencing. So it matters that they are not just encouraged but required to see the conditions under which people in their districts live, to see how public dollars are being spent, and to see how government employees are doing their jobs. When President Barack Obama visited a federal prison, he was the first sitting president to do so. 

But, as the feedback that FAMM has been inviting pointed out, a scheduled, guided tour won’t give visitors a look at what really goes on in prisons. Furthermore, the conclusions that lawmakers reach are likely to hew closely to their perspective before they went in. Lawmakers who already have questions about the treatment of people in custody may learn new details that they can work to address. Others, who fundamentally believe people in prison deserve little in the way of dignity, health, and safety, may leave with their views unchanged. 

Lawmakers, as well as the prosecutors who seek detention and incarceration and the judges who order it, should be required to visit jails and prisons. But the public should also have a right to see and know what goes on in these facilities, which is why our prisons should not be cut off from society. When police violence became an issue that received widespread attention, it was because members of the public, some who had witnessed that violence for years, finally had the technology to capture and disseminate information about it. 

The FAMM campaign is also a reminder of the lack of diversity among elected representatives. Many people, if elected as lawmakers, might not need a visit to know what life is like inside a prison or jail. They would already know, from visits to family members, from hearing about it from loved ones, perhaps from being formerly incarcerated themselves. 

Inattention to conditions in prisons and jails may also be a product of mass disenfranchisement. If lawmakers knew they would meet voters when visiting prisons and jails, or knew they would talk to voters who had previously been incarcerated, visiting facilities might be more akin to visiting other constituents entitled to representation.

Stories From The Appeal

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins [Courtesy of the Suffolk County DA’s Office]

Boston Globe Accused of ‘Willie Horton’-Style Fearmongering. Nineteen academics published a letter to the newspaper over its coverage of the Suffolk County DA. [Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg]

New Reports Highlight Behavior of Port Authority Police in ‘Lewd Act’ Arrests. Expert reports in a 2017 federal lawsuit explore an alleged pattern of discrimination against men perceived to be gay. [Kira Lerner]

Stories From Around the Country

Immigrants stay home, fearing mass raids: In anticipation of publicized ICE raids, immigrants across the country, undocumented and authorized, stayed home on Sunday, reports BuzzFeed News. “Churches weren’t full, markets were quiet, and the streets were less crowded in some neighborhoods,” Hamed Aleaziz and Adolfo Flores write. Despite announcements of large-scale ICE raids, there were no mass arrests Sunday. But the fear of encountering ICE officers kept many inside. Anna Núñez, a Houston resident who works in immigration advocacy, pointed to lower attendance Sunday at a church many Latinx people attend and said she heard from friends about empty grocery stores. “It breaks my heart because people are failing to realize the long-term damage and ramifications this has on the entire community, not just immigrants,” she told BuzzFeed News. “It’s a frightening ripple effect.” [Hamed Aleaziz and Adolfo Flores / BuzzFeed News]



Phoenix prosecutor silent on police accountability, critics say: In Phoenix, “law enforcement is in crisis, the public’s trust in the justice system is quickly evaporating and the county’s top law enforcement official has barely said a word,” Chiraag Bains and Kyle C. Barry write of Maricopa County chief prosecutor Bill Montgomery. The city had the most police shootings of any city in the country in 2018. Recently published research by the Plain View Project showed that dozens of city police officers were responsible for troubling Facebook posts, including one that said, “It’s a good day for a chokehold.” And last month the release of a video showed a white police officer threatening to shoot an unarmed Black man in front of his family, including his pregnant wife and young children. Bains, a former federal prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice, and Barry, senior legal counsel with the Justice Collaborative, point out that prosecutors in other cities have declined to prosecute cases reliant on the testimony of officers who have demonstrated “racial bias, dishonesty, and a tendency toward violence.” Yet Montgomery has gone in the opposite direction, undermining police accountability rather than pushing for it, they said. [Chiraag Bains and Kyle C. Barry / New York Times]

Jackson, Mississippi, prosecutor candidate wants to fix a broken system:  Jody Owens, managing attorney of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi chapter, is the latest in a wave of nationwide candidates running to be “decarceral prosecutors.” He is vying to be the new district attorney of Hinds County, Mississippi. The election is in August. “There truly is a broken criminal justice system in Hinds County and in Mississippi as a whole,” Owens told the Appeal: Political Report in a wide-ranging interview about how he proposes to reform Hinds County. Owens made the case that reducing the prison population and instead funding more programs would break cycles of incarceration. DAs have “failed” communities, he said, by thinking of “more incarceration time” as “the only tool they have.” [Daniel Nichanian / The Appeal: Political Report]

A fight over fines and fees revenue in a Louisiana parish: Reporting for Politico and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Jessica Pishko describes a contest for the problematic revenue from fees in a small Louisiana parish. The district attorney of Rapides Parish has created a pretrial diversion program that serves as a major source of income for the office. As Pishko writes, “In the program’s simplest form, instead of receiving and paying speeding tickets, offenders were paying fees not to get tickets. And those fees were going directly to the DA’s office—whose website features a prominent MAKE A PAYMENT button.” The parish leadership and treasurer, who were seeking a share of the revenue from fees, alleged in a lawsuit that in 2017, the DA’s office brought in over $2 million, thanks to dismissal fees ranging from $250 for traffic tickets to $1,200 to $1,500 for felonies. [Jessica Pishko / Politico]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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