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For New York Prisoners, a Package Policy that Effectively Pits TV Against Books

A little-known New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision policy has limited access to books in at least nine prisons for years.

Multiple policies in New York state’s correctional system limit access to materials shown to reduce recidivism.
Eric Francis/Getty Images

For New York Prisoners, a Package Policy that Effectively Pits TV Against Books

A little-known New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision policy has limited access to books in at least nine prisons for years.

In a downtown Manhattan high-rise, public defender Ben Schatz’s office overflows with books, from Amy Tan to Leo Tolstoy, many stuffed into returned packages labeled “prohibited,” “refused,” and “not allowed.”

The books were returned to Schatz from upstate New York prisons, where he attempts to send reading material requested by prisoners through Books Beyond Bars, a donation-based project of the New York City-based nonprofit Center for Appellate Litigation.

“We have clients who have been incarcerated for decades, and who have few, if any, contacts outside prison other than their lawyers,” says Schatz, “So to have someone send them a book is an incredible thing. They’re in solitary conditions with literally nothing to read other than their legal papers, which they read every day over and over.”

Corrections officials offer inconsistent explanations for rejected books, Schatz says. But many stem from a curious, little-known directive that has been in place for decades, in at least nine of the state’s 55 prisons.

These prisons — which house more than 10,000 people — are designated as “TV facilities” by the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). A DOCCS rule stipulates that a TV facility “may allow inmates to own television sets,” after they take part in a “vote via secret ballot” on the option to purchase a personal TV set from the prison’s commissary. If a majority votes for TV sets, then prisoners at TV facilities can only receive two packages per year weighing up to twenty pounds from “personal sources” such as family or friends — containing only food. And per DOCCS policy, results of the vote “are irreversible, and all inmates at the facility will be subject to the guidelines [restricting receipt of packages] regardless of their individual choice to own a television set or not.”

Prisoners can continue to buy some items from a list of “approved vendors,” like the retailers Amazon and Walmart. (Like myriad other privatized amenities that cater to prisoners and their families, the prison package business is a lucrative one.) But the problem, Schatz notes, is that many incarcerated people can’t afford to buy books, so the restriction profoundly cuts down on their ability to access any reading material. They’re left with the often scant selection available at the understocked prison library — or, if they’re in solitary confinement, no books at all.

Given that books are among prisoners’ most vital tools for personal development and growth, one would think that DOCCS should encourage incarcerated people to access as much free reading material as they want. But DOCCS plans to cut even more prisoners off from free books in the New Year. This month, it rolled out a new policy at three non-TV facility prisons — one it plans to extend to all state prisons by the end of 2018, including TV facilities — that designates that prisoners at the pilot prisons can only receive books from approved vendors. A DOCCS official defended the policy to In Justice Today, saying that it is meant to stem what he claims has been a recent rise in contraband, including drugs that have led to overdoses.

Many prisoners at TV facilities have filed grievances with the DOCCS regarding returned or missing packages, but these complaints often go unanswered. And there is generally little legal recourse for those behind bars, even when policies are unconstitutional, because they don’t have the money to hire a lawyer.

But some prisoners are fighting back. Jeremy Zielinski, a prisoner at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Upstate New York, recently filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the TV policy violates the constitutional rights of prisoners. An hour and half south of Montreal, Clinton is the state’s largest maximum-security prison, and has made headlines in recent years for reports of rampant and sometimes fatal staff-on-prisoner assaults and the dramatic 2015 escape of two men, one of whom was later shot by U.S. Border Patrol agents.

Zielinski’s 30-page pro se complaint chronicles his and other prisoners’ stymied attempts to receive “personal bibles, college correspondence course materials, books and magazines, an inmate’s own published writings, and privileged correspondence from the U.S. National Archives.” Zielinski notes that many approved vendors only have online catalogs that he can’t access, and that some of his requests for printed catalogs by mail have been ignored. Many of the vendors also won’t accept mail orders, making it “impossible” for him to order from them. Zielinski’s lawsuit is currently pending in federal court.

Meanwhile, prisoners in TV facilities are still out of luck when it comes to requesting free books from family, nonprofits, and religious organizations.

“We regularly get requests from inmates seeking books they can use to further their education, or improve their marketability, or learn job training skills upon reentry,” says Schatz. “Prison education and learning job skills reduces recidivism and increases the likelihood of post-release employment, so restricting inmates from accessing these materials only serves to undermine the ostensible aims of the corrections system.”

“Murder Every Day but the Spotlight on Bike Life”: Amid 343 Homicides, Baltimore Police Crack Down on Dirt Bikes

“Murder Every Day but the Spotlight on Bike Life”: Amid 343 Homicides, Baltimore Police Crack Down on Dirt Bikes

On January 5th, Baltimore Police Sergeant Wayne Jenkins entered a guilty plea in federal court on an array of charges such as racketeering, conspiracy, and robbery. Sergeant Jenkins is just one of eight indicted members of the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), a specialized unit focused on getting guns off the streets. The list of crimes Jenkins committed while purportedly protecting law and order for the people of Baltimore included drug sales, illegally stealing cash from people detained in his custody — and stealing dirt bikes. According to local activists, police officers such as Jenkins stole and sold dirt bikes over the past few years taking advantage of a much-touted crackdown on dirt bikes in Baltimore.

The decades-old tradition of illegal street biking — known as “bike life” — is aggressively targeted by police around the country, who have been using tactics against bikers that parallel the very same tactics used in the devastating loop of the drug war: arrest, confiscate, charge, repeat. Jenkins’ guilty plea verifies what the illegal street biking community has long accused cops of doing: Chasing them, terrorizing them, and even stealing their dirt bikes, all under the guise of promoting law and order.

New-Style Broken Windows Policing

Crackdowns on dirt bikes — and four-wheel All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) connected to the street riding scene — are a staple of broken windows-style policing in Baltimore, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York, where they cannot be legally operated on city streets.

In May of 2016, then-NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton staged a press conference in Brooklyn where he gleefully watched as a pair of bulldozers crushed 69 dirt bikes seized by the police. “These bikes and riders are a menace,” Bratton proclaimed. “And I would, without a doubt, say we crushed it.” The NYPD even tweeted out Bratton’s comments on its twitter account with the hashtag, #UseItAndLoseIt. And in Philadelphia, police arrested rapper Meek Mill for popping wheelies on a dirt bike in New York City; the arrest was one of several that led a judge to recently sentence him to two to four years in prison for violating his probation.

But Baltimore bikers and advocates say that they are a scapegoat for the city’s larger problems. “The confiscation of dirt bikes is anti-black and anti-poor,” explains ShaiVaughn Crawley, a local activist. Dirt bikes, brash and loud, and dirt bikers, mostly young and black, are a convenient target for P.R.-savvy police and politicians — who offer up evidence of black men committing minor noise ordinances and moving violations as evidence of a city out of control and in need of more policing.

More broadly, dirt bikers are, quite simply, a threat to the status quo. In Baltimore, a profoundly segregated city, dirt bikers offer a tangible glimpse of rebellion and freedom; their bikes blur long-established borders between neighborhoods, rich and poor, white and black. As a 2015 Gawker piece on dirt biking observed, “the bikers…have challenged [Baltimore’s] systemic separation simply by riding through it.”

Whose Safety?

When arguing that dirt biking must be punished harshly, police departments around the country attempt to connect the activity — which sits somewhere between hobby, sport, protest, and postmodern performance art — to more serious crimes. Baltimore is no exception. In July 2016, Baltimore police officially announced a Dirt Bike Violators Taskforce “to address the ongoing concerns and dangers associated with dirt bikes.” At the press conference (the one where Commissioner Davis called dirt bikers “gun toting criminals”), police showed police helicopter footage of a dirt biker they said could be seen wiping fingerprints off of ammunition and then putting the bullets into a gun.

But dirt bikers say the greatest public safety threat comes not from them but from the police. “No chase” policies in BaltimoreWashington D.C.Philadelphia, and New York should prevent police from engaging in high-speed pursuits with dirt bikes in their vehicles. But police frequently chase dirt bikes — both in cars or overhead by helicopter — leading to accidents and even deaths. In Nov. 2016, a video circulated online that showed D.C. police in an SUV chasing an ATV rider, crossing the yellow line to get next to the rider, and then pepper-spraying him. In June of 2016, a confrontation between a Philadelphia police officer and a dirt biker ended with dirt biker David Jones shot in the back and killed by Officer Ryan Pownall. Police say they stopped him for erratic driving and searched him; then he escaped, reached for his waistband, and was shot. (Philadelphia Magazine spoke to a witness who disputed this version of events.)

In 2012, two high-profile dirt bike deaths occurred in New York: Eddie Fernandez, killed when police car hit his bike and sent him into a pole; and Ronald Herrera, hit from the back by police car in an accident that also left Herrera’s passenger paralyzed.

In Nov. 2016, a video shot by a Philadelphia dirt biker shows dirt bikers wildly weaving in and out of traffic and disobeying traffic laws, but also a police SUV chasing the dirt bike; not long after the video was shot, a dirt biker ran into a cop car.

When I covered the start of the police crackdown on dirt biking for Baltimore City Paper in the summer and fall of 2015, I frequently witnessed police chasing dirt bikers and was present at the aftermath of three collisions. I also heard many stories from bikers about being bumped by cops. Bikers even described cops driving up and tasing them.

In one incident I covered, on Aug. 30, 2015, a marked law enforcement car struck a dirt biker after he allegedly stopped his bike in the street; then police arrested him, claiming the bike was stolen. Multiple eyewitnesses disputed the official account of the accident — they said the dirt biker was chased and struck by the cop car — and the police later retracted a claim that the bike was stolen. In the end the dirt biker’s stolen property charge was dropped but traffic charges remained.

The City Responds

Since the GTTF scandal, the Baltimore City Council has called attention to police corruption, and, after GTTF member Jenkins admitted to stealing dirt bikes, to the Baltimore Police’s dirt bike crackdown. Today, there will be a public meeting held by City Council for “Increased Transparency About Police-Seized Property,” and along with a discussion of guns, drugs, cash taken by cops “over the last 5 years,” it also demands a “full account” of dirt bikes seized by police.

But activists are skeptical that the City Council will meaningfully address the over-policing of anything, especially dirt bikers.

“I have zero confidence in the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations committee to properly hold BPD accountable, and the meeting will be yet another dog and pony show, something we know all too well in this city,” says Baltimore activist Crawley. “Wheelie Wayne should not have had to pay $25k in bail money. The crackdown of dirt bikes is counter-productive, facetious, predatory and a waste of time.”

Crawley is referring to one of Baltimore’s most popular dirt bikers (along with Meek Mill affiliate Chino Braxton), DaWayne Davis AKA “Wheelie Wayne,” who was arrested in Aug. 2016 and hit with 15 charges connected to manually removing serial numbers, theft and allegedly running a “chop shop.” Numerous bikes and bike parts were found in his West Baltimore home, as well as engines with serial numbers filed off, a damning detail for sure, though a hard-nosed fix if your hobby is illegal and you’re well aware that police chase young black riders — his mentees.

Dirt bikers in the city say Wayne was targeted due to his popularity (weeks before his arrest, he appeared on a since-deleted police list of “dirt bike violators”). In Sept. 2017, Wayne agreed to serve 48 hours of community service and forfeited claims to seized dirt bikes and parts.

If Wayne had it his way, dirt biking wouldn’t be underground. He has been a longtime advocate of a legal dirt bike track. He is joined by others including B-360, a Baltimore non-profit that builds on young people’s dirt bike skills and teaches them engineering through dirt bike repair. But like so many non-carceral dirt bike solutions, it remains grassroots.

“The track would take care of public safety,” activist PFK Boom, who also supports a dirt bike track in Baltimore, told me in 2015. He recommended incentives such as additional time on the track for good grades and ticketed events where residents could gather and watch dirt bikers pop wheelies.

But for now, the track remains a pipe dream; bikers haven’t succeeded in breaking ground on public tracks in other cities. (A more modest “bike life” hub, Cleveland, nearly got a public dirt-bike track off the ground — until residents said they didn’t want the track in their neighborhood.) Meanwhile, dirt bikers think that Baltimore’s focus on bikers will take away from it actually focusing on public safety, especially in high crime cities such as theirs which had a record 343 homicides in 2017.

“Murder every day,” read a popular t-shirt designed by the dirt bikers depicting a police helicopter shining a light on a biker, “But the spotlight on bike life.”

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This Deep Red State Just Ended Cash Bail

Alaska’s new comprehensive criminal justice reform law will reduce the prison population by 13% and save taxpayers $380 million.

Alaska’s Criminal Justice Reforms (Pew Charitable Trusts)

This Deep Red State Just Ended Cash Bail

Alaska’s new comprehensive criminal justice reform law will reduce the prison population by 13% and save taxpayers $380 million.

It happened with scant fanfare, but January 1st marked an important step on the path to eliminate the country’s money bail system: it all but disappeared in the state of Alaska.

The state’s reform law passed with bipartisan majorities and was signed into law back in July 2016, but it has now finally taken effect. Before New Year’s Day, the vast majority of people arrested in Alaska had to post bail, usually an amount in the thousands of dollars, in order to be released ahead of their trials. As a result, people without resources overwhelmingly ended up behind bars. Those with money walked free.

With the dawn of the New Year, the state changed over to a completely different system. Now, when someone is charged with a low-level crime, he need not scrape together cash or secure a bail bond to get out of jail. Instead, the state’s newly created Pretrial Enforcement Division, housed in the Department of Corrections, will generate a risk assessment for him using a point system that is meant to determine whether he will be likely to show up to subsequent court appearances and unlikely to commit crimes while released. The assessment produces a “risk score,” using an algorithm created by an institute in Boston based on how frequently he’s failed to appear in court previously, the number of prior arrests or convictions, how many times he has been jailed and/or on probation, the crime he was arrested for, and the age of his first arrest.

Judges then review defendants’ risk scores. The law requires pretrial officers to make certain recommendations to judges based on a defendant’s charge and score, although prosecutors and defense attorneys can still argue for harsher or lighter restrictions on release, such as requiring drug tests or electronic monitoring. But secured bail bonds can only be set for those charged with violent offenses and with high scores. The law requires courts to release on recognizance those charged with nonviolent misdemeanors and class C felonies with low scores, and there is a presumption of release for everyone who falls in between.

Defendants who are released will then be monitored by pretrial service officers. “More people will be out, but more people will have supervision,” Nancy Meade, general counsel of the Alaska Court System, told Juneau Empire.

Risk assessment tools have been implemented in a number of jurisdictions that have reformed bail, such as Kentucky and New Jersey. While advocates generally favor their use over bail, many express serious reservations about the tools. For example, people fear the tools can be discriminatory because they rely on past criminal history — which itself is already skewed, given how much more likely people of color are to be stopped by police and arrested in the first place. Casey Reynolds, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, told the Fairbanks Daily News Miner that his organization supports replacing cash bail with the new point system because bail “puts people’s rights in a situation where it’s predicated on how much money you have.” But, he added, they will monitor to make sure that the new system is effectively administered. “We, like a lot of other people, have questions about how the new methodology is going to work and how it’s going to play out in practice, and we are watching it closely, but it’s probably going to take six months to see exactly how it’s working.”

Alaska’s decision to end the reliance on money bail came at a time of widespread concern in the state about its skyrocketing incarcerated population and the subsequent costs. Between 2005 and 2014, the state’s jail and prison population increased 27 percent, nearly three times faster than overall population growth. The prison population’s growth was directly related to the widespread use of bail, according to research by the PEW Charitable Trust. In the same time period, the pretrial incarcerated population — people waiting in jail for court hearings after their arrests — increased 81 percent. In a study of five courts across the state, the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission and PEW Charitable Trust found that money bond was required in two-thirds of cases, with about 40 percent of bonds set at $2,500 or more. When high bail bonds were set, defendants were less likely to walk free and ended up spending longer durations behind bars than those with smaller amounts.

Meanwhile, the state’s correctional budget grew 60 percent over the same time period. It had to go so far as to open a new correctional center in 2012 that cost $240 million. Without any changes in state policies, the population of incarcerated people was set to grow another 27 percent by 2024, adding $169 million in costs. The growth would have required the state to reopen a closed facility and possibly build a new one.

With the new reforms in place, PEW estimates that the number of inmates will decrease by 13 percent and that the state will save $380 million. The state plans to reinvest $98 million of that total over six years in crime victim services, pretrial services and supervision, re-entry support, substance abuse and mental health treatment in both prison and communities, and violence prevention.

The new law that took effect at the beginning of the month didn’t just do away with bail; it also included other significant reforms. Law enforcement officers are now given greater latitude to issue citations for a number of low-level offenses with a summons to appear in court, rather than arresting people, thus diverting more people from jail in the first place. Defendants will now wait for shorter periods of time before their first court appearance; now they must appear before the court within 24 hours of arrest unless there are compelling reasons to delay it. And it prohibits the use of third-party supervision when defendants are released if pretrial services are available, while mandating that courts send defendants reminders at least 48 hours before required appearances.

Many — including those who might not be natural advocates of criminal justice reform — believe that both safety and fairness will be better served in the new regime. “Reducing our state prison population is vital to making conditions inside the facilities safer, both for prison inmates and correctional officers,” Department of Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams said when the bill was signed. It “will reduce unnecessary pretrial detention and also strengthen alternatives to prison for those convicted of nonviolent offenses.”

“This was an enormous achievement that will reduce recidivism, hold offenders accountable, and get the most public safety out of each dollar spent on our criminal justice system,” said Republican Senator John Coghill, a sponsor of the original law.

Alaska itself, a deeply red state, may not seem like a likely candidate for leading the charge on bail reform. But the issue has attracted supporters from disparate political stances. New Jersey’s Republican governor helped champion a law that ended bail in the state. Kentucky was an early adopter, directing judges to release all low-risk defendants beginning in 2011. Meanwhile, some deep blue states, such as California and New York, are still working toward reform.

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