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When will Governor Cuomo act to end racism in his corrections department?


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: When will Governor Cuomo act to end racism in his corrections department?

  • Public defenders say New York’s new policy to reduce marijuana arrests doesn’t go far enough

  • Day 1 of murder trial for officer who killed Laquan McDonald

  • Boys spend months in solitary confinement at a Montana youth prison

  • Memphis police department resists recording interrogations

  • Drug prosecutions keep Texas prisons full

In the Spotlight

When will Governor Cuomo act to end racism in his corrections department?

In 2016, the New York Times published an investigation finding that “racial disparities were embedded in the prison experience in New York.” Black people in prison reported slurs, racist language, and violent threats from overwhelmingly white corrections staff. The racism also took measurable forms. In a prison system where Black people are severely overrepresented after front-end disparities in arrests, conviction, and sentencing, they are then disproportionately subject to internal prison discipline, namely solitary confinement, and far less likely to be released on parole. [Michael Schwartz, Michael Winerip, and Robert Gebeloff / New York Times]

The Times reviewed tens of thousands of disciplinary cases—write-ups alleging infractions from corrections officers which are then adjudicated by corrections staff—and found that, “[i]n most prisons, blacks and Latinos were disciplined at higher rates than whites—in some cases twice as often.” In Clinton Correctional Facility, where only one out of 998 corrections officers was Black, Black incarcerated people were nearly four times as likely as white people to be sent to solitary confinement. [Michael Schwartz, Michael Winerip, and Robert Gebeloff / New York Times]

Black people also faced diminished chances of release from prison. The Times analyzed thousands of parole decisions and found that Black and Latinx men were much less likely to be released at their first parole hearings than white men. The disparities in prison discipline contributed to this, with disciplinary records influencing release decisions. [Michael Schwartz, Michael Winerip, and Robert Gebeloff / New York Times]

The 2016 investigation powerfully presented what people in prison and those familiar with the system had known for a long time: Racism in the state’s prison system affected people’s safety and chances at freedom and there was little check on it. [Correctional Association of New York]

It also prompted an immediate response from Governor Andrew Cuomo. “Just hours after revelations of pervasive racial bias by prison guards in New York State were published last week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered a statewide inquiry,” the Times reported the next day. The details of that order prompted some skepticism—the investigation was to be conducted by the state inspector general’s office, whose staff numbers just over 100, and which had previously taken a year to look into a single prison. But Cuomo’s administration was adamant that it would take this investigation seriously. Alphonso David, Cuomo’s chief counsel, told the Times that, “As a black man, I’m not going to look the other way if the evidence shows that the corrections department is applying discipline disproportionately to black and Latino men.” [Michael Winerip and Michael Schwartz / New York Times]

With reports of racial disparities in the use of solitary across the country, it appeared that New York had the chance to take the lead to address racism in its system. Speaking about a 2016 study from the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Yale Law School, Professor Judith Resnik, one of the authors, told The Atlantic: “A question that is raised by the data and not answered by the data is: Why are people being put in, [and] how constant across—even within a jurisdiction—are the sanctions? Are you worried that the general social mechanisms that over-incarcerate people of color or that over-discipline young boys are going to be at work in prison? The answer from our data is yes, you should worry, now go and find out more.” It also appeared that for New York, as with some other states, the “significant racial imbalance” between staff and incarcerated people contributed to the disparities in punishment. [Juleyka Lantigua-Williams / The Atlantic]

Yet, “[n]early two years after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered an investigation into racial bias in New York prisons, no findings or recommendations have been released by the state inspector general,” the Times reported this month, nine days before New York’s primaries. A spokesperson for Cuomo told the paper that the corrections department was cooperating with the investigation and they expected it to be complete “in the very near future.” [Tyler Pager / New York Times]

Last week, the editorial board of the Buffalo Times voiced a widespread reaction to that tepid promise, calling two years “artificially long” and questioning the reasons for the delay. “Perhaps there are reasons it is taking so long. We hope the election calendar isn’t among them,” it said. “The Times report pierced the walls of the system to document official mistreatment…With no reason to question the report, it is plain that this is the time – perhaps the only time for years – when this systemic misuse of power can be analyzed and corrected.” [Editorial Board / Buffalo News]

The questions of timing cannot be delinked from Cuomo’s political ambitions. During her primary campaign to unseat the governor, Cynthia Nixon pledged to end solitary confinement through executive action and to support the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, legislation that would eliminate long-term solitary in New York. She also promised to expand on the “marginal improvements” to the parole process under Cuomo. Nixon’s challenge forced Cuomo to swerve left on a number of issues, including marijuana legalization and voting rights for people on parole. After his primary victory, Cuomo expanded on a favored theme, saying, “You cannot have the word progressive without progress,” and, “I am progressive, I deliver progressive results.” Now, with his primary victory secure, facing a little-known challenger in the November election, and any presidential campaign several years away, the question is whether Cuomo will turn that conviction about delivering results toward ending racism in his corrections department.

Stories From The Appeal

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez (left), community organizer Monique Waterman, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill and NYPD Chief of Patrol Rodney Harrison held a press conference in June to announce a new policy that they said would reduce unnecessary marijuana arrests.
[Drew Angerer/Getty Images]

Public Defenders Say New York’s New Policy to Reduce Marijuana Arrests Doesn’t Go Far Enough. The exceptions to the policy change could actually worsen the racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests, defense attorneys told The Appeal. [Raven Rakia]

Stories From Around the Country

Day 1 of murder trial for officer who killed Laquan McDonald: Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke’s murder trial began yesterday with opening statements and testimony from prosecution witnesses. For the first time since Laquan’s death in 2014, prosecutors said race played a role in Van Dyke’s decision to shoot him. Police officers who were on the scene with Van Dyke before he shot Laquan testified that they did not feel like their lives were in danger from the teen. One officer, who received immunity from prosecutors in exchange for her testimony, told jurors that Laquan did not attack the officers or appear aggressive. [Megan Crepeau and Stacey St. Clair / Chicago Tribune]

Boys spend months in solitary confinement at a Montana youth prison: Boys ages 10 to 17 are incarcerated at the Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility in Miles City, Montana. Disability Rights Montana said the facility routinely placed boys in isolation for 23 hours a day. One boy, identified as “John Doe,” was put in solitary confinement for 71 days straight. His grades plummeted and his mental health suffered. Staff worried that he was hallucinating and he was placed on psychiatric medication. Just last week, a committee of the Montana legislature voted down a bill that would have banned solitary confinement for young people and pregnant women. According to the Billings Gazette, “Opponents said the proposed law was too restrictive, and that solitary confinement was still a needed safety tool, even as the department works to reduce its use.” [Phoebe Tollefson / Billings Gazette]

Memphis police department resists recording interrogations: The Memphis Police Department does not record police interrogations and false confessions have come up in recent high-profile cases. In one case, a 17-year-old boy confessed to being a getaway driver in a murder after two hours of intense interrogation. He spent the next two months in jail until another teen was arrested. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia mandate audio or video recording of interrogations from start to finish and several police departments, including some in the same county as Memphis, do so voluntarily. The Memphis police have resisted the practice. When the Institute of Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis first contacted the department in July, a representative simply said that its officers rarely record interrogations. This month, a spokesperson said she hoped most bureaus would have recording capabilities by the end of the year. [Marc Perrusquia / Daily Memphian]

Drug prosecutions keep Texas prisons full: The Twitter account for the Texas criminal legal reform blog Grits for Breakfast looks at the 2017 data from the Texas Office of Court Administration, which shows that the number of misdemeanor cases statewide has “plummeted” over the last decade but the number of felony prosecutions has remained constant. The reason is the number of felony drug cases, which is higher than ever.  

Correction: In Monday’s newsletter, the “In the Spotlight” feature about media and police portrayals of Black victims of police shootings misstated the name of an attorney for Botham Jean’s family. He is Lee Merritt, not Lee Merritt Jr.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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