Rehabilitation is Central to a Prison’s Mission—Except When It Isn’t

Private programs to tutor inmates have to contend with an environment that views volunteers with suspicion. The need to maintain security seems to outweigh all other considerations—including reform, writes a long-term resident of a Washington State penitentiary.

A small army of college students is helping prisoners pass high school equivalency exams and, where the opportunity exists, to earn college degrees.

These volunteers’ ranks are regularly replenished by recruitment from 30 different universities. They march under the banner of the Petey Greene Program.

For the last decade, Petey Greene has trained (typically) undergraduate and graduate students in pedagogical approaches and, thereafter, financed the volunteers’ trips to do service in correctional facilities across the Northeast.

In Pennsylvania, Petey Greene tutors work with young students who are earning their GEDs in juvenile detention facilities.

In Maryland’s sole women’s facility, volunteers work with prisoners in a study hall environment preparing them to pursue higher learning through the Goucher Prisoner Education Partnership.

In Rhode Island, tutors have individual study sessions with prisoners who are completing college courses through the Boston University Education Program.

There are 31 other correctional facilities where members of Petey Greene can be seen. It is an amazing accomplishment—especially since any organization working within a prison environment must contend with a security apparatus that views volunteers with suspicion.

In fact, these sentiments are ubiquitous throughout the correctional system.

For instance, following a large-scale drug and weapons raid in Pennsylvania’s Graterford Correctional Institution in 1996, prison administrators claimed it was necessary to reduce “the number of volunteers entering the prison for such programs as literacy tutoring, Bible study, and gardening.” [The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Struggle to Survive: View From Behind Bars,” August 12, 1996].

More recently, after drugs were discovered in a visiting room bathroom at Washington State’s Stafford Creek Correctional Center, volunteers of the Black Prisoners Caucus were suspended from entering the facility—notwithstanding the fact that countless visitors and staff had equal access to the location where the contraband was secreted.

Unfair as it may seem, prisoners have no right to interact with members of the community. More to the point, volunteers have no right to do service within correctional facilities.

This makes me wonder how Petey Greene has managed to go about its work so freely.

My personal experience with prison officials’ abhorrence for ceding control to anyone outside of the bureaucracy and the correctional system’s hyper-focus on maintaining institutional security convinces me that Petey Greene’s success took the patience of Job and the cunning of Machiavelli.

Understand this: Prison officials are given “wide-ranging deference in the adoption and execution of policies and practices that in their judgment are needed to preserve internal order and discipline and to maintain institutional security.”

On its face, such declarations are reasonable. But in practice, this “wide-ranging deference” creates a conflict between fostering reform and maintaining institutional security. Indeed, it ultimately undermines public safety by hamstringing outside efforts to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce recidivism.

The Facts on the Ground

The Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) enables prisoners and others to submit pilot proposals to help reduce re-offending and increase success upon re-entry.

Unfortunately, though, the administrative compulsion to wield authority makes it next to impossible for non-WDOC programs to be established—let alone for them to maintain any real semblance of autonomy.

Take the Redemption Project which was created by WDOC prisoner (and my former cellmate) Anthony Powers. His vision was to develop a program that—according to the mission statement—would “repay society for the negative acts committed against it by helping to prevent others from repeating similar acts.”

Yet as the program transformed from a small group of prisoners who spoke to at-risk youth brought to Stafford Creek into a cognitive behavior therapy program for prisoners throughout the facility, Powers had to relinquish ever more independence to administrators to keep his program growing.

In the end, the Redemption Project became a fixture within WDOC. However, by then, it had transformed into nothing more than a means for prisoners to earn “good time” credit for their participation. As for Powers, prison administrators relegated him to the status of a volunteer for the very program that was his brain child.

The lesson: Compromising to get buy-in from correctional officials can be a slippery slope to ruining a program’s integrity.

The fact that a rehabilitative program is created and controlled by someone who is free does not deter official attempts at encroachment or usurpation. This truth was imparted to me as a member of the Prisoner Advisory Committee for the non-profit University Beyond Bars (UBB).

Since its inception, the UBB has devoted itself to providing opportunities for prisoners at Washington State Reformatory to pursue higher learning. Prison officials nevertheless sought to impose WDOC’s policy of prioritizing prisoners based upon their release dates, deportation and citizenship status, and their likelihood of reoffending.

To the UBB’s credit, the group’s director balked at erecting such a barrier to entry. To her dismay, prison officials then balked—for six years—before finally allowing her to bring donated computers into the facility for utilization by UBB students.

The lesson: When independent programs refuse to acquiesce to correctional prerogatives, there will be consequences.

Keeping the Faith

With these lessons in mind, let me return to the improbable success of Petey Greene. Based on its Program Viewbook the organization appears to have somehow avoided such trials and tribulations. Is it possible that the eight states and 34 prisons where the Petey Greene Program operates are outliers within my construct of the correctional system?

I highly doubt it.

The reality is that Petey Greene has long been plagued by its inability to collect the data that is necessary for receiving grants—difficulties that are due, in large part, to a lack of cooperation by correctional officials.

Were rehabilitation the paramount goal of corrections, prison officials would be falling all over themselves to ensure that Petey Greene was successful in enlarging the amount and type of data it collects about its programming.

Yet at the end of the day, the Supreme Court notes that “central to all other correctional goals is the institutional consideration of internal security within corrections facilities themselves.”

Sadly, assisting a non-profit collect the data required to establish that it is an evidence-based program is not a correctional priority—even if that very program furthers the penological interest in protecting the public from future harm.

Therefore, it remains to be seen if the patience of Job and cunning of Machiavelli that Petey Greene has exhibited thus far will enable the organization to meet its larger objective of measuring the program’s impact on recidivism rates.

I wish the organization the best.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Jeremiah Bourgeois

But to those running Petey Greene, I urge you to heed this warning:

Compromising and being conciliatory to prison officials to keep a program growing can undermine its mission and destroy its integrity. Yet, remaining steadfast to one’s principles can likewise lead to frustration and grief.

So, you better tread carefully.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he has been serving a life sentence since the age of 14. He welcomes comments from readers.


Why Meek Mill is Not Alone

The recent sentencing of the Philadelphia rap artist over a probation violation underlines why America’s system of community supervision needs to change, argue two prominent justice reformers.

 The recent sentencing of Philadelphia rap artist Meek Mill to two-to-four years in a Pennsylvania prison for a probation violation that occurred 11 years after his original offense should cause policymakers and advocates alike to reexamine what “mass supervision” tools such as probation and parole do to exacerbate the problem of mass incarceration in America.

The answer is: plenty.

That’s why we signed a statement in August calling for the end of mass probation and parole supervision in America.

Glen Martin

Glenn E. Martin

The truth is that Meek Mill’s story is the rule, not the exception.

He will be locked up and become another statistic in America’s massive prison and jail system —but not because he was tried, convicted and sentenced for a crime. He will be put in a cage because he violated a condition of probation, a sentencing measure that’s often seen as a gift of compassion and the opportunity for a second chance.

That misguided view helps explain why almost five million people are on probation and parole in America today, up more than three-fold since 1980. There are more than twice as many people under community corrections supervision in America as are incarcerated.

An appalling one out of every 53 adults in America is under parole or probation supervision. As with every other area of our criminal justice system, the racial disparities are alarming. One in four young black males is under correctional control in the U.S. Most of them are on probation and parole.

These individuals suffer a partial loss of liberty due to being under government supervision. They are at risk of greater loss of liberty due to potential violations, many of which are innocuous and could be cured with measures that fall far short of incarceration.

The average person carries 15 conditions as part of their probation. A violation of any of them, like missing an appointment, failing a drug test, associating with another person with a felony conviction, or failing to pay a fine, can and often does result in incarceration. Because of this, probation and parole—founded as alternatives to incarceration—have become punitive systems that actually drive incarceration.

Vincent Schiraldi

Vincent Schiraldi

The result? Almost half of all the entrants into prison last year were incarcerated for a probation or parole violation.

It might come as a surprise to some, but our call for ending mass supervision is now mainstream thought among the very people who run America’s community corrections agencies.

The statement we signed in August calls community corrections “a significant contributor to mass incarceration.” Its signers believe that “it is possible to both significantly reduce the footprint of probation and parole and improve outcomes and public safety.”

This is not radical thinking, as demonstrated by the fact that every major probation and parole association in America also signed the statement, along with an additional 35 current and former probation and parole administrators.

Advocates and policy makers who care about reducing incarceration need to look in the mirror on this issue. Despite what are sometimes good intentions, Meek Mill’s case demonstrates that unnecessary supervision all too often leads to unnecessary incarceration.

Yet, in our efforts to eliminate mass incarceration, far too little attention is paid to mass supervision. Now is the time to change that.

Glenn E. Martin is the founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA, a national, member-driven advocacy organization that seeks to cut the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030 through empowering people who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system to drive criminal justice reform.

Vincent N. Schiraldi , is a senior research scientist and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Justice Lab, previously served as a Senior Adviser to the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Probation, and Director of the District of Columbia’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. They welcome readers’ comments.


Prison Story: When ‘Extraction Squad’ Comes for You

An inmate at Pelican Bay State prison in California recounts being shackled, beaten with nightsticks and Tasered because he neglected to hand over a pack of coffee. The humiliation, he writes in an essay for The Beat Within prison writers’ workshop, was nearly as awful as the pain.

As I stared up at the ceiling of my cell, my body still aching from the brutal beating I received the day before, unable to move more than the few inches or even scratch the unrelenting itch t at the tip of my nose, due to being chained to a concrete slab, completely naked in five-point restraints, my mind drifted off to the events that led up to this particular brand of humiliation.

It was a Tuesday morning and breakfast was close by. I could hear the squeaking wheels from the food cart echoing outside the pod door. I had been up since 4 am, a normal routine ever since arriving to the Security Housing Unit (SHU) in Pelican Bay, and as I drank my lukewarm coffee out of a milk carton, I watched a few minutes of the morning news.

North Korea was at it again and George W. Bush was sounding more and more like John Wayne. Once the coffee had kicked in, I jumped right into my daily workout routine of 500 ten-count burpees straight, trying desperately to leave as many negative thoughts and emotions as I possibly could in that puddle of sweat on my cell floor—while at the same time preparing myself for the everyday possibility of the wrong cell door being popped open, intentional or accidental, and the term “survival of the fittest” becoming way too real.

Imagine how it feels to know at some point your cell door was going to be popped open and you would be forced to fight another prisoner sometimes two, usually with weapons, in a gladiator style fight for your life, while the guards sit in gun booths, watching and wagering money on which prisoner would win.

Having to live each and every day on the edge of chaos and insanity, forcing you to work out as if your life depended on it.

Because at some point it definitely will.

Once I finished exercising, I took a bird bath using a milk carton as a shower head, then cleaned my cell and prepared myself for breakfast, as I watched more of the morning news.

Then the pod door opened and the food cart rolled. The guard yelled, “Show time! Bright lights on!” as he carried the trays to each cell, passing them through the slot on each cell door. Once the last tray is passed out, you officially have five minutes to eat before the guards are back to collect the trays, whether you’re finished eating or not.

On each tray there’s a single serving pack of coffee that must be turned in with your tray, whether you decide to drink the coffee or not. The reason for this, according to prison officials, is because the packs are lined with aluminum in order to keep the coffee fresh.

For security reasons prisoners are not allowed to keep the packs in their cells. In fact, they aren’t allowed to have anything in its original packaging. Everything has to be placed in paper bags and paper cups. All of this is done in the name of institutional security, but unfortunately, I forgot to turn in the coffee pack with my tray.

It was an honest mistake on my part, but apparently the guard didn’t think so.

Rather than just asking me for the coffee pack, he chose instead to threaten me, calling me names and telling me how he was going to make me wish that I wasn’t alive if I didn’t hand over the coffee pack.

He was taking things far beyond the normal everyday humiliation that comes with just being in the SHU, talking to me in such a way that I could no longer swallow my pride. How many times can you swallow your pride before you run out of pride to swallow?

I told the guard that if he really felt that way, then why not just open the door and come and get it himself. But, of course, he didn’t. They never do, choosing instead to summon the Extraction Squad and have me “cell extracted,” or better yet, forcibly removed from my cell.

pelican bay

Aerial Shot of Pelican Bay prison. Photo by Jelson25 via Wikipedia.

About 20 minutes later, I heard the Extraction Squad approaching, marching into the pod in paramilitary style formation, each of them wearing crash helmets, face and body shields, and carrying night sticks, Tasers and 37 mm block guns. Without saying a word, they popped open the tray slot on my cell door and shot me on the top of my forehead at point blank range with the block gun, while at the same time shooting me with the Taser gun.

Prongs were embedded in my chest with volts of electricity so intense that my body locked up, to the point that not even my mouth could move causing me to black out, and when I regained consciousness I was hog tied. I was handcuffed behind my back, legs shackled together, and a chain running from my hands to my feet, forcing my hands and feet to meet and separating my shoulder in the process.

It was causing pain so excruciating that I blacked out once again, regaining consciousness as I was being dragged down a flight of stairs, head bouncing up and down off each step like a basketball being dribbled.

As they dragged me through a corridor before ramming my head into a door frame and knocking me out cold and then being Tasered awake by 50.000 volts of prongs. I was then wheeled naked to what’s known as VCU (The Violence Control Unit), which is like a prison within a prison within a prison, before finally being moved to the infamous “Butt Naked Cells,” a kind of torture chamber used for prisoners who dared to think they had any rights that Pelican Bay was bound to respect.

It was here that I was chained naked to a bed in what’s known as five-point restraints: both hands, both feet, and a chain across my neck. There wasn’t much else in the cell. No mattress, no bedding, no clothing.

Nothing whatsoever to shield me from the humiliation that comes with being chained up this way.

I was stripped of all my clothing and my dignity, all over a single serving pack of coffee.

As I lay there, staring up at the ceiling, trying desperately to take my mind off the growing need to use the bathroom, there was a toilet right next to me, but I was unable to move more than a few inches due to the restraints.

So, it might as well have been in another country. As I began to come to terms with the fact that it was only a matter of time before I would be forced to use the bathroom on myself, these feelings of shame and humiliation began to sweep over me.

It was then that I realized just how painful one’s pride can be.

“Jesse J” is an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison in California, the state’s only “supermax” penal institution, located in Del Norte County. The Crime Report is grateful to the San Francisco-based prison writers’ and artists’ workshop operated by The Beat Within for permission to publish his essay. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Public Safety Summit Draws Officials From 50 States

Pennsylvania corrections chief John Wetzel launched the two-day Washington meeting with an appeal to legislators, corrections administrators, police chiefs and health officials to work together on evidence-based solutions. Another speaker said the White House would back unspecified reforms.

To many Americans, “criminal justice reform” means addressing two prominent challenges: reining in abusive police officers or cutting prison populations.

This week, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Association of State Correctional Administrators brought teams from all 50 states to Washington, D.C., to underline the fact that reform means much more than that.


John E. Wetzel. Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

In opening remarks Monday to the two-day “50-State Summit on Public Safety,” Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel called on fellow justice officials to abandon the “stovepipe approach” of handling issues in isolated silos of the justice system and seek cooperation with experts in other areas.

Wetzel’s remarks set the tone for the meeting, which was aimed at presenting officials in each state with a detailed analysis of their crime issues, including trends in arrests, recidivism and “behavioral health,” and help them come up with evidence-based solutions.

Summit attendees include all state prison directors, 41 state legislators, 35 state behavioral health directors, 15 police chiefs, and 12 sheriffs.

A major theme that surfaced early in the session is that issues often labelled as “criminal justice” problems, such as mental illness and addiction, can be handled just as well by public health authorities.

“Mental health needs are overwhelming the criminal justice system,” warned Fred Osher of the state government group, who presided over a panel on “Growing Crises.”

“Crime in the U.S. often is described only in terms of national trends, while in reality, the problem differs greatly among states and localities. For example, the violent crime rate nationally is much lower than it was in the 1990s, but 18 states have reported rising violence totals in recent years.”

A panel of three police chiefs, Renee Hall of Dallas, J. Thomas Manger of Montgomery County, Md., and Anthony Campbell of New Haven, Ct., discussed a range of approaches being tried in their areas, including more police involvement with schools, and programs to help chronic criminals get jobs.

Hall said police “are not social workers,” but they still believe in forging partnerships with businesses and outside the justice system to help reduce repeat criminality.

In fact, recidivism is another major topic of discussion at the summit, particularly trying to reduce repeated crime among people on probation, a topic not often discussed at such conferences.

Critics often point to the U.S. prison and jail population that tops 2 million, but it’s often overlooked that more than twice as many are on probation or parole.

Repeat crime among those released from prison is 40 percent or more in many states, depending on how it’s measured. The fact that more than 4.6 million people were on probation or parole as of 2015 means that even the lower repeat-crime rate among those convicts mean many more total “recidivism events” by probationers every year, said the Council of State Governments’ Andy Barbee.

Criminologist Edward Latessa of the University of Cincinnati told the conference that too many probation and parole officers act like “referees” whose main job is to determine whether probationers and parolees have violated rules and should be sent back to custody.

Instead, he argued, they should be trained more as “coaches” to take active steps that would prevent those on their caseloads from reoffending.

Bryan Collier, criminal justice director in Texas, and Kathy Waters, probation director for the Arizona Supreme Court, described how their states have used variations on that approach to reduce the totals of people whose probation and parole has been revoked in recent years. Such offenders have accounted for a large percentage of new prison admittees in many states.

The conference heard about a new “Face to Face” program sponsored by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in which public officials are encouraged to meet directly with convicts to hear about their challenges in getting job training or education behind bars.

Attendees were shown a video of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds visiting prisons. The effort is a bipartisan one. Participants so far include Reynolds, a Republican, along with Republican governors of Georgia, Missouri, and Nevada, and Democratic governors in Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Montana, and North Carolina.

One governor who has criminal justice reform high on the agenda is Republican Matt Bevin of Kentucky, a businessman who made a featured appearance at the summit on Monday.

Bevin has backed reforms including easier expungement of some criminal records by former inmates and “banning the box” to bar state officials from asking applicants about their criminal pasts.

He also has started pilot programs in seven adult and juvenile corrections facilities to improve job training for inmates, and is working to remove prohibitions on former convicts’ obtaining state licenses for many occupations.

Bevin took part in a recent White House meeting with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, to discuss potential justice reforms on the federal level.

The governor said he came away “very confident” that the White House will back reform measures, although he didn’t specify which ones.

Bevin said he was not confident that Congress would agree, although he praised several Republicans, including his state’s Sen. Rand Paul, for joining the reform movement.

After the summit, the U.S. Justice Department will offer “technical assistance” to as many as 25 states to pursue reform measures.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center will issue a report in January with its detailed state crime and justice findings.

The summit is being funded by DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Tow Foundation.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Clayton Lockett: When the Death Penalty is Not Enough

     On June 3, 1999, in Perry, Oklahoma, 23-year-old Clayton Lockett, a violent criminal, accompanied by a pair of crime associates, invaded a home and severely beat the occupant. While Lockett was assaulting 23-year-old Bobby Lee Bornt…

     On June 3, 1999, in Perry, Oklahoma, 23-year-old Clayton Lockett, a violent criminal, accompanied by a pair of crime associates, invaded a home and severely beat the occupant. While Lockett was assaulting 23-year-old Bobby Lee Bornt over a debt, a girl just out of high school knocked on Bornt's front door. Lockett appeared in the doorway and pulled  the girl into the house.

     After hitting the stunned visitor in the face with a shotgun, Lockett put the gun to her head and ordered her to invite her 18-year-old friend, Stephanie Neiman, into the duplex. Neiman had graduated from Perry High School less than a month earlier. She had been a good student, and played in the band.

     The nightmare for these girls began with Lockett and his accomplices raping Nieman's friend and beating her with the shotgun. After the rape and beatings, Lockett bound the girls with duct tape and drove them and Bornt, in Neiman's pickup truck, to a remote area a few miles away. En route, he informed his captives that he planned to kill all three of them and bury their bodies in the woods. The terrified girls begged for their lives.

     At the designated spot, Lockett made the rape victim dig a grave. When the hole was big enough, Lockett told Neiman to get into the grave. He pointed his shotgun at her and pulled the trigger. The weapon jammed. Lockett walked away, cleared the gun, and returned to the site where he shot and wounded Neiman. He forced the other girl to bury Stephanie Neiman alive. The 18-year-old was murdered because she had refused to promise Lockett that she wouldn't report the rape and kidnapping to the police.

     Lockett and his degenerate friends drove the rape victim and Bornt back to the duplex. Lockett threatened to kill his traumatized victims if they went to the police.

     As it turned out, one of the accomplices notified the authorities in the hopes of saving his own neck. A local prosecutor charged Clayton Lockett with first-degree murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, assault and battery, and burglary. Upon his arrest, the cold-blooded rapist and sadistic killer confessed to shooting the girl and having her buried alive.

     In 2000, a jury found Lockett guilty as charged, and sentenced him to death. He ended up on death row at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

     After fourteen years of legal appeals, and a last minute stay, Governor Mary Fallin ordered Lockett's execution to take place on April 29, 2014. That evening, an hour before his scheduled death, Lockett fought with prison officers and had to be tasered before being strapped onto the gurney. The executioner, after struggling to find a vein, administered the three-drug cocktail--midazalam to render Lockett unconscious, vecuronium to stop his breathing, and potassium chloride--to stop his heart.

     Seven minutes after the drugs were put into Lockett's body, he was still conscious. Ten minutes later, after being declared dead, the condemned man moved his head and tried to climb off the gurney. He was also heard muttering the word, "man." At this point, a corrections official lowered the blind to spare witnesses the sight of a slower than planned execution.

     Forty-three minutes after the executioner injected Lockett with the three drugs, he died of a heart attack. The potassium chloride had done its job, albeit a bit slowly.

     As could be expected, death house lawyers, anti-capital punishment activists, and hand-wringing media types agonized over Lockett's imperfect execution. These death row sob-sisters characterized his death as torture, an ordeal, and a nightmare, and called for the abolishment of the death penalty.

     Where were these outrage mongers when Lockett shot Stephanie Neiman and buried her alive? In this case, who in their right mind would shed a tear for such a cruel, cold-blooded killer? So what if Mr. Lockett didn't pass gently and quickly into the night? A lot of people die slow, agonizing deaths, citizens who never committed rape or murder. Clayton Lockett is gone, and the world is a better place without him. His memory will be kept alive, however, by those who will use his "botched" execution to advance their cause. For the rest of us, that's cruel and unusual punishment.

     Since 1976, not counting Clayton Lockett, 1,203 inmates have been executed by lethal injection in the United States. Over the years, state corrections officials have done their best to find more humane ways to put condemned criminals to death. In the 19th and 20th centuries, death row inmates were hanged, electrocuted, suffocated in gas chambers, and shot. Hanging is still an option in New Hampshire and Washington. In Arizona, Missouri, and Wyoming, the gas chamber remains a death penalty choice.

     Many correction experts believe the firing squad is the quickest and least painful way to execute a convict. In 1977, the firing squad was used to execute Gary Gilmore who asked to be so dispatched.


GPS and Social Media Surveillance-Best Hope for Corrections?

Observations Electronic monitoring data on reductions of technical violations and returns to prison indicate the possibility of a more effective and humane way to supervise high-risk offenders. But the only effective way for that to happen is to staff a real-time, 24-365 operation where there are experts to evaluate the data points and to come […]

Observations Electronic monitoring data on reductions of technical violations and returns to prison indicate the possibility of a more effective and humane way to supervise high-risk offenders. But the only effective way for that to happen is to staff a real-time, 24-365 operation where there are experts to evaluate the data points and to come […]


Three Percent of Americans Have Been To Prison- Eight Percent Have Felonies

  Author Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. Article Three […]

  Author Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. Article Three […]


When Inmates Sue, Are They on a Level Playing Field?

A Louisiana newspaper investigation finds a significant number of prisoner lawsuits alleging inhumane conditions in a facility that says it is committed to rehabilitation. Finding the truth is complicated by the fact that U.S. inmates get little professional legal help to press their case, say advocates.

The neatly landscaped grounds of the David Wade Corrections Center near Homer, La., contain ornamental gardens and even a koi pond.

In a state which has been notorious for its high rate of incarceration, and for allegations of systematic prisoner abuse, the warden and staff at David Wade, a  facility that holds over 1,200 inmates, say they are committed to rehabilitation.

Although many prisoners are serving sentences of decades to life, they can participate in vocational education classes and faith-based workshops.

David Wade Correctional Center. Photo by Henrietta Wildsmith/Shreveport Times

A mental health department with five qualified professionals provides comprehensive evaluation, individual counseling, psychiatric consultation, and group therapy.

But a Shreveport Times  investigation, prodded by the escape of an inmate last summer, found the prison’s placid outward appearance hides a rate of prisoner lawsuits “significantly higher” than for other similarly sized institutions in the state.

More than 200 lawsuits have been filed by inmates at the sprawling prison since it opened in 1980—with more than half filed in the past five years, including 53 alleging “civil rights violations.”

Multiple suits cited specific problems about conditions in the facility’s extended disciplinary lockdown units, including a lack of mental health services, unnecessary use of chemical agents, overcrowding by double-bunking inmates and roach infestations.

One lawsuit alleged that inmates with disabilities were forced to bark like dogs for food.

However, most of the suits were dismissed.

Ken Pastorick, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Corrections, said the number of lawsuits at David Wade is not unusual, “based on the type of individuals housed there.”

“In general, it’s not unusual for any correctional facility in the United States to be sued by an inmate,” Pastorick said in an emailed statement to the newspaper.

Corrections officials argue that most such suits are “frivolous,” but advocates aren’t so sure.

Patricia Gilley, a lawyer with the Shreveport, La.-based firm Gilley & Gilley, agreed that “frivolous” lawsuits are often the result of inmates who “have nothing else to do.”

But Gilley, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of an inmate alleging brutality at the David Wade Correctional Center 15 years ago that was ultimately dismissed, also said the criminal justice system is difficult for inmates to navigate.

“The system is totally stacked against them, particularly against a person who is disenfranchised or a minority,” Gilley said. “It ends when they are sentenced. Then all they have is the jailhouse lawyer and their own wits.”

“A Tightly Run Ship”

Staff and inmates offer starkly different accounts of what goes on behind the imposing gray walls and barbed-wire fencing of the 1,500-acre facility.

Louisiana prison officials say it’s a “tightly run ship.”

Founded in 1980, the David Wade Correctional Center has grown from an original capacity of 650 minimum- to medium-custody offenders to a current operational capacity of 1,244 offenders — almost half of whom are considered “maximum custody offenders,” according to the Louisiana Department of Corrections.

Warden Jerry Goodwin, a tall man with steel-gray hair and a penchant for plaid suits, gave the Times a tour of the facility earlier this year — past courtyards in bloom, a pond filled with orange and white koi, a chapel with stained-glass windows, and a low-security dorm where several inmates played cards.

The prison received accreditation from the American Correctional Association’s Commission on Accreditation in 1992, the first state-operated facility to do so. Its accreditation has been renewed every three years since, according to the Louisiana Department of Corrections.

In his statement to The Times, Pastorick wrote that new correctional officers at the prison undergo orientation training and existing staff receive annual in-service training that includes “mental health programs, recognizing suicide risk and suicide precautions.”

Pastorick said the escape of an inmate, which resulted in the death of an assistant warden’s teenage step-daughter, was an anomaly—the first escape from the facility since 2003.

The issues raised in (the) lawsuits, Pastorick said, are unfounded. The prison has specific policies to minimize situations requiring use of force and maximize safety of inmates, facility staff and the general public, he said.

But the Times’ litigation search found at least two settlements involving the facility in the past five years.

Nevertheless, the correctional center also is trailed by litigation alleging abuse of prisoners and multiple other civil rights violations.

According to Pastorick, the number of lawsuits filed for David Wade is comparable, per capita, to the number involving the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, which is another facility he said that houses the “same type of inmates, with a large number serving life sentences.”

The Louisiana State Penitentiary had 1,772 lawsuits since 1980.

“We would estimate the majority of lawsuits are frivolous,” Pastorick said, using an adjective used in the court system to generally mean a lawsuit that has no legal merit.

“We estimate a very small percentage result in an award of damages against the Department.”

Inside David Wade Correctional Center. Photo by Patricia Highsmith/Shreveport Times

On July 20, the Advocacy Center, a New Orleans-based non-profit that advocates for people with disabilities, filed a federal lawsuit against state prison officials concerning David Wade Correctional Center, one week before the prison escape that resulted in the death of an assistant warden’s step-daughter and the escapee.

The center’s lawsuit alleged David Wade staff had slapped, punched, kicked and sprayed disabled inmates with bleach, and forced prisoners to bark like dogs to be fed.

It also alleged that prison staff had interfered with Advocacy Center investigators who had sought access to the prison and its inmates.

Advocacy Center investigators and an attorney for the MacArthur Justice Center, acting as an authorized agent for the Advocacy Center, said they had received “alarming reports of serious abuse of people with disabilities” from inmates in the prison’s lockdown units, prompting concern that disabled inmates were “being subjected to abuse and neglect.”

Among their concerns were allegations that prison staff:

  • Failed to screen inmates for mental illness and provide adequate mental health treatment.
  • Placed inmates with mental illness in extended solitary and segregated confinement.
  • Forced inmates to kneel or bend on all fours and bark like dogs to receive food.
  • Forced at least one inmate with a developmental disability to unclog toilets by hand.
  • Treated mental health complaints as disciplinary infractions.
  • Sprayed prisoners with mace and bleach.
  • Confined inmates for extended periods using physical restraints, including a restraint chair.
  • Slapped, punched and kicked prisoners with both developmental disabilities and mental illnesses.
  • Verbally abused inmates, including name-calling and cursing them.

Louisiana state prisons must, as a condition of receiving federal funding, “designate a protection and advocacy system for people with disabilities,” the Advocacy Center says. Its investigators also had the right under federal law to inspect the facility and talk with inmates, the suit says.

But when the investigators arrived, Warden Goodwin informed them that “the tour of the unit would be very brief because they would not be allowed to speak to any prisoners on the tiers,” according to the lawsuit.

Investigators set dates for two separate site investigations. David Wade staff “unlawfully and intentionally interfered” with both investigations, according to court documents.

Prison staff were instructed not to answer questions and refused to allow investigators to look at a cell equipped with a surveillance camera, an empty cell in the lockdown unit and the inmate recreation yard, the Advocacy Center alleged. Investigators also noticed inmates being moved off a cell tier when they entered, including an individual they specifically wanted to interview.

Staff also impeded one-on-one follow-up interviews with inmates, “confiscated prisoner’s (sic) legal documents, blocked prisoners from bringing notes to interviews and intimidated participants in those interviews,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleged that prison staff also “took positions close enough to eavesdrop on the confidential conversations between the prisoners and counsel.”

On the second day of interviewing prisoners, Advocacy Center investigators were informed that a prisoner who had shared information with them “was disciplined for doing so,” according to the lawsuit.

The Advocacy Center and the Department of Corrections reached a settlement on August 10.

The settlement agreement, filed in U.S. District Court of the Middle District of Louisiana in Baton Rouge, did not involve cash payments, but clarified how Advocacy Center investigators could access the facility and its inmates.

Under the 23-page settlement, the Advocacy Center will have access to the prison, inmates, prisoner and prison records and staff.

The settlement also notes that investigators who wish to speak with inmates through their cell doors must do so when DWCC staff are present and that investigators’ time on cell tiers will be limited to 10 minutes “unless a longer period of time is approved.”

‘Barbaric and Inhumane Conditions’

Many of the more than 200 lawsuits since 1982 were hand-written. They usually reflected their inmate-authors’ lack of legal training. Many reflected rudimentary language skills.

But one especially coherent 44-page, handwritten lawsuit, filed in 2013, painted a different picture. The lawsuit named 21 inmates as plaintiffs, including Robert Baltimore, and 20 David Wade Correctional Center employees, often identified by position rather than by name, as defendants.

“Quite often, inmates at David Wade Correctional Center in extended lockdown are victims of unchecked or unrestrained physical abuse and sometimes sexual abuse at the hands of unprofessional and sadistic male guards,” the lawsuit alleges.

“(They are) subjected to some of the most barbaric and inhumane living conditions today in the modernized prison system.”

The lawsuit also alleged that inmates in lockdown were double bunked with “enemies”; some lockdown units lacked ventilation, fans and water fountains; drinking water was brown or orange; prison staff sprayed chemically agents excessively; mentally ill inmates were slapped and punched; and food serving areas in the units had roach infestations.

Besides the Baltimore settlement, a remaining 52 civil rights violations lawsuits filed in the last five years involving David Wade Correctional Center were dismissed by courts for a number of reasons — including that judges deemed them “frivolous.”

Examples include lawsuits filed by inmates who alleged:

  • An inmate developed a rash after allegedly being forced to shower without slippers.
  • An inmate slipped in the shower and was told by a nurse to take Tylenol and then waited “two months” to see a doctor.
  • An inmate was jumped by another inmate, allegedly planned by a  correctional officer
  • An inmate was left in his cell after asking to be put in a restraining chair while considering suicide due to “demons” in his mind

According to Patricia Gilley, lawsuits logged in the federal system often start as cases involving state convictions that inmates want overturned.

“The majority of them will involve state charges with defendants looking to say they had a crappy lawyer or no adequate council,” Gilley said.

“You have to go back to the inception of this, where they get assigned a public defender — some of whom are useless, some of whom are excellent — but who are so overworked they might have five minutes with a client.”

Katie Schwartzmann, a MacArthur Justice Center attorney involved with the Advocacy Center investigation, said “very few” lawyers will handle prison cases. She said courts must take seriously the lawsuits that inmates file themselves.

“They can be hard to read or understand, but it is very important that someone at the courthouse take the time to thoughtfully review and try to understand the claim being asserted,” Schwartzmann said. “Usually the court is a prisoner’s only avenue for protection.”

Schwartzmann said inmate cases often are dismissed for reasons that have nothing to do with the merits of the inmate’s claim.

“Meaning,” she said, “someone’s rights may well have been violated, but they are unable to win in the court system because of a procedural hurdle.”

According to the Times’ review of the lawsuits, judges dismissed inmate cases for four other main reasons: inmates asked for their cases to be dropped, sometimes because they’re frustrated at the lack of movement in their cases; inmates failed to “state a claim for which relief may be granted”; inmates failed to submit a lawsuit on an approved form; or inmates failed to pay the $350 filing fee.

This is an edited and condensed version of a story published earlier this month in the Shreveport Times. Staff writer Lex Talamo is a 2017 John Jay/Measures for Justice Reporting Fellow. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Wage Disparity Fuels High Female Pretrial Detention Rate: Report

According to a joint report released by the Prison Policy Initiative and the ACLU, 60% of women in jail have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial.

A study by the Prison Policy Initiative and the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice provides a detailed analysis of women’s incarceration in the United States, highlighting in particular the role of wage disparity in high pretrial detention rates for women.

Since 2014, the Prison Policy Initiative has quantified the number of people incarcerated in the United States, and calculated the breakdown of people held by each correctional system by offense in an annual Whole Pie: Mass Incarceration report.

Overall, there are currently 219,000 women incarcerated in the United States. Incarcerated women are nearly evenly split between state prisons and local jails – 99,000 and 96,000, respectively. State prison systems hold twice as many people as jails when looking at the total incarcerated population.

According to the report, drug and property offenses make up more than half (about 120,000) of the offenses for which women are incarcerated, and violent offenses make up about a quarter (about 54,000).

The authors also found that more than a quarter of women who are behind bars have not yet had a trial. Moreover, 60% of women in jail have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial.

Prison Policy Initiative’s Legal Director Aleks Kajstura believes that the lower income of incarcerated women, relative to incarcerated men, contributes to this data. A previous study by the Prison Policy Initiative found that women who could not make bail had an annual median income of just $11,071. Among those women, Black women had a median annual income of only $9,083 (just 20% that of a white non-incarcerated man). Bail is typically set around $10,000.

However even after conviction, about a quarter of women are held in jails, compared to about 10% of all people incarcerated with a conviction.

Kajstura adds that this figure is troubling, given that over half of all women in U.S. prisons – and 80% of women in jails – are mothers. This makes children susceptible to issues associated with parental incarceration.

A previous report from the Prison Policy Initiative also found that women in jails are more likely to suffer from mental health problems and experience serious psychological distress than either women in prisons or men in either correctional setting.

Furthermore, the “Whole Pie” of incarceration only represents 16% of the roughly 1.4 million women under correctional supervision (75% probation, 9% parole), in contrast to the general incarcerated population where about a third of those under correctional control are in prisons and jails.

According to the report, the unrealistic conditions set by probation undermine its goal of keeping people away from incarceration. Steep fees and meetings with probation officers are standard requirements of the probation system. However, women who cannot afford those fees, babysitters/daycare, or transportation often violate the conditions of probation and are returned to jail.

While more data is needed, this report addresses the policy changes needed to end mass incarceration while considering the unique factors affecting women.

The full report can be read here. This summary was prepared by TCR news intern Brian Edsall. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Justice Storytelling Project Told Milwaukee Prison is ‘Beyond Reform’

A nationwide justice storytelling project hears grim tales from former inmates of the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility, who say it should be on the list of substandard U.S. corrections institutions that need to be shuttered.

A nationwide justice “storytelling” project has set up shop in Milwaukee this month, where it heard individuals formerly incarcerated at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF), describe conditions ranging from poor ventilation and overcrowding to inadequate medical care, according to a report this week from Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.

“Incarcerating people at MSDF defies our notions of freedom and justice,” said Mark Rice, who spent six months at the facility after being arrested for disorderly conduct and is now assistant state director of Ex-Prisoners Organizing (EXPO), a group lobbying for closure of the downtown Milwaukee high-rise detention center.

“MSDF is beyond reform.”

The storytelling event was facilitated by Mass Story Lab — a Pennsylvania group working in cities around the country to present first-hand stories of justice-involved individuals and their families to dispel what it calls “misinformation about the experience of incarceration.”

Milwaukee is the ninth city to host the program, which makes clear that one of its central aims is to spotlight jails and detention facilities plagued by substandard conditions. The MSDF is among a list of targets that includes Rikers Island in New York, the country’s largest jail.

The lab says it aims to put on similar events in at least 20 cities by the end of 2018.

The Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF), located in downtown Milwaukee, allows few amenities for those incarcerated there—even books are frowned on—said former inmate Rob Schreiber.

“(When) I came out…nobody knew who I was because I had lost 60 pounds in six weeks,” he said, charging “there is no rehabilitation in the Department of Corrections in the State of Wisconsin—everything is based on fear.”

Tom Moore, head of the Close MSDF Research Committee, which is exploring alternatives to detention, said treatment programs don’t have to confine people, but can be based in the community.

Other participants suggested that resources used to operate the facility be reinvested to provide better mental health and substance abuse treatment, access to high-quality education and to help secure living-wage employment.

The MSDF, described on its website as a medium-security facility built to house 1,000 inmates, has reportedly experienced several inmate deaths since it opened in 2001.

William Harrell, a minister who was detained there in the early 2000s, claimed there were at least 17 deaths—most of them due to heat exhaustion at the facility, where temperatures have soared as high as 100 degrees.

This is an edited and abridged version of a report by Jabril Faraj of the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, a project of the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University. The full version is available here. The Crime Report is pleased to post this as part of its partnership with the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN).