SC Lawmakers Want Tour of Prison After Riot

In the aftermath of the nation’s worst prison riot in 25 years, a group of South Carolina state representatives say they have received troubling texts and images of chaotic conditions inside Lee Correctional Institution. State corrections chief Bryan Stirling has promised an independent investigation.

In the aftermath of the nation’s worst prison riot since 1993, a group of South Carolina legislators say they have received troubling graphic images and texts that raise concerns about the welfare of inmates and employees at Lee Correctional Institution.

The five lawmakers said in a letter Thursday to state corrections director Bryan Stirling that they also want to check the veracity of reports that inmates at Lee Correctional have not been getting regular meals and have not been allowed to shower since Sunday’s nearly eight-hour riot that left seven prisoners dead and 22 others injured. No guards were injured.

Rep. Justin Bamberg, one of the representatives, told The Crime Report he received communications from family members of some inmates alleging poor conditions at the prison. The prison is still on lockdown, he said, and inmates are confined to their cells.

In response to the letter, Stirling said the group of lawmakers could visit the facility. No date has been set for the visit.

The lawmakers want Stirling’s office to disclose how many showers and meals prisoners have received in the five days since the riot; whether or not they are receiving medications, including those prescribed for mental health; and whether inmates and officers who witnessed the violence are receiving counseling.

The letter requests an answer to these questions by Friday.

“In the wake of the violence, much attention has been drawn to cell phones by you and Governor [Henry] McMaster,” the letter reads, referring to the officials’ claim Monday that contraband cell phones were a driving factor of the violence.

“However, we believe there may be more pressing problems regarding the security of inmates and SCDC [South Carolina Department of Corrections] employees.”

One image Bamberg shared with The Crime Report, which he says was taken by an inmate on Thursday and texted to him directly, suggests little has been done to clean up the prison in the wake of the riot. The photograph appears to show a giant pile of garbage in the middle of the floor of a cell block, with more strewn around the hallways outside the cells.

prison riot

Photo reportedly taken Thursday, April 19, by inmate of Lee Correctional Institution; five days after a bloodbath that left seven inmates dead, and 17 more injured. Courtesy Justin Bamberg.


Bamberg says that he has continued to receive disturbing texts, images and video from inmates and their families since Sunday. During the incident, many prisoners attempted to hide in their unlocked cells, with the lights off, doing anything they could to keep from being dragged out and stabbed, he said.

One inmate apparently managed to communicate with his mother from a cell phone when the violence erupted Sunday evening. He described hiding in his cell with nine other people who took turns holding the door shut, three at a time.

At Stirling’s request, the Association of State Correctional Administrators is putting together an independent team to investigate the riot, reports the Post and Courier. The review will be led by former Texas corrections director Brad Livingston.

The incident at Lee Correctional was the deadliest outbreak of violence in prison since 1993, when over 400 prisoners rioted in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, killing nine inmates and one guard over the course of 11 days.

Victoria Mckenzie is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Executing Kelly Gissendancer

     Since only a handful of states actually execute cold-blooded murderers, death by lethal injection has become a relatively unusual event. Rarer still are the executions of women. Even in the heyday of capital punishment few women die…

     Since only a handful of states actually execute cold-blooded murderers, death by lethal injection has become a relatively unusual event. Rarer still are the executions of women. Even in the heyday of capital punishment few women died at the end of a robe or in the electric chair. While women are no less capable of unspeakable evil than men, killing a woman, at least since the dawn of the 20th century, hasn't seemed quite appropriate.

     In Georgia, where executions are still carried out, the authorities hadn't executed a woman in 70 years. That made the September 30, 2015 execution of Kelly Renee Gissendancer so newsworthy, and to many, barbaric.

     The 47-year-old death row inmate of 18 years received her lethal injection shortly after midnight soon after the U. S. Supreme Court declined to intercede on her behalf.

     In 1998, a jury found Gissendancer guilty of arranging to have her boyfriend kidnap and stab to death her husband Douglas. A jury found the hit man, Gregory Owen, guilty of kidnapping and first-degree murder. The judge sentenced Mr. Owen to life in prison. Prosecutors, with the help of Owen as a key witness, secured Gissendancer's first-degree murder conviction.

     Over the years Gissendancer's death house attorneys based their appeals for clemency on the fact she was not present when her boyfriend committed the murder on her behalf. Moreover, the defense lawyers argued that their client had found religion and had been a model prisoner. They said she felt bad about ordering the hit. Apparently the governor of the state and a majority of the Supreme Court justices, officials who could have saved her life, were unmoved by those arguments.

     Gissendancer was the 16th women executed in the United States since the U. S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. She was survived by three adult children.


Do Private Prisons Have a Future?

Beyond the ideological debates about prison privatization, privately run corrections facilities are likely to continue to be used by cash-strapped governments. In a new book, Lauren-Brooke Eisen of New York University says it’s time to explore how the private corrections industry can become a partner in reducing recidivism.

Private prisons are one of the most controversial areas of the justice system today. Although the Department of Justice made efforts to limit them during the Obama administration, the private corrections industry has regained influence under the current administration, which has proposed expanding privately run detention facilities for undocumented immigrants.

But private prisons are not new. As Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center’s Justice Program, writes in her recent book, Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration, the privatization of corrections can be traced back through American history to the convict-leasing system and slavery.

In a chat with The Crime Report’s Julia Pagnamenta, she discusses the expanding role of the private corrections industry in today’s mass incarceration system, how prison privatization in other countries such as Australia and the UK is used to incentivize reductions in recidivism rates, and whether they can be models for reform-oriented US corrections policy.

The Crime Report: You write that privatization can be traced back to the convict leasing system in the 19th century. What are the origins of privatization in American history? 

private prisons

Lauren-Brooke Eisen

LBE: [This isn’t] the first time that we have treated people who are behind bars as commodities. When slaves were emancipated, under the Jim Crow laws in the South, African Americans were jailed for things that were never crimes before. The wardens would lease the inmates to different businessmen, whether they were textile manufacturers or companies that were building railroads. We ended up almost institutionalizing slavery through these laws, which resulted in African Americans being convicted and sent to jails with whom businessmen would sign contracts to employ inmates. Businessmen would pay the state, the penitentiary, for the use of [convict] labor, and while I am in no uncertain terms analogizing that to the private prison industry today—[they are] very different situations—the common theme is that there has been profit in incarceration from the beginning.

TCR: What kinds of crimes were African Americans accused of?

LBE: In 1876, the Mississippi legislature redefined grand larceny as theft of a farm animal or any property valued at $10 or more. This would result in five years in prison. There are many, many examples of these types of laws. Convict leasing was implemented and began to thrive at about the same time. It solved the labor shortage that the Southern economy faced after the Civil War. Slaves were emancipated [but] who was going to perform labor very cheaply?

TCR: What does the government gain from pushing for the privatization of institutions that were previously under their control? 

LBE: The core idea of the Republican Party has been less government control, and the idea of privatization tends to be more popular when we have Republican administrations. That’s part of how the private industry was able to take off. These companies were founded in the “tough-on-crime” heyday; but also when the government does look to privatize it tends to be because it thinks it can save money. There’s always been this sort of ideological divide in US politics over whether the government provide these services better than companies.

Sometimes people talk about the private prison industry as if it’s an outlier. [But] governments have privatized other parts of the justice program. We have private arbitrators, private judges; even firefighting was private at one point in our history. There are more private security guards in the US than there are police officers. Privatization is as old as the founding of our government.

President Ronald Reagan created a lot of blue ribbon commissions to look at privatization and one of the commissions, the Grace Commission, suggested that the government privatize corrections. Is there a difference between privatizing garbage collection and prisons, or are they different sort of services? A lot of people say that that privatizing garbage collection may make more sense than privatizing prisons, where someone is deprived of their life and their liberty. But look at the privatization of military services. Corporations make enormous profits from hiring their own contractors, many of whom are former military people but who are now performing duties that historically were performed by the United States military. Is that a closer analogy to the private prison industry?

TCR: You refer to the fact that privatization basically became a distraction from the real issues of incarceration. The debate shifted to private prisons vs. public prisons instead of focusing on issues that were generating mass incarceration in the first place.

LBE: The early congressional hearings [in November 1985] that Congress held on the private prison industry [were] fascinating. It was really the first time that the country wrestled with the legal issues, the moral issues, the economic issues, of private prisons, and one of the themes of my book is that private prisons emerged without great debate. Law professors testified, correction officials testified, union officials testified, private prison officials testified. [But] no one really understood what the industry meant, where it was headed, what its potential was, or wasn’t.

At the time that the private prison industry really emerged, in the mid-1980s, about three-quarters of states were under some sort of federal court order to reduce the prison population in at least one of their prisons, and the private prison industry offered to build these new prisons. The director of corrections didn’t have to worry about building a new prison, and the industry said, “well we can do this cheaper than you can as well,” so it was a boon to the government.

In 2018, crime rates are much lower than they were in the 1980s and early 1990s. It’s easy for me to sit here today and say there should have been conversations about the proper role of punishment, and over incarceration. I understand that hindsight [is like] Monday morning quarterbacking, but I point to that time when there weren’t debates about the proper role of punishment. There wasn’t a great conversation about what we were doing as a nation, and why we were incarcerating so many people for so long.

I am very careful in the book to say that the private prison industry did not create mass incarceration. [But] their ability to fill these prisons quickly and efficiently let correction departments off the hook. These departments didn’t need to go to their governor and policymakers and tell them to change our laws because they are sending too many people to us.

TCR: How did the two big players in the private prison industryCoreCivic, previously known as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and the GEO Group—emerge?

LBE: In the mid-1980s, a man named Thomas Beasley, who was formerly head of the Republican Party of Tennessee, a businessman named Robert Crants, and T. Don Hutto, who at one point had been the president of the American Correctional Association, and was also the Director of Corrections in Virginia and Arkansas, got together and founded Corrections Corporation of America [now re-branded as CoreCivic]. The company was originally funded with $10 million raised primarily by the Massey Burch investment group. Which also happens to be the same group that financed Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Hospital Corporation of America. They were entrepreneurs, and they modeled their group partly on the Hospital Corporation of America; and in fact, Thomas Beasley had said that the CCA will be to jails and prisons what the Hospital Corporation of America has been to medical facilities nationwide. In 1984, Thomas Beasley appeared on the 60 Minutes program, where he called prisons a growth industry. In 1985, CCA actually attempted to take over Tennessee’s entire prison system. They were not successful.

And then [there is] Geo Group, formerly the Wackenhut Corporation. These two corporations have bought a lot of other private prison companies, as well as electronic monitoring companies and drug treatment centers over the years; today CoreCivic and GEO Group are the two largest private prison companies, and they are publicly traded on the stock exchange.

TCR: One of the issues raised by the book is whether private prisons, and prisons more generally, provide jobs and an economic boost to rural American communities

LBE: Prisons bring benefits to rural towns. They bring federal funding because the people who are in these prisons are sometimes counted as part of the population. These prisons bring jobs, correctional officer jobs. Janitor jobs. Cafeteria jobs. They bring hotels, and transportation hubs. On the flip side, there are people in these communities who don’t want prisons, and they don’t feel that it’s safe to have prisons, or they’re worried about escapes. I think it tends to be a little bit rarer, but there are some situations where they are competing with prison labor because individuals behind bars are not paid the minimum wage.

TCR: Can you elaborate on the battle between powerful correctional unions, such as the ones in California and New York, and the private prison industry? They are important political players. You write that since 1989 the union of California corrections officers made $22 million in political campaign contributions

LBE: [Corrections] unions are certainly a special interest group and a powerful one. It’s important for the reader to understand that the private prison industry is just one of a lot of special interest groups. New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo found it incredibly difficult to close prisons. He’s closed over a dozen prisons in New York, and the New York Corrections Officers Benevolent Association made it incredibly difficult because they were worried about losing jobs. When we talk about different special interest groups, different ways that we as a country are perpetuating mass incarceration, I thought it was important for the reader to understand that there is no one cause, there is no one solution. Correctional officers’ unions play an important role in protecting correctional officers, but at the same time when we talk about reducing prison populations, they can certainly make it difficult for states to reduce prison populations.

private prisonsPeople don’t often talk about correctional officers’ unions and their role in expanding the prison industrial complex. In California in the 1990s, the [California Correctional Peace Officers Association] pushed for Three Strikes legislation; they battled attempts at parole reform; and they became an incredibly powerful union.

What’s interesting about New York is that after Gov. Cuomo closed prisons, it’s my understanding that very few, if any, correctional officers actually lost jobs. People were just moved around.

TCR: You write that New York and Illinois are the only two states that have succeeded in banning private prisons.

LBE: There are no state private prisons in New York. There is a pilot [privately run] immigration detention center in the borough of Queens, but that’s federal. Gov. Cuomo has closed 13 prisons in New York. I think that New York is certainly a model to other states. We haven’t seen crimes skyrocket or get out of control after these prison closures. We’ve continued to see this great crime decline in New York with [fewer] people locked-up, and [fewer] prisons in operation.

TCR: You mention that since the 1980s, the US government has passed a number of laws that have increased punishment around illegal immigration. As a result, since the late 1990s and early 2000s, private prison industries saw immigration facilities as “ripe for privatization.” What are the ramifications of privatizing immigration facilities? 

LBE: A lot of people are simply unaware that we have essentially privatized immigration detention, about 65 percent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) immigration beds are privatized. These are places where undocumented individuals are held. They have not been in those cases convicted of breaking any criminal laws necessarily. Many of the individuals are there simply because they came into the US without authorization. A lot of them are waiting for hearings, deportation or asylum hearings.

ICE itself doesn’t provide much, if any, programming to a lot of these individuals, so the private prison industry also doesn’t provide very much programming. And again, it’s not very different from what the government is doing. The government isn’t requiring the private industry to provide this programming, because a lot of these people will be released back to their home countries; but if you walk around these immigration centers, they look and feel like prisons. People are not free to go.

TCR: After the attacks on September 11th, annual detention rates skyrocketed.

LBE: 9/11 reinvigorated the private prison industry. It certainly is not the only thing that helped the private prison industry step in, but certainly I point to it as a time in American history when people were very afraid, and so that context was important too.

TCR: One of the rationales behind private prisons is that they are cost-effective. However, you point out that there is scant evidence of this and that public and private prisons perform roughly the same.

LBE: It’s difficult to compare even one public facility to another public facility. So when we compare public facilities to private facilities, it’s very hard to find the same population, the same situation. It’s a little bit like comparing apples to oranges, but for those studies that have tried to compare the facilities, there is a mixed bag of research, but little evidence that these facilities are saving money. I think the larger point is that we shouldn’t be asking the private prisons to save money.

Incarceration should be expensive. If we as a society have decided that someone should be separated from their family and their community for significant periods of time, we should be spending money providing programming and services to those people behind bars so that they can successfully rejoin our communities. We shouldn’t be asking the private prison industry to save us money. I think that’s ludicrous.

We really need to change our mindset and say we’re going to send [fewer] people to prison, and if it’s expensive, it’s expensive because we are providing needed programming and that should be in both public and private prisons.

TCR: You quote people who’ve been incarcerated in both private and public prisons. Tell us about them.

LBE: A lot of those I spoke to were surprised that their time in private prisons was not what they thought it would be. This is anecdotal, it’s not a sample size of thousands, [but] everyone I spoke to said the idea of someone making money from [their incarceration] bothered them.

TCR: There is a debate between academics and public intellectuals around whether corrections and incarceration should be a public or private issue.

LBE: Since the 1985 congressional hearings, there’s always been a debate in this country about the delegation of authority, whether this is a proper delegation of authority. It’s still a question that a lot of people ask: What is the government’s role in punishment? Can this role be delegated? The individuals I interviewed for the book didn’t feel that this was a proper delegation of punishment. Yet there are a lot of policymakers and corrections directors who feel [private prisons] can do a better job than the government. The book doesn’t come down on one side or the other. But I ask the question: If we really care about rehabilitating people and ensuring that we reduce recidivism rates and improve the lives of those who are behind bars, and improve the safety of our communities, does it matter if these people have spent time in public facilities or private facilities?

If our end goal is public safety, should it matter if the private prison industry can do a better job? Maybe it shouldn’t matter, and that’s how I end the book, which is looking at the potential innovation of the private prison industry. Australia and New Zealand are prime examples. The governments of both countries have signed contracts with the private prison industry to pay them more money if they can reduce recidivism rates better than [the state system].

TCR: You mention in the book that there are 11 other countries in the world that use private prisons. How does the US compare to these countries?

LBE: It’s not just an American issue. There are private prisons in the U.K. and Australia and New Zealand, and I end the book with a recommendation that we change a lot of the contracts today, so that members of the public and the media have access to these private facilities. [I recommend] that we basically create performance-based contracts for these facilities, so that if I were a director of corrections I would incentivize these corporations to increase programming and reduce recidivism.

The private prison industry was created partly because of these overwhelming numbers of incarcerated people, where we didn’t have capacity to house them, but also with this idea of innovation—that they can do better than the government.I didn’t see a lot of that, but the models in Australia and New Zealand are really promising because innovation really seems to be happening there.

 TCR: What is the future of private prison corporations under the Trump presidency?

LBE: I wrote this book under the Obama administration, but it came out after Trump was elected. In the summer of 2016, the Obama administration asked the Bureau of Prisons to reduce its reliance on the private prison industry and specifically not to renew contracts with private prisons at the federal level. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed that memorandum, and asked the Bureau of Prisons to continue to rely on the private prison industry. We saw the stock prices of Geo and CoreCivic increase after [the election].

The Trump administration seems to be planning to expand the number of federal immigration centers used to house undocumented immigrants. We’ve seen some requested proposals posted on the department of Homeland Security’s website. Trump has asked in both of his recent budgets for additional funding, over $1 million, to expand its detention capacities to closer to 50,000 beds a day. Currently we’ve got capacity for closer to 30,000 beds a day. The administration, through Jared Kushner, created the Office of American Innovation, and one of the things the office is supposed to focus on is how to privatize additional government services. The rhetoric coming out of this White House conflating crime and immigrants, despite the fact that all of the research indicates that undocumented individuals actually commit very few crimes, will likely translate into more private immigration detention centers, and will benefit the private prison industry.

TCR: You write, “privatization can come to resemble an exercise in who can better pretend to be a public prison.” What did you mean by that?

LBE: I tried to be evenhanded in writing this book, and really talk about this issue from the eyes of other people. That’s why I interviewed so many different people with different roles and different stakeholders in the criminal justice system or just regular civilians. I end the book with the idea that private prisons are not going away today or tomorrow, especially under the Trump administration.

So, as long as anyone is spending a day, a week, a month, in these [private] jails, prisons, or immigration detention centers, we need to do more to innovate, to make the outcomes better. But we haven’t asked the private sector to do that. We’ve never incentivized them to outperform the government. Today’s recidivism rates [vary] from 60 percent to 80 percent depending on what state you are in. A lot of people who are leaving prison will return within three years. More than half the people released are going to return.

It’s time we ask the private sector to innovate, which is why what’s happening in Australia and New Zealand is so exciting. It’s a little unfair that we’ve asked the private prison industry to replicate what the government is doing, yet also save money. Some of these contracts are written in such a way that we haven’t allowed the private sector to innovate. Conducting this research, I really found that you have to give the private prison industry some room to innovate. The idea that we are asking them to save money makes absolutely no sense if we care about public safety.

Julia Pagnamenta

Julia Pagnamenta

As we look to the future, if we’re going to rely on private prisons at all, than we need to incentivize them to innovate. We need to incentivize them to reduce recidivism rates. We’ve always thought of them as government partners, but we’ve never asked them to do more.

See Also: Despite Problems, Private Prisons are Growing

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lauren-Brooke Eisen will discuss her book at a special seminar at John Jay College on Wednesday, April 25th at 4:30 p.m. Please find more information and sign up for the event here.

 Julia Pagnamenta is a TCR news intern and a student at John Jay College. She welcomes readers’ comments.


Brain Injuries, Mental Health, PTSD and Substance Abuse Explain Criminal Behavior

Observations You can explain dysfunctional criminal behavior by looking at the data on traumatic brain injuries, mental health, PTSD and substance abuse. Author Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. Retired. Thirty-five years of public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for […]

The post Brain Injuries, Mental Health, PTSD and Substance Abuse Explain Criminal Behavior appeared first on Crime in America.Net.

Observations You can explain dysfunctional criminal behavior by looking at the data on traumatic brain injuries, mental health, PTSD and substance abuse. Author Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. Retired. Thirty-five years of public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for […]

The post Brain Injuries, Mental Health, PTSD and Substance Abuse Explain Criminal Behavior appeared first on Crime in America.Net.


South Carolina’s Prison Riot: The Questions That Should Be Asked

After this week’s deadly prison riot at the Lee Correctional Institution, inmate deaths in the state have reached 13 so far this year—already close to last year’s count. It’s a sign that South Carolina’s vaunted justice reforms still leave much to be desired, says a local columnist. 

Seven dead bodies tend to focus the attention. But don’t count on it — not if they are dead men behind bars.

In South Carolina.  In an election year.

Seven inmates were stabbed and beaten to death and 17 injured in eight hours of nightmarish rioting at South Carolina’s largest and most violent prison Sunday night. Seven deaths are shocking, but not surprising to anyone paying close attention to what is going on inside the state’s prisons.

Even as the inmate population has declined, a product of the much-ballyhooed prison reform, violence behind the prison walls has exploded.

And Gov. Henry McMaster, facing a tough primary fight against a gaggle of Republicans each trying to out-Trump the other, was not about to sound soft on crime or criminals in the wake of the mayhem.

He declared: “It is not a surprise when we have violent events take place inside the prison—any prison in this country.”

If only inmates could vote.

The massacre at Lee Correctional, a maximum security prison in tiny Bishopville, puts South Carolina well ahead of 2017’s pace, which was the deadliest year on record. Eighteen inmates died in the state prisons last year—12 of them murdered by other inmates, six by suicide — according the state Department of Corrections.

The body count, which has risen four years in a row, is at 13 so far this year. In 2009, there were two deaths.

These are inconvenient numbers for the Legislature and the prison system. (And it took a Freedom of Information filing to extract the basic information about how many people are dying in the prisons.) That is because it detracts from the state’s preferred narrative that it is cutting the inmate population—and costs—through reform.

“South Carolina has led the nation in criminal justice reform,” state Sen. Chip Campsen, a co-author of 2010 prison reform legislation, wrote in a commentary for the Post and Courier last year. He said he was inspired to act by his faith.

The inmate count is, in fact, down 14 percent in five years, dropping the state’s incarceration rate to 19th in the nation from 11th as it has expanded alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders. But the violence has spiked, too, as the percentage of violent prisoners left behind has risen.

Consider: There were more than 250 inmate-on-inmate assaults that required taking prisoners to outside hospitals in 2016 and 2017, double the previous two years. Attacks on correctional officers also increased. Shivs are the weapon of choice.

Prison officials, as always, attributed the growing violence to contraband cell phones, which allow inmates to continue to fight over turf and money on both the inside and the outside.

Getting cell phones out would help stem the violence—in South Carolina and in prisons across the country.

But getting more correctional officers in the prisons would help even more. That costs money the Legislature is unwilling to spend. One in four jobs are vacant, leaving the gangs to fill the vacuum.

Willie McCray knows this all too well.

“Gangs run the prisons,” McCray, who qualifies as an expert, having spent four years in prison on drug charges, told me last year.

McCray was playing checkers in his dorm at Evans Correctional, a medium-security prison in Bennettsville, when he was leveled from behind by an inmate wielding a so-called “lock-in-a-sock,” which is every bit as brutal as it sounds. He suffered a ruptured eye socket, a fractured cheek bone and a concussion. He still wears special glasses and suffers from headaches and memory loss.

“There just aren’t enough guards,” said McCray, who is now out of prison. There was a single officer overseeing 60 inmates that day, and she was nowhere in sight. No one, as usual, was charged.

South Carolina’s prisons, like prisons everywhere, are also filled with the mentally ill. In 2016, the Department of Corrections settled a decade-old class-action suit that committed the state to upgrade mental health treatment. It has made progress, but has far to go to meet the court-ordered requirements. The recent spike in suicides—one 22-year-old died by swallowing paper clips—indicates there is much work to be done.

Last year, South Carolina prison violence became national news when four inmates at Kirkland Correctional in Columbia, the state capital, were strangled and beaten to death. Denver Simmons, convicted of the cold-blooded killing of a mother and her teenaged son, later said he and another prisoner killed the four to get the death penalty rather than spend a lifetime in prison.

Lee Correctional

Lee Correctional Institution. Photo courtesy South Carolina Department of Corrections

This year, it’s Lee Correctional.

With almost 1,600 inmates, Lee was the scene of inmate takeovers in 2012 and 2013. It has recorded 11 murders in the last three years and more serious assaults than any prison in the system. It had two suicides in two months last year.

Lee is located in Bishopville, a dirt-poor speck of a town best known as the home of “The Lizard Man,” an alleged seven-foot reptile monster that locals say rose up from Scape Ore Swamp. After Lizard Man’s first sighting in 1988, the town’s chamber of commerce was thrilled with the national attention. I’m betting it’s not so thrilled with the new headlines.

On Tuesday, the South Carolina House of Representatives had a moment of silence for the seven dead inmates at Lee. It was a nice gesture, but the state’s prisoners need more than gestures. It’s past time for the Legislature to launch a real investigation — independent of the corrections department — into the causes and cures for the mounting death toll.

Steve Bailey

Steve Bailey

Managing some of society’s most violent misfits, many of them mentally ill, is a thankless job. But when the state takes someone’s freedom, it also assumes the responsibility for their safety.

Even if they can’t vote.

See also: Prison Deaths Pile up in South Carolina: Does Anybody Care?

Steve Bailey, a former Boston Globe columnist, is a contributing columnist for the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. Follow him @ sjbailey1060. He welcomes readers’ comments.


The History Of Conjugal Visits

     Conjugal visits, a concept that started at the Mississippi State Penitentiary as a prisoner-control practice… [in the 1950s], will soon be over. [Prison officials]…plan to end the program on February 1, 2014, citing budgetary reasons and “the number of babies being born possibly as a result.” In Mississippi, where more than 22,000 prisoners are incarcerated–the highest rate in the nation–155 inmates participated last year…..

     In the 1970s, new prisons often included special housing for what had come to be called extended family visits. But by 1993, only 17 states allowed conjugal visits. Mississippi is one of just five that have active programs. In California and New York, they are called family visits and are designed to help keep families together in an environment that approximates home. Some research shows that they can help prisoners better integrate back into the mainstream after their release. [“Some” research? What does the other research say?]

     Visits in those states, and in Washington and New Mexico, can last 24 hours to three days. They are spent in small apartments or trailers, often with children and grandparents, largely left alone by prison guards. Visitors bring their own food and sometimes have a barbecue.

     In New York, about 8,000 family visits were arranged last year, a figure that corrections officials say has declined. Of those, 48 percent were with spouses. The rest were with family members such as children or parents.

Kim Severson, “As Conjugal Visits Fade, A Lifeline to Inmates’ Spouses is Lost,” The New York Times, January 12, 2014 

     Conjugal visits, a concept that started at the Mississippi State Penitentiary as a prisoner-control practice... [in the 1950s], will soon be over. [Prison officials]…plan to end the program on February 1, 2014, citing budgetary reasons and "the number of babies being born possibly as a result." In Mississippi, where more than 22,000 prisoners are incarcerated--the highest rate in the nation--155 inmates participated last year…..

     In the 1970s, new prisons often included special housing for what had come to be called extended family visits. But by 1993, only 17 states allowed conjugal visits. Mississippi is one of just five that have active programs. In California and New York, they are called family visits and are designed to help keep families together in an environment that approximates home. Some research shows that they can help prisoners better integrate back into the mainstream after their release. ["Some" research? What does the other research say?]

     Visits in those states, and in Washington and New Mexico, can last 24 hours to three days. They are spent in small apartments or trailers, often with children and grandparents, largely left alone by prison guards. Visitors bring their own food and sometimes have a barbecue.

     In New York, about 8,000 family visits were arranged last year, a figure that corrections officials say has declined. Of those, 48 percent were with spouses. The rest were with family members such as children or parents.

Kim Severson, "As Conjugal Visits Fade, A Lifeline to Inmates' Spouses is Lost," The New York Times, January 12, 2014 


Why Jail is No Place for the Mentally Troubled

For lack of alternatives, thousands of mentally ill individuals are trapped in the justice system. In a conversation with TCR, Alisa Roth, author of “Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness,” says change will only happen when we reexamine our attitudes towards mental illness.

In her career as a journalist, Alisa Roth has written about people in what she calls “forgotten communities,” such as immigrants and the poor. But when she began focusing on the mentally ill trapped in the U.S. justice system, after a friend’s brother was locked up, Roth discovered what she came to realize was the most forgotten community of all.

“I can’t think of a group that’s more reviled and more misunderstood,” she told TCR. In a discussion with staff writer Isidoro Rodriguez about her new book, “Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness,” Roth, a former Soros Justice Fellow, describes how jails and prisons have become the nation’s principal institutions for treating mentally troubled individuals, and suggests that strategies for developing more humane, treatment-oriented alternatives have to begin at the state and local levels.

The Crime Report: What was the catalyst for writing this book?


Courtesy Basic Books

Alisa Roth: I can’t think of a group that’s more reviled and more misunderstood than people with mental illness who are in the criminal justice system. We talk about the issue of race in the criminal justice system, we talk about the issue of poverty in the criminal justice system, but we don’t talk about mental illness. These three intersect and overlap, but we can’t think about global reform without addressing the mental health question.

As I mention in the book, I have a friend whose brother developed a severe mental illness and committed a horrible crime. As I was thinking about this whole system, it kept coming back to him. If we as a society can allow him to see an alternative outcome, and not spend the rest of his life in prison, we can allow that for other people who have done less morally or criminally complicated things.

TCR: Through the process of this book, what hurdles did you have to overcome?

AR: I chose two of the most closed systems to look into. The criminal justice system is extremely closed in terms of access, in terms of data, and in terms of information. Likewise, the mental health care system is bureaucratic and complicated. So just figuring out where treatment is being provided, and who should be providing that treatment is difficult.

Then there’s the whole health care aspect. People are not allowed to, or are unwilling to, share information about treatment. And there’s the stigma question in both systems. There is still shame attached to having a mental illness or having a family member with mental illness. We march for breast cancer or AIDS, but we don’t want to talk about mental illness and we don’t want to admit it. So, getting people to open up and say “yes, I do have this issue” or “yes, my child does have this issue and these are the struggles we are going through,” is very difficult. I am very grateful to all the people who were willing to share their stories with me.

TCR: How did dealing with this affect you, and how do you move forward after seeing what you have seen?

AR: I feel a great responsibility and duty to share these stories and spread them. I have the means to tell the world about these horrible situations, whether it’s the really awful abuses or just the day-to-day low-level abuses of being locked up with a mental illness. So, I feel privileged to share that.

Keeping that in mind was a way to mitigate the awfulness of it, but it’s traumatic reporting. I had a lot of nightmares about jail and prisons. I have a lot of friends who work in this universe, so it was great to be able to compare notes and talk about what we have seen. It is traumatizing and exhausting, but I kept thinking that I got to walk out of there at the end of the day, and I needed to take advantage of that to tell the world about how bad the problem is.

TCR: One of the subjects in your book is the practice of solitary, and you note that it is still in effect despite being considered a form of torture by the United Nations. Why do you think it is still being practiced in the U.S.?

AR: There are a lot of pieces that go into this answer. Unfortunately, we have abandoned the notion of reform and rehabilitation in our criminal justice system. We’ve moved back to the punitive notion. In some measure we think that people who are locked up in jail or prison deserve what they get. There is a dehumanizing aspect to the whole criminal justice system, and solitary confinement is part of that. If we don’t think of somebody as a full human being, then it becomes easier to do something really awful to them. If you think of this person as your brother, or our uncle, or your husband, it’s much harder to lock them in a box 23/7.

There’s also the fact that so many of us don’t know what goes on in the criminal justice system. The system as a whole is so abstract for such a large portion of our population, that we just don’t think or know about it. People have no idea that there are tens of thousands of people locked in solitary confinement on any given day. In a lot of places and for a very long time it’s just been how it’s done. It’s a very easy solution to put someone who is being unruly or difficult out of sight and out of mind. I think it speaks to a larger issue: We take people with mental illness, we lock them away, someplace we don’t need to see them. If we put them in jail or prison we don’t need to see them or step over them on our way to Starbucks in the morning. Solitary confinement is a reflection of that. But it makes everything so much worse.

Alisa Roth

Alisa Roth. Photo by Matthew Spence

TCR: Your book also criticizes the dangerous mistakes made by judges, and attorneys, who have no experience with the mentally ill. One example is your story of Jamie Wallace, a young boy suffering from mental illness and multiple physical disabilities, who eventually killed himself in prison due, in part, to a judge’s inability to understand his circumstances. How do we increase awareness and understanding of mental illness so that we may better avoid tragedies such as this?

AR: As awareness of the problem of large numbers of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system grows, judges and attorneys are more attuned to it. It’s not that people don’t know it’s there, but it’s as much as about changing attitudes as anything else. I talk to a lot of judges and I’ve said “Hey, in a lot of cases you’re being asked to make what’s effectively a medical decision and you’re not a doctor; you’re a judge. ‘

The best answer I heard, and it makes sense to me to a degree, is the judge who that’s what he does all the time. He takes the best information he can get and makes a decision based on that. So, he’s not making a medical judgement, per se; he’s taking the information that the psychiatrist, the therapist, and the attorneys give him and using that to make a decision. Jamie Wallace’s case was particularly egregious. He was so young, so sick, and had a developmental disability on top of it. I found it heartbreaking to think that the judge couldn’t see a way to understand. And the judge was playing very much by the rules.

Jamie Wallace was failed by the system at every level, over and over again. A forensic psychiatrist who read about him said he should never have been declared competent or even been standing in that courtroom. The judge made an awful decision, but he also made a mistake in letting him even be in that courtroom that day. You have to wonder how it would have been different if he had been wealthier, or his parents had been more educated, or if he had been in a different state.

TCR: Jamie Wallace’s story is an example of the mistakes that can be made as a result of the disorganized bureaucracy of the criminal justice system. At a time when so many are pushing for better training within that system to fix the problem, and others are fighting to keep the mentally ill out of that system entirely, which do you feel is the better option?

AR: In an ideal world, we would be able to keep everybody with a serious mental illness out of the criminal justice system. In an ideal world, we’d be able to keep a lot of people without a mental illness out of the criminal justice system. We lock up a lot of people very easily. I think that diversion is absolutely critical, but in order to make wide scale diversion possible, we can’t just look at this little tiny piece of the problem. We have to remember that we are operating in a very large ecosystem, not just of criminal justice but also of mental healthcare. We need to see wide-scale reform of both these systems so that people aren’t getting to the point where they’re so sick.

You see people in jail and prison who are sicker than a lot of people you see in psychiatric hospitals. We need to be catching the diseases earlier and treating them earlier. It’s great to train the cops to not arrest people, but if you don’t have some place for the cops to take them that’s not jail, they’re still going to wind up in jail. That’s what happened in San Antonio when they created their crisis center system. [They realized] you can train cops as much as you want, but they’re still going to take people to jail if there’s no other option. The other part of it is, as long as we are going to have people that end up in the criminal justice system, we have to make sure that when they’re there, they’re getting the treatment that they need and not just being warehoused in prisons.

TCR:A popular talking point now is de-institutionalization, starting when the majority of state-run mental health hospitals were closed during the 1960s. However, your book insists that there were other, more important, causes for the problem. Can you expand on that?

AR: De-institutionalization is a fabulous talking point. It has this very neat narrative: Dorothy Dix found people locked up in jail; realized this was not the place for them; they weren’t getting the treatment they needed; wardens were saying they couldn’t handle this; she pushed for the creation of the asylum system; everything was great until it all went to hell and we had to open up the doors and let everyone out. Then, without treatment, people were ending up in the criminal justice system. And it has a very neat solution: if this is how we got there, then all we have to do is treat the mental illness and we’ll get people out of the criminal justice system.

Unfortunately, it’s way more complicated than that. Even when you look at the heyday of institutionalization, during the middle of the last century, there were a lot of people in institutions, but it was not the majority. There were still a lot of people living at home or elsewhere, or getting treatment in the community. The population in institutions tended to be older, white, female, and very heavy on people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The people now locked in the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly young, male, and not white.

I think we also have to look at the story of mass incarceration. We’ve started locking up way more people than we ever did…and when you cast such a big net, of course you’re going to pull in a lot of people with mental illness. When you break it down even further and look at co-occurring substance use disorders, a very large majority of people with mental illness in the criminal justice system have a co-occurring substance use disorder. So, if we’re arresting tons of people for drug possession, drug use, drug selling, drug dealing, it makes perfect sense that we’ll pick up people with mental illness.

Using policing tactics such as “broken windows” and “stop and frisk,” allowed us to lock up huge amounts of people [and] made it easier to arrest people with mental illness. I think that the story of mental illness in the criminal justice system is as much a story of mass incarceration as it is of de-institutionalization. The one piece of the story that is important, even if we don’t quite tell it right, is that we do have a severe lack of mental health care in the community and we have made it extremely difficult to get treatment for mental illness. But it’s not that everybody was getting treatment in a hospital and now they can’t get it, we just don’t have that and we’ve never had it.

TCR: How can we get people to start viewing mental illness seriously?

AR: I think we’re starting to move in that direction, very slowly. We’re seeing more people acknowledging an issue with depression or anxiety. We’re still not seeing a lot of actors come up at the Oscars and mention that they have schizophrenia, but I think it’s becoming more socially acceptable to talk about these things. We know that people can change, and society can change. There was a time that people didn’t talk about HIV or cancer, and now we wave flags for it. We need to get over the fear and stigma [attached to] mental illness in our society. The narrative in the media and in politics that links mental illness and violence is very damaging. And it’s hard to get over that stigma when every time something bad happens somebody is out there pointing a finger at mental illness.

TCR: Are tools such as Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT), deescalation and community policing having a positive effect on the problem?

AR: Like so many things in criminal justice, there is not a ton of data or evidence-based research to show one way or another. The data in places such as Miami or San Antonio show that these things work. Miami says that it’s cut the number of officer-involved shootings. In San Antonio, the system has prevented them from expanding the jail. People who study policing say that CIT is just good policing—-going back to the kind of policing we had before “professionalized” law enforcement. It was the cop walking the beat who knew the people in the community. There’s no reason to run into every situation like it’s a battleground. Police officers always talk about how they see people on the worst day of their lives. That narrative is used sometimes as a reason why you need to be on your guard. But I’ve also heard it used as a reason to be gentle, kind, and thoughtful because they’re there to help.

Getting police to respond in a more thoughtful, more community/medically oriented way, instead of the tough, warrior way, is terrific. The big caveat is that if you don’t have the whole system set up to accommodate this it can only get you so far. You might deescalate a particular situation, but if you don’t have any longer-term solutions, you’re going to be back picking up the same person with no place to go. Often communities think CIT will be a step to solving the problem, but you have to think about how you’re going to divert, what’s the mental health treatment going to be, and how do we make sure we’re not picking people up again next week or next month.

TCR: Does change need to start at a federal level?  And do you see potential for change under the current administration?

AR: The thing about criminal justice is that so much of it happens on such a local level that, on the flip side, a lot of reform can also happen on a local level. If I’m in Manhattan, and get arrested, it could potentially be a different outcome then if I’m in the Bronx or New Jersey. Because it’s so local, I think the federal question is almost irrelevant. Even the laws of involuntary commitment are handled at a local level.  I think with a lot of laws, particularly with HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and involuntary commitment, it really comes down to a very narrow line of navigating between civil liberties and safety for the person and the public.

We obviously don’t want to go back to the time when somebody could have a child committed to a hospital for not being religious enough or dating the wrong person.  On the other hand, I think we’ve made it so difficult to get somebody hospitalized that we’re in this perpetual crisis management mode.  The way it’s set up now is that you really have to be at a crisis point in order to make involuntary commitment possible.  Likewise, with HIPAA, I don’t want my business broadcast all over the place.  On the other hand, the very nature of mental illness means that the person is not, necessarily, capable of making decisions for himself, or even providing the information that the doctors need.  I’ve heard families talk about managing to get their adult child hospitalized, but then not being able to convince the doctor to talk to them about what has or hasn’t worked in the past.  As with any other illness, the more information the clinician has, the better they can treat the problem.

Isidoro Rodririguez

HIPAA is also widely misunderstood. It’s used as an excuse for stonewalling families and other people trying to get information.  I think the more important question, is how do we figure out how to loosen these laws a little bit to make things easier and more effective without throwing all the civil liberties out with it.  As for the current administration, I think this is a big wildcard.  It doesn’t seem to be a big priority except on those occasions when something awful happens and suddenly there’s talk of bringing back asylums and more mental health care.  Between seeing real change at a local level or at a federal level, I have a little bit of hope that at the local level there is potential for reform.

Isidoro Rodriguez, a staff writer for The Crime Report, covers policing and mental health issues. He welcomes comments from readers.


When the Wrong Prisoners Go Free, Who’s to Blame?

Three inmates whose life sentences were commuted in Washington state separately went on to commit crimes after their release. The incidents should have prodded officials to tackle the structural justice reforms that would prevent them from recurring, writes an inmate in one of the state’s correctional institutions.

Imagine the public outcry in your state if the following, based on real-life incidents in Washington State, were to take place.

Three recidivists manage to get their sentences of life without parole commuted. One of them proceeds to smoke methamphetamines in a drug rehab facility and is swiftly sent back to the penitentiary. The second goes on a robbery spree while residing in a work release facility where he was supposed to be preparing to successfully rejoin society.

Then the third, shortly after reintegrating into the community, murders somebody.

Of course, it is safe to assume that anyone involved in setting these three individuals free would pay a high price, politically.

Not in the State of Washington.

In the cases mentioned above, the elected officials and political appointees involved in these men’s release have somehow skated by with impunity.

There has been no public backlash against them. There have been no sensational stories on official negligence or incompetence.

I find that amazing.

It is also disappointing—at least insofar as it has enabled those invested in maintaining the status quo to proceed as if there are no systemic problems with the clemency process that enabled these men to be freed.

There is, indeed, a problem.

Behind the pretense that all is well, these three outcomes highlight the wrongheadedness of an evaluation process that gives more credence to the recommendations of prosecutors and judges over any other piece of evidence.

Simply review these men’s paths to freedom and you will probably come to agree that there is something quite wrong with this sort of extraordinary release.

The Extraordinary Ordinary Prisoner

Arthur Longworth is a 53-year-old prisoner who has been confined since the age of 18. In 1984, he killed a woman during a robbery and, for this crime, he received a life-without-parole sentence. In the years since, he became a college graduate.

He learned Chinese and Spanish.

He is an award-winning writer.

He is also an acclaimed author.

Yet when Longworth went before Washington State’s Board of Pardons and Parole (Board) seeking a recommendation for a sentence commutation after having served 27 years, prosecutors maintained that his petition should be denied because the circumstances did not meet the “extraordinary” standard necessary to merit a recommendation for the governor to commute a prisoner’s sentence.

The Board agreed.

The reason for denying Longworth’s petition, which can be gleaned by watching several of such hearings, is that the meaning of “extraordinary” is not simply very unusual and remarkable as the term is defined in a dictionary. Rather, it has come to mean a very unusual and remarkable case.

Quite simply, the meaning has been restricted in practice so that it has nothing to do with the person seeking relief. As I have previously written in The Crime Report, with respect to the clemency process:

There is nothing extraordinary about reform in the eyes of this Board. What is deemed to be extraordinary is when a prosecutor or sentencing judge supports granting clemency.

In fact, this is how Scott Worton, David Conyers and Stony Rivers gained their liberty after being “Struck Out” in the 1990s.

Scott Worton was fortunate enough to have a judge afflicted by judicial regret. Upon retiring 20 years after imposing Worton’s mandatory sentence of life without parole, he enlisted high-powered attorneys to bring Worton’s case before the Board and, more importantly, personally advocated that Worton be set free.

Conyers and Rivers were blessed to have an elected prosecutor who had a change-of-heart with respect to certain Three-Strike cases.

Upon taking office, Dan Satterberg reviewed those that were successfully prosecuted during his predecessor’s tenure, and eventually concluded that a handful of the men had suffered an injustice. Conyers and Rivers were among the fortunate few whose criminal histories were no longer believed to be egregious enough to merit dying in prison.

Therefore, when these men went before the Board seeking relief, the King County Prosecutor’s Office did not dispute that their cases were extraordinary.

As for all three men, neither of them was in the least “extraordinary.”

In truth, Worton, Conyers and Rivers each fit the prototype of a middle-aged prisoner who had been whiling away for decades doing what was necessary to get through their “time” drama free.

Unlike Longworth, these men’s lives were defined by mandatory Department of Corrections programs in Washington State, such as working in prison industries or earning a GED (which Conyers took over a decade to complete due to his lack of interest). Their free time was spent playing cards, watching reality television shows, exercising, and gossiping.

They were as ordinary as can be: Nothing was unusual or remarkable about them, other than that one day a criminal justice official with prestige agreed that they should be set free to undo what time has revealed to be an inequity.

Call it official soul cleansing; or rather, the enema that can set the most ordinary of prisoners free.

Objectively, were one to assess the likelihood that these three-strikers would take another swing versus Arthur Longworth’s prospects for success if released, nobody who takes public safety seriously would recommend keeping Longworth confined and setting these three men free.

But this does not seem to trouble anybody.

In fact, while prosecutors and tough-on-crime advocates usually turn such incidents into a call for wholesale action to lock people up or keep offenders imprisoned for increasingly longer durations—this “law and order” contingent has been curiously quiet.

On its face, this silence makes no sense.

Yet there is a method to their madness.

The Bait-and-Switch Reform Effort

Washington State faces a serious problem. In 2010, The Washington Supreme Court held that the State was failing to fulfill its duty to provide children with basic education.

The remedy: Money.

The amount: Billions.

Prior to this judicial decision, there had been a nascent movement championing comprehensive criminal justice reform, especially as it relates to providing long-term offenders an opportunity for early release.

Lawmakers and officials were slow to jump on board. However, as this deadline has approached and neither political party has been able to agree on the best way to meet the Court’s mandate to adequately fund basic education, there has been a growing realization that a substantial portion of the budget will have to be redirected if Washingtonians, true to form, reject tax increases.

Ergo—reform is on the horizon for the Department of Corrections.

Advocates for prison reform have thus been pushing for the passage of legislation known colloquially as “Second Chance”, which would give prisoners who have served lengthy terms of confinement an opportunity to be released by a parole board or a new Community Review Committee.

For years, these bills could not even garner a subcommittee hearing.

These days, it is clear the momentum is on the side of those who are threading the needle between fiscal responsibility and mercy, and thus argue that releasing prisoners who are believed to no longer pose a serious threat to public safety is a sound public policy.

This is where the “law and order” contingent comes in. They see where things are heading. So, rather than oppose such efforts they propose an alternative.

A robust clemency process.

As conceived, the Board would be expanded so that a greater number of cases could be reviewed. In so doing, the Second Chance that reformers are advocating would be achieved without the necessity of structural reform within the criminal justice system.

It is pure trickery.

In reality, this alternative approach is simply a means to ensure that the gates of Washington prisons do not swing open too widely, for only a small minority of prisoners can afford the legal representation necessary to garner a clemency hearing.

Moreover, prosecutors are in the driver’s seat with respect to recommendations for clemency because their opinions are tantamount to declarations from the burning bush.

Like Moses, the Board obeys.

It is this type of reform that they are willing to get behind: A review process that enables prosecutors to determine what should be deemed extraordinary enough to merit relief, and that leaves the prospects of clemency nothing but a fantasy to most prisoners due to their indigency.

In the end, it would be more of the same—with a different veneer.

Yet no matter the review process, the ultimate objective is to accurately determine if a prisoner would be likely to reoffend if set free.  This is a difficult task, undoubtedly.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Jeremiah Bourgeois

But if I had to choose among the lifers who have served time with me, I would surely free an Arthur Longworth before a prisoner whose extraordinary nature amounts to nothing more than a public official’s belief that a prisoner is worthy of mercy.

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. Those who wish to express their opinion regarding the decision to deny his release can contact the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board. A recent article on his case is also available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Want to Understand Mass Incarceration? Listen to These Podcasts

Americans’ fascination with the justice system has made shows like “Orange is the New Black” popular. But two new podcasts provide a powerful platform for the voices of those who’ve actually experienced life behind bars.  

Scroll through Netflix or any App Store, and odds are you will see countless shows exploring the criminal justice system.

The popularity of shows like “Orange is the New Black,” “Prison Break” and “Lockup” suggests Americans are fascinated by the carceral state and, particularly, about what it’s like to be imprisoned in “the land of the free.”

Although some programs, such as “Orange…” involve the collaboration of formerly incarcerated consultants, most prison shows can best be described as “prison voyeurism.”

They provide entertainment with a dose of empathy, without much education.

Recently, though, podcasting has opened up new opportunities for people directly impacted by the criminal justice system to share their insights and experiences with the public— not just as fictional characters or interviewees, but as interviewers, creators and producers.

Unlike television or even radio, podcasting requires little money and expertise. Anyone with an internet connection can do it, lowering the barriers to entry. In the past year, two podcasts, Ear Hustle and Decarcerated, have been launched, creating a new genre of long-form storytelling, one which serves to promote a deeper cultural understanding of the impacts of the carceral state.

Here’s a review of their work so far, a preview of a third podcast that has recently debuted, and an assessment of the medium’s potential for broadening the conversation around criminal justice reform.

Ear Hustle

Ear Hustle

“Ear Hustle” premiered in the summer of 2017 after it was selected by Radiotopia as the winner of its Podquest 2017 competition, and has quickly become the most famous criminal justice podcast since “Serial,” garnering more than 7 million downloads.

A partnership between Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, two African-American men currently incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison, and Nigel Poor, a white, free-world visual artist, each episode of Ear Hustle introduces a theme which people on the outside can relate to (such as pesky roommates, race, or pets), and asks a handful of prisoners to share stories on this theme.

The stories range from endearing to shocking, comedic to tragic, and introduce the audience to the nuances of life behind bars. Generally, the podcast skews to the lighthearted and comical, less interested in identifying systemic injustices than in showing “a more three-dimensional view of prison,” as Poor has said in interviews.

She added, in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, that “life in prison is tough and frightening, but it’s also funny, tender, and amusing.”

In this way, “Ear Hustle” is similar to “Orange is the New Black”: it depicts prison life as simultaneously joyful and oppressive, with a focus on encouraging compassion for incarcerated people.

As an activist oral historian with incarcerated friends, I appreciate the opportunity “Ear Hustle” gives to people like me, on the outside, to hear directly from currently incarcerated people, and the ways it encourages people on the outside to question our assumptions about prisoners.

Additionally, the creation of the show provides incarcerated people an opportunity to learn digital media skills, and, most importantly, a public platform.

However, I struggle with its lack of critique of the penal system, and its limited inquiry into people’s lives. While a few of the first season’s episodes include discussion of human rights injustices—including solitary confinement, parole, and aging in prison—the majority of the podcast is dedicated to normalizing life in prison and the people who live it, rather than making the case for change.

In an interview with The Marshall Project, incarcerated co-creator Williams explained their strategy of getting listeners to empathize with prisoners so that down the line they will be motivated to join their cause.

“We think putting names and faces to the people that are incarcerated….is speaking towards the politics,” he said.

Creators have also named not wanting to invite the censorship of the prison administration or to offend victim’s families as factors in the selection of content. While a nuanced take on prison is much needed, “Ear Hustle” may veer too far in its quest to humanize; it is possible to come away from some episodes with no sense of the everyday torture that the 242,000 people incarcerated in California are subject to on any given day, but rather an appreciation for the prison’s benevolence and support for incarcerated people.

The question of whether we need prisons at all never arises.

“Ear Hustle” also limits the extent to which listeners get to know interviewees, by jumping from person to person rapidly within most episodes. As a result, listeners only glimpse snapshots of their lives—Rauch’s relationship with animals, Greg’s marriage—but the show only occasionally delves deeply into an interviewee’s subjectivity or life history.

While the podcast helps audiences get to know prisoners as ordinary people, and breaks boundaries by allowing listeners to hear directly from people currently incarcerated, it doesn’t ask us to reflect on our own complicity in their incarceration.


Decarcerated“Decarcerated” is produced by Marlon Peterson, a formerly incarcerated young African American, and features intimate one-on-one interviews in each episode. Launched in 2017, its declared mission is “highlight the journeys of resilience, redemption and success of formerly incarcerated people.”

In each episode, Peterson interviews a different formerly incarcerated person who has established herself as a leader through her life and work.

Almost all of the podcast’s guests work in social justice organizations, and several are personal friends of Peterson’s, whom he connected with either while in prison or through his advocacy following his release.

See also: Marlon Peterson’s Driving While Black 

In comparison to “Ear Hustle,” Peterson takes more of an oral history approach to his interviews, devoting an entire hour to asking people about their journeys from childhood to prison to their current work, with many detours along the way.

These interviews are recorded live and posted with minimal editing, meaning that Peterson must gauge his guest’s interest in talking about different parts of their lives and react accordingly.

Although many of his guests have told their stories before in other public fora, some of the best interviews involve guests reflecting on their lives in new ways. Their willingness to engage with different topics is constantly in flux, making the interviews feel spontaneous and intimate.

Ultimately, the podcast’s biggest strength is Peterson’s relationship with his guests, which invites them to bring their full selves to the table. When interviewing people famous within the criminal justice reform world (including Andrea James, Donna Hylton and Khalil Cumberbatch), who do a great deal of public speaking, Peterson’s shared identity as a formerly incarcerated person and his obvious admiration for his guests leads them to share personal, vulnerable stories they have not told in previous interviews or talks.

Additionally, Peterson helps guests connect their personal stories to their current work and systemic analyses, and guests feel comfortable pushing back when they don’t like the direction Peterson is leading them.

For instance, in poet and lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts’ episode, Peterson asks Betts about how he excelled in school prior to his incarceration at the age of 16. Betts responds by articulating how he wants his narrative framed:

RDB: First, as I’ve gotten older I’ve been reluctant to kind of put it forth that way. I know that you’re not doing this, but I’ve found that a lot of other people have used the fact that I was an honors student, that I liked books, that I was doing good in school, as a means of trying to distinguish me from other cats that end up in prison. And part of my narrative, and part of what I, want to say, you know, is that I’m more like them than others realize. And a lot of this story, a lot of this narrative, is about access to opportunities. (4:44-5:15)

 By creating a level of comfort and space, Peterson allows guests to shape their own stories, an opportunity typically denied people targeted by the carceral state, whether behind bars or outside.

“Decarcerated” pays respect to its guests’ agency, with Peterson ending every episode saying, “You are living an important life.”

“Ear Hustle” and “Decarcerated” are two of the best podcasts to listen to for commentary from directly impacted, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, exploring the fundamental issue of the distance and stigma attached to people who have been incarcerated in radically different ways.

While “Earhustle” brings together short, diverse perspectives on thematic issues, “Decarcerated” takes a life history and advocacy approach.

CaughtA new one that is also worth mentioning is “Caught: The Lives of Juvenile Justice.”

This new podcast from WNYC Studios featuring young people currently navigating the juvenile justice system, will add its own take on these questions.

As more people who are directly impacted create podcasts, we will see if they satisfy creators’ goals to propel listeners into action.

“The podcasting industry is growing at a time that coincides with great social activism,” wrote Susan Simpson, the host and producer of true crime podcast “Undisclosed,” in Quartz magazine.

“Our listeners want to hear these storiesand then they want to take it a step further and act for justice.”

elly kalfus

elly kalfus

Editors’ Note: Know of other interesting podcasts related to the justice system? Please let us know, and we’ll share with TCR readers!

elly kalfus is currently a Masters student in Columbia University’s Oral History program, where she is exploring the use of oral history to create collaborative storytelling projects with people impacted by the carceral state. She co-founded Ballots Over Bars, a campaign for prisoners’ suffrage in Massachusetts and abroad, and is inspired by the risk-taking, creativity and brilliance of incarcerated and marginalized people across the world. She welcomes readers’ comments.


Trump, Koch and Offender Recidivism

Prison cells Observations The focus of Trump’s and the Koch Foundation’s new initiative will be individualized treatment programs for offenders rather than the cookie cutter approach that exists now. The collective data indicate that programs for offenders either don’t work, or make things worse, or have very limited results. If we support offender rehabilitation, we […]

The post Trump, Koch and Offender Recidivism appeared first on Crime in America.Net.

Prison cells Observations The focus of Trump’s and the Koch Foundation’s new initiative will be individualized treatment programs for offenders rather than the cookie cutter approach that exists now. The collective data indicate that programs for offenders either don’t work, or make things worse, or have very limited results. If we support offender rehabilitation, we […]

The post Trump, Koch and Offender Recidivism appeared first on Crime in America.Net.