The state improved mental health care behind bars after a high-profile inmate suicide in 1996. Ex-football star Aaron Hernandez’ death yesterday focused attention on the fact that the Massachusetts inmate suicide rate is on the of the nation’s highest.
Twenty years ago, a high-profile inmate suicide in Massachusetts made national news and prompted calls for reform. In the two decades since, the state has made strides to improve mental health care and deter suicides in prison, but the rate of self-inflicted inmate deaths in the state remains among the highest in the U.S., the Boston Globe reports. Yesterday’s death of former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez marked the 65th reported suicide in the state’s prisons since John C. Salvi III was found beneath his cot in in 1996, a plastic trash-can liner secured around his head. He had been convicted of opening fire inside two abortion clinics, killing two and wounding five others.
After Salvi’s high-profile death, the state made cell-design improvements and conducted more frequent screenings of inmates, even those not considered to be a suicide risk, such as Hernandez. Investments in “suicide resistant” design have focused primarily on housing for inmates already identified as suicidal or placed on mental-health watch, not those in general population cells. Hernandez’s reported method — hanging himself by a sheet secured from a window, apparently just a few feet off the ground — appeared to match a previous inmate suicide at the same prison in 2005. “I’m not sure how that happened or how that could happen, but . . . it’s not the first time,” said James Pingeon of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, a longtime advocate for poor and mentally ill inmates. Even design changes to make prison suicide far more difficult may not prevent them, he said. “People tend to find a way.”
A required medical co-pay for inmates of $2 or $5 may not seem expensive, but they can be cost-prohibitive to inmates who typically earn 14 to 62 cents per hour, says the Prison Policy Initiative.
In most states, people incarcerated in prisons and jails pay medical co-pays for physician visits, medications, dental treatment, and other health services. The fees are meant to partially reimburse states and counties for the high cost of medical care. Populations behind bars are among the most at-risk for chronic and infectious diseases. Fees are also meant to deter people from unnecessary doctor’s visits. Fees may be doing more harm than good by deterring sick people from getting the care they really do need, reports the Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy group for inmates. A $2 to $5 medical co-pay in prison or jail may not seem expensive on its face. They can be cost-prohibitive to inmates who typically earn 14 to 62 cents per hour.
In West Virginia, a single visit to the doctor would cost almost an entire month’s pay for an incarcerated person who makes $6 per month. In Michigan, it would take over a week to earn enough for a single $5 co-pay. Thirteen states charge a medical co-pay that is equivalent to charging minimum wage workers more than $200. Texas charges inmates a $100 yearly health services fee, which some officials are trying to double. Inmates usually must rely on deposits into their personal accounts, typically from family members, to pay medical fees. In most places, funds are automatically withdrawn from these accounts until the balance is paid, creating a debt that can follow them even after release.
Most discussion this spring on Louisiana criminal justice reforms has focused on those sent to prison for nonviolent crimes. It’s a smaller group of inmates serving extremely long sentences that have an outsized impact on Louisiana’s prison population and the state budget.
A thorny reality confronts Louisiana legislators as they begin to consider measures designed to hack away at the nation’s highest incarceration rate, The Advocate reports. The inmates with the biggest impact on the prison population may also be the bloodiest. Though much of the discussion over a raft of criminal justice reforms this spring has focused on those sent to prison for nonviolent crimes — drug or property offenses like burglary — it’s a smaller group of inmates serving extremely long sentences that have an outsized impact on Louisiana’s prison population and the state budget. The average inmate arriving at prison each year will spend less than three years behind bars. The relatively small cadre of long-serving prisoners, most of them convicted of violent and serious crimes, consumed far more prison resources than any other group.
Advocates for a far-reaching reworking of Louisiana’s sentencing laws and prison system point to those numbers as they argue that an exclusive focus on nonviolent offenders won’t bring about the kind of transformative reduction in the prison population needed to shed Louisiana’s dubious distinction as the world’s most jailed place. “You have this double whammy going on. The more expensive inmates and the number of them have been increasing greatly. That’s really the money issue,” said State Public Defender Jay Dixon. Proposals to cut prison terms or offer a chance at release to violent criminals serving life sentences have attracted the stiffest opposition. District attorneys argue that giving parole eligibility to murderers, rapists and armed robbers poses a threat to public safety and breaks promises to victims. Bo Duhé, district attorney for the three-parish 16th Judicial District, said the vast majority of lifers “forfeited the right to live in a free society” when they committed brutal crimes. The task force that proposed reforms, he said, should have remained focused only on less serious offenses.
Bonuses rise in the federal prison system. They include payments to officials at a Coleman, Fl., complex where a $20 million sexual harassment settlement is pending.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons paid $2 million in bonuses to top administrators and wardens in the past three years while the agency was confronting persistent overcrowding, sub-par inmate medical care, chronic staffing shortages and a lurid sexual harassment lawsuit that engulfed its largest institution, USA Today reports. The awards ranged from $7,000 paid last year to a D.C. administrator to $28,000 to acting director Thomas Kane, and $25,500 for Deborah Schult, assistant director of the Health Services Division. Most of the payments, nearly $1 million, were approved last year and amounted to almost double the combined amounts in the previous two years. At least nine of the agency’s top executives whose payments were approved last year also got similar awards in 2015.
Among the biggest recipients were four executives at the agency’s largest complex in Coleman, Fl., during the course of a sexual harassment lawsuit involving hundreds of current and former female staffers who alleged that prison managers repeatedly failed to protect them from years of horrific sexual harassment and threats from inmates. A $20 million settlement is pending before a federal judge. The bonuses, especially those at Coleman, have prompted outrage from staffers and union officials who were instrumental in bringing the legal action on behalf of more than 500 female staffers who were were subjected to sexually-charged threats and abuse during the course of 16 years, according to court documents. Sandra Parr, a vice president of the national union of prison workers, said, “These people got bonuses off the backs of people who were actually dealing with the predators,” She added that the pool of victims grew so large because top agency officials “chose to ignore it.”
Two inmates serving life terms for murder are charged with killing four fellow inmates.
Two South Carolina prisoners who were already serving life sentences for murder have been charged in the alleged killings by strangulation of four other inmates on Friday at a maximum-security prison, reports The State. Denver Jordan Simmons, 35, and Jacob Theophilus Philip, 25, are facing four counts of murder each. They are accused of luring John King, 52; Jason Kelley, 35; Jimmy Ham, 56; and William Scruggs, 44, into a cell.
That’s where Simmons and Philip allegedly either strangled or attacked their fellow prisoners with a broomstick and strangled them. Autopsies on Saturday confirmed all four died of strangulation.
Gov. John Bel Edwards says task force’s proposals would reduce the state’s nation-leading incarceration rate by 13 percent in a decade. On prosecutor responds: “There is not a single person that we put in prison that doesn’t deserve to be there.”
Louisiana locks up its citizens at a rate 13 times higher than China, five times higher than Iran, and far higher than anywhere else in the U.S., reports Slate. Despite jailing people for nonviolent offenses at twice the rate of South Carolina and three times the rate of Florida, Louisiana’s crime rate is nearly identical to both of those states. Louisiana spends $700 million each year on incarceration, and has a $300 million budget shortfall this year. A bipartisan Justice Reinvestment Task Force created by the legislature has proposed a data-driven approach for fixing the state’s criminal justice system. Gov. John Bel Edwards says the group’s recommendations would reduce the prison population by 13 percent over a decade and save $305 million. Included are broadening alternatives to incarceration, reducing penalties for drug-related crimes, ending life without parole for juveniles and expanding parole eligibility for the state’s oldest prisoners.
The legislature will consider these issues in its annual session that begins next week. The Louisiana District Attorneys Association is opposed. Ascension Parish District Attorney Ricky Babin says, “There is not a single person that we put in prison that doesn’t deserve to be there.” East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore backs locking up elementary school children for up to six months for bringing fake guns to school. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro pushed for a sentence of 20 years to life for a man who stole $31 worth of candy. (He later agreed to a two-year term.) District attorneys oppose parole consideration for the longest-serving inmates, asserting that such a move “risks public safety.” Actually, studies find that older inmates, especially those over 50, reoffend after release at a small fraction of the rate of youthful offenders. The vast majority of convictions occur between the ages of 20 and 29. The task force’s recommendations don’t amount to a get-out-of-jail-free card. It suggests that only those who have shown “substantial growth” while incarcerated be allowed to re-enter society.
Lawsuit on behalf of inmates at troubled prison cites failures of leadership and “a culture that tolerated violence.” The U.S. Justice Department is investigating all of Alabama’s prisons for men.
Attacks on inmates have happened with grim regularity at St. Clair Correctional Facility, one of six maximum-security prisons in Alabama. In recent years, even by the standards of one of the nation’s most dysfunctional prison systems, St. Clair has stood out for its violence, the New York Times reports. “The frequency of assaults resulting in life-threatening injuries is quite simply among the highest I have observed in my 43-year career in corrections,” Steve Martin, who has examined hundreds of prisons nationwide, wrote in a 2016 report prepared for a lawsuit over conditions at St. Clair. The prison reflected “a total breakdown of the necessary basic structures that are required to operate a prison safely,” he tells the Times. In October, the Justice Department announced an investigation into all male prisons in Alabama, a broad inquiry focusing on reports of rampant violence and sex abuse by both inmates and staff members. The prisons are operating at 172 percent of capacity. That is a significant improvement after sentencing reforms, but it has been offset by a sharp decline in the number of corrections officers.
“We’re already the most overcrowded,” said corrections commissioner Jeff Dunn at a legislative hearing. “It won’t be long until we’re the most understaffed and most violent.” As legislators wrangle over ideas to fix the prisons — the current one being a much-disputed and ever-shifting plan to build several “large-scale” prisons to replace most of the old ones — the degeneration of St. Clair looms in the background. A lawsuit on behalf of inmates by the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative argues that the bloodshed at St. Clair is due in part to overcrowding, understaffing and shoddy facilities, but perhaps primarily to failures of leadership and “a culture that tolerated violence.” In interviews, more than a dozen current and former officers and inmates agreed.
Illinois may have abandoned its practice of suing prisoners to recover the costs of their incarceration. Critics say the cases are punitive and recover little money.
The Illinois Department of Corrections appears to have shelved its widely criticized practice of suing prisoners to recover the costs of their incarceration in spite of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s support for the strategy, the Chicago Tribune reports. State prison officials have not referred a single case to the Illinois Attorney General’s office for possible litigation for nearly 1 1/2 years. The last case, submitted in December 2015, was rejected by Attorney General Lisa Madigan because it lacked key information about the prisoner’s financial assets. The turnabout came after a Tribune story in November 2015 highlighted the controversial practice, prompting calls for its end from state lawmakers and the passage of legislation vetoed by Rauner.
Nicole Wilson, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said the department has not abandoned its policy of suing inmates for the cost of locking them up. “The Illinois Department of Corrections continues to review offender assets for the recovery of expenses incurred during incarceration as the law authorizes,” Wilson said. “The law exists to ensure offenders do not profit from the crimes they commit.” The law was passed in 1982 after serial killer John Wayne Gacy began selling paintings from death row. Illinois is one of at least 43 states that allows officials to try to recoup what often are called room-and-board fees from prisoners and parolees. The state Department of Corrections gathers information about prisoners’ assets from their mail and other documents, and refers potential cases to the attorney general’s office, which then decides whether to file a lawsuit to obtain a prisoner’s money. Critics say such lawsuits recover little money and are overly punitive.
Inmates will be able to reduce terms up to six months for earning a college degree and by up to a month each year for participating in self-help programs.
California corrections officials adopted new rules that aim to trim the state’s prison population by 9,500 inmates in four years, the Associated Press reports. They include steps like reducing inmates’ sentences up to six months for earning a college degree and by up to a month each year for participating in self-help programs such as alcohol and substance abuse support groups and counseling, anger management, life skills, victim awareness, restorative justice, and parenting classes. Virtually any inmate except those on death row or those serving life-without-parole sentences is eligible.
It’s the latest step in a long drive to lower the prison population dramatically in response to federal court orders in lawsuits by prison advocates. The changes follow voters’ approval of Proposition 57 in November. The initiative lets certain felons seek parole more quickly and gave corrections officials broad discretion to grant early release credits. “I think that it’s a monumental change for the organization and I think across the state, across the nation, I don’t think that anybody has altered how they are incarcerating offenders as much as what Prop 57 does,” said Corrections Secretary Scott Kernan. The goal, he said, is to encourage inmates to start “doing something with their incarceration and not just sitting on their bunks.” Police and prosecutors fought the ballot initiative, arguing that it will release dangerous offenders sometimes years earlier than called for in their sentences. It will put convicts more quickly into county probation systems that already are stretched.
Indiana will provide its inmates with tablets. That could help reduce recidivism, but the cost might be paid for by prisoners using the devices for games, movies and music.
A plan to put a tablet in every Indiana inmate’s hands could help offenders stay connected with their families and improve their education, which are important ways to keep them from returning to prison. The plan is also raising questions about fairness, the Indianapolis Star reports. Could a technology company providing specialized tablets for prison environments take advantage of captive buyers to charge high prices for games, movies and music? Those are some benefits and possible pitfalls of an Indiana Department of Correction technology proposal. The proposal also calls for a secure network and electronic kiosks across the prison system’s 23 facilities. Offenders will be able to use the tablets to access their classwork and self-help materials 24 hours per day. They could more easily order from the commissary, and sift through legal research.
They also could use their tablets to pay for entertainment, with that money going to a private company while the state keeps a 10-percent cut. That’s how the state expects to pay for the tablets. Officials hope that a vendor will front the costs so taxpayers don’t have to. Then the vendor would be reimbursed and earn a profit, as inmates buy music and movies. William Wilson, a prison official, emphasized that any fees collected would be used to reduce the reliance on tax dollars. Charging fees that inmates couldn’t afford would defeat the purpose of the proposal. Officials also expect to use entertainment to reward good behavior. For example, an offender could be encouraged to stop racking up conduct reports in order to play more games. The tablets most likely wouldn’t be the iPads or Kindles you see at home. Companies develop tablets and software for use in prisons and jails. They still have touchscreens and apps, but the devices come with much more security and features that can be controlled by prison officials.