TN ‘Safekeepers’ Can Sit in Isolation for Years With No Trial

Pretrial inmates in Tennessee are sent to “safekeeping” in state prisons because they are juveniles, pregnant, wrestling with severe mental illness or simply too notorious to remain in county lockups.

Under an 1858 Tennessee law, people awaiting trial in county jails can be shipped to state prison if a judge deems the local jail “insufficient” to handle their medical problems, mental illness or behavioral issues. State policy dictates they are kept in solitary confinement, even if they are mentally unstable or have not committed a disciplinary infraction, reports the USA Tennessee Network with the Marshall Project. From January 2011 through 2017, more than 320 people in Tennessee were declared “safekeepers” under the law. The numbers have grown. In 2013, there were 26 safekeepers; in 2017, there were 86. “You are pouring gasoline on a fire, so to speak, if your reaction to someone who’s got mental health issues or disciplinary issues is to isolate them completely,” said the American Civil Liberties Union’s Tom Castelli.

The law is supposed to relieve a financial burden on local jails and get pretrial detainees necessary care or protect jail staff. People are sent to safekeeping because they are juveniles, pregnant, wrestling with severe mental illness or simply too notorious to remain in county lockup. They have not been convicted of a crime, but all of them are shipped far away from their families and defense lawyers and placed in cells usually reserved for the most unruly, dangerous inmates. One of at least eight states with a safekeeping law, Tennessee has no formal review process to determine if and when inmates should be returned to their original counties. That means safekeepers have sat in isolation for months or even years as they await trial, even if their conditions improve. Safekeeping stays range from a couple of weeks to more than 4½ years. A snapshot from Dec. 31 shows the average stay of safekeepers was 328 days. Fifteen of the 57 people in safekeeping on that day had been held longer than a year.


Key Senators Back Restoring Prison Pell Grants

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said he was open to re-examining Pell grants for prisoners, which were banned in the 1994 crime law passed under President Bill Clinton. If reinstated, millions of dollars would be made available to eligible students in the prison population of 1.5 million.

The U.S. Senate’s top leaders on education policy will consider reinstating Pell grants for incarcerated students, a move that would restore a federal lifeline to the nation’s cash-strapped prison education system, the New York Times reports. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said the panel would consider reinstating the federal financial aid grants in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act currently underway. The move would reverse a decades-old decision to strike the benefit from the higher education law and signal a shift toward recognizing education in efforts to overhaul criminal justice law. The federal student aid could be used to cover the cost of college courses taught in prisons, online or both.

Alexander said that he was open to re-examining Pell grants for prisoners, which were banned in the 1994 crime law passed under President Bill Clinton. In 2015, President Barack Obama’s Education Department piloted an experimental program that allowed 12,000 incarcerated students to be eligible for the financial aid. If reinstated, millions of dollars would be made available to eligible students in the prison population of 1.5 million. “Most prisoners, sooner or later, are released from prison, and no one is helped when they do not have the skills to find a job,” Alexander said. “Making Pell grants available to them in the right circumstances is a good idea.” The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), introduced Pell grant legislation last year that would expand the financial aid — which currently supplies about eight million low-income students with up to $5,920 yearly — to include inmates, undocumented immigrants and students with drug offenses.


Federal Prisons Faced With Severe Guard Shortage

Hundreds of secretaries, teachers, counselors, cooks and medical staffers have been tapped to fill guard posts in federal prisons because of acute officer shortages and overtime limits. The moves were made despite repeated warnings that the assignments put unprepared employees at risk.

When Kristan Morgan joined the U.S. Bureau of Prisons three years ago, the nurse expected to care for the chronically sick in the nation’s largest correctional system. She was abruptly plucked from a busy medical unit in Tallahassee to pull guard duty in cell blocks, USA Today reports.  “We get a radio and set of keys, and we don’t know which keys fit which doors,” said Morgan, 30. Hundreds of secretaries, teachers, counselors, cooks and medical staffers were tapped last year to fill guard posts in federal prisons because of acute officer shortages and overtime limits.

The moves were made despite repeated warnings that the assignments placed unprepared employees at risk. The practice has continued for years even though the agency has been rebuked by Congress and federal labor arbitrators. “It puts inmate safety at risk and our own security at risk. When we play officer, we are not equipped,” said Morgan. “We are not familiar with the housing units. The inmates know exactly who we are and what our limitations are.” A House panel directed the agency in July to “curtail its over-reliance” on the extraordinary deployments known as augmentation, once reserved only for emergency operations. Instead, the practice has become commonplace at some institutions where even some plumbers, electrical workers, budget analysts and commissary staffers have been patrolling prison yards and filling officer vacancies in maximum-security units. Laurie Robinson, a former assistant attorney general who was part of a task force that examined the federal prison system in 2015, said the safety and security of inmates “requires making sure that the people are trained for the duties that they are carrying out.” She said, “For this (civilian reassignments) to be occurring as a matter of course is not a good thing. This goes against sound corrections practice.”


Census to Keep Counting Inmates as Prison Residents

The Census Bureau refuses to change its practice on counting prisoners. Reform advocates said inmates should be counted as residents of their home towns.

The Census Bureau will count prisoners as residents of the localities in which they are incarcerated rather than their home towns in the 2020 census. That’s the bureau’s longstanding practice, but advocates had hoped to push through a change, reports Axios. It matters because lawmakers use census data to draw proportional legislative and Congressional districts. Criminal justice reform advocates argue counting prisoners who can’t vote as residents of the towns where they’re incarcerated gives disproportionate representation to people who cast their ballots there. Only Maine and Vermont allow convicted felons to vote while in prison.

The Census Bureau said that, “Counting prisoners anywhere other than the facility would be less consistent with the concept of usual residence, since the majority of people in prisons live and sleep most of the time at the prison.” Aleks Kajstura of the Prison Policy Initiative responds that the decision “is inconsistent with the way the ‘usual residence’ rule is applied to other similarly-situated people. The Census Bureau is picking favorites based on economic and racial privilege: if boarding school students are deemed to live at home, then the same logic should be applied to incarcerated people.” The bureau said it received 77,995 public comments in 2016 calling for an overhaul of the policy, and 4 opposing a change. California, Delaware, Maryland and New York have passed laws mandating that prisoners be counted as residents of their home addresses, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The Census Bureau has said it will work with states that want to opt out of its policy.


U.S. Lacks Programs to Deradicalize Inmates: Study

U.S. lags behind Europe in working against networks of prisoners who support the Islamic State, warns a study from the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

The absence of programs to deradicalize people convicted on terrorism charges risks the spread of extremist ideas to other inmates in U.S. prisons and beyond, warns a study by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, the Wall Street Journal reports. “The U.S. lags behind many Western nations and must make such programs a priority,” said the report, which seeks to examine the causes of homegrown U.S. support for the Islamic State, the terror network widely known as ISIS. Ignoring the risk of radicalization in U.S. prisons could allow networks to spread, says Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, an author of the report.

“We have seen in Europe how extremist networks are created and cultivated in prisons with large populations of jihadis and, as this contingent continues to grow in U.S. federal prisons, we are likely to see similar patterns here,” he said. At least two members of the cell responsible for the 2015 Paris attacks, which left more than 100 dead, met in prison. The threat of extremism in the U.S. remains small compared with countries in Europe like France, which has seen more than 1,900 people travel to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State, according to the Soufan Center, a group that tracks extremism. About 140 people are in U.S. prisons on charges related to supporting  the Islamic State. Many never attempted to travel or expressed an interest in violent attack, although they may have promoted the Islamic State online or lied to federal agents about offering logistical or other forms of material support to the group. The federal Bureau of Prisons said it has monitored prisoners with a connection to terrorism and works closely with the FBI and other agencies to prevent networks from spreading.


Texas Will Put Air Conditioning in Hot Prison

To settle a lawsuit by inmates, the state of Texas will install air conditioning in a notoriously hot prison. The air conditioning will go into the housing areas of the Wallace Pack Unit, where temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees in the summer. Inmates argued that temperatures 88 degrees amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

The state of Texas will install air conditioning in a notoriously hot prison after reaching a settlement with inmates in a federal class action lawsuit, reports the Texas Tribune. The air conditioning will go into the housing areas of the Wallace Pack Unit, where temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees in the summer. Inmates argued that allowing prison temperatures to rise above 88 degrees amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. “It’s a big day for the inmates who suffered through those summers at the Pack Unit,” said Jeff Edwards, attorney for the prisoners. “They’re not going to be in fear of dying from heat stroke anymore.”

The agreement must be approved in federal court. U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison said he is optimistic it will go forward. Texas has more than 100 prisons, and almost 75 percent of them don’t have air conditioning in the areas where inmates live. Nearly two dozen inmates have died from heat stroke in Texas prisons in the last two decades. In 2014, inmates at the Pack Unit sued, arguing heat-sensitive inmates, such as those with heart conditions or who are on certain medications, should be protected from extreme temperatures. In July, Ellison issued a scathing, temporary ruling deeming the hot prison conditions cruel and unusual and ordering the state to place medically vulnerable inmates into air conditioning. This prompted a large shakeup of inmates, with the department opting to move more than 1,000 vulnerable prisoners into 11 different air-conditioned units instead of installing air conditioning at the Pack Unit.


After Setting Record for Inmate Suicides, GA Has Three More

Three inmates have killed themselves within two and one-half weeks in Georgia prisons. The corrections department says it is “developing an awareness campaign for use in communicating to the offender population.”

After ending a record year for inmate suicides, the Georgia Department of Corrections said three inmates have apparently killed themselves within 2 1/2 weeks, two on the same day, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. The Department of Corrections is investigating all three deaths as apparent suicides. Two deaths occurred early on Sunday. Andrew Garland, serving a 10-year sentence for a 2016 aggravated stalking and five years for the same crime committed in 2017, was found in his cell around 1:15 a.m. at Rogers State Prison in southeast Georgia. On Sunday, at 2:50 a.m., Christopher Mauldin was found dead in his cell at Phillips State Prison in Buford. Mauldin was in prison for two burglary convictions.

The first apparent state inmate suicide of this year was on Jan. 13 at Hays State Prison in Summerville in northwest Georgia. Cecil Williams, serving 10 years for a 2015 robbery by intimidation, was found unresponsive in his cell at 1:09 a.m. “Along with having policies in place that direct employees on the proper monitoring of offenders who are believed to be suicidal, [the corrections department] is in the process of developing an awareness campaign for use in communicating to the offender population,” said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Joan Heath. “We work diligently to identify practices that will improve our ability to thwart suicide attempts. We have been, and remain, committed to the safety and security of all offenders.”


Cornyn Optimistic On Prisoner Reentry Progress

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) believes that a “prison reform” bill can pass Congress this year with White House support, even if it does not include reductions in mandatory minimum sentences.

With White House support on improving federal prisoner reentry programs, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) believes legislation on the subject will pass this year, reports the Texas Tribune. Even if lawmakers can’t agree on provisions to reduce mandatory minimum sentences, “I hope what we’ll do is we’ll start with that prison reform component,” the Senate Majority Whip told a meeting in Texas. He added, “I think it would be a great thing if we can pass prison reform and get it to the president’s desk. I’m more optimistic about that happening this year, in the next few months, than I’ve ever been before.”

The influential network backed by the billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch is zeroing in on Texas as a new laboratory for prison reform. That topic was a major focus last weekend when about 550 network donors in Indian Wells, Ca., to plot politics and policy for the coming year. Texas is one of four states, including also Louisiana, Florida and Pennsylvania, where researchers will develop “individualized reentry” plans for over 1,000 participants at eight sites and study the outcomes. Prison reform efforts appreciate the Kochs’ effort but they warn that the cause is staggering in its scale. Nearly 70,000 prisoners were released in Texas in 2016.


NC Prison Officials Moved After Critical U.S. Report

The Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections reported glaring procedures in North Carolina prisons were employees were killed during an escape attempt. The state took action involving three top employees pending an internal investigation.

Three North Carolina officials have been moved from their jobs after the fatal attacks on four employees at a prison, the Charlotte Observer reports. The two top administrators at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, Felix Taylor and Colbert Respass, were placed on paid leave pending an internal investigation. Karen Brown, director of Correction Enterprises, was temporarily reassigned. The agency ran the sewing plant at Pasquotank that employed four inmates who authorities say killed employees during an Oct. 12 escape attempt. Correction Enterprises runs 30 industrial plants in state prisons, employing 2500 inmates.

The actions follow release of a report by the National Institute of Corrections, which found that staff shortages and glaring security failures allowed inmates at Pasquotank to roam freely with easy access to dangerous tools. Prison staff let inmates wander through doors that should have been locked and allowed them to turn a stock room room into a “hiding place” concealed from security cameras. Inmates were even allowed to check out their own tools, including hammers and scissors with six-inch blades. Federal investigators found no one at the prison was watching surveillance cameras that monitored the sewing plant. Current and former prison officers questioned whether inmates with violent histories should have been put to work in a sewing plant, where they would have access to dangerous tools. A single officer – half the recommended number – watched over inmate workers.


DOJ To Send More Federal Inmates to Private Prisons

The shift will occur as the U.S. Bureau of Prisons expects a 12 to 14 percent reduction in staffing levels. “This is catastrophic for the safety and security of our institutions,” said a union official.

Prison companies that backed President Trump’s campaign and gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to his inaugural committee got another boost from his administration. The Bureau of Prisons will transfer more inmates from government lockups to private facilities as the agency prepares to cut federal corrections jobs, Mother Jones reports. Trump has proposed a reduction of 6,000 BOP positions, including more than 1,800 correctional officers. The agency expects a 12 to 14 percent reduction in staffing levels. “This is catastrophic for the safety and security of our institutions,” said Ray Coleman, president of a Florida-based union chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals. A federal memo published by Government Executive orders prisons to identify eligible inmates for the transfers by targeting low-security, male immigrants who are serving time for crimes. Eleven private prisons contract with the BOP, and most hold immigrants convicted of crimes.

Under President Obama, the Justice Department prepared to phase out its use of private prisons after the inspector general found them to be less safe than publicly run facilities. : Last February, Attorney General Jeff Sessions described private prisons as essential for meeting “the future needs of the federal correctional system.” Stock prices for prison industry giants like CoreCivic and GEO Group soared. Speaking to investors last summer, both companies highlighted BOP plans for a “capacity realignment” to avoid overcrowding in publicly run prisons.  While the latest directive targets immigrants serving time, prison executives have suggested that other inmates may soon be transferred too. At the federal level, the biggest client for these prison companies is the Department of Homeland Security, which contracts with them to detain undocumented immigrants who face deportation.