Fraternal Order of Police Backs Prison Reform Bill

FOP’s endorsement clears a significant hurdle, as does Jeff Sessions’ departure from the Justice Department. The measure is likely to be acted on during the lame-duck session of Congress that starts this week.

Backing by the Fraternal Order of Police of the pending First Step Act makes it more likely that the prison and sentencing reform measure will be approved in the lame-duck session of Congress that begins this week. FOP’s endorsement clears a significant hurdle, Axios reports. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) is also supportive of the bill, and publicly endorsed the version that has passed the House. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was fired last week, was arguably the administration’s single-most effective opponent of this kind of legislation. Republicans close to the leadership believe criminal justice reform could pass the Senate during the lame duck, but this is far from certain and hard-liners like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) will be difficult if not impossible to win over.

Presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and his allies have been arguing that inmates whose prison time would be shortened by the law will be released anyway, so they should have the best chance to get jobs and build new lives. Four provisions addressing harsh federal sentencing guidelines have been added  to the House bill during Senate negotiations at the insistence of Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Senate Democrats and others. The final language of this version of the bill has not yet been released, but they are expected to include eliminating a “stacking” regulation making it a federal crime to commit a federal crime while you have a gun, removing a “three strikes and you’re out” mandate that three-time offenders receive a life sentence, expanding “the drug safety valve” to allow judges to make an exception for nonviolent drug offenders when it comes to mandatory minimum sentences, and making the “Fair Sentencing Act” of 2010, which reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and power cocaine, retroactive.


Board Says NY Could Have Prevented 50 Prisoner Deaths

A New York state medical review board concluded that the deaths of about 50 prisoners statewide over the past five years could have been prevented with simple medical treatment. Reviewers found that medical staff failed to conduct basic checkups and mental health screenings.

A New York state medical review board concluded that the deaths of about 50 prisoners statewide over the past five years could have been prevented with simple medical treatment, the New York Daily News reports. Officials with the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision say that even one such case is unacceptable, but that only around 0.02% of the total prison population of nearly 50,000 are referenced by the board. Prisoner advocates counter that the issue is much larger. “It is clear people inside are dying due to inadequate medical and mental health care,” said Jack Beck of the Correctional Association, an inmate advocacy organization. “How many more avoidable deaths will occur before the state addresses these serious and persistent problems?”

Correction Commission review panels repeatedly found medical staff failed to conduct basic checkups and mental health screenings. Doctors and nurses regularly ignored serious ailments until it was too late, according to the reviews. Multiple deaths involved mentally ill prisoners who committed suicide after they were continually tossed in solitary confinement. At least four prisoners died from asthma-related ailments that could have been prevented had they been given inhalers and other medications. The scathing death review reports come as Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushes for a more robust plan to shut down the jails on the city-controlled Rikers Island. Cuomo has done little to improve medical care for the 48,132 prisoners his administration oversees, critics contend. “He really should be looking at his own system and seeing what those problems are,” Beck said.


A Prisoners’ Pen Pal Finds Making Connections is a ‘Beautiful Thing’

For four decades, a Syracuse, N.Y. woman has been writing letters to death row inmates and other prisoners, enriching their lives and hers. But things got a little more personal when she began writing to someone who was a student at an elementary school where she once worked.

Carole Horan of Syracuse, N.Y., has been handwriting letters for 40 years.

As for many people, the era of email and texting hasn’t altered that practice. It takes some extra time of course, but her correspondents have all the time in the world.

All of them are in prison, some on death row.

Horan originally got involved in writing to prisoners through a program based out of Chicago that connected letter-writers with inmates sentenced to death. She never asked them how they feel about getting her letters, but then she had a first-hand experience that provided an answer.

The first man she wrote to was Jeff Dicks of Tennessee. He was on death row for about 17 years before he died of a massive heart attack. In 1979, he had been convicted of murdering an elderly store owner.

Horan felt that Dicks, whom she described as a poor, white man from the South, had a hard time getting a fair trial. Horan added that his mother fought for his innocence, even writing six books about it.

“The first letter was so hard to write because you don’t know what to say or ask,” Horan said.

Horan said that Dicks, like many of the others, was surprised to hear from somebody—anybody.

In his written letters to her, Dicks described his time in solitary confinement, when he was allowed to come out of his cell for only one hour a day. During that hour he had a choice to exercise or take a shower, but as time passed he was allowed to do more — even teach a class.

Horan recalled that Dicks’ handwriting was small because he was depressed. He would talk to her about how long his appeals process was taking, a divorce from his wife, not seeing his daughter, and how he felt his public counsel was being ineffective.

Over a few years, a friendship developed, and Horan eventually got a chance to meet him. While she was visiting, she stayed with his mother, and got to experience what it is like to be in a maximum-security prison.

“To physically see (him) and being able to hug him,” Horan said. “It was pure joy.”

For the first 17 years she was only writing to Dicks, and after he died she stopped for a time, processing it all.

But she soon realized how important the connection could be. Currently, Horan writes to three prisoners, one of them on death row

Horan said she writes the letters by hand using a fountain pen. For most letters she writes, she is usually paired with someone by the Death Row Support Project. But then she reached out to someone whose name she saw in the news.

And that’s when it became even more personal.

His name was Habakkuk Nickens. Horan remembered him as a student when she worked as a secretary at Seymour Elementary School in Syracuse.

She had known all the Nickens children, and she was inspired to reach out to Habakkuk after reading an article in The Stand about efforts he is leading to prevent gang violence in Syracuse’s South Side community — efforts he oversees while behind bars.

Nickens is serving 20 years for gang activity at the Federal Correctional Institution in Ray Brook, New York.

Horan got in contact with him initially through his mother—via email. They have been writing back and forth for over a year now.

“It’s just a beautiful thing,” she said. “(It is a) very loving friendship, and he is doing beautiful work trying to turn his life around.”

Horan has a visit with Nickens scheduled later this month, but her trip could be canceled if the prison is on lockdown, which he tells her has been happening a lot recently.

So far, she has written to 10 incarcerated men. (She has never been paired with a woman.)

Her regular correspondents include “Jonathan,” an inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, who is not on death row; and “Von,” a 72-year-old who has been on death row in Ohio for 35 years.

“You are sharing your life with them,” Horan said. “It’s a lovely thing.”

She does not ask her correspondents questions about what they did that put them behind bars. She sticks instead to how they spend their time and their prison jobs.

She shares stories about her grandchildren, travel and books, and what she or they like to read.

She said “Von” likes to crochet, sharing he was having a hard time completing the feet of a penguin. “Jonathan” makes her laugh, often describing how he doesn’t like working in the fields in Louisiana, where inmates farm crops such as cotton and corn.

“I am not fearful about writing,” Horan said. “I am cautious in the sense that there are things I don’t tell them about me.”

Word has spread about Horan’s efforts. One of her prison correspondents, named “Richard,” gave her name to two other inmates, who then wrote to her. One was “Jonathan,” and the other wanted money.

Horan made clear she never gives money. What she offers instead is friendship—and the rewards are mutual.

Horan shares an image of her pen pal Habakkuk Nickens with his family he sent her. |Photo by Bianca Moorman/The Stand

When she first wrote Nickens, he remembered her from school but didn’t recall what she looked like. So she sent him a picture with her daughters, who Nickens called “Miss Americas.”

He dubbed his pen pal “Miss Universe.”

He shared that he is not a monster; but a changed man. He’s created a program while in prison called Men Educating Neighborhoods (M.E.N.). That impressed Horan.

“What he is working on now is to help men realize that violence is not the answer,” Horan said.

A lot of people who are on death row, said Horan, are rejected by members of their family, so she fills a critical void— which the prisoners themselves admit.

In a recent letter that she received from “Jonathan,” he joked, “(You’ve) got this Pope Francis, Mother Theresa thing going on, haven’t you?”

When she first wrote to Dicks, her original prison pen pal, it took her anywhere from a day to weeks to complete a letter. Now she says it takes her about an hour, or up to three days.

She keeps pictures of all the prisoners she writes — her “friends,” as she calls them — on her refrigerator. She also keeps a box under her bed of letters she has received. Just recently, she went through the box and saw the last letter that she received from “Jeff.”

She reads them for inspiration.

She feels that somehow she is keeping alive a tradition that is fading far too fast.

“A long time ago people wrote letters,” Horan said during a chat at a coffee shop. “I mean real letters—not email letters— to people because long-distance phone calls were really expensive.”

In 1987, households reported receiving 1.6 pieces of personal correspondence each week, according to a U.S. Postal Service survey. By 2015, personal correspondence declined 69 percent, to just 0.5 pieces per household per week.

“One of the beautiful things about writing and receiving [a letter] is that you can read it again and again,” Horan said. “And sometimes in writing, you can say things on paper that are a little hard to say in person.”

And also, she believes that having something handwritten makes it a little more permanent than digital notes in cyberspace.

That’s one reason she intends to keep at it as long as she can.

“To me it is not important what they did,” she said. “(What’s important is) who they are trying to become.”

EDITORS NOTE: If you’re interested in becoming a prisoner’s penpal through the Death Row Support Project, you can find out more by clicking on this link.

This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story published in The Stand, a community newspaper produced in Syracuse, N.Y., in partnership with S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. The full version is available here. Ashley Kang, director of The Stand, is a 2018 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. Click here for an earlier story in The Stand’s “Prison-to-Family series. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Arkansas Prison Population Continues to Rise

The increase is not large — 0.9 percent annually — and it is being held down by a 41 percent drop last year in the number of people sent back to prison for violating terms of probation and parole.

The number of people sent to Arkansas prisons for violating their terms of probation or parole fell more than 41 percent in 2017, as a new law went into effect  aimed at stemming the surge in population, reports the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. For the first time in at least six years, the number of offenders entering probation was more than those going into prison. The good news came with more humbling statistics for a prison system already filled beyond its capacity: The number of state prisoners is expected to grow by 0.9 percent annually over the next decade, adding about 1,869 incarcerated people in one of the nation’s most incarcerated states.

The Arkansas Department of Correction is responsible for about 18,000 prisoners,  with about 1,600 housed in county jails. That number is expected to grow to 19,947 by 2028, according to a report by JFA Associates. The prison system’s capacity is 15,212. Not counting other inmates held by the Arkansas State Police, in county jails or at a contracted lockup in Texas, the system housed 15,552 people Monday. “We continue to do a lot of things, right things to try to lower our population in prison. We’ll continue to try to find more,” said Benny Magness, the chairman of the Board of Corrections. “If we don’t, we’re going to have to increase the number of beds at some point.” A 2011 law offered leniency toward parole violators and absconders. The law led to a drop in the prison population that lasted until 2013, when an absconder killed a teenager in Little Rock in a highly publicized case that led officials to crack down on parole violators. The prison population then boomed, as did projections for growth. At one point, it was estimated that as many as 25,000 people would be incarcerated in Arkansas within the next decade.


Senate May OK Sentencing Reform in Lame-Duck Session

A bipartisan group of senators will attach a set of sentencing reforms to the “First Step Act” already pproved by the House. The additions include shortening three-strike drug penalties from life in prison to 25 years.

Criminal justice reform advocates say sentencing law changes will be included in legislation unveiled soon, triggering an intense lame-duck struggle over attaching penalty reductions to a White House-backed prison reform bill, reports the Washington Examiner. The First Step Act passed the House 360-59 vote this year without sentencing reforms, at the behest of Republican opponents. Reform advocates expect rapid legislative action after Tuesday’s elections and believe there will be enough votes to pass the expanded legislative package. A bipartisan group of senators has agreed to attach a set of sentencing reforms to the House bill.

The additions include shortening three-strike drug penalties from life in prison to 25 years, reducing two-strike drug penalties from 20 years to 15, allowing a firearm sentencing enhancement to run concurrently with the underlying penalty, and allowing retroactive sentencing for crack cocaine cases judged under tougher historical laws. “We are very excited about it. We think that the four reforms that are in the bill are ones that make sense,” said Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries. Holden said the sentencing language will also expand a “safety valve” option for judges to use discretion. There also is wording to reduce concern about illegal immigrants’ benefiting from sentencing reform. Holden expects the White House, particularly presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, to back the bill. Last month, President Trump said Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ opposition to reforms did not represent him. “If he doesn’t [support reform], then he gets overruled by me. Because I make the decision, he doesn’t,” Trump said.


MD Warden Hopes Better Inmate Diet Will Cut Health Costs

After becoming warden of the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, Margaret Chippendale noticed that women were leaving the system a lot heavier than when they arrived. She has cut about 1,000 calories a day from a 3,200-calorie menu filled with carbs.

After becoming warden of the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, Margaret Chippendale noticed that women were leaving the system a lot heavier than when they arrived. She found that women were being served the same food as male prisoners, a 3,200-calorie menu filled with carbs, such as three slices of white bread at a meal “Women here already have a number of health issues,” Chippendale said. “This wasn’t helping.” In an effort to stem the weight gains, and combat chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes that disproportionately affect inmates, she worked with a dietitian to retool the offerings and cut about 1,000 calories a day from the meals, the Baltimore Sun reports

About three years after the effort began, the prison has replaced the white bread with wheat and gives out less. It has added items such as fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as cottage cheese and yogurt full of the calcium the aging female population needs. It serves drinks with less sugar. Chippendale said she eventually expects to show savings on health care costs, including medications, the biggest part of her budget. The women in the prison, who have had a say in the new menus, report greater satisfaction. More are coming to the dining hall rather than eating food they buy in the commissary. They say that has improved morale, which could translate into fewer squabbles and heightened safety. The U.S. Department of Justice found in 2016 that half of prisoners had a chronic health condition and two-thirds were currently on some kind of prescription medication. Close to three-quarters were obese, with women more likely to be so.


LGBTQ Community Overrepresented in Justice System, Report

One-size-fits-all justice systems fail lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people, who experience worse outcomes and are overrepresented in every part of the justice system, according to a new study released by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC).

One-size-fits-all justice systems fail lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people, who experience worse outcomes and are overrepresented in every part of the justice system, according to a new study released by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC).

Authors stated that “about 4 percent of Americans identify as LGBTQ, but only 8 percent of individuals in state and federal prisons and 7 percent of individuals in city and county jails identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.”

Specifically, in Texas, as of July 2018, 4,499 people in Texas prisons identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex, they continued.

The study found that, nationally, between 13 and 15 percent of youth who enter the justice system identify as LGBTQ, with roughly 300,000 LGBTQ youth arrested each year and of the seven million youth that reside in Texas, 158,500 (2 percent) identify as LGBTQ, including 13,800 transgender youth.

“For many LGBTQ youth, the combination of family rejection, mental health conditions, and substance use leaves them with few options for shelter, support, and safety,” said Ryan Carlino, the report author in a released statement.

“As LGBTQ youth shuffle between homes, foster care, shelters, and the streets, they are increasingly more likely to come into contact with law enforcement a situation that is only exacerbated by the lack of access to appropriate mental health and substance use support.”

Unaddressed trauma experienced during childhood may carry forward into adulthood, the study noted.

Often, LGBTQ adults in Texas experience mental health conditions at double the rate of the general population, while also having fewer supports from family and the community and when combined, these factors, contribute to higher rates of incarceration among LGBTQ people, authors said.

TCJC made the following policy recommendations:

  • Expand services and support for unsheltered and homeless LGBTQ youth and adults.
  • Develop a process for LGBTQ youth to obtain new government-issued identification to ensure their gender designation reflects their identified gender.
  • Establish mental health care and substance use services for LGBTQ youth and adults.
  • Require Crisis Intervention Training for law enforcement officers to respond to LGBTQ youth and adults in crisis.
  • Divert LGBTQ individuals out of the justice system and address their needs through community programs.
  • Prohibit discrimination of LGBTQ people in employment and housing; a lack of access to these necessities increases the likelihood of system involvement.
  • Create an independent oversight entity to monitor conditions, allegations of abuse, and deprivation of rights, as well as identify opportunities for improvement for all incarcerated individuals, including vulnerable populations such as those who are LGBTQ.

A full copy of the report can be found here.


U.S. Should Have Prevented Bulger Death: Prosecutor

Carmen Ortiz, the former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts who oversaw the prosecution of James “Whitey” Bulger, said, “Incidents like this should not be happening at a federal prison. I knew he would die in jail…but I had not envisioned this kind of an end.” Bulger, 89, was beaten to death in a West Virginia lockup.

Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger was beaten early Tuesday morning when cell doors in a West Virginia federal prison were unlocked so inmates could leave to eat breakfast, the Wall Street Journal reports. The onetime kingpin of a ruthless gang was pronounced dead soon after. Federal authorities are investigating his death at the U.S. Penitentiary Hazelton as a homicide. One of the suspects is a Mafia hitman from Massachusetts serving a life sentence at the same prison. Bulger, who was 89 and in ailing health, had been at the prison for a day after being transferred from a facility in Florida, where he had lived after his 2013 conviction on a racketeering indictment that included involvement in 11 murders, as well as running a criminal enterprise of drug-dealing, extortion, money-laundering and gun running from the 1970s to the 1990s.

A source said Bulger had requested being placed in the general population. Carmen Ortiz, the former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts who oversaw the prosecution of Bulger, said, “Incidents like this should not be happening at a federal prison. I knew he would die in jail…but I had not envisioned this kind of an end.” The Bureau of Prisons sent experts to the Hazelton complex “to assess operational activities and correctional security practices and measures to determine any relevant facts that may have contributed to the incident.” Ortiz said inmates with ties to organized crime might want Bulger dead, given his alleged role as an FBI informant, which he denied. A suspect is Fotios “Freddy” Geas, 51, a Mafia hit man from West Springfield, Ma., serving a life sentence for the 2003 killing of a Genovese crime family leader. Brian Kelly, a former prosecutor in Massachusetts, called Geas “not somebody you want to mess with in any situation.”


FL Inmate’s Book Tells of Prison System’s Horrors

Harold Hempstead is publishing a 400-page book about major problems in Florida prisons. He describes guards starving inmates and a system overrun with gang members who routinely slash other inmates from mouth to ear.

Four years ago, Harold Hempstead stunned the Florida prison system and unleashed a major scandal when he described to the Miami Herald how officers at Dade Correctional Institution locked an inmate in a small, rigged shower room, turned the water on full hot and left him screaming for mercy for nearly two hours, until he collapsed and died. Prosecutors held no one accountable for the death of Darren Rainey, serving a short stint on a minor drug charge. As a “reward” for speaking out, Hempstead says he was threatened by corrections staff, put in isolation, shuttled from prison to prison, and forced to share cells with drug fiends and killers before being exiled to the Tennessee prison system, the Herald reports.

Now, Hempstead portrays in a self-published book what can only be described as a life lived in the pit of hell. He hopes to have it on Amazon by February. What he relates in a 400-page book is shocking: Guards occasionally starved inmates, feeding them meal-time “air trays” filled with nothing. When food was actually delivered, it might be laced with urine, feces, laxatives, medication or cleaning chemicals. Inmates shivered and sweated through wildly gyrating temperatures in un-air-conditioned units. The plumbing at one facility was so dismal that human waste would spill out onto the floor. Hempstead writes about a system overrun with gang members, where inmates are routinely sliced from mouth to ear with makeshift blades. Those gashes, inflicted by fellow inmates, are called “buck fifties,” because they require 150 stitches to sew up. Hempstead’s decision to tell the Herald about the shower death of Rainey led to the exit of the corrections secretary, a heightened focus on investigating abusive officers and an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.


WVA Prison Where Bulger Died Called ‘Very Understaffed’

Officers at the federal Hazelton prison in Bruceton Mills, W.Va., where Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger was killed call it “Misery Mountain.” Guards report they are working too much overtime.

The saga of James “Whitey” Bulger came to an end in an unexpected place: Bruceton Mills, W.Va., shocking a tiny town tucked next to the Cheat River, the Boston Globe reports. “This guy, he’s taken other people’s lives. He didn’t belong here. He just didn’t belong here,” said the manager of a gas and food depot a quarter-mile from the facility. “They made sure of that.” Bulger had been in the federal prison only 11 hours before he was killed. Officers at the Hazelton penitentiary call it “Misery Mountain,” said John Driscoll, a retired 68-year-old produce warehouse manager. “They’re very understaffed,” Driscoll said. “I’ve heard a couple guards say they’re working too many hours of overtime.”

The killing was a front-page story in the local Dominion Post — “Infamous Gangster Killed at Hazelton” — along with an article about a man who admitted to strangling a 13-year-old cat. Bruceton Mills and the Hazelton prison are closely intertwined, and prison guards come downtown for haircuts or drinks at a smoky bar with a single pool table called the Post Office Lounge. The prison is a source of jobs in the area. It can also be a source of unease, with headlines about killings — there were already two this year at the prison before Bulger — and complaints over staffing shortages. “We’ve been reading about how they’re short on staff, but I didn’t realize they were that short,” said a local waitress. Still, she added, her cousin works there and likes it: “He knew that he was helping out by being there, watching, protecting.”