SC Prison Report Warned of Staff Shortages Before Riot: Paper

A report commissioned by the state found half of South Carolina’s prisons had fewer than 50 percent of the recommended staff. A month after the report was issued, a riot at the Lee Correctional Facility in Bishopville, S.C., left seven dead and 22 injured.

One month before the violence in South Carolina’s Lee Correctional facility left seven dead and 22 injured, a report commissioned by the state Department of Corrections warned that the state’s prison system was operating with half the staff required to keep it safe, reports the Charleston Post and Courier.  Columnist Steve Bailey said the 320-page report warned the state would have to double the current staff to more than 4,000 to meet industry standards.

The report written by Tom Roth, a former Illinois warden, was issued a month before the facility in Bishopville, SC exploded in what Bailey said was “America’s deadliest riot in a quarter century.” Roth visited 13 men’s and women’s state prisons, including Lee Correctional. Half the prisons had fewer than 50 percent of the recommended staff — one just 38 percent. Not a single prison had more than 62 percent of the needed manpower, said Bailey, who obtained the report after a Freedom of Information request. He noted that about 178 pages of the document were redacted — “including staffing levels for every prison and who knows what else?”


‘First Step’ Error Prevents Federal Inmates’ Release

Federal prisoners who were expecting release for good behavior under the First Step Act must keep waiting because of an error in the statute. The law confused ‘good behavior” credits with “earned time” credits, which do not reduce a sentence.

Federal prisoners who were expecting release for good behavior under the First Step Act must keep waiting because of an error in the statute, Reuters reports. Potentially thousands of inmates could be affected by the error in the law signed Dec. 21 by President Trump. The law requires the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to recalculate good behavior credits, a step expected to reduce some inmates’ sentences by as many as 54 days per year. Previously, inmates could only earn up to 47 days per year toward early release for good behavior.

Advocates expected the bill’s enactment meant that several thousand inmates would get their freedom in time for the 2018 holiday season. A drafting error prevented the Justice Department from immediately applying the new method of calculating good-behavior credits. “It’s a frustrating mistake,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). Activists said the law confused good-behavior credits, which reduce a sentence, with earned-time credits, which do not. Earned-time credits allow certain inmates to qualify for early transfer to halfway houses. The law mistakenly said that new rules on good-behavior credits could not kick in until BOP finishes a risk-assessment process for deciding which inmates can get earned-time credits. Last week, a federal judge in Chicago denied a prisoner’s request to be released earlier for good behavior, citing the law. “This court is not unsympathetic to the apparent inequity of petitioner’s situation,” wrote U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman. “This court, however, is obligated to apply the law as it is written.” Advocates said the White House is seeking a way to fix the mistake.


GA Agrees to Improve Solitary Confinement Conditions

Inmates have been confined in cells “smaller than the average parking space,” and inmates could have only 5 hours each week outside of the cells. One expert said the solitary confinement area was “as chaotic and out-of-control” as any unit he had seen.

The Georgia Department of Corrections agreed to improve prison conditions at a solitary confinement unit that one inspector found to have created some of the most psychologically traumatized inmates he’d ever encountered, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. The agreement is part of a settlement of a lawsuit brought by inmates who served years in solitary in the 192-bed “special management unit” at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. As described by inmates’ lawyers, some were confined in solitary cells for years under such draconian conditions that they suffered irreversible psychological harm. The cells were described as “smaller than the average parking space” and inmates could have only 5 hours each week outside of the cells.

Under the settlement, inmates will not be held in the cells for more than two years, except under special circumstances, and will be allowed outside their cells for 4 hours each day. While the settlement applies to only to one prison, there are indications the changes could be used elsewhere. “The settlement represents a change in culture for (the Department of Corrections) and a realization and an acknowledgement of the profound harms caused by long-term isolated confinement,” said Sarah Geraghty, a lawyer for inmates. “We … look forward to seeing similar reforms of other isolation units across the state.” The corrections department said it had reduced the total in solitary confinement by 40 percent. Craig Haney of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who specializes in the psychological effects of imprisonment, inspected the prison, which has almost 2,500 beds and is the location for Georgia’s Death Row and executions. The atmosphere in the solitary unit, he said, was “as chaotic and out-of-control as any such unit I have seen in decades of conducting evaluations.” Some of the inmates’ psychological harm, he found, “may be irreversible and even fatal.”


Shutdown Called ‘Absolute Disaster’ for Federal Prisons

Guards are working without pay, and inmates are going without mental-health services. Some inmate visits with families were cancelled and terminally ill prisoners must wait longer for release.

During the ongoing partial government shutdown, prison guards are working without pay. The federal Bureau of Prisons has furloughed up to half of its 36,000-person staff, including many who provide therapeutic programs and other services considered not “essential,” reports The Marshall Project. The agency is asking its remaining employees to focus on maintaining security even if that’s not their primary job. This could remain the state of affairs until the next pay cycle in late January or for months, as President Trump considers declaring a national emergency to bypass Congress in the funding dispute. “It’s an absolute disaster,” said John Kostelnik of the American Federation of Government Employees chapter in Victorville, Ca., home to a large concentrations of prison guards. “I have staff that are resorting to getting second employment—like Uber driving.”

Federal corrections officers had been affected by administration immigration policies: Victorville took in 1,000 immigrant detainees in June. The shutdown has other consequences. Some inmate visits with families have been canceled. Terminally ill inmates awaiting “compassionate release” to die at home with their families must wait longer because their applications are going unread. A prison stopped ordering food and toiletries for prisoners to purchase. “They’re out of most of everything,” said inmate Seth Piccolo at the Petersburg, Va., prison. A more urgent problem, said Robert Hood, former warden of the federal supermax penitentiary in Florence, Co., is the possibility of mental-health staff being furloughed for a long period. When a federal prison in Marianna, Fl., was damaged by Hurricane Michael in October,  hundreds of inmates were relocated to Yazoo City, Ms., 400 miles away. Corrections officers must commute there, a seven-hour drive, for two-week stints. They are getting no reimbursement for gas, meals and laundry, expenses that can run hundreds of dollars per trip, the New York Times reports.


Federal Prisons Tolerate Employee Misconduct: Report

Serious misconduct by senior federal prison officials is “largely tolerated or ignored altogether” as the agency culture shielded some from discipline or even commended them for their service, finds a report for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Serious misconduct by senior federal prison officials is “largely tolerated or ignored altogether” as the agency culture shielded some from discipline or even commended them for their service, finds a new congressional review reported by USA Today. “For high-ranking officers, bad behavior is ignored or covered up on a regular basis, and certain officials who should be investigated can avoid discipline,” said  investigators for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The review is the latest rebuke of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, where severe staffing shortages, persistent sexual harassment claims and inmate violence have persisted for years.

In November, the Justice Department’s inspector general cited numerous operational  “challenges” confronting the agency as it detailed problems managing its 12,567 female inmates. “For the seventh consecutive year, the need to more effectively manage the federal prison system was included as a top challenge for the department,” Inspector General Michael Horowitz told the same House panel. “Staffing and overcrowding present constant challenges for BOP in carrying out its mission to confine offenders in safe, humane, and cost-efficient environments.” The new congressional review went further, presenting a blistering account of a disciplinary process that allowed wardens and other senior leaders to operate outside the agency’s own rules. “The committee reviewed cases where some individuals deemed responsible for misconduct were shuffled around, commended, awarded, promoted or even allowed to retire with a clean record and full benefits before any disciplinary action could apply,” the report said. “Documents and testimony also showed disciplinary action was delayed in some cases to allow senior leaders to retire unscathed.”


VA Women’s Prison Health Care Violates Law, Judge Says

After four inmates die, a federal judge ruled that Virginia’s Fluvanna prison is failing to provide adequate medical care and must make immediate changes to end what amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

One Virginia prisoner was not seen by a doctor after collapsing and complaining of shortness of breath; she died that day of heart failure. A second woman’s rapid weight gain and severe chest pain were ignored until her heart failed. For a third, it was sudden weight loss, wheezing and back pain; she was found dead during her dialysis, after a nurse left her unattended. A fourth died after her neurological disorder went undiagnosed until she had a stroke. All were inmates at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women (FCCW). A federal judge has ruled that the state prison is failing to provide adequate medical care and must make immediate changes to end what amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, the Washington Post reports.

“Over six years ago, women at FCCW filed this lawsuit, seeking a remedy for pervasive constitutionally deficient medical care,” Judge Norman Moon wrote. “Their quest continues.” His ruling comes after a Justice Department investigation concluded that a Portsmouth, Va., jail also was failing inmates and probably violating the Constitution. The Fluvanna suit was brought by the Legal Aid Justice Center, whose Shannon Ellis said the “opinion flatly rejects the state’s attempts to point the finger elsewhere and confirms that the state has only itself to blame for the tragic state of healthcare at FCCW.” Moon approved a settlement agreement between Fluvanna and prisoners in 2016, requiring substantial reforms. Three years later, he wrote, the prison is continuing to flout the law. There are still few too nurses, he found, who often fail to follow through on required work. Vaccines are not given; test results are not relayed. Even emergency transportation arrives when needed barely more than 50 percent of the time.


More States Count Inmates As Residents of Home Areas

The change generally shifts political power away from conservative rural areas to more liberal cities during legislative redistricting. New York and Maryland made the change after the 2010 census, and California and Delaware will start with the next redistricting cycle after the 2020 count.

More states will count state prisoners as residents of their home communities rather than the places where they are incarcerated — a change that would shift political power away from conservative rural areas to more liberal cities during legislative redistricting, reports Stateline. Many inmates hail from neighborhoods in or near cities, but most are incarcerated in small towns and rural areas. Counting prisoners as residents of their hometowns would boost the legislative representation of Democratic-leaning urban areas with large minority populations while diminishing the power of Republican, mostly white rural areas. New York and Maryland made the change after the 2010 census, and California and Delaware will start with the next redistricting cycle after the 2020 count. Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey could follow suit.

Then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, said the idea “smacks of political opportunism” when in 2017 he vetoed a bill that would have shifted prisoners to their home communities for the drawing of legislative districts. Proponents say it’s only fair to draw districts for prison-hosting communities without the prisoners. The prisoners generally can’t vote or participate in local politics, so they shouldn’t be considered constituents, critics say. A federal judge agreed in 2016 when he declared the commission districts in Jefferson County, Fl., home of the Jefferson Correctional Institution, to be unconstitutional. “To treat the inmates the same as actual constituents makes no sense,” U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote. “Such treatment greatly dilutes the voting and representational strength of denizens in other districts.” Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in redistricting, agreed. “The presence of a prison population in a local district,” he said, “simply distorts representation … I emphatically don’t think this is partisan issue.”


Private Prisons Cost State More, Georgia Audit Finds

Georgia pays two private prison companies almost $140 million a year to house 15 percent of its inmate population–double what the state spent on private prisons 12 years ago, according to the audit, which also predicted a rise of more than 1,200 inmates in the next half-decade.

While the growth in Georgia’s prison population has slowed after years of changes in the criminal justice system, the inmate count is expected to rise by more than 1,200 inmates in the next half-decade, according to a new state audit reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Had we not been doing criminal justice reform, that 1,200 number would probably be 7,500 or so,” said House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, whose panel requested the audit. The report raises a broader question about who should house those new inmates.

The audit says it costs the state more to house inmates in private prisons than state facilities, which is contrary to long-held beliefs of lawmakers who back privatization of government. The state pays two private prison companies almost $140 million a year to house 15 percent of its inmate population.

That’s about double what the state spent on private prisons 12 years ago. Florida-based GEO Group and Nashville-based CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America are active political players at the Capitol. Their contributions to  candidates and political action committees in the most recent election cycle totaled more than $300,000.

Georgia spends $1.2 billion a year housing prisoners. In the year ending June 30, the state averaged just over 50,000 inmates a day, including those in private facilities and county correctional institutions.

When Gov. Nathan Deal took office in 2011, Georgia led the nation in criminal supervision, with 1 in 13 people locked up, on probation or on parole. The state was spending about what it is now on its prison system. If nothing changed, two new adult prisons would have had to have been built at a cost of $264 million.

Deal, with support from lawmakers, began a years-long effort to alter that trend, reducing certain nonviolent felonies to misdemeanor offenses.


Federal Inmates Await Releases Under First Step Act

It’s not clear how soon the Bureau of Prisons will implement the new law, which should lead to the quick release of 4,000 prisoners.

President Trump shortened the sentences of thousands of prisoners by signing the First Step Act a few days before Christmas, but inmates and their frustrated families say they are afraid the gift won’t be delivered very soon, reports the Washington Examiner. Silence from the Federal Bureau of Prisons is creating fear that foot-dragging will eat into reductions mandated by the law, which gives many prisoners an extra seven days off their sentences for each year of good behavior. it’s unclear when authorities will make the calculations. “Literally, my brother has packed his stuff and is waiting for the call,” said Veda Ajamu, whose brother Robert Shipp, 46, has served 25 years of a drug sentence. Shipp had a November 2019 release date, but the law would shave off about 175 days, potentially making him eligible for a halfway house or home confinement.

“Some families have loved ones who they know would be home tomorrow,” said Kevin Ring of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “People are very concerned about when this is going to get done. Congress has passed this. It’s in effect.” Advocates estimate that 4,000 federal prisoners will be released almost immediately under the good-time expansion. A smaller number can petition courts for old crack cocaine sentences to be reduced. Part of the delay may be explained by lack of implementation guidance. “We are currently reviewing the new legislation to determine implementation guidance for BOP and other DOJ components,” said Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle.


Price Tag of Prison Reform Bill Put at $346M

The Congressional Budget Office said much of the cost would be due to released inmates’ taking advantage of federal benefit like Medicare and Medicaid. One analyst said the report didn’t take into account taxes to be paid by ex-inmates and savings from recidivism reduction.

A plan to beef up federal prison rehabilitation programs being pushed by President Trump and congressional leaders from both parties will cost taxpayers $346 million over the next 10 years, says the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), McClatchy Newspapers reports. If approved by Congress, the measure is expected to reduce the number of federal prisoners by 53,000. The Bureau of Prisons estimates there are 180,000 federal inmates. Most reductions would occur in the first year, due to the laws retroactive sentencing changes.

Texas implemented similar reforms to its state prison system more than a decade ago, saving more than $4 billion between 2006 and 2016, says the criminal justice reform advocacy group Right on Crime. Those savings — after an initial investment of $241 million in rehabilitation programs — have served as the inspiration for similar reform efforts in states like Kentucky, Georgia and South Carolina. “This all started because people wanted to save money,” says Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries,a major proponent of the reforms. “They came for the savings but they stayed for the salvation,” Holden said of the states that followed Texas’ lead. The CBO report chalked up the price tag of the federal bill up to the release of federal prisoners who could soon take advantage of government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Right on Crime’s Marc Levin said that the CBO’s report did not factor in federal taxes the released prisoners would pay if they get jobs. The CBO also did not assess savings from recidivism reduction, something Texas and other states have experienced since implementing their reforms, said Levin. He suggested as well that fewer prison staffers could be necessary after incarceration rates decrease.