Do White Men Still Have a Singular Claim to Power in Politics?

In a new podcast, titled “The Dream Was Not Mine,” on The United States of Anxiety, produced by WNYC studios, Amanda Aronczyk and Nancy Solomon explore how midterm elections could be affected by the rise of women pushing back against sexual and domestic abuse in politics and in the White House.

In a new podcast, titled “The Dream Was Not Mine,” on The United States of Anxiety, produced by WNYC studios, Amanda Aronczyk and Nancy Solomon explore how midterm elections could be affected by the rise of women pushing back against sexual and domestic abuse in politics and in the White House.

“This election cannot be separated from the #MeToo movement that has erupted over the past year,” said host Kai Wright.

“We have to consider the private, personal way male power has operated in lives of thousands of women and what it means for women not challenge that power.”

Jennifer Willoughby

Jennifer Willoughby. Photo by Howard Kurtz from Fox New’s Media Buzz.

Jennifer Willoughby, Rob Porter’s ex wife (who was the former White House Staff Secretary) challenged that power when she spoke out against her husband’s physical, mental and emotional abuse.

“I wanted the white, middle-class life… until I didn’t. The marriage was a mess,” Willoughby described in the podcast.  According to Willoughby, the only way to survive, and not commit suicide, was to leave the abusive marriage. And in 2013, she did.

When the FBI was combing through Porter’s file during a background check, they reached out to Willoughby and she told them, in detail, about the domestic violence in her marriage. Shortly afterwards, the media got hold of the story, and Porter’s abuse became public.

However, not many in the White House believed the allegations, and actively rejected Willoughby’s claim.

The White House demonstrated they didn’t care,  said Wright. They called Rob Porter a man of dignity and honor.

But Willoughby stood her ground and rejected a man’s assertion of power in her life, Wright continued.

“She began to question the very nature of power and privilege. She realized truly challenging power means re imagining it all together,” the podcast said.

Now, women have developed a different idea about what they want from our democracy and how they can get it, according to the podcast.

A  record number of women running for office, including Stacey Abrams, an African-American woman running for governor in Georgia, and  Christine Hallquist, a transgender woman running for governor in Vermont, the podcast noted.

“Many of them are women who looked up after 2016 election and said something has got to change.”

A full copy of the show can be found here.

Amanda Aronczyk of WNYC public radio in New York is a 2018 John Jay Justice Reporting Fellow. This podcast was produced for her domestic violence reporting fellowship project.


North Dakota Changes the Rules on Solitary

In a response to the growing consensus that the practice of solitary confinement  is cruel and ineffective, North Dakota has reduced the number of infractions that sends prisoners into isolation—and has changed how inmates are treated if they are sent into “administrative segregation.” The reforms came after a visit by Leann Bertsch, the state’s prison chief, to Norway.

Among the slightly more than two million people incarcerated in the United States, thousands serve time in solitary confinement, isolated in small often windowless cells for 22 to 24 hours a day. Some remain isolated for weeks, months or even years.

In recent years, there has been a growing consensus that the practice of solitary confinement, sometimes known as “administrative consensus,” is cruel and ineffective.

North Dakota is one state that is addressing the drive for change..

Thanks to efforts by  Leann Bertsch, North Dakota’s director of corrections and rehabilitation, and president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators, the state has begun to change solitary from an exclusively punitive  approach to one aimed at changing behavior and helping inmates develop new skills that they can use when they are released from administrative segregation—and from prison.

Her inspiration came after a trip to Norway organized by U.S. prison reform groups.

Bertsch called it a defining moment and decided to speed up reforms already in the works for the state’s prison system.

“There’s such an overemphasis on punishment and punitiveness,” Bertsch says. “You know Norway talks about punishment that works and when they mean it to work, it’s to actually make society safer by getting people to be law-abiding individuals and desist from future reoffending.”

North Dakota prison officials met to figure out how to do that in the United States.

Bertsch says they worked to define what could land people in segregated housing in the first place.

“There were a lot of different behaviors that could get you in before so we really narrowed it down,” she says.

The Old Prison Philosophy

Solitary confinement goes by many names: the hole, isolation, protective custody, the SHU (special housing unit). Whatever the name, its designed purpose is to punish disruptive inmates who break rules and to keep the prison safe by removing them from the general population.

But for many inmates,  it left psychological scars.

“You’re shut off from the world and you wait,” says Olay Silva, a 41-year-old inmate serving time in Bismarck, N.D.’s maximum-security prison. Silva spent six months in solitary after he was involved in a stabbing.

“You just sit there and wait.”

During a tour of the state penitentiary in Bismarck, Chief of Security Joe Charvat walks over to the West Wing and gestures toward the solid doors that close off the entrance of each cell.

“This area used to house our administrative segregation unit which has since been moved to another area,” he explains.

“Administrative segregation” used to be the prison system’s name for solitary confinement. In those days, there was little contact between corrections officers and those behind the doors. Warden Colby Braun says for years,

North Dakota’s isolation unit operated just like many others.

“It was 23 hours a day lockdown. So you had one hour of recreation a day including showers. That was for five days a week,” he says. “So on the weekends you were generally locked down for 24 hours… you were in your cell, you do not come out for any reason.”

The European Influence

Now things are different. There’s much more recreation time for inmates in solitary. Prisoners spend several hours learning new skills. And they also focus on changing their behavior.

They dropped minor infractions like talking back to a corrections officer, and created a top 10 list of dangerous behaviors, such as serious assault, using a weapon and murder. The new name for the prison’s segregated housing became Behavior Intervention Unit (BIU).

Clinical Director Lisa Peterson says the goal is to help people succeed after they leave, as it was clear the old way wasn’t working.

“The idea that somebody is just going to sit there and think about what they did and magically know how to handle a situation differently in the future is not accurate. So we have to be pro-active in helping people know how to change,” Peterson says.

The state penitentiary in Bismarck can house about 800 inmates. They are mostly white. Native Americans make up the largest minority population. In late 2015 when North Dakota started changing its solitary confinement practice, there were 80 to 90 people in isolation. In late June of this year, there were only about 20.

The people in the unit go through a mental health screening to determine in part if they have any suicidal thoughts. They participate in group therapeutic sessions, and learn skills, such as how to cope with anger.

As correctional officers make their rounds, they talk with inmates about how they’re doing. Instead of just writing up an inmate for any negative behavior, officers also write “positive behavior reports” for any positive activity they notice. Skill building and rapport building are big at the prison now.

Solitary’s Impact

In the BIU, Cell 102 is empty. The door has a long vertical window plus a slot for food. Warden Braun walks in and sits on the slim mattress on top of the metal bed. In the room, there’s also a metal toilet and sink, a small metal desk and seat.

What’s surprisingly different is that there also are several electrical outlets in the room. Some prisoners who own a TV or a tablet can have it in the cell. Another narrow, vertical window lets in light from outside.


Chief of Security Joe Charvat walks the halls of the state penitentiary’s Behavior Intervention Unit (BIU) — the prison’s name for solitary confinement. Typically there are about 20 inmates in the cells, far fewer than in previous years. by Cheryl Corley/NPR

“So when you get closer to the end of the wing, the person can actually see cars going by,” Braun says.

Medical groups have issued strong warnings about how prolonged isolation causes human damage — depression, anxiety, a loss of contact with reality and suicide, especially among the mentally ill. The United Nations and other groups call it torture and say in most cases, solitary confinement should be banned. In North Dakota, the average stay for inmates, with some exceptions, is 30 to 45 days.

Inmates Respond 

Michael Taylor says the first time he landed in the old segregation unit it was for using the law library without permission.

Taylor says he was angry and acted out whenever he was placed in solitary.

“I would go back there and trash the tiers,” the 21-year-old says. “I’d argue with staff, I just didn’t care.”

Taylor says working with the therapists in the new solitary unit has made a difference. So much so that Taylor says he’d like to become a counselor after he gets out.

lay Silva agrees the switch has helped change an often tense situation between inmates, whom Silva says would curse the prison staff, and corrections officers who would often ignore the people in solitary or didn’t get them things they needed.

“That’s not really the case a lot now,” Silva says. Now officers “reward you for being involved. They don’t let you just sit back there and just basically dwell.”

Staff Buy-In Wasn’t Easy

Corrections Director Bertsch says getting buy-in from the staff wasn’t easy. The staff had to overcome the damaging perception that violence would increase and that the changes would put them at risk.

“We still have some resistance,” Bertsch says, “but when we started doing this, there was a lot of resistance and some people just needed to leave.”

Even Warden Braun had misgivings.

“I was scared to death,” he says. “I was scared for staff. I was scared for the facility. I was scared when we talked about specific guys leaving, and I was wrong.”

One of the staffers who stayed on the job is Case Manager David Roggenbuck, who oversees officers and activities in the BIU. He worked previously as an officer in the old solitary unit and was skeptical about the change at first.

“Kind of the mindset is if you don’t like being in prison, don’t come. Don’t commit a crime, don’t come. You’re here — well, tough cookies,” he says. “I’ve really looked at that and what does that accomplish? If I have that type of mentality, all that’s going to do is keep a person the same as when they came in, if not make them worse.”

Roggenbuck admits it took him awhile to change his attitude. Now, he says, everyone deserves a second chance.

For Sgt. Frantz Jean-Pierre, the switch to a unit that focuses on behavior has meant that he and other corrections officers get to know the people in the unit on a more personal level — not just as some inmate locked up in a cell. Jean-Pierre says he believes the changes have made a difference.

“In 2016 we probably had an incident down here on our shift at least maybe three or four times a week. By incident,” Jean-Pierre explains,” I mean someone trying to commit suicide, or someone trying to flood their cell, or being completely disorderly. We haven’t hardly had any of that this year. I think we’ve had one or two on our shift.”

North Dakota Advantages

North Dakota corrections officials admit that changing the prison’s solitary confinement policy may be less difficult in a state with a mostly homogenous prison population and few prison gangs.

Cheryl Corley

Cheryl Corley. Photo by Steve Barrett/NPR

Even with the reform efforts though, North Dakota officials say there are some prisoners too dangerous to eliminate segregated housing completely.

Corrections Director Bertsch says even so, prison has to be about providing an opportunity for change so that North Dakota’s effort to use solitary confinement as little as possible,  and in a different way makes sense.

Cheryl Corley, a correspondent for NPR’s national desk in Chicago, is a 2-18 John Jay Justice Reporting Fellow.  An earlier version of this story was broadcast on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”


Rural Jails Grapple With Opioid Epidemic’s ‘Revolving Door’

One of the biggest barriers to fighting the spreading opioid epidemic in rural northeast Washington is the lack of providers authorized to prescribe  drugs for treating opioid dependence. That’s why local jails need support for providing medication-assisted treatment, says a local doctor.

In 2013, Dr. Barry Bacon saw two problems: an area overrun with opioid addiction, and a revolving local county jail door that sweeps addicts in as quickly as it shoves them out.

The now-60-year-old Spokane, Wa., physician, along with another doctor who worked in the  jail in Stevens County in northeastern Washington state, hatched a plan to offer people treatment while they’re locked up.

“Ninety-five percent of people in the jail were dealing with an opioid addiction at some point and the fallout from a life out of control,” Bacon says, anecdotally. “Options [for treatment] were limited, and we were basically just punishing people for dealing with addiction.”

Bacon’s efforts to use what’s known as medication-assisted treatment — where patients are prescribed one of three drugs approved by the FDA to treat opioid dependence — is part of a national conversation about how to address the opioid epidemic.

Along with a behavioral health counselor, Bacon started volunteering his time seeing Stevens County inmates in Colville, Wa., offering to start them on Suboxone, which contains the drug buprenorphine and is considered by many experts as the standard of care for opioid addiction.

After about a year, Bacon says nine out of the 19 people he’d started treating were doing “measurably better.” They were no longer taking illegal drugs. They were moving their lives forward in work, school, housing and familial relationships, he says — what he considers a major success.

But by 2015, Bacon had to stop prescribing to new patients in the jail. He was maxed out on the number of people he could legally prescribe Suboxone to, he says. (To prevent abuse, doctors are limited on the number of patients they can prescribe these drugs to.) Bacon continued to treat those patients until 2017 when he resigned from his job as a physician in Northeast Washington Health Programs and moved out of Stevens County for personal reasons.

The problem was, few other physicians in the area were authorized to prescribe the drug, he says. Due to a lack of money, knowledge or willingness of health providers, or some combination of the three, Bacon says he could no longer continue seeing patients in Stevens County.

“I was treating more people in Colville than all of Stevens County combined,” he says. “Patients were scrambling. Some bailed and said, ‘I guess I’ll just wean myself off.'”

Bacon believes the biggest barriers in rural northeast Washington, which extend to the jails in that area, are the lack of providers authorized to prescribe the drugs as well as those willing to become authorized.

Studies show that treating people with methadone or buprenorphine before they’re released from incarceration, and connecting them with services in the community afterward, increases the likelihood they’ll continue treatment and reduces the risk of death after release. Drug treatment behind bars has also been shown to reduce crime, recidivism and the cost to taxpayers.

Now, five years after Bacon began treating people in the Stevens County Jail, three corrections officials in those northeast rural counties say people addicted to opioids continue to cycle through their jail doors. Bacon aims to work with providers and jails in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties to begin prescribing Suboxone again.

“I recognized how important this was and how few are doing it in rural areas,” Bacon says. “It’s really good medicine, and not just the drug, but in terms of restoring lives to sanity.”

There are approximately 47,700 Washingtonians addicted to opioids, according research from University of Washington professors Marc Stern and Lucinda Grande. More than half of those people, about 25,500, will exit the doors of a Washington jail this year, Stern and Grande estimate.

“The numbers showed us that the jails are the epicenter of the opioid crisis,” Stern says. “So in some ways, the jail is unfortunately the perfect place to address this problem. It’s where you can change behaviors and turn someone’s life around.”

Stern and Grande’s research — a survey of 33 jails across the state, of various locations and sizes — shows a “high level of interest” for medication-assisted treatment among jail administrators. A lack of resources, as in doctors legally authorized to prescribe the drugs, and in money available in jails’ budgets to pay for them, as well as gaps in knowledge, were among the biggest barriers, Stern says.

For example, “some [jail officials] were not aware that patients can die from complications such as dehydration due to vomiting and diarrhea, or suicide due to distress from opioid withdrawal symptoms,” he writes in the report.

Fourteen of the 33 jails surveyed offer at least one of the three drugs approved to treat opioid dependence, the most common being buprenorphine (one of the active drugs in Suboxone).

None of the smaller facilities included in the survey (average population of less than 50 people) offered medication-assisted treatment.

“It’s the smaller places that are really challenged in resources and knowledge,” Stern says. “It’s disproportionately harder to provide good health care in a small jail.”

The Washington State Opioid Response Plan calls for “jails and prisons to initiate and/or maintain incarcerated persons on medications for opioid use disorder.”

This year, the state has applied for a federal grant worth about $21 million to increase access to medication for opioid treatment in jails and the community generally, says Charissa Fotinos, deputy chief medical officer for the state Health Care Authority.

“Many jails in the state are interested in starting people on medication-assisted treatment or continuing it,” Fotinos says. “One challenge jails have had is the medication is expensive. People’s Medicaid is suspended, and jails don’t have a way to pay for buprenorphine.”

She adds that one of the state’s priorities is to target people released from jails and prisons “because they’re at the highest risk for a fatal opioid overdose.”

Additionally, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is suing Whatcom County on the west side over its refusal to offer this treatment to jail inmates. A decision in favor of the ACLU would be “groundbreaking” and could set a statewide precedent, ACLU spokesman Doug Honig says.

The need for opioid treatment in three of Eastern Washington’s northern rural counties is apparent to those who watch the jail population cycle in and out of custody.

Although none of the jail facilities in Ferry, Stevens or Pend Oreille counties currently track how many people pass through their doors struggling with opioid dependence, there are some general indicators.

For example, felony drug charges filed in Stevens County, with a population of about 43,700 people, shot up from 35 in 2013 to 131 in 2017. As of June, prosecutors had already filed 50 felony drug cases, though not every charge involves opioids. For the tri-county area that includes Ferry and Pend Oreille, 33 percent of all criminal charges filed in 2017 involved drugs.

Additionally, the opioid prescription rate for those counties — 106, 97 and 104 respectively per 1,000 people — is significantly higher than the statewide rate of 77.

Consider the Ferry County Jail, a 45-bed facility in Republic, as an example. Both the jail’s superintendent, Shawn Davis, and the Ferry County prosecutor, Kathryn Burke, agree that drug addiction and the crime that comes with it are significant issues.

But there are currently no providers in Ferry County who can prescribe buprenorphine or methadone, Davis says.

“The population of locals in the jail is growing due to drug charges and the heroin epidemic,” he says. “We typically have one or two people on a rolling basis that require that attention or treatment.”

Beyond the logistical barrier, Davis says he is concerned about inmates potentially abusing or selling their drugs to others, which is a common objection from jail administrators across the country. But, he says, if someone comes into the facility with a prescription, the jail is required to provide the appropriate medication. Short of that, inmates can be left to go cold turkey or are taken to the hospital.

“It’s hard to prevent prescription drugs from being smuggled back into the population,” Davis says. “Inmates will swallow hydros, for example, go back to their room and throw them up and hand them off. It’s amazing what people are willing to do to get some kind of high when they’re addicted.”

Davis says he is generally not supportive of medication-assisted treatment, which he believes is essentially trading one addiction for another.

Additionally, Ferry County’s therapeutic drug court specifically restricts participants from taking drugs such as buprenorphine and methadone, Burke says. Generally, drug courts are carrot-and-stick alternatives to traditional prosecution where participants agree to complete court-ordered drug treatment, and in exchange their charges can be dismissed.

However, Burke acknowledges that “some people probably really do need it, so if we had the ability to do it in our jail, I wouldn’t oppose it.”

For Bacon, the lack of providers in Ferry County is precisely why a medication-assisted treatment program is high priority.

An essential piece of that work, Bacon says, will be connecting people with services and resources after they’re released from jail.

Throughout Washington, there is a patchwork of medication-assisted treatment in jails — from Spokane County’s methadone program, to Ferry County’s complete lack of providers, to Whatcom County’s refusal to provide such treatment to Island County’s full-tilt support. In Spokane, eight people have died in the jail since June 2017, including one woman on Aug. 25. Several of the deaths are suspected to be drug related.

Last week, the Spokane County medical examiners ruled that one of the eight people, 52-year-old David Good, died after choking on his own vomit and that “opiate and methamphetamine intoxication” played a role. Jail medical staff had directed that Good be checked every 15 minutes. But 32 minutes passed from a guard’s last check and the time Good was found not breathing, according to internal records.

In Island County, located north of Seattle, before the jail started prescribing Suboxone, inmates were transported two counties away to receive opioid treatment, Chief Jail Administrator Jose Briones says.

“We have a captivated audience, and we can put them through treatment rather than warehouse them and set them on the same track they were on before,” Briones says. “We’re not going to have people suffering through withdrawals in our facility.”

Briones adds that Island County’s drug court does not exclude people who take buprenorphine or methadone.

He acknowledges that his budget for medication spiked from $8,000 to about $20,000 in the past two years, as counties typically take on the medical expenses for people in their custody. But, he says, “with modern corrections, it’s the right thing to do. The transportation was an issue and it’s expensive, but with the direction we’re taking our facility, we want to do evidence-based treatment.”

Island County started its treatment program in March of this year and is collecting data to gauge its effectiveness, Briones says. It’s too early to draw any conclusions, but similar programs elsewhere in the U.S. have shown success.

In Rhode Island, for example, where the state prison and jail systems are combined, a preliminary review of the treatment program shows post-release overdose deaths plummeted by 61 percent.

Aside from the life-saving potential, Stern, the UW professor, points to data from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy showing that drug treatment in prisons, and in the community after a person is released, have huge cost-saving impacts.

Additionally, a 2006 report from WSIPP shows that in-custody drug treatment can reduce crime by 5.7 percent and save nearly $8,000 per patient, when considering damage to crime victims, benefits to taxpayers and the cost of providing the treatment.

“For a moment, you have your hands on 50 percent of the opioid dependent people in the state at a time when they’re malleable,” Stern says, emphasizing that the most effective treatment includes a plan after a person is released.

“If you invest money in this problem, including outside the jail, you can actually make your money back.”

Mitch Ryals is a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This story was originally published in The Inlander. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Seizing a Second Chance: An Ex-Inmate Brings Hope Back to Her Community

Karen Loftin was a drug addict and prostitute who served 16 years in prison. Today, at 52, she’s working towards a masters degree at Syracuse University while helping other former incarcerees rebuild their lives.

Karen Loftin sits on the edge of the park bench. She tucks a strand of hair back behind her ear, her long, perfectly manicured nails shining in the afternoon sunlight. A gold chain clinks around her neck. She wears a shirt embossed with one bold word — “Confident.”

Turning to the camera, she smiles unwaveringly. After the shutter goes off, she stands up.

“Take a photograph of me near the tree!” she says, her face lighting up with childlike energy. She runs towards a trunk covered in vines.

Karen’s warm demeanor is one of her most striking traits.

I first met her at PEACE Inc.’s Emma L. Johnston Southside Family Resource Center in Syracuse, N.Y. PEACE is a non-profit organization which provides services to the community, one of which is re-entry support for former prisoners and parolees.

Before I met Karen, I was aware she had served some jail time on drug abuse and prostitution charges, but that was the extent of what I knew about her.

A few days after our first meeting, Karen told me about her involvement with PEACE. Over banana bread and coffee, she told me that after being off parole for 16 years, PEACE hired her to work under the Family Reunification Pilot grant. Her job was to work with each former prisoner and parolee and give them specialized support to smooth their transition from prison to family life.

On our way to the center that morning, Karen told me she was HIV positive. She said she had discovered her status more than 25 years ago after the birth of her second child. She told me in the most matter-of-fact way, but shared talking about her disease hasn’t always been this easy because of the stigma that surrounds her condition.

A regular volunteer at the center, Karen helps people in the community living with HIV by showing them how they can effectively manage the disease and stay positive throughout it all.

“Society says once you’re something, you’re always going to be that. There’s no room to change,” Karen said. “That was one thing I have always had to fight through.”

A Rebel At 12

Karen was born in 1965 on the southwest side of Syracuse to a family of seven children. From a young age, she was rebellious and outspoken. At 12, she was smoking marijuana and constantly getting suspended from middle school.

Her childhood was unstable. Her father was abusive towards her mother, but Karen often found herself taking his side when the police showed up at home.

“I was a daddy’s girl,” she said.

This caused deep cracks in Karen’s relationship with her mother that never fully healed. Her mother passed away while Karen was in prison.

“One of my biggest regrets is that I never got the chance to fix things with my mom. No matter what good things I do in my life, that’s one thing I can’t ever fix,” Karen told me in her apartment, one rainy afternoon.

Karen Loftin

If you come into contact with young people that are struggling, and their dreams have somehow turned, just encourage them to not give up,” says Loftin. Photo by Zachary Krahmer/The Stand

She pointed to a picture of a serious woman with steady eyes. An uncanny resemblance.

“When I look back on my life, I realize she loved me, she cared for me, she supported me, but because of how I was internalizing things, I couldn’t see it that way,” she said.

A few years later, Karen’s mother sent her to live with her dad and his new family in Puerto Rico. Although passing in school was an effortless task for Karen, she felt under-motivated and abandoned.

“I was searching for something. I felt so abandoned at home; I was always in the streets, searching and searching,” she said. “Finding a place where I could be me.”

Karen says she has seen children in her neighborhood who have gone through similar experiences because they feel so misunderstood and neglected.

“The kids internalize these perceptions of who they are and how the world looks at them,” Karen said. “I was one of them.”

After graduating from school with no foreseeable plans for the future, Karen took to the streets. It was there at age 19 that she got into a relationship with a man 10 years her senior.

Karen’s relationship with the man quickly turned abusive after she discovered he was a heavy narcotics user. It was out of shame that she stayed with him, she said.

It was around that time that Karen went to jail for the first time for stealing and cashing checks. She received probation, but violated it at 21. By then, she was doing cocaine, working as a prostitute, cashing checks and doing whatever else she could to support her drug habits, she said.

In 1985, Karen went to county jail, and three years later, served her first prison term. What followed was a series of back and forths in and out of jail. In 1990, Karen’s father passed away and she violated parole. She took off with a man to Connecticut. He ended up becoming the father of her two children.

Karen gave birth to her daughter in 1991 at age 25, and her son in 1994. During this time, HIV was transitioning between gay, white men to intravenous drug users, spreading primarily through shared needles and syringes. Because she was still an active drug user, Karen got HIV tested after each of her pregnancies. The first time, the results came out negative. But the second time, she tested positive.

It was a result that turned her world upside down.

Behind Bars, Again

After discovering her status, Karen had another prison sentence waiting for her. She found herself behind bars, yet again.

Karen wasn’t HIV tested when she entered prison and didn’t end up sharing her status until two years into her sentence.

“I felt like if I could just smoke marijuana in jail and stay under the radar, I’d be fine,” she said. “Telling people about my status would have made me vulnerable. I couldn’t deal with that.”

Karen says during the 1980s, the HIV epidemic was growing at a much faster pace than people could handle. She says she remembers sitting in prison with other women and wondering how they would protect themselves, considering many high-risk groups go to jail.

Shortly after this, the prison Karen started a program to educate and empower women coming in. Karen and her inmates wanted to quell fears about HIV, so they pushed legislation from inside the prison.

Through a close friend she made at the program, Karen met her “guardian angel,” Kathy Bouldin, another prisoner and social activist. Bouldin pushed Karen to disclose her HIV status to the other inmates, as well as become a peer educator for the HIV program.

“It was just so funny because I’d grown up being such a black radical — black power this, black power that,” Karen said. “And here was this white Jewish woman from Brooklyn telling me all I had was a big mouth, and that I should use it for something good.”

Under Bouldin’s guidance, Karen became an educator in the program. She helped develop workshops for new inmates. She grew into her position and says she found her calling. But there were difficult times.

Karen recalls one particular support group for female inmates she spent a great deal of time organizing. But when it came time to talk about HIV, the women weren’t interested. They told her they’d rather watch a movie.

“I was so hurt,” Karen said. “I asked them, do you not want this information? And they were like, no, because we got you for that!”

Karen says she remembers going back to Bouldin and crying. Through her tears, Karen had an epiphany.

“You can set everything before some people and they still wouldn’t know what to do with it. Working with the women, I realized because of their circumstances and how they were raised, they actually didn’t know any better,” Karen said. “They needed someone to speak for them. They needed me.”

Karen says forcing people to speak up about what they are facing is not social advocacy.

“I don’t have a problem speaking up and talking about my status because I know people out there that are afraid and they look to me and people like me for empowerment,” Karen said. “But that doesn’t mean they have to pick up a microphone and declare they are positive themselves.”

Returning Home: The Disconnect

A few months after her epiphany, Karen finished her prison sentence and was able to go back to her family.

By this time, her children were already walking and talking. But from the first day, Karen felt an utter disconnect from her son and daughter. Karen says she remembers her children crying because they didn’t want to leave their old home and family behind.

“They might have assumed that everything they learned from the people who had them when they were young was what they should go by,” Karen said.

Karen Loftin

Loftin, now pursuing a Masters at Syracuse U, hopes to help troubled youth in the community by opening her own resource center. Photo by Saniya More/The Stand

“I felt like any of the values and standards that I was implementing in my household were kind of overlooked, like I was this lady that just came home and got her kids back.”

Time has helped Karen’s relationship with her children, she says. But there are times when she feels like they don’t know each other as a family.

“I still feel like my incarceration is playing a part in our relationship. If I could, I would love to go to therapy with my children, because we never sat down and talked about how me not being in their lives affected them,” Karen said.

“We just never had those conversations.”

Bruce Western, author of “Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison,” examines how incarceration impacts the individual and the family. His recently released book shows how failures of social support trap many fresh out of prison in a cycle of vulnerability despite their best efforts to rejoin society.

The perspectives of women are unique to this study, the author says, with each sharing their specific challenges in reestablishing connections with family, particularly on bonding again with offspring.

“When women enter prison, they have accumulated long histories as victims of sexual and other violence and are also more likely than men to have serious drug problems,” Western writes in his book.

“After prison, they were much more likely than men to be living with family. Finding work was a leading challenge for men after incarceration, but for women employment often took a back seat to staying clean and rebuilding family relationships.”

A few weeks after Karen and I started talking, I met her 23-year-old son Joshua Loftin. I wondered if he felt the same disconnect with his mother.

We meet on the first floor of Bird Library on the Syracuse University campus. He’s wearing a Syracuse sweatshirt and tells me Karen dropped him off. He has her smile.

He tells me about finding out his mother is HIV positive.

“We were in the car, I was about 9 or 10. My mom was talking to my older sister about it, but I didn’t understand what was doing on, so I asked,” he said. “I remember feeling like nothing had changed in that moment. It didn’t matter. This was the only mother I was gonna get, and this was the only mother I wanted.”

Karen says her relationship with her parents has, more than anything, shown her what kind of parent she does not want to be. Raising children after going through incarceration presented its own challenges, though, and Karen rarely discussed her prison experiences or her status with her children.

“I didn’t want to overwhelm them,” she said.

Joshua said Karen only really started to open up about her experiences after he started going to community outreach events with her.

After discovering his mother’s status, Joshua went through a period where he blamed himself for it. Because Karen found out she was HIV positive after he was born, he felt like it was his fault she was living with the condition. He has gotten over it over the years, he says, but it’s still hard sometimes.

“She would sometimes come to our school and talk, and she’d ask my sister and I, ‘Am I embarrassing you at all?’ We would always say ‘not at all. This is what helps you. You’re teaching others. Teaching us; teaching yourself,’” Joshua said.

“I don’t want her to feel like she can’t tell her story because of the way I felt back then.”

Karen says one of the hardest things about parenting has been to ensure her children don’t take to the streets like she once did. At the same time, Karen is wary of stopping them from living their own lives.

“I never wanted my children to think I was afraid of them turning out to be like me,” Karen said. “I want them to grow into themselves.”

Joshua says that at times, he feels that Karen expects unrealistic things from him — expectations he doesn’t think he can live up to, like getting a specific job or living life a certain way.

“She pushes and pushes and pushes,” he tells me. “Growing up, I felt like I wasn’t the golden child that she wanted me to be.”

But Joshua says he understands where his mother comes from. He says he is incredibly proud of how far she has come, even if they bump heads often.

“She can heat up quicker than me,” he says with a laugh. “I know she’s been through way more though, that’s probably why.”

The Stigma of Prison

When Karen left prison about 20 years ago, she faced a lot of stigma, especially when it came to job-hunting.

Since then, she says society has become much more understanding of a person’s criminal history, even though people like her still face discrimination every day, particularly because of their race, gender and HIV status.

“The African-American community continues to dominate the top of every negative list,” Karen said. “Local leaders are somewhat negligent when it comes to addressing the needs of black people.”

Karen Loftin

Loftin with Nicky Jennings, the PrEP Education Specialist at Upstate, co-hosted a talent showcase in April to give local teens a space to perform and to provide HIV awareness education. Photo courtesy The Stand.

Karen says state-funded grants like the one PEACE received, and which is still under review for renewal, aren’t always designed to help the community.

“It all comes down to politics,” she said.

She says working in some sort of human service capacity is the perfect job for someone who has just left prison, because many organizations are looking for people who can form meaningful connections with members of the community going through similar problems. It is also a way for ex-prisoners to redeem themselves by improving their community.

“We need to be willing to seize whatever opportunities we can find, rather than wait to be given them,” Karen said. “By being the generation before them, we started this problem and it’s going to take us to fix it.”

Structural reform is a much-needed development in Syracuse, particularly when it comes to prison management and community outreach, Karen says.

“There is a need for therapeutic assistance, community outreach and counseling, especially for young adults about to move away from home,” Karen said. “This is when they develop their perceptions of the world and their place in it. After that, their way of life is set and it’s harder to change them.”

Not too long after getting involved in PEACE, Karen enrolled at Syracuse University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in child and family studies in 2017. Her degree sits in her living room, illuminated by the lamp next to it. It’s a source of great pride for her.

Karen hopes to use her degree to start her own youth center in the future. She believes there needs to be more centers that provide emotional support and resources for Syracuse’s youth — a place where children from troubled households can feel safe and appreciated.

Through her youth center, Karen hopes to instill a renewed sense of togetherness in her community. Her primary goal is to focus on youth and family development — strengthening relationships between children and their parents.

Gazing at the hail that has unexpectedly started to fall outside her window, I ask Karen if she plans to stay in Syracuse forever.

She smiles for a moment. “I’m here for now,” she answers.

“I recently asked an old friend of mine who owns a business here, why are you still here?” she shared. “You know what he told me? If everyone left, there’ll be no one to keep this town running, and the kids in this community are going to suffer,” she said.

Finding Herself

When Karen was little, she struggled with her dark complexion. It was a source of great insecurity for her.

“One of those days, I remember my grandma pulling me onto her lap and telling me ‘God makes no mistakes. No one is better than you in the eyes of God, but always remember, you’re not better than anyone either,’” she said.

Karen’s confidence is something she has developed over time, and she is well aware that people have judged her and will perhaps never stop judging her.

One of the last times we meet, I ask her what she would say to people who made assumptions about her. She doesn’t think twice before responding.

“I probably wouldn’t say anything,” she said. “I’ve never been one to try and convince someone that I’m someone I’m not. I’ve definitely made some mistakes in my life, and I might agree with some things people say and disagree with others, but I’m not going to have that conversation. It’d be a waste of time.”

Instead, Karen has a message for the whole world.

“If you come into contact with young people that are struggling, and their dreams have somehow turned, just encourage them to not give up,” she says, looking directly into the video camera recording her.

“I think that’s an important thing we can all do.”

Watch a Video of Karen Loftin

See also Part One of the series, ‘The Day I Came Out of the Shadows’

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. Ashley Kang, director of The Stand, is a 2018 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Can ‘Preventive Detention’ Replace Money Bail?

Under a new law that went into effect this month, New Hampshire judges can no longer keep individuals accused of low-level offenses behind bars just because they can’t afford to pay cash bail. But reformers who welcome the “culture shift” also worry about a companion rule allowing those considered public safety threats to be held in “preventive” custody.

At one point in June, the Hillsborough County jail in Manchester, New Hampshire, held 32 people on bail amounts of $1,000 or less.

The charges against them—none had yet been convicted—included criminal trespassing, drug possession, breach of bail conditions, driving under the influence, shoplifting, burglary, misdemeanor assault and being a felon in possession of a weapon, according to a report from the Hillsborough County Department of Corrections.

One man, charged with “misuse of 911 system,” was held on $160 bail.

New Hampshire, by national standards, keeps relatively few people in jail pending trial. But defense lawyers say some alleged offenders, like those in Hillsborough County, are nonetheless kept in jail because they cannot afford to post even low bail amounts.

That could soon change.

Earlier this month, a significant rewrite of the state’s bail statute took effect. The new law prohibits judges from setting bail in an amount that keeps a defendant in jail because he or she is unable to post it.

At the same time, the law vastly expands the ability of judges to use preventive detention—detention without bail—for defendants whose release could endanger the public or themselves.

“It’s a cultural shift for all of our courts, because we are one of the states that has used cash bail over the years as a means of detaining people,” said Judge Edwin W. Kelly, the administrative judge of New Hampshire’s circuit courts.

How exactly that shift will play out is unclear, according to interviews with a dozen defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges, and legal experts.

The new law, those observers said, seems likely to keep those accused of low-level crimes out of jail while their cases are pending. Less clear is the role preventive detention will play, and how it will intersect with new language that bars judges from basing detention decisions solely on drug addiction or homelessness.

“What the bill affords and gives is tremendous discretion to judges,” said Colin Doyle, a staff attorney with the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School who studies pretrial laws and practices nationwide.

 Downplaying Cash

New Hampshire’s bail changes—passed as Senate Bill 556 with bipartisan sponsorship and signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu in July—come at a time when other jurisdictions, including New JerseyCalifornia and Cook County, Ill., are reducing or eliminating the use of cash bail.

Reformers argue that linking pretrial release to money discriminates against people with low incomes, violates the constitutional presumption of liberty before trial and does nothing to improve safety or court appearance rates.

“We currently have a system where a lot of people are serving time behind bars before they’ve been convicted of anything,” Alex Parsons, the managing attorney of the New Hampshire Public Defender office in Keene, said last month. “And that should not be the norm.”

But New Hampshire’s bail-reform push was not without critics. County attorneys raised concerns about public safety, saying it could mean the release of some defendants who pose risks. Andrew Shagoury, president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, warned in an op-ed that the reform, to be successful, would require a costly expansion of pretrial services—things like monitoring, drug testing and reminding defendants of court dates.

Cash bail and other pretrial release conditions have two basic aims: making sure someone shows up to court and making sure the public is safe.

Until this month, those two prongs intertwined. A judge would decide a defendant seemed to endanger public safety, run the risk of missing court appearances or both, and come up with a bail order that accounted for those factors.

The new law effectively splits that analysis in two. If convinced that outright release would endanger society or the defendant, a judge can now order that person held without bail or impose restrictive conditions like electronic monitoring.

Otherwise, judges can set cash bail if they believe the prospect of forfeiting money will encourage defendants to show up.

But there’s a caveat: The defendant must be able to afford it and cannot be detained merely because they can’t pay.

“Essentially, if the issue that you are confronting in court is whether or not this person is going to appear, that person has to walk out the door of the courthouse,” Kelly said.

That could have an impact in Cheshire County. As of Tuesday morning, the county jail housed 46 pretrial inmates, 25 of whom had been there for longer than a month.

Some of them, accused of violent crimes, sexual assaults or other egregious offenses, were held on high bail amounts and would likely be ordered held without bail under the new statute.

Often, Cheshire County defendants who face less serious allegations are released on personal recognizance — without having to put up money. But not always. As of Wednesday morning, the county jail held nine people on bail of $1,000 or less, according to the facility’s booking department.

 Emphasizing Prevention

While cautiously optimistic about the change to cash bail, Parsons, the public defender, said he worries about the courts’ new preventive-detention powers. “My fear is that we have a lot more people simply detained without bail, whereas before they might have at least … had a chance of getting out,” he said.

Previously, New Hampshire judges could refuse bail in just a handful of situations, such as violations of domestic-violence protective orders and certain homicide cases.

In practice, that restriction led to extremely high dollar figures in some cases, all but guaranteed to keep a person charged with a serious violent offense behind bars.

“I’ve said on the record, ‘I’m setting a bail I don’t think you can post, because I think you’re dangerous,’ ” said Judge David W. Ruoff, who presides over Cheshire County Superior Court in Keene.

Usually an effective route to detention, that system was imperfect. “I’ve had cases where bail was set at $100,000—and the person had the money,” Paul G. Schweizer, a Keene-based defense attorney, said.

Prosecutors and judges said a range of offenses could qualify for preventive detention under the new law—serious assaults, sexual assaults, nighttime home invasions, perhaps some drug sales or repeat DWIs—but stressed that detention decisions will always depend on the circumstances of a case.

“Every bail decision is unique to the facts of that case,” Ruoff said. “There are cases, I think, when someone’s engaged in drug distributions where that conduct raises serious safety concerns to themselves and to the community. There may be distribution cases where that’s not true.”

Albert “Buzz” Scherr, a University of New Hampshire law professor who helped draft the law, said built-in procedural safeguards should keep detention in check.

For instance, a judge can find someone dangerous only after hearing “clear and convincing evidence”—the second-highest standard in the legal system.

“Much of this is going to be how aggressive defense lawyers are at putting the prosecutors to their proof,” Scherr said.

Unease over preventive detention is not unique to New Hampshire. California last week passed a sweeping bail-reform package that, according to Politico, eliminated the use of cash bail while expanding preventive detention and the use of standardized risk assessments.

The provisions about detention and risk assessments alienated some of the bill’s onetime supporters. Critics say standardized risk assessments can discriminate against minorities by reflecting underlying racial disparities.

The Granite State’s law, by contrast, makes no mention of risk assessment tools, though Kelly said a state criminal-justice council is looking into the possibility.

Doyle, of the Criminal Justice Policy Program, said an approach like New Hampshire’s “allows for a more case-by-case approach.” But that flexibility can make outcomes less certain, he added.

“Judges’ incentives can easily get misaligned,” he said. “… If they release someone pretrial, and that person commits a crime, then the judge’s photo shows up in the newspaper.”

Meanwhile, local prosecutors say they’re waiting to see how the courts will interpret a key provision of the law, which says findings of dangerousness “shall not be based solely on evidence of drug or alcohol addiction or homelessness.”

One question, Cheshire County Attorney D. Chris McLaughlin said, is “how you deal with a situation where, you know, someone’s a heroin or fentanyl addict, they’ve got a long history of committing crimes while under the influence, they’ve overdosed 10 times in the past, and they’re homeless.”

The new law doesn’t force judges to ignore concerning behavior just because it’s linked to drug use, McLaughlin and others noted. “If somebody commits a serious felony-level offense, the fact that they are addicted really wouldn’t impact your decision on dangerousness,” Kelly said.

Whether a judge can detain someone whose substance use puts them at serious risk of a fatal overdose is less clear. Kelly believes he cannot. “The Legislature is saying, ‘You can’t consider that,’ ” he said. Ruoff, however, said some of those cases aren’t just about addiction but “addiction plus the level of their use.”

Sullivan County Attorney Marc Hathaway worries the language about addiction will hinder efforts to detain people whose use of potent illegal drugs endangers themselves or others. He said he plans to ask for rulings that clarify those issues.

“Remember what the purposes of bail are: to protect the public safety, to protect the accused and to protect against the risk of flight,” he said. “There is no greater risk to a person in our society today than being addicted to heroin or using fentanyl and carfentanil.”

Ultimately, Scherr said, it’ll be up to lawyers and judges to work through those issues — nothing unusual in a system that depends on judicial discretion and the adversarial process.

“It would be a bad law if it was (based on an) algorithm,” Scherr said. “… We want to force the judges to pay attention to the individual more, but we want to force them to do it in an environment with some clear standards.”

 Paul Cuno-Booth, a staff writer for the Keene Sentinel, is a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This article, which was published this month in the Sentinel, was part of his fellowship project. Follow Paul on Twitter at @PCunoBoothKS. He welcomes readers’ comments.


How to Address Jail Overcrowding: Rethink Who Goes in Them

A special “population review team” in Ohio’s Lucas County explores ways of reducing jail time for new or low-level offenders. “Maybe jail isn’t the right place” for many of them, explains Gene A. Zmuda, a common pleas court judge.

On a recent afternoon at the city hall in Toledo, Ohio, Holly Matthews was teaching her colleagues some slang. “I forgot to tell everyone my new word of the day,” she says. “It’s ‘pookie.’”

A pookie, Matthews explains, is another word for a crack pipe. “I checked with Urban Dictionary,” she says, chuckling.

Matthews is executive director of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, an agency that provides criminal justice information services to residents of Lucas County in Northwest Ohio.

She is also one of a dozen members of the county’s Population Review Team, an interagency group that seeks ways of reducing or eliminating jail time for new or low-level offenders, with the goal of reducing incarceration rates in Lucas County’s overburdened jails. (Matthews’ “pookie” was in a case file she was reviewing, found by police in the pocket of a man who was arrested after a domestic dispute.)

The atmosphere in the room can be lighthearted, but the Population Review Team’s work is serious business — especially in Toledo, the Lucas County seat, where reducing incarceration rates is sorely needed.

The county’s jail is designed to hold only pretrial inmates, but it is being overburdened by too many people waiting to see a judge. In 2014, a U.S. Federal judge ordered the county to cap its jail population, which had a capacity of 346 beds. Two years after the cap was set, the jail’s population has been reduced to 667 people — down from 845 in 2016 — for the first quarter this year, according to Matthews.

To try and address these issues of overcrowding, the Population Review Team meets once a week to review the county’s jail cases to find ways to reduce bail, alter criminal offenses and, in some cases, eliminate or reduce jail time completely.

Toledo isn’t alone in dealing with overcrowded jails.

Nationally, jail populations have been steadily rising, contributing to high incarceration rates throughout the country. Daily local jail populations swelled from 157,000 in 1970 to over 700,000 people in 2015. Annually, there are close to 11 million admissions into jails, according to data collected by the Vera Institute of Justice.

“It’s become a crisis because as we’ve added laws that impose mandatory sentencing,” says Gene A. Zmuda, a common pleas court judge for Lucas County. “We are incarcerating more and more of our population.”

For those on the Population Review Team — along with Matthews, the group includes local correction officers and defense attorneys — this means reviewing rap sheets to determine if there are ways to release inmates without putting the public at risk, such as increased usage of electronic monitoring.

In other cases, plea deals are brokered, according to Sean McNulty, chief public defender for the Toledo Legal Aid Society and an original member of the review team. Candidates who are deemed “good” — those with misdemeanor charges or nonviolent crimes — can have their bail modified or their case expedited or, in some cases, they are simply set free.

Zmuda invokes an example of a first-time drug user.

“Maybe jail isn’t the right place for that person,” he says. “Send them to rehabilitation and break the cycle of addiction.”

The program started in 2016, after the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded the county a $2 million grant directing local mental-health organizations to partner with law enforcement officials, with the intent to “institute changes aimed at reducing local incarceration and disparities in jail usage in accordance with its implementation plan.”

Over the course of an afternoon, the team isolates about a dozen defendants in custody whose charges will be reviewed. During a recent meeting, McNulty and John Madigan, the city’s prosecutor, were able to agree to several resolutions for a handful of people who were sitting in the county’s jail. The negotiations included a reduced charge, credit for time served and a probation term.

According to Matthews, this comprehensive collaboration and review reduced 1,800 jail days in total for 2017. And while the jail’s population isn’t as low as officials want it to be, they point to the reductions they’ve made in the past two years, by almost two hundred inmates in total.

“Jail buildup happened over 40 years and it won’t be solved in just a year or two,” says Patrick Griffin, the senior program officer for the MacArthur Foundation.

Along with the review board meetings, Lucas County officials have implemented four other strategies — such as training cops to identify alternatives to arrests or keeping people with mental health issues out of jail — to help in reducing the county’s jail population.

And as the initiative continues, Griffin hopes that solutions like the ones being implemented in Lucas County will spread to other parts of the state, and beyond.

“It will take success and then practitioners will take notice,” he says. “We have to increase demand among citizens for jail reform.”

Zmuda, McNulty and others believe that the next important step will be addressing the overrepresentation of minors in the system, along with keeping substance abusers from getting swept into the jail.

“We’re holding fewer — and holding the right — people,” says Zmuda. “We have right-sized our jail.”

Eric Jankiewicz is a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This story was published as part of his fellowship project. The full version is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Solving America’s Rural Jail Crisis, One Jail at a Time

In North Carolina’s Durham County, reforms have begun by simply making better pre-trial services available, according to an investigative report by the Smoky Mountain News.

When county jails are constantly at or over capacity, the easiest answer seems to be to build a bigger one.

G. Larry Mays, a New Mexico-based criminologist who has studied jails for 35 years, says communities need to start examining the bigger picture if they want to reduce the number of people sitting in jail.


Illustration courtesy Smoky Mountain News

“You can’t build yourself out of a crowding crisis — the shoe tells the foot how big it will grow,” he said.

The more jails that are built, the more it will cost taxpayers to operate and maintain those facilities. At an average cost of $80,000 per jail bed, a new 150-bed facility could cost a county $12 million or more as construction costs are on the rise.

For a facility that only has an estimated 30-year life expectancy, constructing a new jail is not a decision that should be entered into lightly.

Dr. Allen Beck, who has been a criminal justice consultant since 1983 and a principal of Justice Concepts Incorporated (JCI), says local jurisdictions can take one of two approaches to addressing criminal justice system operations — passive or active.

“A passive role is the most costly. This role accepts arguments that the system does not need improvement and that the number of inmates housed in jail cannot be altered,” Beck wrote in a JCI report.

“In contrast, the active role recognizes that improvement is possible in all aspects of government, which in this instance happens to be the criminal justice system. There is always the possibility that significant improvement might be made in controlling growth of the inmate population.”

As part of a year-long investigation into the nation’s rural jail crisis, the Smoky Mountain News examined jails in western North Carolina. One of them, the Durham County Detention Facility, offers a case study in how change can be driven by improving pretrial practices.

 The Durham Facility opened in the summer of 1996 with a capacity of 576 single cells. By 2005, the jail was at or over capacity a majority of the time.

“That’s when we started our pre-trial services,”  said Gudrun Parmer, director of the Criminal Justice Resource Center in Durham County.

“Now our jail population has gone down by 20 percent. We don’t have an overcrowding problem and our average daily population is lower than it has been since the jail opened.

“We can’t reduce the cost of the jail itself — most of that cost is fixed — but we are 15 years past the point where the county started talking about building a new one so we’re saving future costs.”

The work involved to get to those results hasn’t been quick or easy, but Parmer said the payoff has been worth it for the county.The Criminal Justice Resource Center in Durham County has been in place since the late 1990s, when North Carolina’s General Assembly passed reforms that put more uniform sentencing in place for felony convictions.

The state reform also included grant funding for most counties to allow them to provide services to people being sentenced under the new grid.

With more state reform coming out of the General Assembly in 2011, the original grant funding that helped establish the Durham resource center was done away with, but efforts have continued and programming has increased to provide services to people throughout the criminal justice system.

“In Durham, our community has grown well beyond that original program. We have services for people from the pre-arrest diversion programs all the way to our local re-entry program for when people are released,” Parmer said.

The center still goes after a number of grants each year, especially if it’s looking to start a new program, but Durham County funds the programs that are deemed a success after a good trial run. A consolidated county criminal justice department also helps to save money.

“If we add a program, we don’t have to add administration — it’s more cost effective and we have a seamless system at this point for the adult population,” she said.

Pre-Arrest Diversion

The pre-arrest diversion program targets first-time offenders ages 16 to 21 for misdemeanor charges. Instead of being arrested, the person has 90 days to complete a community diversion program based on their individual assessment and needs.

If the person completes the program, the incident report is closed out and the offense doesn’t show up on the person’s record. If the person doesn’t complete the program, the arresting officer can proceed with criminal charges and prosecution.

The resource center’s pre-trial services also include being inside the jail to screen everyone being booked using a standard assessment tool — this process allows resource center staff to provide judges with the most accurate information summary about each person when they have their day in court.

Judges also utilize the resource center when it comes to setting a person’s bail. Sometimes a judge will turn the case over to the resource center for supervision in lieu of setting a money bond or sometimes it’s a combination of a money bond and supervision.

The substance abuse and the mental health court diversion programs inside the jail have also been helpful in keeping the inmate populations down while getting people the help they need.

“We have the most extensive mental health services in any jail in North Carolina — we have a whole team of people,” Parmer said.

The team works with inmates who’ve been diagnosed with severe or persistent mental illness to get them on the right medication, getting support while in jail and helping them connect with community health services once they released. The Mental Health Court allows people with mental illness to go through support services in lieu of a formal court process.

The same goes for people suffering from drug addiction: If they complete the program the district attorney will drop the charges.

Durham County even has re-entry services to help people get back on their feet after they are released from jail in hopes of cutting down on high recidivism rates. The resource center’s team of caseworkers is on hand to help people find housing, employment, get medications, food and clothing. These services are typically available for two to six months after release to ease the transition.


Sheriffs across western Carolina are re-assessing the need for jail expansion. Here, Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran checks in with detention officers at his jail’s booking desk. Photo by Jessi Stone.

Parmer has found that most people being released from jail don’t know where to turn for assistance and often times they’re in a worse position than when they were arrested. They could have lost their job, their children and any other stability they had in the community.

“We also connect people that have no support system with a faith-based group that will then become their support system when they’re released,” she said. “People just need somebody to help them maneuver the system. They need to know and see what it’s like to lead a life without drugs — it’s not always glamorous.”

More recently, the resource center received a grant through the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge Initiative  to develop a notification system to remind people of their court date. This is one method local jurisdictions are testing to see if the money bond system can be replaced.

“With the IT department, we developed a web app where people can sign up for court reminders. It’s free and it was developed in a way that it could be used by any county in North Carolina,” Parmer said. “We started it a year ago and utilization is rising steadily. We have about a third of our cases on there for reminders.

“The grant is finished but we’re continuing it. It’s a customer service thing that really the state and the courts should be providing.”

If the notifications can get more people to their court date, then the system would be less bogged down with failure to appear charges and subsequent bench warrants, revoked bonds, deputy and police having to find and bring people in a second time, and higher incarceration rates. The cost associated with failure to appear charges falls on the local taxpayers.

“It’s not easily analyzed statewide, but I’d say probably 10 percent of people in criminal District Court in Durham don’t show up,” she said. “If you’re picked up on a failure to appear, it’s a county cost and a tremendous amount of paper work for the state to process.”

Jail Population Down 20%

The tangible success is that Durham County has decreased its jail population by 20 percent and isn’t looking to spend millions in the immediate future to build a new detention center. Also, the resource center’s diversion programs have had a 90 percent success rate, meaning only 10 percent of clients return on another arrest.

Parmer said there have been even more anecdotal successes that have come out of offering more services. The employment program finds temporary positions in the county government for people released from jail. The resource center’s clients can work with a department full time for six months at $15 an hour.

At the end of the six months, Parmer said, many have been hired on permanently as a county employee. She’s stopped seeing many of the same people struggling with mental health or addiction coming back into the jail time and time again. People who’ve gone through the substance abuse program are still attending NA meetings some 20 years later.

Recovering addicts are also becoming leaders in these programs, whether it’s through NA or by becoming a peer specialist at the resource center.

“Some people we have connected to the faith community are now working as a coordinator for a program,” she said. “We’ve established peer support positions because we know that someone who has gone through the system can provide much better insight and connect better to our clients.”

The biggest improvement the resource center has made is moving people more quickly and efficiently through the system by providing them with the services they need to work toward rehabilitation and stabilization.

“The real impact…is having services along the continuum to help them move forward,” Parmer said.

Her advice to other counties just getting started on trying to rein in overcrowded jails is to start by examining the jails — knowing who’s in the jail, what they’re charged with and how long they’ve been incarcerated.

“Start with a data analysis and begin looking for easy opportunities — lower-level cases — for release. Ask is it worthwhile for your community to lock someone up for a week for shoplifting because they can’t post a $500 bond. We need to ask ourselves if we can give someone a citation and still charge them without arresting and booking them,” she said.

“We need to make sure we’re locking people up for the right reasons.”

Jessi Stone

Jessi Stone

Jessi Stone is a 2018 John Jay Justice Reporting Fellow. The above is a slightly edited compilation of two of the stories in the Smoky Mountain News’ yearlong jail investigation, part of a reporting project undertaken as part of the Fellowship.  The full series and other projects completed for the fellowship can be accessed here.  Jessi welcomes comments from readers.


A Suicide in Solitary: ‘They Gave Him the Tools to Kill Himself’

Texas’ Harris County jail is considered a progressive example of being attentive to mental health needs, with a suicide rate below the national average. But the recent suicides of two inmates point to systemic gaps in how the jail system handles prisoners in solitary confinement.

Sue and Eldon Jackson were childhood sweethearts. Growing up, they held hands at the roller rink and ditched school dances together. They almost got married at 17, but instead drifted apart after high school.

Then, 34 years later, he found her again on Facebook—and they thought they would start their happily-ever-after.

But then there was the meth addiction. The hurricane. The fight. The fire. The arrest.

And by April, Eldon Jackson wound up in the Harris County jail facing a 30-year sentence for arson. He’d lit their house on fire, then slit his own throat.

He came into jail with burns on his body and bloody lacerations on his neck, a visible reminder of his internal crisis. But, apparently, he didn’t get the help he needed.

He came into jail with burns on his body and bloody lacerations on his neck, a visible reminder of his internal crisis. But, apparently, he didn’t get the help he needed.

“I don’t want to die, but being in jail is too much for me,” the 61-year-old wrote in a letter to the Chronicle.

His mental state vacillated over the three months he penned the jailhouse missive, sometimes professing his love for Sue, sometimes lashing out at her.

But then early one morning in July—a day after jailers put him in solitary confinement to prevent repeated calls to his wife—he killed himself, fashioning a hand-made noose from the gauze used to treat his burns. His death was the first of two jail suicides in barely three weeks, at a facility that’s struggled to treat the influx of mentally ill patients coming through its doors.

The suicide of Jackson, a Navy veteran who’d long battled addiction, highlights cracks in the system—cracks that prison reform advocates hoped to fill with the 2017 passage of the Sandra Bland Act.

Named for the Illinois woman who died by suicide in the Waller County jail three years ago, the legislation did much to draw attention to the needs of mentally ill populations in the days immediately after their arrest, and to diverting them from jail in the first place.

But it did less to highlight the ongoing suicide risk weeks or months into a jail stay and failed to spark discussion about the problems of putting inmates having a mental health crisis in solitary confinement.

“We didn’t consider in a real way what happened here,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. “It’s just the truth of the matter—but we will. We will work to amend the law on this because we have to.”

‘You Don’t Turn Your Back’

At first, life together was great for Sue and Eldon. But a couple of years after they reconnected, he started keeping odd hours, making Walmart runs at midnight and foregoing sleep. She knew he’d been addicted to drugs once before, but only in retrospect did it seem indicative of a larger problem.

“It’s not that he was acting crazy,” she said, “it was just the hours.”

Together, they bought a house in 2013, in the same neighborhood where they’d grown up. Yet, around that time, Sue started suspecting he’d started using drugs again. At first, it was pills. But then, he switched to speed.


Happier times: Eldon and Sue Jackson in a family photo, 2011. Photo courtesy Houston Chronicle

“The next thing I know, I’m preferring the meth daily and everything is a giant train wreck just waiting happen,” he wrote.

But to Sue that wasn’t clear until Eldon got arrested on a minor possession charge, one that ultimately got tossed for lack of evidence. Just a few months later, his son —not a biological son, but one he’d raised nearly from birth—died of an opioid overdose in Florida.

Eldon fell apart. He stayed out for days, hung with shady characters, and started selling drugs. The following year, he got arrested again—and this time he went to drug treatment.

At first, Sue said, it seemed like he’d be OK when he got out. But afterwards, familiar faces started showing up at the door, and Eldon started disappearing again. He suspected she was cheating; she suspected he was cheating. At one point, she ended up filing for divorce.

“It just didn’t seem like things were going to change, and I was trying to get his attention,” the 60-year-old said. “But you don’t turn your back on somebody like that. You just don’t do it. If he was willing to get himself right I was willing to walk him through that.”

So they hung in there. Things didn’t get better—but they didn’t get worse.

Then Harvey hit.

A ‘Crisis’ in the Jail

The Harris County jail is often considered a progressive example of an urban jail attentive to mental health needs. Their suicide rate over the past decade— just over 16 per 100,000 inmates— is well below the national 15-year rate of around 42 per 100,000, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

“More than 120,000 inmates are booked into Texas’ largest jail each year,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement. “While our inmate suicide rate is below the national average, our goal is a suicide rate of zero.”

To that end, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez created the Bureau of Mental Health and Jail Diversion. The jail launched two programs to help mentally ill inmates stay out of isolation and cut in half their use of solitary confinement over the past five years.

Still, the jail is ill-prepared to be the state’s largest mental health care provider.

A quarter of county inmates are on psychiatric medication, according to Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jason Spencer. There have been 15 suicides at the county lock-up since 2009, and staff members intervene in an average of about 10 suicide attempts per month, according to jail data.

“It’s no secret that we have an abundance of inmates who are in serious need of mental health care that we’re not equipped to give as a jail,” Spencer said. “We’ve been very transparent about that.”

Sometimes people still fall through the cracks. In 2014, the jail saw a string of three suicides.

That same year, news broke of a mentally ill inmate who’d been left wallowing in a solitary cell full of bugs and feces, a supervision failure that sparked outrage and dealt a harsh blow to then-Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s campaign to become Houston’s mayor.

In 2015, a mentally ill death row inmate back in county for court killed himself in solitary confinement, using shoelaces to form a noose. Then in 2017, the jail announced procedural changes after the highly publicized suicide of a 32-year-old whose family alleged he did not kill himself.

And, just three weeks after Eldon’s death, another Harris County inmate died by suicide. On Tuesday, Debora Lyons—who’d been jailed on $1,500 bail for a felony theft charge—hanged herself in a common area of the 1200 Baker Street jail just before 7 p.m. It’s not clear whether there were other inmates or guards in the area or why no one stopped her. The jail hasn’t offered clarification, citing an ongoing investigation.

Once officers found her, the 58-year-old was taken to the hospital, where she died Wednesday—the same day she was granted a personal release bond to get out of jail.

“We have a mental health crisis in the county jail,” Spencer said, “one that the state’s aware of but has not addressed.”

‘Not the Person I Fell in Love With’

When Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, it flooded the Jacksons’ home with five inches of water, leaving them with a daunting task familiar to countless Houstonians: rebuilding their lives without flood insurance.

“It was just overwhelming,” Sue said.

Eldon, always a fix-it man, decided to do the repairs himself. But with all the work in front of him, the drug problem just got worse. He stayed up for days at time, sawing and hammering at all hours of the night.

And Sue’s chronic lung illness got worse while living in the half-finished, flooded-out single-story home. So she and her granddaughter moved out.

“It gave him free reign to do whatever he wanted to do,” she said.

By the time things were ready for Sue to move back in last December, Eldon was a changed man.

“That was not the person I fell in love with,” she said. “Drugs took over his body and his mind completely.”

Eldon Jackson

Eldon Jackson prison photo. Courtesy Harris County Sheriff’s Office

After a fight with Sue, he was arrested on a misdemeanor family assault charge in March, then released with a protective order in place barring contact.

Despite that, they kept talking, and stayed in touch. Eventually, he asked her to drop the charge.

“I told him I’m not doing that, I’ve done it too many times,” she said. “You need to figure it out that what you do is not OK.”

Then, he showed up at the house one day in April, “completely crazed” and threatening to burn the place down.

When police arrived, Eldon ran to the back of the house and holed up in the still-unfinished master bathroom, shouting suicide threats. He slit his throat during the stand-off, but later claimed the fire that erupted was an accident, sparked when he dropped a cigarette. As the back part of their house went up in flames, Eldon slipped outside, leaving behind a trail of blood.

He passed out nearby and was arrested later, when—hoping to have him taken into custody before he bled to death—Sue lured him back home with a texted promise of a pack of smokes.

Gaps in the Sandra Bland Act

The Sandra Bland Act reformed the way jails handle mental health, but only at certain points of the process. In July 2015, the 28-year-old Bland’s death sparked national outrage, leading to a $1.9 million lawsuit settlement, a broader conversation about mental health in county jails, and state legislation. The measures passed—watered down considerably from what was initially filed—were guided closely by the specifics of her death.

Sandra Bland

Sandra Bland (via Twitter)

“We focused on diversion, we focused on people not being in jail if the reason they were there was because of their mental illness,” said Coleman, who authored the House version of the bill.

The measures also focused on suicide prevention at the front end, making sure inmates were screened better and courts were notified more promptly of mental health crises. But while it drew attention to the initial intake, the bill didn’t address ongoing treatment during incarceration, and did little to make sure jails are still attentive to burgeoning mental health needs in the weeks and months after initial intake.

“It didn’t deal with treatment or aftercare, and that’s a huge problem,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who authored the senate version of the legislation. The act also didn’t address the use of solitary confinement with mentally ill populations or those having a mental health crisis.

“I’m really kicking myself,” Coleman said. “Had we been solving all of these problems when I did that bill, we would have covered this.”

No Help, No Phone

After his arrest, Eldon was taken to the hospital and later released to the jail, where staff did a risk assessment and decided to keep him in the infirmary on suicide watch, officials said. But because he denied being suicidal he was released to general population two days later.

That was in April. He did not get additional mental health help until July 18, when he saw a nurse for medication monitoring, officials said. Again, he denied having suicidal intentions.

All the while, he called his wife repeatedly, harassing her sometimes up to 20 times a day. So prosecutors went to court and asked that he be barred from using the phone. Judge Marc Carter agreed.

None of them had any idea the jail would enforce that order by placing Eldon in solitary confinement where, one day later, he would kill himself.

“I loved my husband and I still love my husband,” Sue said. “They put him into solitary confinement in the state of mind that he was in, and gave him the tools to kill himself.”

 Advocates flagged a number of possible problems in the events leading up to Eldon’s death. For one, some questioned the decision to deem him no longer a suicide risk so soon after his last attempt.

“If someone presents at the jail as suicidal or having suicidal tendencies, that person should be considered as an individual with mental health needs throughout their time at the jail,” said Annalee Gulley, policy director for Mental Health America of Greater Houston.

“You cannot say someone is suicidal three days ago and received treatment and is no longer at risk.”

Experts also questioned putting him in isolation, a potentially triggering event for those already in mental crisis.

“It exacerbates people’s existing mental health conditions,” said Greg Hansch, public policy director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “If a person is experiencing delusions, or hallucinations, being alone in a room by themselves is proven to often result in an exacerbation of those symptoms.

“And for a person who is depressed, it may increase hopelessness and despair.”

Like the first days behind bars, the first days in solitary confinement can be particularly high-risk moments, experts said. And, even though Eldon died at the Harris County jail, some saw his suicide as a reminder of larger systemic problems.

“I know how deeply committed the leadership at the Harris County jail is to mental health,” Gulley said. “If a breakdown can happen at a facility that is taking such measures to protect the mental health of its inmates, then I worry about other institutions.”

Keri Blakinger, a staff writer for The Houston Chronicle is a 2018 John Jay Langeloth Justice Reporting Fellow. This story was written as part of  her Fellowship project. The full version is available here.


Finding Shooters Before They Shoot Again

A crime lab in the San Francisco Bay area has made an impressive dent in gun violence by helping local cops swiftly identify weapons used in crime through the 20-year-old National Integrated Ballistic Information Network. So why aren’t other police departments taking advantage of the network?

The criminals terrorizing the East Bay suburbs outside of Oakland, Ca., were getting bolder.

They robbed a family in well-to-do Fremont, Ca., at gunpoint. They broke into another house with pistols drawn, ready to confront residents. They shot a local school board member and pistol-whipped her husband as the victims unloaded groceries in their driveway, and then fled with a purse and cell phone.

For weeks in the summer of 2016, police struggled to gather enough evidence to arrest the men. Then one of them tried to dispose of a gun.

[That provided the evidence police needed to crack the case—thanks to a local crime lab that has uniquely positioned itself as a major player in combating the area’s endemic gun violence.]

As one suspect fled from carjacking a Danville man in his garage, police say he tossed his Glock in a commuter lot beside the freeway. Investigators from the county gang task force, who were monitoring the man through a wiretap on his cell phone, picked up the gun within minutes. They delivered the weapon to the Contra Costa County crime lab, where technicians used a sophisticated ballistics database to link it to shell casings from three other recent shootings, including the one that left the school board member hospitalized.

With those leads in hand, investigators gathered enough evidence to arrest eight members of the so-called Swerve Team gang and charge them with three murders, 14 attempted murders, six armed robberies, and two carjackings.

“The gun was the first link,” said Robert Pamplona, a senior inspector on the county’s gang task force.

Law enforcement departments across the country have access to the same system that Contra Costa has been using to catch the people committing gun crimes on its streets. It’s known as the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), and it’s maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).


When a gun is fired, it leaves a unique marking on the shell casing it ejects. Images of those casings make up the NIBIN database. Pictured: A microscope in the Contra Costa lab for examining bullets. Photo by Cayce Clifford/The Trace

NIBIN is like a giant fingerprint database—but for guns, which when fired leave unique markings on each shell casing they eject. By entering images of fresh casings into the system, investigators can make matches to those already on file, connecting different shootings to the same gun, and from there to shooters or gangs.

But NIBIN only works if police assiduously log all the casings they recover, and do so quickly, before trails grow cold. In many cities and counties, that’s not happening. Studies show many police departments and crime labs are misusing NIBIN, or not using it at all.

“Research has consistently shown that police investigators often do not receive forensic evidence testing results until after their investigation has concluded,” a team from Sam Houston State University in Texas wrote in the Journal of Forensic Sciences last year.

“These time lags prevent investigators from using this critical evidence in the manner that we expect it to be used: to assist in identifying suspects in criminal cases.”

The Contra Costa crime lab’s proficiency with NIBIN is the result of protocols put into place by its no-excuses director.

Those procedures have also made it an exception. In partnership with NBC Bay Area, The Trace surveyed California’s 18 city and county crime laboratories. On average, they report taking three months to enter evidence into NIBIN and get back leads. That’s more than 15 times as long as the turnarounds that Contra Costa achieves.

In the Bay Area, the San Francisco Police Department’s crime lab last year processed bullet casings up to 95 days after police collected them. The Santa Clara crime lab reports that it takes “months to a year” to run casings through NIBIN and look for leads. Both labs say they are working to narrow that window, and San Francisco says that, so far this year, its average turnaround time is about eight days.

At least three California counties — Fresno, Ventura and Orange — are not using NIBIN at all.

“If a lead is taking eight months to get into hands of investigators, it’s worthless,” said Sam Rabadi, who was head of the firearms division at ATF in 2012 and 2013, and who now works for Vigilant Solutions, a private investigative technology company.

“The overarching goal is to get to the shooter before they shoot again.”

Public officials are desperate for more ways to link guns to shooters. About two out of every five murders in the U.S. go unsolved, according to the FBI. Solve rates for nonfatal shootings are in the single digits in several major cities.

Unapprehended, perpetrators strike again. Street justice fills the void, leading to revenge shootings.

“NIBIN is a chance to deter that small number of people who are prone to grab guns and shoot at other people,” said William King, who authored the first comprehensive report on NIBIN for the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013.

“NIBIN holds those people accountable.”

By misusing the ballistic fingerprinting, or not using it at all, King said, “police have failed a lot of communities in the inner cities.”

Better ballistics testing, on its own, won’t fix the problem. Many police departments are understaffed, have strained relationships with the communities they rely on for witnesses, or simply don’t prioritize solving gun crimes. But taking full advantage of NIBIN’s capabilities can help cops catch shooters who might otherwise remain at large.

Underperforming Crime Labs

Contra Costa County used to be among the many jurisdictions underperforming in their use of NIBIN. Then, in 2015, a former San Francisco detective named Pamela Hofsass took over as director of its crime lab. Without an influx of funding or manpower, she transformed how her department taps the technology’s potential. The results she achieved helped shift how law enforcement throughout the county approaches solving gun crimes.

Hofsass dramatically cut the time it took to get NIBIN leads back to sheriff’s deputies and local police officers. That, in turn, helped them make more arrests, giving them greater incentives to pick up shell casings at shootings and bring them to the lab.

Pamela Hofsass

Without an influx of funding or manpower, Contra Costa lab boss Pamela Hofsass transformed how her department taps NIBIN’s potential and processes ballistic evidence. Photo by Cayce Clifford/The Trace

“Back in the day, when there was a shooting where no one was hurt, the officer might have kicked those casings into the curb,” Hofsass said. “They thought, there’s no blood here, no injured victims, there’s nothing. Now we know that the people who end up killing people usually start by shooting randomly.”

Ron Nichols, a former ATF NIBIN head who is widely credited with redesigning the agency’s protocols to get faster results, said the changes that Hofsass wrought are possible for any department.

“It’s less about money and resources,” he said, “and more about getting labs to change their mindset about how they do things.”

Ballistic investigations used to be an analog business. Firearm examiners would take Polaroid pictures of cartridge casings and store them in paper files. When a new shooting happened, they’d pull out the photographs and eyeball them for matches.

Beginning about 20 years ago, the ATF launched NIBIN, and brought the art of ballistics comparisons into the digital age. These days, after police send shell casings to a crime lab, staffers load them one at a time into an imaging machine, which takes photographs and uploads them into the database.

A gun collected as evidence goes through its own procedure. Technicians test fire it into a water tank, then gather the casings and enter them into NIBIN, looking for matches with ballistic signatures already on file.

The ATF now touts NIBIN as a cornerstone of its national crime-fighting operation. The agency maintains 179 NIBIN sites across the country, serving 3,000 law enforcement organizations. The system contains about 2.8 million images of shell casings.

Gun Violence Blind Spots

But laggards remain, leaving blind spots in the system. As of 2016, according to The Marshall Project, 11 states didn’t have a single NIBIN machine. Another 19 had only one or two. The ATF declined to provide The Trace with updated numbers.

Where NIBIN is available, many agencies are still struggling to realize its potential.

In Chicago, officials working to combat the city’s high murder rate have made efforts to collect more shell casings. A Chicago Police spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi, said officers now try to pick up and process shell casings after every reported shooting, even when no one is hurt.

But that requires the department to know when a round has been fired, and the city has installed gunshot-detection sensors in only about half of all precincts. In the others, it’s extremely difficult for officers to locate casings after the fact.

Processing times can also hinder investigations. Casings for homicides usually get entered into NIBIN within a couple of days, Guglielmi said. But lower priority cases, including shootings that don’t result in injuries, take a few weeks.

Experts say that delay can stall officers at critical moments — when it might be possible to stop someone from killing, or killing again.

“The sooner that I can get it [a lead] in my hands, the sooner I can get to the shooter before he or she reoffends,” ATF Firearms Operations Division Chief Michael Eberhardt told NBC Bay Area.

Last year, the ATF dispatched vans equipped with NIBIN equipment to Chicago, Baltimore, and Houston. The equipment in the vehicles is no more sophisticated than what each city is already using in-house. The bureau’s goal was to show local investigators how fast evidence can be processed when protocols are streamlined, and to entice investigators by getting them quick leads that help them bring more shooters to justice.

Spread over 700 acres of rolling hills northeast of San Francisco, Contra Costa County is dotted in some parts with cow farms and in others with desperate urban blight.

A war has raged for years in the western part of the county between gang members in Central and North Richmond.

“Out of the friends I had growing up, six are dead and three are incarcerated and not coming home,” said LeDamien Flowers, a North Richmond community organizer.

Within Richmond city limits, one in every three homicides went unsolved between 2011 and 2016.

When Hofsass took over the Contra Costa County crime lab in 2015, there was a backlog of more than 700 shell casings waiting to be scanned. On average, it took well over a year for the lab to get back to police with the results of a ballistics test.

“We’re talking about major crimes — attempted homicides or homicides with fired cartridge cases just sitting there,” she said.

Hofsass understood from her own experience as a detective that the lab had to do better.

“I knew from when I was in homicide, if I didn’t have critical information, then I wasn’t moving forward in that particular aspect of the case,” she said. “We had to think about what the detectives really need — to streamline it and strip it down. So that’s what we did. We overhauled the whole process.”

On her watch, Hofsass resolved, technicians would get detectives leads within at least four days of the shooting—two days to get the evidence to NIBIN, another two to get the lead back from the ATF.

But first, she had to get her staff onboard.

Prior to Hofsass’s arrival, “we were just functioning to put out fires right before things went to trial,” said Donnie Finley, her chief deputy. “Some days her message went over better than others. I remember people saying ‘We can’t do that, we don’t have enough people.’ ”

Tidy and no-nonsense, Hofsass convinced her team that they didn’t need more sets of hands, just smarter protocols.

Before Hofsass took over the lab, ballistic evidence routinely sat on shelves while it waited to be tested for DNA and fingerprints. Now it was immediately assigned to a technician.

She cross-trained her staff so members outside the ballistics team could help out colleagues when their own workload got thin. Investigators who primarily worked crime scenes were taught how to enter evidence into NIBIN on the side. Latent fingerprint examiners were shown how to record the make, model, and function of crime guns when ballistics tests got backed up.

Hofsass bought iPads to replace the paperwork that lab technicians had been doing by hand. Lab workers who used to have to draw pictures of shell cases and their markings now snapped photos instead.

crime lab

A technician at the Contra Costa lab demonstrates the process of test-firing a gun to capture its ballistic “fingerprint.” Photo by Cayce Clifford/The Trace

She also asked for help from the ATF. At many local police labs, in-house criminalists do the initial side-by-side comparisons between shell casings they’ve entered into NIBIN and possible matches that the computer returns. That’s important work, since those initial hits are the ones that investigators can run with right away as they hustle to get shooters off the street. But it’s also time consuming.

In Contra Costa, and at 19 other labs across the country, those first matches are now made by ATF technicians based in Huntsville, Al. Hofsass said that’s been a huge help streamlining her process and opens up time her technicians can use to button up cases when they are ready to go to trial.

The ATF says it wants to do image comparisons for more agencies. The bureau plans to expand this service to as many as 30 additional sites next year.

The ATF also lent Contra Costa two technicians to help test fire about 600 crime guns that had been sitting in storage, and get that ballistic information into the NIBIN system. As they plowed through their backlog, Contra Costa crime lab workers started with the most recent cases, so they could get leads to detectives while the evidence was still fresh.

Rewarding Success

Today, Hofsass’s team is completely caught up. To keep her staff motivated, she painstakingly plans elaborate ceremonies to recognize techs who meet their benchmarks. When Hofsass hears that efficient lab work helped to make an arrest, or clear a suspect, she broadcasts that information to her staff, to make sure they know the work they’re doing matters.

“I’m saying there’s a way to be efficient, effective, and maintain your quality,” she said. “We’re here to make the world a safer place. So why would you want to take your time?”

Before Josh Medel worked for the FBI/Contra Costa County Safe Streets Task Force, he was an intelligence analyst in Iraq. He studied satellite images, drone data, and classified reports, trying to discern what opposition leaders were were planning. In Contra Costa, he looked at crime reports, social media feeds and cell phone data to figure out how who was running Contra Costa’s gangs and what they might do next.

When he heard what Hofsass was doing to produce faster ballistics results, he called the lab and asked for a year’s worth of the data it had collected. Analyzing it, he mapped out a sprawling diagram of the county’s gun crime: which guns were connected to which shootings, and which gang members might be connected to those guns—valuable information for prosecutors in California, where gang affiliation can mean longer prison sentences. In some cases, the webs sprawled to dozens of incidents.

The picture Medel was able to put together from Contra Costa’s NIBIN data was usually not enough to yield arrests on its own. But it was packed with valuable clues.

On the day of the carjacking that broke the Swerve case, police test-fired the gun that the suspect tossed in the commuter lot and entered the spent casings into NIBIN. When the ATF sent initial matches back, the results showed that three other recent shootings might have been done with the same weapon.

Investigators then gathered surveillance videos, GPS, DNA and cell phone data looking for other ties between the four shootings. They plugged that material into Medel’s map to figure out where a particular crime spree might fit in with wider county trends.

In the end, the Swerve Team linked 16 guns to 42 different shootings. Seven men were charged in the crimes. Police said that officers confiscated more than 200 illegal guns as a result of the investigation.

Getting shooters and guns off the street was not the only victory that came with the Swerve Team arrests. The headlines, and the fact that ballistics leads were key, got the attention of police at departments large and small across the Bay Area.

“Cops started saying, ‘Wow, maybe we need to clear out our evidence room,’” Medel said.

Every year, technicians at California’s Contra Costa County crime lab process hundreds of guns and shell casings recovered by police. Photo by Cayce Clifford/The Trace

Hofsass took advantage of the renewed enthusiasm for NIBIN to further refine Contra Costa’s use of the technology. She set up a drop box at the county’s central evidence locker. There, casings can be deposited round the clock with a simple evidence form, even if they aren’t collected as part of a criminal case. She’s planning a second drop box at the county jail, where police have to go regularly anyway when they book suspects.

For Carol Brown, the Swerve Team arrests marked a life-changing moment. A school board member in the leafy San Francisco suburb of Orinda, Brown and her husband were unloading groceries in their driveway in September 2016 when masked men attacked them. They beat Brown’s husband with a gun and shot her through the arm and chest.

The crime made headlines across the Bay Area, shocking in its apparent randomness.

Brown would spend two days in a locked ward in the hospital, protected from assailants who remained at large. On the third day came the NIBIN hit, when investigators connected the gun tossed in the commuter lot to shell cases from Brown’s driveway, compiling enough evidence to arrest the suspects.

Brown didn’t know that Hofsass’s ballistics team helped solve the case. What she knew was that she was safe again.

“I will not soon forget that moment,” said Brown. “Hearing they were in jail was the first time after it happened I felt like I could breathe.”

Editor’s Note: A video accompanying this story is available here.

Earlier versions of this story were originally published in The Trace and the San Jose Mercury. Ann Givens is a 2018 John Jay Crime Reporting Fellow and a juror in the annual John Jay Excellence in Criminal Justice Journalism Awards. She welcomes comments from readers.


Participatory Defense: Shifting the Courtroom ‘Balance of Power’

A Brooklyn, N.Y,-based grassroots group is teaching people with substance abuse disorder how to avoid getting ensnared in the criminal justice system.  Organizer Jason Del Aguila says the first step is empowering individuals in their encounters with the courts and police.

VOCAL-NY, a Brooklyn-based grassroots organization seeking to empower low-income people affected by substance use disorder, recently launched a participatory defense program aimed at teaching people how to avoid getting ensnared in a criminal justice system that often works against them.

The goal is to combine traditional harm-reduction services, such as syringe exchange and HIV and hepatitis C testing, with less tangible resources, such as knowing how to de-escalate an encounter with law enforcement.

Participatory defense is a companion to Court Watch NYC, a collaborative program between VOCAL-NY and public defenders that trains community members to observe and document trends in criminal court arraignments and hearings.

“I realized we needed a program that did more than Know Your Rights and ‘CopWatch’ trainings, which focus on filming police encounters, de-escalation and documenting, and don’t necessarily go through all the court processes,” explained Jason Del Aguila, who is in charge of the participatory defense effort.

“The idea was, how do we help you navigate through the everyday legal gauntlet, from the streets to the courts, and even after doing time?

“We’re creating community efforts to keep people from becoming another victim of an injustice system.”

He says that often means helping participants understand court documents and organize support in advance of hearings, but more often the aim is to prevent them from getting arrested in the first place.

“I’ve had people who say, ‘It doesn’t matter, the cops can do whatever they want,’” Del Aguila said, “So I teach them, this is what you can do to prove that they did something wrong.”

Participatory defense is not a new concept, or even a single unified program with a defined set of protocols. Modeled on Silicon Valley De-Bug, a community advocacy and storytelling organization founded in 2001 in San Jose, the movement encourages family and friends of the accused to help with their defense.

According to the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project, which promotes the national expansion of participatory defense, the goal is to provide additional leverage to overburdened public defenders.

Since about 80 percent of felony defendants in state court systems rely on public defenders, criminal justice reformers say participatory defense has the potential to “change the balance of power in the courts.”

Over the past decade public defender organizations in more than a dozen municipalities, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, Memphis, and Birmingham have established some form of a participatory defense program.

But some advocates say that the stigma associated with drug use and substance use disorder has promulgated a two-tiered system of advocacy that excludes users of drugs like heroin and crack cocaine.

“In progressive circles, there’s always been this sort of distinction between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor,” said Paul Cherashore, an activist who spent more than two decades working in harm reduction circles in New York and Philadelphia.

On the Bottom Rung: Drug Users

“Drug users have always held this bottom rung when it comes to providing aid or advocacy.”

VOCAL-NY’s program is among the first in the nation to combine traditional harm-reduction services with formal participatory defense training.

“As a harm-reduction agency, we do everything we can to reduce the harms associated with drug use,” said Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY. “Most of the time that means providing sterile syringes to prevent disease transmission or teaching people how to reverse an overdose with Naloxone.

“But it can also mean supporting people when they get arrested and helping them navigate the criminal legal system through participatory defense. For our participants, most of whom also struggle with poverty and homelessness, it’s often the police and prosecutors that cause the most harm, not their drug use.”

VOCAL-NY’s Del Aguila leads its participatory defense trainings two days per week, where he encourages people to share their experiences with the criminal justice system. His seminars also include teaching clients how to organize court support for hearings, and how to identify and protest unjust policing patterns like ethnic profiling or stop-and-frisk.

He also instructs VOCAL-NY participants on their legal rights and walks them through defusing encounters with police.

“Anything you say or do can and will be used against you, so don’t say shit,” Del Aguila said. “Whether you’re holding drugs or not, ask if you are being detained, and if the answer is no, then leave immediately.

“And if you’re asked to consent to a search, answer no, and say it loudly and clearly so any witnesses can hear.”

christopher moraff

Christopher Moraff

“I try not to make it about having a competition with the cops because you’re gonna lose even if you’re right,” he adds. “You’re trying to win against someone who has the odds stacked for them.”

See also: Friends in Court: The Growing Impact of Participatory Defense

Christopher Moraff is a Philadelphia-based freelancer who writes on criminal justice, policing and civil liberties. A contributor to The Crime Report, he has also written for Al Jazeera America, The Daily Beast, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, among others. This story was published earlier in The Appeal, and is reproduced with their permission. Chris welcomes readers’ comments.