Tag Archives: incarceration

When Innovation Fails: Doing Hard Time in the Offender-Monitoring Business

In Bloomberg Businessweek, Lauren Etter explores another problem with the privatization of law enforcement: technology. From scrambled signals and dead batteries to false violations, the electronic ankle bracelets 3M created failed to protect wearers’ civil liberties even though the process used to design them reflected the company’s way of thinking about innovation and experimentation. Unfortunately, creating monitors for human beings involves higher stakes than yellow stickies.

The sheer amount of data generated by GPS-tracking devices creates problems across the industry and in every state, but the number of alerts in Massachusetts has far exceeded the norm, experts say. Documents reviewed by Bloomberg show that in the 12 months ended in October 2015, 3M bracelets produced 612,492 violation alerts in Massachusetts—more than 50,000 per month, from about 2,800 individuals wearing the devices. Almost 40 percent of the alerts were due to a device not being able to connect to the network or the GPS not being detected. Roughly 1 percent of alerts resulted in an arrest warrant being issued. Tom Pasquarello, former director of the electronic monitoring program for Massachusetts, estimates that half those warrants were potentially based on faulty or incomplete data. That would be roughly 3,000 warrants. “There were people that were pulled from their house in the middle of the night, that lost their kids, people that lost their job,” he says.

The problem of glitchy ankle monitors became so pronounced that the Massachusetts probation department set up an after-hours office in the lobby of a Boston police station so offenders could bring in their bracelets when problems occurred or batteries died. In August 2015, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Heidi Brieger became so frustrated with the devices that she vowed to stop sentencing anybody to them. “It is simply administratively improper to run a system in this fashion,” she said, according to a court transcript. “We don’t lose liberty in this country because somebody’s software is not working. It just isn’t right.”

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On Island: Journeying to Penal Colonies, from Rikers to Robben

Rikers Island (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, FILE), Robben Island (Roohi Choudhry)

Roohi Choudhry | Longreads | April 2017 | 14 minutes (3,556 words)

 

The Rikers Island jail complex, built on an island just off the borough of Queens in New York City, has been described as the world’s largest penal colony. It has seen its share of controversies, many of them involving issues of race. Rikers is no exception to the disproportionate and mass incarceration of Black and Latino people in the United States.

Over the past year, an independent commission, led by the former chief judge of New York, has studied the jail, and on April 2nd, it released its recommendation: shut down Rikers. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has also backed the recommended course of action, which aims to have the last inmate depart the jail within 10 years.

In place of Rikers, the plan proposes building smaller jails inside New York City’s boroughs to eventually house half its current number of inmates. At the heart of this proposal is the view that people who are sent to jail are from the community, not “other.” This view dictates that they should stay in the community during their jail term. That is, people who have been arrested or convicted should not be cast away on an island, out of sight, mind and empathy.

It’s an idea once espoused by the writer and activist Grace Paley in “Six Days: Some Rememberings,” the story of her time in prison, during which a fellow inmate tells her: “That was a good idea… to have a prison in your own neighborhood, so you could keep in touch, yelling out the window.” It’s also an idea in keeping with racial justice: Black and brown lives matter, and cannot be so easily discarded when they are seen.

In the following essay, originally published in March 2015 on The Butter, I explore these ideas by comparing Rikers to another racially charged penal colony that has already been closed down: Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. That island was once infamous for imprisoning Apartheid-era political prisoners (including Nelson Mandela), but is now a museum and tourist destination.

By commingling my journeys to both islands in this essay, I question what it means to banish our “unwanted,” whether because of crime, politics or disease, across the sea, far from the safety of our mainland. Is this impulse truly part of our nature? Using my experiences of these two places, I confront questions of nature, both of the land and of people, and how that nature collides with questions of race. Read more…

Where a Simple IV Could Have Saved a Life: Dying in Jail From Opioid Withdrawal

Photo by Aleksandr Zykov (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At Mother Jones, Julia Lurie reports on a rising trend: death by opioid withdrawal in jail. Read about how addict shame and silence, jail short-staffing, scant medical equipment, and a general apathy toward inmates make a deadly combination.

When Tyler Tabor was booked in a jail outside Denver on a spring afternoon in 2015, he told a screening nurse that he was a daily heroin user and had a prescription for Xanax. A friendly, outdoorsy 25-year-old with a son in kindergarten, Tabor had started using opioids after he injured his back on the job as a welder. When he was arrested on two misdemeanor warrants, his parents decided not to pay his $300 bail, thinking he would be safer in jail and away from heroin for a few days.

Three days later, Tabor died of dehydration at the Adams County jail, according to a coroner’s report. The alleged cause: drug withdrawal.

During the evening shift at the Brown County jail in Green Bay, Wisconsin, there is one nurse—and no other medical staff—for roughly 700 inmates, according to nurses who worked at the facility. “I had people detoxing, I had people with chest pain, I had people getting into fights, I had emergencies where people aren’t breathing,” said Abby, who worked at the facility for nine months before leaving last fall. “I can’t assess somebody three times a shift when there’s one nurse for 700 inmates, and do a meaningful assessment, and also provide interventions when I have 20 people on opiate withdrawal.”

Abby says she bought her own medical supplies because the blood pressure cuffs, thermometers, and stethoscopes provided by CCS didn’t always work. She often found herself stuck between a rock and a hard place: There was no IV therapy in the jail, but sending inmates to the hospital was frowned upon. In order to send a withdrawal patient to the hospital, she said, the inmate would “need to be at the point where their vital signs were dropping, their internal organs were starting to become compromised.”

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How to Make a ‘Jail Burrito’

Photo by Pixabay

In minimum security, the cook-ups took place on empty top bunk beds. Mattresses were removed, and four or five prisoners would gather around the makeshift table with beef sticks, cheese sticks, squeeze cheese, turkey sticks, dried beans, rice, bags of chips, pickles, jalapenos, packs of tuna, and anything else worth wrapping up in a tortilla.

Square soap dishes became knives that cubed and diced meat sticks. Chip bags were torn down the seams and used as plates and cutting boards. “Carry-out” containers from the commissary’s hot food became serving bowls in which nachos were piled on top of sheets of notebook paper that were made into liners to keep grease off the bowls.

The jail burrito was the most common dish. One of the first I witnessed was made by my friend, Ed, who went by the name Chef Home Boy ‘R E-D. He and his crew put together the biggest and baddest cook-ups in general, and I learned a lot from watching him. If I owned a bakery, I’d hire Ed as a pastry chef when he gets out.

But he was also a master of the jail burrito. Rice and refried beans made up the base, which was spread thick across the tortillas and topped with tuna soaked in jalapeno-infused pickle brine. Generous portions of cubed beef and pepper turkey sticks topped the tuna, followed by pickle cubes, and slices of pickled jalapenos. Ed next drizzled jalapeno squeeze cheese mixed with the pickle brine around the pile.

Stephen Katz (a pseudonym) writing for the Detroit Metro Times about eating at the Detroit-area Oakland County Jail.  The state of Michigan started contracting with the food service megacorporation Aramark in late 2013, and since then Michigan jail meals have been plagued with a series of gruesome problems. As Katz puts it, “a convincing argument can be made that jail food should be pretty gross, but what it shouldn’t be is rotten, maggot-infested, pulled out of the garbage, or gnawed on by rats.” Cook-ups are the jailhouse equivalent of a potluck, where prisoners will pool ingredients purchased in the commissary.

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Meals Behind Bars: A Reading List

Alcatraz Dining Hall by Carl Sundstrom. (Public Domain)

Food is everywhere — we eat at home, at work, at school, on the go, and while traveling. Many of us are able to eat what we choose, when we choose; for some, deciding what to eat, obtaining it, and preparing is enough of a burden that we’re turning to meal-replacements like Soylent in such numbers that orders are backlogged for weeks. That all changes in jail, where you eat what you’re given — or you don’t eat at all. Among the many freedoms prison limits, where does losing the ability to choose the timing, quantity, and, most importantly, flavor of your food rank? Pretty high.

Three of these pieces look at what mealtime is like on the inside, from an examination of chow hall food to stories of inmates’ ad-hoc cell-made meals to an in-depth look at a commissary food that’s both dietary supplement and currency for thousands of inmates. A fourth adds a different dimension, revealing how some of the foods on our own tables are the product of prison labor.

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Platinum: A Singer Visits a Women’s Prison

Thao Nguyen | Radio Silence | October 2014 | 6 minutes (1500 words) Read more…