Archive for January, 2014

January 31, 2014

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January 31, 2014

Larry Strauss on Huffpo

No, this isn’t another call for legislation restricting the sale of fire arms or ammunition. No, right, I understand. Guns don’t kill; people do. People with guns kill faster and more effectively than people without guns — but people with guns also stop other people with guns from killing other people. If we got rid of all the guns we would be safer, but that is impossible — and anyway it would be unconstitutional, right? — so the next safest thing is for everyone to have a gun, right? No, not really, because most of us can easily think of a dozen people we wouldn’t want walking around with a loaded firearm.

Forgive me for growing weary of this debate but while the rhetoric flies, my guys are getting shot. Disputes are being settled with barbarism. Hunting is a sport in the inner-city and the prey is young men. Sensitive young men — same inside as my son and his friends and your sons and their friends. Some of the shooters are too. Just boys with guns.

Gun control. Self-control. Lack of parental control. There is a lot to say about senseless killing — and there is very little other kind of killing on the streets of South Los Angeles and many other communities. And I’m sick of it — me and a lot of other people who live with it and lose from it.

I’m sick of people who devalue human life. Who just don’t care — whether those people run corporations or manage factories or occupy seats in congress or sell drugs or pimp children or shoot at young men they don’t know because of some problem they’ve got with some other young men they barely know.

And I’m sick of people who act like crime and violence in this city and other cities has been solved because it is no longer happening where they live. It is still happening. It is happening a lot. It is happening to children — and I’m sick of it.

I’m sick of consoling young men who almost got shot over the weekend and who had to stay home all day Sunday because of the bullets going back and forth on their street. I’m tired of visiting guys in the hospital and being glad they didn’t die. I’m tired of teaching young men in wheelchairs.

I’m tired of people who think that violence will end when everyone has a gun. I’m tired of people who think we can make all the guns disappear.

I’m tired of video games that celebrate violence.

I’m tired of all the digital violence and all the fun that people are having with it. I’m sorry. I know that people need to enjoy themselves in whatever way they want to as long as they aren’t hurting anyone and I know that a lot of people find amusement in digital violence of various kinds — including the young men I visit in the hospital and hear telling me that they were pinned down in their apartments because of real shootings, including the young man who was a very talented dancer who was shot in his legs while he was trying to wash his car (he’s recovered now and through hard-work and perseverance he’s dancing in a show on Broadway and I wish his inspiring accomplishment meant there would be less gun violence in the future but it doesn’t).

I once told my son that I thought any time a video game player killed someone in a video game that the game should make his character attend that dead character’s funeral and see his wife and children crying their digital tears in the game. My son said that was really stupid. I knew he would say that — and I suppose he’s right, but it frustrates me that we can now so easily indulge our aggression through these artificial means. I think we’re better off having to resist those impulses altogether. I’m not suggesting that video games be banned or people should stop playing them (I haven’t even made my own son stop playing them). Just that I’ve lost my sense of humor or irony about it.

I certainly don’t think that digital violence has become a positive outlet for aggression. It has probably just encouraged it. The ease of the mayhem, the killing without consequence and, of course, the ability to die and come back to life.

I see that aggression played out in the lives of young man I have taught and coached for over twenty years. They are immersed in a world of powerlessness turned to anger and madness. I see the combustibility of poverty and materialism and too many children alone in the world and I’m tired of it.

I listen to these young men when they tell me what is on their minds and in their hearts. These are young men hardened by the inner-city street culture and what is really going on inside of them is this: though vaguely hopeful — or trying to be hopeful — about the future, they are mostly sad. Sad and angry and afraid.

I tell them to cling to their hope and cheer up and I try to give them a perspective that might make something constructive out of their anger, turn it into passion and ambition. It’s what most of us do — those of us with the honor of teaching these young men — and that’s why it makes us so sick when one of them gets disfigured or paralyzed or killed by a bullet on the street.

Almost twenty years ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association used the word “epidemic” to describe gang violence in Los Angeles. More than ten years ago, the Center for Disease Control declared “youth violence” in the United States a “public health issue.” The doctors and public health officials who made these statements wanted to raise awareness about what they believed was far more than a law-enforcement problem.

They were right. Children getting shot in school or on the way to and from school — or anywhere else — is shameful. A shame that belongs to all of us whether our children are the perpetrators, the victims, the near-victims, or whether we’ve had the good fortune to shield our children from it altogether.

I’m ashamed of it and I hope you are too.

January 23, 2014

Visiting prison as a twelve year old.

Pretty Sparkly Things: A Black Girl’s Encounter with the Prison Industrial Complex
January 23, 2014
By Tanisha C. Ford

Ford-Pretty Sparkly Things

I love clothes. I always have. As a black girl coming of age in the early 1990s, I was up on all the adornment trends: from asymmetrical haircuts and Cross Colours jeans to neckties and button down shirts (a la Boyz II Men). As any person who went to a predominantly black school knows, you had to come to school CLEAN! Even as twelve-year-old kids, style was our form of self-expression. It was our way of envisioning possibilities for our futures that could propel us beyond the de facto boundaries of our hyper-segregated neighborhoods. Dressing stylishly enabled us to imagine what it would be like to be doctors, ball players, lawyers, millionaire businesspersons, or entertainers. Because of our self-fashioned “fly code,” I was always looking for the next dope outfit to wear to school.

One day, my stylish Mother came home with a white denim short set that she’d bought for me. The shorts and matching top had these multicolored, beaded tassels—“pretty sparkly things”—dangling from them. I paired the outfit with a hot pink hat (like the ones Mayum Bialik used to wear on the T.V. show “Blossom”). I borrowed my mother’s hot glue gun (this was pre-Bedazzlers), and I glued rhinestones on a pair of my ballet flats. That next week, I strutted through my junior high school’s halls in my new fashion ensemble. I was the Hip Hop Coco Chanel, and this outfit was my masterpiece! It quickly became my signature look that I reserved for special occasions.

So naturally, when my Father told me we were going to visit my older brother who was serving time in prison, I knew exactly what I was going to wear: my outfit with the pretty sparkly things! I wanted my big brother, who was eight years my senior, to be proud of the young woman I was becoming while he was away. And, to me, this outfit symbolized not only my sartorial innovation but also my maturity and professional promise.

I had never been to a prison before. I was terrified. But, I put aside my fears so I could visit my hero. After riding in the car for what seemed like forever, we pulled into the prison’s visitor parking area. My heart began to pound; I could feel moisture forming on my palms. I wondered: “Would my brother recognize me? What was his life like in prison? Was it like the film South Central? Was my Brother like O.G. Bobby Johnson? If I go in, will they force me to stay…forever?!” All of these thoughts whizzed through my twelve-year-old brain as we approached the facility. The one thought that did not occur to me was that I might not be able to get into the prison because of what I chose to wear that day.

Another visitor informed my Father that the guards might not let me in because my pretty sparkly things violated the visitors’ dress code. I was crushed. The very outfit that I’d picked out to impress my big Brother with might be the very thing that kept me from even seeing him. My outfit was an affront to the prison industrial complex. And, the prison system responded by attempting to stifle and confine my creativity—reflected in the pretty sparkly things on my garment—the same way it had those of the millions of men and women held captive behind its bars. Tears welled in my eyes. I felt guilty that after driving nearly two hours to the prison, my Dad would not even get to see his son. I felt like I had wasted his gas and his time simply because I had to wear this outfit.

My father and the other adults began brainstorming as to what could be done about my clothes: perhaps they could give me someone else’s t-shirt to wear so that only the pretty sparkly things on my shorts would show. Maybe someone could wait in the car with me while my Father went inside…“So much fuss over a few pretty. sparkly. things.” I thought. Finally, the prison authorities decided I could go in. I could keep on my outfit, and I could go into the prison. We got to see my Brother, who put on a happy face for us despite the fact that he was likely ashamed that we had to visit him under such circumstances. I hugged him, and beamed with pride (though a little less brightly) as I showed off my outfit. I left the prison knowing that something in me had changed; I had lost a bit of my innocence that day. I had been exposed to a type of cruelty that I could not articulate at the time. I never visited my brother again. And, once he was released, we never discussed his stint in prison.

I recently shared my story with activist Lois Ahrens, who runs the Real Cost of Prisons Project, based in Northampton, Massachusetts, and she helped me put my personal experience into a broader context. I asked her, “Why did this happen? Why are guards so worried about what people wear?” Ahrens said:

Guards have power and prisoners and visitors have none. Everything a guard does reminds a prisoner or visitor of that dynamic… We are all presumed guilty because we are visiting someone who has been found guilty… Every visitor is suspect therefore whatever a visitor does or wears is suspect.

She then gave me a list of clothing and adornment items that have been banned from Massachusetts’ prisons:

Tassels Cargo pants

Open-toed shoes Bobby pins

Barrettes Earrings

Sleeveless shirts Underwire bras

Zip-front shirts Shorts

Baggy or tight clothing Clothing w/ many pockets

Hoodies Revealing or sheer clothing

Bodysuits of any type Wrap around shirts

This list represents the literal policing of people’s dressed bodies. The guards have the sole discretion to enforce these dress codes, and the list of banned garments varies from state to state. If you challenge a guard’s decision about your clothing, you could lose your visitation privileges for a year or more. These adornment regulations are part of a larger, problematic set of visitor body politics. Loved ones are subject to intrusive body searches, which can include: scanning; wanding; removing shoes, outer shirts, and belts; looking under your collar; examining your hair and mouth; and having search dogs sniff you. This process is only slightly less invasive than the full-body searches the prisoners are subjected to before they enter the visiting area.

The reality is that most people, like my family, do not know the rules regarding “proper” attire while visiting prisons. Nor are most people trying to sneak contraband to prisoners in their garments. Ironically, it is often the guards who operate smuggling rings (see here and here). Most people are simply trying to visit their loved ones, trying to make their family members feel their love through the prison’s Plexiglass windows. During our conversation, Ahrens noted the paradox between prisons’ treatment of loved ones and their stated views about the importance of family visits. She told me, “Every state claims it values ‘family reunification,’ yet every state makes visiting as degrading as can be imagined.” Ahrens is currently engaged in a battle with the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC), pushing the DOC to change its policy regarding using search dogs during the visitor screening process.
Ford-Pretty Sparkly Things

Families often have to visit with their incarcerated loved ones through a Plexiglass window

But, what the fight for the humane treatment of prison visitors needs most is people willing to share their stories. Ahrens states, “Visiting a prison or a jail is traumatizing for everyone, which is why it is so important to do it and good to talk about it since there is so much stigma and shame with having a loved one in prison…which helps keep [the structure of power] in place.”

I’d pushed my traumatic visit to the prison into the recesses of my memory, until I started organizing this mass incarceration forum. At twelve years old, I did not have the language with which to articulate my trauma or to push back against the system. But, now I understand the power in speaking out about these issues. Incarcerated folks—regardless of whether they are innocent or guilty of the charges for which they have been convicted—belong to someone. They are loved. And, their loved ones deserve to be treated humanely when they visit. This essay was very difficult to write because this experience was so personal, and family dynamics can be hard to discuss in an open forum. But, it is important to illuminate how mass incarceration affects families. We are invisible victims of the prison system. I hope my story compels others to share their experiences and join in the fight against the prison industrial complex.

*This piece is written in loving memory of my big Brother who died tragically on December 16, 2012.

January 7, 2014

Prison phone rates.

Unfair Phone Charges for Inmates
Published: January 6, 2014

The Federal Communications Commission ended a grave injustice last fall when it prohibited price-gouging by the private companies that provide interstate telephone service for prison and jail inmates. Thanks to the F.C.C. order, which takes effect next month, poor families no longer have to choose between paying for basic essentials and speaking to a relative behind bars. The commission now needs to be on the lookout for — and crack down on, if necessary — similar abuses involving newer communication technologies like person-to-person video chat, email and voice mail.

Research shows that inmates who keep in touch with their families have a better chance of fitting in back home once released. Before the recent ruling, a 15-minute interstate telephone call from prison could easily cost a family as much as $17. The cost was partly driven by a “commission” — a legalized kickback — that telephone companies paid to state corrections departments. The commissions were calculated as a percentage of telephone revenue, or a fixed upfront fee, or a combination of both.

State prison officials and phone companies said the extra charges were necessary to pay for security screening. But this argument was discredited years ago in New York State, which has outlawed the kickback system and requires its prison phone company to provide service at the lowest possible cost to inmates and their families. Federal prisons also allow inmates to place calls cheaply to a preregistered, approved list of phone numbers.

The F.C.C. ruled that rates and fees may not include the “commission” payments that providers pay to prisons. It also set a cap for interstate calls: 25 cents a minute for collect calls and 21 cents a minute for prepaid and debit calls. And it required the companies to base charges on the actual costs of providing service.

An analysis provided last month to the commission by the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts research group, urged similar rules for video visitation, email, voice mail and other systems. It said that for-profit video visitation systems (allowing families and inmates to talk using, in some instances, personal computers outside the prison and video terminals inside) are being “driven by the same perverse incentives that caused market failure in the correctional telephone industry.”

Absent regulation, prisons and phone companies will simply use the video chats to get around the price caps on interstate calls.

Whatever the technology, gouging prison inmates and their families is both unfair and counterproductive, weakening family ties that could be critical to an inmate’s adjustment to the world beyond bars.

January 6, 2014

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January 6, 2014

May 2014 exonerate more people.

Steve Drizin
It’s the time of year when our inboxes are filled with “year in review” messages and the news is filled with top 10 lists. It inspired me to compile my “greatest hits” package from 2013 in the area of false confessions. With apologies in advance for any omissions, here are my highlights of 2013.


It took eight years, but Syracuse teenager Joseph Masterpol, who was coerced into falsely confessing to making a bomb threat in 2005, recovered $75,000 for the pain and trauma he experienced.


William Hurt, an 18-year-old from Evansville, Indiana, who had confessed to killing a family friend along with his brothers and sisters, was acquitted by a jury.


Debra Milke, a woman on Arizona’s death row for more than two decades, has her conviction for soliciting her own child’s murder vacated by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Milke was convicted on the say-so of Phoenix detective Armando Saldate, a man with a lengthy history of police misconduct, who claimed she had confessed during an unrecorded interrogation.

The Italian High Court overturned the acquittals of Amanda Knox and Raffaelle Sollecito and orders that they be retried for Meredith Kercher’s murder.

Illinois appellate court granted a new hearing for Charles Johnson, one of four Chicago teenagers who falsely confessed to a double murder in 1995, after fingerprints recovered from the crime scene exclude Johnson and his co-defendants and match to other potential perpetrators.


David Bryant, wrongfully convicted of the rape of an eight-year-old girl in the Bronx in 1975, is released after serving 38 years in prison.


The Montana Supreme Court, in a 4 to 3 decision, reversed a lower court’s decision to grant Barry Beach a new trial. Beach, who spent 27 years in prison for the 1979 murder of Kimberly Nees, is ordered to return to prison after tasting freedom for a mere 18 months.


Nicole Harris, a Chicago mother who falsely confessed to strangling her four-year-old child in 2005, is exonerated after the Seventh Circuit vacated her conviction and orders a new trial in which her surviving son may testify that he witnessed his brother accidentally strangle himself.


Daniel Taylor, who as a teenager falsely confessed to participating in a double murder in Chicago in 1992, is finally released from prison after serving more than two decades for a crime he could not have committed because he was in a police lockup at the time of the murders.


Johnnie Lee Savory, who at age 14 falsely confessed to a double murder in Peoria in 1977 and who served thirty years in prison before being paroled, is finally granted his request for DNA testing.

Anthony McKinney, who at age 18 was coerced into falsely confessing to shooting to death a security guard during a 1978 robbery attempt in Harvey, IL., died in prison before he could prove his claim of actual innocence.

A divided South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed Billy Wayne Cope’s conviction for the murder and rape of his daughter in 2001. Cope had been convicted even though DNA testing not only excluded him as the source of semen and saliva found on his daughter, but matched to a serial sexual predator whom Cope did not know.


Carl Chatman, a homeless Chicago man who falsely confessed to an after-hours rape at the Daley Center in 2002, was exonerated after serving 11 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit.

A lengthy investigation conducted by Northwestern law students led to new evidence of actual innocence and a petition seeking a new trial for John Horton, a Rockford teenager, who was coerced into confessing to a 1993 murder.

After FBI agents obtain a confession from Patrick Dubois to the murder of his two children in his home at a North Dakota Indian reservation, they continued to investigate and ultimately cleared Dubois, linking Valentino Bagola to the crime through DNA evidence and then later obtaining Bagola’s confession.

A Michigan appellate court granted an evidentiary hearing for Davontae Sanford, who at age 14 confessed to a quadruple murder during a robbery at a Detroit drug house on Runyon St. Sanford remains in prison despite the fact that the murders have been linked to notorious hitman Vincent Smothers who not only confessed to murders, but claimed not to know Sanford.


Michigan State Police officers arrested Jason Anthony Ryan and charged him with the 1996 murder of Geraldine Montgomery in Kalkaska, MI after DNA testing linked Ryan to the crime. Jamie Lee Peterson, who did not know Ryan, had maintained his innocence for over 17 years and had repeatedly sought to retest the DNA and have it submitted into state and national databases. Prosecutors had refused further testing, in part, because Peterson had confessed, a confession which is now almost certainly false.

Stanley Wrice’s conviction was reversed and he was released after serving 31 years for a rape which Wrice confessed to while being tortured by two detectives working under disgraced former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.

Carroll County, Indiana prosecutors dropped charges against Daniel Fassnacht after newly discovered evidence proved that his confession to killing his girlfriend was false and that she had, in fact, committed suicide.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the decision of El Paso Judge Sam Medrano to vacate the murder conviction of Daniel Villegas, who at age 17 in 1995, falsely confessed to a double murder.

Terrell Johnson, a 16-year-old who was coerced by Memphis police into falsely confessing to a murder, is released before trial after police find evidence leading to the arrest of the true perpetrator.

2013 was also a banner year in the Innocence Movement’s effort to require police agencies to electronically record interrogations of suspects — one of the key reforms aimed at curbing police tactics that lead to false confessions.

In March, Michigan’s state law requiring recording in cases of serious felonies took effect and in August, Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois signed into law an expansion of Illinois’s recording statute to include most serious felonies. In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation requiring that all homicide interrogations involving juvenile suspects be recorded. In New York, the legislature doled out $700,000 in grant money to police agencies to increase their capacity to record. And as the year ended, Philly’s top cop Charles Ramsey announced that the City of Brotherly Love will start to record interrogations in 2014.

Finally, some of the best pieces of investigative journalism in film, print, radio and television about false confessions came out in 2013. In addition to the “Central Park Five” by Ken Burns and crew and “West of Memphis” by Amy Berg, two documentaries which reached much larger audiences in 2013, the journalistic highlights included the following wonderful articles:

1. Maurice Possley’s Atlantic Monthly piece, “How Two Newspaper Reporters Helped Free An Innocent Man.”

2. Mark Wilson’s three-part series on the anatomy of William Hurt’s false confession in the Evansville Courier Press.

3. Douglass Starr’s New Yorker piece, “The Interview: Do Police Interrogation Techniques Produce False Confessions?”

4. Duaa Eldeib’s reporting on the Nicole Harris exoneration in the Chicago Tribune, particularly her piece on the role that Chicago polygraphers have played in false confessions.

5. Francis Robles’s reporting in the New York Times on the role that former N.Y.P.D. detective Louis Scarcella has played in numerous questionable convictions in Brooklyn.

6. Marc Bookman’s “The Confessions of Innocent Men” in the Atlantic Monthly.

7. Saul Elbein’s story on NPR’s This American Life, “Kim Possible,” about former D.C. Homicide Detective Jim Trainum’s search for redemption and reconciliation with the woman who he obtained a false confession from in a homicide case.

Here’s wishing a Happy New Year to all innocent men and women who remain in prison as a result of false confessions or who have yet to be exonerated. May 2014 bring you the justice you so richly deserve.

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