Archive for March, 2014

March 27, 2014

Only in America.

The United States is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles — individuals younger than 18 years old — to life in prison without parole. On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute argued in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that children convicted of serious crimes don’t deserve such a severe sentence.

“You need to have sentences that are intended to rehabilitate a child,” Deborah LaBelle, an attorney with the ACLU, told The Huffington Post. “You need to incarcerate them for the least amount of time to achieve that goal.”

Among the cases being highlighted by the groups is that of Juwan Wickware, who was 16 when he participated in a robbery that resulted in the death of a Flint, Mich., pizza delivery man.

Prosecutors said that on April 7, 2010, Wickware and another teen, Donqua Williams, shot at Michael Nettles — Williams with a .40-caliber pistol and Wickware with a .22-caliber rifle, according to Michigan Live.

A .40-caliber bullet was found in Nettles and .22-caliber bullet casings were found at the scene. “It is absolutely clear Juwan didn’t shoot him,” said LaBelle.

LaBelle explained to HuffPost that to be convicted of felony murder in Michigan, one need not be directly responsible for killing someone, but merely complicit in a felony crime that results in another person’s death.

“If you’re in concert, or you’re engaged in a plan, and a murder results, they find that you’re involved in a felony murder,” LaBelle said. “Even if you’re not the person who committed the homicide, you get the same sentence.”

Wickware, who had no previous convictions, was found guilty of felony murder.

In 2012, shortly before Wickware was sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders constituted cruel and unusual punishment. But the court did find that judges could use discretion in imposing the sentence.

In August 2012, when Genesee Circuit Judge Archie Hayman sentenced Wickware to life without parole (as heard in the video above), Hayman said he was “convinced that it is the right thing to do in this particular situation.”

A jury found Williams, Wickware’s accomplice, to be not guilty, after a woman who was in the deliveryman’s Jeep on the night of the slaying said she thought a third man killed Nettles.

Today in the U.S., more than 2,600 people are currently serving sentences of life without parole because of crimes they committed as children, LaBelle said.

The ACLU believes the sentence should be banned outright for juvenile offenders, and Labelle cited the United Nations Commission Against Torture’s determination that the sentence was tantamount to torture in such circumstances. The Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination also found that the application of the sentence is tinged with racial inequities.

But proponents of the practice contend that sometimes the punishment isn’t about rehabilitation.

“The one thing that we don’t know is what the potential of the life would be that was snuffed out in the crime,” Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel told NPR in 2012. “The hypothetical of who might be rehabilitated in prison is a hard one to analyze, but there have to be some circumstances under which these persons can serve life without parole.”

Former Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman agreed.

“As a moral matter, it is okay for a government to say, ‘Even if there is a possibility that someone will rehabilitate themselves, if a person commits a sufficiently egregious crime, then they just deserve a very severe sentence,'” Neiman told NPR.

But to LaBelle, the issue is not just about ending an overly cruel, unproductive and misguided sentence — she said the practice also hurts America’s international reputation.

“It undermines the country’s human rights record and position in the world,” LaBelle said. “It deprives them of moral authority when they’re willing to throw children in prison until they die.”

March 18, 2014

Meditation in prison.

When a person is released from prison the chance they’ll be rearrested within the next three years hovers between 62% and 78% depending on a number of variables. It’s no wonder, when you consider that, instead of offering enough programs that prepare an individual to re-acclimate to life on the outside, they foster an environment of tension and hostility. That’s no fault of prison officials, who struggle with low budgets and the problem of dealing with homicidal psychopaths on a daily basis, but the issue has forced many of them to find creative solutions that actually help inmates examine their own behavior.

Enter meditation. So-called corrections centers across the country have begun adopting different kinds of meditation in an attempt to help convicts shift their focus from taking a shiv in the mess hall to just chilling out.

Amanda Abrams, whose spent years practicing and studying mindful meditation, wrote in the Washington Post that she volunteered at a Washington DC area jail intending to help inmates notice “thoughts, emotions and sensations that arise without judging them — a deceptively difficult practice. In recent years, scientists have shown that meditation switches on genes linked to immune functioning, increases gray matter in the brain, rewires neural pathways — not to mention boosts happiness, lowers stress, improves concentration and leads to increased compassion.”

She describes working with instructor Craig Ehrlich, who asks an intimidating inmate known as King to tell the newer inmates what they can expect from the class.

King — a.k.a. Cappuccino, a.k.a. Harvey Washington — is, with several months in the group, its longest-standing member.

“Meditation is about learning to observe yourself,” King explains. “You focus on your breathing, or on something else like your body or the sounds around you, and you get out of the cycle of being caught up in your thoughts. It helps you see things more clearly — you get to know yourself better.”

Only a fraction of the more than 2 million incarcerated Americans participate in these classes, either because of their own behavior, there isn’t enough room, or prison administrators won’t allow it. The William E. Donaldson Correction Facility has proven to be an exception to that rule. The prison located outside Birmingham has the reputation of being the toughest in Alabama, although a growing number of inmates have used meditation to harness their impulses.

From a 2011 article by the Associated Press:

Warden Gary Hetzel doesn’t fully understand how the program called Vipassana (which is pronounced vuh-’POSH-uh-nuh) can transform violent inmates into calm men using contemplative Buddhist practices.

But Hetzel knows one thing.

“It works. We see a difference in the men and in the prison. It’s calmer,” he said of the course that about 10 percent of the prison’s inmates have completed.

The word Vipassana means “to see things as they really are,” which is also the goal of the intense 10-day program using the meditative technique that dates back 2,500 years.

The courses begin with three days of breathing exercises – the prisoners learn to focus on bodily sensations so intently they feel the exhalations on their upper lip. Students are required to not speak to each other.

On Day 4, students are told to begin letting their deepest thoughts percolate up through their consciousness so they can sense the effects on the body, like tension or anger. The ultimate goal is to learn not to react to those sensations.

Students are forced to grapple with their innermost selves. Some men are brought to tears; a few have thrown up. It’s not unusual for half of the students or more to quit or be sent back to the prison population for disobeying the rules.

There seems to be evidence that the various kinds of meditation are helping convicts. The question is a frustrating one for volunteers though in part because there is still so little understanding. Amanda Abrams was able to speak with Fleet Maull, the founder of the Prison Mindfulness Institute, which provides resources to nearly 200 groups that teach meditation to inmates.

“There are more and more people on the outside who are getting interested in taking meditation programs into prisons and jails,” Maull says. Out of the 2.4 million people incarcerated, he estimates the number of offenders taking meditation at 50,000. Getting an exact figure is difficult; many of the organizations that lead courses are small and don’t keep robust records, he says.

The answer to whether the courses have long-term effects is tricky. Research has shown a decrease in substance abuse and negative emotions among offenders, and a concomitant increase in self-esteem and well-being. But the most important information doesn’t exist.

“Recidivism data” — that is, numbers showing how many offenders return to jail within three years — “is obviously the gold standard, because that’s the goal,” Maull says. “But it takes time: You have to work with people who are getting out soon, and you have to follow them.” His group is applying for funding to make a long-term study of offenders after they leave prison.

There’s no doubt in Maull’s mind that meditation has the capacity to turn people around. “We have huge amounts of anecdotal evidence,” he says. “We’ve seen people move from lives that are in chaos and out of control to ones where they have a sense of agency; they’re able to be skillful in their relationships and to move forward in their lives.”

One powerful ally they’ve found is director David Lynch. Lynch is probably as well known for his dedication to transcendental meditation (TM) as he is for freak show movies like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. His foundation, which has the support of Paul McCartney, George Stephanopolous, and others, has campaigned to bring TM to schools, the military, and now prisons.

March 7, 2014

The Archipelago of Pain

MARCH 6, 2014

We don’t flog people in our prison system, or put them in thumbscrews or stretch them on the rack. We do, however, lock prisoners away in social isolation for 23 hours a day, often for months, years or decades at a time.

We prohibit the former and permit the latter because we make a distinction between physical and social pain. But, at the level of the brain where pain really resides, this is a distinction without a difference. Matthew Lieberman of the University of California, Los Angeles, compared the brain activities of people suffering physical pain with people suffering from social pain. As he writes in his book, “Social,” “Looking at the screens side by side … you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.”

The brain processes both kinds of pain in similar ways. Moreover, at the level of human experience, social pain is, if anything, more traumatic, more destabilizing and inflicts more cruel and long-lasting effects than physical pain. What we’re doing to prisoners in extreme isolation, in other words, is arguably more inhumane than flogging.

Yet inflicting extreme social pain is more or less standard procedure in America’s prisons. Something like 80,000 prisoners are put in solitary confinement every year. Prisoners isolated in supermaximum facilities are often locked away in a 6-by-9-foot or 8-by-10-foot barren room. They may be completely isolated in that room for two days a week. For the remaining five, they may be locked away for 23 hours a day and permitted an hour of solitary exercise in a fenced-in area.

If there is communication with the prison staff, it might take place through an intercom. Communication with the world beyond is minimal. If there are visitors, conversation may be conducted through a video screen. Prisoners may go years without affectionately touching another human being. Their only physical contact will be brushing up against a guard as he puts on shackles for trips to the exercise yard.

The justification cited for prolonged periods of isolation is that the inmate, for whatever reason, poses a significant threat to others… . I’d focus on making sure that every isolation decision could be defended rationally.

In general, mammals do not do well in isolation. In the 1950s, Harry Harlow studied monkeys who had been isolated. The ones who were isolated for longer periods went into emotional shock, rocking back and forth. One in six refused to eat after being reintegrated and died within five days. Most of the rest were permanently withdrawn.

Studies on birds, rats and mice consistently show that isolated animals suffer from impoverished neural growth compared with socially engaged animals, especially in areas where short-term memory and threat perception are processed. Studies on Yugoslav prisoners of war in 1992 found that those who had suffered blunt blows to the head and those who had been socially isolated suffered the greatest damage to brain functioning.

Some prisoners who’ve been in solitary confinement are scarcely affected by it. But this is not typical. The majority of prisoners in solitary suffer severely — from headaches, an oversensitivity to stimuli, digestion problems, loss of appetite, self-mutilation, chronic dizziness, loss of the ability to concentrate, hallucinations, illusions or paranoid ideas.

March 5, 2014

Marissa Alexander retrial or not?

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — A Florida woman could end up in prison for 60 years when she’s retried for firing a shot in the direction of her estranged husband and two of his children.

Marissa Alexander, 33, was convicted in 2012 on three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to 20 years — three counts served concurrently. An appeals court tossed the conviction, saying Circuit Judge James Daniel made a mistake in shifting the burden to Alexander to prove she acted in self-defense.

During jury instructions, the judge said Alexander must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that her husband was abusive toward her.

The case drew national attention after Alexander was denied immunity under Florida’s “stand your ground” law.

Alexander’s supporters are angry that the state is seeking triple the original sentence.

“It’s unimaginable that a woman acting in self-defense, who injured no one, can be given what amounts to a life sentence,” Free Marissa Now spokeswoman Helen Gilbert said. “This must send chills down the spine of every woman and everyone who cares about women and every woman in an abusive relationship.”

Assistant State Attorney Richard Mantei told the Florida Times-Union ( ) the state is simply following sentencing laws in seeking 60 years.

The same court that ordered Alexander’s retrial ruled that when a defendant is convicted of multiple counts from the same crime, judges must make the sentences consecutive, not concurrent.

“Absent a plea agreement, if convicted as charged, the law of the State of Florida fixes the sentence,” Mantei said. “At this time, Ms. Alexander has rejected all efforts by the State to resolve the case short of trial.”

Attorney Bruce Zimet said it would be a miscarriage of justice to put his client in prison for what likely amounts to a life sentence.

Alexander’s case has inspired the so-called “warning shot” bill that will be considered once the state Legislature convenes in Tallahassee on Tuesday.

Alexander said she fired the warning shot a few days after giving birth. Her estranged husband, Rico Gray, accused her of having an affair and questioned whether the baby was his. She says she locked herself in the bathroom until he broke through the door and shoved her to the floor. She ran into the garage, found a gun in a car and fired a “warning shot” after he said he would kill her.

Prosecutors say the shot hit the wall, not the ceiling, and could have hit Gray or his children. At one point they offered Alexander a plea deal of three years in prison. She turned that down and chose to go to trial.

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