Sell Block: Broken prison labor program fails to keep promises, costs millions (3 part series)

This is a Seattle Times special report, dated Dec. 13th. 2014, investigated by By Michael J. Berens and Mike Baker.

Three decades ago, as get-tough-on-crime laws channeled more offenders behind bars, the state Department of Corrections launched a campaign to leverage profits from prisoners.

Compel inmates to produce low-cost goods for state agencies at no public cost. Teach offenders new skills to help them land better jobs after release. Turn bad people into better people and reduce crime.

Washington’s pitch — crime can pay — was an easy public sell.

Today, some 1,600 incarcerated men and women in prison factories produce everything from dorm furniture to school lunches. Washington Correctional Industries (CI) generates up to $70 million in sales a year, ranking as the nation’s fourth-largest prison labor program.

But behind CI’s glossy brochures and polished YouTube videos is a broken program that has cost taxpayers millions of dollars, charged exorbitant markups to state agencies to make up for losses, and taken jobs from private businesses that can’t compete with cheap prison labor, a Seattle Times investigation has found.

Far from being self-sufficient, CI has cost taxpayers at least $20 million since 2007, including $750,000 spent over three years on a fish farm to raise tilapia that has yet to yield a single meal.


Part 2:  Recycling scheme lost state $1 million

Part 3: Why license plates have cost us so much

Philippe El Shennawy. Libre après 38 ans de prison

From: Le Télégramme, Jan. 25 2014

Philippe El Shennawy, the “perpetual prisoner,” was finally released from prison in France, after 38 years! 
Ses « premiers pas dans la vraie vie », il veut les consacrer à son épouse, à ses amis, aux gens qu’il aime et qui l’aiment : Philippe El Shennawy, l’un des plus anciens détenus de France, a recouvré la liberté, hier matin, après avoir passé 38 ans derrière les barreaux.

« Waouh (…). La vraie vie, c’est vous, c’est là ! », a lancé cet homme âgé de 59 ans à la masse de journalistes venus l’attendre à la sortie de la maison d’arrêt de Fresnes (Val-de-Marne). « Toutes ces années, il faudrait que ça serve à quelque chose », a-t-il ajouté, deux jours après avoir bénéficié d’une libération conditionnelle. Condamné à la perpétuité en 1977 pour un braquage avec prise d’otage auquel il a toujours nié avoir participé, il devra porter un bracelet électronique pendant deux ans. Il va commencer un travail de chef de projet dans l’événementiel culturel dès lundi.

« Comment j’ai fait pour tenir ? »

Extrait à l’aube de sa cellule, Philippe El Shennawy, qui a passé les deux tiers de sa vie en détention, est sorti peu après 9 h, avant de tomber dans les bras de son épouse, Martine. « Comment j’ai fait pour tenir ? », s’est-il interrogé, avant de marquer un temps d’arrêt pour réfléchir. « X raisons, les gens qui m’aiment, la non-acceptation de quelque chose que je n’ai jamais accepté… Et puis savoir que, de toute façon, j’allais sortir. » « J’ai envie de vivre », a-t-il ajouté, répondant aux questions des journalistes avec beaucoup de calme et de sobriété, sous les yeux de sa femme et d’un de ses deux avocats, Julien Dubs. « C’est la fin de l’attente après toutes ces années. Ça fait 35 ans que je l’attends. Oui, je suis prête », avait dit, peu avant sa libération, Martine El Shennawy.

Surnommé « le détenu perpétuel »

Depuis 1975, Philippe El Shennawy, surnommé « le détenu perpétuel » par les directeurs de prison, a connu un parcours carcéral hors norme : vingt ans à l’isolement, six années en internement psychiatrique, 42 transfèrements, 34 jours de grève de la faim, une tentative de suicide. Et deux évasions. Il va résider chez sa femme, hormis des permissions de sortir pour aller travailler, en semaine et le week-end en matinée, pour la famille, et retrouver leur fils Christophe, un « bébé-parloir » conçu lors d’une visite en prison.

La révision de son procès en ligne de mire

Si la liberté de l’ex-détenu restera très encadrée, il envisage de poursuivre son combat contre les longues peines et entend se battre pour la révision de sa condamnation pour le braquage d’une banque de l’avenue de Breteuil, en 1975, début de son long cycle d’enfermement. « Je veux être un témoin. Dire ce que j’ai vécu… Sans exagération », a-t-il soufflé. « Ça n’a pas de sens. Les longues peines, ça ne sert à rien. » Il a confessé que la prison lui avait apporté « une réflexion, une vision de l’humain ». « D’une certaine façon, j’ai toujours été libre », a-t-il déclaré avant de quitter, à pied, l’enceinte du centre de détention : ses « premiers pas dans la vraie vie ».

It takes one Shift to Ruin a Future

We received the following reality-check from someone caring for a person in prison:

To the Reader:

My friend in a Colorado prison wrote this essay. Candy is grandmother, not a master criminal, and sees what is happening. As a troubled teenager, she first went into a system that did not want to prevent crime, only to punish after its commission. 

She asked me to help her show people how the government is wasting our tax dollars and ignoring chances to prevent recidivism. Employees who don’t care what happens as long as they get a paycheck, are as detrimental working in prisons as in any business. Would you want them working for you? They are.

IT TAKES ONE SHIFT TO RUIN A FUTURE

By Candy Ra Coppinger

There are many lives sitting here in prison today. All have made bad choices. Many still do. Many come from all sorts of dysfunctional backgrounds—all sorts of abuse. We cry out for help.

The system places people in power or authority to see to our well-being. You may ask, “Are they still being neglected and abused behind the walls?” There is the aggressive, controlling officer who downgrades you; the one who uses unnecessary physical force on you. How about the officer, who, as a woman was having a violent seizure, was screaming and cussing at the individual on the floor with convulsions? Or the one who knows you are having a conflict with another inmate, instead of trying to diffuse it, keeps the strife going? What about the officer who brings in contraband to exchange for sex with a prisoner?

Your taxes are supposed to provide better medical care, education, and security. Instead, the administrative offices here were redecorated. You should see the beautiful cherry desk in the warden’s office. They can’t afford medical staff or teachers.

A COPD hearing is the due process given to inmates who break facility rules. The Colorado Code of Penal Discipline has rules that cover violations from not making your bed, to smoking a cigarette, to bartering and trading items you purchased from the commissary. Do you have any idea how many people are convicted at these hearings by an anonymous “kite?” (An unverified note saying, “Inmate #123 is guilty, but I can’t testify in public.”) So much for trying to do right if someone dislikes you.

Many inmates have no outside financial support. All inmates are required to work. The average 40 hour per week job pays $12.60 a month. Twenty percent of the $12.60 goes toward paying restitution and/or child support. That leaves approximately $9.00 on which the inmate must live for a month. If you have a civil case, such as a tort or a lawsuit pending, that takes another 20%. Don’t have a medical emergency. There goes another $5.00. Need hygiene items? What happens to the personal care products that religious organizations donate? Items must be purchased from the canteen. With little money, their convenience store prices redefine the term indigent.

Official policy says having affirmative family support is important. Explain this to your 75 year old grandmother who had her letter returned because she forgot to put the unit number on the envelope. Then, you recall the night when your spouse got drunk and loud. The neighbors called the police. Now, you can’t correspond or visit with him because of the domestic violence dispute. That you’ve been married for ten years and he’s trying, alone, to raise your two children doesn’t matter. If you can’t write him, what makes you think you can parole home to your spouse and children? It’s hard to maintain family support when you can’t communicate.
All the instability you had growing up—the inconsistency of what you could do or not—don’t worry. You’ still have all that instability and inconsistency in prison.

Everything depends on who, what, when, where and how. Right and left do not connect. Once you settle into a room with people with whom you’re compatible, you’ll get moved to a room that is chaotic. What is stability? Where do we get it?

You may ask how these kinds of things ruin a future. They are keeping a person in his or her distorted thinking. They are continuing the cycles that led many to incarceration: instability, inconsistency, lack of communication. Every time you cut educational programs, or use that funding for something else, you are taking away a person’s opportunity to grow and become a productive member of society. When you can’t or won’t provide an individual adequate medical care, is that not telling him or her they don’t matter? Are we not continuing to keep these individuals from having the hope and desire to have a better life within the legal parameters of our society? When you hire substandard employees, you are placing lives in their hands.

Ask yourself, is that shift I’m running ruining a future or raising prospects for a better future?

CRC 5/12/13

Write to Candy for support:

Candy Ra Coppinger #59072
La Vista Correctional Facility
PO Box 3
Pueblo, CO 81002
USA

Also posted on Prison Watch for Imprisoned Women

Mississippi’s incarcaration rate continues to climb, straining finances

From: Gulf Live, Mississippi Press
Jan. 10th 2013

JACKSON, Mississippi — As Mississippi enters the second half of the current fiscal year, Mississippi’s prison population continues to increase and shows no signs of abating, according to a news release from the state Department of Corrections.
During 2011, the number of prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities declined by 0.9%, from 1,613,803 to 1,598,780, but not in Mississippi.
Mississippi has increased its inmate population by over 1,000 in the past two years:
• July 1, 2012 – 22,023 inmates, an increase of 716 from July 1, 2011
• July 1, 2011 – 21,307 inmates, an increase of 382 from July 1, 2010
• July 1, 2010 – 20,925 inmates
According to the United States Department of Justice – Bureau of Justice Statistics, only three states — Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma — have incarceration rates at or above 650 per 100,000 residents. Mississippi is second only to Louisiana in incarceration rates. 
Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with over 1.5 million men and women living behind bars.

From Voters Legislative Transparency Project: Las Vegas: Prison Labor Used to Beat the Odds

This research article comes from the weblog: Voters Legislative Transparency Project. We are glad that they have investigated this:

Jan. 11th 2013, by Bob Sloan

Thousands of tourists, businessmen, CEO’s and executives from all over the world mix with citizens of Nevada in the luxury and splendor of Las Vegas’ many hotels and casinos.  Most come to this beautiful city for the gambling and incredible shows found everywhere one turns.  Inside the cool confines of casinos visitors can trust that every slot machine, roulette table and blackjack shoe is checked and monitored to guarantee fair play – no magnets under the roulette table, no dealer manipulating the cards or slots rigged to never pay out. Those trying to shave the odds are not welcome and at the first hint of cheating, find themselves on the sidewalk, banned or worse.

Each casino has a multitude of surveillance cameras to guarantee play is fair and the odds are understood by all who play the quarter slots or sit down at the high roller poker table.  To ensure such fairness, the Nevada Gaming Commission regulates every aspect of gambling in the entire state.  Strict penalties for violation of gaming regulations by casino operators keep each in line and playing by the rules.

Outside the casinos, locals find the guarantees of fair play and manipulation of odds are not so well regulated. State agencies responsible for overseeing and enforcing specific state laws and regulations have lost their vigilance.  In at least one case a state regulation involving the Nevada Department of Corrections is providing one company an unfair advantage over competitors.  The prize sought isn’t a hundred dollar hit on quarter slots, its millions in profits.  An important aspect of this advantage provided to a single company, is an increase in Nevada’s already high 10.8% unemployment rate.

The issue is an ongoing battle being waged over the use of inmate labor by a private company, Alpine Steel operating out of Las Vegas, NV.  Alpine is competing directly against other Nevada companies in the field of structural steel fabrication.  Alpine’s competitors pay fair wages, benefits, provide unemployment insurance and vacation pay, while Alpine avoids all those costs.

It is not illegal for companies to be allowed to use prison labor under current laws but there are strict state and federal regulations involved that must be met before allowing direct competition with prison made products:

Mandatory Criteria for Program Participation

Corrections departments that apply to participate in PIECP must meet all nine of the following criteria:

1. Eligibility. Authority to involve the private sector in the production and sale of inmate-made goods on the open market.

2. Wages. Authority to pay wages at a rate not less than that paid for work of a similar nature in the locality in which the work is performed.

3. Non-inmate worker displacement. Written assurances that PIECP will not result in the displacement of employed workers; be applied in skills, crafts, or trades in which there is a surplus of available gainful labor in the locality; or significantly impair existing contracts.

4. Benefits. Authority to provide inmate workers with benefits comparable to those made available by the federal or state government to similarly situated private-sector employees, including workers’ compensation and, in some circumstances, Social Security.

5. Deductions. Corrections departments may opt to take deductions from inmate worker wages. Permissible deductions are limited to taxes, room and board, family support, and victims’ compensation. If victims’ compensation deductions are taken, written assurances that the deductions will be not less than 5 percent and not more than 20 percent of gross wages and that all deductions will not total more than 80 percent of gross wages.

6. Voluntary participation. Written assurances that inmate participation is voluntary.

7. Consultation with organized labor. Written proof of consultation with organized labor prior to program startup.

8. Consultation with local private industry. Written proof of consultation with local private industry prior to program startup.

9. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Written proof of compliance with NEPA requirements prior to program startup. (emphasis mine, source BJA PIECP program overview)

In the instant case, most of the above mandatory regulations are being ignored – entirely. Prevailing wages paid by most in the steel fabrication industry in Las Vegas are in excess of $17.00 per hour.  The inmates manufacturing components for Alpine are paid less than half that scale at minimum wage or less.

By having access to and using inmate labor provided by Nevada’s Silver State Industries (SSI), Alpine Steel, is able to underbid competitors for structural steel construction projects.  This company is just one of several businesses in Nevada (and 150 others nationwide) enjoying increased benefits and profits derived from inmate labor.  Other Nevada companies enjoying similar access to inmate labor include; Vinyl Products, Inc., (vinyl waterbeds), Thomson Equipment Company (Silver Line Industries trailer manufacture and remanufacturing) and Jacobs Trading Company (repackaging).

Alpine Steel is currently manufacturing and installing prison made structural steel components at three locations in Las Vegas; the SkyVue (Ferris Wheel developed by Howard Bulloch), Staluppi Automotive Group’s Planet Mazda and Wet ‘n’ Wild Las Vegas (financed by Andre Agassi; his wife, Steffi Graf; Dr. Steven and Karen Thomas, members of the Thomas family of Thomas & Mack Center fame; and Roger and Scott Bulloch, of SPB Capital Partners).  Companies competing with Alpine Steel for these contracts, were totally unaware they were competing against a company with such a distinct and hidden advantage.

While the Staluppi and water park projects are actively being constructed, the Sky Vue job appears to be abandoned, though developer Howard Bulloch assures the absence of activity is due to plan revisions – and not a lack of funding.

Read the rest here and plz read part 2 and 3 too when they are published

Germany: 18th Rosa Luxemburg Conference includes discussion and teach-ins about the Prison Industrial Complex in the USA

The conference will discuss the so-called crisis that brings with it (amongst others) the break-down of parliamentary democracy, the strengthening of repressive instruments against ordinary civilians.

There has been much struggle against this repression, on all fronts and all over the world. For example, the fight agains tthe Prison Industrial Complex in the USA. 

This conference discusses what we can do.

From the program in German, which can be found here:

Date: Saturday, 12th of January 2013, from 10 AM

Location:
URANIA-Haus, An der Urania 17, 10787 Berlin

About the Conference in English: http://www.rosa-luxemburg-konferenz.de/article/125.about_the_conference.html

Free Mumia Berlin is co-organizing, and Mumia Abu-Jamal will also address the conference, as well as David Gilbert, Sundiata Acoli and Oscar López Rivera, all in prison as political prisoners.

Theme: Who is afraid of whom?

Ab 11.00 Uhr Vorträge

Wer hat Angst vor wem?

Im Sommer 2007 platzte in den USA die sogenannte Hypothekenblase. Seitdem hat sich die damals ausgelöste Finanz- und Wirtschaftskrise durch viele Länder der Welt gefressen.

Sie bringt stetig neue Rekorde an Armut, Arbeitslosigkeit und physischem Elend bis hin zum Hunger hervor. Politisch wurde der Weg dorthin in USA und EU durch verstärkte präventive Aufstandsbekämpfung, durch Verstärkung des Repressionsapparates, Abbau der parlamentarischen Demokratie und sozialer Regelungen bei großzügiger Sozialisierung der Verluste von Reichen und Banken freigemacht.

Die großen Medien der westlichen Welt begleiten jeden Schritt zur Enteignung von Lohnabhängigen, kleinen Selbständigen, Rentnern und Patienten mit Beifall. In den Weltordnungskriegen unter Führung der USA sind sie Teil der psychologischen Kriegführung gegen die eigene Bevölkerung. Neofaschistische Bewegungen erhalten Zulauf.

Widerstand gegen das Abrutschen in die Barbarei findet weltweit in unterschiedlichsten Formen statt. Von den Streiks der Schüler und Studenten in Chile über den Kampf gegen den Gefängnis-Industrie-Komplex der USA, die antikapitalistischen Bewegungen in den Bankzentren bis zu den Anstrengungen Kubas um die Bewahrung der Revolution.

Was zu tun ist – darüber wird auf der Rosa-Luxemburg-Konferenz 2013 zu sprechen sein.

Referenten:

  • Ignacio Ramonet (Frankreich), Direktor von Le Monde Diplomatique en Español, Präsident des Vereins Mémoire des luttes, Ehrenpräsident von Attac
  • Hernando Calvo Ospina (Kolumbien), Journalist, ehemal. politischer Gefangener
  • Ramón Chao (Frankreich), Schriftsteller, Journalist
  • Dan Berger (USA), Schriftsteller, Aktivist, Dozent
  • Luis Morlote (Kuba), Präsident der Vereinigung Hermanos Saíz (Organisation junger kubanischer Schriftsteller und Künstler), Abgeordneter der Nationalversammlung
  • Jean Ziegler (Schweiz), Soziologe, Vizepräsident des beratenden Ausschusses des UNO-Menschenrechtsrats (angefragt)

Außerdem Beiträge von politischen Gefangenen:

  • Mumia Abu Jamal (USA), Journalist
  • Sundiata Acoli (USA), ehem. Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Army
  • David Gilbert (USA), ehem. Weather Underground
  • Oscar López Rivera (USA), Unabhängigkeitskämpfer für Puerto Rico
  • Grußadresse der Cuban Five (in den USA gefangene kubanische Freiheitskämpfer)

Moderation: Dr. Seltsam

Seven arrested in protest outside Graterford prison

Published: Monday, in: Montgomery News

November 19, 2012

By Bradley Schlegel


Authorities arrested seven protesters from Decarcerate PA early Monday morning along Route 73 in Skippack.

The group was blocking the entrance to the construction site of two new prisons on the grounds of SCI Graterford, according to a public information release report from the Pennsylvania State Police.

The protesters lined up a number of chairs, desks and apples along the road between Hudnut and Lucon roads, according to Decarcerate PA spokesperson Thomas Dichter.

All from Philadelphia, the protesters face charges of criminal conspiracy, criminal trespass, failure to disperse and disorderly conduct, according to state police. The intent of the “mock schoolhouse” was to bring further attention to Gov. Tom Corbett’s plan to construct the new prisons, according to Dichter.

He said the grassroots organization believes the approximately $400 million needed to build the two facilities would be better utilized to fund Pennsylvania’s education, calling the demonstration an attempt to draw attention to the “wasting of valuable state resources.”

Authorities observed 10 school-style desks purposefully placed by the protesters to block the construction entrance, according to information provided by Morgan Crummy, the public information officer at the state police’s Skippack barracks.

The protesters set up at 6:40 a.m. Monday, according to Dichter.

He said they were arrested approximately one hour later.

Police said the desks were occupied by seven protesters and that authorities observed eight other protesters on foot.

All seven protestors — Layne Mullett, 27, of the 4000 block of Walnut Street; Jenna Peters-Golden, 27, of the 800 block of Saint Bernard Street; Leana Cabral, 29 of the 4000 block of Hazel Avenue; Erica Slaymaker, 23, of the 400 block of Sansom Street; Sean Damon, 35, of Chester Avenue; David Fisher, 41, of the 5000 block of Chester Avenue and Robin Markle, 26, of the 5000 block of Cedar Avenue — were arraigned by District Judge Albert Augustine, according to authorities.

The judge set the bail for each at 10 percent of $5,000, according to police.

Dichter described the nature of the demonstration as escalation of Decarcerate PA’s willingness to “do what needs to be done” to prevent the construction of the prisons.

http://www.montgomerynews.com/articles/2012/11/19/springford_reporter_valley_item/news/doc50aac332aa755924734922.txt?viewmode=fullstory

Changes in sending money to your loved one in an Ohio prison

The Ohio Department of Corrections is making changes to send in money to prisoners, that may make it more difficult for families and friends to do so. They now have to be on the “approved visitor list” in order to send a Jpay-issued money order of 1.50.

This seems needlessly not good, because some prisoners are only allowed a certain amount of visitors on their lists, and they then have to take someone off and put the person who wants to donate money, on there, with a waiting time of 30 to 60 days! It sounds a lot loke the Soviet Union in terms of bureaucracy.

Also note that another private corporation (Jpay) is going to earn and profit from this decision off the backs of Americans and others with loved ones in the Ohio prisons. Prison is Big Business!

However, we hope that the ODRC will change its mind when they see the loss in $$ because prisoners will not have enough to spend in the ODRC-shop.

This is from the ODRC-site:

Effective September 17, 2012, institutions will no longer accept money orders via the U.S. Mail. Any money order received by an institution after September 17, 2012, will be returned to the sender at the inmate’s expense.

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction will be contracting the money order processing service to a new vendor, JPay.

Please visit the JPay Web site at https://www.jpay.com/moneyOrderForms/OH_Money_Order_coupon.pdf for additional information.

Below are some key changes:

Only approved (or tentatively approved) visitors may send money. You may apply to be a visitor by filling out the application found at http://www.drc.ohio.gov/web/visiting.htm and sending it to the facility where the inmate resides.

Applications are no guarantee of approval. Visiting approval requires the permission of the inmate and can take up to 30 to 60 days. You should be as thorough as possible in completing the application process and respond promptly to any requests for additional information from institutional staff. All new visitors will only be added in compliance with the Department’s visiting policies located at http://www.drc.ohio.gov/web/drc_policies/drc_policies.htm.

Every time you send in a money order to JPay, you must complete the Money Order Deposit form, found on the JPay Website. You must use the form for the State of Ohio. You will also need to send in a copy of your driver’s license (or state ID or passport) with each money order. This will be used to match your name to the visiting list.

The name on the money order must exactly match:
– the name on the driver’s license, state ID, or passport; AND
– the name and date of birth used to register as a visitor with DRC or the money order will not be processed.

You will not be able to send any letters to the inmate with the money order. Any letters sent to inmates with the money order will be discarded.

Money orders may not exceed $200, unless approved in advance by the institution Warden. If you need to send more than $200, contact the institution for details on the procedures.

A fee of $1.50 will be deducted from the money order prior to forwarding the funds to the inmate. For example, if you send a $20 money order, $18.50 will be posted to the inmate’s account.

Money Order Coupon link:

http://www.drc.ohio.gov/web/drc_policies/drc_policies.htm

Solidarity Rally and March: Protest Ohio’s Prison Industrial Complex – April 7th in Columbus, Ohio

Saturday, April 7th – 1pm – 3pm
Gather at Broad & High (Statehouse sidewalk)

Several organizations and activist groups are uniting for a rally and march to call for an end to the injustices in Ohio’s prison industrial complex. Bob Fitrakis, journalist, author, and professor of political science at Columbus State Community College will speak at the rally.

The rally will be followed by a march west on Broad Street to the Ohio Dept of Rehabilitation and Correction at 770 West Broad Street. We are demanding:

           – End the death penalty
           – Release the framed Lucasville Five
           – Parole for old law prisoners – presumption for parole when eligible
           – Right to a life for released prisoners – remove the barriers to employment and housing

Death Penalty. Execution is a cruel and brutal practice. Further, the arbitrariness in the application of the death penalty violates the principles of fundamental justice. Execution – whether done by a mob or a government – is murder.

Lucasville Five. Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Namir Abdul Mateen, Jason Robb, George Skatzes, Bomani Shakur, all on death row. Within a few hours after the uprising at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility began,
these five men took leadership, seeking to minimize violence. They did save the lives of several men, prisoner and guard alike. But the State of Ohio deliberately framed these five innocent men for murder, on the basis of testimony by prisoners who, in exchange for their testimony, received benefits such as early parole. (See “Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising” by Staughton Lynd at http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1772_reg.html.)

Old Law Prisoners. Old law prisoners are those sentenced before 1996 when Ohio passed a truth-in-sentencing law. There are 3,200 of these old-law prisoners who are eligible for parole. All have been
incarcerated for at least 16 years and some for many more – even decades. At the time these prisoners were sentenced, the judges’ expectation and the Parole Board practice was to grant parole upon eligibility or two or three years later, but over time the Parole Board changed its practice, becoming progressively harsher, and now repeatedly denies parole. Sixteen years is too long – it is time to release these men. (See “Truth in Sentencing: 3200 prisoners stuck in Ohio Prisons”  at http://www.freepress.org/departments/display/18/2012/4537.)

Right to Rebuild a Life Upon Release. It is close to impossible in the year 2012 for a released Ohio prisoner to rebuild a life – because of the multiple barriers to employment and housing. Ohio now has over 800 laws that restrict former prisoners’ access to employment, housing, and education – civil collateral consequences of imprisonment – huge barriers to return to society. With no money, no job, no place to
live, a return to crime becomes more likely. The greatest cost is destruction of lives, but in addition increased recidivism has large financial cost for the State of Ohio.
———————————————————-
Sponsor: Central Ohio Prisoner Advocates:
centralohio.prisoneradvocates@gmail.com
http://centralohioprisoneradvocates.wordpress.com/

Crime and Punishment

By Bomani Shakur

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
– Dostoyevsky

If what Dostoyevsky says is true (and I believe it is), then America, which boast the largest prison population in the world, is perhaps the most uncivilized country there is. A bold statement, I know, especially coming from someone who has spent the past twenty-three years behind bars. But if what Dostoyevsky says is true, then what happens inside these places is crucial to understanding what kind of society we live in; and who better to speak to the reality of prison life than someone who is living the experience?

But no one wants to learn about the madness that predominates inside these places. People – average, law-abiding citizens- are losing their homes, jobs, and are struggling to survive, and the last thing anyone wants to hear is how hard prison is for a bunch of criminals. “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” is the prevailing sentiment and attitude. It never occurs that the rising incarceration rate is connected to the same economic and political policies that resulted in the home-foreclosure crisis and the rise in unemployment.

When people think of crime, what usually comes to mind is a poor person inflicting pain upon another poor person. Very seldom, if ever, do we stop and allow ourselves to consider the forces that create crime; trapped by the pull of our own necessities and fears, we live reactively, focusing on the effects instead of the causes of what we see and believe—and so we remain divided. And it’s precisely because of this division that we are our own worst enemies—divided, they rule us!

But who are “they”, and what do they have to do with the way in which we see and treat each other?

Howard Zinn, in his book A People’s History of the United States, tells us who they are and how they use us against one another:

“[T]he wealthiest one percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and unskilled…”

Hence, in the context of a capitalistic society, crime is the result of an unequal distribution of wealth. As such, a distinction between guilt and responsibility must be made. For instance, a person can be guilty of selling drugs but not at all responsible for creating the conditions wherein selling drugs is the only viable option of survival. Indeed, when one lives in a society where profit takes precedence over human potential, one’s very existence becomes a crime; and whether this takes on the form of selling drugs, stealing food, or joining a gang to fight over turf and limited resources, the goal is to stay alive.

I grew up in poverty, born to a marginally educated black woman who, because of a lack of opportunity, sought to raise me and my three siblings on welfare. In the whole 42 years I’ve been alive, I’ve only seen my father one time. By the age of ten, I was stealing food from the neighborhood grocery store in order to survive. I was thirteen when I took my first joyless joyride in a stolen vehicle, which ultimately led to my being sent away for the first time. By the time I turned seventeen, I had been living on my own for several years and selling drugs in one of the most impoverished, drug-infested neighborhoods in Cleveland, Ohio. A few months after my nineteenth birthday, in 1988, the year crack cocaine became an epidemic, I was involved in a shoot-out over money and I killed a rival drug dealer. For this, I was sent to prison to serve a life sentence for murder.

In a nutshell, this is the story of my life, and if any of it was unique, the telling of it would be inconsequential, an unnecessary recounting of my own personal troubles. However, what makes my story significant is that it’s the exact same tale told by millions of poor people who grow up in the slums of America, which points to the possibility of there being something larger than one’s personal troubles at work in the process to determine where one ends up in this society.

In his groundbreaking work on The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills, using the example of unemployment, explains the difference between personal troubles and societal issues:

When, in a society of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. The very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of society, and not merely the personal situation of a scatter of individuals.

Applying the same logic, it should be considered an issue that black people – in a country wherein they only represent thirteen percent of the population—make up 50 percent of those who are sent to prison. It is likewise an issue that virtually 100 percent of those behind bars are poor and come from economically deprived sections of society.

In addressing this issue, it’s not enough to point the finger at a bunch of so-called criminals and, without first looking at the economic and political institutions of society, claim that they are the sole cause of their predicament.

Despite what those in power would have us believe, no one starts out with the goal of becoming a criminal and spending the bulk of their lives behind bars, and in and out of prison. As individuals, we make choices based on what we perceive our options to be; and those options, be they good or bad, are a product of the society we live in.

“When a society is industrialized,” explains C. Wright Mills, “a peasant becomes a worker; a feudal lord is liquidated or becomes a businessman. When classes rise and fall, a man is employed or unemployed; when the rate of investment goes up or down, a man takes new heart or goes broke. When wars happen, an insurance salesman becomes a rocket launcher; a store clerk, a radar man; a wife lives alone; a child grows up without a father.”

Similarly, when a society is deindustrialized, a steel worker becomes a corrections officer; a would-be college student, a drug dealer. When communities are decimated and hemmed in by poverty, families take new heart or fall apart. When a fictitious “War on drugs” is declared on the inner-city, penitentiaries are built in rural areas and filled with criminals; a wife lives alone; a child grows up without a father.

Contrary to what we have been told, this is how life (under the system of capitalism) unfolds – not in a picnic basket of unlimited opportunity, but in a crucible of socioeconomic forces that force us to assume positions of survival. Thus, a steel worker becomes a corrections officer, not in pursuit of a lifelong dream but in order to feed his family. A boy growing up in the ghetto becomes a criminal/gang banger, not to glorify crime but in order to survive. And what C. Wright Mills would have us understand is that the various permutations that we as individuals undergo are directly connected to the economic and political permutations of the system.

When corporations, through Congress, lobby for the enactment of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), removing obstacles for corporate capital and goods to move back and forth between Mexico and the United States, they do so with full knowledge and understanding of the economic consequences. Cheaper labor means greater profits; but it also means the closing of factories, a lower standard of living, a subpar educational system, and an increase in crime, as normal, everyday citizens scramble to survive. And what do those in power do in order to address the ramifications of their decisions? They build more prisons.

With the advent of deindustrialization in the 1980s, the prison population in the United States more than quadrupled, peaking at 2.5 million and surpassing both South Africa and Russia in per capita prison populations. During the same period (1980-2007) – while 30 million people languished below the poverty line – the United States produced 1,000 billionaires, and 227,000 millionaires with the combined worth of $30 trillion, more than the GDP’s of China, Brazil, Japan, Russia, and the EU put together. This is how the system of capitalism works: the rich get richer, and the poor get screwed – i.e., fucked in the anus sans grease!

In his book Understanding Power, Noam Chomsky talks about what he refers to as “superfluous populations,” which is a very intellectual way of calling people “trash.” From the perspective of the rich, whose main objective is to accumulate wealth, human beings are useless when they no longer contribute to profit-making, so as a result, explains Noam Chomsky, they want to get rid of them—and the criminal justice system is one of the best ways of doing it.

So prisons—it must be understood—aren’t about controlling crime and punishing those who commit it; they’re about controlling the poor. Looked at correctly, it’s not an exaggeration to say that what is going on now is very similar to what was going on in the 1940s when Hitler was exterminating the Jews. The only real difference is that those who are now being thrown away are considered “criminals” which, let’s face it, makes it a whole lot easier to accept. But just as Hitler created the justification for the mass extermination of the Jews, so, too, have those in power created the justification for the mass incarceration of the poor.
When Ronald Reagan declared the so-called War on Drugs in the 1980s, a finely honed strategy of imposing mandatory sentences for particular kinds of drugs (read: crack cocaine) was used to lock up those from predominantly Black and Hispanic communities. For instance, a young man in the ghetto gets caught with a kilo of cocaine or twenty thousand dollars in cash, and he is sent to prison for twenty years. In the meantime, nothing is said about the chemical corporations who make billions of dollars from sending the necessary chemicals to Latin America in order to manufacture the very drugs that are destroying inner-cities throughout the United States.
And what about the bankers who launder billions of dollars in drug money through American banks? According to the O.E.C.D. (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), it’s estimated that a half-trillion dollars in drug money gets laundered internationally each year—more than half of it ($260 billion) through American banks. But are any of these people in prison? The answer is NO! And the reason why none of these people are in prison is because those in power determine what constitutes a crime and, more importantly, who gets categorized as criminals. A white man laundering billions of dollars in drug money is a businessman. A black man selling drugs in the ghetto is a criminal; and for his “crimes,” he is sent to prison.

And what happens to that Black—poor White or Hispanic—man when he enters America’s prisons? If he makes it through orientation without being raped, he’s lucky. It’s a brutal world in here, and unless one is totally devoid of common sense, one very quickly learns that there is safety in numbers. In other words, the picture repeats and expands, and it’s the ghetto streets all over again. But in here the police operate without restraint, and the old adage about “absolute power corrupting absolutely” is on full display, Not a day goes by without someone being sprayed in the face with mace, shot with a pellet gun, or thrown down a flight of stairs.

A few weeks ago, while watching the news, I witnessed a group of college students in California being sprayed in the face with mace because they had the audacity to protest against the rising cost of college tuition, student-loan debt, and the uncertainty surrounding future employment. In New York City (and around the country), I witnessed members of Occupy Wall Street being forcibly evicted from their camps, some (as in Oakland California) being shot with pellet guns, thrown atop automobiles, and kicked and shoved about like cattle. Watching these things, it occurred to me that this is what Dostoyevsky must have meant when he said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Indeed, what many Americans witnessed and experienced for the first time is something that those of us in prison witness and experience on a daily basis.

So why are normal, everyday citizens being treated as criminals, and for what crimes are they being punished? From the perspective of those who own society, it’s considered a lack of appreciation when slaves rise up to question their masters; and of course when people come together and begin to talk earnestly about the inequity of the system, they automatically represent a threat to the status quo and must go. Then we learn how thin the veneer of civilization really is, and how fragile our so-called freedoms are.

When eyes are burning with mace, when blood is dripping down the face, it all becomes frighteningly clear: capitalism is a sham; and whether in or out (of prison), as long as we live under a system that views everything and everybody as a commodity, we’re all doing time. And that, at the end of the day, is the real crime—not that some of us are locked up, but that none of us are free!

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Bomani Shakur (Keith LaMar) #317117
O.S.P.
P.O. Box 1436,
Youngstown, OH 44501
Dec. 2011