Incarcerated People are Striking for Basic Humanity — America Should Listen

Today marks the end of the first week of a multi-state prison strike, organized with a list of demands that can be effectively summarized by one simple point: incarcerated people must be treated with the dignity, fairness, and respect that they are, by tint of being human, due. The organizers’ list of demands includes an end to modern-day prison slavery, improved prison conditions, an end to life without parole sentencing, increased funding allocated to rehabilitation services, and the termination of felony disenfranchisement.  

The catalyst for the strike was a deadly riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina this past April. Seven prisoners died, making it the most deadly unrest in an American prison in more than 25 years. It lasted for over seven hours. Prison guards did essentially nothing to quell or stop it.  

Modern-Day Slavery

The modern-day slavery practiced throughout the nation’s prisons has been the subject of ire and protest for years. “Slavery persists by another name today,” write David Love and Vijay Das for Al Jazeera. “Young men and women of colour toil away in 21st-century fields, sow in hand. And Corporate America is cracking the whip.

In 2016, a nationwide labor strike was organized in protest of scant — or nonexistent — wages. That strike saw more than 24,000 incarcerated people refuse to show up to work across 12 states. It was coordinated out of Alabama’s Holman Prison.

Thanks to the 13th Amendment, it remains legal for incarcerated people to be forced to work for no pay. Mandatory work programs in federal prisons can pay up to a maximum of $1.15 per hour; state prisons average roughly 20 cents an hour. In some states, including Georgia, prisoners are not paid at all for their labor.

The phenomenon of prison slavery worsened in 1979, with the advent of the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, which allowed US companies to use prison labor for the first time. As the prison population began to boom, so did business: companies who participated early on in the program saw their profit margins shoot up. Business is still booming: in 2015, 60,000 prisoners generated $472 million in sales through their participation in the Federal Prison’s Unicor program, where men and women manufacture items ranging from eyeglasses to furniture. In 2016, the program brought in $500 million.

Wages allow incarcerated people access to myriad items, many of which are necessary for basic functions. In Georgia and Alabama, because prisoners are forced to labor for free, they are — theoretically — given the supplies they need. But it is substantially more onerous for people who have no wages, and no outside support, to survive in prison. The food served is often inadequate; the Southern Center for Human Rights receives frequent complaints about a dearth of edible food, servings that do not add up to a healthy daily caloric intake, and rigidity surrounding special diets in most state prisons. In Alabama, prison chefs describe receiving food — destined for the prison cafeteria — marked with “Not Fit for Human Consumption.” In December, The Atlantic reported that lapses in food safety have made prisoners six times more likely to get a foodborne illness than the general population.

If you have the money, you can supplement your diet with food purchased — at a markup — from the commissary. If you are laboring for free, you must either rely on money being sent from family (who are likely already experiencing a financial burden as a result of their loved one’s incarceration) or you go hungry. The same applies to the basic hygiene and personal care items given. It’s also incredibly difficult to remain in contact with family and friends; calls come at a prohibitively steep price for those being forced to work for free.

Prison labor is directly related to convict-leasing, the American South’s answer to a huge shortage of labor after slavery was abolished. In 1898, convict leasing provided nearly three-quarters of  Alabama’s revenue as a state. Today, majority Black and Brown prisoners in the state manufacture items ranging from desks to license plates for between .25 and .75 cents an hour.

This highlights a depressingly familiar American parable: we over-police and over-incarcerate men and women of color; we force them to labor for free or next to nothing; corporations and their wealthy (overwhelmingly white) leaders profit off of their labor.

Read more about the strike here.

It’s Time to Close Atlanta City Detention Center

The Atlanta City Detention Center (or ACDC) has, historically, served as a place to warehouse immigrants and the poor. It was erected just prior to the city of Atlanta serving as host for the 1996 Olympic Games. Beforehand – and for the duration of – the Olympics, ACDC’s population shot up from 2,200 to 4,500; at the same time, many homeless (or visibly poor) men and women disappeared from Woodruff Park.

In 2010, ACDC entered into a lucrative contract to rent cells to the federal government in order to house people detained by ICE (U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.) The city receives $78 per detained immigrant per day. But in June, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that ACDC would, at least temporarily, no longer be accepting newly detained immigrants from ICE.

The city of Atlanta continues to profit off of the incarceration of immigrants at ACDC. Detainees there are forced to work for eight hours a day, with zero compensation (at some other facilities, immigrants are paid $1 a day for their work.) The city has been paid over $6 million from ICE in the 2016 fiscal year alone.

Earlier this month, “Inside Atlanta’s Immigrant Cages,” a report by Project South and Georgia Detention Watch, was released. The report, which is the culmination of a year-long project comprised of interviews with many prisoners, attorneys, tours of the facility, and the poring over of hundreds of documents obtained from the city, paints a gruesome picture of life at the jail. Almost all detained immigrants at ACDC interviewed for the report noted that officers often yelled at and intimidated them, used vulgar language, and threaten them constantly with lock-downs. The conditions that prisoners live in are unsanitary and dangerous; medical care is scant; the quality of the food is notably poor; people are thrown in solitary confinement for no discernable reason. It is a place of great suffering.

“The city jail serves no other purpose than to warehouse poor Atlantans and immigrants,” said SCHR Executive Director Sara Totonchi. Since the passage of the cash bail reform ordinance in February, and the temporary stop in new federal detainees, the cost of keeping ACDC open is prohibitively high. “With the temporary halting of the contract with ICE and the implementation of the new bail ordinance, this jail serves no legitimate purpose and should be closed immediately to save taxpayer dollars,” said Totonchi. Mayor Bottoms herself agrees:  she no longer thinks it is cost effective for taxpayers to keep ACDC’s doors open.

“It is time for Atlanta to stop colluding with ICE permanently and end its agreements to detain immigrants,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, Legal & Advocacy Director with Project South, in a statement.

The Racial Justice Action Center has done formidable work in spearheading the campaign to close ACDC. The time is now.

Read ‘Inside Atlanta’s Immigrant Cages’ here.

Read more about protests against ACDC here.

 

Nowhere to Go: Homelessness among formerly incarcerated people

In a first-of-its-kind study, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) is reporting that formerly incarcerated people are a staggering ten times more likely to experience homelessness than the general population. The study, which utilized data from a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, builds on a foundational understanding of the correlation between homelessness and incarceration. Previous national data has suggested that as much as 15% of the incarcerated population had experienced homelessness in the 12 months before they were imprisoned.

Last December, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, was sent on a tour of the United States to witness and report on the extreme poverty experienced by millions in the world’s wealthiest country. In his final report, Mr. Alston disparaged local governments for criminalizing homelessness; shocked by the fact that police ticket and arrest men and women for “crimes” like sitting on the sidewalk or sleeping in public places.

At Southern Center for Human Rights, we see this link clearly. Last year, we filed an emergency petition for relief on behalf of Sean Ramsey, who had been jailed for standing on a sidewalk in Atlanta while holding a sign which read ‘Homeless, please help.’ It is illegal to ask for money in the City of Atlanta. Mr. Ramsey was arrested on September 19th and, unable to post the $200 bond he had been assigned, he sat in jail until November 29th.

Across Georgia – and across the country – being homeless or poor is, in effect, criminalized. When you are experiencing homelessness, basic, life-sustaining actions you must take on a daily basis – sleeping or sitting in parks or sidewalks, relieving yourself outside, asking for money – are enough to land you behind bars. Criminalizing homelessness violates our most basic human rights, and it sets in action a revolving door – sent to jail for sleeping on the street; more likely to experience homelessness again once released.

PPI also found, unsurprisingly, a racial element to this revolving door: formerly incarcerated Black men have much higher rates of homelessness than white or Hispanic men. The data also shows that women of color experience homelessness at higher rates than white women.

“People who have been to prison just once experience homelessness at a rate nearly 7 times higher than the general public,” writes Lucius Couloute of PPI. “But people who have been incarcerated more than once have rates 13 times higher than the general public. In other words, people who have been incarcerated multiple times are twice as likely to be homeless as those who are returning from their first prison term.”

Read the report here.

Read more about Sean Ramsey’s case here.

Two Rulings, One Conclusion: ‘User-Pay’ Court Funding Unconstitutional

In two landmark decisions this month, two federal judges declared that there is a clear conflict present when judges in New Orleans set bail amounts which in turn pad their court budgets. These rulings, brought against Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell and the 12 Criminal District Court trial judges, will do two things: throw the courts’ discretionary budgets into question for the near future and present a unique opportunity to reform the courts’ longstanding practice of profiting off of the backs of poor people.

The Orleans Parish Criminal District Court receives 1.8 % of every commercial surety bond posted in the parish. In other words, bail and bonds paid by poor people – who have not yet been convicted of any crime – are providing nearly a quarter (20-25%) of the court’s discretionary budget each year.

The case against Judge Cantrell was brought by the MacArthur Justice Center and Civil Rights Corps. Though he had acknowledged the necessity of inquiring into a defendant’s ability to pay a certain bail amount, Judge Cantrell has also admitted that he does not set bail lower than $2,500; a prohibitively expensive amount, particularly in a city where a quarter of the population lives in poverty. Judge Cantrell has “an institutional incentive to find that criminal defendants are able to pay bail and to set higher bail amounts,” Eastern District of Louisiana Judge Eldon Fallon wrote. In 2015, Judge Cantrell’s court benefited to the tune of $1 million from bail and bond fees.

In his August 6 decision, Judge Fallon writes that a judge must be able to prove that there is “clear and convincing evidence” that an individual should be detained. That requires both inquiring into whether or not the individual has the ability to pay the set bail amount, as well as the consideration of alternatives to detainment.

“You can’t just throw money amounts at people,” Jon Wool, director of public policy at the Vera Institute of Justice’s New Orleans office, told The Appeal. “You need to say either you’re released on non-financial conditions or you’re detained either because you can’t pay money or as preventative detention, but only after a searching inquiry and a high standard of proof.” The Vera Institute of Justice is hoping to move towards a system where the New Orleans City Council funds the court.

No judge should have a financial incentive to impose bail. Nor should anyone be detained because they lack the resources to purchase their freedom. The question now becomes whether or not the city of New Orleans will fully divorce itself from a fundamentally unjust system which places the financial burden – both the cost of liberty as well as the revenue stream for the courts – on the defendant, or if they will simply make minute adjustments that satisfy constitutionality while maintaining the status quo.

Read more about the rulings here.