Prison reform

  • February 21, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Thanks to scholars like Michelle Alexander, Americans and policymakers are increasingly questioning the effectiveness the nation’s system of mass incarceration and taking note of its great harm to certain populations of Americans.

    In this ACS Book Talk, Alexander, a former ACLU attorney and now a law professor at Ohio State University, explains how mass incarceration has disproportionately targeted African Americans. She wrote that more “African Americans are under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”

    The widespread use of solitary confinement in our nation’s prisons is also coming under greater – and long overdue – scrutiny, as noted in this ACSblog post, which highlighted a 2011 statement from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture that blasted solitary confinement as “a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation” that “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

    The conservative columnist George F. Will is also weighing in on the matter, noting in a Feb. 20 piece for The Washington Post that “tens of thousands of American prison inmates are kept in protracted solitary confinement that arguably constitutes torture and probably violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’”

    Will cites federal law on torture barring “conduct ‘specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.’” He notes what others have long known, that “severe mental suffering from prolonged solitary confinement puts the confined at risk of brain impairment.”

    Although solitary confinement was once considered a humane tool for rehabilitation, it is now widely considered debilitating, creating inmates who are unfit for social interaction.

    “Americans should be roused against this by decency – and prudence,” Will writes.

     

  • June 13, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Inimai M. Chettiar, Policy Counsel, and Vanita Gupta, Deputy Legal Director, at the American Civil Liberties Union. Ms. Gupta directs the ACLU’s Center for Justice and its Safe and Fair Initiative to End Overincarceration. Ms. Chettiar serves as national legislative counsel coordinating the Initiative, and is incoming Director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.


    Elderly prisoners are the least dangerous group of people behind bars but the most expensive to incarcerate. Yet despite this truth, the number of elderly prisoners is skyrocketing. Harsher sentencesfor less serious crimes – one defining characteristic of our failed “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies – are responsible for this staggering increase in the number of older prisoners, and taxpayers are taking the hit.

    You may be shocked to learn how much money states are dumping into housing aging prisoners who pose little safety risk. Today the American Civil Liberties Union released a report, “At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly,” which details the growth of our aging prisoner population, the low public safety threat elderly prisoners pose and the fiscal impact of incarcerating them. Strikingly, the report estimates that the average aging prisoner costs taxpayers about twice as much as the average prisoner.

    The report is co-authored by the ACLU’s fiscal policy analyst and in-house economist, Will Bunting. He conducted a fiscal impact analysis, weighing the cost of incarcerating the average aging prisoner against the burden releasing that same prisoner would impose on public benefit programs. Even taking into consideration the cost of state payments for Medicaid, supplemental security food stamps, energy assistance, and other public assistance benefits, the report estimates that states could save $66,000 per year for each aging person released from prison. To put this number in context, the average American household makes $40,000. The money thus saved could be redistributed to more worthwhile and cost-effective state goals like education and infrastructure.

    A look at the grander scheme of things is even more startling: in 1988, the United States spent about $11 billion on the entire corrections system. Today, we spend about $16 billion annually on the aging prisoner population alone.

  • August 9, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Inimai M. Chettiar, Policy Counsel, and Vanita Gupta, Deputy Legal Director, at the American Civil Liberties Union. Ms. Gupta directs the ACLU’s Center for Justice and its Safe and Fair Initiative to End Overincarceration. Ms. Chettiar serves as national legislative counsel for the initiative and has published scholarshipon using economic analysis to promote social justice. They are primary authors of the ACLU’s new report, “Smart Reform is Possible: States Reducing Incarceration Rates and Costs While Protecting Communities.


    There isn’t an American who hasn’t felt the devastating effects of the Great Recession. And just when most of us thought it couldn’t get any worse, the S&P downgrade of the federal government’s Treasury debt last Friday sent shocks through the country and the world, increasing talk about a double-dip recession and creating sharp declines on Wall Street yesterday reminiscent of the 2008 market crash. A downgrade of state and municipality debts could also follow.

    The scarcity of funds in American households and the resulting decline in government revenues have forced lawmakers to think twice before spending precious taxpayer dollars. Some states have enacted laws in the name of saving money that have been incredibly short sighted – like cutting funding for public and higher education or increasing financial burdens on the poor. These types of policies may save small amounts of money in the short run, but will have devastating effects on our children’s futures and prevent individuals on the margins from contributing to society.

    Among all this economic tragedy, however, there is a silver lining. As detailed by a new ACLU report released today, several states have enacted cost-effective laws cutting their unnecessary overreliance and massive spending on prisons while continuing to protect the safety of our communities. This is especially good news considering that state and federal governments spend about $70 billion annually on prisons and corrections. Over the last 25 years, state corrections spending grew by 674 percent, outpacing the growth of other government expenditures.

    Our report, entitled Smart Reform is Possible: States Reducing Incarceration Rates and Costs While Protecting Public Safety, highlights six states - Texas, Mississippi, Kansas, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Ohio - that recently passed significant bipartisan reforms to reduce their prison populations and budgets. These states also experienced declines in their crime rates while these new policies were in place. If states that are as “tough on crime” as Texas, Mississippi, and South Carolina can engage in more rational criminal justice policymaking and recognize that mass incarceration is not necessary to protect public safety, there is no reason for other states not to follow suit.

  • June 26, 2009
    A recent report from the Federal Prison Rape Elimination Commission says government must do more to stop prison rape. In a piece for the corner, a National Review Online blog, Eli Lehrer writes that the commission's recommendations should be embraced by state, local, and federal governments.

    He further notes that, "Congress may also want to reconsider laws that make it very difficult for prisoners to sue prison authorities absent concrete evidence of physical harm. It's quite possible that many legitimate prison-rape claims get thrown out of court under current laws. And prison rape needs to stop."

    Deborah M. Golden, an attorney with the D.C. Prisons' Project of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, reported in an ACS Issue Brief, that the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) "may prevent rape victims from bringing lawsuits against their attackers." In her 2006 Issue Brief, The Prison Litigation Reform Act - A Proposal For Closing the Loophole for Rapists, Golden wrote that, "In order to receive monetary compensation, the PLRA requires that any plaintiff demonstrate that she or he has a physical injury. In the current legal system, this torture must be analyzed within the framework created by the PLRA that ‘no federal civil action may be brought by a prisoner confined in a jail, prison, or other correctional facility, for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury.'"