TIME justice

The Surprising State Leading the U.S. in Prison Population Growth

Furniture Makers Prison
A New Hampshire prison inmate works in the wood shop inside the prison in Concord, N.H., April 18, 2013. Jim Cole—AP

Live free or be incarcerated

In the past two decades, New Hampshire’s crime rate has remained steady. It has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the U.S., and the state’s population has only grown by about a fifth.

But over that period, the number of state and federal inmates in New Hampshire has almost doubled. Its main prison in Concord is routinely overcrowded. And last year, the prison population grew at a faster rate than any other state in the country.

As the number of incarcerated Americans inched up for the first time in four years, the prison population in small, largely rural New Hampshire grew faster than any other state. The 8.2% increase in the Granite State topped second-place Nebraska’s 6.8% rise and far outpaced the 0.3% national increase in the number of inmates, according to figures released Sept. 16 by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Many state experts and public officials trace the rise not to a spike in crime or a recent population boom, but to the alteration of a bill initially designed to reduce New Hampshire’s prison population. In 2010, the state adopted a law that freed all inmates who had served 120% of their minimum sentence. If an inmate was sentenced to 5-10 years, for example, he or she would automatically be released by the sixth year. It also required prisoners to walk free when they were within nine months of their maximum sentence. Within a year of the law’s enactment, almost 300 prisoners were released as a result.

The bipartisan effort was meant to cut a prison population that had been growing for decades. According to the New Hampshire Department of Corrections, state prisoners increased from 287 in 1980 to 1,250 by 1990 and 2,847 by 2008. A policy called Truth in Sentencing, which reduced early releases for inmates based on good behavior, contributed to that growth. The Justice Reinvestment Act, as the 2010 law was known, undid many of those guidelines.

“It was a wholesale change to the department of corrections,” says Dennis Delay, an economist at the New Hampshire Center of Public Policy.

But the political timing was terrible. The law became effective in October 2010—one month before local elections—and it became an easy target for candidates seeking to look tough on crime, says Donna Sytek, chairman of the New Hampshire Adult Parole Board. It didn’t help that the first few inmates released under the program were violent criminals and rapists, raising the specter that dangerous people were being returned to the streets.

“It was initially embraced by everybody, Democrats and Republicans,” Sytek says. “But it became a political football.”

The following year, the state legislature effectively gutted the bill. Instead of mandatory release nine months before the end of a maximum sentence, for instance, inmates were now just granted a parole hearing. The state’s prison population has swelled ever since. In 2013, New Hampshire had 3,018 inmates.

Experts cite other factors contributing to the increase, such as the state’s gradual population growth and judges handing down stiffer sentences for drug crimes. But the change to the 2010 law appears to be the main culprit.

“I can tell you that many New Hampshire stakeholders are extremely concerned that the current prison population exceeds its capacity,” says Ted Kirkpatrick, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. “I am uncertain, however, what will come out of that concern.”

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 13

1. True rehabilitation: We can reform prisons and reduce recidivism if we treat prison labor less like modern-day slavery and more like on-the-job training.

By Beth Schwartzapfel in American Prospect

2. Drones are a powerful military and civilian tool. Reforms are desperately needed if the U.S. wants to stay at the top of the drone food chain.

By Missy Cummings in Wired

3. Liberia’s fragile democracy may fall victim to the Ebola virus outbreak.

By Ashoka Mukpo in Al-Jazeera America

4. Mayors need the partnership and protection of a UN for big cities to test new solutions and spread innovation.

By Richard Florida in Citylab

5. The biggest barrier to nonprofit innovation isn’t the lack of money. It’s knowing the right way to scale up and spend big infusions of cash.

By Mathu Jeyaloganathan Ivey Business Review

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Race

Study: Little Progress for African-American Men on Racial Equality Since 1970

Rates of incarceration and unemployment remain high

In recent years, the U.S. has celebrated the 50th anniversaries of the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act and a number of other landmark accomplishments considered pivotal in making the U.S. a better place for African Americans.

But despite a deep reverence for those accomplishments, a new study suggests that African-American men today face such high levels of unemployment and incarceration that they are in little better position when compared with white men than a half-century ago.

The working paper, by University of Chicago researchers Derek Neal and Armin Rick, is based on preliminary findings and has not yet been peer-reviewed.

“The growth of incarceration rates among black men in recent decades combined with the sharp drop in black employment rates during the Great Recession have left most black men in a position relative to white men that is really no better than the position they occupied only a few years after the Civil Rights Act,” the study reads.

The study uses census data to show that more than 10% of black men in their 30s will be incarcerated at some point during a calendar year. This number was around 2% for white males of the same age group.

The study attributes the corrosive impact of incarceration on the African-American community, at least in part, to the institution of more punitive criminal-justice policies.

African-American men also appear to face a more difficult employment situation. More than a third of African-American men between the ages of 25 and 49 lacked employment in 2010.

“The Great Recession period of 2008–2010 was quite bleak for black men,” the study reads. “Recent levels of labor market inequality between black and white prime-age men are likely not materially different than those observed in 1970.”

[FiveThirtyEight]

TIME Crime

Man Visiting Jail Gets Trapped for 30 Hours

He escaped after breaking a sprinkler head

A man visiting his son in Chicago’s Cook County Jail ended up a prisoner himself—trapped alone in a maximum security visitor’s room for 30 hours, according to media reports. The man, who has not been identified in the press, was rescued when he broke a sprinkler head.

“We’re tremendously sorry for what this man went through,” Cara Smith, the jail’s executive director, told the Chicago Tribune.

The man, who set foot in the jail on Saturday afternoon for his weekly visit with son, was directed to an unfamiliar area and entered the wrong room, which was closed so contractors could add security cameras. When two steel doors closed behind him, he was trapped with little recourse. He banged on the steel doors, but he could not be heard on the other side.

“There’s about two feet of cement and two steel doors between him and the outside,” Smith told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Finally, the man broke off a sprinkler head to prompt a fire department response and attract the attention of jail officials. Firefighters rescued him around 1:30 a.m. on Monday, according to the local ABC affiliate.

The man, who has not been identified, left the jail in good spirits and appeared to forgive the error, jail officials told the Tribune. He was treated in a local hospital for injuries to his hand sustained as he broke the sprinkler.

“We’re been looking at how and why and what went wrong,’’ Smith told the Tribune. “Multiple things obviously failed including a contractor leaving a door open while they did work in our jail. It was a perfect storm of circumstances that led to this horrible incident.’’

[Chicago Tribune]

TIME Prisons

Report: Georgia Prisons Rife With Brutal Violence

A report by a human rights organization finds that violence is on the rise within Georgia's prison system

A report released Wednesday found that Georgia’s prisons are beset with violence that is growing increasingly brutal.

Since 2010, Georgia prisoners have killed 33 other inmates and one officer, the report found. Created by the Southern Center for Human Rights, the report also found that Georgia in 2012 had more homicides in its prisons than some other states, including neighboring Alabama and South Carolina, did in the last 10 years.

That violence, the Center found, is getting worse. Three times as many prisoners were killed in Georgia’s prisons in 2012 than in 2002. According to the report, prisoners in Georgia are often left unsupervised, put in cells with faulty locks and given access to lethal weapons. One prisoner had to be airlifted to a burn center after he had bleach poured into his eyes and boiling water thrown over his face and genitals. Another lost three fingers to a fellow inmate who was in possession of a 19-inch knife at Wilcox State Prison. And just last week, a prisoner at Augusta State Medical Prison died after being stabbed.

Though the report acknowledges violence is a problem in all prisons, it finds that Georgia’s Department of Corrections “has shown a pattern of apathy in the face of security breaches and a failure to respond to known, dangerous conditions.” It also calls on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the problem and find a way to end the escalating violence.

TIME Prisons

California to Investigate Illegal Sterilization of Female Inmates

The state auditor's report demands that health agencies look into the violations

An investigation of the California prison system revealed troubling numbers of female inmates who had been sterilized without their consent, in addition to many other breaches of protocol.

A report released on Thursday by the California State Auditor examined 144 cases of tubal ligations (more commonly referred to as having one’s “tubes tied”) performed on imprisoned women over the course of eight years.

“Some of the inmates were sterilized unlawfully, and there were certain safeguards that were designed to limit those occurrences, and those failed,” Margarita Fernández, the auditor’s chief of public affairs, tells TIME.

Among the 144 cases, 39 sterilizations were performed without the inmate’s lawful consent. In another 27 cases, the inmate’s physician did not sign the form that confirmed two key components of consent: first, that the patient was mentally competent and understood the lasting effects of the procedure, and second, that the required waiting period had been satisfied.

State law requires that at least 30 days and no more then 180 days must pass between the inmate signing over their consent and undergoing the procedure. In some cases, this waiting-period window was not observed properly, Fernández said. One sterilization took place 196 days after consent was given.

The auditor called on the Medical Board of California to investigate the 39 cases in which consent was not obtained, and asked the California Department of Health to investigate physician and hospital practices. The move comes after the Center for Investigative Reporting broke a story that reported over a hundred cases of unlawful sterilization.

TIME justice

California Prison Farm-to-Table Program May Help Keep Inmates Fed and Free

Inside The Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility As California Readies $793 Million Prison Expansion Bond
An inmate walks through the yard at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego on March 26, 2014. Sam Hodgson—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Aside from feeding the prison population, the program aims to give participants a lower prison re-entry rate

Inmates at California prisons may soon be able to grow and serve their own food, in one of the most practical applications of the farm-to-table sustenance craze that has swept the foodie world.

A Farm and Rehabilitation Meals program is being launched at San Diego’s Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, reports the Huffington Post.

Provided prison health authorities grant approval, prisoners will be hired as farmers and instructed in sustainable agricultural practices. Their produce will be served in the prison cafeteria. If the program is successful, more institutions may soon follow suit.

“Within those spaces we’re going to teach community gardening, composting and water-wise gardening,” said Wehtahnah Tucker, the program’s coordinator and a California Correctional Health Care Services executive. “We’re purchasing a cistern, using gray water and capturing rainwater for use.”

The initial rollout, accommodating 20 inmate-farmers, will cost just $4,000, which will be funded by private donations. The hope is that participants will have a radically lower prison re-entry rate, which in California currently averages 61%.

“We wanted to create more opportunities for inmates to have a more meaningful experience while they’re here,” she said, “so when they leave, they cannot come back.”

[Huffington Post]

TIME Immigration

Prison Hunger Strike Puts Spotlight on Immigration Detention

Detention Center Hunger Strike
Demonstrators opposing deportations hold up signs while chanting in English and Spanish outside of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wa. on March 11, 2014. Thomas Soerenes—The News Tribune/AP

An inmate hunger strike at a Washington detention center is raising questions about immigration detention quotas and enforcement

Eleven days ago, Paulino Ruiz stopped eating.

After nine months at Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., which houses immigration detainees awaiting deportation, Ruiz was sick of eating a boiled potato at every meal. He was offended by the harsh treatment meted out by guards. And he was tired of making just $1 per day for custodial work.

Perhaps most of all, he felt let down by the immigration policies of Barack Obama. Ruiz, 26, came to the U.S. at age three and says he is a legal resident of the U.S. But when he was released from prison last year after serving time for robbery, he was put on a path to deportation. “You can only get pushed so far,” Ruiz explains in a phone interview with TIME from inside the low-slung facility that sprawls across Tacoma’s tide flats. “More people have been deported since [Obama's] been in office than anyone else in history.”

Ruiz chose the right time to protest. A facility-wide hunger strike started at breakfast on March 7 at the detention center, spreading by word of mouth, until by dinnertime about 750 of the facility’s 1,300 detainees were declining to eat, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The strike turned a spotlight on immigration detention and deportation policies just as the White House is taking a fresh look at the issues.

On March 13, Obama announced he had ordered a review of his Administration’s immigration-enforcement policies. The next day, the President met for nearly two hours with 17 leading immigration-reform advocates at the White House. Obama told them he has asked Jeh Johnson, the new Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to conduct the review.

Two of the enforcement policies Obama inherited are at the center of the Tacoma hunger strike. One is the so-called “bed mandate,” an arcane provision embedded in the annual DHS spending bill. The other is mandatory detention, which requires suspected immigration violators to be held indefinitely while a deportation review is pending, often without bond.

Introduced in 2007, the bed mandate sets a target for the number of undocumented immigrants DHS must house to receive its annual appropriation. The current quota is about 34,000 people. Immigration analysts say it forces law enforcement to pursue and detain undocumented immigrants simply to meet quotas, stripping them of discretion as they carry out their jobs. As a result, facilities like Northwest Detention Center are crammed with detainees who have committed minor infractions, such as traffic violations. Their detention costs taxpayers about $160 per day, which quickly adds up: in the 2013 fiscal year, the U.S. shelled out more than $2 billion on immigration detention.

“It’s neither good policy nor good use of resources,” says Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at New York University’s School of Law.

In recent months, House Democrats have sought to strike the statute by stressing its ballooning costs — an appeal aimed at fiscal conservatives. They argue that alternatives to lengthy detention for nonviolent offenders, such as monitoring bracelets or supervised release—would be far cheaper and equally effective. “Neither party wants to see taxpayer money wasted,” says Rep. Bill Foster, an Illinois Democrat who has twice co-sponsored amendments to end the mandate. “This is something we can do on a bipartisan basis.”

But bipartisanship has flopped so far. In June, an amendment sponsored by Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch of Florida was defeated in a largely party-line vote, with just eight Republicans joining the vast majority of Democrats in a failed effort to scrap the mandate. Deutch and Foster have tried to revive the issue without luck so far.

Republicans say administration officials are allowing budget cuts to serve as an excuse for lax immigration enforcement. The GOP believes Obama has a habit of picking and choosing which parts of federal law he wants to enforce, and defends the mandate as a statute that compels the government to lock up offenders or lose its funding. “This is not optional. It’s not discretionary,” Rep. John Culberson of Texas, a Republican, told Johnson at a hearing earlier this month. “There’s no prosecutorial discretion on the part of a police officer or your detention folks as to whether or not you’re going to fill 34,000 beds. You shall fill 34,000 beds.”

But immigration reformers believe the private-prison industry is unduly affecting the public debate. Private prison operators spend millions lobbying lawmakers on immigration detention and other issues that directly impact their bottom line.

Like most detention centers, the facility in Tacoma is operated by a private contractor, the Geo Group. That corporation’s political-action committee has given more than $100,000 to state, local and federal candidates so far in the 2014 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.”It’s a wasteful taxpayer giveaway to special interests that hurts law enforcement and is inconsistent with the way we approach immigration in this country,” Deutch says.

The protesters in Tacoma were also reacting to the policy known as mandatory detention, which often locks up offenders indefinitely. The policy was expanded by a pair of laws passed in 1996 and strengthened by the Patriot Act after Sept. 11, 2001. It requires that categories of non-U.S. citizens be imprisoned without evaluating the threat they may pose, often without giving them a bond hearing. “You have people who might get arrested for something minor, but aren’t allowed to fight their case,” says Sandy Restrepo, a Washington State immigration lawyer involved with the hunger strike. “Either they have really high bonds set, or they’re ineligible for bond.”

Some of these detainees are legal residents of the U.S. Brought to the U.S. at age three from the Mexican state of Michoacan, Ruiz says he was raised in Oregon, where he graduated from high school. According to Ruiz, he spent years working construction and landscaping before he was arrested in 2008 for a drunken robbery. When he was released from prison last year, he says, he was remanded to the custody of ICE because of an immigration hold, and has been held without bond as he appeals his deportation. He says he has no ties to Mexico and his entire family lives in the U.S., including his ailing father. “I’m not a bad person,” Ruiz says. “I just made a mistake. I took responsibility for that. It hurts not to be able to be back with my family.”

It is unclear whether the review Obama ordered will result changes to either the bed quota or to the practice of mandatory detention. Earlier this month, in testimony before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, DHS Secretary Johnson told lawmakers that he interpreted the 34,000-bed mandate “to mean that we have to maintain 34,000 detention beds. Some of those beds might be empty at any given time.” That parsing, which the GOP disputes, would allow the Administration to detain fewer undocumented immigrants on a day-to-day basis even if Congress declined to change the law.

But the review ordered by Obama is unlikely to result in sweeping changes to enforcement—not least because the President does not want to hand Congressional Republicans an excuse to back further away from their halfhearted interest at rewriting U.S. immigration law. “We don’t know what the review will mean,” Chishti says. “He’s not promising anything. My own view is it will be modest.”

After more than a week, the number of detainees in Tacoma who are still skipping meals has dwindled to just a few. Andrew Munoz, a spokesman at the Department of Homeland Security’s Seattle office, said that ICE respected the right of detainees to register their opinions about their treatment. “While we continue to work with Congress to enact commonsense immigration reform, ICE remains committed to sensible, effective immigration enforcement that focuses on its priorities, including convicted criminals and those apprehended at the border while attempting to unlawfully enter the United States,” Munoz said.

Even if DHS decides to change course, it may be too late for immigrants like Ruiz. Suspended in limbo after a serious mistake, he finds himself caught in the gears of an immigration-enforcement machine that can’t often be stopped once it is engaged. “I’ve got my whole life invested in this country,” he says. “I feel like I deserve another opportunity.”

Correction appended, March 18: This story originally misspelled the surname of Florida Representative Ted Deutch.

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