Inside LA’s fight to save inmates from COVID-19

Photo @YouthJusticeLA

Inside LA’s fight to save inmates from COVID-19

Life and death are at stake for incarcerated people facing COVID-19

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

On April 7, over 150 cars surrounded the courthouse and district attorney’s office to push officials to release people. The car march was an escalation by the Youth Justice Coalition after a slow response to the demands of a Mar. 16 letter signed by over 80 organizations. The letter listed demands from early releases to free access to masks and phone calls.

Almost 2000 people were released from the county jail system in the last two weeks, according to McGill. The L.A. County Board of Education has also voiced support.

Families are facing desperation. McGill compared it to Americans alone at home unable to see grandparents, but “[i]magine if that loved one was inside a cage .” The rally provided a way for people impacted by the justice system to come together.

“L.A. County has the largest jail system, the largest juvenile system, largest court system [and] the largest sheriff’s and probation department in the world. So to start to throw a wrench into the largest martial system in the world, I think it made people feel really powerful and really united that day.”

"To start to throw a wrench into the largest martial system in the world ... it made people feel really powerful and really united that day."

Photo @YouthJusticeLA

The conditions inside prisons across the country deteriorate as facilities confront the pandemic. In the L.A. county jail, inmates are on a 24-hour lock down with showers every three days, according to an inmate. People are eating meals in cells which house up to six people with no masks, disinfectant, sanitizer or additional hygiene products. Youth are being held in similar conditions with no reading or writing material.

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House of pain

House of Pain: an introduction

My name is Bernard Jemison and I will briefly explain my story. I’ve been incarcerated since May 13, 1998, over 25 years now for felony murder that should have been self-defense. I was sentenced to serve life with the possibility of parole in the Alabama department of corrections.

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Still locked out of the ballot box

 An estimated 4.6 million Americans are still unable to vote due to felony records despite reforms. This includes more than one in 10 Black adults in eight states – Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia.


Bail industry gets away with murder, costing defendants and citizens alike

An investigation was published indicating that six NYC bail bond companies were using fake trade names in order to continue operations without being shut down by state officials for large amounts of debt. The ability of agencies to continue to profit off of the bail system despite state laws that allow officials to suspend agencies owing large sums of money is the sixth loophole emphasized by the report.


Mass incarceration punishes kids too

The arrest of a parent can be traumatic and severe for children whose parents are incarcerated, causing emotional, physical, educational and financial well-being difficulties. According to a  new study, kids of incarcerated parents are likely to become incarcerated themselves.

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Rural prisons threaten rural healthcare

Rural prisons threaten rural healthcare

Rural Prisons threaten to sink already sunken healthcare systems with COVID-19 cases

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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When the traveling CEO of a small Montana county’s only hospital went for a five mile run in April, he chose to stay in the towns city limits, pounding sidewalks covered in colorfully chalked out #keeponkeepingon or the shortened #koko and past heart-covered windows.

The hashtag was started by the rural hospital to lift the spirits of the community pounded by COVID-19. It was William Kiefer’s sole run during the three weeks following his 21-bed hospital’s first COVID-19 positive patient. He and his team wrangled a facility tottering on the brink of collapse, and the rural community surrounding them rallied to help.

Toole County was Montana’s hotspot for COVID-19 deaths without a single case of the virus in a prison four miles from the outbreak which holds almost 15 percent of the county’s population.

Kiefer became emotional talking to me. It was hard to comprehend over a phone line the emotional tole that the surge in the Montana county had on the community and hospital staff.


The medical center has no ICU beds and is designed to stabilize and then transfer patients. They DID prepare early for COVID-19 in January, and the virus still overran their facility. Many rural healthcare facilities exist on a delicate knife edge to begin with.

Seventy percent of prisons are located in rural america according to John M. Eason (interviewed in the article), an associate professor in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This story is another example of how criminal justice affects the ENTIRE community not just the people immediately impacted by incarceration.

Kiefer highlighted the resilience of rural communities, but he also echoed the fear that if the county’s hospital had closed, would it have reopened? 

And make no mistake people die when rural hospitals close. So the question remains, will we see rural hospitals sink in the face of COVID-19 and especially in places with large prison populations?

The hospital was not just fighting the virus but also the precarious situation of most rural hospitals

“We fight day in and day out to scrap together funding and put multiple hats on people so that we can keep our expenses down so that we can continue to provide health care services to the communities where we live and work,” Kiefer said.

“We almost got pushed to the limit where we didn’t have sufficient staff to maintain our emergency room open, and that would be catastrophic to a community,” he said.

And we worried that in the event that it did close for a for a period of time, would we have the resources to reopen it?”

Photo Marias Medical Center

Context: “Even before the coronavirus, roughly 400 hospitals in rural America were at risk of closing, said Alan Morgan, the chief executive of the National Rural Hospital Association. On average, the country’s 2,000 rural hospitals had enough cash to keep their doors open for 30 days.” [New York Times]


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left to die

new report finds ten of thousands of people over fifty who are sentenced to life without parole face increasingly grim conditions

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Reaching through phones

Cynthia and her son

Reaching through phones

A mother’s fight to protect her son in youth detention in the face of a pandemic 

Being a mother involved in the justice system can mean many things. For many mother’s in L.A. County, it means fighting for their sons held in detention during a pandemic.

Cynthia knows what COVID-19 does to people. As a certified nurse’s assistant at a Los Angeles county hospital, she sees it firsthand. That makes her even more afraid for her 16-year-old son with asthma, a condition that makes him more vulnerable to the virus, who is held in juvenile hall awaiting the next steps of his trial. 

"As a parent, I fear for him. I fear for his life, for his well-being, for his health"

“As a parent, I fear for him. I fear for his life, for his well-being, for his health,” she said. She asked that her son not be identified by name to protect his privacy as a minor. The Appeal is only using her first name to protect her son’s identity.

Cynthia said he hasn’t received his medication since his arrest in early January on charges including grand theft auto, for which he has yet to enter a plea. She said the facility called her mid-April to ask what medication he needed. His public defender declined to comment on his case, citing privacy issues.

Cynthia’s son is one of almost 550 youth still incarcerated in the county who face longer periods of incarceration due to court delays, at a time when jails and prisons are emerging as particularly dangerous sites for transmission of COVID-19. 

“The challenge with correctional settings, including juvenile detention centers, is basically, they are like a cruise boat, but more dangerous,” Elizabeth Barnert, an assistant professor of pediatrics at UCLA and a pediatrician in one of the juvenile halls, said. 

Cynthia's son and his sister

Cynthia’s son misses his 4-year-old sister the most out of his three younger siblings. He loved taking his little sister out to the park to show her how to play basketball and going on walks with her, she said. He looks up to Kobe Bryant, and, before he was detained, he played basketball as a standout defender on a year-round team.

“Him being there is not for him. And he’s never been in a situation like this,” Cynthia said. She said he wants to go back to school, then to college and basketball, and eventually own a construction company. 

“It makes me feel hopeless because I can’t do nothing about it. All I can do is just try to call and get in contact with somebody because he’s inside there, and I’m out here,” Cynthia said.

"It makes me feel hopeless"

Read the full article here at The Appeal.


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New report debunks 2020 youth crime wave

politicians and pundits are peddling youth gone wild but a new report says the most recent data doesn’t support their claims and harsher sentences won’t stop crime


The number of women behind bars continues to rise in U.S.

Just because prison overpopulation is usually discussed in regards to males, America also has a glaring problem of over incarcerating mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and grandmas. There are currently 108,000 women in prison in the United States — accounting for nearly 30% of the world’s incarcerated females.

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Journalists’ failures to cover people in the system

Journalists’ failures to cover people in the system

Could journalists be better when covering people tangling with justice?

By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

We heard from Kimberly Haven and Ronald Simpson-Bey who talked about how journalists get it wrong and can get it better when reporting on criminal justice.

Ronald Simpson-Bey in a 2016 conversation about solitary confinement.

Ronald spent 27 years in Michigan on a wrongful conviction he was released from. “My co-defendants and I were arrested, we were splashed across the front of the news paper, handcuffed and chained together like we just got off the slave ship,” he said. That image followed him like a “scarlet letter”.

As a JustleadershipUSA Outreach and Alumni Engagement Director, Ronald now travels the country advocating for justice reform. JLUSA advocates for people first language and context of who people are when accused of a crime. “They are not just the one thing they have been accused of – they have stories,” Ronald said.

After spending three days without showering behind bars after he was first arrested, his co-defendants and him were brought out in front of the public. “We looked like animals, [and] the media was out there taking pictures.”

And the impact of those images – “we didn’t have a chance [for a fair trial].” He felt the media coverage led the to a public decision of guilt before he was even tried.

Kimberly Haven, a coalition and policy director for Reproductive Justice Inside, gets frustrated when reporters always include her criminal history in articles about her advocacy work. As far as covering plea bargains and arrests on slow news days “If the only reason your covering a sentencing is into fill space, think again.”

“You have to make the decision what’s the story and also what’s the point of the story,” she said.


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These Colors Don’t Run (At Least Not Fast Enough)

In the devastating aftermath of the mass killing at a Texas elementary school this week, questions swirl around the police response, or lack there of, while an 18-year-old slaughtered children, we turn to Posse Comitatus.

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A justice system that protects whiteness not democracy

A justice system that protects whiteness not democracy

The Capitol insurrection: what law enforcement’s refusal to protect Democracy tells us, first published in 2020

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

We first published this piece last January following the insurrection.

The bitter taste that continues to linger in my mouth after bearing witness to Wednesday’s violence, fascism and chaos, is the utter failure of law enforcement to address the situation beforehand and as it unfolded. And on the tail of a year filled with multiracial resistance to entrenched white supremacy and American police and state violence, the contrast of law enforcement’s response to the Capitol mob versus the overall peaceful 2020 Black Lives Matter protests is even more stark. 

A predictable but nauseating difference

Credit: ACLED

Capitol police leadership left their employees tragically unprepared despite well known intel that the insurrection was coming according to this Buzzfeed article:


“The first glimpse of the deadly tragedy that was about to unfold came at 9 a.m. on the morning of the insurrection for one Black veteran of the US Capitol Police. But it didn’t come from his superiors — instead the officer had to rely on a screenshot from Instagram sent to him by a friend.”

INSTAGRAAMMMMM!!!!! Colorado police used livestreams to arrest antiracist leaders last fall in a targeted operation (Denver Post), and BLM protesters in Denver were arrested for “donning helmets and other gear meant to protect them should they be attacked by officers suited up for battle,” is one example of how summer protesters were targeted (Westword). I myself watched peaceful protesters met with police projectiles, flash bangs and tear gas for marching in the streets in June 2020.


“There’s quite a big difference when the Black Lives Matter protests come up to the capitol […]. [On Wednesday], some officers were catering to the rioters,” the officer told Buzzfeed.


The two Black Capitol police interviewed in this article said they were told to leave their gas masks at home and fought off a militarized attack for over two hours sometimes outnumbered 10 to one and were called the n-word numerous times. Is anyone else surprised only one officer died?

In contrast, this summer’s BLM protests were largely peaceful according to The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project which tracks conflict across the world. Many of the shooting deaths were non-related nearby crime or white extremists like 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse who shot and killed two people in Kenosha.


Trump attempted to make Antifa a terrorist group much to the chagrin of true antifascists this summer (it’s a term not a group and Antifa is notoriously organized without hierarchy). He called BLM protesters thugs (racist language) and mobilized the Department of Justice to pursue them.

The Black Lives Matter demonstrators crowd outside the White House on 1 June was a block away from the building and made no attempt to breach its security. It was a mostly Black crowd, and it was charged by a force made up of Washington police, US Park police, over 5,000 national guard troops and federal agencies like the Bureau of Prisons. An army helicopter swooped low over the heads of the protesters. Teargas, batons and horses were used to clear a block so that Donald Trump could stage a photo op outside a church across the road. A national guard commander later admitted there had been “excessive use of force”.

Capitol police have a rich history of arresting peaceful protesters from disabled activists to rape survivors.


Coup or not, law enforcement’s treatment of the “Stop the Steal” protesters, militia and extremists whether subverted at the top or by individual officers resembled a fucking doormat compared to the tactical militarization and surveillance aimed at BLM protesters this summer.


Arrests of the Capitol mob are trickling in from Iowa to Florida, but where were the vans and riot police that greeted curfew violators engaged in BLM protesters across the country this summer? Less than 20 people were immediately arrested and less than 100 were arrested that day. I honestly think they didn’t have the numbers to arrest anyone without losing complete control of the capitol. “Yea steal some shit from Nancy as long as you don’t hang her up.” Fair choice if you ask me.

TO BE CLEAR: all mass gatherings of people include bad actors and those who take advantage of chaos. This summer bad actors took advantage of peaceful protests that at times turned to riots, often in response to police militarization, to destroy businesses. Remember Minneapolis’s umbrella man — a white supremacist. We’ll get into how destroying property like the Minneapolis police precinct is an act of resistance in another newsletter.


But Wednesday was different. It wasn’t bad actors, but large currents pushing the “Stop the Steal” efforts toward a violent insurrection.

It was a continued WILLFUL ignorance by MAGA supporters, including politicians and Trump, to the reality of proud boys and militia and nazis that have adopted the republican party as somewhat of a trojan horse.


I don’t have a crystal ball to know if Trump is really a closeted nazi who knows the power he wields or just an egomaniac who wants to hold onto power by whatever means no matter the impact, including using white supremacy to rally people around him. 


To be sure, as I walked through the crowd there was a tailgating, celebratory atmosphere of a true rally of like minded people who all drink the Kool-aid and love Trump and the liberty and the success he represents to them. There was weed smoke wafting and liquor pouring and trucks outfitted like floats. There were Jesus thumping preachers and people taking selfies while militia walked by.

Those weren’t the people at the front storming the Capitol. Many of those people were asking traffic cops directions to Union Station when the first crowd deterrents were detonated by police at 4 p.m. But there were also two white men from Minnesota I talked with who though not part of a militia were in the thick of the Capitol breach and planned to die for democracy later that night. 


Side note: The line between the two is small and fading. Trump unites the Karen and Chad suburban family and the anti-government white militia. As alternate reality ecosystems grow on Parler and other social media alternatives, the Karens and Chads are easily sucked into rhetoric that is radicalizing them. Watch this if you need a reminder. 

There were people I talked with who might not be involved with the Proud Boys or the Three percenters or “The American Milita” as one Nevada women put it to me while her team helped break into the Capitol.

But these people where riding the current of the crowd and that current was pushing them to violence and terrorism in the name of patriotism. AND the boat was being steered by extremists. And despite ample warning, law enforcement did nothing to stop it.

“Can I take your coat” hospitality

Capitol police were seen taking selfies and opening gates for the Capitol mob. There was a lack of national guard thanks to Trump’s initial refusal to deploy them despite the D.C. mayor’s requests. Police officers showed up to participate in the crowd. Blue line flags proliferated among MAGA and yellow “Do Not Tread on Me” flags. I myself ran into a smiling white man wearing a “Cops for Trump” hat and a trailing Blue line flag as a cape.

A current D.C. Metro Police said in a public Facebook post that “off-duty police officers and members of the military, who were among the rioters, flashed their badges and I.D. cards as they attempted to overrun the building.” Democrats are asking if there was inside help.


At least three officers from Washington to Pennsylvania are being investigated after photos showed them at the insurrection. Law enforcement did not show up in force to prevent an insurrection, coup or violent interruption of the electoral count. Ashli Babbitt the only person killed by police while invading the Capitol, was a former law enforcement officer herself.

The law enforcement presence on Wednesday showed up to shut down streets and manage crowds like it was just another protest or rally. That mistake led to the death of a police officer and a protester brainwashed on conspiracies. That mistake allowed protesters turned violent mobsters to breach the Capitol. 

It wasn’t that they couldn’t. They chose not to.

Two days after the riots, I drove through the Capitol. New concrete blockades sat where people flowed freely on Wednesday. Law enforcement vehicles covered the parking spots around the Capitol where protesters and militia and buses carrying them freely parked days before.


It seemed like a picnic compared to the streets of Denver which seemed like a war zone with SWAT teams and tanks this summer. That militarized response to BLM protests was mimicked across the country. It’s the kind of hypocrisy that clearly shows America’s bias. There were warnings.

A group of Oath Keepers who are former military and law enforcement and the “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today.”

Militia and fascists have overtaken state Capitols before even aided by politicians like in this video. Michigan, invaded by armed protesters in April, 2020 is being pointed to as a “dress rehearsal” for last Wednesday. Six people from the state have been arrested in connection as of this weekend.


Leah Sottile has been writing on white extremists for YEARS. Read her “All Bets are Off” on last week here: The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it. People warned January 6 could be violent last month. I talked with family that morning about how I had no clue if the rally would be bigger than previous MAGA rallies since the election. A police officer I talked with Wednesday said it was thousands larger than those rallies, but he added it was way smaller than the summer’s protests. If it was smaller, why did it get out of control?

Yet nothing was done. And in the aftermath some republicans, MAGA supporters and neo-nazi’s are attempting to warp reality to blame “Antifa” for the violence and destruction. The FBI says there is no evidence to support those claims. As someone who wandered the crowd and has attend protests, I saw no counterprotesters much less antifa.

At 5:10 p.m., I listened to a man on a megaphone yell:

“This is the first time in two hundred years that we've taken an American building, but Trump is asking us not to be Antifa.” Go home he said.

But they aren’t going home. That’s the mistake Republicans made. They tapped into a anti-democratic source of power focused on preserving white power to hold onto their own political power. Now they are looking down the monster’s mouth. Now we all are looking down the monsters mouth. It is far from over.


Taking police out of mental health 911 calls

Taking police out of mental health 911 calls

Because marijuana remains subject to federal prohibitions, some patients find their medication financially out of reach even in states that have legalized it.

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Every day that Janet van der Laak drives between car dealerships in her sales job, she keeps size 12 shoes, some clothes and a packed lunch — a PB&J sandwich, fruit and a granola bar — beside her in case she sees her 27-year-old son on the streets.

“Jito, come home,” she always tells him, using a Spanish endearment. There he can have a bed and food, but her son, Matt Vinnola, rarely returns home. If he does, it is temporary. The streets are easier for him. Home can be too peaceful.

But the same streets that give Vinnola comfort are also unsafe for a man battling dual demons of drug use and chronic paranoid schizophrenia.

But soon, he might encounter mental health professionals on the street instead of cops. Denver is one of at least eight cities considering an Oregon program called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets to decriminalize and improve the treatment of people with severe mental illness — while saving the city money. The 30-year-old CAHOOTS program diverts nonviolent, often mental health-related 911 calls to a medic and a mental health professional instead of law enforcement.

Denver police and community service providers visited Eugene, Ore., in May to shadow CAHOOTS teams. Denver police officials said they are considering the model as an option to push beyond their existing co-responder program that sends mental health professionals on about six 911 calls a day.

Over 8 million people struggle with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder in America, and an estimated 40 percent of people diagnosed with schizophrenia go untreated

Over 8 million people struggle with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder in America, and an estimated 40 percent of people diagnosed with schizophrenia go untreated, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit focused on mental health. Individuals with those illnesses often lose the ability to realize their deficits, creating a roadblock in accessing care and attending medical or court appointments.

Janet van der Laak

Low-level offenses can land those with paranoia, hallucinations or a reduced ability to communicate, like Vinnola, in the criminal justice system. An estimated 383,000 people with severe mental illness are behind bars nationwide, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, while only a tenth of that number are in state hospitals.

The push to rethink safety

Since the 2018 publication of a Wall Street Journal article about CAHOOTS, calls have poured into its organizers from officials in Los Angeles; Oakland, Calif.; New York; Vancouver, Wash.; and Portland, Ore., among others.


The Eugene CAHOOTS team shows up in work boots, jeans and T-shirts — and without police officers — in response to 911 calls diverted to the program.


“That difference in uniforms can assist folks with letting their guard down and being open to accepting the help that is being offered,” said Tim Black, the Eugene CAHOOTS’ operations coordinator.


“That difference in uniforms can assist folks with letting their guard down and being open to accepting the help that is being offered"

For people with a history of volatile arrests often while in mental health crisis, this could make treatment more accessible, less traumatic and safer. One in 4 deaths from police shootings represent people with mental illness, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.


Vinnie Cervantes, the organizing director for Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, believes using medics and mental health professionals as response teams means treating people with dignity.

“There are plenty of fantastic officers, as people, but they have their roles enforcing a system that has been violent, that has been racist, that has been dehumanizing"

“There are plenty of fantastic officers, as people, but they have their roles enforcing a system that has been violent, that has been racist, that has been dehumanizing,” Cervantes said.


Van der Laak said she thinks her son would be more willing to accept treatment if police were not part of the intervention in his mental health crises. She worries that his delayed responses to commands and difficulty answering cops will be perceived as defiance and escalate into an arrest — or worse.

Giving voice to her son

After van der Laak’s son was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2014, her everyday gaze shifted from the city skyscrapers and Colorado blue sky to the people living on Denver’s streets. It’s hard for her to pretend they don’t exist. That would mean her son doesn’t exist.


She doesn’t understand how people do it — walk by her son as if he’s just a tree, or nothing, even when his bare feet are bloody, his clothes torn and his face visibly dehydrated, all visible signs of Vinnola fighting his internal battle with schizophrenia.


“His brain just doesn’t work like yours and mine,” she said.


Vinnola’s mother said her son is not a danger to anyone other than himself, but many people associate mental illness with violence. People with severe mental illness are more than 10 times more likely to be victims of a violent crime than the general population, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Vinnola agreed to be interviewed for this article but was unable to answer questions for more than a few minutes. His answers were fragmented and short. He struggled to understand the questions. Van der Laak said he answers the same way in the courtroom.


Van der Laak is outspoken for her son, calling herself his advocate and voice. She attends his court dates, toting legal and medical paperwork in a thick manila folder. He might not attend, but she won’t miss a chance to speak up against a justice system she sees as incapable of being responsible for her son’s treatment.

“It’s critical that I’m there. Because if I am not, they will railroad him and he will end up in jail for long periods of time,” she said. “And that’s not where he needs to be.”


Dr. Sasha Rai, director of behavioral health at the Denver County Jail, said a person in a mental health crisis needs to be in a more therapeutic place for treatment than jail. To him, the biggest obstacles to care for the people he treats in jail are a lack of stable housing and the stigma of mental illness.


“If you were sick with cancer, they’re not going to stick you in jail for 84 days until they find a place to get you care,” van der Laak added, referring to when her son spent over two months in jail in 2017 awaiting one of the 455 beds in the state’s mental health hospital after being arrested for violating probation.

“If you were sick with cancer, they’re not going to stick you in jail for 84 days until they find a place to get you care,”

A burden lifted

The Eugene Police Department uses its CAHOOTS staff for more than mental health calls. They deliver death notices across the city, hand out water bottles and socks to people living on the streets, and take after-hours community medical referrals. The staff offers those services to the city for half the cost of a police officer.


Nationally, police officers carry the brunt of responding to mental health issues. In 2017, law enforcement agencies spent $918 million transporting people with severe mental illness, according to a 2019 survey from the Treatment Advocacy Center. It also estimated that officers spend 21 percent of their time responding to and transferring people for mental health issues.

“Our police officers try the best they can, but they are not mental health professionals,” said Eugene Police Lt. Ron Tinseth.

In 2017, Eugene diverted 17 percent of an estimated 130,000 calls to its CAHOOTS teams. This freed up Eugene police officers to respond to higher-level emergencies.


Like many police departments, Denver is feeling the pressure of mental health issues. From July 2018 to July 2019, the department said, it received 15,915 mental health-related calls, almost a 9 percent increase from its annual average over three years.


To enact a program like CAHOOTS, the Denver Police Department would have to iron out details such as insurance to cover responders and partnerships with local nonprofits that offer services like sobering-up shelters, medical care and substance-abuse counseling.


Lisa Raville, executive director of Denver’s Harm Reduction Action Center, a Denver nonprofit focused on helping those who use drugs, asserts that the power of a CAHOOTS program lies in its community relationships and the ability of first responders to simply ask, “How can I support you today?”


“And then you can do it. Maybe it can be possible. Maybe this person can find some sort of safety,” she said. “We all deserve that.”


Until then, when van der Laak’s son is on the streets, she uses Facebook and her neighbors to keep track of him. She gives store clerks near the streets he chooses to live on her phone number in the hope they will call her to pick up her son during a crisis, not 911.


First seen in NBC News for Kaiser Health News, republished in The Denver PostColorado SunU.S. NewsSpectrumYahooChicago TribuneThe Daily SentinelCalifornia Health LineHerald PublicistBend BulletinRichmond Times-DispatchOmaha World-HeraldHerald Mail MediaBakersfield CalifornianThe Virgin Islands Daily NewsThe MightyWausau Pilot & ReviewGazetteXtraMSN, and The Gilmer Mirror among others.


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A 4/20 Tale of two countries

Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, notwithstanding comparable usage rates. The increasing number of states legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana has not reduced national trends in racial disparities, which remain unchanged since 2010.


Eaten up by the system

An interview with the journalist behind the new podcast “Through the Cracks” on how racism and the justice system impacted a 8-year-old D.C. Black girl’s

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Beyond Bars

Photos by Rikki Devlin

Beyond Bars

Flathead public defenders provide lasting solutions to incarceration 

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Virginia “Tiny” Charlo is technically a Salish princess. The maroon grizzly paw that covers the top of her left wrist — the outline inked in jail by a sharpened staple — pays tribute to her great grandfather Chief Charlo of the Salish Tribe.

The paw was filled with a muted maroon at a real tattoo shop in Missoula after she was released from jail in 2011 for a felony DUI charge. Despite stifling her screams as the staple poked her wrist bone, Charlo couldn’t stand the pain of her jail tattoo after the solid outline.

Charlo’s grizzly paw is her only tattoo not rooted to a past relationship. It’s one of her favorites. The rest of her tattoos stand as reminders of physically abusive partners.

When Charlo is tempted to do “bad things,” she thinks of her case manager, Susette Billedeaux, sitting on her shoulder and giving her advice.

These are the things that could break her sobriety or probation, prolong her driver’s license revocation, keep her away from her beadwork and family, and ruin her dream of owning a house with walls covered in painted mountains, streaming water and Native American art. But not real water, she is quick to point out.

Even when Billedeaux is not physically around, Charlo can hear her voice telling her to do the right thing, and she listens to it. Charlo met Billedeaux in 2016 through the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ (CSKT) Tribal Defenders Office, where tribal members are provided a public defender.

While in jail on charges of driving with a revoked license in 2016, Charlo heard about the re-entry program that the CSKT tribal defenders offered. After jail release, she entered the program when she returned to the Flathead Indian Reservation. It was a turning point in a lifelong struggle with alcoholism and trauma that caught Charlo in a continuous cycle of drinking-related offenses.

The funding for the re-entry program ended last year, and its future is uncertain.

Unlike most public defender’s offices in America, CSKT’s Tribal Defenders Office combines social workers and legal attorneys in a single office to address the underlying causes of clients’ criminal activity to keep them out of jail.

This model follows traditional indigenous beliefs which focus on the person instead of their crime. Most public defender’s offices in America concentrate on their clients’ courtroom appearances – they do not offer services beyond legal defense.

The CSKT tribal defenders address the issues that can lead to arrests including poverty, mental health, addiction, housing problems, cultural disconnection, and historical trauma through multiple unique programs.

They are the only office in Montana, and one of 24 in the nation, practicing this model of public defense. It is a “holistic model,” that the New York Bronx Defenders pioneered in the 1990s to tackle the issues that push people into the criminal justice system.

The tribal defenders’ frustration with their clients continuing to show up in court inspired them to look for solutions in 2008 for outside factors that contribute to criminal behavior. This eventually led them to apply for technical assistance in 2011 from the Bronx Defenders, which they received.

This model of defense gained recognition in 2017 when Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed a bill establishing a state program that will directly mimic the “holistic model” of the CSKT Tribal Defenders Office.

Ann Miller, the managing attorney of the Tribal Defenders Office and Charlo’s attorney, calls Charlo her superstar. When Charlo entered the re-entry program in 2016, she was struggling with a life-long alcohol addiction that started when she was 15 years old.

She never remembers the desire to drink, but she does remember wanting to fit in and be accepted. At 16 years old Charlo became involved in a physically abusive relationship with a man 18 years her senior. He moved her to Great Falls where he kept her locked in an apartment with their daughter while she was pregnant.

She used alcohol to deal with the trauma. “I was always drinking to try to forget,” she said.

To escape that abusive relationship, Charlo stabbed the man with a butcher knife. She remembers jumping into her car and peeling out so fast from a parking lot she thought her car would crash.

She drove pregnant on an empty gas tank in her Toyota station wagon until her car ran out of gas right below Rogers Pass. She waited in the dark summer night with her daughter in the back seat for her brother and mother to arrive in a van to pick her up. She cried the whole way back to the Flathead reservation.

“I thought I’d killed him with the butcher knife,” Charlo said. She did not. But it was the beginning of decades of abusive relationships.

Charlo’s history is typical of women convicted of crimes in Montana.

Statewide and nationally, female incarceration rates are increasing faster than for men according to the Montana Department of Corrections 2017 report. “Women’s involvement in the legal system frequently begins with personal histories that include trauma, poverty, lack of educational opportunities, addictions and mental health concerns,” it stated. In Montana’s Women’s Prison, more than 75 percent of women had criminal behavior linked to one or more of these factors.

Native Americans are also overrepresented in Montana’s prison population according to a study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in 2017. Native Americans represent under 7 percent of Montana’s population but account for 17 percent of Montana’s adult prison population.

The study also found that drug arrests which are most often linked to substance abuse issues, are one of the leading causes of incarceration. Arrests for drug offenses increased by 62 percent in Montana from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2015.

Virginia "Tiny" Charlo (right), 57, has been in the criminal justice system for 38 years. She began working with the Salish & Kootenai Tribal Defender's Office in 2016. She says that she has been sober and out of prison thanks to Susette Billedeaux (left) and the rest of the caring staff.

Both physical abuse and DUIs have persisted throughout Charlo’s life. The abuse started with her mother and continued onto six abusive relationships with men including two marriages. At 19 years old, Charlo got her first DUI charge. She was 56 when she was charged with her last DUI. Charlo has collected 13 driving under the influence convictions over the last four decades in Washington and Montana.

She spent six months in Montana’s WATCh program, a residential felony DUI treatment program, after a DUI charge in 2011. It was her fourth DUI in recent years, and she was sent to the treatment program instead of prison. She stayed sober for almost three years after graduating the program, but eventually relapsed.

A few years later, in 2016, Charlo was charged with her most recent DUI. The cops pulled her over a block away from home one night. She was trying to drive a stray cat away from her home after her mother, in her late eighties, tripped over it. She failed to use a turn signal at a stop sign. She said her blood alcohol level was barely over the legal limit, and she was still on probation from a previous DUI.

She remembers trying to hold together the tear in her nightgown with her cuffed hands while the cops arrested her. It was her fifth DUI, and she faced prison time or another six months in the WATCh program.

But Charlo’s recent enrollment in the tribal defenders’ re-entry program in 2016 before this DUI, allowed her to serve her sentence without leaving home. She is nearly halfway through her probation sentence from that night.

Before enrolling in the re-entry program, Charlo pushed through court appearances and sentences to simply be able to drink again. The support provided by tribal defenders helped change her outlook. Charlo has been sober for almost two years.

“When my mom passed away, I didn’t want to be brought back in shackles,” Charlo said.

The majority of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes government buildings sit within walking distance of each other off of Highway 93. The tribal council building holds council every Tuesday and Thursday.

The holistic model adapted by the CSKT tribal defenders represents a more traditional tribal viewpoint of justice according to Maylinn Smith, the co-director of the Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic at the University of Montana. She also represents tribal members in CSKT court in civil cases and has served as a chief tribal judge in Utah.

“They are a tribe I view as going back to that traditional model,” Smith said. She describes the defenders approach to public defense as providing “wrap around services” for the client.

“It is less punitive, more restorative justice,” Smith said. “Looking at how can you address those underlying issues that get them into the system, how can you address the impacts of historical trauma, how can you address the addiction issues that may impact them, because of that trauma that they have experienced.”

She compares their methods to restituition instead of retribution. She thinks their model can create systemic postive changes in tribal communities and restore customs and traditions.

Virginia "Tiny" Charlo helps take care of her mother in Arlee, Montana. She lives in a small trailer outside her mother's home with her German Shepard, Peja.

The tribal court on the Flathead reservation was established in the early 1950s and today sits next to the tribal jail in Pablo amid CSKT’s other government buildings. As  sovereign nations, Native American tribes can create their own justice systems depending on what they can afford.

Because they lack the funds to create their own justice system, many tribes rely on the federal government to enforce justice on reservations. Tribal judicial systems are limited to prosecuting only tribal members in tribal court — even if a non-tribal member commits a crime on the Flathead reservation, the tribe has no jurisdiction.

The tribal defenders are able to adopt a holistic model of defense because they have more liberty to change and room for growth within a tribal government than a typical overloaded state public defender’s office.

The CSKT judicial system handles misdemeanor charges within the reservation bounds of all registered tribal members, and the courts in surrounding state counties often prosecute the felony charges of tribal members.

“I think it is a wise use of resources to attack these problems in the way that [Miller] is,” said James Lapotka, the head criminal prosecutor in Lake County who prosecutes tribal members for felony drug charges.

“My job at its absolute base level is: I read police reports about probably the worst days of some people’s lives and I judge them off of a report of the worst day of their life,” Lapotka said. This method cannot address the issues in a defendant’s life or avoid negatively affecting positive things in their lives like jobs and housing stability.

“It is very easy to treat people like numbers and to focus on this specific criminal conduct that brought them into court,” Lapotka said. He said that a court can handle a drug crime for half the cost in the long run by putting an offender into an addiction treatment plan instead of jail.

“The best way to do that is maybe not to focus on that one really bad day of their life and give them some support on the things that they need,” Lapotka said.

Miller agreed:

“Our method of addressing our clients’ issues, is part of the solution to an overcrowded criminal justice system,” she said.

According to a 2017 study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, Montana’s jail population rose almost 70 percent from 2011 to 2013, causing overcrowding across the state including in and around the Flathead reservation.

The defenders’ office works on an open-door policy and anyone can walk in with a question, whether it is about a warrant, driver’s license, eviction, or child custody issue.

This is the office where Charlo regularly checks in.

“These guys are my antidepressants,” Charlo said. To her, the tribal defenders helped her stay sober and out of jail.

With a recently adopted blind German Shepherd attached to one hip and her three-year-old grandson attached to the other, a smile absorbed Charlo’s cheeks. She talked about the success she feels she has reached with the defenders’ help. Success to her means no longer wanting to drink.

“I am not gonna say I’m living for my grandkids because everything I am doing is for myself,” Charlo said as her bashful grandson buried his head in her lap.

The re-entry program that Charlo went through in 2016 ran out of its main funding when a two-year federal grant expired. Parts of the program are still being strung along as the defenders wait to see if they receive grant funding in the fall of 2018.

The re-entry program has helped almost 300 tribal members returning to the reservation from jail or prison.

The tribal defenders’ re-entry program is tackling the numbers of tribal members who break the law after returning to the reservation from jail. Sixty-six percent of people released from prison did not return to prison within three years of their release in Montana, according to the 2017 Montana Department of Corrections biennial report.

The tribal defenders define recidivism more narrowly than the state, as any legal conviction, not just reincarceration. In the first year of serving clients through the re-entry program, over 64 percent of people in the program were not convicted for any crime.

Miller said this data suggests the defenders are on track to meet the same, or better, recidivism rates than the state of Montana. The defenders view their program as successful because the clients were lifetime repeat offenders prior to entering the re-entry program.

Desiree Fox, the defenders’ psychologist, said sometimes a person’s upbringing makes them more susceptible and visible to the criminal justice system.

“They do end up coming back to this community [from incarceration] so why wouldn’t we want to help them be successful,” she said. The psychology services that she offers to clients in the defenders’ office is unique to the holistic model of defense they practice. Clients who are being legally represented by attorneys can access mental health care in the same building.

Virginia "Tiny" Charlo has battled with alcoholism for over 40 years. On April 23, 2018 she stands in front of her trailer in Arlee, Montana. She has been sober for over 18 months and says that for the first time she knows in her heart that she will never drink again.

As Charlo restores her life, she wants to start to bead again. A large beaded bald eagle covers the back of her leather jacket. She explains how she made it while running her fingers over its raised yellow beak and white shiny feathers pieced together by sesame seed sized beads.

“I made up my mind when these guys started helping me,” Charlo said of the tribal defenders. She has relied on their services the past few years as she faced trauma and addiction problems.

A huge part of the tribal defenders’ practice is simply advocating for their clients outside of the courtroom with housing authorities, driver’s license issues and other stakeholders within the Flathead reservation’s community. They host community outreach events to show how the criminal justice system is not necessarily set up for positive change with their clients and how it can criminalize mental illness and addiction, Miller said.

“In order to advocate for them, we need to tell their stories because our clients are more than they are accused of,” Miller said. She believes the way the defenders use an all-encompassing approach allows them to understand the historical and cumulative trauma affecting a client and how resilient they are to survive it.

“The holistic defense practice is trying to build on people’s strengths and their right to live their lives in the context of their families and the context of their culture and community,” Miller said.

The years of abuse Charlo endured imprinted upon her that she was “nobody.” The support of the tribal defenders went beyond the services they offered her. They believed in rehabilitating her life despite decades of repeat criminal charges.

Everytime Charlo was feeling down, she came into the office, not to talk to anyone, but just to sit in one of the green waiting room chairs as people filtered in and out. Everything would lift off her as she sat there. After, she would walk out of the office and everything was okay.

“They have faith in me. I learned to have faith in myself,” she said.


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At the crossroads

At the crossroads

Violence behind the bars of Montana’s only private prison

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

WHEN William Allen returned to the Crossroads Correctional Center (CCC) in 2009 from a California prison, he was shocked by what he found: religious restrictions on sweat lodges and retaliation for speaking out against prison administration. Two cavities abscessed when Allen was forced to wait months for dental treatment, he said, and the correctional officers no longer acted respectfully to the inmates.


But what jolted him most was the violence.


Soon after he arrived, he said, he was pulled from his cell late at night to fight with the prison employees. “You know when you’re going down into that intake cell, and there’s gonna be three to four [prison guards] in that cell and you’re going to have to do your thing,” he said. “They would technically just jump you.”


Allen, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, was accustomed to conflict with guards, since he had spent most of his life behind bars. He entered the tangled web of the legal system in California when he was just 10 years old. He grew up in what he calls an outlaw family, surrounded by violence and drugs, and started his first stint in prison in 1982, at the age of 22. He spent years in San Quentin and Pelican Bay, two of the most violent high-security prisons in California. Then Allen was convicted of an armed robbery in 1994, and he was transferred to CCC in 1999.


Allen was one of the first prisoners in CCC, Montana’s shiny new private prison in Shelby, owned by CoreCivic. He said it was a good prison in 1999. CCC did everything by the book, from treating inmates with respect to offering vocational programs and trade school in carpentry.


But when he returned in 2009, the prison was a completely different place. “It was really good for a long time, and then once it headed south, it just kept on going.”


Allen’s allegations of what life was like in CoreCivic’s prison may seem shocking, but his experiences echo recent lawsuits against CoreCivic’s and concerns  raised by the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) of Montana, which led to a 2016 state audit of the prison. But in the two years since, it doesn’t seem that much has improved for the inmates locked away in Montana’s sole private prison.

Originally called Corrections Corporations of America (CCA), CoreCivic was the first private American prison company. Founded in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1983, it led the for-profit prison boom in the 1980s and 1990s, as America’s incarcerated population exploded. These facilities promised a cost-effective solution to an expensive problem: tough-on-drugs policies and an increased reliance on incarceration as a form of punishment meant that more Americans were going to prison, and they were spending more time behind bars for their crimes than ever before.


These policies have led to a rather unwelcome accomplishment. The United States incarcerates 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons, the largest percentage of its own citizens of any country. Private prisons hold more than 8 percent of all American prisoners, and between 2000 and 2016, the number of prisoners in private facilities increased five times faster than the total incarcerated population.


CoreCivic has grown steadily and expanded to immigration detention centers, a sector of the company that has grown since 2016. Today, CoreCivic is the second-largest private prison company in the U.S. behind the GEO Group. Together, these corporations manage more than half of the private prison contracts in the country, with combined revenues of $3.5 billion. CoreCivic alone owns 45 secure correctional facilities and manages nine others, as well as 24 residential reentry facilities, and has reported annual revenues of around $1.77 billion since 2013.


The federal government and 27 states use private prisons, with New Mexico and Montana leading the nation in their reliance on them. New Mexico houses 43 percent of its prisoners in private facilities, with Montana close behind at 39 percent.


Montana began flirting with the private prison industry in 1996, shortly before a Montana inmate incarcerated in a Texas private prison was beaten to death, and while Allen and other inmates from Montana were being shuffled from Texas to Tennessee. CoreCivic won the contract and built the private prison in Shelby, Montana, despite local residents’ fears of escaped inmates.


By 1999, when Allen and other convicts had arrived to make the new prison home, the dying town of Shelby—best known for its old neon signs, glowing fields of barley and wheat and proximity to the wonders of Glacier National Park—had accepted the economic promises of Montana’s first private prison.


The town of 3,212 people now houses almost 700 state and federal inmates in a concrete-and-barbed-wire compound that occupies a bluff overlooking Shelby. A white water tower watches over both three-winged buildings that house the inmates, the word Shelby scrawled boldly in red across its side.

CoreCivic was founded on the premise of solving tough government challenges in cost-effective ways, according to Damon T. Hininger, CCC’s president and chief executive officer, in a 2016 press release. Despite such promises, civil rights groups have challenged the idea of for-profit prisons ever since they appeared in the mid-1980s, because the perceived conflict of interest between making money for shareholders and caring for inmates often results in poor inmate care.


Since 1998, the U.S. Justice Department, civil rights groups and the media have investigated CoreCivic and its facilities for a litany of alleged improprieties, including spates of excessive violence, poorly trained and inadequate numbers of gaurds, poor food and lack of medical care. CCC is no exception, and has come under scrutiny for its practices since the year William Allen was transferred there in 2009.


The ACLU of Montana, for instance, filed a class action lawsuit against the Shelby facility in 2009 for religious discrimination against Native Americans attempting to practice sweat lodge ceremonies. Allen, who was part of the class action lawsuit, said he sweat every weekend when he was first held in CCC from 1999 to 2004. When he returned in 2009, the tone of the administration had changed.


The guards would simply not call prisoners out of their cells when sweats were planned. Allen said they would blame it on fire danger, but often it seemed they simply did not have enough staff to allow the ceremonies to take place. He said that he was denied herbs necessary for the ceremonies and prison staff showed spiritual elders so much disrespect they stopped coming.


“For ceremonies to be disrespected and treated in the manner they are, it generates an undercurrent of animosity,” Allen said. The sweat lodge ceremonies are the Native inmates’ church, he said. The denial of these ceremonies was the most difficult part of the final years Allen spent incarcerated at CCC.


Amanda Gilchrist, director of public affairs for CoreCivic, said in a late November 2018 email that these claims are “patently false.” But a May 2009 report by a Montana Department of Corrections (MDOC) investigation team confirmed many of the allegations in the class action suit, including that “sweats have been canceled due to cold weather and lack of CCC staffing.”


Shortly after the ACLU of Montana’s 2009 lawsuit against CoreCivic in Montana, the national arm of the ACLU sued the company in Idaho over the level of violence between inmates in the Idaho Correctional Center, a prison that was called the “Gladiator School” by the Idaho inmates. The lawsuit named 23 separate inmate plaintiffs who had suffered beatings from other inmates with little to no correctional officer intervention and inadequate medical care after the assaults. In the lawsuit, the ACLU alleged that violence was “entirely preventable and was the result of deliberate indifference by ICC staff.”


The suit detailed serious injuries, guards cleaning up blood for hours after assaults and refusal of medical care after the beatings occurred. It claimed most of these assault victims were sex offenders who received threats before the assaults and were refused help after attempting to gain protection from prison staff.


CoreCivic firmly denied the allegations and settled the case in 2011. The state of Idaho took over the prison in 2014. In 2017, a federal jury found the company had violated the settlement agreement. An FBI investigation into the chronic understaffing of the Idaho facility found that employee records had been forged. However, the FBI declined to press charges because the evidence did not suggest criminal intent and was attributed to low-level employees.


The “Gladiator School” prison controversy in Idaho sparked concern in the Montana Legislature about the state’s own CoreCivic prison. A federal audit of CCC was considered, but the Legislature chose a state audit of the prison instead. CoreCivic lobbyists opposed this contract compliance audit in 2016. The state audit of the prison was performed in the fall of 2016. The prison passed, but the audit said that the MDOC “should enhance its oversight, particularly in the areas of security staffing, health services and food service.”


Since the audit in 2016, the MDOC Quality Assurance Office has conducted two annual license inspections of CCC. It found issues with counting inmates and the internal grievance process by which inmates file complaints. The inspections also found issues with dental care provided by the facility in 2016 and issues with the CCC’s food contractor in 2017. All of these issues were required to be addressed by CCC before the contract license could be renewed.


CCC is accredited by outside agencies, including the American Correctional Association (ACA) and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC). ACA’s and NCCHC’s most recent on-site reviews were conducted early in 2018, and according to the MDOC, the last state health inspection of CCC was in March 2017. The prison passed all accreditations and no deficiencies in medical services were found.

The violence at private prisons is often correlated with inadequate staff training and short staffing, like that of the Idaho “Gladiator School” prison. The largest continuous expense for private prison companies is staffing, said Alex Friedmann, a private prison researcher, reporter and advocate who was incarcerated in a CoreCivic facility in the 1990s. Private prison companies like CoreCivic pay less and offer less training and benefits to their staff than government-run prisons, and they understaff facilities by leaving positions vacant as long as possible, Friedmann said.


Seven former and current CCC inmates said they experienced issues with understaffing in the last ten years. Two former CCC employees said they experienced understaffing, and both said they experienced a tactic called double-booking, where a case worker or an education teacher will be scheduled to work two jobs on the same day: their usual job, and as a correctional officer. One person cannot work both jobs at once. Often, the employee worked the prison floor as an officer while leaving his/her other position vacant.


An FBI investigation into the Idaho prison in 2013 found that CoreCivic used similar practices reported by CCC inmates to understaff the prison.


The employment practices of private prisons result in high turnover rates and greater instability, which in turn result in more violence, Friedmann said. Rape, murders, riots and violence occur in all correctional facilities, but “they tend to be more prevalent in private facilities because of the business model, because of the staffing issues,” Friedmann said.


A 2018 Prison Rape Elimination Act audit of CCC said the prison was understaffed, and other CoreCivic employees from facilities around the country have to travel to fill its positions. The company pays for employees to stay in a hotel in Shelby, because it cannot staff the prison with local employees. The prison is now working with 35 fewer staff members in 2018 than in 2015, despite around the same number of federal and state inmates being incarcerated at the facility.


Friedmann said the lack of transparency and oversight of private prisons around the U.S. allows cutting corners. In Montana, the private-prison model relies on the on-site reporting by a state contractor, who oversees staffing, inmate grievances and other requirements. But the contractor is usually a former employee of CoreCivic that worked at CCC prior to MDOC employment. A 2016 state audit expressed concern about the ability of MDOC to provide oversight, because “the department relies, to some extent, on the contractor to self-report issues with staffing.” In March 2018, MDOC added a full-time investigator to the prison in response to concerns.


Private prisons also do not have to follow the same open records laws as public prisons. The private operation of the prisons prevents them from falling under government transparency laws, even if they provide a public service, Friedmann said. The number of violent incidents at the CCC facility is anyone’s guess, because they are not publicly reported.


“Private prisons go to great lengths in order to keep prison information from civil liberties groups,” said SK Rossi, the ACLU of Montana advocacy and policy director, “including going as far as to tamper with legal mail and monitor the mail that is going in and out of their facilities.”


Rossi said the CCC prison is not being run at the same standard as a state facility. “Our biggest concern is that we have multiple reports of understaffing and violence occurring at that facility. We also have multiple reports of inadequate medical care, and in some case medical care that has been denied completely.”


The ACLU of Montana received 18 complaints from January to August 2018 about the CCC facility. The letters included seven complaints detailing medical care issues, four about prison conditions and three concerning correctional officers.


Rossi said the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, which means the government should not be allowed to mistreat people simply because they have been convicted of a crime.


“If you are going to deprive human beings of their liberty because they have committed a crime, that is one thing. But if you’re going to put them in prison, you are going to be responsible for taking care of them and treating them as human beings and not as animals,” Rossi said.


CoreCivic refused a request to tour CCC for this article, and Gilchrist maintains that, “any allegation that we compromise inmate care for any reason is baseless and ignores the high-quality services CoreCivic provides.”


Still, the lawsuits against CoreCivic nationwide continue to pile up, topping the 1,200 mark by 2010.

Incarceration limits inmates’ abilities to advocate for themselves and seek redress about prison conditions. Grievances, which are paper complaints filed by prisoners, must make it through four stages of internal prison review before they can make it to a public court. CCC has been accused by multiple inmates of not responding to grievances or improperly addressing them.


Caitlin Boland Aarab, a defense attorney who provides legal counsel for several inmates in Shelby, said she hears many complaints from her clients about prison conditions. She said prisoners face an almost insurmountable number of legal barriers to a successful filing of a Section 1983 lawsuit, named for the Civil Rights Act of 1871, that allows people to sue the government for civil rights violations.


Prisoners have no legal help navigating the internal grievance process within the prison, and the requirements can be complex, Boland Aarab said. “So they have to jump through all these hoops in the prison and do them all perfectly, in order to even be entitled to a lawsuit,” she said.


If the case makes it past further legal hurdles to a jury, the mistake must be proved “unreasonable” at the time it was committed by prison staff. The prison facing the lawsuit will have a lawyer. The prisoner suing the prison will not.


“If you even get to a jury with a 1983 case, let alone win, you have one hell of a case,” Boland Aarab said. Even legitimate claims that should be addressed rarely see the light of day, she said.


Ray Carpenter waited until he was released and sued the prison four months later, in July 2018. He sued for damages related to a beating he suffered from another inmate that was followed by a lack of adequate medical care in 2016. His lawsuit is similar to the cases described in the ACLU’s 2010 class action lawsuit filed against the Idaho “Gladiator School.”


According to the lawsuit, Carpenter was beaten in his cell by another inmate for more than five minutes without any prison staff intervention. He began puking; his cellmate helped him to his bunk. He was eventually cleared to go to the medical treatment center in the prison later that night.


When Carpenter arrived after vomiting and blacking out repeatedly, he was minimally treated and told to rest. He vomited for five days while in the prison’s medical unit before being transferred to a hospital in Great Falls. He immediately underwent brain surgery for a hematoma and skull damage. While in surgery, a brain bleed was discovered.


Judy Beck, communications director for MDOC, responded in an email about a September 2018 inmate assault that these types of criminal behaviors happen in all correctional facilities. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the resources in any facility to keep everyone watched at all times. We continue to review major incidents to find any areas that can be improved upon,” Beck said.


This is small consolation for Carpenter, who is suing the prison, the medical provider and individual staff members for sustained symptoms such as headaches, memory loss, impaired vision and trouble concentrating.


Eight other current and former inmates reported issues of violence at CCC since 2009, including lack of staff response, poor medical treatment following assaults and refusal to listen to inmates attempting to avoid conflict with each other.


Lawsuits have recently been filed around the country concerning violence and lack of medical treatment at CoreCivic facilities. A widow sued the company in March 2018 for wrongful death after her husband died following an assault in a CoreCivic facility in Tennessee. In August, a lawsuit was filed against the company for denying insulin to diabetic prisoners in Tennessee.


Back in Montana, the state is investigating a September 2018 assault at CCC that is similar to Carpenter’s. Nathan Lake, 33, was beaten so badly he was released on medical parole while still in a coma a month after the assault.


The state of Montana decided to extend CoreCivic’s contract around the time Carpenter filed his lawsuit. CoreCivic’s contract with MDOC was up for renewal in 2019. The ACLU of Montana was an outspoken opponent of extending the contract, citing multiple complaints about prison conditions that it receives from inmates on a weekly basis. Despite the advocacy of civil rights groups, inmates and their families, and some legislators, Montana Governor Steve Bullock extended CCC’s contract with the state in July 2018.


The governor did not offer the ten-year contract extension CoreCivic wanted. Instead, he agreed to extend the contract for two years in exchange for $34 million, which had been held by CoreCivic in a “buy-back” account to fund the state’s purchase of the prison when the contract ends. The CCC contract with MDOC will be up for renewal again in 2021. The contract between CoreCivic and the MDOC was still being finalized in November 2018.


The ACLU of Montana accused CoreCivic of leveraging the state’s budget crisis to receive the contract extension. Housing inmates is expensive. According to the MDOC, Montana State Prison is over capacity and could not safely house the 570 inmates that CCC now holds. “Without the additional capacity Crossroads provides, the state would need to build another secure facility, approved and funded by the Legislature,” Beck wrote in an email.


Why not build its own facility, or take over CCC? Because Montana currently pays $73.87 per inmate per day at CCC compared to $109.27 at the state prison. That’s a savings of $35.40 per inmate per day, which amounts to about $9 million a year. For a cash-strapped state like Montana, that’s a whole lot of money.

Shortly after Montana extended the CoreCivic contract, Allen paroled out of CCC. When Allen walked through the gates on August 5, 2018, one day short of the anniversary of his return to prison 24 years earlier, he wasn’t exactly a free man. He still wore an ankle bracelet and had to report to his parole officer on a regular basis, but he no longer had to eat every meal in the chow hall or sleep in a cell.

Allen is 59 years old and will be on parole until he’s almost 70. He just reconnected on Facebook with a son he hasn’t seen since 1984. He is starting over for a third time in Montana, and this time he hopes it sticks. “Prison,” he said, “took me away from me.”

Since he left prison, he said he is like a kid in a candy shop.


“Every day is a new adventure,” Allen said, and he’s going to make the most of them. “Society makes it easy for corrections in any state to do what they want because no one cares… If this is the only shot I have at telling anybody that will listen to what’s going on, then I am going to take it.”


Allen works in a Goodwill warehouse. He loves his job, and it allows him to give back after the 37 years spent behind bars. In October 2018, his ankle bracelet was removed just in time for a Halloween costume party at the store.


Allen squeezed a vampire onesie over his tattooed muscular frame, covering the prison ink and scars that scrawl up his skin. A shock of black curly hair ran straight past his neck and sat naturally between his shoulder blades as he made wooden boats for the kids at the party.


How license suspensions become poverty traps

How license suspensions become poverty traps

the rabbit hole of minor tickets leading to excessive fines and even jail

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

For Nick Feistner, 28, a mechanic who lives outside Missoula, a forgotten $20 speeding ticket turned into a three-year stint of joblessness and homelessness. 

Four years ago, Feistner was stopped in St. Ignatius and ticketed for speeding. He failed to pay the fine and, three months later, got pulled over again, in Lake County, this time for not displaying a front license plate. That officer told him his license had been suspended, and Feistner was hit with almost $1,000 in tickets, including a $500 fine for driving with a suspended license.


He continued to work in Missoula for four months after that ticket, during which the burden of the fines caused him to fall behind on rent and lose his home. Meanwhile, the suspended license caused issues at work.

“I couldn’t test drive a car after I finished repairing it,” Feistner said.

He moved into a motorhome behind the shop and continued to work for three weeks before he found a Craigslist ad for a piece of land where he could live and work outside of Clinton. His own business, a mobile mechanic service providing roadside assistance, withered because he couldn’t drive to respond to calls.

“I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “I couldn’t work.”

License suspensions can carry huge consequences for people living far from work without access to adequate public transportation, according to Phil Telfeyan, the lead attorney in a civil action lawsuit brought against the state in August by Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. The suit claims the state is “running a wealth-based driver’s license suspension scheme that traps some of the state’s poorest residents in a cycle of poverty.”

Telfeyan says about 39 states have laws that suspend licenses for unpaid court debts.

“The consequences for a minor infraction … are different depending on your wealth status,” he says.

From October 2016 through September 2017, 739 people were cited for driving with suspended or revoked licenses in Missoula County, an increase of almost 67 percent over the same period in 2012-2013. Infractions such as failure to provide insurance at an accident, DUI convictions and falsifying information for a driver’s license can result in a license suspension, according to Montana’s Department of Motor Vehicles website. A failure to pay court-imposed fines or child support and failure to appear in court can also result in license suspensions.

Legally unable to drive in 2014, Feistner nonetheless drove from Missoula to Polson to appear in Lake County court. But he began to miss appointments and racked up three charges of failure to appear in court. The punishment for failure to appear is an indefinite driver’s license suspension.


Feistner was trapped in a cycle. He couldn’t legally drive to court appointments more than an hour from his home, which led to resuspension of his license, which forced him to drive illegally to Helena to pay his license reinstatement fees. So he finally stopped driving.

Feistner said his judges took a “tough luck” attitude toward his situation. Unable to commute to a job and earn money, Feistner fell behind on his child support payments.

“I wasn’t pulling my weight,” he says of those responsibilities, and after several years, he says, he “finally threw up my arms” this fall and started driving again to look for work. He decided he’d suffer the consequences if he was pulled over again with a suspended license.


Last month things changed. Feistner contacted Equal Justice Under Law after a friend sent him an article about the organization’s class action suit. Feistner contacted the attorneys, believing his license was still suspended. After giving them his case numbers, they discovered that his license had been reinstated, according to Telfeyan.


Feistner can now legally commute to work at the mechanic shop in Missoula, which re-hired him. He plans to revive his mobile repair business in January and hopes to move back to Missoula in the spring, four years after he first lost his license, his job and his home.


According to Missoula assistant municipal judge Sam Warren, the root of the issue is drivers who can’t afford the expense of owning a car. Warren says he often sees people in court with suspended licenses due to missed court appearances or unheeded traffic tickets.


“It tends to be a hole they get in and just keep digging,” Warren says.