D.C. Nonprofit launches housing program for returning citizens

D.C. Nonprofit launches housing program for returning citizens

A DC based nonprofit, “Who Speaks For Me?,” has launched a pilot housing initiative for five women and LGBTQ+ returning citizens

“Incarceration renders you homeless,” pronounced Taylar Nuevelle, founder of the nonprofit program Who Speaks For Me?: “for every moment you are in a halfway house, a jail, a prison, you are considered homeless.” 

Nuevelle, a returning citizen herself, founded Who Speaks For Me? (WSFM) to disrupt the Trauma-to-Prison Pipeline and assist returning citizens from marginalized communities in their reintegration into society. The organization announced the launch of its new pilot program, Housing For All, which will provide individual apartments to five returning women and LGBTQ+ citizens. WSFM seeks to aid returning citizens who are amongst groups that are disproportionately impacted by obstacles to housing.

In a press conference on Nov. 2, representatives from WSFM shared news of the program’s launch thanks to a grant from a private foundation. The program will begin this month, with WSFM funding the cost of five apartment rentals for a year. 

This launch is part of a broader five year plan, which consists of WSFM’s purchasing of four D.C. buildings, each containing six to eight units of housing to be allocated for free to returning citizens who are unable to pay. Others who are in the financial position to do so will pay a low fee. This housing will be permanent, and WSFM intends to expand the Housing For All program beyond DC in the long term. 

“Millions of people with conviction or arrest records are routinely denied access to a safe place to call home because of their involvement with the criminal-legal system.”

Diane Yentel, President and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition

Diane Yentel, President and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), delivered a report on the research that the Coalition has done on barriers to housing for justice-impacted people. Yentel explained that “millions of people with conviction or arrest records are routinely denied access to a safe place to call home because of their involvement with the criminal-legal system.” 

NLIHC has concluded that unless the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and Congress implement reforms for housing screening policies in addition to providing increased resources for accessible housing, increasing numbers of returning citizens will be left without access to housing due to nationwide efforts to reduce the prison population. 

Nuevelle reflected on her experience applying for a government housing voucher. She had been without permanent housing for a number of months, but it had not occurred to her until she was asked how long she had been homeless for that her time spent incarcerated also represented time she had spent without a home. In actuality, Nuevelle was homeless for five years. “When we are taking people and putting them in cages, there are so many collateral consequences,” she shared. 

The press conference included a panel discussion with returning citizens who have been impacted by the difficulty of finding housing. Some of the women had experienced difficulties with other housing programs, such as Kalynn Helton, a Local Facilitator for WSFM’s Sharing Our Stories Writing Group

Helton described her experiences with program facilitators going through her belongings as well as being housed with a roommate who was living in poor living conditions. Panelists also shared their experiences of substandard facilities within the Rapid Rehousing program. 

One panelist cited a lack of advocacy as a major issue facing returning citizens: “when you’re marginalized, those that have privilege will tell you that you should take whatever they give you.” Instead, WSFM wants to provide returning citizens with clean, independent living opportunities. 

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Shaking off the dust

The United States Sentencing Commission’s four year interruption has left the circuit court system in disarray and many incarcerated people waiting to hear back on appeals. Its first meeting addressed the list of priorities it will tackle including The First Step Act.

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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.

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Shaking off the dust

Shaking off the dust

The renewed Sentencing Commission has six months to amend years worth of outdated guidelines concerning the compassionate release of incarcerated individuals

The United States Sentencing Commission returned to business after four years without quorum. The slate of entirely new Commissioners, an “unusual” yet “exciting” position for a federal agency to find themselves in, unanimously voted on Friday, Oct. 28, on the adoption of a list of priorities to be submitted to the federal register. Among these priorities are, crucially, the implementation of the First Step Act 2018 into the sentencing guidelines. 

The United States Sentencing Commission is a bipartisan judicial agency responsible for establishing and amending sentencing guidelines. With various circuit courts interpreting the guidelines as binding law, the Commission heavily impacts the state of nationwide criminal justice and sentencing reform. The Commission’s four year interruption has left the circuit court system in disarray. 

The most novel and important feature of the First Step Act 2018 was the allowance of incarcerated individuals to submit their own motions to the courts for compassionate release, without relying on the Bureau of Prisons to do so. This was a watershed moment in the history of sentencing reform; during the COVID pandemic, nearly 4,000 inmates were able to successfully apply for release. However, as the Act was never reflected in updated sentencing guidelines, judges in some circuit courts neglected to apply the guidelines to cases of compassionate release filed by individuals. 

The meeting began with a jolting reminder of the work that has to be done: the adoption of the minutes from the most recent meeting on Dec. 13, 2018. This passed unanimously and was followed by a report of the Commission Chair, Mississippi District Judge Carlton Wayne Reeves. Reeves was confirmed on Aug. 4 alongside his six fellow commissioners: Laura E Mate, Claire McCusker Murray, Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo, Candice C Wong, Judge Claria Horn Boom (joining by phone), and Judge John Gleeson (also joining by phone). 

"It will be up to the Commission to craft a new applicable policy statement which is aligned with The First Step Act. The Commission is faced with a decision of whether to maintain the discretion that many judges currently have to determine what constitutes extraordinary and compelling reasons, or to constrain it.”

Mary Price, General Counsel of FAMM Tweet

The second and only other item of the agenda was the vote to adopt and register the Commission’s proposed priorities into the federal register. These priorities will guide the Commission in the process of submitting guideline amendments to Congress, which must be done by May 1, 2023. The implementation of the First Step Act 2018 is at the top of the list. This is critical for individuals seeking compassionate release, but also for those looking to meet the “safety valve” criteria. 

The safety valve is a provision which allows certain incarcerated individuals serving mandatory minimum sentences to be released sooner than their sentence provides for. The criteria to be eligible for the safety valve used to be that individuals have no record of criminal history. The First Step Act changed this, allowing individuals with more than one criminal activity points to be eligible. 

Judge Reeves also named the implementation of the bipartisan Safer Communities Act as a priority. This firearm legislation was signed into law in July and would increase penalties for certain firearms offenses. He also acknowledged the conflicts occurring between circuit courts as something the Commission wants to resolve: “the likelihood of compassionate release motions succeeding [has depended[ on the circuit or district in which they were filed. This suggests courts could benefit from clearer guidance from the commission.” Some advocacy groups are concerned about the possibility that the Commission will limit judicial discretion moving forward. 

The tentative policy priorities were released to the public on Sept. 29, and the Commission received over 8,000 comments through the public comment deadline of October 17. Judge Reeves cited his gratitude for this “incredible” feedback. Among those to have submitted public comment on various policy points was FAMM (Families against Mandatory Minimums), a nonprofit advocating for sentencing and criminal justice reform. 

In their letters to the Commission, FAMM recommended the implementation of the FSA 2018 provision for individual compassionate release filing in addition to the maintenance of “judicial agility.” They stated,“now that defendants can file their motions directly in court, courts need the tools to be able to respond when confronted with extraordinary and compelling reasons not addressed in the policy statement.” 

In a public panel, General Counsel of FAMM, Mary Price, expressed, “it will be up to the Commission to craft a new applicable policy statement which is aligned with The First Step Act. The Commission is faced with a decision of whether to maintain the discretion that many judges currently have to determine what constitutes extraordinary and compelling reasons, or to constrain it.”

"I hope the Commission brings an open mind to the lessons of the past four years. Most notably, regarding compassionate release, that no guideline can fully predict the future, and yet judges have proven their ability to use their discretion in compassionate release motions to decide what is truly extraordinary and compelling.” 

Shanna Rifkin, FAMM’s Deputy General Counsel Tweet

FAMM’s Deputy General Counsel, Shanna Rifkin, told The Des: “I am pleased that the Commission has finalized the priorities. But now the real work begins in negotiating the contours of the amendments to the guidelines. The way these amendments shake out will significantly impact federal sentencing practices, and I hope the Commission brings an open mind to the lessons of the past four years. Most notably, regarding compassionate release, that no guideline can fully predict the future, and yet judges have proven their ability to use their discretion in compassionate release motions to decide what is truly extraordinary and compelling.” 

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Judge Reeves said that the Commission would work toward the May deadline in a “deliberative, empirically based, inclusive manner.” The Commission received and will take into consideration comments from District Courts, members of Congress, federal public defenders and criminal defense lawyers, the Department of Justice and Homeland Security and other executive agencies, dozens of advocacy organizations and probation officers and many individuals who are currently incarcerated and their families. 

Justice Reeves concluded his report saying that in the course of these considerations, the Commission “may disagree,” but “will not be disagreeable.” Following this meeting, final notice of the priorities will be entered into the federal register as the Commissioners continue work on the amendments.

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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.

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NUMBERS

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

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

New study reveals bail bond companies profit off of defendants yet often rely on law enforcement to do their job

Analyzing multi-jurisdictional evidence and research, the Prison Policy Initiative has released a report showing that the commercial bail industry exploits legal loopholes in order to avoid paying forfeiture when defendants fail to appear in court. The report, written by Wendy Sawyer, indicates that this lack of accountability is an issue in at least 28 states and argues that the problem is in fact likely nationwide due to flaws inherent in the industry at large.

The Initiative identifies six major loopholes that allow bail bond companies to discharge their duty to ensure court appearance to local law enforcement, meaning that it is not just the defendant who is paying but also the taxpayer. The full amount of the bond is intended to be forfeited by bail companies to the courts in cases of non-appearance, but collated data shows that this is rarely the case. The Prison Policy Initiative deems the system to be “broken,” advocating instead for alternatives to cash bail programs.

Bail bond companies in California accumulated debts from unpaid forfeiture fees totaling between $100 million and $150 million statewide from 2001-2004

Notably, bail bond companies in California accumulated debts from unpaid forfeiture fees totaling between $100 million and $150 million statewide from 2001-2004. More recent analysis in a 2016 Santa Clara Law writeup found that at a minimum bail companies should be forfeiting ‘tens of millions’ of dollars to California counties.

The process of forfeiture triggered by a failure to show is long, and the report identifies six loopholes that have both legal and practical grounding and allow bail companies to avoid payment. The first loophole is mechanical: local officials frequently do not pursue forfeiture payments due to the complex bureaucracy required. When officials do pursue forfeiture, bond companies are granted a second loophole in the form of a long grace period and a third in the form of very strict deadlines. 

The fourth loophole results from a practice known as “‘double supervising.” Defendants who have posted bail will also be supervised by pretrial services mandated by courts. This means that the bail bond companies who are meant to ensure appearance in court can shed this duty, relying instead on tax-funded pretrial services to do so. 

The fifth loophole is present in the majority of states in the form of legislation allowing bail bond companies to seek remission on their payments. So, even where bond agents do pay forfeiture fees, they may be able to get it back. The report cites a Florida audit, which found that 23 out of 25 cases in which a bail company paid its fees only after the grace period had already elapsed were still given remission. 

In 2017, 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. 

The report cites a Florida audit, which found that 23 out of 25 cases in which a bail company paid its fees only after the grace period had already elapsed were still given remission. 

The streamlining of various research projects into identification of these six loopholes prompted the Prison Policy Initiative to conclude that both the current law and procedural practice absolve bail bond companies of responsibility when defendants do not appear in court but give them credit when they do. The report paints a picture of a collective, exploitative industry operating regularly in more than 40 states. 

The Initiative ultimately recommends that the traditional cash bail system be abandoned and replaced with a non monetary system. This would involve providing all defendants with pretrial support where appropriate. 

At an institutional level and in order to prevent the phenomenon of “double supervision,” the report says that pretrial service agencies should stop supervising defendants who have been released on cash bail. A stricter adherence to consumer protection law by bail bond companies, meaning that agents would follow policy guidelines that are currently being ignored, is also stressed. 

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IN DEPTH

Overdose Deaths Behind Bars Rise as Drug Crisis Swells

Even if Alabama’s prisons and jails are especially overrun by drugs, death, and violence, their problems are not unique in the U.S. Within three weeks this spring, incarcerated people died of overdoses in Illinois, Oklahoma, New York, and the District of Columbia.

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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

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left to die

left to die

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

Multiple back surgeries, high blood pressure, cholesterol and pre-diabetes make it difficult for Carolyn Moore to move around the prison she is incarcerated at. Moore, featured in a June report on the 40,000 people who are serving life without parole in America’s prisons, has spent the last 37 years behind bars.

Her case was highlighted among others in a report that found almost half of the people serving life without parole are elderly and face poor healthcare, food and living conditions in facilities that are “largely unprepared” to manage their medical, physical, mental and social needs, according to The Sentencing Project’s “Nothing but Time.” Despite an increase in compassionate releases due to covid over the last few years, there has been little change within facilities or policy to address the substantial cost and demands of care of a growing elderly population. 

“In the report, we show 40% of the people serving life are 50 and older which is problematic for humanitarian reasons,” Ashley Nellis, author of the report, said. The exploding cost of care for incarcerated elderly was not something that was accounted for, she added.

The report found hazardous prison conditions affect the health of incarcerated elderly people. “The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 73% of imprisoned people aged 50 or older reported having a chronic medical condition and two thirds of people in prison, regardless of age, were taking prescription medication,” according to the report.

The report found that nearly half of prisons don’t have a set plan to care for elder, and that facilities are unsanitary and cannot handle medical, social, mental, and physical needs. Due to these disadvantages, aging occurs sooner in prison than the outside world. By 2030, it is predicted that one third of people will be at least 50 years old. 

Racial inequity persists in the elderly prison population as well: 48% of those serving life without parole are Black and close to 60% are not white. 

The vast majority of the elderly population facing life without parole is men, only 4% is women. Women both in and out of prison live longer than men, and they are more prone to report mental, cognitive, and physical health decline. 

As the aging prison population grows, states face growing costs. Data showed that in 2015 corrections collectively spent $8.1 billion on medical costs for inmates. “The cost is an issue to be concerned about. You can expect billions of dollars to help house elderly people and provide their healthcare and hospice care,” Nellis said.

In ten years, even if no other person gets sentenced to life without parole, almost an additional 10,000 more people serving these sentences will be over 50 and considered elderly. 

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IN DEPTH

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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IN DEPTH

Fighting for a second chance

When Dontrell Britton returned from federal prison to his mother’s DC apartment in 2017, he didn’t have tens of thousands of Instagram followers or over 400 thousand TikTok followers on his team like he does now.

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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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New report finds rise in arrests didn’t slow an explosion of meth use and overdose deaths across America

adobe stock

New report finds rise in arrests didn’t slow an explosion of meth use and overdose deaths across America

From 2015-2019, the data studied showed arrests rose in 40 out 43 states by an average of 80% in each state, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts’ new report

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

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

Despite a rise in arrests for possession of meth, both the use of meth and subsequent overdose deaths skyrocketed from 2015-2019, according to a new report from The Pew Charitable TrustsThe report found that arrests for meth possession increased by almost 60% across the country while people using meth rose by 37% and overdose deaths more than doubled.

Earlier research from Pew showed that drug arrests overall did not drop from 2009 to 2019 despite lower arrest rates for cannabis. This was due to higher rates of arrest for meth. This inspired them to look deeper into drug use by type of substance across the country, according to Tracy Velázquez, senior manager for safety and justice programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

 

“This is not a problem that because you live in a state that hasn’t traditionally had a big meth use problem you can ignore,” Velázquez said.

 

The Pew analysis found that more than 2 million people used meth in 2019, the most recent data available, and half of those users qualified for substance use disorder, meaning that meth use significantly impacted their ability to function. In 16 states, at least 1 in 100 adults used meth in 2019.

 

“Meth use is growing across the country, overdoses are growing across the country, and policymakers and states that have not traditionally thought about it as a problem they need to deal with, they need to start thinking about dealing with it,” she said.

“Lacking other tools to deal with this growing meth problem, communities are hoping that they can arrest their way out of it."

Tracy Velázquez, senior manager for safety and justice programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Other studies and reports show that overall drug use and overdoses continue to rise since the pandemic. Preliminary data reported 1 in 3 drug overdose deaths nationwide involving meth in 2021, compared with 1 in 4 in 2019.

 

And the meth people are using is deadlier. Overdose deaths more than doubled from 2.1 to 5.6 per 100,000 people. Part of this is due to meth contaminated with fentanyl. Deaths involving fentanyl more than quadrupled from 7% to 31% over the five years.

On average, meth possession arrests rose almost 80% across the country. They more than doubled in nine states and rose in 40 out of 43 states. Ohio, Illinois, New York and Nevada lead the country with increases over 200%. 

 

“Lacking other tools to deal with this growing meth problem, communities are hoping that they can arrest their way out of it,” Velázquez said.

 

Previous research shows that increasing arrests for drug possession does not lead to a reduction in drug use. Velázquez said there is no reason to think that targeting meth use through arrests would work this time around. She said that they hope the report encourages the federal government to develop and research novel treatments such as a Narcan, which counteracts opioid overdoses, for meth overdoses.

 

Velázquez also pointed to harm reduction strategies which address underlying mental health issues that spur self-medicated illicit drug use and also attempt to reduce the risk of drug consumption such as supervised drug use sites. 

Tracy Velázquez, senior manager for safety and justice programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts

“We feel that it’s a sort of an inflection point, where how we address the issue of meth use going forward can make a big difference in what this looks like, five years from now,” Velázquez said.

 

“I am hopeful that substance use disorder is seen as a health issue that isn’t someone’s fault. It’s not a personal failing, but rather a result of both their own biology and environment.”

 

Read the full report here.

credit: Pew Charitable Trusts
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Drugs

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.

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New report debunks 2020 youth crime wave

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

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

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

Almost a year ago, a carjacking left The District of Columbia aghast. Mohammad Anwar, died in the hospital after he was hit with a stun gun and crashed his car while two girls stole his vehicle. Carjackings are common in D.C., but what shocked residents the most was the two girls who carjacked Anwar were only 13 and 15-years-old. Now, they won’t be released from detention until they are 21.

 

This case in the city and a few other national headline grabbing crimes contributed to a political focus on the “rise” in youth crime. Chicago’s Mayor recently pushed through an earlier curfew for minors after a teen was shot.

 

But a new report debunks that violence has risen among youth, at least through 2020. The Sentencing Project, a D.C. based think tank and advocacy nonprofit, found little evidence to support the theory of a youth-led crime wave since the pandemic began.

 

The report found the number of crimes committed by youth fell by more than half over the past two decades and continued to fall in every major offense category through 2020.

 

“[…] media coverage highlighting youth involvement in carjacking has often gone well beyond the known facts or omitted critical context,” Richard Mendel, the author and senior research fellow, wrote.

 

“Scattered anecdotes and talk of out-of-control youth are fueling calls for stricter punishments and harsher treatment. But such methods have consistently proven to be ineffective at preventing crime, and are likely to cause crime to increase,” the press release stated.

 

Youth arrests fell in every crime category from 2000 to 2019, and data showed a continued decrease throughout 2020.

 

Further more, the report calls into question the focus on youth carjackings across the country because federal data, which showed an overall drop in youth robberies in 2020, did not specify car jackings. So we do not know nationally how many carjackings are committed. Over 90% of people arrested for homicides in 2020 were adults, a higher percentage than the three years prior. 

 

But recent shootings of teenagers have still racked The District. 16-year-old rapper,  23 Rackzs, was shot and killed in May in Southeast D.C. shortly after sharing a stage with Wale and other DC hip-hop legends at the city’s annual hip-hop festival, Broccoli City.

 

Homicides are up 11% from last year in the District and at least five youth have been killed since January.

 

The report does not include data from 2021 and the 2022, and it added there is a possibility that youth crime could have risen during the last year and a half. Issues such as mental health and economic stresses cannot be “solved with harsher punishments in the court system,” Mendel wrote. 

 

“Even if it is ultimately confirmed, a pandemic-era increase in youth offending should not be used as a rationale to scale back recent reforms in youth justice or to promote punitive policies against youth,” he added. 

 

The report suggests instead, hiring school counselors instead of police, using restorative justice programs to divert youth from punishment, eliminating youth imprisonment, charge all youth as youth not adults and an increase in community opportunities.

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

Uvalde Police Department (from Facebook), did not keep kids safe.

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.

By Jessica Pishko
By Jessica Pishko

Pishko is a journalist and lawyer based in Dallas, TX. She writes Posse Comitatus, a Substack focused on sheriff's departments. Subscribe to Posse Comitatus here

Just after turning 18, a young man from Uvalde, Texas – a mostly Latinx community outside of San Antonio – legally purchased two AR-15-style rifles. 
 

On the morning of May 24, the last week of school, he shot his grandmother, then drove to Robb Elementary School, crashing his car. He ran into the school shooting at bystanders, exchanged gunfire with a school resource officer, shot at two other law enforcement officers who were there, then then entered the school and, after barricading himself in a classroom, proceeded to shoot and kill at least 19 children and 2 adults and wounded countless others, almost all of whom appear to have been inside that single classroom. (He also provided updates on social media.)  For an hour. 

 

 

Nearly an hour later, off-duty Border Patrol officers (from a special SWAT-style unit known for excessive violence) arrived at the school, got a key from the principal to the classroom door, then entered the classroom and killed the young man. In the meantime, parents were at the school, breaking windows to rescue their children. (Some of the law enforcement officers who were there went to save their own kids.) Law enforcement officers themselves called it a “failure.” Onlookers say that the police seemed “unprepared.”

 

 

In a cosmic sense, the shooting is inexplicable. It is also dreadfully common – as is the inadequate police response. So, it’s hard to blame people for some of their public responses, from a sense of mourning, to a desire to lift up the name of the victims (adding them to an ever-increasing list), to invocations of “good” and “evil.” Of course, America kills children all the time – at home and abroad, actively and passively – but, speaking as a parent, there is still something specifically horrible about school shootings.

 

The calls have already come to increase police presence in schools and fortify school buildings so that they become fortresses. Influenced by America’s history of wars abroad, right-wing politicians, Christian nationalists, and gun influencers argue that bringing counter-terrorism military methods to the people will bring a measure of safety. But who are these people protecting and who are they fighting?

 

 

The answer is depressingly obvious. In the wake of the Buffalo shooting where an admitted white supremacist went into a grocery store on a weekend afternoon with the intent to kill as many Black people as possible, the response from law enforcement was crickets. The Eerie County Sheriff, which includes Buffalo, made a requisite comment about “evil,” but there was no real response from the police, no calls to fortify Black neighborhoods, no pictures of officers shaking hands with Black residents.

 

That’s because law enforcement knows their purpose, to defend the racial hierarchy. Sheriffs are happy to see their own neighborhoods as a battleground, their tactics are of counterinsurgency. The gun industry, the gun lobby, politicians, and the social influencer class all know that firearms are to protect people from the coming race war. So they will double- and triple-down on guns and more guns because it serves their purpose, cements their popularity, and maintains the social order that creates so much violence.

 

In contrast, all across the country sheriffs’ offices blasted out their intent to protect schools and children (“trip wires” and “man traps”), to increase patrols, and to use their government-subsidized military weaponry to pretend to defend the country’s alleged most precious resource, children.

During a scheduled campaign fundraiser, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said, “The reality is, as horrible as what happened, it could have been worse.” Later, he was even more pointed in his racism, saying, “I hate to say this, but there are more people shot every weekend in Chicago than there are in schools in Texas. And we need to realize that people who think that, well maybe if we just implement tougher gun laws, its gonna solve it. Chicago and L.A. and New York disprove that thesis. And so, if you’re looking for a real solution, Chicago teaches that what you’re talking about is not a real solution. Our job is to come up with real solutions that we can implement.” (The mayor of Chicago shot back that Abbott can’t even keep the power on.)

 

Senator Ted Cruz, not to be outdone, called for “hardening school security” and increased armed guards.

It’s interesting that the only gun control measure politicians (and Elon Musk) can even somewhat agree on are so-called red-flag laws, which mostly target people who display signs of being mentally ill, because everyone, even sheriffs, can agree that “madmen” are the one group of people universally hated by everyone. Democrats, I believe, circle on this as a compromise tactic because most people agree with the idea (even sheriffs), It just doesn’t really address the root of the problem.

 

And, in probably the most inane response, a sheriff’s deputy from Tarrant County, Texas, went to an elementary school and gave a presentation that included photos of AR-15s as part of a “career day” presentation.

 

Their blustering even hides the obvious, which is that the police – and definitely sheriffs – cannot protect us.

 

Indeed, the entire apparatus – law enforcement officers, lawyers, judges, legislators – are to blame as they seem happy to execute people by firing squad so long as it is in secret, but when children are murdered, they pretend that they prevent – not create and protect – violence.    

 

And why should law enforcement be required to protect any of us when the reality is that their violence is only intended to uphold a social order that benefits only certain people in society? The rise of Christian nationalism has made it clear that what powerful pollical factions of this country want is a Christian ethno-state where bodies are policed in order to assure the reproduction of heteronormative, self-sustaining family systems while the apparatus of the state itself is allowed to dwindle to a shriveled husk, no longer able to ensure that water is drinkable or that children have food to eat.

 

Police cause more violence. They kill residents of communities. They kill and abuse their family members (and children) more often than non-police. They even kill themselves because causing violence to others in a systemic way is bad for the human psyche. Therefore, the solution to violence can never be more violence – violence will always be in service to white supremacy.

 

On the left, I noticed an intense desire to analyze the police in Uvalde and how they failed to protect children (and white people’s disappointment in discovering that’s what police do). It’s true, of course, but also a symptom of policing in general, as Alex Vitale told The Intercept:

 

Instead of marshaling a robust preventative intervention, we wait until the problem expresses itself as a mass killing, and then we microanalyze the police response…This is a completely backwards way to approach the problem. Because policing is an inherently inadequate response to these things. By the time the shooting starts, the police intervention is going to be reactive. People will already be dead.

 

More analysis of how to “better” police response just plays into the hands of those who want more violence.

 

Meanwhile, the right is arguing for the closure of public schools. It’s a bit ironic given how the same coalition is not willing to pay teachers a living wage, ensure children have homes, or support COVID mitigation measures. But, of course, this has been part of their plan all along, a desire to return to segregated communities and white Christian nationalism. In a way, it’s the logical endpoint of their war on the rest of us — horde resources, bunker up, and send soldiers to protect the order that they have always wanted.

 

 

This article was first published in Posse Comitatus and republished with permission.

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IN DEPTH

Sentenced to death by old age

A growing geriatric prison population borders on a crisis of care and life sentences turning into death sentences for thousands One in ten state prisoners

More Voices of Justice To Come
More Voices of Justice To Come

Euphoria laid bare the pitfalls of the criminalizing addiction

Euphoria laid bare the pitfalls of the criminalizing addiction

Drug addiction is sweeping the nation, star of Euphoria, Zendaya portrays the importance of forgiveness and treatment for people struggling with substance abuse.

By Emily Sullivan
By Emily Sullivan

Emily started working for The Des in 2021, as a junior in Public Relations and Marketing Communications at Simmons University in Boston, Massachusetts; alongside a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies

One of the most heart racing moments of Euphoria’s latest season was Rue’s escape from the police. She was deep in the throes of withdrawal from her addiction and nearing rock bottom again. It was a painful scene to watch, she’s puking and running and barely escapes the officers after breaking into a house to try and steal money to pay for drugs.

It’s the perfect example of how addiction so often leads to criminal activities, and it’s not until it does that people receive help. And that help is often in the form of arrest and jail and incarceration which just throws a life into more chaos and often prevents a person from finding help. While the justice system most often criminalizes drug users, addiction is more a mental and public health concern.

 

“In 2018, there were 1,654,282 drug arrests in the U.S., the vast majority of which (86%) were for drug possession or use rather than for sale or manufacturing,” according to a March 24, 2020 report from the Prison Policy Institute. Drug arrests are often for nonviolent crimes like usage and possession that do not directly harm others or the public.

"It’s the perfect example of how addiction so often leads to criminal activities, and it’s not until it does that people receive help. And that help is often in the form of arrest and jail and incarceration which just throws a life into more chaos and often prevents a person from finding help."

We see Rue and her minor run-in with the law after robbing a house where she gets caught by the house owners and then gets chased out of the house. She comes across a police car that notices she is not doing well. When she immediately dashes away, she spends the rest of the night dodging the cops. Rue’s perception of the situation is that she would have gotten in trouble had she talked to the police. The police are unapproachable in situations like Rue because where she really needs help, she would have been punished.

Prison Policy Initiative
Prison Policy Initiative

Katie Zuber, Patricia Strach, and Elizabeth Pérez-Chiqués from the Rockefeller Government Institute wrote a piece that addresses the “tough on crime approach” adopted by some policy makers.

 
In a Vox article from April 2018, German Lopez wrote “At the federal level, policymakers have been widely criticized for reinstating harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders… imposing a ten-year minimum sentence on first offenders who make, sell, or transport illicit opioids and authorizing law enforcement to charge drug dealers with homicide has been considered in states like Arizona and New York, respectively.”

 
These policies contribute to why the police are unapproachable when dealing with drug abusers who really just need help.


The Prison Policy Institute reported that in 2018, there were 450,000 people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses on any day. The majority were in state facilities or local and private prisons.

 
Rue’s close calls with the police bring to light the intersection of the criminal justice system and addiction.

 
Zendaya’s parting words after episode five inspire the attitude she wants people to have towards Rue.

 
“It’s my hope for people watching that they still see her as a person worthy of their love… I think that if people can go with her through that, and get to the end, and still have hope for her future, and watch her make changes and steps to heal and humanize her through her sobriety journey and her addiction, then maybe they can extend that to people in real life.”

People with drug addictions need treatment, support and most importantly forgiveness and compassion. They are human beings. Incarcerating them does not treat the core problem.

Emily Sullivan
Screenshot from Euphoria

The theme of forgiveness is cemented in the last episode of the season. Rue learns the importance of forgiving herself. She recognizes that she is a human being who has gone through difficult life circumstances (her father died from cancer). Rue also realizes the importance of forgiveness towards others. She forgives her friend Elliot for uncovering her relapse, she forgives her girlfriend Jules for their relationship problems.

 

Rue also uses compassion to apologize to those she has affected in her addiction journey. She apologizes to her mother, one of her more important relationships. She apologizes to her best friend Lexi for not being present in her life.

 

It is through Rue’s forgiveness, compassion and most importantly, humanity, that she begins to recognize her worth and has the courage to turn the corner in her addiction. If she had been arrested and sent to jail after robbing the house it would have blocked her from going through these processes.

 

People with drug addictions need treatment, support and most importantly forgiveness and compassion. They are human beings. Incarcerating them does not treat the core problem.

Screenshot from Euphoria

Covid-19 rips through West Virginia women’s prison as federal agency takes heat

Covid-19 rips through West Virginia women’s prison as federal agency takes heat

three women died in January, revealing cracks in the agencies pandemic response

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

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

Rory Adams did not know that Christmas in a small rural hospital in West Virginia would be the last time he saw his wife alive. She’d entered prison in early January 2021 to serve a 42-month sentence for failure to collect payroll taxes. She was supposed to return to North Carolina, their two adult children, and their quilting business this summer.

 

But when he saw her, she was heavily sedated. A ventilator was helping her breathe as she struggled with covid-19. Rebecca “Maria” Adams, 59, died 18 days after Christmas in the same hospital bed.

The pandemic has proved especially deadly behind bars. Inmates are more than twice as likely to die of covid as the general population. And the deaths continue to pile up.

 

Adams was the second of three women incarcerated at Alderson Federal Prison Camp to die of covid in less than a week in January. The prison that holds fewer than 700 inmates had 50 cases as of Feb. 8. When U.S. case numbers surged in December because of the omicron variant, an understaffed and still underprepared federal prison system was once again swamped by covid cases.

 

The deaths of these three women imprisoned in West Virginia reflect a federal prison system plagued by chronic problems exacerbated by the pandemic, including understaffing, inadequate medical care, and few compassionate releases. The most recent statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons report 284 inmates and seven staff members have died nationwide because of covid since March 28, 2020. Medical and legal experts say those numbers are likely an undercount, but the federal prison system lacks independent oversight.

Alderson, where Adams was incarcerated, was one of the first federal prisons to have a covid outbreak in December in this latest national surge. But as of the first week of February, 16 federal facilities had over 100 cases. More than 5,500 federal inmates and over 2,000 BOP staffers had tested positive for covid, according to BOP data. At one prison in Yazoo City, Mississippi, over 500 inmates — almost half the prison — tested positive in late January. Including the three women from Alderson, 12 federal inmates died while sick with covid in January.

 

The Bureau of Prisons has come under fire in the past few months after investigations by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project alleged widespread corruption and called the agency a “hotbed of abuse.” In January, before all three Alderson inmates died, the head of the BOP, Michael Carvajal, announced his resignation, although he remains in charge until a successor takes the helm.

 

The criticism of the agency continued in congressional testimony in January after the deaths at Alderson. Legal and medical experts specializing in the federal system, as well as members of Congress, accused the BOP of hiding covid deaths and cases, repeatedly failing to provide adequate health care, and failing to properly implement the compassionate release program meant to move at-risk inmates to home confinement. Five recently released inmates, two incarcerated inmates, and six family members of women incarcerated at Alderson, confirmed these allegations to KHN.

 

The Alderson inmates and their families reported denial of medical care, a lack of covid testing, retaliation for speaking out about conditions, understaffing, and a prison overrun by covid. Absences by prison staff members sickened by the virus led to cold meals, dirty clothes, and a denial of items like sanitary napkins and clean water from the commissary.

In an email, BOP spokesperson Benjamin O’Cone said the agency does not comment on what he called “anecdotal allegations.” He said the BOP follows covid guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 

O’Cone pointed to the BOP’s online dashboard about covid statistics when asked how many inmates have died since Dec. 1 and how many had tested positive for covid before death. A day after KHN emailed the BOP about the deaths of the three inmates from Alderson, two appeared on the dashboard and news releases were published. The women had been dead for almost a week.

All three women — Adams, Juanita Haynes, and Bree Eberbaugh — had sought compassionate releases because of preexisting medical conditions that made them more susceptible to dying from covid, including Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, congestive heart failure, obesity, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

 

Nationwide, over 23,000 people were released from the federal system from March 2020 to October 2021, but more than 157,000 people are still imprisoned. After early pandemic releases, the prison population in the U.S. is climbing back to pre-pandemic levels. Some of the early drop was due to inmate deaths, which rose 46% from 2019 to 2020, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

For people like Adams, compassionate release never came. The BOP reports that only two women have been granted compassionate release from Alderson since the outbreak began in December. One was Haynes, who was granted release while intubated. She died four days later, in the hospital.

Maria Adams credit: Adams family

“They will literally be released so they don’t die in chains,” Alison Guernsey, clinical associate professor of law at the University of Iowa, said in congressional testimony in January. She called BOP facilities “death traps,” referring to the BOP’s “inability or reticence to control the spread of covid-19 behind bars by engaging in aggressive evidence-based public-health measures.”

 

Guernsey testified that the BOP death data is “suspect” because of delayed reporting, the exclusion of deaths in prisons run by private contractors, and those released just in time to “die free.” Haynes’ death, for example, is not counted in BOP data even though she got sick with covid while incarcerated because she was freed through compassionate release right before she died in January, months after her first applications were denied.

 

Guernsey questions the BOP’s covid infection numbers because the agency does not report the number of tests administered, just the number of positive tests. “The BOP can hide whether low infection rate is due to low covid cases or inadequate testing,” she said. All these factors mean the numbers of deaths and cases are likely “substantially” greater than reported, Guernsey said.

The impact of incorrect data trickles down to the denial of compassionate release requests. One factor that judges consider is the level of covid cases and risk within that prison. Eberbaugh, the third inmate from Alderson to die in January, applied in March 2020 for compassionate release from her 54-month sentence, citing preexisting medical conditions.

 

 

In August 2020, a court denied Eberbaugh’s motion, in part citing the lack of covid cases in the prison. A few days later, she responded in a handwritten letter, appealing for legal counsel from the public defender’s office. “Your honor, it is only a matter of time before it reaches here and I am in fear of my life,” she wrote.

The court denied that appeal in April 2021. Within nine months, she had died of covid.

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‘so in your face you can’t ignore it’

‘so in your face you can’t ignore it’

an interview with Pam Bailey about empowering D.C. inmates in the federal system as a voting bloc and voice for change through helping them tell their stories

By Laine Napoli
By Laine Napoli

Laine Napoli was The Des’ Social Media and Marketing Intern for Fall 2021. Laine is from southern New Jersey and is studying multi-platform journalism and women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Maryland.

The Des: Why did you found More Than Our Crimes?

 

Bailey: It all started actually when I was doing some volunteer work and answering letters from D.C. men in prison. And one of the letters I responded to was from Robert Burton, who has been in prison since two months past his 16th birthday. He went in on felony murder, which means he didn’t actually shoot, He was just in the car. He is still in prison now, 26 years later.

And what I recognized in his letter was a very strong, articulate, thoughtful voice, and we partnered together. I’m a storyteller by profession, I’m a writer for a national international nonprofit by day, my paid job.

This was back before this last election. There was a real opportunity because you had people from both parties talking about criminal justice reform, which is really good. But the thing that was missing was everybody was always quick to to limit the conversation to non-violent crimes. In other words, they seemed really interested in reducing mass incarceration, but the reality is you can’t actually significantly reduce mass incarceration if you do not include people who once committed violent crimes. Because they’re, I think it’s like two thirds of the people in the prison population. So you can’t ignore that.

Number two, there’s really sort of a false distinction, because even people who were labeled as committing violent crimes can change. They can be rehabilitated, they can become different people, they can be productive members of society and it’s ridiculous to exclude them and think that they deserve to be in prison the rest of their lives with the key thrown away.

So the initial purpose of teaming up together was to use storytelling about Rob and the other people that he started introducing me to, to try to really show the humanity behind the labels.

A secondary part of it is focusing on DC people because that’s who I was getting to know. But DC people have an extra set of problems I think other people don’t:

DC doesn’t have its own prisons, so they’re sending them to the federal system which means they’re all over the country. And it’s like, out of sight out of mind. I mean, it’s this sort of that way for really anybody in prison, but it’s particularly true for the DC people because the federal system doesn’t get much attention. Number one, because most people are in state prisons and most of the focus is on state prisons. And two, the federal system is so hard to change because it’s Congress.

We started a blog, we have the website, but the blog is where we mostly publish. We just got a grant. The people in prison there don’t vote. We thought this is a perfect opportunity to really use this network that Rob and I grew: we have about 200 people now, the DC guys. What we’ve done is we want to get them to vote.

So with the grant, what we’re doing now is we send a newsletter in to all the guys on our list to really keep them in tune with all the issues. So they understand that there’s actually issues that affect them, or will affect them, they should care about. So when midterms come up, they’re going to want to vote. 

The Des: What is your greatest achievement in criminal justice reform so far?

 

Bailey: I think that we’re pretty new and I guess what I’ve been most pleased about is the fact that we do have a blog on Medium and we have a growing mailing list and growing people who actually reading these stories and opinions of people behind bars.

It’s very hard when you’re new. The thing about this, this space in DC in a way is on the one hand, it’s great that we have a whole bunch of organizations and people who are involved in this issue in some way. But the challenging part is it’s sort of territorial. It’s pretty hard to get established. And so, it’s gratifying to finally start getting established enough that people are noticing you. The niches that we represent is people who are still in prison, not the DC jail, but still in the BOP system. We give them a chance to have a voice and also to be as informed.

That’s the biggest piece of feedback I’ve been getting to our newsletter is no one’s been telling them any of this. They pick up what they can, I have them subscribe to The [Washington] Post, it’s always like, like four or five days late, but there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s not covered there. So they don’t know. 

And so I think in terms of achievements, I’m just happy that we’re getting established enough and being recognized. 

The Des: What do you think is the most pressing issue in the Washington D.C. criminal justice system?

 

Bailey: I think DC blames a lot on the fact that it’s a not state yet.. And BOP would absolutely let DC people come home if they would just bite the bullet and do the right thing. And there’s still a lot of planning. They have a plan to replace the jail and expand it and bring everybody home by 2030, that’s a really long time. DC is a weird mix of really progressive fantastic things and then dragging its feet on others. 

I think another thing DC really needs to improve on is it gets a lot of praise for its services for returning citizens, but as I get to know the guys in prison what I’ve noticed is a real lack of coordination among tons of different services. They’re not coordinated at all. And these poor guys have to run all over. They’re just out, they’re confused, they don’t know technology, and they’re forced to run all these different places. It’s crazy, why they don’t have a centralized case management system, I don’t know. 

But the other thing is housing. You got 500 people who are eligible for second look. I’m not sure what percent to actually get approved, but let’s say the majority of them are. I would say I guess a third to a half maybe, either don’t have family to come to, or they have family but they’re not appropriate. The thing is there’s no housing. They need housing. I don’t understand why the city has done nothing to prepare for that. It’s the worst problem. It’s bigger than the employment issue. I had one of my friends go to one of  those shelters. There were stabbings once a week. The first day he was there, he went to take a shower and his belongings were stolen. This is not stable. 

The Des: What is your organization doing to solve this problem? 

 

Bailey:  If we can develop these guys into a real voting block, who actually vote, we may be able to hold some of the city officials’ feet to the fire that way and say, look you talk  the game, but you gotta do it guys. I’ve been in so many forums where they talk about the housing problem. It’s just too much talk talk talk, we almost need to take a page from the old AIDS days, Act Up days, in this be in their face. We cannot be invisible. 

There’s been a real lack of voices of people who are incarcerated. And maybe by getting more and more op-eds and whatever, that voice can’t be ignored anymore. And I’m hoping that that will be one more lever, one more pressure point that will force some change. Maybe there should be a whole campaign of returning citizens. It’s that kind of thinking back to the old days: The Act Up Group. They started with the policy talk and said, okay, we admit, enough talk, we need to make it so in your face that you can’t ignore us.

The Des: What is your advice for the average citizen, who has little or no experience with activism, but wants to get involved?

 

Bailey: I think it’s really important to do this work if you don’t have some direct connections so you understand the complexity of all the factors, the dynamics that go into [some one insides] trajectory. But also you start hearing what they want and think  is important, which may not be the same as what you think. Number one, would be to get involved with an organization that allows you some direct contact then do some deep listening and hear things in their voice instead of just reading about them. 

Sometimes I think we narrow ourselves down to just talking to the choir all the time, we’re always talking to fellow activists, fellow advocates, it’s like an echo chamber. We all are violently in agreement with each other and find audiences like around the Christmas table. One of the best ways to help change things is to try to get out of your echo chamber and talk to people.

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More Voices of Justice To Come
More Voices of Justice To Come