Most disturbing criminal justice stories of 2005
Each year at Prisonsucks.com, we name the most disturbing criminal justice stories of the year. We try to highlight stories that are not just depressing, but thought provoking analyses of serious problems that require serious attention in the year ahead.
Nominations for the 2006's list are welcome.
- The Forgotten of Africa, Wasting Away in Jails Without Trial Michael Wines, The New York Times, November 6, 2005
"Since Nov. 10, 1999, Lackson Sikayenera has been incarcerated in Maula Prison, a dozen iron-roofed barracks set on yellow dirt and hemmed by barbed wire just outside Malawi's capital city.
"He eats one meal of porridge daily. He spends 14 hours each day in a cell with 160 other men, packed on the concrete floor like sliced bacon, unable even to move. The water is dirty; the toilets foul. Disease is rife.
"But the worst part may be that in the case of Mr. Sikayenera, who is accused of killing his brother, the charges against him have not yet even reached a court. Almost certainly, they never will. For sometime after November 1999, justice officials lost his case file. His guards know where he is. But for all Malawi's courts know, he does not exist....
"This is life in Malawi's high-security prisons, Dickens in the tropics, places of cruel, but hardly unusual punishment. Prosecutors, judges, even prison wardens agree that conditions are unbearable, confinements intolerably long, justice scandalously uneven.
"But by African standards, Malawi is not the worst place to do time. For many of Africa's one million prison inmates, conditions are equally unspeakable - or more so...."
- Profiling Report Leads to a Demotion by Eric Lichtblau, New York Times, August 24, 2005
The Bush administration replaced the head of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Lawrence A. Greenfeld, because he refused to delete references to racial disparities from the press release announcing a Bureau study about traffic stops and other contacts between the public and the police. The report, Contacts between Police and the Public: Findings from the 2002 National Survey found that although Blacks, Hispanics and Whites were roughly equally likely to be stopped by the police, "police were more likely to carry out some type of search on a black (10.2%) or Hispanic (11.4%) than a white (3.5%). " When Mr. Greenfeld refused to delete the references and issue a misleading press release, he was demoted and the report was released without a press release.
- Another roadblock to the truth: by Bill Moushey and Robert Rider, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 05, 2005
"Pennsylvania's prisons maintain an absurdly restrictive policy for interviewing inmates .... thwarting legitimate attempts to uncover injustices."
- As inmates age, a prison carpenter builds more coffins By Gary Fields, The Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2005
The growth in the prison population and the increase in sentence lengths being imposed has led to a macabre new prison industry: burials.
- Please Deposit All Your Money by New York Times Editorial Board, August 31, 2005
In 2005, the New York Times wrote what I believe is the most eloquent explanation of why we must abolish the current system charging prisoner's families huge sums to accept collect phone calls from their loved ones:
"A vast majority of the state prison systems have telephone setups that allow only collect calls. The person who accepts the call pays a premium that is sometimes as much as six times the going rate. Part of the money goes to the state itself in the form of a ''commission'' -- or, more simply put, a legal kickback.
"....Faced with telephone bills of $400 or more a month, the inmates' families must often choose between paying phone bills or paying the rent. This billing strategy erodes fragile family ties by discouraging prisoners from keeping in touch with loved ones -- especially small children -- who often have difficulty visiting because they live hundreds of miles away. Inmates who lack family ties are less likely to make a successful transition once released, and more likely to end up back inside.....
"New York state corrections officials argue that the current system is good thing because the money goes to pay for AIDS treatments, cable television for inmates and other prison programs that benefit the inmates. But the inmates' families already support the prison system through their taxes. Dunning the poor to run the prisons where so many of the poor wind up may have been acceptable in Dickens's time, but no longer."
- After the Hurricane: Where Have All the Prisoners Gone? More Than 500 From New Orleans Jail Still Unaccounted For DemocracyNow, September 27th, 2005
"It has been nearly one month since Hurricane Katrina ripped through the southern coast of the United States, decimating communities in Mississippi and Louisiana. These past weeks, we have reported on the horrors faced by people in New Orleans, in particular as they struggled to survive. One story we have looked at is the fate of those held in prison as the hurricane hit the city. Weeks later, there are still serious questions about what happened inside of facilities like the Orleans Parish Prison. The group Human Rights Watch has just issued one of the first independent analyses investigating what happened in the jails. The group alleges that in one facility the sheriff's department abandoned hundreds of prisoners."
- A Light on Justice Denied by New York Times Editorial Board, December 31, 2005
"A harrowing postscript to official justice is taking place in Virginia, where the discovery of a forgotten generation's blood samples in old forensic files has led to modern DNA tests that have already cleared five inmates convicted of rape, with hundreds of other felony cases to be examined.
"As cheering as the recognition of their innocence has been for the five, who together lost about 90 years behind bars, a sad truth is emerging about the frequency of wrongful convictions in the criminal justice system. The two latest proofs of innocence emerged from a random sampling of just 29 old rape cases from the 1970's and 80's. Back then, Mary Jane Burton, a meticulous state serologist who died six years ago, bothered to retain evidence scraps that are now proving weighty in the modern era of forensic DNA tests.
"The pity is that Ms. Burton's extra step of quiet professionalism is unusual - the procedures still current in much of the nation's justice system would have led to the destruction of such evidence by now...."
- Dying on our dime: California's prisons are teeming with older inmates who run up staggering medical costs By Sandra Kobrin, Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2005
"Do Californians want to spend a billion to keep old, feeble inmates from roaming the streets, even if it's in wheelchairs?..."
"She may have done some heinous or criminal act in her day, but at this point she's not a risk to the state any longerŅother than fiscally," says state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of a select committee overseeing the correctional system. "We are locking up the elderly at the expense of building schools for students and keeping university fees down, and we can't pretend that it's not happening."
- Serving Life, With No Chance of Redemption by Adam Liptak, New York Times, October 5, 2005
"LIVINGSTON, Tex. - Minutes after the United States Supreme Court threw out the juvenile death penalty in March, word reached death row here, setting off a pandemonium of banging, yelling and whoops of joy among many of the 28 men whose lives were spared by the decision.
"But the news devastated Randy Arroyo, who had faced execution for helping kidnap and kill an Air Force officer while stealing his car for parts.
"Mr. Arroyo realized he had just become a lifer, and that was the last thing he wanted. Lifers, he said, exist in a world without hope. "I wish I still had that death sentence," he said. "I believe my chances have gone down the drain. No one will ever look at my case."
Mr. Arroyo has a point....
- Jailed for Life After Crimes as Teenagers October 3, 2005
"About 9,700 American prisoners are serving life sentences for crimes they committed before they could vote, serve on a jury or gamble in a casino - in short, before they turned 18. More than a fifth have no chance for parole.
"Juvenile criminals are serving life terms in at least 48 states, according to a survey by The New York Times, and their numbers have increased sharply over the past decade."
- Video shows police handcuffing 5-year-old by Thomas C. Tobin, St. Petersburg Times, April 22, 2005 and What's Race Got To Do With It? by Benjamin T. Greenberg, HungryBlues, May 4, 2005.
"ST. PETERSBURG - Videotape was rolling March 14 when the 5-year-old girl swung again and again, her bantam punches landing on the outstretched palms of Nicole Dibenedetto, the new assistant principal at Fairmount Park Elementary.
"She tore papers off Dibenedetto's bulletin board and desk. She climbed on a table four times. About an hour had passed since she refused to participate in a kindergarten math lesson, which escalated into a series of defiant and destructive acts.
"Dibenedetto had used tactics from a Pinellas school district training called Crisis Prevention Intervention:
"Let the child know her actions have consequences but also try to "de-escalate."
"Give her opportunities to end the conflict.
"Try not to touch her, defend yourself and make sure no one else gets hurt.
"As St. Petersburg police officers arrived shortly after 3 p.m., the girl suddenly sat quietly at Dibenedetto's table. And, just as suddenly, the tactics used by educators gave way to the more direct approach of law enforcement.
"An officer sternly said the girl's name. Then: "You need to calm down. You need to do it now. OK?"
"Seconds later, three officers approached and placed their hands on the girl's wrists and upper arms. They stood her up, put her arms behind her back and put on handcuffs. She bent over the table and let out a terrified scream. ("Video shows police handcuffing 5-year-old")
Context was one thing missing from most of the coverage of this incident, so this award is shared with the HungryBlues blog:
"In Pinellas County, Florida, it is standard procedure to call the police on small children who are having behavior problems. It is standard procedure to charge children in Pinellas County with felonies. It is standard procedure in Pinellas County to handcuff children as a means of discipline. It is standard procedure in Pinellas County to use police, criminal charges, and handcuffs disproportionately on African American children: 55% of children under 12 charged with crimes in fiscal year 1999-2000 were African American, though they were only 20.95% of the school age children in the state. ("What's Race Got to Do With It?")
- CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons by Dana Priest, Washington Post, November 2, 2005
"The CIA has been hiding and interrogating some of its most important al Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe, according to U.S. and foreign officials familiar with the arrangement....
"But the revelations of widespread prisoner abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq by the U.S. military -- which operates under published rules and transparent oversight of Congress -- have increased concern among lawmakers, foreign governments and human rights groups about the opaque CIA system. Those concerns escalated last month, when Vice President Cheney and CIA Director Porter J. Goss asked Congress to exempt CIA employees from legislation already endorsed by 90 senators that would bar cruel and degrading treatment of any prisoner in U.S. custody....
"It is illegal for the government to hold prisoners in such isolation in secret prisons in the United States, which is why the CIA placed them overseas, according to several former and current intelligence officials and other U.S. government officials. Legal experts and intelligence officials said that the CIA's internment practices also would be considered illegal under the laws of several host countries, where detainees have rights to have a lawyer or to mount a defense against allegations of wrongdoing...."