So, Amnesty International at OSU held a human rights conference on Sat April 9th. One part of this conference was a panel discussion on human rights abuses in US prisons.
The panel was comprised of Brian Wells, Executive Director of T.O.U.C.H. Eric Crew, Advocate with Ohio Justice and Policy Center (OJCP) and Sharon Dannon of the Lucasville Uprising Freedom Network. Each spoke for 15 minutes, and then things were opened up to questions.
Eric Crew spoke first. OJCP is based in Cincinnati, works on prison reform and representation for the wrongfully incarcerated. He summarized the situation in Ohio prisons, by sharing some statistics from the ORW (Ohio Reformatory for Women). The warden of ORW told Eric that every one of the inmates there lived below the poverty line. 64% are in for nonviolent offenses, and it's overcrowded at 200% capacity. Other prisons in the system are just as bad, overall Ohio prisons are at 131% of capacity.
Eric then talked about prisoner rights in Ohio and in America. Most prisoner rights come from the 5-8th amendments to the US Constitution. What these amount to in theory is: access to courts to try your case, appropriate supervision (guards are sworn to "protect" inmates), adequate medical care, and religious freedom. In practice, congress passed new legislation in 1996 called the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which severely limits some of these rights. It reduced the fees lawyers could legally earn by representing inmates, it increased the fee for bringing a lawsuit to $350, it requires inmates to exhaust other legal remedies (complaints to the prison administration) before bringing a lawsuit, and it limited the number of lawsuits an inmate can file to three. So, now if an inmate wants access to court they need to find a lawyer willing to work pro-bono or for far less than they could otherwise earn, they need to scrape together $350, and they have to risk retaliation by first filing complaints to the guards who are abusing them. In other words, prisoners do not have realistic access to court. OJCP does pro-bono legal representation for inmates, but are limited in what they can do, and hope to also get reforms through to improve this situation.
Next Eric talked about what is happening in the legislature right now. Senate Bill 10 will reduce mandatory sentencing, allow for more good time, and reduce drug discrepancies (like harsher penalties for crack than coke). The legislation will also update and develop inmate re-entry policies to help people re-integrate after release. Similar legislation was proposed in the past, but didn't get anywhere. This time it's coming from the same conservatives who pushed for completely opposite "tough on crime" legislation in the past.
My brief analysis of this information: the legislation is linked with the budget (and ORDC does make up the largest portion of the Ohio state budget), so the goal is not to reduce incarceration or improve peoples' lives, it's clearly all about saving money. Meanwhile they're also saving money by privatizing prisons, and have already saved money by reducing inmates access to courts and legal representation. It's hard to be anything but happy about reducing incarceration rates and overcrowding, but the fact that money is driving this process, rather than concern for people, should give us reason to pause and look closely at the re-entry policy changes and how they're instituted. If conditions inside get worse, then reduced sentences mean more traumatized and broken people being released back into their communities faster, accelerating the viscous cycle of the criminal justice system (tearing people out of their community, torturing them in prison, thrusting them back into the community with PTSD, lost time and massive social stigma).
Which brings us to the next panelist. Brian Wells is the executive director of T.O.U.C.H. which is an inmate mentoring program, helping "establish a well grounded connection between the ex-offender and his/her community by providing an effective post-release program, thus paving a path for responsible men and women to travel upon during their journey toward successful reintegration". Brian didn't talk too much about that work. He mainly talked about the history of prison in the US.
He linked this history clearly to slavery. The modern prison apparatus appeared following the abolition of slavery. Angola, one of the most notorious prisons in the US used to be a plantation. Prisoners stay in the same quarters slaves used to stay in. Prisoners in Mississippi pick cotton. Brian also talked about convict leasing, Jim Crow laws, chain gangs. In the 60s and 70s these very overt continuations of slavery were getting embarrassing, so the supreme court made some decisions to change these things, but racism and mistreatment of prisoners continues to this day. In some states ex-cons are still not allowed to vote. When you're in prison, you can't file lawsuits, or enter into contracts, but you can still be sued, you cannot inherit property and many of the rights you supposedly have are not exercisable. You must pass through four levels of complaints to prison administration (inviting harassment and reprisals along the way) before you can get access to courts.
Then Wells described the stigma inmates face outside of prison, what he called the "second sentence". Upon release, inmates face greater challenges with less supprot. 65 Million (with felony charges) need not apply to most jobs. Former prisoners are not allowed access to subsidized housing, if they stay with family or friends who live in subsidized housing, they run the risk of getting kicked out, access to education is limited by review boards, some former inmates compare applying for school as "just like a parole hearing". People on probation have no protection against search and seizure and no right to bear arms.
The final speaker was Sharon from the Lucasville Uprising Freedom Network, whose work we've described on this website in the past.