The Prison Complex

Monday, Jan 18, 2016, 4:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Feeling the Bern or Ready for Hillary? Where The Democrats Stand on Criminal Justice

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley have debated for the final time before the Iowa Caucus. Where do they stand on criminal justice issues?   Screenshot NBC

Are you Feeling the Bern or Ready for Hillary? Here’s where the three Democratic presidential candidates stand on criminal justice issues.

Hillary Clinton

During this campaign Clinton has talked repeatedly about the need to end “mass incarceration,” and she continued that theme at the debate.

"One out of three African American men may well end up going to prison. That's the statistic," Clinton told the audience "I want people here to think what we would be doing if it was one out of three white men.”

Clinton’s positions on criminal justice issues have shifted over the years. As The Marshall Project puts it, Clinton has gone from “young, idealistic lawyer who represented people convicted of rape and murder and opposed the death penalty” to “wife (and a vocal supporter) of Bill Clinton, the tough-on-crime, pro-death penalty governor of Arkansas” to the First Lady who “vouched for a crime bill that significantly contributed to mass incarceration.”

Along with both Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, Clinton’s campaign has promised to eliminate the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine which research has suggested results in significantly harsher penalties for poor people and people of color. At the debate, Clinton said “we have to move away from treating the use of drugs as a crime and instead, move it to where it belongs, as a health issue.”

But there are differences between Clinton’s criminal justice plans and those of her opponents. For instance, both Sanders and O’Malley oppose capital punishment, while Clinton has said she is not in favor of abolishing the death penalty

Clinton also faced criticism from activists earlier in the campaign for her links to private prison companies. Her campaign later announced that they would no longer accept donations from federally registered lobbyists or PACs for companies involved in incarceration and that money she has already received will be donated to charity. (Both her Democratic opponents have pledged to end for-profit incarceration if elected) 

Bernie Sanders

After facing criticisms from some in the Black Lives Matter movement Bernie Sanders released a wide-ranging set of campaign positions, including several policy pledges specifically on criminal justice and policing

At the debate, Sanders noted that as Mayor of Burlington he had worked “very closely and well with police officers, the vast majority of whom are honest, hard- working people trying to do a difficult job” but “if a police officer breaks the law, like any public official, that officer must be held accountable.”

Sanders went on to say that police departments should be “de-militarized” and that they should “look like the communities they serve in their diversity.” (How you actually achieve that is complicated) He also argued “whenever anybody in this country is killed while in police custody, it should automatically trigger a U.S. attorney general's investigation.”

As a member of Congress, Sanders voted against the death penalty at almost every opportunity, and has supported efforts to decriminalize marijuana. (He recently called for the drug to be removed from the government's list of banned substances, a step further than his two opponents who only want it recategorized) He initially opposed an early version of what became “The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (1994)” which he said was not “a crime prevention bill” but “a punishment bill.” He voted in favor of the final bill introduced by Senator Joe Biden and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, because, he said, it included the Violence Against Women Act.

Martin O'Malley

Martin O’Malley has also made criminal justice reform a central part of his campaign.

Among dozens of policy proposals O'Malley supports are plans to “Ban the Box” and restore voting rights to people with felony records. As president, O’Malley says he would “strongly support legislation that would end the drug felon ban on access to SNAP and TANF assistance.” At the January debate he was asked about his record in Maryland:

I drove our incarceration rate down to 20-year lows, and drove violent crime down to 30-year lows, and became the first governor south of the Mason-Dixon line to repeal the death penalty.

(While this is broadly-speaking correct, the data suggests that incarceration rates and violent crime had actually been in decline before he took office as Governor.)

O’Malley has been criticized for supporting positions on the campaign trail he opposed in office. “What happened to the zero-tolerance Baltimore mayor who became the no-parole-for-lifers governor of Maryland?” asks Dan Rodricks at the Baltimore Sun “Where's the guy who was once bullish on mandatory minimums?”

As Governor, O’Malley vetoed a bill which would have rolled-back mandatory minimum sentences for second-time convicted drug dealers, and told a radio show “drug dealing is a violent crime.” 

O’Malley’s platform states that law enforcement “must treat all communities fairly and earn their trust” and proposes a range of measures to encourage “ independent investigations of policing cases” and “strengthen federal civil rights protections.” During the debate he also drew heavily on his record as Mayor and Governor:

.. we were able to save a lot of lives doing things that actually worked to improve police and community relations. The truth of the matter is, we created a civilian review board. And many of these things are in the new agenda for criminal justice reform that I've put forward.

We created a civilian review board, gave them their own detectives. We required the reporting of discourtesy, use of excessive force, lethal force. I repealed the possession of marijuana as a crime in our state.

But O'Malley's legacy has been questioned. One in three Maryland residents in state prison are from Baltimore and the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, as well as the riots that followed prompted criticism of O'Malley's time in office. Matthew Crenson, a political sceience professor at Johns Hopkins University, told ThinkProgress, O’Malley’s “tough-on-crime” approach might share some responsibility for the unrest.

“One of the possible costs is that this creates a great deal of tension in relationships between the police and communities in their policing, because it means they’re always hassling people for minor offenses,” he said. “And that could conceivably create the atmosphere in which it’s very easy for a riot to break out when something like Freddie Gray’s death occurs..” Continue reading...


Sunday, Jan 10, 2016, 5:40 pm  ·  By Aviva Stahl

“My Words Are Dangerous”: An Interview with Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, an award-winning writer, currently incarcerated at FCI Petersberg in Virginia.  

While there has been a lot of interest in recent years in journalism about prisons and the criminal justice system, less well known is the journalism being done by prisoners themselves. From the San Quentin News in California to Prison Radio  in Pennsylvania there are dozens of prison newspapers and radio stations and individual authors writing and publishing from inside prison. Among them is Christopher Zoukis, an award-winning writer, currently incarcerated at FCI Petersberg in Virginia. Since he was first locked up, in 2006, Christopher has published three books and written for a number of outlets, including Prison Legal News Service, the Huffington Post, AND Magazine and the New York Journal of Books. But writing behind bars is fraught with difficulties, as Zoukis told Aviva Stahl in this recent interview.

When did you first start thinking about being a journalist? What drew you to it?

I would say that I was a prison writer before becoming an incarcerated journalist. I wanted to make something of my time in prison and I wanted to connect with others like myself. In a way I suppose I was searching for community and camaraderie.

But as time went on things changed. No longer was I writing poems, but more and more serious articles. While yes, this is the direction that I wanted to take my work, I didn't so much feel that it was a choice, but almost an obligation or an honorable duty. I'm now the guy people come to when they don't know where else to turn. This is a responsibility that gives my life in here purpose, but also a tremendous weight.

My work is not always successful in the vein that I view my published work not as the end of the process, but the beginning. The goal of the writing is primarily to expose injustice, correct wrongs, and hold governmental wrongdoers accountable for their actions. But one of the people that I wrote about, Ashley Jean Arnold, a transgender prisoner incarcerated at FCI Petersburg, took her life on February 24, 2015. To date that has been my greatest failure. It is due to Ashley that I realize the work that incarcerated journalists engage in isn't merely asserting that prisoners are an essential stakeholder in the discussion, but that without our input more lives will be lost.

Talk about the process of reporting from the inside (e.g., meeting and establishing rapport with sources/interviewees; conducting interviews; doing research for current or future stories; writing up; communicating with editors, etc.).

In terms of the process, it is all pretty much the same these days. When a story is not yet on my radar, a prospective interview subject will approach me and explain what is going on with them. This could be in the law library, walking the track, in the chow hall, or, as of last night, while working out on the small rec field. Regardless of how I meet them, we usually sit down and I try to understand if they have something worth exploring.

In terms of research, I have to rely on my friends outside of prison to help me when the law library computers aren't enough. Note that I can gain access to case law, federal regulations, and statutory law, but not the internet or any scholarly journals. Due to these limitations, I extensively rely on Google Alerts. Friends print and mail these to me on a daily basis. On the other hand, when I want to delve into a specific topic, I ask an outside contact to search it out online and mail me whatever she finds.

If I find that there is a need that I can fulfill, or at least try to, then I'll use the same old tools of the trade that others have used before I was even born: paper and pen. I sit down, outline what the person has explained to me, show it to them to ensure that I'm understanding them correctly, and then get to drafting. This is where my tools of the trade differ. Federal prisoners don't have access to true word processors. Instead I have access to a clear Swintec typewriter and the computer system. For larger projects I use the typewriters, but for articles I use the computers, which allow me to email friends and family. Using this monitored email system I can draft my articles and zip them off to my outside contacts, who then make submission to specific outlets for me. This is one area where I'm largely at a loss because it’s often not worth it to convince editors to sign up to the email service, so I can't communicate with them directly. Instead I must rely on my outside contacts to do so for me.

What is the greatest challenge you face in reporting?

I would say that there are three areas that cause me much trouble: source material, technology, and the media in general. For the most part, I have to come up with my own article ideas and, hence, source material. This is never easy. The only publication that actually helps me with this is Prison Legal News, who, understanding the plight of incarcerated writers, send the materials that I require in order to fulfill the articles that they assign. My gratitude for this knows no bounds. Paul Wright and Alex Friedmann, Publisher and Managing Editor of PLN, intimately know the problems that incarcerated writers have due to being incarcerated writers at one point in their lives.

The other two areas go hand in hand. Being incarcerated in a federal prison, I'm very much disconnected from the outside world. This makes it very difficult to show my value to mainstream media outlets and to simply obtain the materials that I need to do timely report on developing stories. It's hard to get someone to invest in myself as a writer when I can't communicate with them on a regular basis due to communication barriers. Prison administrators also make this challenging due to restricting access to communications (e.g., limitations on telephone minutes, email access, and visitation) and retaliatory actions against incarcerated writers. The deck is stacked against us from the start.


Tuesday, Dec 15, 2015, 6:37 pm  ·  By Susan Greene, Colorado Independent

Conviction Vacated in 28-Year Innocence Case

First, Denver tossed the DNA evidence in a dumpster. Then, Denver DA Mitch Morrissey spent years fighting the facts of Clarence Moses-EL’s appeal. (  

This article originally appeared on the Colorado Independent

A judge has lifted convictions against a Denver man who has served more than 28 years behind bars for an attack he said from day one he didn’t commit.

The prosecution of Clarence Moses-EL hinged on a sole piece of flimsy evidence – an assertion by the victim of the 1987 rape and assault that his identity as her attacker came to her in a dream.

“The weight of that dream has been pressing down on me, pressing down on me hard, for more than 28 years,” Moses-EL said in an interview withThe Colorado Independent earlier this month.

Today, during a phone call just after learning of the ruling, an elated Moses-EL – who turned 60 last week – said that weight is finally lifted.

“A whole lot of stress has been taken off me knowing I don’t got to deal with the badness no more,” he said.

“Victory!” he continued. “Right is on my side. And it has been on my side the whole time.”

Today’s ruling by Denver District Judge Kandace Gerdes comes after District Attorney Mitch Morrissey has fought for years to uphold the conviction despite increasing evidence of Moses-EL’s innocence.

Denver officials’ missteps include:

  • Destroying all DNA evidence. After a judge granted Moses-EL an order to test the rape kit, the victim’s clothes and other key evidence for genetic fingerprinting, authorities in 1995 put the evidence in a box marked “DO NOT DESTROY.” Then, they threw it in a dumpster. Destroying the evidence prevented Moses-EL from proving his innocence for more than two decades.
  • Refusing to re-open the case in 2006, when Morrissey’s office started prosecuting L.C. Jackson for a similar rape of a mother and her daughter. Jackson was the first man the victim in the Moses-EL case named in her outcry, but police and prosecutors never investigated him. Even though Morrissey knew of Jackson’s criminal past, the DA asserted — incorrectly — that Jackson was never named by the victim in Moses-EL’s case.
  • Ignoring a statement by the lead police investigator that he always had doubts about the case
  • Trying to suppress new blood evidence showing it’s highly likely that someone with L.C. Jackson’s blood type was the attacker, and highly unlikely that it was someone with Moses-EL’s blood type
  • And trying to prevent L.C. Jackson from confessing in court

Morrissey’s office didn’t return inquiries today about the new ruling.


Monday, Nov 23, 2015, 10:48 pm  ·  By George Lavender

After 16 Years in Prison DNA Evidence Leads to Exoneration

After 16 years in prison, DNA evidence exonerated Lorenzo Vargas as a suspect in three rapes. On Monday a Los Angeles County judge threw out his convictions.  

As the Los Angeles Times reports, the testing indicated that the attacks had likely been carried out by the same assailant suspected in a series of other assaults.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office joined the attorneys to ask Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan to release Vargas, saying the office “no longer has confidence in the convictions.”

At a hearing Monday afternoon, Vargas appeared in a downtown courtroom handcuffed and dressed in blue jail scrubs. Among his supporters in attendance were his daughter and his mother, who dabbed tears from their eyes as the judge ordered Vargas' case set aside.

Though Vargas was ordered released, he will be placed in federal custody because of an immigration hold, authorities said. 

At his trial, three victims identified Vargas – who had previously served time for forcibly raping a girlfriend – as the man who attacked them. One, a 15-year-old girl, was raped. In the other two cases, Vargas was accused of attacking the victims with the intent of raping them.

Jurors found him guilty even though several co-workers testified that Vargas had been miles away at work when the attacks occurred. Continue reading… 

According to the National Registry of Exonerations last year 22 people were exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence. So far this year 21 people have been exonerated in cases in which DNA evidence was involved, excluding Vargas, although in some of those cases, post-conviction DNA evidence was not central to the case. 


Thursday, Nov 12, 2015, 3:03 am  ·  By George Lavender

Thousands of Prisoners Released After Drug Sentences Reduced, But One in Three May Face Deportation

After the Sentencing Commission retroactively reduced the length of time people convicted of some drug crimes have to spend in prison, thousands of people became eligible for immediate release from federal prison. As the LA Times reports, that has now started

…about 3,400 -- already have moved to the Bureau of Prisons' halfway houses or were confined at home, but will be released from custody by Tuesday, according to the Justice Department.

The remaining 850 or so will be released directly from prison to a probation officer.

Prisoners being released include 250 from California, 310 from Florida, 260 from Illinois, 95 from Maryland, 100 from Pennsylvania, 163 from Virginia and 35 from Connecticut. Continue reading… 

The Sentencing Commission is an independent agency of the judiciary. The reduction in sentences for some drug crimes was supported by then-Attorney General Eric Holder who hailed the move as “a milestone in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement resources and ease the burden on our overcrowded prison system.”

Not everyone who gets out of prison will be able to return to their previous lives, as PRI’s The World reports.

Nearly a third of the 6,000 are foreign inmates who will be placed on a different track, one that may lead to deportation and leaving their families behind in the United States.

Immigration officials estimate that most of those foreign inmates are from Mexico. Once released, they will be handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials for likely deportation — whether they legally immigrated to the US or illegally.  Continue reading… 


Monday, Oct 26, 2015, 4:33 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Clinton Campaign Will Stop Taking Cash from Private Prison Companies’ PACs and Lobbyists

kakissel / Flickr

Hillary Clinton's campaign for President moved to distance itself from private prison companies last week. 

Activists had criticized Clinton for what they said was a contradiction between her recent rhetoric on "ending mass incarceration" and her campaign's connections to some of the country's leading private prison corporations. Clinton's campaign announced Friday she will no longer accept donations from federally registered lobbyists or PACs for companies involved in incarceration. Her campaign said that money she has already recieved will be donated to charity. 

As Alice Ollstein reports at ThinkProgress, the announcement came after months of campaigning by immigrant and civil rights groups.

“When we’re dealing with a mass incarceration crisis, we don’t need private industry incentives that may contribute — or have the appearance of contributing — to over-incarceration,” campaign spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa told ThinkProgress, explaining that Clinton will donate the large amount she has already received from these sources to a yet-to-be-named charity.

Hinojosa explained that the move is part of Clinton’s promise to “end the era of mass incarceration,” especially private prisons and private immigrant detention centers.

“She believes that we should not contract out this core responsibility of the federal government,” Hinojosa said. “This is only one of many ways that she believes we need to re-balance our criminal justice and immigration systems.”

Yet the decision came after months of pressure from civil rights and immigrant justice groups, who launched online petitions and interrupted Clinton’s public events, demanding she cut ties with the private prison industry.

“Our message was, ‘You can’t be pro-immigrant and still have this blemish on your record,'” said Zenén Jaimes Pérez with United We Dream, one of many organizations that teamed up to press Clinton. “She had [campaign donation] bundlers who worked for the Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group, which run most of the immigrant detention centers in this country. For me, it was a big deal, because my dad was detained in a Geo facility. She was taking money from a group profiting from my family’s suffering.” Continue reading... 

As Lee Fang at The Intercept reported earlier this summer, several prominent "bundlers" for the Clinton campaign were tied to Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America.  Bundlers are campaign fundraisers who solicit large donations from friends, family and colleagues. (They regularly go on to political positions or recieve other government favors)  

Richard Sullivan, of the lobbying firm Capitol Counsel, is a bundler for the Clinton campaign, bringing in $44,859 in contributions in a few short months. Sullivan is also a registered lobbyist for the Geo Group, a company that operates a number of jails, including immigrant detention centers, for profit.

As we reported yesterday, fully five Clinton bundlers work for the lobbying and law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in America, paid Akin Gump$240,000 in lobbying fees last year. The firm also serves as a law firm for the prison giant, representing the company in court.

Akin Gump lobbyist and Clinton bundler Brian Popper disclosed that he previously helped CCA defeat efforts to compel private prisons to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Hillary Clinton has a complicated history with incarceration. As first lady, she championed efforts to get tough on crime. “We need more police, we need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders,” Clinton said in 1994. “The ‘three strikes and you’re out’ for violent offenders has to be part of the plan. We need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets,” she added. Continue reading... 

During this campaign Clinton has spoken publicly about the need to end "mass incarceration." In April she told an audience at the Public Policy Forum at Columbia University that "there is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts."


Sunday, Oct 25, 2015, 12:50 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Prison Phone Call Rates Capped

Staying in touch with someone in prison can be a costly business.

Usually the cost of the call is covered by the person outside prison receiving it, and could reach as much as $14 per minute according to the FCC. The rates are often especially high for calls made out of state. For years, activists and lawyers have argued that places an unreasonable burden on people with a loved-one in prison and urged the FCC to intervene.

As NBC reports, last Thursday the FCC did just that

The move by the Federal Communications Commission was described as a "huge step forward" by one reform group and denounced as "wrong-headed" by a phone service provider that vowed to lead an industry challenge.

The FCC's decision eliminates or limits fees commonly tacked on by providers. It also caps the maximum cost of a 15-minute in-state or local call at $1.65 and lowers the per-minute rate.

The new rules affect inmates in federal and state prisons, including immigrant detention centers. They also apply to local jails, though rates are higher in smaller facilities. Continue reading… 

The move follows a 2013 interim cap on the cost of phone calls. To listen to a radio report from that time go to 14.40 here

Private companies providing phone calls have vowed to challenge the caps to the rates. 


Tuesday, Sep 29, 2015, 5:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Georgia Denies Kelly Gissendaner Clemency Despite Pope’s Pleas

Georgia’s board of pardons and paroles has denied clemency to Kelly Gissendaner, despite pleas to spare her life delivered by her children and Pope Francis.

Gissendaner is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 7pm for her part in the 1997 murder of her husband. The board met today to hear from her eldest son Brandon, but upheld its decision to deny clemency.

The intervention from the Pope comes a week after he told a joint session of Congress he opposed the death penalty “since every life is sacred.” The letter, written on the Pope’s behalf by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano read:

“While not wishing to minimize the gravity of the crime for which Ms Gissendaner has been convicted, and while sympathizing with the victims, I nonetheless implore you, in consideration of the reasons that have been expressed to your board, to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy,”

Gissendaner’s previous execution date was postponed in March after the drugs to be used in the lethal injection appeared “cloudy.” She is one of three death row inmates in three different states scheduled to die this week.  


Monday, Sep 28, 2015, 1:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Texas Provides Virginia with Lethal Injection Drugs Amid National Shortage

With drugs for lethal injections in short supply, Virginia has found a new supplier: Texas. As the New York Times reports, Texas has provided Virginia with the pentobarbital it needs to carry out the scheduled execution of Alfredo Rolando Prieto on Thursday.

The disclosure, which surfaced in a court filing in an Oklahoma death penalty case, was confirmed Friday by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Virginia prison officials also confirmed the trade, saying they needed pentobarbital to replace a dose of another drug they intended to use, midazolam, that will soon expire.

A spokesman for Texas prisons, Jason Clark, said the three vials of pentobarbital given to Virginia had been legally purchased from a compounding pharmacy, which he declined to name. Texas and Oklahoma are among a handful of states with laws — being challenged by death penalty opponents — that allow prison officials not to disclose where they get execution drugs.

Virginia prison officials gave Texas pentobarbital to use as a backup in 2013, and when Virginia asked for help this year, Mr. Clark said, “we reciprocated.” Continue reading… 

Critics of the death penalty have raised concerns about the exchange of drugs. Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the Times the exchange between states “puts a whole new spin on the efforts by state departments of corrections for secrecy in the execution process,” 

The exchange came to light in court filings in the case of Richard Glossip, the condemned Oklahoma inmate, who won a reprieve earlier this month


Saturday, Sep 19, 2015, 11:00 pm  ·  By George Lavender

Appeals Court Overturns Murder Sentences for Three of the Elkhart Four

An Indiana court has overturned the murder convictions for three of the Elkhart Four. Without ever having killed anyone, Blake Layman, Anthony Sharp, and Levi Sparks, had previously been serving 55 years in prison under the state's felony murder law.  Their case sparked renewed calls for the law to be changed.

In October 2012 five young people broke into a house in Elkhart looking for a quick way to make money. They later told police that they had believed the house was empty. It wasn't. The owner Rodney Scott, who had been sleeping upstairs, came down and opened fire hitting Layman in the leg and killing 21 year old Danzele Johnson. Despite the fact that none of the four surviving teenagers had pulled the trigger, they were all charged with murder. As the Indy Star reports, they were convicted under Indiana's Felony Murder Statute

...a person can be charged with murder if someone is killed while he or she is committing or attempting to commit another crime. That crime could be arson, burglary, robbery, carjacking, human trafficking, sexual trafficking, or sex and drug crimes — acts that the law considers inherently dangerous.

Felony murder carries the same penalty as murder, but unlike a murder charge, in which intent to kill must be proven, a person can be convicted of felony murder even if the death is accidental or unintended.

Supporters say it's a useful statute, a crime deterrent and a safeguard in the criminal justice system that holds people accountable for committing dangerous acts that result in someone's death.

 The four were sentenced to 55 years in prison for murder, but the case gained widespread interest. As the Guardian reports, on Friday, the sentence was overturned for all but one of the Elkhart Four. The fourth, Jose Quiroz Jr. plead guilty to felony murder and did not file an appeal. 

The highest court in the state on Friday stripped out the contentious “felony murder” conviction for Blake Layman, now 19, Anthony Sharp, 21, and Levi Sparks, 20, stating that none of the three had ever engaged in any “dangerously violent and threatening conduct”.

The judges reduced the convictions to simple burglary and ordered the lower courts to resentence the prisoners accordingly. Continue reading...