When the justices of the United States Supreme Court confer Friday morning to consider new cases they will have the opportunity to accept for review a dispute that tests not just the meaning of their own recent Sixth Amendment precedent but the viability of a major new policy initiative implemented this summer by the Justice Department to bring more fairness to federal sentencing while reducing the terrible costs of prison overcrowding.
In Gomez v. United States, a Massachusetts case, the justices have been asked to determine whether they meant what they wrote about juries and drug sentences in Alleyne v. United States, decided just this past June, and at the same time whether Attorney General Eric Holder meant what he said, in August, when he promised to curb the ways in which his federal prosecutors abuse “mandatory minimum” sentences in drug cases to obtain guilty pleas (or higher sentences).
The justices should accept this case for review. And the Court should affirm the just principle that a man cannot constitutionally be sentenced based upon charges that are not brought or upon facts a jury does not even hear. But even if the justices aren’t willing to muster up that level of indignation, they ought to at least take the opportunity to call out federal prosecutors for saying one thing in front of the microphones and another in court papers.
Read more. [Image: Stephen Lam/Reuters]
Marty Williams is serving life-without-parole at California’s maximum security New Folsom prison. “It’s not the place that you see in the movies,” Marty says in the documentary At Night I Fly, available this week on video on demand. His experience, he says, is not defined by gang wars and rape, as most media depictions suggest. Instead, “this place is about isolation. It’s about the closure of the mind and the heart.” Prison is not excitement and violence and television drama. Instead, it’s the stifling of all those things. It’s not a story, but the refusal of stories, of meaning, and therefore of hope.
At Night I Fly is in part about trying to give inmates stories. Much of the film focuses on an arts in corrections program, where 20 or so inmates participate in writing workshops by sharing poems and stories and songs. Mostly they write about their time in prison, though they also talk about other issues. One prisoner reads a short, doggerel, but nonetheless seethingly bitter poem about his abusive mother. Another performs a lascivious, a cappella reggae-inspired ode to black women.
"A recent report [PDF] from the Vera Institute of Justice explains that the differences are both philosophical and practical. ‘Resocialization’ and rehabilitation are central to the Dutch and German models, whereas the American model focuses on retribution and isolation from society. In Germany and the Netherlands, this means prison conditions are more humane, fines are preferred over incarceration, solitary confinement is rarely used, and sentences are far shorter than in the U.S.”
Read: Why America Has a Mass Incarceration Problem, and Why Germany and the Netherlands Don’t
At a time of overcrowded prisons, cost overruns, and serious allegations of abuse and neglect, the Senate Judiciary Committee plays patty-cake with the Bureau of Prisons chief.
Falsified logs. Lack of supervision of an inmate. Lack of adequate staffing. Lack of communication. This is almostprecisely what happened exactly one month earlier, in August, to Billy Slagle, the death row inmate who committed suicide just hours after his lawyers learned new information that might have spared him from execution. Here is the link to our Atlantic coverage of Slagle’s death. And here is the link to the “after-action” report in the Castro case.
What the two incidents tell us is that Ohio prison officials were unable or unwilling after Slagle’s death to implement policies and practices that ensured Castro’s safety—in other words, the reasonable recommendations contained in the Slagle “after action” plan were not put into place in time to spare Castro. They also show that the practice of falsifying records” was not limited to the state’s death row (remember, Castro was sentenced to life in prison). Since 2000, 88 inmates have committed suicide within Ohio’s prison system.
Read more. [Image: John Gress/Reuters]
It’s a postcard-perfect day on Suomenlinna Island, in Helsinki’s South Harbor. Warm for the first week of June, day trippers mix with Russian, Dutch, and Chinese tourists sporting sun shades and carrying cones of pink ice cream.
“Is this the prison?” asks a 40-something American woman wearing cargo pants and a floral sleeveless blouse.
Linda, my guide and translator, pauses beside me between the posts of an open picket fence. After six years of teaching as a volunteer inside American prisons, I’ve come from the private college where I work to investigate the Scandinavian reputation for humane prisons. It’s the end of my twelfth prison tour, and I consider the semantics of the question: If you can’t tell whether you’re in a prison, can it be a prison? I’ve never considered this in so many words. Yet I find that I know the answer, having felt it inside a prison cell in Denmark: There is no punishment so effective as punishment that nowhere announces the intention to punish. Linda is an intern working on a degree in public policy. Young and thoroughly practical, she smiles and says to the tourists, “Yes, you are here.”
Read more. [Image: Doran Larson]
Before he took his own tortured life last month, Billy Slagle had answered to just about everyone he could think of for the crime he had committed a quarter of a century ago. He had explained as best he could the circumstances of it. He had repeatedly apologized and taken responsibility for it. And he had begged forgiveness for it. Now that he is gone, the question at the heart of his tragic life and death is whether the people responsible for his fate, in positions of power and authority, will ever have the courage and integrity to accept their own measure of responsibility for what happened to him and why.
Slagle hanged himself with a belt in his prison cell early on Sunday morning, August 4th, three days before he was scheduled to be executed for the 1987 home-invasion murder of a young woman named Mari Anne Pope. Slagle’s death came just weeks after Ohio parole board officials narrowly rejected his final request for clemency — over the earnest objections of Cuyahoga County prosecutors, who argued for leniency and a life sentence. It came weeks after Gov. John Kasich rejected the profound and numerous mitigating factors of Slagle’s case.
Even more dramatically, Slagle’s suicide also occurred approximately 36 hours after prosecutors in his case discovered shocking new information that might have precluded his execution. On the Friday before Slagle died, one of the prosecutors involved in his long-ago murder trial disclosed to current prosecutors that a plea deal had been discussed among lawyers before Slagle’s trial — but that Slagle had never been told of a possible deal. Such a revelation, coming from a former prosecutor, almost certainly would have stayed Slagle’s execution and likely would have pushed Ohio into granting him clemency.
But just as no one evidently told Billy Slagle about the plea deal 25 years ago, no one was able to get to Slagle in time last month to tell him the news about the plea negotiations and the hope it represented. Thus this story of crime and punishment, of law and order, morphed into a work of Shakespeare: Billy Slagle killed himself for lack of hope, even though hope was careening toward him in the form of this material new information that cast doubt upon the fairness of his trial.
Read more. [Image: Reuters]
Hollywood’s new fascination with the Mexican drug trade might turn out to be a blessing for Carlos Quijas, who recently got a call from a movie producer who was interested in meeting with him. A contractor and former golf instructor from El Paso, Quijas has never directed a movie or written a script. But it’s not his movie-making credentials the studio seems to be after — it’s his criminal record.
Almost four years ago, Quijas, a U.S. citizen, was arrested, convicted, and sentenced for drug-smuggling in Mexico. He has spent that time trying to prove his innocence and clear his record of what he considers to be the result of a corrupt judicial system and bad timing.
Read more. [Image: Reuters]
In The Last Supper, activist Julie Green has created a series of ceramic plates, each of which illustrate the final meal requests of prisoners on death row to protest the United States’ use of capital punishment. Images range from lobster and ice cream to a single Jolly Rancher. One prisoner even requested that his mother come to cook him his favorite comfort food. Created by Dark Rye, the online magazine from Whole Foods (a business not typically associated with progressive talking points), the documentary chronicles how Green became so drawn to the issue.
As an American, or maybe just as a moral human being, it’s hard not to feel appalled, even outraged, that Norwegian far-right monster Anders Breivik only received 21 years in prison for his attacks last year, including a bombing in Oslo and a cold-blooded shooting spree, which claimed 77 lives. That’s just under 100 days per murder. The decision, reached by the court’s five-member panel, was unanimous. He will serve out his years (which can be extended) in a three-room cell with a TV, exercise room, and “Ikea-style furniture.” The New York Times quoted a handful of survivors and victims’ relatives expressing relief and satisfaction at the verdict. It’s not a scientific survey, but it’s still jarring to see Norwegians welcoming this light sentence.
Norway’s criminal justice system is, obviously, quite distinct from that of, say, the U.S.; 21 years is the maximum sentence for anything less severe than war crimes or genocide. Still, it’s more than that: the entire philosophy underpinning that system is radically different. I don’t have an answer for which system is better. I doubt anyone does. But Americans’ shocked response to the Breivik sentence hints at not just how different the two systems are, but how deeply we may have come to internalize our understanding of justice, which, whatever its merits, doesn’t seem to be as universal as we might think.
Read more. [Image: AP]