Folsom's 93

The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men

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The Overpopulation of Prisons, Part III: Minorities

The numbers are truly staggering. As I’ve mentioned in Part I of this series, it is estimated that 1/3 of all black males in the United States will experience a stint in state prison at least once. Also, young black females are the fastest growing population in prison today.

The numbers have been rising for decades and they don’t seem to be slowing. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2009, non-Hispanic blacks account for 39.4% and Hispanics made up 20.6% of the jail and prison population.

These disparities between race and ethnicity garner several theories, and researchers who have examined the issue, determined that discrimination certainly plays a role—and not just with the arrest, but also occurring in the pretrial detention, prosecution, sentencing, and release decision-making. In fact, there is very little research available on racial bias in arrests.

In the 1980s and ’90s, minorities experienced the results of the war on drugs more than any other race. In 1999, blacks made up 46% of the sentenced prisoners for drug abuse in both state and federal jurisdiction. Interestingly, the difference in penalties for abusing crack cocaine (mostly used by blacks) and powder cocaine (mostly used by whites) contributed to more arrests and longer sentences for blacks. Federal law states that one gram of crack was equivalent to 100 grams of powder, thus resulting in longer sentences for the crack user.

In 2007, Hispanics made up 40% of federal offenders, a 24% increase from 1991. 48% of those were for immigration violations and 37% were drug offenses. Hispanics offenders are increasing rapidly and have violence rates that are higher than whites, but lower than that of blacks.

The Theories

Conflict Theory: Is said that the social economic forces in a society are the cause of crime; that criminal behavior is the consequence of the conflict which arises between competing groups within society; the haves vs. the have-nots.

Strain Theory: Based on the work of Robert Agnew in the 1930s and ’40s, this theory proposes that social structures in a society lead to deprivations and equality among its population, thus encourage those affected, to commit crime.

Social Disorganization Theory: Proponents of this theory accuse urban decay, or the breakdown of healthy urban communities to be the root of criminal behavior.

Macrostructural Opportunity Theory: Believes that the US is still widely residentially segregated. Proponents of this theory opine that if neighborhoods were more interracial, crime would be less prevalent.

Social Control Theory: This theory is considered one of the more popular theories. It proposes that those who commit crime, lack strong bonds with their social environment.

Subculture of Violence Theory: Anthropologist, Walter B. Miller suggested that the high of rate of crime among African Americans stems from a unique racial subculture that views violence in a different manner than the rest of mainstream America.

Because of the lack of studies and research pertaining to the growing numbers of incarcerated minorities, little is likely to be done to examine and remedy the issue. One blogger, who recently wrote about the same topic, made some logical suggestions:

Systemic problems such as lack of education, lack of community autonomy, and lack of resources, are clearly impacting  these statistics, as is the institution of racism. By putting more emphasis on success in school and programs for workforce development, and putting resources in these communities and in general breathing life and making whole these quite stagnant, at-risk living situations, we could give people the opportunity to break the cycle. Allowing returning citizens basic rights also seems democratic and just.

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The Overpopulation of Prisons, Part II: Women in Prison

Not too long ago, according to my blog stats, someone had searched “hot women in prison” and surprisingly, came to (This was baffling, since I’ve never written anything about that before). Anyway, I’m sure the inquirer was hoping to find some salacious, not to mention unrealistic, portrayal of women having a great time with one another in prison. I’m assuming that this porn-surfer is completely oblivious to the actual conditions of women’s prisons. Now, I’m not speaking from experience, but from the amount of research I’ve done and from the words of actual female prisoners.

Give me a break!

Today, women are the fastest growing prison population, particularly African Americans. In 1999, the number of drug arrests for women were nearly twice as high than for men, yet twice as many men were arrested for violent crimes. Women are even arrested for simply living with a drug dealer, regardless of whether or not she was involved in the drug business. Sociologists have declared that the war on drugs, quickly translated to the war on women.

When lawmakers created structured sentencing, mandatory sentences, truth in sentencing and the three strikes law, their image of a criminal was a violent male predator, not a first time drug offending female. Many women prisoners, most who have no priors, commit non-violent crimes such as writing bad checks, shoplifting, and credit card fraud. These women often lack meaningful employment and are educational and economically deficient.

And we cannot forget that a vast majority of these women are mothers. Before the war on drugs, judges had the discretion to consider the woman’s crime, along with her family responsibilities, when it came to sentencing. That’s not the case now. According to the National Policy Committee’s 2001 report, almost half of incarcerated mothers have never received a visit from their children. This is due to the proximity of the prison to their homes. Many women’s prisons are located in rural areas and the average inmate’s home is a hundred miles from where they are incarcerated. What’s even more disturbing is that these children are five times more likely to commit crimes and become prisoners themselves.

Central California’s Women’s Facility

Earlier this month, Laura Gottesdeiner’s article in the Huffington Post describes the horrible conditions in Central California’s Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. The prison houses nearly 3,700 inmates which is 180% capacity. Eight women are packed into a cell that is meant for only four. These prisons are designed, built and run by men.  Both former and current inmates report squalid conditions, lack of sanitary needs, and medical treatment is often unavailable or inconsistent. Across the country, these women tell their horrifying experiences of sexual abuse at the hands of the male guards. They are often raped by the guards, who also forced the women to have sex with maintenance workers, other prisoners, and even the prison chaplain. If the inmate becomes pregnant, she often forced to have an abortion.

According to Gottesdeiner’s article, California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began rationing supplies for basic needs such as toilet paper, soaps, and toothbrushes in an effort to relieve the painful swelling of the state budget. It has prompted some women inmates to resort to prostitution with guards in order to obtain these items.The Civil Rights Act of 1964, bars an employer from denying someone a job based on their sex, so male guards grossly outnumber their female counterparts.

Women and Prison is a site dedicated to the lives of women incarcerated in the U.S. It is a venue developed in order for the public to hear the voices of both current and former women prisoners, who write about their experiences behind bars, many of which are emotionally difficult to read. Sara Olson, one such inmate wrote an article entitled, The Conditions in Women’s Prisons where she describes the mistreatment that runs rampant in California’s women’s prisons.

I want to make clear that I do believe criminals need to be dealt with, but accordingly. I think it’s ignorant to assume that all women (and male) prisoners have received sentences that fit their crimes. And even if they have, should they be denied their basic needs? Is it acceptable to cram them into cells that can barely accommodate them? Do they deserve to be sexually abused? The U.S. was highly criticized by it’s own citizens for the ill-treatment of foreign detainees at Guantanamo Bay, yet fellow Americans are being brutalized daily in both male and female prisons.

As lawmakers and voters, we need to alleviate this epidemic of abuse. Efforts need to be focused on addressing the problems that low-risk women offenders are faced with when it comes to sentencing. Until there are programs to educate and rehabilitate  prisoners, as well as programs to alleviate the economic strain on them, our prisons are going to continue to become broken down institutions of abuse and corruption.

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The Overpopulation of Prisons, Part I

Over the course of my research, I have stumbled upon a topic that we hear about all the time: Prison overpopulation. There are a number of contributing factors to this growing problem and so I thought I’d address them in a four-part series. In today’s post, I’d like to share some staggering facts about current prison population and how the “war on drugs” campaign has packed our prisons with inmates.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Russia holds the number two spot. In 1980, there were less than 500,000 Americans in prison. Today, there are 1,404,503 people in state prisons, 208,118 in federal prison, and nearly 6 million on probation or parole. Today’s parole rate is a 59% increase since 1990.

Even with these numbers, crime is down 0.3%—the first drop since 1972. California has reported a 2.5% drop with 169,413 inmates. What’s behind the decrease? The state of California decided to cut the number of low-risk parolees who would return to prison because of technical parole violations. This move can be attributed to the state being ordered in 2009 to reduce its prison population by 30%. That’s 40,000 inmates. The state is struggling to meet such a demand.

Some facts:

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that approximately 1/3 of all black males will experience state prison in their lifetime.

Young black women is the fastest growing prison population.

National spending on corrections in 1980: $9 billion. Today: $60 billion

Much of the increase of prison population can be blamed the on good intentions of the “War on Drugs.”  Forty years ago on June 17th, Nixon was the first to use that term. In 1980, 6% of the prison population consisted of drug offenders—about 19,000. In 1998, there were 237,000—21%. In 2008, there were over half a million people incarcerated for drug offenses, the result of 1.5 million drug-related arrests.

When  a politician decides to get “tough on crime,” it too, contributes to the overcrowding of prisons. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about punishing those who commit crime, but those with no prior records are given mandatory sentences, or others who made a small infraction became victims of the “three strikes, you’re out,” law, thus, causing a swell in the already crowded prisons. This tough on crime has quickly become tough on prisons, as well as state and federal budgets. 

Other factors in the overcrowding of prisons consists of, “truth in sentencing” (abolishing parole—inmates serve their entire given sentence) and longer sentences for sex offenders.

In May 2011, The U.S. Supreme Court declared that the overcrowding in California state prisons is cruel and unusual punishment. As mentioned earlier, the state is struggling to figure out how to release 30,000 prisoners in the next 2 years. How will this happen? Governor Jerry Brown is suggesting moving non-violent and low-risk inmates to county jails, or even possibly out-of-state. Prison officials are practically on their hand and knees, asking for more funding to not only build more prisons, but to create educational programs that will reduce recidivism.

There are more factors involved in this ever-growing problem and in the coming days, I will talk about:

Women in prison—the fastest growing prison population

Conditions of prisons and its prisoners

Minorities in prison

Sources: National Policy Committee The Pew Center on the States The U.S. Dept of Justice