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Mental Illness and Prisoners

By Stephanie Mencimer / motherjones.com

Passed in 1994, California’s “three strikes” law is the nation’s harshest sentencing law. Designed to imprison for life anyone who commits three violent crimes, the law has inadvertently resulted in the incarceration of a lot relatively harmless people, for a long time and at great public expense. Crimes that have earned people life sentences: Stealing a dollar in loose change from a car, breaking into a soup kitchen to steal food, stealing a jack from the open window of a tow truck, and even stealing two pairs of children’s shoes from Ross Dress for Less. The law is one reason that California’s prison system is dangerously, and unconstitutionally, overcrowded. More than 4,000 people in the prison system are serving life sentences for non-violent crimes.

In 2012, with corrections costs consuming ever more of the state budget, the voters in the state had had enough, and they approved a reform measure that would spring many of these low-level offenders from a lifetime of costly confinement. By August of last year, more than 1,000 inmates had their life sentences changed and were released; recidivisim rates for this group has also been extremely low. But further progress in the reform effort is being stymied by one thorny problem: Nearly half of the inmates serving time in California prisons suffer from a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. So far, judges have been reluctant to let these folks out of their life sentences.

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The Ultimate Restitution

By: Jon & Michael Flinner

Prisoners are fated to spend their days in earthly purgatory, exiled from society by their own actions in most cases. It can be said that the population behind the walls and fences of the nation’s correctional facilities represent significant destructive forces, and through individual “deeds”, lives and property have been destroyed and or lost.

At the same time in the greater world, there’s an existential crisis looming for more than 100,000 Americans. These people live on “borrowed time”, clinging to life in the face of unspeakable pain and horror, simply waiting for the gift of a life-saving organ transplant.

The government has an absolute duty to protect its citizenry. After all, that’s the rationale for the imprisonment of so many, well…that and the concept of repayment of societal debt, rehabilitation, restitution, and punishment for transgression. The word “penitentiary” says it all — a place to learn penitence. Right?

Why then if the government protects its citizens and the objective of imprisonment is to shape positive outcomes in the prisoner, that with a population exceeding 2.3 million incarcerated, that those in the free world awaiting organ and tissue transplants are deprived willing donors?

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Global Tel Link: The Nation’s Leader in Exorbitant Prison Phone Rates

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy newblackman.blogspot.com

For many years prisoners and their families have bemoaned the exorbitant rates charged by companies that provide telephone services to the incarcerated.  Prisoners and their families, two groups chronically economically disadvantaged, have been abused and taken advantage of time and time again when merely trying to stay in contact.  This is plainly unacceptable from a prisoners’ rights standpoint and a social morality standpoint, too.  But it gets worse.  As we delve into the murky waters of prison phone contracts, those who do not yet understand how insidious and extortionate these contracts truly are, will come to demand for change, not for their own sakes or for society’s, but based upon a moral conviction and the desire to help keep families together, a term of incarceration notwithstanding.

The problem with prison phone contracts ironically enough doesn’t hinge on the various departments of corrections or the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  It isn’t even promulgated by prison phone providers either.  The issue, instead, has to do with the awarding of prison phone contracts.

Prison phone contracts are awarded based on a profit share model.  Companies such as Global Tel Link agree to charge prisoners and their families high phone rates and to share profits with either the local jail or prison, or the central administration of the prison system.  As such, the incentive to lower phone rates is actually reduced.  Instead, both corrections’ departments and prison phone providers strive to tack on as many fees and increased prison phone rates as much as possible to increase profits, as has been reported frequently in Prison Legal  News and at the Prison Law Blog.  Often, these contracts are awarded to the prison phone company which offers the largest kick-back rate.  In fact, prison phone companies are known to also give premiums away to encourage contracts.  Local jails have been known to receive free booking computer systems.  Sheriffs have been known to receive campaign donations.  And police departments have received free police cruisers.

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Malta Prisoner Obtains Partial Pension Benefit

By Christopher Zoukis

Today we have an interesting case out of Malta, where a prisoner is asserting that he is entitled to his full retirement pension benefits even though he is currently incarcerated in a prison.

The story starts in 2003 when a man by the name of Paul Hill attempted to murder Victor Testa by repeatedly beating him in the head with a wooden plank.  Come August 2004, Mr. Hill was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.  Upon appeal, the Court of Appeal reduced Mr. Hill’s sentence to 12 years imprisonment.

Prior to Mr. Hill’s imprisonment, he was an employee of Air Malta.  In 2011, he turned 61, the age his retirement pension would vest.  As such, while in prison, he applied for pension benefits.

While Mr. Hill’s pension application was accepted, a decision was made against him which stated that he would only receive half of his pension while in custody.  This way his wife would be supported while he was in prison, and that upon his release from custody he would receive his full pension benefits.

The case becomes even more convoluted when the Social Security Department uncovered that Mr. Hill’s wife was already receiving an invalid pension.  This resulted in an agreement being struck between the Social Security Department and Mr. Hill’s wife which stipulated that she was ineligible for half of Mr. Hill’s pension.  Since she had already received 9,257 Euros of Mr. Hill’s pension, she agreed to reimburse the Social Security Department with 5 percent of each future payment, until the 9,257 Euros issued to her in error were paid back.

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Open Books’ Prison Book Project: Reforming Prisoners One Book at a Time

By Christopher Zoukis   Image courtesy www.nbbd.com

Even in the darkest of nights the moon gives off a faint glow.  The same is true of the world of American corrections, even in Florida’s private prison paradise.  This light — and the hope it brings — comes from an unlikely source with an unusual mission: Open Books’ Prison Book Project.

The Prison Book Project is a volunteer books-to-prisoners operation.  Founded in the year 2000, when it used to be based in the now closed Subterranean Books (Pensacola, Florida), it is presently hosted at Pensacola’s Open Books.

Open Books, a nonprofit bookstore located at 1040 N. Guillemard Street in Pensacola, Florida is open every day from 12:00 PM to 5:00 PM.  Its volunteer operators can be found selling discounted books to the public.  But on Wednesdays, the real transformational magic is breathed into being.

Every Wednesday, the Prison Book Project volunteers take over and get to work.  They open stacks of mail from prisoners across the state of Florida.  While they can handle around 40 requests each week (due to mailing expenses), they receive around 70 requests a week from prisoners seeking books, an outlet to something greater than their prison cells.  The backlog of hundreds of requests shows the value, importance, and respect prisoners have for this project.

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3 Reasons to Reinstate Prisoner Eligibility for Pell Grants

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy prisoneducation.com

There are many “smart on crime” reasons to reinstate prisoners’ eligibility for Pell grants and other need-based financial aid.  When we look at the benefits of educating prisoners we see reductions in recidivism, increases in pro-social thinking, enhanced post-release employment prospects, and strengthened ties to children and communities.  The list goes on and on.  Today, I’d like to touch upon the ideas that funding prison education programs is not a reward for crime, improves the economy, and reduces the number of victims (more specifically, new victims of repeat offenders).

Not A Reward for Crime

Perhaps the most important reason to reinstate prisoner eligibility for Pell grants and other need-based financial assistance actually concerns the refutation of arguments to defund it.  The argument goes something like this: The prisoner broke the law, so they should not be rewarded with a college-level education while they serve their term of incarceration.  The problem here is that prisoners don’t see educational restrictions as a punishment, but life as usual.  Prisoners usually come from an educationally disadvantaged population.  They are poor, have very few employable skills, and often don’t even complete high school.  Telling a person like this that they cannot go to school isn’t a punishment to them, it is life.

The vast majority of those in American prisons feel as though they never had any meaningful access to education prior to their criminal lifestyle, even if the public school system was open to them.  Often they feel as though their only option was a life of crime.  This has a lot to do with the families and communities they grow up in.  Restricting an education from a person like this — a person who desperately needs the life-saving tool of education — is plainly cruel.  It’s setting the already disadvantaged prisoner up to fail.  If we do so, we shouldn’t be surprised when they do.

Preventing inmates from obtaining scholastic financial assistance clearly doesn’t punish prisoners, it punishes us, the American people.  Restricting funding for prison education programs merely prevents those who want a better life after their release from prison from obtaining one.  When these tools are restricted — either by means of banning prisoners from educational pursuits or by refusing to fund such programs — we are really hurting ourselves much more.

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Telemedicine Behind Bars

By Prison Legal News

The National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC), which provides accreditation for medical services in prisons, jails and other correctional facilities, held its national conference in Nashville, Tennessee from October 28 to 30, 2013.

PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann attended the conference and sat in on several presentations that addressed the issue of telemedicine in the correctional setting. Telemedicine involves medical consultations over a remote connection, typically with a patient speaking with a physician or other medical practitioner on a video screen.

The first NCCHC conference session on telemedicine was conducted by Lawrence Mendel, a physician and acting medical director at the Leavenworth Detention Center, a facility operated by Corrections Corporation of America.

According to Mendel, the first prison telemedicine program began in 1978 at the South Florida Reception Center in conjunction with Jackson Memorial Hospital. The use of telemedicine expanded during the 1990s and it is now used in a variety of settings to provide long-distance medical evaluations and diagnoses.

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