Friday, September 11, 2015

Let's Build A Wall Of Prevention Around Our Warehouse Of Detention

Rockingham/Harrisonburg Jail, home to 3-400 inmates
I had the opportunity to speak to 40-50 people at the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community today on criminal justice reform, using the handout below. We discussed the need for having congregations, schools, police and sheriff departments and health service providers form the kind of barrier that keeps more people out, and fewer people in, our jails and prisons.

Here's the handout, as promised, with links:

I Was In Prison

The US, while only 5% of the world’s people, holds 25% of its prisoners, more than any other country in the world. Virginia alone houses or supervises over 58,000 offenders, not including federal inmates. DOC's FY2014 operating budget was $1.1 billion. The per capita inmate expense is $27,462, which represents a 29% increase in the past nine years. Medical expenditures consume 13.6% of DOC's budget. 
Our local jail numbers have increased 500% since 1995, while our population has grown only 25%.

A. Some Factors affecting jail and prison overcrowding:

1. Too many people are in jail awaiting trial. Should people be behind bars who have not yet been found guilty in a court of law—unless they are a danger to others or are a flight risk?

2. Sentences are too long. Minimum mandatory sentencing laws limit judges’ discretion.

3. Prosecutors are often driven by a need to establish guilt in order to resolve a case, sometimes at the risk of a wrongful conviction.

4. Proven alternatives to jail (restorative justice, in home detention, etc.) are often limited by statute, by public opinion and/or by tough-on-crime politicians, prosecutors and judges.

5. Court appointed defense attorneys are underpaid, are usually less experienced and are often poorly motivated to represent indigent clients.

6. Parole was abolished in Virginia in 1995 except for those who were already incarcerated at that time, and the Parole Board last year released less than 3% of the over 3500 inmates still eligible under the old law.
Virginia’s Geriatric Release provisions, for inmates who are 60 and over and who have served at least ten years of their sentence, are underutilized. Only 11 were released in 2014.

B. Some stressful effects of incarceration on inmates, their families and on all of us:

1. Stress that results from confining people in unnatural, crowded conditions (too many people in too close quarters) and/or in solitary confinement (virtually no human contact) contribute to psychotic symptoms and behaviors. An estimated 40% of inmates already have some kind of mental illness, often accompanied by a drug or alcohol addiction. Spending time in steel cages with other distressed inmates can only make them worse.

2. Our local jail sometimes places suicidally depressed inmates in a restraint chair for “medical reasons”  (24 times during the first six months of 2015) or in the isolated padded cell (8 times during this same time period).

3. Our local jail has inmates in handcuffs and orange or striped jump suits when meeting with their families (in the totally secure visitor area separated by glass and concrete) or when they are moved to and from approved classes or other groups, unlike most jails.

4. High costs of commissary items and phone calls add stress to inmate families, along with a $1 per day fee per inmate ($3 per day for those housed at Middle River Jail), which must be paid before commissary items can be purchased.

5. When breadwinners are incarcerated (and typically lose their jobs), additional costs for social services and welfare benefits escalate, along with the $26,000 per year cost to all of us to keep someone behind bars. Getting a job after having been in prison is doubly difficult.

C. Some much needed reforms:

1. Our Sheriff should implement policies to reduce the financial stresses incarceration creates for inmates’ families, and to make it easier, less costly, and less stressful to maintain meaningful connections. Maintaining such ties is strongly linked to reducing recidivism and creating a more successful re-entry.

2. Legislators need to engage in judicial reform based on proven practices that reduce crime, promote reform and help create healthier and safer communities.

3. Parole needs to be reinstated in ways that offer hope and encourage rehabilitation.

D. Some Action Steps 

Attend public meeting of the local Community Criminal Justice Board set for 4 pm Monday, September 21 (location to be announced).

Write letters or emails of concern to key policy makers, using email links and addresses on Harvspot or as listed below:

Governor’s new Parole Review Commission: see (see July 21,2015 post). Commission meetings are open to the public, and their nest hearing is at the Capitol building September 28. Comments or questions to the Commission should be sent to:
Virginia Parole Board see (September 1, 2014 post)

Governor McAuliffe

Members of local Community Criminal Justice Board: (December 1, 2015 post)

Harrisonburg City Council, Mayor Chris Jones

County Board of Supervisors, Chair Michael Breeden

Send emails and letters of concern to the following local candidates:

Bryan Hutcheson  (Sheriff)
April Moore  (State Senate)
Mark Obenshain  (State Senate)
Tony Wilt (House of Delegates)
Marsha Garst  (Commonwealths Attorney)
Michael Breeden  (Board of Supervisors)
Fred Eberly  (Board of Supervisors)
William Kyger, Jr.  (Board of Supervisors

If you vote in the November election but don’t support the positions of an unopposed candidate, leave that part of your ballot unmarked, or write in the name of an alternative.

Become a part of a local Court Watch group. Contact Ruth Stoltzfus-Jost for more information

Write letters and/or Christmas cards to inmates (I will post an updated list on my blog in December) (December 7, 2015 post)  (use a P. O. Box number if you’d rather not disclose your home address).

Promote and attend the October 20 visit of Former Attorney General Mark Earley, past CEO of Chuck Colsen’s Prison Fellowship, who will speak at EMU’s Martin Chapel at 7 pm on “Why America is incarcerating so many people, and what we can do about it”.

Become a mentor to inmates returning to the community following imprisonment.

You can keep up with some criminal justice issues on this blog. Type in an issue of interest in the small search box in the upper left hand of the Home page.                                    
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