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“Confronting Confinement”: Bi-Partisan Commission Criticizes Size, Conditions and Racial Make-Up of U.S. Prison System

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The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons argues the country’s prison system has fallen victim to overcrowding; overzealous incarceration; abuse; unaccountability and inadequate health care. Among its recommendations are to dramatically reduce the use of physical force and prisoner segregation. It also calls on expanding prisoner access to Medicare and Medicaid. [includes rush transcript]

A bi-partisan commission is drawing praise from across a wide political spectrum for a new report on prison reform. The report is called “Confronting Confinement” by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons. The 20-member commission includes prison administrators, prisoner-rights advocates, religious representatives and members of both main political parties. The report follows a year-long inquiry that included public hearings in four major cities.

The report argues the country’s prison system has fallen victim to overcrowding; overzealous incarceration; abuse; unaccountability and inadequate health care. Among its recommendations are to dramatically reduce the use of physical force and prisoner segregation. It also calls on expanding prisoner access to Medicare and Medicaid. The report singles out treatment for the 400,000 prisoners suffering from mental-illness, calling jails “the new asylums.”

The report also concludes: “we should be astonished by the size of the prisoner population, troubled by the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans and Latinos, and saddened by the waste of human potential.”

At 2.2 million, the US has the highest prison population in the world — and it’s only growing. According to the Justice Department, the prison population added 56,000 new prisoners last year — an average of 1,000 per week — for an increase of three percent.

  • Michael Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice, which put together the Prison Commission. From 1995 to 1998, he served as the New York City Correction Commissioner. Before that he served as New York City’s Probation Commissioner. He is a former professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is the author of “Downsizing Prisons: How to Reduce Crime and End Mass Incarceration.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now!

MICHAEL JACOBSON: Nice to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this report?

MICHAEL JACOBSON: Sure. As you mentioned, it’s a bipartisan report. It’s a really interesting collection of both liberals and conservatives, retired Army generals, Reagan’s FBI director. We really wanted a report that reflected a lot of different viewpoints politically, had a lot of people of various backgrounds. And we came to agreement on all the recommendations. There’s not one dissenting agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s the largest prison population in the world.

MICHAEL JACOBSON: Largest prison population in the world, and we incarcerate the greatest percentage of our population of any country in the world, and as you said, it’s still growing. One of the central findings of the report is that it’s simply too big. Too many people in prison. Too many people with mental illness who shouldn’t be there. And those that are there are not getting the treatment they need. There are correctional leaders in this country who are trying to do a great job under incredibly difficult circumstances. They don’t have the resources they should have. The correction officers aren’t paid as well as they should be. It’s a very tough, demanding job. And their legislatures keep passing tough on crime laws that keep filling up their prisons, and there’s a disconnect between the resources these administrators have to do their jobs, and the number of people that they have to supervise.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk in the report, the summary of the findings and recommendations, about the violence in the prisons, the rape of prisoners, the beatings by officers, in one large jail a pattern of illegal and humiliating strip searches. You talk about former Florida Warden Ron McAndrew describing small groups of officers operating as “goon squads” to abuse prisoners and intimidate other staff. Can you talk more about even this particular case, and expand it?

MICHAEL JACOBSON: Sure. Well, the Florida — I can’t talk too much about the Florida case, since I think that’s under — there are ongoing investigations into exactly what’s happened in the Florida system. But violence has always been an issue in America’s jails and prisons as they are in almost any jail or prison. You have essentially a people who are captive, held against their will and have different levels of mental illness, some of whom can be quite violent. You’re obviously going to have violence occasionally, and these institutions run by the threat and use of force. The goal is to keep violence down to the most minimum levels you possibly can.

And when you look at violence historically in the U.S., you see a couple of trends. One, encouraging that the report notes, which is that American jails and prisons today are less deadly violent than they’ve been, and we know that because homicides and suicides in these institutions have gone down. There are still, however, very high levels of assault, both inmates assaulting each other, inmates assaulting staff, and staff assaulting inmates. And that kind of assault is still a big issue in these facilities. Some do a much better job than others about keeping it down, but the commission is very concerned that the levels of violence, while perhaps better than they’ve been historically, are still too high, and we still have a lot of work to do to try to bring it under control.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about specifically California and Louisiana?

MICHAEL JACOBSON: Sure, well, California is by far — well, not by far, California and Texas are the two biggest prison systems in the country. California’s prison system now houses about 165,000 people, at an annual cost of $8 billion a year. It’s the — it has the budget of a small country. A federal court recently took over the California health care system in their prisons, and one of the allegations that the judge found was true was that one prisoner each week was dying as a result of medical malpractice. That’s a huge issue, obviously. And going be a very big challenge for the federal courts to handle. Health care is a gigantic issue in the California prison system. It’s not been handled well for years.

Louisiana is a much smaller system, and one of the issues in Louisiana is good news and bad news. Angola, which is a very well known prison and used to be probably one of the country’s most violent. It’s far less so now. There’s been very good management in the institution and it’s a lot better than it used to be. But Louisiana, like a lot of states, pays their officers incredibly low wages. So they have very high turnover. People come in and out. I believe Louisiana is one of the states where one of the drawing cards for being a correctional officer is that your salary is so low, you’re still eligible to collect public benefits. And the commission tries to address issues of training, and pay, and leadership in this report, because you simply can’t run these facilities, which are amazingly difficult to run — running these places and working in them is probably one of the toughest jobs in America. And you can’t do that if your staff is underpaid and under-trained.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Michael Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice, which put together the prison commission. I was just was asking if you can move your tie, it’s sort of hitting your microphone.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s ok. And this is a report really — that you’ve worked on for a year — 30 years in the coming. Let me ask about this huge prison population, and whether your commission took a stand on the massive number of nonviolent drug offenders, or alleged drug offenders — a lot of people are forced to plead guilty because they’re terrified, like in New York state under the Rockefeller Laws, that if found guilty in a trial, they’ll face even more years in prison. So they plead guilty, even if they’re innocent. What about those?

MICHAEL JACOBSON: What the commission tried to do, since they had a year and a very specific mandate, was operate under two sort of premises. One, they really wanted to look at safety and abuse once people got into prison. And the second was, and still is, what happens in jails and prisons doesn’t just stay in jails and prisons. If people aren’t treated well, if they’re not given programming, if there’s a whole host of needs and issues they haven’t addressed, it affects us all as well as they, and their families, and their communities. So they really try to keep their focus on people who are in prisons and jails. And as you said, obviously a huge issue surrounds mass incarceration, the over-incarceration of violent offenders.

AMY GOODMAN: Nonviolent offenders.

MICHAEL JACOBSON: That’s what I meant to say, I’m sorry. That runs throughout the report, especially in the area of people with mental illness. The report tries to be very strong and very clear that we not only over-incarcerate generally, but we hugely over-incarcerate people with mental illness. And there are a lot of nonviolent people who don’t pose a threat to public safety, who have various stages of mental illness, who should not be in jail and prisons. They should be better served in their communities. And that would be better for public safety, as well, and cheaper. But for those who do have to be confined somewhere, for the most part, they’re not getting the treatment they need. And they’re coming out worse than they did when they went in. And that’s not good for public safety.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Jacobson, you talk about the increasing use of pepper spray, taser guns, and other weapons that can cause serious injuries.

MICHAEL JACOBSON: Well, it’s — you know, as technology increases, it’s not surprising you see this sort of technology. We had it when I was the New York City correction commissioner. But the goal is — and almost every prison and certainly most jails have a policy of using the least force possible in any situation. You never want to get to use something like pepper spray, for example, until you’ve gotten through talking, negotiating, and trying everything possible before you ratchet up your use of force, either to pepper spray or above that, to a taser or above that, obviously, to more deadly force. But you want — so what the commission was really concentrating on is making sure that facilities had not only excellent use of force policies, but the staff and the leaders of those facilities had the training, which is extensive and not cheap, to be able to enforce those policies, to make sure that force and restraint are used only when necessary. And in these facilities it’s sometimes necessary. But you never, ever want to overuse them.

AMY GOODMAN: And you talk about the ways that families are kept apart — the breaking of bonds with even going so far as to talk about the phone that is — that the prisoners used. That is an issue that people on the outside don’t know very much about, but as you point out, the cost of receiving a collect call from someone in prison — much higher than in the free world — operates like a tax on poor families.

MICHAEL JACOBSON: Yeah. Exactly. And like a lot of issues here, this varies across the country. Some systems charge prisoners the same as they — the same as the phone company would charge anyone else, and some less. And some charge much more. And the problem with charging much more, obviously, is that prisoners for the most part are indigent, as are their families. They can’t afford big long distance telephone calls, charges. And one of the most important things that all experts in corrections will tell you is that keeping that bond between families is hugely important. And the way our prison system works, those bonds are strained in a variety of ways.

First, because a lot of the systems charge obscene amounts for calls, and so it just limits the kind of contact you can have with your family. The second, because — and this is true in almost every state — the way prisons are sited is that they’re mostly in rural areas, where they’re actually viewed as good economic development projects. Most large cities are the drivers of prison populations, so in New York, for example, probably 60% or 70% of all inmates in our state prison system come from the city. But a lot of our prisons are in rural areas, and some right on the border of Canada. So the combination of siting prisons far away, of charging prisoners a lot for phone calls. Some states send their prisoners out of state to other facilities or private facilities. All strain that bond between communities and prison prisoners. Again, it’s not just a matter of humanity, almost all criminologists and corrections experts will tell you that if you want people to come out of prison and stay out of prison, one of the things they have to have are strong family and community bonds.

AMY GOODMAN: And this privatization of the prisons. Do you see this as a threat to human beings being held in facilities that are for-profit?

MICHAEL JACOBSON: Well this, is — the report really didn’t get into that. It just didn’t — they met for a year and again, as I said, they really tried to keep their focus on safety issues. My own feeling about private prisons is that the biggest issue with private prisons, for me, is that when you introduce that kind of private capital into this field, what private prisons do, either directly or indirectly, is mitigate toward more and more prisons, because what they’re interested in is market share. That’s what they do. This is a business. So the more prisoners they have, the more money they make. So the biggest issue for private prisons for me is, above and beyond, the fact that they cause people to be sent out of states to private prisons that are in other states, is that they effectively lobby state legislatures for more tough-on-crime laws. But the report really tried to look at what happens while people are in, and one of the reasons they wanted to do that, and why it was so clear that what happens in jails and prisons doesn’t just stay in jails and prisons, is our national recidivism rate — again this differs state-by-state — is that after three years, almost 70% of everyone who leaves prison is re-arrested and 52% of everyone who leaves prison is back in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going have to leave it there. Michael Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice. New report that has just come out on the prisons. It’s very — we will link to and let you see it at the web site,

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