Prison Talk

We firmly believe that even though a prisoner's body is locked up, their mind can always be free to travel the world and learn about anything they are interested through the magic or books.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why I care about prisoner rights

A friend recently asked:

“Why do you care and write so much about prisoner rights?

After all, they’re convicted criminals.” The question came after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this week in Brown v. Plata that dealt with overcrowded prisons and terrible medical and mental care in California prisons.

I’ve fielded similar queries in the past. The questions reflect a mentality shared by many: Why care about the rights of those who didn’t care about the rights of their victims?

The question deserves a response.

First, prisoners file an inordinate amount of litigation alleging deprivation of their constitutional rights. Some studies have shown that prisoner litigation makes up more than 20% of the federal court docket. It would be negligent not to report on at least some of these pleadings — even if many prisoner complaints leave much to be desired in terms of form and validity.

Second, much deprivation of constitutional rights occurs in prisons. One attorney described prisons to me years ago as “constitutional black holes.” Think about it. Prisoners are under the control of government officials 24/7 — there are bound to be many rights violations.

Third, principles from prisoner free-expression cases often seep out and affect other areas of First Amendment law. The classic example occurred with two U.S. Supreme Court cases that arose out of Missouri. In Turner v. Safley (1987), the Court rejected inmate Leonard Safley’s claim that he had a First Amendment right to send letters to his girlfriend — later his wife — who was an inmate at another prison (though the Court did uphold his right to marry her). The Court created a standard for prisoner constitutional claims — that prison officials do not violate inmates’ constitutional rights if their actions are “reasonably related to legitimate penological concerns.”

Just a year later, the Supreme Court rejected the First Amendment claims of three young female student journalists in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In that decision, the Court ruled that school officials could censor student speech if their actions were “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” The Court simply substituted the word “pedagogical” for “penological.” When I lecture on this substitution to student groups, there normally is a collective gasp.

Fourth, prisoners — whatever they have done — are still human beings worthy of some level of respect. I’ve quoted many times the words of Justice Thurgood Marshall from his concurring opinion in Procunier v. Martinez (1974):

“When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy said it even more succinctly in Brown v. Plata: “Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons.”

Finally, we all know the First Amendment and its free-exercise clause protects our right to religious belief and some religiously motivated conduct. As a Christian, I believe strongly in the Bible verse Hebrews 13:3 “Remember the prisoners as if chained with them.”

David L. Hudson Jr.
First Amendment Scholar

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Fed Wrist-slap for Wachovia Bank Makes a Farce of the Drug War

The U.S. government won convictions against 23,506 drug traffickers nationwide during 2010, sending 96 percent of the offenders to prison, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics.

Yet one of the biggest entities busted by the feds for involvement in drug trafficking last year received just a wrist-slap deal from federal prosecutors with nobody getting prison time.

During 2010, the U.S. government also won convictions against 806 persons involved in smaller-time drug-related money laundering, sending nearly 77 percent of those offenders to prison.

Yet when it came to a case involving billions of dollars in illegal drug profits, the federal government gave the same unusual wrist-slap to the same entity caught giving greed-blinded assistance to Mexican drug cartels by laundering billions of dollars in illegal profits for them.

So, what is this entity that federal prosecutors found worthy of big breaks for its laundering of billions of dollars, and for its blatant facilitating or tons of smuggled cocaine?

Meet Wachovia – once the nation’s sixth largest bank by assets and now a part of Wells Fargo Bank… a too-big-to-fail bank that for the feds is apparently too-big-to jail.

Wachovia recently completed what amounted to a year-long probation arising from a March 2010 settlement deal with federal prosecutors who were pursuing criminal proceedings against Wachovia for its facilitating of illegal money transfers from Mexico totaling $378-billion…a staggering sum greater than half of the Pentagon's annual budget, which included billions of dollars traced directly to violent Mexican drug cartels.

The record $160-million fine slapped on Wachovia under terms of that settlement deal included a $50-million assessment for failing to monitor cash used to ship into the US 22 tons of cocaine. (That fine amounted to less than two percent of Wachovia's profits during the prior year.)

Wells Fargo now owns Wachovia. Wells Fargo, federal prosecutors stress, was not involvement in the misdeeds that landed Wachovia in court, where it received a deferred prosecution deal.

Wells Fargo purchased Wachovia in early 2009 for $12.7-billion, shortly after Wells Fargo had received $25-billion in federal bail-out funds from the TARP program. That purchase helped make Wells Fargo America’s second-largest bank.

Many condemn the federal government settlement with Wachovia as a farce.

Criticism has come from persons in law enforcement frustrated by big-bank involvement in laundering drug money and from those who claim federal drug enforcement practices provide bigger breaks to drug kingpins than to low-level operators.

“All the law enforcement people wanted to see this come to trial. But no one goes to jail,” said Martin Woods, an English expert on anti-money laundering, whose work while with Wachovia’s London office helped unravel the drug connections. Woods says Wachovia officials bashed him for his investigative diligence and whistle-blowing as an employee.

“It’s simple: it you don’t see the correlation between the money laundering by banks and people killed in Mexico, you’re missing the point,” Woods said in an April 3, 2011 article published in The Observer, a British newspaper published on Sundays.

Wachovia’s involvement in big-time money laundering paralleled the period of a murderous escalation in violence in Mexico’s Drug War that has claimed the lives of over 40,000 Mexicans since 2006 alone, with the dead including politicians, prosecutors, police, soldiers, drug gang members and innocent bystanders.

During the same month last year when federal prosecutors gave Wachovia a break, finding no need to imprison any bank personnel for their involvement in massive drug-tainted money laundering, other federal prosecutors were pounding domestic drug dealers with long prison sentences.

For example, an Anchorage, Alaska man received a ten-year term for selling four ounces of crack cocaine, while an East St. Louis, Ill. businessman received a life sentence plus a $2.25-million fine for distributing three thousand pounds of cocaine between 2004 and his arrest in April 2008.

The amount of cocaine trafficking that sent the Illinois man to prison for life – one and a half tons - was much smaller than that single 22 ton cocaine shipment referenced in the Wachovia settlement document.

The settlement agreement Wachovia officials signed with federal prosecutors in Miami last year clearly stated that the bank knew that many of the transactions with Mexican financial institutions from 2004 to 2007 carried the stench of drugs.

That settlement agreement stated in part that as early as “2005 Wachovia was aware that other large US banks were exiting the [Mexican] business based on [anti-money laundering] concerns…Despite these warnings, Wachovia remained in business” according to news media reports.

One reason Wachovia stayed in the business as others pulled out is that the bank reaped hefty fees from that money-laundering "business," in which billions of dollars in wire transfers, traveler’s checks and bulk cash shipments went into Wachovia accounts from Mexican exchange facilities called casa de cambios (CDCs).

Jeffery Solman, the federal prosecutor who handled the Wachovia case, stated last year that “Wachovia’s blatant disregard for our banking laws gave international cocaine cartels a virtual carte blanche to finance their operations.”

Last year Bloomberg News, in an article on the Wachovia money laundering scandal, reported how the federal government cited other mega-financial institutions in the U.S. like American Express Bank International and Bank of America for their complicity in laundering drug money.

Making a farce out of the nation's supposed War on Drugs, none of the mega-financial institutions identified by federal authorities as having been involved with laundering drug money and none of the well-paid individuals at those institutions which were facilitating that laundering has faced go-to-jail federal criminal prosecutions like those targeting small fry in the drug trade.

Days after Wachovia received its wrist-slap deal for laundering billions of dollars in drug money, federal prosecutors secured a five-year sentence for a 26-year-old Johnstown, Pa. man involved with a drug ring it claimed was responsible for $10,000 in drug sales per month.

Imprisoning that Johnstown street dealer for five years will cost taxpayers $113,115, based on the average cost of $22,623 annually to house a federal prisoner. He was one of six people netted during a drug crackdown in that small former steel town located in the mountains 66 miles east of Pittsburgh.

Alarming evidence of the Drug War farce – the prosecutorial pounding of small fry while major players get a pass – is evident in statistics from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the federal agency that advises Congress on criminal sentencing matters.

During 2009, in the Southern Florida district where Miami is located, 96.1 percent of the 669 persons convicted in federal courts for drug trafficking received prison time. Twenty-percent of the persons convicted in Southern Florida federal courts for simply possessing drugs received prison time.

Of the 67 persons convicted of money laundering during 2009 in those same Southern Florida courts, 77.6% went to prison, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics.

As noted in that April 2011 article in The Observer, the conclusion of the Wachovia case “was only the tip of an iceberg, demonstrating the role of the “legal” banking sector in swilling hundreds of billions of dollars – the blood money from the murderous drug trade in Mexico and other places in the world – around their global operations, now bailed out by the taxpayer.”

That Observer article included observations made in 2008 by the then head of the United Nations office on drugs and crime providing evidence suggesting that drug/crime money was “the only liquid investment capital” available to banks on the brink of collapse.

“Inter-bank loans were funded by money that originated from the drug trade,” the Observer article quoted the U.N. official as stating. “There were signs that some banks were rescued that way.”

The June 2010 Bloomberg News article provided an ominous observation about the wrist-slap protection large banks receive from criminal indictments due to a variant of the too-big-to-fail theory:

“Indicting a big bank could trigger a mad dash by investors to dump shares and cause panic in financial markets," says Jack Blum, a U.S. Senate investigator for 14 years and a consultant to international banks and brokerage firms on money laundering. The theory is like a get-out-of-jail free card for big banks, Blum says.

Another anti-money laundering expert disappointed with the federal government’s settlement with Wachovia is Robert Mazur, identified in the Observer article as one of the world’s “foremost figures” in providing anti-money laundering training and the point-man for US law enforcement during prosecutions against Columbian drug cartels two decades ago.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Prisoners denied access to Facebook

BATON ROUGE The Senate voted 31-1 on Tuesday to prohibit state prison inmates from accessing computer based social networking sites or setting up email accounts and web pages.

Senate Bill 182 by Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, now goes to a House committee that has approved legislation prohibiting sex offenders who are on probation or parole from using sites like Facebook and MySpace.

The lone vote against Thompson's bill came from Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, who argued that the bill isn't needed.

She said prison officials have complained that they need the measure to help them police contraband like cell phones or other electronic devices that might be smuggled into prison.

"Do your jobs," Peterson said of prison officials. "This is ridiculous. Why are we spending all this money on prisons if they can't keep drugs and cell phones out of prison? ... We continue to give these people (prison officials) passes."

Thompson said the bill is designed as a "victims' right bill" to keep inmates from harassing witnesses who testified against them or their victims.

"It is a security issue," he said.

The bill says inmates convicted of having access to an illegal social networking site could face up to 30 additional days in prison, a maximum $500 fine or both.

Earlier, the House voted 90-0 for House Bill 12 by Rep. Ricky Templet, R-Gretna, that would outlaw so-called "bath salts" that are used as drugs.

Templet's bill flew out of the House and now goes to a Senate committee for a hearing.

Besides banning the sale, manufacture or possession of the substances with exotic names like "White Dove" or "White Lady," Templet said his bill also rewrites a law passed last year that bans the sale of synthetic marijuana.

Templet said after lawmakers adjourned last year thinking they had outlawed the chemically laced herbs that provide a marijuana like effect, manufacturers of the substances came up with a different formulation for the synthetic ingredients to avoid prosecution.

Templet said his bill this year is designed to criminalize "entire groups" of chemicals that could be used to make the pseudo-marijuana and the bath salts.

Templet said the penalties for making, possessing or selling the bath salts would be the same as making, possessing or selling cocaine and other dangerous drugs.

Those penalties vary based on the amount involved and the number of previous convictions the person has.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

T.I. to be released from prison in September

T.I. will likely be released from prison in September, according to Billboard. The rapper, who is currently serving an 11-month sentence in federal prison, is projected for release on September 29th.
The news emerged due to a post on the Federal Bureau of Prisons, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, which lists 30-year-old Clifford J Harris Jr. (aka T.I.) as having an “actual or projected” release date of September 29th. T.I. was arrested last September in Los Angeles on suspected drug possession.

He was previously on probation after serving a 10-month sentence in the same prison — the Arkansas Federal Correctional Institution — for weapons charges. He returned to prison last November on a probation violation even though the drug charges were dropped.
T.I.’s most recent album, No Mercy, was released while the rapper was in prison. Despite that, the disc has sold 502,000 copies. It’s unclear on whether T.I. has plans for a subsequent release following his exit from prison.
Before entering prison last year, T.I. released a statement that said, “This experience is truly a pain I have never felt before and that’s saying a lot for a n*gga who’s been down locked up as many times as I have. I see this as a real a** whoopin’.

The kind you don’t just go back outside to play afterwards. You take ya a** to bed and don’t come out of your room until it’s time to go to school.” He added, “I don’t know what effect this will have on my life moving forward but I’m certainly sick and motherf*cking tired of going to jail, juve, trison, the pen, correctional facilities or whatever else you want to call it.”
We hope that means he plans to honor his probation this time around.