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.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Florida prison inmates still can't smoke, but now correctional officers can

TALLAHASSEE — Inmates can't smoke in Florida prisons anymore, but employees still can.

Facing resistance from the union representing correctional officers, Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker has lifted the order from his predecessor that required all prisons in Florida to be smoke-free by Oct. 1.

Tucker's new policy allows officers, employees and visitors to smoke or chew tobacco on prison grounds "within a secure perimeter," and such areas "should not be in plain view of inmates."

"Wardens, as my designees, are authorized to designate outdoor areas where employees, contractors, volunteers and official visitors may use tobacco products," Tucker said in an Oct. 4 memo.

Smokers "are limited to possession of no more than one pack, can, pouch or other single factory container of tobacco."

Former prisons chief Ed Buss, who was forced out by Gov. Rick Scott in August, decreed in April that prisons be smoke-free to reduce skyrocketing health care costs and the hazards caused by second-hand smoke.

All other state buildings and offices are smoke-free.

Buss came to Florida from Indiana, which banned smoking in prisons two decades ago, and he quickly launched a six-month cessation program to help inmates kick the habit, including selling them $35 nicotine patches.

Under Buss' decree, corrections officers could smoke if they stepped outside the prison gates, a long walk at some of the state's biggest lockups. When Buss left town, the officers' union formally resisted the move.

Union attorney Hal Johnson of the Florida Police Benevolent Association said he told Tucker that a revised smoking policy changes workplace conditions and must be negotiated as part of a union contract.

"We sent an e-mail saying, 'You need to talk to us,' " Johnson said. "I think this is a fair solution for everybody."

Not according to the families of some inmates, who have sent letters of complaint to Tucker, citing what they call a double standard.

"It doesn't seem to be real fair," said Jill Doerr of St. Augustine, whose brother is at a prison at Lake Butler, near Gainesville.

Doerr said she doesn't think inmates should smoke, but she added: "If they're going to make it a law, then it all should be off the grounds."

Madelyn Chiarelli of Coral Springs also lodged protests with prison officials. She said a friend of hers who is serving time at a prison in Live Oak told her officers chew tobacco and smoke in front of inmates struggling to become nonsmokers.

"It's a problem," Chiarelli said. "I know the officers are supposed to smoke in designated places, but what I'm hearing is that they are chewing tobacco and smoking in front of the inmates. That taunts them."

Warden Chris Landrum at Suwannee Correctional in Live Oak said in an Oct. 10 memo to his staff: "I continue to receive calls and complaints … alleging that we have numerous staff continuing to smoke … in the presence of our inmate population."

Corrections officials say the reason for designating smoking areas at each prison is to prevent that from happening.

"None of the recent decisions that the department has made in reference to tobacco use have been made to frustrate or discourage the inmate population," wrote Alan McManus, chief of policy management in the Department of Corrections, in a letter to Chiarelli.

It is not an advantage to anyone to set policies that would disrupt effective and safe correctional practices."

Tucker's liberalized smoking policy comes as legislators are considering requiring state employees to join smoking cessation programs as part of obtaining state group health insurance.

Georgia last year became the 26th state to completely ban smoking on prison grounds. Most other states have partial smoking bans.

Friday, October 7, 2011

From prison to jail

California has embarked on a reform that might keep more people out of prison

MIRED in fiscal crisis and usually deemed dysfunctional, California under Governor Jerry Brown has nonetheless surprised itself this year with one big reform. Starting this month, it has begun to send people newly convicted of crimes that are non-violent, non-sexual and non-serious, or “non3” in the jargon, to jails, which are run by county sheriffs (and are normally used as pre-sentencing holding pens), instead of prisons, run by the state.

This is part of what Mr Brown calls “realignment”, a devolution from centralised to local power. But it goes further: these reforms amount to a rethinking of California’s, and America’s, disastrous three-decade run of “tough-on-crime” fallacies.

That legacy of locking up ever more people for more reasons and more time led to a prison-building boom in the 1980s (California now has 33, not counting “camps”), an explosion of inmate numbers in the 1990s and a corresponding increase in cost to taxpayers. Prison spending went from about 4% of the state budget in the mid-1980s to about 10% now; it exceeds university funding.

Inside the prisons, this means inhumane overcrowding. A federal ruling, upheld by the Supreme Court in May, has found the conditions “cruel and unusual”, and requires California to release roughly 30,000 inmates in the next two years.

The realignment reforms could, at least in part, address all of these problems. That is because they do not merely shift the same number of inmates with the same problems and costs from one level of government to another. Rather, the new system assumes that counties will do differently and better what the state does badly.

This starts with recidivism. About two in three of the people California releases from prison end up right back in it. Usually, this is because they miss an appointment with their parole officer, fail a drug test or do something else that is stupid but trivial.

Then they get readmitted to prison—in remote locations and at ruinous cost, with dental, medical and psychological exams each time—for another stay. And so the revolving door keeps spinning.

In future, most inmates who get out of prison will no longer be on “parole” but on “probation”, which means they report to their county, not the state. After all, the counties also run drug-rehabilitation, housing and job-placement programmes that the probationers need to build new and cleaner lives. And this is the objective of a system that claims to be for “corrections and rehabilitation”.

If a probationer still gets into trouble, the county can now punish him in ways short of returning him to prison. This might mean more drug treatment or parenting classes, or home detention with a GPS monitor strapped around the ankle, or “flash incarceration” in jail for a few days.

The idea, based on research and recent experience in states such as Texas and Hawaii, is that people change behaviour in response to swift and certain consequences, not necessarily severe ones.

Proponents believe crime, already relatively low, could decrease, as offenders who are not dangerous are kept out of prison, where they would be brutalised, and remain integrated in their communities. But opponents, mainly prosecutors and police chiefs, worry that the opposite is more likely.

If offenders serve less time inside, whether in prison or jail, it must mean they spend more time on the streets. Crime could increase.

Besides, they fret, why assume that county jails will be any better than state prisons? They are hardly islands of harmony. The jail in Los Angeles County, America’s largest, is under federal investigation for brutality and venality by deputies and guards. Now jails will get more crowded to boot.

And it is unclear whether the state will give counties enough money to do their new job properly.

As Dean Misczynski at the Public Policy Institute of California puts it, California is “on the verge of a vast experiment”. Will crime go up or down? What changes human behaviour? The other 49 states will be paying close attention.