Saturday, January 07, 2012

Who Puts Kids in the Slammer for Life? We Do!

By William Fisher

You probably know that the United States has more people in the slammer than any other country in the world. The staggering number is 2.3 million. China, which has four times as many people as the US, is a distant second with 1.6 million prisoners.

What you may not know is that the US also tops the charts in the numbers of youth offenders serving life without parole sentences in adult US prisons. The score? The world: 0; the US: 2,570.

Right. The US is only country in the world that incarcerates people in adult prisons for crimes they committed when they were below the age of 18.

Furthermore, those prisoners experience conditions that violate fundamental human rights. That’s the depressing conclusion of a new study by Human Rights Watch, “Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life without Parole Sentences in the United States.”

Three months from now, in March, the US Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of the life-without-parole sentence for youth offenders.

The 47-page report draws on six years of research, and interviews and correspondence with correctional officials and hundreds of youth offenders serving life without parole. Human Rights Watch found that nearly every youth offender serving life without parole reported physical violence or sexual abuse by other inmates or corrections officers. Nationwide statistics indicate that young prisoners serving any type of sentence in adult prison, as well as those with a slight build and low body weight, are most vulnerable to attack.

“Children who commit serious crimes and who inflict harm on others should be held accountable,” said Alison Parker, director of the US program at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “But neither youth offenders, nor any other prisoner, should endure any form of physical abuse.” Most of the life-without-parole inmates have been convicted of homicide offenses.

“The penalty [of life without parole] forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal…. For juvenile offenders, who are most in need of and receptive to rehabilitation, the absence of rehabilitative opportunities or treatment makes the disproportionality of the sentence all the more evident,” the report says.

This new research sheds light on the severity of prison conditions for those serving this sentence, Human Rights Watch said.

“ scared to death,” said a youth offender serving life without parole in California. “I was all of 5’6”, 130 pounds and they sent me to PBSP (Pelican Bay State Prison in California). I tried to kill myself because I couldn’t stand what the voices in my head was saying…. ‘You’re gonna get raped.’ ‘You won't ever see your family again.’”

Youth offenders are serving life without parole sentences in 38 states and in federal prisons. They often enter adult prison while still children, although some have reached young adulthood by the time their trials end and they begin serving their sentences. Prison policies that channel resources to inmates who are expected to be released often result in denying youth serving life without parole opportunities for education, development, and rehabilitation, Human Rights Watch found.

Youth offenders commonly reported having thoughts of suicide, feelings of intense loneliness, or depression. Isolation was frequently compounded by solitary confinement. In the past five years, at least three youth offenders serving life without parole sentences in the United States have committed suicide.

The federal government and the states should abolish the sentence of life without parole for crimes committed by children, Human Rights Watch said. Government officials responsible for youth offenders should reform confinement conditions to accommodate their particular vulnerabilities, needs, and capacities to mature, reflect upon the harm they have caused, and change.

“Because children are different, shutting the door to growth, development, and rehabilitation turns a sentence of life without parole into a punishment of excessive cruelty,” said Parker. “Youth offenders should be given a path to rehabilitation while in prison – not forced to forfeit their future.”

Yet, lifers with the opportunity of parole (LWOP’s) experience a lack of educational opportunities. “LWOPs cannot participate in many rehabilitative, educational, vocational training or other assignments available to other inmates with parole dates…. The supposed rationality is that LWOPs are beyond salvagability and would just be taking a spot away from someone who will actually return to society someday,” the report says, quoting a youth offender serving life without parole in California.

Another inmate, this one in Arkansas, told Human Rights Watch (HRW), “I would be ever grateful… for the chance to spend my life now for some good reason. I would go to the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan…or jump on the first manned mission to Mars…. if the state were to offer me some opportunity to end my life doing some good, rather than a slow-wasting plague to the world, it would be a great mercy to me.”

The HRW report said, “Our research has found that youth offenders are among the inmates most susceptible to physical and sexual assault during their incarceration. Many are placed in isolated segregation to protect them or to punish them, some spending years without any but the most fleeting human contact.

Because of their sentence, youth offenders serving life without parole face the additional burden of being classified in ways that deprive them of meaningful opportunities while in prison. Many are denied access to educational and vocational programs available to other inmates. Finally, facing violence, stultifying conditions, and the prospect of lifelong separation from family and friends, many youth offenders experience depression and intense loneliness. Failed by prison mental health services, many contemplate and attempt suicide; some succeed.”

The report found that none of the 560 youthful offenders contacted by Human Rights Watch had managed to avoid violence in prison. When prison officials tolerate such violence, it constitutes a serious human rights abuse.

Youth offenders often spend significant amounts of their time in US prisons isolated from the general prison population. Such segregation can be an attempt to protect vulnerable youth offenders from the general population, to punish infractions of prison rules, or to manage particular categories of inmates, such as alleged gang members.

Youth offenders frequently described their experience in segregation as a profoundly difficult ordeal. Life in long-term isolation usually involves segregating inmates for 23 or more hours a day in their cells. Offenders contacted by Human Rights Watch described the devastating loneliness of spending their days alone, without any human contact, except for when a
guard passes them a food tray through a slot in the door, or when guards touch their wrists.

HRW makes a series of recommendations to federal, state and local judges and prison officials. All are preceded by HRW’s longstanding call to state and federal governments to “abolish the life without parole sentence for all youth offenders and abolish the automatic trial of youth in adult criminal courts and their mandatory incarceration in adult prisons.”

Obama Immigration Agency Exaggerating Deportations

By William Fisher

Analysts at Syracuse University have concluded that the Obama Administration’s figures for the number of people deported from the US are being grossly overestimated.

Analysis of government immigration data provided to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University in late December -- almost two years after TRAC had requested it -- show that “many fewer individuals were apprehended, detained and deported by the agency than were claimed in its official statements” — congressional testimony, press releases, and the agency's latest 2010 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, TRAC said.

In its initial FOIA request in May 2010, TRAC asked for specific information about all individuals who had been arrested, detained, charged, returned or removed from the country for the period beginning October 1, 2004 to date. According to TRAC, “in its initial and incomplete response, however, ICE so far has only provided TRAC with information through FY 2005. The agency said it would provide detailed information about the more recent years later.”

When compared with various public statements by the agency, however, TRAC's analysis of this limited case-by-case information provided found vast discrepancies. Among them: ICE statements claimed almost five times more individual apprehensions than revealed in the data, as well as 24 times more individuals deported and 34 times more detentions.

Those records were provided to TRAC by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

When the PBS series, “Frontline,” did an hour-long piece on the immigration situation in the US today, a White House immigration spokesperson confirmed that the Obama Administration is deporting 400,000 people every year and racking up the largest number of deportations of any president in American history

TRAC says, “Details about the vast differences between the agency activities documented by the data and its public statements are laid out in a FOIA appeal filed by TRAC on January 4. The surprising size of the discrepancies, the TRAC appeal said, indicated that either "ICE has been making highly exaggerated and inaccurate claims about the level of its enforcement activities," or it is "withholding on a massive scale."

TRAC's appeal emphasized that this was not an inconsequential bookkeeping problem, noting "that the alleged failure of the federal government to enforce the immigration laws has been a hotly debated topic during both the Bush and Obama administrations."

"Thus, the agency's apparent inability to substantiate the level of its claimed enforcement activities is a very significant matter," the appeal continued. "Indeed it is central to the current public debate on federal enforcement policy in the ongoing presidential election campaign."

Recent press accounts credit the Obama Administration, and President Obama specifically, for ordering the deportation of more undocumented persons than any other president in US history. However, the large numbers of deportees reported by government immigration authorities have themselves become problematic.

Various organizations that specialize in immigration matters have concluded that the total number of people deported has included a preponderance of those whose “crimes” have been minor – broken tail lights at traffic stops, expired driver’s licenses, other minor infractions of the law.

Many of these referrals for deportation have been made by a program that was supposed to isolate serious criminals – the Secure Communities program –in which local law enforcement authorities routinely enter fingerprints and other data of people they arrest locally into an immigration database.

Other parts of the database are provided through a program known as 287(g), which gives local law enforcement personnel the authority to act as proxies for Federal immigration officials in arresting and detaining people they believe are in the US illegally.

Both programs have come under heavy fire from immigration and human rights groups on issues including ethnic profiling, and the inexperience of local law enforcement officers with immigration law, which is one of the most complex branches of law.

TRAC seeks the ICE documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Given the long delay in responding to the FOIA request, TRAC requested a formal agency investigation of the matter or that it be referred to the Office of Inspector General.

TRAC said, “As the unlawful failure of ICE to provide the requested data continued well beyond the legal deadlines, TRAC engaged in numerous unsuccessful attempts to resolve the matter with agency officials and in late November of 2010 asked the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) for assistance in persuading the agency to act on our request.”

It added, “OGIS, located in the National Archives and Records Administration, was created by Congress in 2007 to serve as a FOIA ‘ombudsman’ resolving conflicts between requesters and agencies. But TRAC says this approach “was not very successful,” and in mid-October 2011 James V.M.L. Holzer, the Director of Homeland Security's Public Liaison and Director of Disclosure and FOIA Operations, intervened in the case.

The organization added, “The failure of ICE to abide by the mandate of the FOIA in a timely way about its immigration enforcement actions during the five-year period covered by our May 2010 request starkly contrasts with the repeated transparency statements of President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and many other administration officials since they came to office almost three years ago.”

TRAC also said ICE’s exaggeration “appears to be a part of a larger pattern.” It said that, in a three-page letter dated September of 2010, for example, ICE informed TRAC that key statistical data it had previously provided us were now "unavailable" and that the agency without explanation, was unilaterally imposing a $450,000 FOIA processing fee.

ICE also claimed that Syracuse University was not an educational institution. Earlier in the same year a sister agency in the Department of Homeland Security — U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — demanded an $111,930 processing fee.

“While time consuming, these and other Administration feints, have not stopped TRAC from its two decades long campaign to obtain revealing information from ICE, USCIS, the IRS, the Justice Department and other agencies, TRAC declared.