Recently in Prisons Category

April 26, 2011

Sex-Change Surgery for Transgender Inmates?

Lyralisa Sevens is a California transgender prison inmate.  Stevens was born a male but identifies as female. California provides Stevens with hormone replacement therapy, but Stevens is housed with male prisoners because Stevens' male genitalia is intact.  Stevens has sued the state, asking a court to order the state to pay for a sex-change surgery that will result in Stevens' transfer to a female prison.

Stevens claims that a male prison is a dangerous place for an inmate with feminine deportment and breasts. That's probably true.  But judges cannot justify ordering a cash-strapped state to pay many thousands of dollars for a convicted murder's non-emergency surgery. 

The state should take reasonable steps to keep Stevens safe from other prisoners. But at a time when California has had to cut back severely on support for education and social services, an order that Stevens (and undoubtedly hundreds of other prison inmates) is entitled to a sex-change operation would be unconscionable.   

April 19, 2011

Rehabilitive Sentencing

The US Supreme Court will shortly decide whether a federal judge can lengthen a prison sentence for the purpose of giving a prisoner time to complete a prison drug rehabilitation program.  The case involves Alejandra Tapia, who was convicted of crimes involving drugs and alien smuggling.  The judge gave Tapia a longer-than-usual sentence (though still within statuory limits) in the hope that she would enroll in a prison drug rehabilitation program.  Tapia is challenging the sentence, claiming that the relevant statute, 18 USC Sec. 3582, forbids judges from considering rehabilitative programs when deciding on the length of prison sentences.    

Tapia argues that Congress did not want to use prison sentences to coerce prisoners to participate in rehabilitation programs.  And in fact Tapia refused to partiicpate in a rehabilitation program.  That's sad but hardly surprising: the same thinking that led her into prison in the first place seemingly continues to control her actions.

If the Court upholds Tapia's challenge, perhaps the only effect will be to make sentencing judges more circumspect.  Tapia's sentencing judge indicated that he was lengthening her sentence to give her a chance to enroll in a rehabilitation program.  Had the judge said, "I'm giving you the maximum sentence in order to protect society," that sentence would not violate Sec. 3582.  

At the end of the day, rehabilitation programs probably work best when people are willing and committed to changing their lives.  Hopefully, inmates like Alejandra Tapia will come to view a prison term as an opportunity to enroll in a rehabilitation program or participate in a program like AA or CGA (Criminals and Gang Members Anonymous).  If not, prisons will continue to be revolving doors for many people.  

January 3, 2011

The Scott Sisters: My Kingdom for a Kidney

In December 2010, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour commuted the life sentences of sisters Jamie and Gladys Scott- so long as Gladys donates one of her kidneys to her ill sister within a year.

Gov. Barbour's decision is probably illegal as well as impractical. He is in essence charging Gladys the value of her kidney to secure parole. Yet parole is supposed to recognize inmates' rehabilitation, not their ability to pay for their releases. And what will the Governor do if it turns out that Gladys is not a suitable kidney donor-- throw her back in prison?   

Turns out that the sisters were serving a life sentence for a robbery that netted them a total of $11.  But if a life sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment for their crime, their release should have been based on that reason rather than Gladys' willingness to donate a kidney.

On the other hand, think of the possibilities if Gov. Barbour's decision starts a trend. States may set up parole conditions that resemble insurance policies that pay people amounts that differ according to the body part that an insured person loses. Donation of kidneys or liungs are biggies, worth a sentence reduction of at least 5-10 years.  Donation of a spleen?  Not so important, maybe advance a parole date by a few months. Donation of a brain to Gov. Barbour?  Priceless.      

November 4, 2009

A New Meaning for "Prison Labor"

I never realized how hard it could be for prisoners to give birth until I read the decision in the case of Nelson v. Correctional Medical Services, (8th Cir., October 2009).  A very pregnant Nelson was in an Arkansas prison, doing time for a non-violent crime.  When Nelson went into labor she was taken to a nearby hospital to give birth. A correctional officer who accompanied Nelson to the hospital repeatedly shackled Nelson's legs to the sides of her bed during labor.  The officer removed the shackles only when the nurses needed to check on Nelson's readiness to deliver, and then immediately replaced them.  The officer removed the shackles for good only after Nelson went into the delivery room.

Nelson is suing the correctional officer for a variety of injuries that she claims resulted from the constant shackling.  The injuries allegedly include a permanent hip injury, torn muscles and a hernia, and lots of unnecessary pain.  The correctional officer claimed "immunity from suit," arguing that Nelson had no right to sue her because she was carrying out her official duties.  The Court decided that the officer was not immune from suit, because she should have known that her actions constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

This was an "en banc" decision, meaning that numerous 8th Circuit federal court judges participated in the decision.  Amazingly to me, 5 judges dissented from the result and argued that the correctional officer was immune from suit.  Their reasoning was that shackling women during labor was such a widespread and routine practice that the correctional officer couldn't have realized that she was doing anything wrong.

Can it possibly be true that non-violent women in labor are routinely shackled to hospital beds?  Are pregnant women in labor really flight risks?  Strnagely enough, I can't recall ever seeing a woman who is just about to give birth racing down the street with a prison guard giving chase.  Surely the correctional officer could have thought of a better way to keep watch on Nelson duirng labor.  The correctional officer's actions caused needless suffering, and she should have to compensate Nelson for the harms she caused.

September 1, 2009

Phillip Garrido: The Justice System Plays Catch and Release

Phillip Garrido has been arrested for kidnapping 11 year old Jaycee Dugard in 1991. Until August 2009, he was able to hide her in tents and shacks in his backyard. He even fathered two daughters by her. Garrido and his wife were arrested and Jaycee and the girls were finally set free thanks to the instincts of Berkeley (CA) police officers who serendipitously talked to Garrido and the girls and realized that something wasn't right. 

Now authorities are at a loss to explain why Garrido was out on the streets in 1991.  In 1976, he had been convicted in federal and state courts of rape and kidnapping and was given a 50 year prison sentence in Nevada and a life sentence in federal prison.  However, he was paroled after 11 years, leaving him free to kidnap, rape and imprison Jaycee Dugard.   

This tragedy has come to light while California struggles about what to do about its unaffordable, overcrowded prison system. One obvious response is to save money by releasing prisoners.  But opponents of prisoner release are sure to use Phillip Garrido as an example of the bad things that will happen when we play "catch and release" with criminals.

I would argue, however, that prison release programs can actually prevent the release of inmates like Phillip Garrido.  Inmate populations may simply be too high for prison officials to deal with competently.  Dangerous prisoners are sometimes lost in the shuffle and released because nobody has time to pay close attention to what is happening.  I suspect that if we have fewer prisoners, we'll have fewer Phillip Garridos.