Prison reform activist Max Kenner champions the transformative power of a college degree for inmates nationwide
By Jerry Adler
The idea came to Max Kenner in 1999, but he can’t recall just when or how. He knew no one who was incarcerated. He just knew that a few years earlier Congress had decreed that prisoners were no longer eligible for Pell tuition grants, putting a stop to most prison education programs. Having recently discovered for himself the thrill of serious intellectual enterprise, he decided to attempt to bring the same experience to some of the 71,000 inmates in New York State’s sprawling penal system.
Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/amazing-results-when-you-give-prison-inmate-liberal-arts-education-180953041/#ZifPf9m5EWj1kIOs.99
Kids for Cash is a Documentary Film by Robert May.
KIDS FOR CASH is a riveting look behind the notorious scandal that rocked the nation when it first came to light in 2009. Beginning in the wake of the shootings at Columbine, a small town in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania elected a charismatic judge who was hell-bent on keeping kids in line. Under his reign, over 3,000 children were ripped from their families and imprisoned for years for crimes as petty as creating a fake MySpace page. When one parent dared to question this harsh brand of justice, it was revealed that the judge had received millions of dollars in payments from the privately-owned juvenile detention centers where the kids—most of them only in their early teens—were incarcerated.
Exposing the hidden scandal behind the headlines, KIDS FOR CASH unfolds like a real-life thriller. Charting the previously untold stories of the masterminds at the center of the scandal, the film reveals a shocking American secret told from the perspectives of the villains, the victims and the unsung heroes who helped uncover the scandal. In a major dramatic coup, the film features extensive, exclusive access to the judges behind the scheme. Now serving a 28 year sentence in federal prison, the former juvenile court judge at the heart of the scandal shares his ulterior motives, revealing that his attorneys never knew about his interviews for this film.
We were thrilled to learn that “Outcasts” has been selected for screening at the 2015 Down East Flick Fest in Greenville, North Carolina, which is the home of East Carolina University. It is a juried event, open for both emerging and experienced filmmakers.
Down East Flick Fest is dedicated to providing an annual user-friendly showcase for independent filmmakers, writers, actors and other artists. The festival’s organizers hope to discover, support, and inspire independent film and theater artists throughout North Carolina, the United States and around the world as they introduce audiences to their new work. Their future goals include creating opportunities to support new talent and entertain audiences on an ongoing basis.
Over the years, local governments have turned to private companies to manage more and more of the American penal system. Sometimes prisons themselves, but also probation and drug treatment services, transportation, and phone systems. Now, add jail visitation to the list.
When he planned a visit, Goff says, “I was really expecting to go, empty my pockets, go into a room, glass area and stuff, you know, have a chair, just like you see on TV and stuff. And, uh, no!” Instead, Goff found there would be no human contact. A clerk directed him to a computer where he could set up an account: video visits would cost 50 cents a minute, from a jail monitor or his home computer.
“Welcome to the Homewav video visitation system,” purrs an online tutorial for the system installed in Lewis County. “Think of it as a type of Skype while your loved one is detained,” it continues, backed by an acoustic guitar. “Ready to get started?”
At home, Goff experienced technical difficulties from the start. “We either could get voice with no video or video with no voice,” he says.
He says having to pay for the service added insult to injury.
“I don’t think that’s right to have to pay to go talk to a loved one,” he says. “We were just trying to go down there and help him, to see whether he had access to rehab services or anything like that.”
The charges added up quickly: there was a minimum deposit and a service fee on every transaction. When his son was transferred, Goff says, there was money left on the account, and no way to get it back.
Jail administrator Kevin Hansen, though, defends the system, saying face-to-face visits have their own costs.
“If they’ve gotta drive 5 miles, 10 miles, what is that, a gallon of gas?” Hansen asks rhetorically. “How much is that gonna cost you? Four bucks. So, for four bucks, you can stay at home, or go down to your local library if you don’t have internet at home, and pay for an eight-minute visitation.”
Hansen also sees benefits for the jail’s bottom line. “We used to dedicate two full days of staff labor to visitation,” he says. “Twenty dollars an hour, for 16 hours a week: it’s a significant savings to the taxpayers.”
When he first learned about new video technology in a trade magazine, Hansen says he wasn’t looking to do video visits at all. What he wanted was the ability to conduct some court hearings over the internet, and avoid taking inmates to the courthouse.
Homewav offered a way to pay for both.
“I ended up killing two birds with one stone,” Hansen says, “and it was cost-neutral. It didn’t cost me a dime to install any of this.”
Here’s how it works: Homewav installs video stations in each cell block at no cost to the jail. Then it charges families for each video visit. Lewis County takes a 40 percent cut and Homewav keeps the rest.
More than 500 facilities around the country have adopted video visitation systems so far, ostensibly to save taxpayers money. Carrie Wilkinson, director of the Prison Phone Justice campaign at the Human Rights Defense Center, says that argument misses the point.
“I think as a society, if we’re going to incarcerate people, you have to pay the costs that are associated with that,” she says. “If that means you have to have guards to staff so that people can come visit their loved ones, then that’s part of the deal.
Wilkinson also questions the high prices charged by vendors, pointing out that Skype, for instance, is free.
“Remember you’re talking about a prison,” says Rick Smith, CEO of Securus, one of the largest video visitation providers in the country.
“You’re talking thick, reinforced, concrete walls that have to be plunged and drilled. It’s a totally hardened unit, made out of steel. The glass on it is touch-sensitive,” Smith says. “So it’s a tremendous investment for us, and we need to recoup that in some way.”
Vendors set pricing in their contract proposals. During negotiations, they work with jail administrators to adjust visitation rules so the video systems will be profitable. “And that usually means,” Smith says, “if you’re them, and you ran the numbers, that would mean, ‘Huh, I have to increase the amount of video activity and decrease the level of physical contact.’ That’s just the economics of that.”
Officials in Dallas recently faced backlash for considering a Securus proposal that would have eliminated free and in-person visits altogether. “If you vote for this contract, you will be voting to take the most money from the least able to pay,” Phyllis Guess told county commissioners at a public hearing.
Dallas officials scrapped that plan in favor of more access for visitors. But at a number of other county jails, from Oregon to Mississippi to Wisconsin, paid visits are the only option.
Lewis County’s contract with Homewav limits free visitation to one hour a month. In practice, jail administrators are ignoring even that. No in-person visits at all, and, says Kevin Hansen, if relatives want a free visit in Lewis County, “I guess it’s up to them to show me they don’t have any money.”
Hansen says his office makes exceptions on a case-by-case basis. But the jail doesn’t advertise that possibility. It’s also an intimidating place to ask for special treatment.
“I wouldn’t have even imagined that was the case,” says Laurie Blurton, whose stepdaughter has been in and out of jail for substance abuse problems. “I doubt very many people would try.”
Blurton works at the local mall, and video visits her stepdaughter whenever she can. These days, it doesn’t happen much. As the lone breadwinner in her family, and she says she doesn’t often have cash to spare.
“Ten dollars means a lot. That’s milk, and bread, and stuff for a week,” Blurton says.
Without being able to stay in touch, she can’t help but feel she’s letting her daughter down.
“I keep hoping for the best,” Blurton says. “But when she’s in there, and the only influence she has is people who are also in jail, she doesn’t get much of a chance when she gets out, to do anything different, other than what she did to get in there.”
Blurton says she understands how video visitation could make things easier on families that live far away. In her case, the jail is a five-minute walk from home.
Copyright 2015 Northwest Public Radio
Greg Cavaluzzi spent four years in federal prison, eating cold oatmeal and white bread for breakfast and bologna for lunch and dinner. So the first thing he wanted to do when he was released was to eat “something normal.” When his parents picked him up from Fort Dix in New Jersey, he took them to Wendy’s.
“We didn’t really talk,” he says. “We ate. We were just so happy to be next to each other.”
He ordered two bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches, and paid for the meal with a JP Morgan Chase debit card featuring a photo of him in his prison-issued khakis, a backdrop measuring his height in the background. The cards are standard in the federal prison system for giving discharged inmates money sent by friends and family or earned at in-prison jobs.
Cavaluzzi’s meal cost about $10. Or as Cavaluzzi puts it: “Everything. It was everything. I was used to making $10 a month.”
He made that money as a librarian in prison, where wages start at 11 cents an hour. But those hard-earned dollars disappeared faster than he expected, and when he called Chase, he found out the reason was fees.
“It just seemed a little…” Cavaluzzi trails off. “It was sketchy.”
The fees on prison-issued debit cards were agreed to in a 2011 contract with a branch of the Department of the Treasury, which provided the schedule of fees below.
It costs 45 cents to check your balance at an ATM, $1.50 if your account is inactive for 90 days, $2 to withdraw money at a non-Chase ATM, and $7.50 to replace the card a second time within a year.
The absolute numbers aren’t radically high, but experts say even small penalties can be both more significant – and more insidious –for newly released prisoners, who tend to have less money and banking experience, and face many other barriers to reintegrating into society.
“It’s bus fare to a job, it’s a meal, it’s a room for a night,” says Karin Martin, an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. She researches debt and fees in the criminal justice system.
“There’s this split mentality – on the one hand, we are saying we would like to re-integrate people, and on the other hand, we are having lots of policies that undermine their ability to reintegrate,” she says.
Still, contracting with private companies that charge inmates for their services is hardly exceptional.
“The Bureau of Prisons contracts out all kinds of goods and service type things,” says Jack Donson, who was a case manager in the federal prison system for more than two decades. “The institution has food vendors, vending machine vendors, halfway houses.”
In all of these cases, companies have a (literally) captive market, and prisoners frequently complain about being overcharged. Though there is no competition for the business of prison inmates, there is typically competition for the contracts – as there are for most such contracts with the federal government – for sound economic reasons.
“When it comes to products or service that are somewhat standard, easy to describe, where the deliverables are clear and reasonably measurable, then competitive bidding is by far the most efficient method of procurement,” says Steve Tadelis, a UC Berkeley associate professor of business and public policy who has studied government contracts.
A good example of this kind of standardized good or service is a pencil.
“If you’re a government agency and you want to procure pencils, well there are gazillion producers of pencils,” says Tadelis. An open competitive bidding process asks all pencil producers to make an offer and allows that competition to drive down the pencil price.
But a Center for Public Integrity investigation found that the contract with JP Morgan Chase – as well as a contract between the Department of Treasury and the Bank of America for financial services inside of prisons –were not subject to an open, competitive bidding process.
“When I hear ‘no bid contract,’ forget prison environment, that does surprise me a little bit,” Donson says.
From an economist’s view, Tadelis says, it could make sense to skirt competitive bidding, but only if the goods or services are complicated, evolving or difficult to describe.
“From what I’ve read and heard about these issues with the bank accounts and debit cards, I think it’s pretty clear this looks a lot more like a pencil than a fighter jet or a complex IT system,” Tadelis says.
Treasury’s Office of the Inspector General is now investigating the contracts with JP Morgan Chase and the Bank of America and is expected to issue a report later this year.
Gregg Cavaluzzi now works at the Fortune Society, helping to find jobs for other newly released prisoners.
“Until these banks find a way to make money on the rehabilitation of people, and not the incarceration,” he warns, “this will continue.”
The following article is By Pete Brook, Wired Magazine
There are some 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States. That’s more people than there are in all of New Mexico. And there are more jails and prisons than colleges and universities in this country. Still, it can be difficult to grasp the scale of incarceration in America, in part because so many of these facilities are tucked away far from view in rural areas.
Josh Begley’s project Prison Map provides a sense of the enormity of it all by giving us a fascinating vantage point from which to view the architecture of incarceration. Begley’s created a vast visual compendium of the nation’s jails and prisons, comprising more than 5,300 aerial images that offer a compelling metaphor for the rapid expansion of the American prison system.
“Prison Map is about visualizing carceral space,” says Begley. “We have terms like the ‘prison industrial complex’ but what does that actually look like? If you were to stitch together all these spaces of exception, how might they appear from above?”
To create Prison Map, Begley coded a script that plugged the known coordinates of prisons and jails nationwide into the Google Maps API. When he ran the script, it snapped a photo of every county jail, state prison, federal penitentiary, immigration detention facility and private prison—more than 5,300 in all.
Since 1980, the US prison population has exploded from fewer than 500,000 to more than 2.2 million. That’s prompted a prison building boom, mostly in rural America. As a consequence, many of these facilities are located in small towns, deserts, and remote corners of states with lots of space. They’re out of sight, and out of mind. Prison Map reveals this vast hidden infrastructure.
The rapid expansion of the country’s prison system has brought with it the rise of the supermax prison—austere facilities designed specifically to keep prisoners in solitary confinement for indefinite periods. The first modern supermax, Pelican Bay State Prison at the northernmost end of California, was built in 1989. It provided the model for 60 others across the nation. In recent years, public debate about American prisons has focused particularly on the psychological trauma caused by prolonged isolation.
It is estimated that there are now more than 6,000 jails and prisons nationwide. One in 100 American adults is incarcerated, and US taxpayers spend $70 billion each year keeping them behind bars. These people are disproportionately the poor and people of color. Such things may not be readily apparent from Begley’s satellite images, but they were clearly his motivation for the project.
“If the United States is in the business of warehousing black and brown bodies, I think it’s important to sketch the contours of what that means,” he says.
Prison Map discloses the weight, isolation and expanse of the American prison system. The fascinating, almost beguiling patterns of these prisons belie the often brutal environments within them. This tension makes Begley’s project an important hack and vital work of art.
Marie Gottschalk professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania was a guest on the Diane Rehm to talk about her book,“Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics,” which deals with the same subjects as “Outcasts,” namely the causes and consequences of mass incarceration in the United States.
We called in to the show and were waiting in line to be on the air, but other callers covered the subject and so we ran out of time…but we were close! The important thing is the subject is now official!
If you missed the show, you can listen to it online by clicking here.
You can buy Prof. Gottschalk’s book on Amazon by clicking here.
Patricia Lefler founded Junkyard Revival in 2013 to give voice to the needs of homeless women in Kingsport, Tennessee. The excerpt above is taken from the full version of “Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection.”
When East Tennessee PBS asked us to edit “Outcasts” from 71 to 58 minutes, Patricia told us we could cut her interview. We made all of our edits, including hers, reluctantly, but post “Junkyard” here for anyone that may have seen only the PBS version.
We hope that by posting her interview online her son might see it one day and know that his mother was not only a courageous individual but was capable of the love her father could never provide for his family.
One of the unexpected outcomes of “Outcasts” was the gift of a 25,000 sq ft building by Kingsport businessman Chuck Huffman to Hay House. Since then, Dr. Walsh, his staff, and Hay House clients have been working hard to remodel the building, which is across the street from the existing facility.
So far, administrative offices have been completed, a new roof added, and work has commenced to equip a new kitchen and dining hall. Hay House needs to raise more money…at least $20,000 to complete the new facility, which will provide better security and much needed room for the aging half way house.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the facility, which helps individuals get a second chance and transition back into their communities with the necessary skills to be successful and avoid returning to jail or prison. It costs taxpayers far less than incarceration and has more than a 90 percent success rate.
Yesterday, the Justice Policy Institute and other members of the Greater Baltimore Grassroots Criminal Justice Network joined Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby to witness Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sign new legislation to “ban the box” on employment applications in Baltimore. The “box” is that part of an employment application that asks the applicant if he/she has a criminal record. A “YES” answer effectively eliminates the individual from qualifying for a position, regardless of qualifications.
In addition to working on this issue on a local level over the past year, JPI advocated on the state level to “ban the box” statewide. This bill, however, goes a step further than what the state passed in 2012 which omitted the question only on state employment applications. The new law in Baltimore requires that all employment applications no longer ask whether or not a job seeker has a felony offense. Employers who work with vulnerable populations are exempt from the new law.
The new bill provides a meaningful opportunity for returning citizens to obtain employment which is crucial to successful re-entry. Many Marylanders who have been in contact with the justice system have been locked out of the workforce because of criminal records. The new law will allow them to be judged on merits and qualifications to do the work before they have to disclose a criminal record.