YOU’RE INVITED & NEEDED: Hope To See You There

Join us for a public hearing on the current conditions that incarcerated people are facing under the COVID-19 pandemic and how communities inside and out are building up the practices and institutions that support healthy and self-determined communities during COVID-19.

And beyond.

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A MESSAGE FROM JOSEPH DOLE

Good afternoon, my name is Joseph Dole. I am one of the cofounders of Parole Illinois and am currently the Policy Director.

Every year people die in IDOC custody, the vast majority due in part to over-sentencing. COVID-19 is highlighting this fact because it is attacking the elderly and infirm, many of whom have spent decades enduring harsh prison conditions, much of that time unnecessarily. They die lonely deaths for no other reason than incarceration politics, and in a vain attempt to satiate the insatiable appetite some people have for revenge.

For the past few decades, the State has grudgingly acknowledged that hundreds of innocent people are being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. It is now time to acknowledge that there are also thousands of guilty people who are wrongfully imprisoned as well, due to the fact that their prison sentences are longer than necessary for public safety.

The experts agree, mass incarceration’s main driver is excessive sentences for serious and violent crimes. Thus, we cannot address mass incarceration without reducing such sentences.

The Governor and others have recently voiced support for early releases of “non-violent offenders,” and insinuate that this shows they still consider public safety as the main priority. Not only is this insufficient to address mass incarceration, but if public safety is the main priority, then they should have no problem releasing “violent offenders.” That’s because people convicted of violent offenses are actually safer to release than those in prison for non-violent offenses. In other words, they have lower recidivism rates and even a lower likelihood of committing violence if released.

The thousands of people currently serving excessively long sentences are doing so due to racism, fear-mongering, dehumanization, political exploitation, and the false promise that harsher sentences are needed to deter crime.

Politicians of both parties have used tough-on-crime rhetoric to get elected for decades, telling the public over and over again that even longer and harsher sentences are the only way to deter people from committing crimes. In Illinois, this facilitated the abolishment of parole, the passage of accountability and felony murder laws, Truth-In-Sentencing, the Habitual Criminal Act, gun add-ons, life-without-parole and de facto life sentences, and increased sentencing ranges for nearly every crime imaginable.

It seems logical, threaten someone with a severe enough consequence and you would think they would refrain from committing a crime. Unfortunately, this type of punitive deterrence is a myth, as has been shown by nearly every reputable study of deterrence conducted.

For punitive deterrence to work there are several prerequisites necessary. The person has to know the consequence, believe he or she will be caught and face that consequence, and have the ability to rationally weigh the costs and benefits of committing a crime versus not committing it.

Punitive deterrence doesn’t work, because, not only do people not know what sentencing laws stipulate, but people don’t believe they will be caught, let alone charged and convicted. Moreover, people who commit crimes are almost never rational actors. Not only are 40% of people who commit crimes juveniles or young adults with immature prefrontal lobes, but most are either under the influence of drugs or alcohol, are mentally ill, or act in the heat of the moment while in anger without thinking clearly.

Craig Findley, the chairman of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, who has interviewed over 25,000 incarcerated Illinoisans, told a subject matter only hearing on parole, that he likewise concludes that “long sentences are not a deterrent to crime.” Nonetheless, every day men and women are receiving excessively long and inhumane prison sentences under the guise that they will deter people from committing crimes.

What is never mentioned when arguing for more severe sentences to deter crime is the inhumanity of the practice itself. You are inflicting more punishment than someone deserves or that is penologically justifiable. Each person who has their prison sentence increased (and their life, as well as the lives of his or her family, increasingly destroyed) to allegedly deter others, is irrationally being held accountable for whether others will or won’t commit a crime. For the State to increase the pain and suffering of one individual to coerce the behavior of another is morally repugnant.

We currently have thousands of people sentenced to die in prison in a vain attempt to coerce others to follow the law. Let me show you how incarceration politics has affected three of my friends’ lives. All three were sentenced to death by incarceration.

My fellow NEIU graduate, Darrell Fair, was coerced at gunpoint into a false confession by one of Jon Burge’s underlings. He was then wrongfully convicted and sentenced to spend 100% of a 50-year sentence in prison thanks to the Truth-In-Sentencing law. His liberty was violently stolen by a corrupt legal system, and his release has been continuously denied due to incarceration politics. First, via over-sentencing where he cannot be paroled; then when the Torture Inquiry Relief Commission refused to examine non-Burge claims; then when the TIRC opened up to include non-Burge claims but was insufficiently funded; then when the prosecutor, for months, neglected to divulge the fact the Detective McDermott refused to testify under oath that he did not assault and threaten Darrell; and now for several more months as the court is shut down due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Darrell is a 52-year-old asthmatic with a college degree and enormous community support. His innocence should have set him free decades ago. Even if he were guilty, he should not be in prison today as he has served sufficient time by historical standards and poses no threat to society.

COVID-19: COMPASSION CRISIS

The COVID-19 crisis provides an opportunity to change the terms of the discussion about incarcerated people — by humanizing them.

This transformation could thereby enable the acceleration of a broader and deeper process of long-term decarceration based on rational principles involving public safety, cost and genuine justice.

Are we ready to see and consider them as us?

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CORONAVIRUS: The Prison Tsunami

Despite early warnings, jails and prisons have seen a rapid spread of the virus — a humanitarian disaster that puts all of our communities, and lives, at risk.

Weeks before the first reported cases of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, correctional healthcare experts warned that all the worst aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system — overcrowded, aging facilities lacking sanitary conditions and where medical care is, at best, sparse; too many older prisoners with underlying illnesses; regular flow of staff, guards, healthcare workers in and out of facilities — would leave detention facilities, and their surrounding communities, vulnerable to outbreaks.

Despite those early warnings, even jails and prisons that believed they were well-prepared have seen a rapid spread of the virus.

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SLOW MOVING WARDEN JETTISONED

Federal officials have reassigned the warden of a Louisiana prison where the coronavirus has ravaged the compound, leaving eight inmates dead and infecting dozens of other prisoners and staffers.

The Bureau of Prisons said Friday that Oakdale, Louisiana, warden Rodney Myers had been assigned to “temporary duty” at the bureau’s South Central Regional Office in Texas.

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POWERLESS

For more than three weeks, two of the housing units in the Vienna Correctional Center, a minimum-security state prison in southern Illinois, were running on generator power because of a water line leak that damaged the electrical system, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.

The generators would frequently shut off, leaving prisoners without electricity, showers, or hot water.

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BEDFORD HILLS PRISON IN CRISIS

“Ninety-six percent of staff here turn a deaf ear because they feel we deserve the cruelty, we deserve to be locked in a box for whatever crimes they believe we committed. The biggest problem here is no one has the mental capacity to separate professionalism from perceptions and personal views.”

Accounts have emerged in recent weeks from women incarcerated at Bedford Hills alleging that the facility has been providing inadequate and irregular meals, sometimes serving no more than half a cup of milk as breakfast.

Women inside are saying they are experiencing what amounts to solitary confinement through the 20-hour lockdowns that have been implemented since the onset of the pandemic.

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COVID-19 MAKES STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

“You know right now I don’t think it’s inmate versus staff,” he said. “Right now we are all trying to come together and get through this.”

Morale among staff is poor, according to the officer. “I wish we had more support from our administrators,” he said.

A correctional officer who works at the La Paz Unit at Yuma said his supervisors are lying to staff about how many inmates are infected with the virus.

“I was told an inmate I would be watching one day was being tested for scabies,” the officer said. “But when I spoke with the inmate he told me he was being tested for coronavirus.”

The correctional officer said the man’s test results came back positive on Saturday. “So I’ve been around this inmate for four or five days and he had it the whole time, and I’ve been without the proper protection,” the officer said.

He said all officers should be provided N95 masks.

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VIEW INSIDE A PRISON DURING THE PANDEMIC

Coronavirus is spreading in the U.S. state and federal prison system. Prisoners and their families say corrections facilities aren’t taking enough precautions.

This is what it’s like to be in prison during COVID-19…

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COMMON: Chicago Rapper Urges Home Confinement

Chicago rapper and activist Common went into quarantine concerned about incarcerated people he has met during visits to jails, prisons and juvenile detention centers around the U.S. and who aren’t able to maintain social distance or adopt rigorous hygiene routines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s a troubling time for them,” Common said, “because they are the people who usually are overlooked.”

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