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This past Sunday’s New York Times featured a profile of the Cook County Jail (IL), “[t]he largest mental health center in America.” Writing separately, Nicholas Kristof offered “[a] few data snapshots:

• Nationwide in America, more than three times as many mentally ill people are housed in prisons and jails as in hospitals, according to a 2010 study by the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center.

• Mentally ill inmates are often preyed upon while incarcerated, or disciplined because of trouble following rules. They are much more likely than other prisoners, for example, to be injured in a fight in jail, the Justice Department says.

• Some 40 percent of people with serious mental illnesses have been arrested at some point in their lives.

Against this backdrop comes another compelling story from Andrew Cohen, writing for The Atlantic. Cohen gives insight into the “High Security Mental Health Step-Down Unit” at USP Atlanta, “believed to be the first federal prison program ever designed and implemented to provide substantial long-term care and treatment for high-security mentally ill inmates.”

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Last August, the FCC announced new rules aimed at reducing the cost of long-distance calls for prisoners. As Sam Gustin writes for Time, the rules went into effect this week:

The new rate caps, which were passed by the agency last fall under the leadership of acting FCC Chair Mignon Clyburn, impose a limit of 21 cents per minute for debit or pre-paid calls and 25 cents per minute for collect calls. At those levels, the cost of a 15-minute call would be reduced by as much 80% to $3.15.

The article explores both sides of the policy debate:

“This is a huge victory for justice for ordinary people at an agency that is usually more attuned to private interests,” says Cheryl A. Leanza, policy director at the United Church of Christ, which has long advocated prison phone reform. “Increasing the connections between families and inmates helps all of us. Strong family connections improve the likelihood that when inmates are released, they will not become repeat offenders, and that makes our society safer. We are very grateful to Commissioner Clyburn.” […]

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Yesterday, I received an e-mail notice regarding “Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences,” the Senate Judiciary Committee’s second hearing concerning the use of solitary confinement.  (Information regarding the last hearing can be found here.). The hearing, to be chaired by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), will be held on February 25, 2014 at 2:30 pm (ET) in the Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 226. From the e-mail:

In recent years, the United States has witnessed an explosion in the use of solitary confinement – also known as segregation or isolation – for federal, state, and local prisoners and detainees. The United States now holds far more prisoners in solitary than any other democratic nation. In June 2012, Senator Durbin chaired the first-ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement. The hearing featured expert testimony on promising reform efforts that have reduced the use of solitary confinement, while also lowering prison violence and recidivism rates, and saving millions of dollars. This follow-up hearing will explore developments since the 2012 hearing, and what more should be done to curb the overuse of solitary confinement while controlling costs, protecting human rights, and improving public safety.

This hearing is open to the public. Advocates and interested members of the community are encouraged to attend. A large audience filling both the hearing room and overflow room is critical to showing interest in reforming solitary confinement policies and practices. Please RSVP by 5:00 p.m. on Friday, February 21, 2014.

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Nothwithstanding decades long growth of the prison industrial complex, it seemed we reached a cultural nadir last year when it was announced that Florida Atlantic University intended to name its football stadium after The GEO Group, a private prison corporation, in return for a $6 million “gift” to the university’s athletic department. (Inasmuch as FAU’s team is The Owls, people soon began calling the stadium Owlcatraz.).

The news was rightly met with widespread backlash and protests, and The GEO Group withdrew the gift (apparently unwilling to honor the donation and forego the stadium naming rights). Now comes word that UK-based gaming company Introversion Software plans to soon release a full version of Prison Architect, a sim-style game where players design and manage penitentiaries.

In a guest editorial on Kotaku, Paolo Pedercini offers a thoughtful critique of the game, including the many moral and ethical issues it raises as well as the hypothetical benefits it may produce. Still-and-all, there is something fundamentally untoward about a “game” premised on a process that dehumanizes and disenfranchises untold millions. It is sad but telling that more than 300,000 pre-order versions of the game have already been sold (for $10 million).

Yesterday, the Urban Institute issued “Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System,” an excellent, comprehensive report offering sensible solutions to the many problems that plague the Bureau of Prisons and the sentencing system that propels its unabated growth. From the report:

BOP facilities are currently operating at between 35 and 40 percent above their rated capacity; this overcrowding is greater in high-security facilities, which in FY 2012 were operating at 51 percent over capacity, with medium-security facilities 47 percent above capacity. The capacity of BOP facilities in 2012 was 128,359, but BOP-operated facilities housed 177,556 inmates in 2012. Since FY 2000, the inmate-to-staff ratio will have increased from about four to one to a projected five to one in FY 2014.

This untenable status quo will be the norm for the coming decade: BOP projects that, through 2020, federal prisons will be overcrowded by at least 33 percent, with the population exceeding system capacity by at least 50,000 people each year. The BOP anticipates adding over 25,000 beds by 2020, but most of these projects have not yet been approved, and would not substantially reduce overcrowding.[…]

This morning, at 10:00am ET, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing titled “Oversight of the Bureau of Prisons & Cost-Effective Strategies for Reducing Recidivism.” According to a press release from the office of Judiciary Chair Senator

Patrick Leahy (D.-Vt.):

The hearing, which will be chaired by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), is part of the Committee’s regular oversight function and will also explore cost-effective ways to reduce recidivism. The government spends $6.4 billion annually on federal prisons, which is around one-quarter of the Department of Justice budget. The Judiciary Committee held in September a hearing on mandatory minimum sentences, and last year Leahy presided over a hearing on rising prison costs.[…]

Today, Senator Chris Murphy (D.-CT) issued a press release announcing the Bureau of Prisons’ modification of its plans for FCI Danbury’s re-missioning:

Previously, BOP had announced that it would convert the FCI from a secure facility for women into a men’s facility. This conversion would have left one of the most populated regions of the country without a secure facility for women. While BOP still intends to turn the existing secure facility into a men’s facility, it now intends to turn the existing minimum security Satellite Camp for women located near the FCI into a low security facility for women. It will also maintain a minimum security camp facility for women near the new FCI by constructing a new building next to the FCI.[…]

It is expected that the entire transfer and construction process will take about 18 months to complete. BOP plans to move the female U.S. citizen inmates currently housed at the FCI to various locations around the country near their residences after their release. BOP will also move some of the current inmates with upcoming release dates to Residential Reentry Centers, or halfway houses, and others will be moved to the satellite camp. The agency has assured the senators that it is making every effort to keep the U.S. citizen inmates in the Northeast and maintain the same level of programming available by the end of the process.

It’s official. The BOP’s announced re-missioning of Danbury has turned into a soap opera.

In July, the BOP announced that FCI Danbury would be converted from a women’s Low to a men’s Low. Once Congress got wind of the news, a coalition of Senators voiced strong opposition to the plan, leading the BOP to halt the move. Late last week, the BOP announced it was resuming the transition. Now word comes that things are on hold again.

From the AP via the Wall Street Journal: “The partial government shutdown has delayed plans to begin moving inmates out of the federal women’s prison in Danbury as part of an effort to turn the facility into a minimum-security prison for men, according to Connecticut’s U.S. senators. The Department of Justice informed their offices that the implementation of the transfers has been postponed, both senators said. A dozen inmates had already been transferred before Wednesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal said.”

So begins the discussion section of United States v. McLaurin, — F.3d –, Docket No. 12–3514–cr. (2d Cir., Oct. 3, 2013), a recent Second Circuit opinion holding penile plethysmography, as a condition of supervised release for a defendant convicted of a SORNA violation, “unreasonably intrusive and unrelated to the permissible goals of sentencing.” “What is penile plethysmography?” you might ask. Why not let the distinguished judges of the Court of Appeals explain:

[The plethysmograph] examination involves the use of a device known as a plethysmograph which is attached to the subject’s penis. In some situations, the subject apparently may be required, prior to the start of the test, to masturbate so that the machine can be “properly” calibrated. The subject is then required to view pornographic images or videos while the device monitors blood flow to the penis and measures the extent of any erection that the subject has. The size of the erection is, we are told, of interest to government officials because it ostensibly correlates with the extent to which the subject continues to be aroused by the pornographic images.

In my past life as a sentencing advocate, I worked at an organization that provided treatment for sex offenders and employed a plethysmograph as part of the therapeutic process. While unfamiliar with the referenced method to baseline testing equipment, from what I was told by those who administer the examination the above is fairly accurate.

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