Tag Archives: sentencing

“Geezer in the Hole”: The Reality of Aging Behind Bars

Over the past few years there has been a growing interest in the increasing numbers of older prisoners. At times this interest has been accompanied by some piddling gestures to alleviate their miserable situation–for example, theoretically granting them leave to die “in the free world,” or perhaps showing sympathy for granny having to climb up three tiers of bunks to get a night’s sleep, or gramps asking for a cane (denied because it is a possible weapon) so he can get to the toilet without crawling.

Nonetheless, the dominant view from the corrections industry and most of the public is that these people did the crimes and now they have to do the time–even if the time reflects absurdly the long sentences instituted in the 1980s and 90s, and creates a new cohort of septuagenarian prisoners. In fact, most of the new interest in aging inmates actually has to do with money. According to a recent AP article:

The ACLU estimates that it costs about $72,000 to house an elderly inmate for a year, compared to $24,000 for a younger prisoner.The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the number of men and women in state and federal prisons age 55 and older grew 76 percent between 1999 and 2008, the latest year available, from 43,300 to 76,400. The growth of the entire prison population grew only 18 percent in that period.

“We’re reaping the fruits of bad public policy like Three Strikes laws and other mandatory minimum sentencing laws,” said David C. Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project in Washington, D.C. “One in 11 prisoners is serving a life sentence.”

With prison costs escalating and states overwhelmed with deficits, letting granny and gramps out of the clink suddenly doesn’t sound so bad to some state officials. Old prisoners are expensive, and if we must take care of them, then why should local and state government’s foot the bill. Better to let the federal government pay instead, through Medicare and Medicaid. The leading predictor of criminal behavior is age (young), so there’s little risk involved in letting the geezers go; all that’s keeping most of them behind bars in the nation’s insatiable taste for punishment.

With all this in mind, I am reprinting an article that just appeared on Solitary Watch, another blog where I am editor along with Jean Casella. It is the story of Robert Platshorn, leader of  the “Black Tuna Gang” of marijuana smugglers in the late 1970s, an experience described in his book The Black Tuna Diaries. In 1980, he received what was then an unprecedented sentence of 64 years in federal prison. 

When Platshorn was released on parole in 2008 at the age of 65, he was the longest-serving non-violent marijuana offender in America. But as he wrote in a blog post for High Times earlier this year, that distinction ”won’t be mine for long. Many sentenced after me will soon be able to claim my title. They are serving LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE and will never get to spend another minute as a free man.” When Platshorn was convicted, he writes, “no one received a life sentence for marijuana. That changed in the early 80′s as Reagan stepped up this insane failure of a drug war.” According to Platshorn, several other non-violent marijuana offenders, including  Billy Deckle, are now in their sixties and seventies, and will likely never be released.

Here is what they have to look forward to: Surviving day to day in an environment so dangerous that a slip of the tongue often ends in death. Since the elimination of parole, federal prisons are populated mainly by young, uneducated, aggressive inmates serving absurdly long sentences. They have little hope and nothing to lose. Violence has become endemic in a system that has little or no reward for good behavior. Prison gangs find older non-violent inmates easy prey.

Inadequate medical care. It costs the taxpayers billions to provide even minimal health care for older inmates. Yet these are the people least likely to commit a crime after release. An older marijuana offender serving a long sentence is likely to die in prison for lack of medical care…

An extremely unhealthy diet. It becomes an obsession, trying find enough decent food to maintain good health. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s no longer possible. When I entered prison in 1979, the budget to feed an inmate for three meals a day was $2.62. When I left prison in 2008 it had shrunk to $2.25…This has to pay, not only for food, it has to cover repairs and replacements for kitchen equipment, civilian salaries, and eating utensils…You don’t have to be an economist to figure out, that since Bush decimated the prison food budget, the cost of inmate medical care has skyrocketed. Especially for older inmates, many of whom require a special or restricted diet…Now, the Bureau [of Prisons] will say that they provide special diets for those who require them. And it’s true. Sort of! Those diet trays usually contain so little edible food that the starving sick geezer ends up eating a piece of deep fried breaded sewer trout or a hunk of fried breaded mystery meat, just to stave off the terrible never ending hunger pangs. The results, a sick geezer who now needs expensive medications and has little or no chance of surviving a long sentence. Most of those geezers would pose no threat to society if released. It’s even worse when the geezer is serving forever for marijuana, a harmless substance, and an effective medication that is now legal in many states. How would you feel if that old pot smuggler was your Uncle Billy?

Geezer in the hole! “The Hole”! Segregation!…The Federal Bureau of Prisons thinks it sounds better if they call it the SHU (Special Housing Unit). Take my word for it, it ain’t special in any way you’d like to experience. During my almost 30 years in 11 different federal prisons, about 3 ½ years were spent in segregation. They got it right in the old movies, “the hole”. Now you might ask, why would a nice non-violent old dude wind up in the hole? Lots of reason! Someone “drops a note” saying the old dude’s life is in danger. Result many months in the hole. He gets in a fight. Doesn’t matter if it’s self-defense. Into the hole! Uncle Billy gets caught coming out of the chow hall with an apple or a cookie in his pocket. The hole! The old pot smuggler has been forced to work in the prison factory because he owes a fine. A tool disappears from his work area. Everyone who works in that area is tossed in the hole. And so on and so on. Now what happens is: he has to eat whatever shows up on the meager tray that comes through the slot, or starve. Mostly he eats all the starchy crap because he’s been flat on his back all day and night, and he’s bored to death. Meals are the only break he looks forward to. Each time he leaves his cell his hands are cuffed behind his back. This is especially painful for an older inmate. He has to be cuffed while he crouches backwards with his hands pushed out through the lower food slot. This usually means Uncle Billy will forgo his three weekly showers and exercise periods. It’s no big deal when your young and supple, but for a geezer it’s a different story. The only way I can express it is, if you are over fifty, spend 90 days in the hole and you come out two years older. Fatter, slower, more depressed, and less likely to recover physically or mentally.

Its time for all the Uncle Billys to go home…

On Bastille Day, No Mercy for Prisoners from Sarkozy or Obama

Charles Thévenin, "La prise de la Bastille," 1793. Musée Carnavalet, Paris.

 The following Bastille Day Post appeared this morning on Sara Mayeux’s Prison Law Blog:  

On this day 221 years ago, revolutionaries stormed a prison and, as they say in History 101, the modern world began…  

Traditionally, the French president would grant a mass pardon every July 14, but President Sarkozy has discontinued the practice. In that respect, he is not dissimilar from his American counterpart. Although historically most U.S. presidents have used their executive clemency powers within 100 days of their inauguration, Obama recently reached his 536th day in office without granting a single pardon or commutation — surpassing John Adams and catapulting into third place on the list of presidents who have waited the longest. Nos. 1 and 2 are George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.  

Sarkozy’s motivations are a mystery to me (as they apparently are to many French people). But why has Obama been so reluctant to issue pardons–or even commutations to a few of the thousands of prisoners serving absurdly long sentences, as a result of national trends of the past 30 years? Is he simply following the lead of other recent presidents? Or, as the first African American president–and one who is constantly facing (absurd) charges of radicalism and reverse racism–is he afraid of appearing soft on crime?  

If the latter is true, it’s not excusable, but it is understandable. Conservative media figures are already bent upon depicting Eric Holder’s Justice Department as having a pro-black bias; the phony “scandal” involving the Department of Justice’s decision not to prosecute the New Black Panther Party has lately been called a “21st-Century Willie Horton” ploy.  And this is only the latest and stickiest of countless accusations of favoritism toward African Americans. Last month, Iowa Congressman Steve King said that he “knew of no instance where Obama’s racial favoritism wasn’t a factor in his decision making.” The right-wing National Legal and Policy Center even managed to find “racial favoritism” in the financial regulation bill passed by the House earlier this month. This kind of race-baiting would be sure to kick in big time if Obama pardoned or commuted the sentence of someone who happened to be black.  

Nonetheless, for the thousands of people who may be undeservedly languishing in America’s prisons, it will be small comfort to know that the president is once again allowing his actions to be shaped by a right-wing agenda.

Share

The Woodfox Judgement

Thanks to right-wing courts, the draconian sentencing guidelines passed by state and federal legislatures–and, believe it or not, the actions of Bill Clinton–the numbers of older prisoners in American prisons and jails is growing. More and more men and women have been given such long sentences that they will die in prison, and it’s become virtually impossible for most of them to mount appeals.

As one extreme case in point, yesterday the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a decision against Albert Woodfox, a member of the Angola 3. Woodfox, who is now 63 years old, has been at Angola since he was 34, and in solitary confinement for 38 years. Last night on Solitary Watch, Jean Casella and I posted this:

Albert Woodfox has spent nearly all of the last 38 years in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. His case has brought protests from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who argue that Woodfox’s decades in lockdown constitute torture, and from a growing band of supporters, who believe that he was denied a fair trial. For more than ten years, he has been fighting for his release in the courts. But yesterday, a ruling by a federal appeals court ensured that for the forseeable future, Albert Woodfox will remain right where he has been for nearly four decades: in a 6 x 9 cell in the heart of America’s largest and most notorious prison.  

Woodfox was given a life sentence–and thrown into permanent lockdown–for the 1972 murder of an Angola prison guard. He has been appealing his case for years, arguing that he was convicted in a patently unfair trial based on tainted evidence. In 2008, a federal district court judge agreed, and overturned his conviction. But the Fifth Circuit came down on the side of the state of Louisiana, ruling that Woodfox’s conviction stands.

It’s hard to believe this powerful federal court once was once a great defender of civil rights:

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals once had a reputation as one of the finest appellate courts in the land. In the 1960s, a small group of Fifth Circuit judges—mostly Southern-bred moderate Republicans—was known for advancing civil rights and especially school desegregation.  But today the Fifth Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi, is seen as among the most ideologically conservative of the federal appeals courts. It is notable for its overburdened docket and for its hostility to appeals from defendants in capital cases, including claims based on faulty prosecution and suppressed evidence. The court has even been reprimanded by the U.S. Supreme Court, itself is no friend to death row inmates: In June 2004, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the Fifth Circuit was “paying lip service to principles” of appellate law in handing down death penalty rulings.  

The Court’s rightward descent is set against a background of the unyielding Supreme Court–an institution that has clearly become an enemy of the people. But contrary to what liberals like to think, these problems did not begin with the Bush Administration. In doing their dirty work, the courts can cite legislation passed under Bill Clinton.    

I can well remember the first hint of what we could expect under President Clinton in the area of criminal justice. During the 1992 Democratic primary in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton, in an  answer to a question  at a town meeting, suggested habeas corpus had been stretched beyond its bounds. Her husband proceeded to rectify this situation, with dire results for the rights of prisoners and the accused:

The decision in Woodfox’s case shows the crippling effect on prisoners’ rights of the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) which was passed under Bill Clinton in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. That legislation has become the bane of anti-death penalty lawyers and activists, and of thousands of other prisoners seeking to challenge their convictions–a pursuit which AEDPA now renders nearly impossible.  

As the Fifth Circuit noted in its ruling, “The AEDPA requires that federal courts ’defer to a state court’s adjudication of a claim’” unless the state court decision ran “‘contrary to…clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court,’” or was ”‘based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.’” And as the judges pointed out, ”An unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect or erroneous application of the law.” 

In other words, the state courts could be wrong, they just couldn’t be so far out as to be undeniably “unreasonable.” And in the end, the Fifth Circuit judges agreed with the State’s argument that in the case at hand, ”the district court failed to apply the AEDPA’s heightened deferential standard of review to Woodfox’s ineffective assistance claims.” Woodfox’s conviction may have been wrong, but it was not, in the eyes of the Fifth Circuit, “unreasonable”–so there will be no new trial for him. This is how justice works in post-AEDPA America.