Help Celebrate Five Years of Service!

Read Between the Bars is turning five in 2012! The RBtB collective was founded in 2007 in response to the growing rate of incarceration in Arizona and a grossly inadequate commitment to providing educational resources to prisoners. RBtB’s vision was to get free books directly into the hands of prisoners as a way to provide comfort in a harsh prison environment and awaken new areas of interest that can help prisoners, both now and after release from prison.

Five years later, RBtB has sent thousands of books to people behind bars and continues its commitment to act as an ally to the many people who are caught in a burgeoning prison system that ignores many of their needs. To mark its anniversary, RBtB has launched a campaign to reach 500 likes on its Facebook page by the end of the year–500 likes for five years of service. With a strong show of support, RBtB will look more appealing to potential donors and show that Arizonans want better solutions to social problems than an increasingly profit-driven and increasingly punitive prison system.

In addition to the Facebook campaign, RBtB wants to celebrate with birthday parties. A great way to support Arizona’s books-to-prisoners program is to have a birthday party for RBtB’s five-year anniversary. RBtB volunteers have prepared a Fundraising House Party Guide (PDF) that supporters can download and read to get ideas on how to bring friends, co-workers, and neighbors together to raise funds to send books to prisoners. RBtB’s postage costs are a continual challenge, sometimes delaying the shipment of requested books by up to six months. But fundraising house parties have had an excellent track record of success for countless nonprofits, and their timing for RBtB couldn’t be better during this milestone year. Let the parties begin!

Bake Sale at the 4th Avenue Street Fair!

Hello, readers!  Our volunteers will soon be busy baking brownies, cupcakes, cookies, and more for our bake sale at the 4th Avenue Street Fair this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  We’ll be selling our baked goods at Casa Libre en la Solana (228 N. 4th Ave., a little bit north of The Book Stop and a little bit south of A Foam & Fabric Place) to help us raise funds to keep sending books to prisoners.  Stop by for a delicious way to help us send out our backlog of book requests!

Democracy & Dissent Book Club to Discuss The New Jim Crow

One of the most talked about books on the prison-industrial complex recently has been Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  If you’ve read it, are reading it now, or plan to read it, you can join a discussion about it at the Democracy & Dissent Book Club at Antigone Books next month.  They’ll be discussing it at 2:00 p.m. on April 1 at Antigone Books, 411 N. 4th Ave. in Tucson.

Friday News Roundup for March 12 through March 16, 2012

Here’s a quick wrap-up of some news items that were noteworthy but not covered in our blog this week.

  • From the ACLU Blog of Rights, Monday, March 12, 2012: A New York Times article on Sunday “reinforces what the ACLU and human rights activists around the nation have long said: it’s time to end the barbarously cruel practice…of locking down prisoners in long-term total isolation.” The article includes telling comments by Mississippi’s commissioner of corrections, who “started out believing that difficult inmates should be locked down as tightly as possible” but later changed his mind: “If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they’ll behave.”
  • From the Sentencing Project, Tuesday, March 13, 2012: “African-American teenagers are more likely to be sentenced to life in prison without parole if a judge or jury convicts them of murdering a white person, according to the first-ever survey in which juvenile lifers were questioned. Conversely, white teenagers who are convicted of murdering a black person are less likely to be sentenced to life without parole, the same survey found.”
  • From Witness to Innocence, Wednesday, March 14, 2012: Death row exonerees will serve as expert consultants for a forthcoming Sundance Channel drama titled Rectify, which “will focus on the story of Daniel Holden, who is released after spending nearly twenty years on Georgia’s Death Row when DNA evidence disputes a key element of the prosecution’s case.”
  • From Arizona Prison Watch, Wednesday, March 14, 2012: A workshop on restoring civil rights after release from incarceration will be held at the Maricopa County Superior Court Law Library on Wednesday, April 11, 2012, from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Information is available at (602) 372-6803, and registration by phone is available at (602) 506-3461. Please see the Arizona Prison Watch blog for details on materials that should be brought to the workshop.
  • From the Internationalist Prison Books Collective (Raleigh, North Carolina), via Solitary Watch, Wednesday, March 14, 2012: Eight inmates were put in solitary confinement after protesting work conditions. “Prisoners in these kitchens are made to work ten hours a day, seven days a week.” A call-in day was held on March 14, but prison officials can still be contacted now: Prison Warden Ken Lassiter, (919) 715-2645, and North Carolina Director of Prisons Robert C. Lewis, (919) 838-4000.
  • From Grassroots Leadership News, Friday, March 16, 2012: Florida became “the first southern state to ban the shackling of pregnant women in their third trimester and during childbirth” with a bill that will take effect in July of this year. (A similar bill was recently approved in Arizona.)

How Reliable Are Arizona’s Crime Labs?

Following on the heels of our prior post about wrongful imprisonment comes news from the blog Grits for Breakfast that gives more reason for skepticism. Grits for Breakfast discusses the poor track record of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB), a crime lab accreditation agency used extensively throughout the U.S. A reader forwarded a 31-page memo by Marvin E. Schechter, a section chair at the New York State Bar Association. Schechter’s memo states that ASCLD/LAB “could…be described as a product service organization which sells for a fee, a ‘seal of approval,’ covering diverse laboratory systems which laboratories can utilize to bolster their credibility through in-court testimony by technicians plus ancillary services such as protection from outside inquiry, shielding of internal activities and where necessary, especially in the event of public condemnation, a spokesperson to buffer the laboratory from media inquiry.” It’s not a very flattering description of an agency that currently accredits 387 crime labs, 10 of which are in Arizona.

Arizona is mentioned in the memo as one of several states where lab failures at ASCLD/LAB-accredited facilities have been reported. Here’s the excerpt:

Newspapers have reported since 2005 at least 50 laboratory failures….Of these 50 incidents, 28 occurred in facilities that were under ASCLD/LAB accreditation….Incidents occurred have occurred [sic] in ASCLD/LAB accredited facilities in Arizona (4), California (6), Connecticut (1), Florida (1), Georgia (3), Kansas (1), Maryland (1), New York (6), North Carolina (1), Tennessee (1), Texas (1).

In these eleven states, the failures encompassed different forms. Thus, there were mistakes in the identification of fibers, destroyed blood samples, DNA contamination, failure to perform maintenance and calibration, mix-up of key physical evidence, faking calibration dates, false credentials, faking of drug test results, failing proficiency tests, safety deficiencies, substandard ventilation, ineffective operating procedures, evidence integrity issues, delay in reporting DNA evidence, expired chemicals, “dry-labbing,” supervisory failure, incorrect drug weights, theft of drugs, incorrect and/or misleading blood serology results, lack of proper certification and use of outdated tests and destruction of laboratory records.

Upstream from Arizona’s problematic prisoners are problematic crime labs. You can read more about the memo on the Grits for Breakfast blog.

Accounting for the Innocent but Imprisoned

While Arizona has only seen three exonerations from post-conviction DNA testing, one of those exonerated, Ray Krone, holds the distinction of being the 100th person exonerated from death row since 1976. Krone was sentenced to death row for the 1991 murder of Kim Ancona, an acquaintance who worked at a Phoenix bar that Krone frequented. Ancona was raped and murdered shortly after the bar closed on December 29, 1991, and circumstantial evidence, in tandem with an expert witness who had supposedly matched a sample of Krone’s teeth marks to the teeth marks found on Ancona’s body, resulted in Krone’s conviction.

A 1994 retrial convicted Krone again on the same evidence, but Krone was given a lighter sentence: 46 years in prison. The appeals continued until 2002, when Krone’s attorney was able to use DNA evidence to convince an appeals court that Krone was innocent. It’s hard to call someone who spent a decade of his life fighting a wrongful conviction lucky, but in some ways he was. Witness to Innocence, an organization that empowers ex-death row prisoners in the movement to abolish the death penalty, summarizes the unusual circumstances that enabled Krone’s exoneration: “Unlike nearly every other prisoner on death row, he had financial support from his second cousin, Jim Rix. Jim personally spent more than $100,000 to pay Ray’s legal fees. Ray also had the benefit of DNA evidence, which is available in only about 15 percent of cases.” Krone’s story provides one example of how unusual it is for wrongful convictions to be reversed–and why.

In Mother Jones last December, an article asked rhetorically in its title, “How Many Innocent People Are in Prison?” The answer is that no one is really sure. According to the Innocence Project, “the few studies that have been done estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent.” In a nation that imprisons people at a rate four times the global average, that amounts to 46,000 to 100,000 people. But as Mother Jones explains, that number is likely too small to reflect the reality of the wrongfully incarcerated. Most of the wrongfully incarcerated don’t have the resources–or even the willingness–to appeal. “Because the average time from conviction to exoneration is about 13 years, only those sentenced to serious crimes with decades-long prison terms are likely to even bother undertaking the long, arduous, and resource-intensive process of clearing their names.”

Ray Krone’s case has often been cited as an example of the eagerness on the part of law enforcement to see someone convicted, especially in the case of capital crimes, even if the evidence against that person is weak. Capital crimes are often the focus of studies that look at the number of wrongfully convicted people in U.S. prisons, but a broader view is needed–though equally elusive. As a writer for Reason magazine argued, “The Innocence Project cites a study by Seton Hall’s D. Michael Risinger that puts the percentage of innocents in prison at 3 to 5 percent. But that study looked only at capital crimes, and there’s yet more debate over whether data gleaned from those accused of crimes that are eligible for the death penalty would translate into higher or lower wrongful conviction rates for those accused of lesser crimes.”

Looking at lesser crimes, especially drug crimes, we find more reason for alarm. Last year a New York court heard testimony from Stephen Anderson, a former narcotics detective who admitted, “As a detective, you…have a number to reach while you are in the narcotics division,” a number reached by “taking someone who was seemingly not guilty of a crime and laying the drugs on them.” Anderson added, “It was something I was seeing a lot of, whether it was from supervisors or undercovers and even investigators.”

Downstream from law-enforcement officers, many of whom are pressured to meet arrest quotas, is what one legal blog dubbed the Plea Bargain Assembly Line. Public defenders are commonly overworked, handling hundreds of cases annually. The result, according to Mother Jones, is that “Nineteen out of twenty, or 95 percent, of convictions in the US are by plea bargain.” The number of innocents in that 95 percent can’t be ascertained, since no evidence is brought to trial.

As if that weren’t enough, those behind bars might see their incarceration extended as a consequence of fabricated or exaggerated charges. In “Bring Us Your Chained and Huddled Masses,” a chapter in the edited volume Boob Jubilee: The Cultural Politics of the New Economy, journalist Christian Parenti looked at Crescent City, California, and the surrounding county of Del Norte, where corrections is the biggest industry, thanks to “the sprawling $277 million Pelican Bay State Prison,” which puts “more than $90 million a year into the local economy.” “According to research by California Prison Focus (CPF),” writes Parenti, “even minor disciplinary infractions at Pelican Bay, such as spitting on guards or refusing to return a meal tray, are routinely embellished and prosecuted as felony assault.” Those charged often face citizen jurors who are related to people employed by, or profiting from, the corrections industry. Furthermore, local defense attorneys shared stories of how prison officials and beneficiaries of the prison industry used their leverage to prevent effective legal defense of inmates. Defense attorneys with a record of too many wins saw their appointments disappear. Authorities instead sought what one attorney called “guaranteed loser lawyers.”

Searching for the answer to how many innocent people are imprisoned, we run into a lot of dead ends where evidence can’t be found. But along the way it’s easy to come to the conclusion that what can’t be quantified is still cause for considerable concern. At every step, from arrest to conviction to appeal, tens of thousands–at the very least–are caught in a system that is too zealously punitive and insufficiently judicious.

Friday News Roundup for February 27 through March 2, 2012

Here’s a quick wrap-up of some news items that were noteworthy but not covered in our blog this week.

  • From the Arizona Prison Watch blog, Tuesday, February 28, 2012: “[T]he ACLU National Prison Project and the Prison Law Office are about to file a class action lawsuit against the state of Arizona for their horrid treatment of prisoners when it comes to health and mental health care.” Additionally, Arizona Prison Watch announced that it will be co-sponsoring a forum on March 22 called “Fair Treatment for All: Ensuring Humane Medical Care for Arizona Prisoners” at the Maryvale Community Center Auditorium at 4420 N. 51st Ave. in Phoenix. The Arizona ACLU is an additional co-sponsor of the event.
  • From the Real Cost of Prisons Weblog, Thursday, March 1, 2012: In an egregious example of racial disparities in drug arrests, “93 percent of all marijuana possession arrests in the city of Atlanta [in 2011] were African-Americans, and 7 percent were white. The city’s population is 54 percent African-American and 38 percent white.”
  • From the Newport News (Virginia) Daily Press, via SentenceSpeak blog, Thursday, March 1, 2012: “A 2010 report released by the Congressional Research Service revealed the [corrections] industry employs about 770,000 workers….By way of perspective: The U.S. auto industry employs about 880,000 people.”
  • From the National Immigrant Justice Center, via the Dignity Not Detention blog, Friday, March 2, 2012: “Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) welcomes the announcement that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has released a long-awaited set of new immigration detention standards intended to address critical human rights concerns in the system. Unfortunately, the new standards do not go far enough to protect the rights of all ICE detainees, and ICE has yet to commit to a timeline for implementation that will ensure immigrants are protected from abuse, neglect, and inhumane conditions.” Among other shortcomings, it won’t apply the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 to immigrant detention facilities.
  • Also released this week was a new study by The Sentencing Project, The Lives of Juvenile Lifers: Findings from a National Survey (PDF). Among the 1,579 individuals surveyed, the study found “high rates of socioeconomic disadvantage, extreme racial disparities in the imposition of [sentences], sentences frequently imposed without judicial discretion, and counterproductive corrections policies that thwart efforts at rehabilitation.”