Waiting While Black in Philadelphia Can Get You Arrested

What happened in a Philadelphia Starbucks is another example of the indignities Black people face every day.

By Reggie Shuford, executive director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

(Image Via Twitter)

Late last week, two Black men in Philadelphia were doing what people do every day in this city — they waited in a coffee shop to meet an associate. While they were engaged in this mundane activity, they were removed from the Starbucks cafe at 18th and Spruce Streets in handcuffs by Philadelphia police officers.

This is another example of the kind of daily indignities that African-Americans face every day in Philadelphia and around the country. We can’t even wait in a coffee shop for a friend without the possibility that someone will call the police. Two days after the news broke of the incident, I’m angrier now than I was when I first heard about it.

The neighborhood where this incident occurred is known as Rittenhouse Square. For those not familiar with Philadelphia, it’s a tony neighborhood of beautiful townhouses and high-end apartment buildings.

It’s also the neighborhood with the highest rates of racial disparities in stops and frisks by police in all of Philadelphia. In 2010, the ACLU of Pennsylvania sued the city because the Philadelphia Police Department’s use of stop-and-frisk was discriminatory. Our data showed that African-Americans were far more likely to be stopped and frisked than their white counterparts. Making matters worse, those stops were often without any justifiable cause.

A year later, the city agreed to a consent decree to settle the case. That agreement requires the city to collect data on the PPD’s use of stop-and-frisk — including the demographic information of people who are stopped and the reasons why they were stopped — as well as to train officers to eliminate bias-based policing.

The police service area where the Starbucks is located has a Black population of just 3 percent. But 67 percent of the stops that occurred there in the first half of 2017 were of African-Americans. The two other police service areas in this district — known as District 9 — show similar lopsided disparities. In one of the bordering police service areas, a whopping 84 percent of pedestrians stopped were African-Americans in a neighborhood with a Black population of 16 percent.

Seven years after the city agreed to do better, we still see consistent racial disparities in stops and frisks. Yet, in a video statement in response to the incident, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross had the nerve to say that his officers “did absolutely nothing wrong.”

His statement, the data the city has collected on stops, and this incident all lead me to wonder if Ross and his leaders in this district and this police service area, Capt. Danielle Vales and Lt. Jeffrey Rabinovitch, are serious about ending racial profiling in this neighborhood and throughout the city.

There was no need for a Starbucks employee to call 911 because two men were waiting for an associate in their store. And even after the police were called, the police did not have to end the situation by arresting these men. If Commissioner Ross is right that these officers followed policy, then the policy needs to change. Starbucks may be able to decide who sits in its store, but only the police could decide to arrest these men.

Racial bias and discrimination are so steeped in American culture that those of us who experience it on a regular basis have learned to live as second-class citizens in the country of our birth. Many folks have expressed pride or relief because the two men remained calm. I get that. I am glad, too. We have seen far too many incidents that have quickly spiraled out of control.

But there is an ugly side to that as well. Black people, men in particular, are not allowed the full range of emotional expression in public spaces. Even when an emotion other than being calm is warranted, we have been taught and have learned to police our emotions. No matter how badly we are being treated or how much our dignity is being assailed, we have to be the ones maintaining control and being responsible for de-escalating these situations.

We are not allowed to be angry. Or loud. Or boisterous. Or too happy or too celebratory. In other words, we’re not allowed to be human. We police ourselves because we know that others are already policing us. That, too, takes a toll.

As this story has gathered attention over the last three days, many people are doing back flips to justify what happened here. It is well past time to quit making excuses for racist behavior. Enough with the rationalizations and alternative theories. Believe us. We are credible messengers of our own truths and lived experiences. We shouldn’t have to rely on a white person or a video to validate us.

Meek Mill’s sentence reveals problems with Pennsylvania’s extreme use of court supervision

By Reggie Shuford, Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Hip-hop artist Meek Mill was named one of the 100 most influential Philadelphians by Philadelphia Magazine. However, rather than his music, his recent prison sentence is what has garnered the spotlight, helping to focus attention on the problems of our criminal justice system, specifically the issue of court supervision in Pennsylvania and its impact on mass incarceration.

Rapper Meek Mill arrives at the criminal justice center in Philadelphia, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

This past week, on November 6, Judge Genece E. Brinkley sentenced Mill, 30, to two to four years in state prison for a probation violation. Over ten years ago, an 18-year-old Mill was arrested for drug and gun possession. In 2009, Judge Brinkley sentenced Mill — who was then known by his given name Robert Rahmeek Williams — to 11 ½ to 23 months in prison, followed by eight years of probation. Since that time, the judge has overseen his case.

Many people are outraged over the injustice of Mill’s lengthy sentence, and they should be. Criminal justice advocate Jay-Z, whose Roc Nation recording company signed the Philadelphia native, took to Facebook and called the sentence “unjust and heavy handed,” pledging to “always stand by and support Meek Mill, both as he attempts to right this wrongful sentence and then in returning to his musical career.” Said CNN contributor Van Jones, “It is absolutely outrageous. It is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. I’ve never heard of a case where a brother stands before a judge; the prosecutor says, do not put this brother in jail; the probation office says do not put this brother in jail; And, for some reason, the judge says I’m going to put him in jail any way.”

And a petition on Change.org in support of Mill is closing in on 200,000 signatures.

The public outcry over this case underscores how people are sent to prison over technical violations versus direct violations. A probationer incurs a direct violation if he or she is convicted of a new crime while on probation. A person who has failed to comply with the terms of their probation — but who has not committed a new crime — receives a technical violation. Pennsylvania law permits a judge to incarcerate a defendant only if he or she already committed, or is likely to commit, a new crime. Even more problematic, that same statute allows a judge to impose prison time if “such a sentence is essential to vindicate the authority of the court” — which means the law allows a court to incarcerate someone merely if the judge feels disrespected.

What did Mill do to cause the judge to send him to prison? This past year, he was arrested for a fight in the St. Louis airport — charges were dropped — and took a dismissal deal for reckless driving and “popping a wheelie” on his dirt bike.

Meanwhile, 4.65 million adults in the U.S. are on probation or parole, or 1 in 53 adults. Pennsylvania — which has the highest incarceration rate in the Northeast — has the fourth highest number of people under government supervision, long after they committed their crimes, with 280,000 people as of 2015, and one-third of all prison beds in Pennsylvania are occupied by people who violated the terms of their probation or parole. This comes at great expense to Pennsylvania’s taxpayers, diverting precious resources from education and social services.

Meek Mill has become the face of probation and parole and the excesses of a system that ensnares so many without celebrity status. When the law allows judges to incarcerate people under their supervision solely because of a technical violation — when they committed no new crime and pose no threat whatsoever — we have a problem.

Is it time to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania?

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Is it time to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania? Photo via herb.co.

Citations and charges can ruin lives. It can be traffic tickets with fines too high to afford, disorderly conduct charges, other non-violent offenses, or even violent offenses that reflect an earlier time in someone’s life before they had a chance to grow up and reform. Any entrance into the criminal justice system can be an automatic ticket to second-class citizenship — a way for employers to discriminate, for judges to make unfair sentencing decisions, and for peers to judge.

As part of ACLU-PA’s efforts to reduce the commonwealth’s incarceration rate, it’s our goal to lessen the number of people ensnared into the criminal justice system. We consider Pennsylvania’s marijuana laws to be low-hanging fruit in that regard.

While a recent Franklin & Marshall poll found that 59 percent of Pennsylvania residents believe marijuana should be legal, retrograde laws nonetheless trap thousands of people in the criminal justice system for pot-related offenses every year. And those numbers have risen in recent years.

Over the last several months, we’ve worked with marijuana advocates and data specialists to quantify Pennsylvania’s cannabis crackdown. And on Monday, October 16, we plan to reveal what we’ve found during a press conference at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.

Stay tuned for more about Pennsylvania’s cannabis crackdown.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.)

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross has some explaining to do. Photo via The Philadelphia Inquirer.

  • Philly.com: “Study: High rates of stop-and-frisk even in Philly’s lowest-crime black areas”

“It’s not just black people, but entire, predominantly black, neighborhoods that are disproportionately impacted by the Philadelphia Police Department’s use of stop-and-frisk. That’s a key finding of a new analysis of police data from 2014 to 2015 by Lance Hannon, a Villanova University professor of sociology and criminology who began analyzing publicly available police data after the presidential candidates clashed over the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk in debates last year. He found that mostly black neighborhoods drew 70 percent more frisks than nonblack areas, yet yielded less contraband. And, he discovered, the elevated rate of frisking was consistent whether the predominantly black neighborhood was a high-crime area or a very low-crime area. Although many African American neighborhoods in the city have low crime rates, he said, ‘People, police officers, and nonpolice officers tend to judge the dangerousness of a place based on racial predominance. When they think of a black area as being dangerous, they are thinking of the outliers — and all the other neighborhoods that are relatively safe get painted with the same brush.’”

  • Bloomberg: “Prison Video Visits Are No Substitute for Face-to-Face, Especially at These Prices”

“There are 650 U.S. correctional facilities offering some form of video viewing. Like Tazewell, most are county jails, and three-quarters have eliminated in-person visits, often as a stipulation of their contract with the company charging for the video feeds. Tazewell did so in 2014, when it hired Securus Technologies Inc., a prison phone company that now controls about a third of the video market. The business has been lucrative enough to attract the attention of the private equity world. In February, Platinum Equity LLC, the firm run by Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, agreed to buy Securus for $1.6 billion, more than double the company’s 2012 valuation. The proposed deal has come under scrutiny from both regulatory commissions and prisoners’ advocates, delaying its likely approval.”

  • TeenVogue: “Why Young Girls Die Behind Bars”

“Arrests of young women during fights with family members such as the one that led to Gynnya’s incarceration are unfortunately all too frequent. According to Unintended Consequences, a report by the National Girls Initiative of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, ‘under state domestic violence laws, many law enforcement officers, arriving in homes in which girls are fighting with their parents or caregivers … often respond by making an arrest.’ As a result, ‘in-home conflict is a significant pathway for girls’ involvement in the justice system and many of girls’ arrests are for simple assault of their mothers or caregivers with no or minor injury.’ In fact, one study of 320 domestic violence calls in Massachusetts found that police were more likely to arrest young women in cases of disputes with parents and among siblings than between intimate partners.Nationally, girls of color are disproportionately arrested for assaults of family members in their homes. In Washington State, Black and Native youth are arrested for assault at a rate between 2 and 4 times greater than white youth.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

 

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

 

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

“No prison is as dirty as this one”

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Lackawanna County Commissioner Patrick M. O’Malley pins a captain’s badge on County Corrections Officer William Shanley. A civil lawsuit alleges that Shanley was part of an elaborate sexual assault scheme in Lackwanna County Prison, and that O’Malley played a role in attempting to cover it up. Photo via Lackawanna County.

Let’s talk about the raid at Lackawanna County prison.

During more than 10 hours last Thursday, investigators with the Pennsylvania State Police and the state Attorney General’s office descended upon county facilities in Scranton.

We linked to a related story last week, but it’s worth some further contextualization. Though Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office has been mumon the reason for the law enforcement attention, multiple news outlets reported that it involved a grand jury investigation into allegations of sexual abuse. The Times-Tribune even added up the tab that Lackawanna County has paid thus far to correctional officers placed on administrative leave while the investigation unfolds.

If it does involve sexual abuse allegations, there are some hints about where its focus might lay.

Have a look at this civil complaint. It’s horrifying. It alleges that numerous current and former Lackawanna County correctional officers — such as John Shnipes, who was forced to resign in 2013, and William Shanley, who now serves as a captain at the prison — used the institution as grooming ground for perverse sexual conquests with female inmates both inside the prison and while inmates were on work release. Not only does it allege that COs carried out continual sexual attacks on multiple female prisoners, but it explicitly accuses other officers and high-level officials of perpetuating an elaborate cover up.

Just as an example (and there are many in the complaint), county prison officials, for years, received troubling information about Schnipes’ sexual attacks at the prison. They even convened a grand jury in 2010 to investigate him. Between 2011 and 2013 — while he was under active investigation — the complaint says Schnipes continued sexually assaulting women at the prison, and even set up other COs to carry out similar attacks.

Schnipes was eventually forced out. But there have been allegations — some in court, as recently as this year — that whatever actions occurred following that grand jury investigation were little more than window dressing to give the appearance of aggressive oversight while a broader sexual assault conspiracy continued.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that was the case. As outlined in the civil complaint, Patrick O’Malley — a Lackawanna County Commissioner who served as a corrections officer at the county prison for 15 years — is alleged to have shared information that he learned from Prison Board meetings to a CO who had come under fire, “warning her that she was going to be investigated.” The complaint concludes that “this was part of the cover-up and conspiracy perpetrated by him and other policy makers which caused Plaintiffs to be assaulted and caused the delay in them uncovering the current cause of action.”

As the Times-Tribune’s Borys Krawczeniuk pointed out on Sunday, Lackawanna County prison has a shocking history of criminal staff behavior. Institutional sex crimes are only part of it: Employees have been accused of physical assault, graft, failing to treat sick and injured inmates, and even failing to perform simple housekeeping duties.

“No prison is as dirty as this one,” a source told Krawczeniuk.

That source was being literal — referring to employees actually failing to clean dirt and grime from the prison. But he may as well have been speaking of the culture as a whole.

Whatever the outcome of Shapiro’s probe, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered about Lackawanna County prison.

Maybe soon we’ll have answers.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.)

Barbed wire fencing at the State Correctional Institution Phoenix. Photo via The Philadelphia Inquirer.

  • Philly.com: “How computers are predicting crime — and potentially impacting your future”

“‘The sad thing is you risk shooting yourself in the foot when you behave as if you have something to hide,’ Berk said. ‘There’s nothing to hide.’ Probation and Parole’s unwillingness to release details about its risk-assessment tool, used to manage supervision for nearly every offender under its watch for the last eight years, strikes at concerns that have been simmering as Philadelphia prepares to create a similar computer model for use in bail decisions. Some who are watching that process closely have questioned whether the tool will be racially biased, whether the factors it weighs will be made public, and, fundamentally, whether a computer algorithm should play any role in deciding a person’s future.The debate is sure to be rigorous, as it has been in the dozens of other jurisdictions across the country already using risk-assessment tools to help guide decisions about bail, sentencing, and parole. The tools, like judges, are bound to make bad forecasts that could lead to the release of a suspect better kept incarcerated until trial or the over-supervision of a parolee who might then struggle to keep a job. The question that divides the criminal justice world is whether risk-assessment tools make the imperfect process used now better or worse.” Related from BillyPenn: “Can Philly’s new technology predict recidivism without being racist?”

  • More Philly.com: “America, we need to talk about this ‘police riot’ in a major U.S. city”

“We live in a nation that has always given broad leeway to law enforcement, and I have no doubt that many people reading this — perhaps the majority — will insist that the overzealous police response was nonetheless necessitated by the handful of folks among the crowd who did, most regrettably, commit acts or vandalism or violence. But that attitude overlooks the bigger and most alarming reality of what actually has been happening in St. Louis: A police force determined to go well beyond its public-safety responsibilities to assert an intimidating level of social control, to show who runs public spaces in ‘their’ city — them, and not its citizens — while crushing any dissent targeting its own sordid history of misconduct, including a record of white officers killing black civilians at a rate unmatched by other large cities. Lest there be any doubt of this last Sunday night, as scores of people were carted away, deprived of liberty, officers marched in formation through the pacified thoroughfares of St Louis, stunning the remaining journalists and onlookers by chanting, ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ — both echoing and mocking the protesters in greater St. Louis who have been marching for social justice since the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. A short time later, the city’s acting police chief bragged that ‘we owned the night.’ Left unanswered was the question of whether a community where police own the streets and own the night is, by definition, a police state.””

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

After deportation, a murder in central Mexico: The case of Juan Coronilla-Guerrero

By Andy Hoover and Matt Stroud, ACLU of Pennsylvania

c’s wife told a federal judge that he could be killed if he was deported back to central Mexico. The judge decided to deport him anyway — and Coronilla-Guerrero was killed. Photo via the American-Statesman.

For a decade, irresponsible public officials and other public figures have used xenophobic rhetoric to fuel a hateful anti-immigrant movement. Some — among them, former Hazleton mayor and now Congressman Lou Barletta and former DOJ bureaucrat and now Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — have gained power by using fear of immigrants as a launching pad for their ambitions, even while their most extreme ideas continuously lose in court. That xenophobia charged our current president’s run to the White House, and its inevitable conclusion is now being seen around the country, as ICE and Border Patrol agents harass, intimidate, and arrest people wherever and whenever they can find them.

Advocates for immigrants’ rights have a fairer, more compassionate vision of America — as a place where people can seek refuge from extreme poverty, extreme violence, and political persecution.

On Tuesday, the Austin American-Statesman reported about the case of Juan Coronilla-Guerrero.

Coronilla-Guerrero was arrested by agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on March 3 when he showed up for a routine court appearance to address misdemeanor charges in Travis County, Texas. That he was picked up in a so-called “sensitive location” highlights how aggressive immigration enforcement has become.

In a federal hearing that followed Coronilla-Guerrero’s arrest, his wife described the gangland environment that she and her husband escaped when they left central Mexico for Austin. She warned a judge that her husband would likely be murdered if he were deported.

The judge wasn’t moved; Coronilla-Guerrero was sent back to his home country. His wife’s warning soon proved prescient: Three months after he arrived in Mexico, Coronilla-Guerrero’s body was discovered on a roadsidenear where he lived with his wife’s family.

As immigration enforcement gets more and more aggressive, we hear stories like this — of immigrants who are essentially refugees, begging to stay in the United States, and being arrested and/or deported regardless. NPR reportedWednesday about the parents of a two-month-old being arrested by Border Patrol agents while their child underwent a serious operation. In Pennsylvania, we hear frequent stories of immigration raids, ramped-up enforcement. When Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas’s Gulf Coast, a worry among undocumented immigrants was whether or not they could go to shelters without being arrested and deported.

Under Trump, Mexicans are “rapists” and we must build a “big, beautiful wall” to keep them out. Under Trump, the problem of immigration is not how to assimilate “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” but rather to lend a bullhorn to the “voices of immigration crime.”

But as that fearful, xenophobic philosophy spreads throughout federal law enforcement agencies — and as immigration-related arrests spike to record levels — the aggression of the fierce anti-immigrant movement championed by Trump, Barletta, Kobach, and their ilk creates new heartbreaking stories, new martyrs. Coronilla-Guerrero’s death shows the dangers of deportation itself. It highlights that claims that the United States is overrun by violent immigrants is a fallacy, a claim unsupported by data.

One wonders how those sympathetic to Coronilla-Guerrero will respond.

IN OTHER NEWS
(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.)

The

A fascinating investigative report from USA Today delved into The Wall, and whether it’s realistic. Of course it’s not, but the details of its impossibility are fascinating. Photo via USA Today.

“‘Build the Wall.’ Three words energized a campaign. But could it be done? What would it cost? What would it accomplish? Our search for answers became this, a landmark new report, ‘The Wall.’ The task was massive. We flew the entire border, drove it too. More than 30 reporters and photographers interviewed migrants, farmers, families, tribal members — even a human smuggler. We joined Border Patrol agents on the ground, in a tunnel, at sea. We patrolled with vigilantes, walked the line with ranchers. We scoured government maps, fought for property records. In this report, you can watch aerial video of every foot of the border, explore every piece of fence, even stand at the border in virtual reality. Still, breakthrough technology would mean nothing if it didn’t help us better understand the issues — and one another.”

“The records depict a slush fund for DA and police spending that runs the gamut from the mundane to the downright bizarre, all enabled by laws that empower police to seize property from individuals sometimes merely suspected of criminal activity. In one instance, the forfeiture ‘bank’ helped top off the salary of a former DA staffer who once served as campaign manager to now-jailed District Attorney Seth Williams. (The office maintains these expenses were appropriate and eventually reimbursed.) Other forfeiture dollars paid for at least one contract that appears to have violated city ethics guidelines — construction work awarded to a company linked to one of the DA’s own staff detectives. (The DAO said it is now conducting an ‘internal investigation’ into these payments.) With little concern for public scrutiny, the clandestine revenue stream also paid for much more: $30,000 worth of submachine guns (equipped with military-grade laser sights valued at $15,000) for police tactical units; a $16,000 website development contract; custom uniform embroidery; a $76 parking ticket; $1,000 in raccoon-removal services; a push lawn mower; a pair of outboard motors; and tens of thousands in mysterious cash withdrawals — along with thousands of other expenses.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

Could a private prison in Berks turn Trump’s immigration policy into a for-profit venture?

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania

One of Pennsylvania’s two for-profit prisons — for now. Photo via Philly.com.

 With Pennsylvania’s troubling record of sending more kids to prison for life thann any other state; of shielding body camera footage from the public; of indefinitely placing people into solitary confinement; and other blatant civil rights violations in the name of criminal justice, you might be surprised to know that Pennsylvania is not overrun with private prisons.

That’s right. Much attention has been given — by me, even — to the river of salivation flowing from the mouths of private prison CEOs and investors as President Donald Trump took office and promised to round up, incarcerate, and deport every single one of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. But those rounded up in Pennsylvania by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have been detained in institutions run by government entities, not companies. Those include the Pike and Clinton County Correctional Facilities, the York County Prison, and the Berks Family Residential Center — all operated by government employees.

But things may be changing in Pennsylvania.

In Berks County, leaders have been actively discussing how to pay for a new county jail — a project that could cost as much as $158 million. In a discussion last week, county commissioners said, according to WFMZ, that “privatization needs to at least be an option for the sake of the taxpayers.”

No, it doesn’t.

You don’t need to read Shane Bauer’s 36,000-word Mother Jones cover story about working undercover in a private prison to know how bad they are. You don’t need to fully understand the extent to which the rapes of female detainees at a CoreCivic property in Taylor, Texas, represented the failure of the private detention industry. You don’t need to revisit the “kids for cash” scandal over judicial kickbacks at the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas to understand the pollution of privatizing systems of incarceration: These prisons are chronically understaffed, often poorly constructed, dangerous, and prisoners receive even less in the way of treatment and rehabilitation than they would in a government-run prison.

And while the jail privatization discussion in Berks does not involve housing detainees on behalf of ICE yet, it’s more than conceivable that it might. The numbers that have emerged about ICE’s Pennsylvania operations indicate it’s arresting more people and deporting fewer. If that trend continues, ICE is going to need more space. Berks County Prison sits a half-mile from ICE’s Berks Family Residential Center. Executives with GEO Group or CoreCivic might suggest the jail lend a helping hand — at taxpayer expense, of course.

That Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system is largely devoid of private prisons is a favorable note in a foul cacophony: While commonwealth-based ICE officers round up undocumented residents at record numbers — often taking them from their children and families and friends — at least they’re not currently doing so at the behest of CoreCivic’s or GEO Group’s stockholders. CoreCivic operates zero prisons in Pennsylvania; GEO Group runs only two — one on behalf of Delaware County, the other for low-level offenders with the federal Bureau of Prisons. Compare that to Texas, where GEO operates nine prisons in the Rio Grande region alone, three on behalf of ICE.

ICE’s increasing arrests within the commonwealth are appalling, just like virtually every other effect of the Trump Administration’s caustic rhetoric, contentious policy decisions, and appointments in the name of profit-seeking.

Let’s not add another note to that foul cacophony.

IN OTHER NEWS
(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.) 

No justice, no police. Illustration from the Post-Gazette.
  • Post-Gazette: “Flawed reforms alienate good cops and prolong a crisis”

“In an April interview, Emily Sussman of the Center for American Progress stated that Department of Justice investigations establish systemic corruption before imposing decrees. But in 1997 DOJ did not interview a single Pittsburgh officer, did not allow the police union (the Fraternal Order of Police) any input and ignored a 10-year performance audit by the city controller that largely contradicted their investigation (of which there is no written record). The federal action was based on 66 uncorroborated ACLU complaints. Five years and millions of Pittsburgh tax dollars later, only five cases went to court: cops 2, plaintiffs 3. One plaintiff got $3,000 and the other two got nothing. Federal judges in Torrance, Calif., and Columbus, Ohio, dismissed DOJ ‘investigations’ without trials.” (Of note: This author, a retired Pittsburgh cop and Allegheny County detective, is speaking today — Friday, September 15, at 1 p.m. — at a Duquesne University seminar.)

  • Take Care: “More Empty Threats: The Trump Administration’s Latest Attack on Sanctuary Cities”

“Nowhere has Congress authorized the Attorney General to impose his new conditions on Byrne JAG funding. The purpose of the Byrne JAG program wasn’t to conscript state and local police into enforcing federal immigration law. It was to provide federal grants, mostly based upon set formulas, to support state and local decisions about policing and public safety. Whatever you think of the Byrne JAG program, and there are reasons to think that it ‘gets used for some truly terribly practices,’ there is no clear authorization in the Byrne JAG statute for the Attorney’s General’s conditions.” (Hattip: Dylan Cowart, ACLU-PA’s new Legal Fellow in Pittsburgh)

  • UPDATE: On the shooting of Christopher Mark Thompkins

Last month, we called your attention to the case of Christopher Thompkins, who was shot and killed by Pittsburgh police on his front porch in January. Information about the investigation into that shooting has been nonexistent in the nearly eight months since it occurred, and we called out Allegheny County’s district attorney, Stephen A. Zappala, Jr., for not being more transparent about what’s going on. To his credit, Zappala has now spoken out, and what he’s said is surprising. From this morning’s Post-Gazette:

“Mr. Zappala said his office has for years has had a relationship with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police that allowed his investigators access to and control of the scene of a fatal officer-involved shooting. But he said that did not happen after 57-year-old Christopher Mark Thompkins was shot Jan. 22 inside his home on Finley Street. ‘On that particular matter, the city unilaterally changed their relationship with my office,’ Mr. Zappala said. ‘I’m not satisfied we were able to get on scene in a timely fashion and talk to people who could give us evidence. The matter is being investigated, but we are using a different mechanism.’”

In other words: There may be a grand jury investigating this case. Stay tuned.

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

Allegheny County DA still silent on shooting of black man on his front porch by Pittsburgh police

By Emilia Beuger and Matt Stroud, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Will Christopher Thompkins’ killing be forgotten?

Thompkins and his ex-wife, Brenda, awoke around 4 a.m. on January 22 to someone standing beside their bed in their home near the eastern border of Pittsburgh’s Larimer neighborhood. As the intruder fled the room, Thompkins asked for Brenda’s pistol. He went downstairs to protect his mother who was sleeping on the first floor. “He was just saying, ‘My mom, my mom,’” Brenda Thompkins told TribLive. “That’s all he was worrying about.” As he went down the stairs, Brenda called 911 and went to a roof behind the house. She surmised that an alarm company may have called the police sooner, however, because when Thompkins reached his front porch, police were waiting for him.

And they killed him.

Thompkins was shot dead that morning through the front door of his home by two Zone 5 police officers. Brenda heard the two gunshots from the roof. Later, as police escorted her downstairs, she saw Thompkins’ body covered by a blanket on the stairs. The man who had broken into their house, Juan Brian Jeter-Clark, was handcuffed and sitting on the couch. Thompkins was pronounced dead at 4:08 a.m. “They shot the wrong guy,” Brenda told reporters.

She was right. We know that somehow in the break-in’s aftermath, those officers mistook a man defending his home and family for a burglar.

What we don’t know is how that happened — and how it might be prevented in the future.

As is typical in Pittsburgh police shootings, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, lead by Stephen A. Zappala, took charge of investigating what happened. The two officers involved in the shooting — whose names have not been released by any public official — were placed on a 10-day administrative leave before they went back to their regular beats.

It’s been radio silence since then. As we approach the eight month anniversary of the shooting, it’s worth wondering why the investigation has taken so long, and why there seems to be little public push to either hold these officers accountable or explain why they should be let off the hook for killing a man.

Media coverage and errant public statements may explain some of the stall. An article published by TribLive on January 22, 2017, described how Thompkins had “run afoul of the law” years before he purchased the house he would later be killed in. KDKA implied he probably shouldn’t have been allowed to carry a firearm — as if that somehow justified his killing by police. Mayor Peduto even felt it was necessary to say, “Mr. Thompkins obviously had some issues in the past,” during a statement he made after meeting with the family. Beth Pittinger, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board, chided the coverage: “I think it’s tragic that the media, and to some extent others, have quietly excused this because the guy had a pretty bad criminal record.”

A second explanation is more troubling: As the months roll past, it’s possible that the investigation of Christopher Thompkins’ shooting is being slow-walked by the District Attorney’s Office in the hopes that it’ll be forgotten. “[If the] officers returned to duty and are back on the force, you can almost conclude that the investigation is done,” said Donald Tibbs, a Drexel University law professor. Yet the investigation drags on nonetheless.

In the meantime, both the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office have said nothing substantive about the shooting, instead invoking silence based on an “ongoing investigation.” While a Right To Know Law request from ACLU-PA has turned up a vague incident report and the name of the responding Zone 5 officers — Joshua Dengler and Richard Cerrillos — not much else is available to the public. That includes body camera footage from the incident, and an affidavit of probable cause, both of which are being withheld because they are “investigative in nature.”

“I don’t know of any legal rules or rulings that say that district attorneys must withhold information from the public,” Tibbs said. So then it is a question of their policy and practices. “District attorneys have a lot of discretionary power,” he went on.

Pittinger said it was “very unusual for an incident like this to be that quiet.” And while she and Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability, acknowledged that the shooting may have been an accident, they question why the public has been left in the dark.

Fisher places responsibility for the delayed and opaque process squarely on the district attorney’s office.

“I think they hold too much power, especially in Allegheny County,” she said. “There is no accountability.”

But there’s a possibility that Stephen Zappala could prove her wrong — by bringing this investigation to a close, and making public not only the affidavit of probable cause from the incident but the body camera footage as well.

Only then, Christopher Thompkins’ killing might not be forgotten.

Kenney’s order claims “openness and transparency”…Almost

By Midge Carter, ACLU-PA Criminal Justice Intern

The decision to release information about complaints made against Philadelphia police officers is a step in the right direction. Photo via Time.

Starting in November, the City of Philadelphia will make all civilian complaints alleging police misconduct available online. Or at least parts of them.

The executive order signed by Mayor James Kenney follows The Philadelphia Declaration’s Philadelphia Police Accountability Project — a  venture designed to accomplish two goals: 1) to come up with $5,000 in copying fees that the city asked for to provide information about police complaints, and 2) to build “a truly independent, publicly accessible database of civilian complaints lodged against the Philadelphia Police Department.” Kenney’s order deflects attention away from the former goal and moves gradually in the direction of the latter.

Kenney’s order, which was signed, it claims, “to ensure openness and transparency,” requires the city to post a monthly list of complaints filed against Philadelphia police officers. The list will include complaint summaries, incident locations, and investigative findings within 90 days of the complaint being filed. The lists will begin rolling out on November 1, and data from the last three years will be uploaded by early 2018.

That’s progress! Revealing complaint summaries and locations is good. That information will allow journalists, citizens, and lawmakers to identify trends and address potential problems.

However, the lists won’t identify officer names, and the city is permitted to withhold “any portion of the investigative file that the Police Commissioner determines must be kept confidential.”

That’s called secrecy. That’s the opposite of openness and transparency.

A further concern is that the information offered online will become the only information available. There is no indication if individuals will be able to receive physical copies of complaints. If not, then the only misconduct complaint information available would be the heavily redacted online information.

Nationally, online police complaint data is becoming more available, largely as a result of civilian pressure. The Los Angeles Police Department has an app for viewing Office of Investigation reports and filing complaints, though the complaints themselves are not available. In Chicago, the police offer little information, but two initiatives, The Citizen’s Police Data Project and Open Oversight have been working to make complaint information available.

Cincinnati makes all complaints available online but without any information that would make identifying an officer possible. NYC’s Data Transparency Initiativemakes complaints public and also offers visual summary reports. However, the information released from individual complaints is extremely limited. It provides only basic location, giving no insight into who filed the complaint or which officer the complaint was filed against. Philly’s online misconduct complaint release will potentially look very similar to New York’s.

Other cities are setting a precedent for more transparency. Baltimore and Indianapolis go a step further than Philadelphia. Both cities’ police departments participate in Project Comport, an online database of complaints. Though Project Comport does not list officer names, it does list “unique identifiers,” allowing civilians to track patterns of officer misconduct. We think Philadelphia should set a higher standard than all of these systems; it should release names.

Mayor Kenney said in a statement on Wednesday, “Everyone who works for the city of Philadelphia is a public servant, and the public deserves to know we will take their complaints about any city service seriously.” How is the public to know if complaints are being taken seriously if they do not know who the complaint is against?

Being unable to identify the public servants involved in complaints cripples the public’s ability to hold them accountable.

If police officers are to be effective public servants, then their misconduct and the complaints lodged against them need to be public as well.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.)

Juvenile lifers are being resentenced following the Supreme Court’s mandate, but justice looks different across state lines. Photo from AP.

  • Associated Press: “AP Exclusive: Parole for young lifers inconsistent across US”
“For years, officials in states with the most juvenile life cases were united in arguing that the Supreme Court’s ban on life without parole did not apply retroactively to inmates already serving such sentences. Now, states are heading in decidedly different directions. Pennsylvania, which long resisted reopening the old cases, has resentenced more than 1 in 5 of its 517 juvenile lifers and released 58 so far. Attorneys there talk about working their way through all the cases in the next three years. Just two Pennsylvania inmates have been resentenced to life without parole, which the nation’s highest court said should be uncommon and reserved for the rare offender who ‘exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible.’”

  • Juvenile Law Center: “Unlocking Youth: Legal Strategies to End Solitary Confinement in Juvenile Facilities”
“Despite a growing consensus that solitary confinement harms youth and undermines the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system, the practice remains all too common. At the same time, the field lacks sufficient information on the prevalence of the practice, the alternatives, and the perspectives of affected youth and families. This report uses surveys of public defenders, conversations with youth and families, interviews with correctional administrators, and legal and psychological research to fill these gaps and set forth recommendations for reform.”

“The use of money bonds to hold people who are arrested is falling out of favor in an increasing number of courts across the U.S., and Allegheny County is among them. The reasons include concerns about mass incarceration, as well as jail costs, civil lawsuits and studies that find jail time increases the chances of being arrested again. Such concerns have led to efforts to reform the way courts manage defendants before their trial. And the result has been the rise of a more evidence-​based approach for deciding who should and shouldn’t be locked up that takes money out of the equation. ‘Recommending monetary bail was one of the things we did because that’s just how you did things,’ said Janice Dean, director of Allegheny County Pretrial Services, which manages how people arrested are handled before their cases are resolved. ‘But you have people who aren’t dangerous staying in jail because they don’t have the money. And if I have $500,000 to post, no matter how dangerous I am, I’m getting out. Money doesn’t make us any safer.’”

  • Washington Post: “Fired and Rehired: Police chiefs are often forced to put officers fired for misconduct back on the streets”

“Since 2006, the nation’s largest police departments have fired at least 1,881 officers for misconduct that betrayed the public’s trust, from cheating on overtime to unjustified shootings. But The Washington Post has found that departments have been forced to reinstate more than 450 officers after appeals required by union contracts.

Most of the officers regained their jobs when police chiefs were overruled by arbitrators, typically lawyers hired to review the process. In many cases, the underlying misconduct was undisputed, but arbitrators often concluded that the firings were unjustified because departments had been too harsh, missed deadlines, lacked sufficient evidence or failed to interview witnesses.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

Solitary Confinement Since 1973 – That’s 44 Years

By Matt Stroud and Midge Carter, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Hell is a “restricted housing” cell within Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections. Photo via Flickr user jmiller291.

Daniel Delker is a Pennsylvania prisoner who has been in solitary confinement since 1973. That’s 44 years.

It’s likely that you’re aware, at least on some conceptual level, of what solitary confinement is — that it’s a punishment, often referred to as “the hole,” restricting a prisoner to a cell for nearly 24 hours per day, with rare opportunities to leave the cell for showering and exercise. In Pennsylvania, they call it the “Restricted Housing Unit.”

It’s also likely that you have some idea of what the effects of such an isolated punishment might entail. Maybe you read Atul Gawande’s 2009 New Yorkerpiece “Hellhole” about the reasons why solitary confinement should be considered psychological torture. Or maybe you read The Washington Post’s July 15 editorialcalling out the federal Bureau of Prisons for continuing to use solitary confinement even though its leaders know solitary confinement equals torture.

But if you’re like us, the idea that someone might find themselves in such a circumstance for 44 years — for longer than Beyoncé and Leonardo DiCaprio have been alive — is mind-boggling. Particularly in Pennsylvania, where the commonwealth’s corrections secretary is lauded, sometimes in high-profile outlets, as a reformer.

What surprised us even further when we started looking into Delker’s case was that he’s one of dozens of people confined similarly — on something called the “RRL,” or the “Restricted Release List” — within Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections. Spelled out in the prison system’s DC-ADM 802 procedures manual, the RRL is a group of prisoners held in solitary confinement indefinitely. They don’t know when they’ll be released into general population — and neither does anyone working for DOC.

Recently, ACLU-PA — with the help of spring 2017 Criminal Justice Intern Morgan Everett — came out on the winning end of a months-long public records skirmish with DOC about access to this list. The list itself contains names of RRL prisoners, as well as reasons why those prisoners were placed onto the list in the first place. After DOC denied our initial request to provide the list, we appealed to the Office of Open Records, which eventually came to a compromise decision: that DOC could provide us with names of people on the RRL, but redact the reasons why they were on the list.

Fair enough. To its credit, DOC actually sent us the redacted list and didn’t force us to sue. We’ve since sent surveys to each and every one of the 100 people on that list — 100 people locked up indefinitely in solitary confinement — to get the information DOC withheld, and more: We wanted to find out how long they’ve been locked up, what procedures were individually set up for being released from the RRL, what kinds of conversations they’ve had with counselors during their stay in isolation, and whether they’ve had any interactions with mental health professionals, among other things.

We’ve learned a lot so far. Decades in solitary confinement is not unusual among people on the list, for one, and there’s already been an RRL death since we received the list. About three-quarters of the prisoners on the RRL have responded to us — and we’re learning more with each response we receive. But what we still don’t know is why such a list needs to exist at all.

Atul Gawande said it in “Hellhole.” The Washington Post said it in its editorial a couple weeks back. Countless organizations have spelled it out over, and over, andover again: Solitary confinement is torture. It’s unfair. It’s a drain on resources. And it doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help those who serve sentences in solitary confinement and are then released onto the streets. And it certainly doesn’t help those who have been locked up for 44 years.

The idea that Pennsylvania continues to confine its prisoners in isolation is baffling enough. (More than 2,200 Pennsylvania prisoners — about four percent of the state’s prison population — are confined to solitary.)

The idea that it keeps some of these prisoners in a secluded limbo for decades on end is beyond comprehension.

It’s indefensible.

Let’s hope DOC leaders wake up to that reality soon.

EXCERPTS

(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.)

Debtor’s prisons still exist; Pennsylvania residents are still being jailed for the inability to pay fines. Photo from The Legal Intelligencer.

  • Andrew Christy, ACLU-PA Independence Foundation Fellow, writing in The Legal Intelligencer: “Thousands Jailed in Pa.’s Modern Debtors’ Prisons”

“My investigation of court collections ­practices suggests that many judges on both the courts of common pleas and the ­magisterial district courts fundamentally misunderstand what constitutes a defendant’s ability to pay, and thus what constitutes a willful act justifying a finding of contempt. If a defendant is unable to pay, then that defendant by definition lacks the ability to pay, the failure was not ­willful, and there can be no finding of contempt and incarceration…. Nevertheless, these practices continue to be widespread, as was recently documented by the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness in its report ‘Ending Debtors’ Prisons in Pennsylvania,’ to which the ACLU contributed.”

  • CityLab: “Attorney General’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Orders Are ‘Irrelevant’ in Philadelphia”

“Civil asset forfeiture remains a problem, however. For one, it’s still legit for cops to take your property if they suspect it’s tied to a crime, and the victims of those takings still have no right to a lawyer to get it back. Moreover, the profit incentive for law enforcement officials to pursue seizing people’s assets remains.”

  • The New Yorker: “A Veteran ICE Agent, Disillusioned with the Trump Era, Speaks Out”

“The agent, who has worked in federal immigration enforcement since the Clinton Administration, has been unsettled by the new order at ice. During the campaign, many rank-and-file agents publicly cheered Trump’s pledge to deport more immigrants, and, since Inauguration Day, the Administration has explicitly encouraged them to pursue the undocumented as aggressively as possible. ‘We’re going to get sued,’ the agent told me at one point. ‘You have guys who are doing whatever they want in the field, going after whoever they want.’”

  • Times-Union: “Albany County inmate’s death ‘shocks the conscience'”

“The criticism wasn’t an anomaly for Correctional Medical Care, a Pennsylvania-based private company. A month after Cannon’s death in August 2014 — but long before his case was investigated — the office of New York’s attorney general reached an agreement with the company that allowed it to remain in business in New York with monitoring through May 2018. The company paid a $200,000 penalty and agreed to improve staffing levels and training practices.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.


DONATE
 — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

“This place would not pass any health codes”

By Emilia Beuger , ACLU-PA Justice Intern

Are conditions in Pennsylvania’s prisons worse than those run by private prison companies? Photo via A.R.M.E.D.

Prisoners don’t get a lot of meaningful attention. Sure, some reality television shows claim to show “life on the inside” while occasional documentaries bring attention to prison conditions. But, for the most part, prisons serve their basic function — that of regulating prisoners’ “movements, activity, and effectiveness,” as Foucault put it, and of separating them from society. Federal civil lawsuits are filed just about every day by Pennsylvania prisoners who claim to have their rights violated behind bars, but it’s not likely you’ll hear anything about them. Prisoners are a concealed population; to most, they may as well not exist.

Which is why it’s been interesting to follow along as conditions within Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections have received attention recently. Pennsylvania’s prisons are allegedly “dirty,” and “not livable.” The treatment that prisoners receive from guards borders on “harassment.” Did something change just recently? Did a major policy shift negatively affect prison conditions for Pennsylvania’s 51,000-odd residential prisoners causing them to speak out? Nope. Turns out, all it took was a view from the outside.

Some background: On June 12, 2017, 269 Vermont prisoners were transferred from Michigan’s North Lake Correctional Facility to SCI Camp Hill — Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution and processing center, near Harrisburg. The Vermont prisoners had been transferred out-of-state due to overcrowding.

Such transfers occur through the Interstate Corrections Compact. Not every state in the country is a member, but most are. Transfers occur mainly due to overcrowding and security issues, and these transfers tend to benefit private prison companies such as Florida-based GEO Group, and the Utah-based Management and Training Corporation. Another private prison contractor, Tennessee-based CoreCivic, housed some 9,500 California prisoners in three states after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a 2006 state of emergency in Golden State prisons.

But sometimes private prison companies decide they’d rather not bother. That’s what happened in Michigan. GEO Group owns the North Lake Correctional Facility, which was designed to hold nearly 1,800 prisoners. Vermont’s 269 prisoners were the only people inhabiting that facility, so in December 2016, GEO’s executives decided those prisoners weren’t worth the trouble. Vermont’s contract was not renewed.

That turned out to be good financial news for Pennsylvania’s DOC. If GEO Group didn’t want Vermont’s prisoners, Pennsylvania would take them. A three-year agreement was finalized on May 1, 2017, to allow a maximum of 400 Vermont prisoners to be shuttled and dropped into either SCI Camp Hill or SCI Graterford.Vermont would pay $72 per day, per prisoner. Secretary, John E. Wetzel touted the deal to Fox43, noting that Pennsylvania had approximately 5,000 empty beds across the state. “Vermont is looking for beds at the same time we have available beds, so it works out for both states,” he said.

That was more than a little misleading, though. If you look at Pennsylvania’s current monthly population report, sure, it looks like there’s an overall excess of beds statewide. But SCI Graterford, located about 30 miles northwest of Center City Philadelphia, is not only the largest prison in the commonwealth, it’s also one of the most crowded — well over capacity, holding about 110 percent of the number of prisoners it was designed to hold. Same goes for SCI Camp Hill: It’s the commonwealth’s second largest prison, and it’s at more than 105 percent capacity.

Unsurprisingly, the Vermont prisoners — who had the run of a Michigan facility that held only a fraction of the prisoners it was designed to hold — have begun complaining about the conditions at SCI Camp Hill and SCI Graterford. They have expressed concern about “extremely short showers once per day, dirty facilities, only being issued one pair of clothing, and constant yelling and ‘harassment’ from prison guards,” according to the Burlington Free Press. One prisoner recalled being told that “meals here are a privilege not a right.” The prisoners also complained about not having access to a library containing Vermont’s legal code, which is a constitutional right in that state.

Suzi Wizowaty, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, told the Burlington Free Press that Pennsylvania’s DOC clearly “wasn’t ready for us.”

“This place would not pass any health codes,” she went on. “[It’s] really not livable.”

The Vermont inmates may have had access to an unusual amount of space in Michigan, but they were incarcerated, and under the purview of GEO Group — a company whose privately-operated prisons have faced no shortage of condemnation related to conditions and alleged prisoner abuse.

Prisoners are a concealed population, yes. And, to most, they may as well not exist. But the fact that Pennsylvania’s prisons apparently fail to match up to GEO Group’s track record for prison conditions should concern everyone — whether they make it a habit to follow prison news or not.

Maybe this view from Vermont will grant Pennsylvania’s prisoners more of the meaningful attention they deserve.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal Justice news deserving of an in-depth look)

The Third Circuit ruled last week that recording police in public is a First Amendment right. Photo via Campaign Zero.

  • ACLU of Pennsylvania, via Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney: “One of the Nation’s Only Judges to Rule Against Right to Record Police Just Got Overturned”

“On July 7, the Third Circuit reversed that ruling, concluding that Mr. Fields and Ms. Geraci’s First Amendment rights had been violated. The court explained that, because the First Amendment plainly protects the right to possess and distribute photos and videos, it must also protect the act of making those photos and videos. But even more importantly, the court explained, the First Amendment protects the right to gather information about public officials, including police officers. Without a constitutional right to collect and disseminate information about the government, the people would be left in the dark, unable to make informed decisions and participate effectively in the democratic process.” Also check out approving nods from Post-GazettePennLive, and Times-Tribune, and a Facebook Live episode with Molly Tack-Hooper and noted beardsman Ben Bowens.

“Pennsylvania Senate Bill 560 is now Act 22 of 2017, loosening rules around police use of cameras. With the legislation signed, more police departments in Pennsylvania could increase their use of cameras, including body-worn cameras. ACLU-PA staffers Elizabeth Randol, Matt Stroud, and Andy Hoover discuss the implications.”

  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Unsettled in America: Pittsburgh’s Latino community is small, diverse, growing — and anxious.”

“The large majority of Latinos are, in fact, U.S. citizens or legal residents. But tensions are high for those who aren’t, and their families, supporters and anyone concerned about a broader anti-Latino backlash. Immigrants and their advocates have marched in various demonstrations in recent months, often joining with refugees and Muslims challenging similar travel restrictions under the Trump administration. Some are calling for Pittsburgh and other local governments to have ‘sanctuary’ status and not cooperate with deportation efforts. Some local immigrants have been deported already, others have been detained and still others, like Mr. Marroquin, are awaiting hearings. Many, though, have lived with knowing their turn may be next, whether they’re farm workers in an outlying county or whether they’re suburban restaurant dish washers.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.