Archive for the ‘Prison Reform’ Category

Over the past few months there has been a lot of talk about penal reform. A lot hype surrounded the Presidents visit to a federal prison, the pardoning of inmates that were over sentenced, and the initiative to implement a program that will allow for additional incentives during ones incarceration. What does that mean? Nothing.

It was predicted that at least 6,000 inmates would be released from prison November the 1st, 2015. I know here, in FCI Cumberland, there was a lot of suspense and anticipation. The buzz throughout the prison was “2 point reduction” who got it, who can get it, and who was denied it. The process is lengthy, and not as easy as most people think, and the Judge has the final say so. Guys were preparing themselves to whatever news they were expecting. Most guys went about their day, and routine, as normal, unconvinced that they would benefit from these changes. Me being one those guys. November 1st came and went, and all of those guys are still here.

6,000 is a large number of people to be released and from an institution that holds over 1100 people you would expect at least one person would leave. Not one person. So what does this mean? It means  a lot.

Another case, that hits home personally, is the case of a friend of mine that was sentenced to life in prison. Everyone involved with the case, outside of his co-defendants, just knew he was going to walk free. All of the witnesses against him were drug addicts, many who got on the stand and admitted to being coerced into saying the things they were saying against him. There was not physical evidence and the amount of drugs they accused him of selling was about 14 grams. He was sentenced to life in prison. He has filed the appropriate papers for a pardon from the president. He has been told that he fits the qualifications and that it is almost guaranteed that he would be granted a pardon. He has been waiting years now. Just this past Sunday 12/5/2015 a big article came out in the Washington Post. It seems that he has been told the same thing that others, who are waiting for pardons, are told. That it is on the Presidents desk. That he is going to hand pick, roughly, 100 out of 9,000 before the end of December. What are the chances that his case is picked?

There is a lot to be done. But what? That is the million dollar question. We have travelled too far down a road that leads no where. What is worse is we know this but are afraid to turn around and find the right road. As the world around us crumbles the situation becomes even more bleak. Wouldn’t it be nice if life was like a video game where we could just hit the reset button and start over. That no matter what happened we could just pause the game and come back to it. Well, life is not like that so we have to get it right. Or at least not spend so much time trying to get it right. That is the first thing we need to think about when we talk about penal reform. How do we get this right.

I first want to apologize to my followers for being negligent in posting. The last couple of years has taken time for adjustment. I am back now and more focused than ever. Despite the struggles and hardships I am still here. Although I have not posted anything for a while I have been keeping up to date with the latest prison reform issues. I ran across an article the other day and I thought it would be interesting to blog about it. I would like for others to pass this on, post it on your sites, face book pages, or anywhere else that may attract the attention of others.

Within the last year, there has been much talk about penal reform, reduced sentence, and changes in sentencing guidelines. Most recently Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Republican Tony Goudy (R- SC) and Democrats Cedric Richmond (D-LA) and Hakeem Jefferies (D-NY) introduce two legislative proposals related to the federal system. The H.R 759 Recidivism Risk Reduction Act; a bipartisan legislation that uses risk assessment tools to reduce recidivism, lower crime, and reduce the amount of money spent on the federal prison system. According to the Washington Post. Chaffetz goes on to say, “It’s no longer enough to be tough on crime. We have to be smart on crime as well. States have successfully implemented those strategies. As a result, they’ve seen a recidivism drop.” Congressman Richmond chimed in on the conversation by saying, “Our criminal justice system is in serious need of reform in many areas… One of these areas is our prison and post release supervising system. We need a better approach to incarceration that use effective strategies to reduce recidivism. Ensuring that people get the right programs and activates while in prison is used to ensure they are prepared for success after their release. I am pleased to join my colleagues in this bipartisan effort to move us closer to that goal.”

The H.R. 759 bill would allow for inmates to participate in programs that will allow them to earn good time points, while in custody. These points will be allotted based upon an inmates risk level. There will be level ranges from low to high. Low risk inmates will be allow to earn 30 days credit per month, moderate risk inmates 15 days and high-risk inmates 8 days. These credits will make them eligible for alternative custody, halfway houses, home confinement, ankle monitoring, etc. The portion of the adjusted sentence would be the remaining 15% of the overall sentence. The current federal sentencing guidelines, Truth in Sentencing, require for federal inmates to serve 85% of a sentence prior to being released. This program does not extend to certain offenders such as sex offenders, terror offenders and violent offenders. In short the federal government is looking for ways to make their more prison system more incentive based. They cut prison costs and reduce recidivism. In theory this plan is a good, at best. The question is will it work? Will it achieve the stated goals?

As we talk about federal housing it is important to talk about another type of prisoner being held in federal prisons, DC billable inmates who need to be accounted for, as talk of prison costs continues.

DC billable inmates are Washington DC’s prisoners that have cases out of Superior Court, (similar to state court). Federal prisoners have cases out of District Court (federal courts). DC’s Lorton Reformatory began closing in the mid 90’s. The last prisoner left in 200; when they closed the prison for good. DC inmates make up a large population of inmates hosed within the federal system. They are a mixture of prisoners serving sentences under different sentencing guidelines. One such guideline is incentive based, similar to the H.R. 759 bill. The main difference between the two is this particular DC sentencing guideline does not exclude inmates and two the DC guideline is a parole-able guideline. The federal system abolished parole many years ago. Although their are DC inmates sentenced under incentive based guidelines, where they would be rewarded for good behavior and program participation, those guidelines are not being honored nor applied when they have their parole hearings. These parole hearings are conducted by the United States Parole Commissions, which it the entity that handles the remaining federal parole cases. The USPC seems to be having a hard time applying these DC guidelines in many that is non punitive. There are DC inmates that have the privilege of seeing a parole board, they have meet many of the incentive requirements of the 1987 Good time Credit Act yet the USPC refuses to parole them, relying on punitive measures to justify giving them lengthy set off. How can Congress expect the H.R. 759 to be different than the DC guidelines, that are not being applied.

There is a large gap in theoretical planning and actual application of these bills that are being introduced. When they are passed they often take years before actually implementation. At that time someone is thinking of another strategy to use. DC inmates, who have the right to parole and early release are not being paroled, yet other bill are being proposed that will allow for other inmates to be released earlier, based on incentive approaches. Both, federal and DC, inmates contribute to the large amount of money spent for federal inmates. In some cases DC inmates cost more to house, up to $40,000 a year is paid to the federal government to simply house each DC inmate.

Will this new bill work? Will it achieve its goal?
Currently the recidivism rate is 70%. Meaning 7 out of 10 inmates return to crime. Recidivism is not bases solely on the return of inmates to prison but to crime and criminal behavior that leads to incarceration, subsequently re-arrest. Social scientists and others who monitor these stats have determined that crime and incarceration are not parallel. There is no direct relationship between the two. In fact according to Dr. James Austin of the JFA Institute, as it concerns DC inmates who are overseen by the USPC, in his findings, when asked to conduct a study at the request of the USPC to determine if the criteria it is using to parole DC inmates were valid. He concluded these criteria’s are significant as they serve to significantly lengthen a prisoner’s period of imprisonment by many years.

The study also looked at the extent to which DC prisoners who are housed in the BOP system were receiving programs and what impact these programs were having on recidivism rates, for DC inmates. The major findings were:
(1) DC prisoners released in 2002 who had been sentenced under the DC code (1987 Good Time Credit Act) as compared to other state prisoners had much longer sentences and served longer sentences.
(2) Consistent with other studies, the amount of time imprisoned (length of stay) is “not” associated with rates of recidivism.
(3) Most of the risk factors being used by the Commissions to assess risk are “not” good predictors of “recidivism”.
(4) An alternative risk instrument that relies on the conduct of the prisoner and programs he of she has completed while in the BOP does a better job of assessing the prisoners risk level.
(5) The Commission is also using factors (crime severity and prior records) that are not related to recidivism that are being used to significantly extend the period of imprisonment

Dr. Austin concluded his testimony to Congress by making recommendations, based on his findings. Recommendations that have not been fully applied. Some of these recommendations include:
(1) Changing the guidelines and implement a new risk instrument that takes into account the prisoner’s conduct while incarcerated (dynamic factors)
(2) Alter the current practice of extending parole eligibility dates based solely on the offense severity and history of violence; especially given the long period of incarceration for DC prisoners and the lack of relationship between length of time served and recidivism.
There should be a concerted effort to reduce the length of imprisonment and parole supervision based on good conduct and completion of programs while incarcerated within the BOP. Such efforts would include allowing release at and earlier stage of the sentence, awarding of good-time credits for prisoners who complete rehabilitative programs and allow for the period of the parole supervision to be reduced based on good conduct. Given that dynamic factors related to prisoners completions of rehabilitative programs are associated to lower recidivism rates, a study should be conducted by the Commission and the Bureau of Prisons to determine if DC sentenced prisoners are receiving the same level of services as other BOP prisoners.

He concluded his testimony by stating that the USPC Commissioner, BOP, DC sentencing Commissions, DC Criminal Justice Council and the US Attorney and the Community Supervisor of Offenders Agency would take part in the changing and implementing his findings. Unfortunately, many DC prisoners are still waiting for this study conducted circa 2007 to be implemented.

In order to determine if a new, improved, method of addressing recidivism, and offenders need, there needs to be a comparison and critique of what is currently in place, or by what came before it. If we were to change the name of the H.R 759 and read it to a group of DC inmates they would think that the DC regulations are what’s being referred to. They both share the same goal and purpose.

The H.R 759 bill is aimed at reducing recidivism (possibly so), lower the crime rate (never going to happen; as there are no concrete findings that support the claim that incarceration reduces crime), and reduce to amount of money being spent on federal prisons/prisoners (will happen without doubt). The question now is how will oversee DC’s inmates that have are allowed the same benefits and who, if applied, will effect the same same end results. Most importantly, reduce the amount of money spent on federal prisons/prisoners.

DC’s 1987 regulations are already enacted, and don’t need to be voted on. It merely needs to be implemented for those whom benefit from its application. An example would be my case.

As a young man I had my run-ins with the law. At 17 I was charged and tried, as an adult, for second degree murder. I was ultimately sentenced to 20 years to life. During the early years of my incarceration I served time with adult offenders, although I was a juvenile. Despite these obstacles I got my GED the first year of being in Lorton. Afterwards I began attending the Lorton Prison College Program, through UDC. I majored in Urban Studies. I attended UDC until I was one day selected to be shipped to a DC contract prison, Sussex II State Prison in Waverly Va.

Sussex II was a 23 and 1 prison. Meaning the entire prison was segregation. I was medium custody and due to the length of time I was serving I was automatically selected to be house in a maximum security prison. There were many DC inmates there, who had not committed any disciplinary infractions, house in segregation, as the entire prison operated as such. While there I began to teach myself Spanish. After suffering like this for a year, with no end in sight, I was told to pack up. I was next sent to Florence AZ, a CCA prison.

While at this institution I did not let the distance and unique housing situation deter me from programming. I got my barbering license along with a host of other programs. I facilitated a group call Concern Offenders for Youth Awareness (COYA). This program was similar to the scared straight programs that were popular in those days. My ability to relate to the youth earned me high accolades from the Maricopa County Superior Court Youth Probation Division. From were I received high praises and much gratitude. I had also began to learn Arabic, as I had become fluent in Spanish by that time. One night I was woken up and put on a bus with 40 other DC inmates. Off to another prison. This time it would be a federal prison, Edgefield SC.

While in Edgefield I participated in the programs offered there. I also, for two years, facilitated a class called The Quality of Life, a class endorsed by the Warden of the prison. It eventually became a pre-release requirement for the inmate population. After two years I was sent to open another prison. USP Lee County.

At Lee County I got my certification in small home improvement and carpentry. My points lowered, after 5 years, and I was sent to FCI Petersburg. While in Petersburg I got my certification in electrical wiring, and worked as a barber. After spending two years here I signed up for the Life Connection Program, a faith based program introduced to the federal system by then President, George W Bush.

The LCP, an 18 month,over 4500 contact hours of programming, focused on re-entry needs. I graduated valedictorian. After graduation I transferred, to be closer to home, as my initial parole hearing was coming up.

I arrived at FCI McKean and had my first hearing. At this hearing I was denied and given a 3 year set off. One of the reasons, needs more time to program. Unbelievable! I had spent 17 years programming and excelling yet I was told I needed to do more programming. I had taken victim impact classes, anger management classes, and other cognitive behavior courses. Courses needed to address the bad choices I had made as a juvenile.

In light of the 3 year set off, I stayed the course and continued programming. I designed a non profit program called The Reconstruction Program. A program targeting high-risk and at-risk youth and youthful offenders. I also began co-facilitating the Victim Impact class with Dr. Tony Gaskew, Criminal Justice Professor at the University of Pittsburgh. I also lead a class called Thinking for a Change. All done while teaching and tutoring Spanish GED, ESL and Spanish as a Second Language.

I was part of the re-entry team. Through this team we formulated a mentoring program targeting younger offenders who had needed extra help in the area of education. We also started a Life Coaching group and through that group I was able to help bring in outside support. An official Life Coaching course through the Institute for Life Coach Training was instituted in the prison. The founder, Dr. Patrick Williams, would become not only my mentor but a good friend. I also applied to an outside school to become a certified Substance Abuse and Alcohol Technician. I also got my Certified Personal Training certification. These two achievements were paid for out of my own money.

Three year later, 2013, I had a second hearing. I went to this hearing with the Associate Warden of Programs as my staff representative. She spoke on my behalf and supported my release. My unit team also spoke on my behalf. My family, friends, and outside supports all sent letters of support. I had a release plan, money saved, two jobs lined up and higher education opportunities. The hearing examiner recommended parole. Everyone thought it was a sure shot. The final decision was a set-off of five (5) more years. The reason. I was not deemed fit for release and my release would endanger the community. The once again claimed I had on-going criminal behavior. I have not had a write up in over 20 years.

What an incredible story. This is my story. The story of a guy that entered prison a 17 years old, who fought against the odds to not become a prison statistic, yet unable to make parole. The people who this new bill, H.R. 759, will apply to may not have half of what I have, in terms of programs and skills. One the system no longer offer the classes that I was able to take many years ago; before the system became all punitive. Yet, they will be released sooner.

My story is not the story of why we need to be tougher with sentencing. Or why we should not let guys out of prison early, violent or non-violent. This is not the story of why there needs to be a tougher enforcement of mandatory minimum sentences. It is the story of a man who has done his time, in fact more than the time of the sentencing courts. 20 years to Life with the possibility of parole if these conditions are meet; you obey the rules and remain incident free, you have proven to have made steps to turn your life around, make better decisions, and remain crime free. That is what the assumption is when dealing with sentences such as mine. Although I have fulfilled more than what would be normally required I was given more time to spend in prison. In a system that is looking for ways to kick people out in order to cut cost. What is the irony in that?

Why is this story important and significant? As the federal government look for way to cut costs, reduce crime and recidivism there are a lot of guys, such as myself, who have served their sentences, participated in programs, and are eligible for release yet the USPC Commissioner will not grant them parole. Citing non-factual reason to justify doing so.

Tax-payers are paying $320,000 for me to stay in prison longer. I am sure most members of society would say that I would be a good candidate for release. There is no telling what will happen at the next hearing. I don’t think I can top what I have done thus far. So who knows when I will be deemed suitable by the USPC Commissioner. What a waste of money. I am steady fighting, to no avail but I am fighting. Would someone make sense of it.

It is important that as lawmakers propose new bills that they ensure the ones that are in effect are being applied. It makes sense to put to use that which is already on the books. It also helps set the foundation of success for newly proposed prison reform bills. It is easier to measure success and failures along the way, too.

By all means this newly proposed bill along with the other sentencing reform polices going into effect is a good thing. There are going to be a lot of people who will appreciate the changes. I do believe that the penal system, often referred to as draconian, needs reform. I just hope that along the way DC and federal inmates get what they each have coming to them, in terms of these reforms; what the law grants them is what needs to be adhered to by policy makers. The law provides hope for many and has to be practical on all levels. Not just as a means for behavior modification.

Hopefully things will change for the better for guys such as myself and others. It has been a long time coming but change seems to be on the horizon. Let’s hope that as the pendulum seems to have, once again, swung to the side or rehabilitation that the powers to be make the right proposals so that when the pendulum swings back to punishment, as it always does, the penal reforms that are in place now will not be cut or overlooked. As it seems to be the case with DC’ prisoners.

Note: This article was taken of the blog site of Talib Shakir, avoicefromtheinside.wordpress.com. (with permission)

About Talib

Talib Shakir is a DC prisoner that has been incarcerated 23 years now. Although his sentence was 20 years to life he will have served 8 additional years before his next hearing, 2018. That is if he does not get that parole set off overturned. He is working on that now. He maintains a blog site, through his family, called A Voice From the Inside
(avoicefromtheinside.wordpress.com) You can visit him there to learn more about what him. You can also visit the site.

Talib also has specialize training as a Life Coach with a focus in relationship coaching. He has used his skills to set up programs within the institution to help other offenders. Some who are soon to be released, and others as they adjust to spending the rest of their lives in prison, lifers.

To learn more about his affiliation with the coaching world you can look up Coaching the Global Village, Founded by Dr. Patrick Williams MCC, BCC. Dr. Williams also is the founder, who now serves as the dean of training, for the Institute of Life Coach Training. Now owned by Dr. Ellen Ritter. Click on Reconstruction Program to learn more about the program he designed.

Along with coaching he facilitates other pre-release class, victim impact classes, and teaches GED Spanish (a language he taught himself, along with Arabic and now Portuguese), English as a Second Language (ESL) and Spanish as a second language. He also serves as a motivational speaker and speaks often at different institutional events.

He story is one that needs to be shared with others as when the discussion of penal reform arise. There is more to the story than we may commonly hear. Sometimes it is best to hear it from those that are on the inside. There view is just as relevant as the view of others.

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Vanderbilt University is hosting a Rethinking Prisons 2013 Conference this coming May, and Talib has been invited to present his work on the Reconstruction Program!!!  This conference is part of A Year of Rethinking Prisons program coordinated by Lisa Guenther in the Department of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.

A Year of Rethinking Prisons is a series of events to stimulate a public discussion of issues raised by prisons and the death penalty. We have invited scholars, activists, artists, and community members – both in prison and in the outside world – to reflect on how the criminal justice system shapes our lives, and how we can work together to find better responses to crime. The series culminates in a national conference at Vanderbilt University on May 2-4, 2012, with invited speakers Joy James, Susan Rosenberg, and Mark L. Taylor.

To learn more about Talib’s Reconstruction Program please visit our newly created page dedicated to this project!

 

in response to the questions that were posted by blackinside2012 regarding Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow,

how did we get here? and is it possible to reverse course?

to the first question i will say that the biggest weapon known to man is EDUCATION after having spent 20 years in prison and as i look back i am where i am today because of education. i can even say that the education that i had prior to coming to prison gave me a edge over most inmates. there has to be a renewed effort to change the way that blacks are educated. there has to be an effort within the homes of black families to educate the youth about the mis-education that many of us have received about life and who we are and were supposed to be. even as i write this i have apprehensions as to what term do i use when i talk about this issue, black or afro american. i prefer afro american and that is due to the understanding of  how significant that part of my heritage is to me and what identify with. yet i remember in the early 80s there were discussions in the black communities that surrounded the question of do we identify ourselves as blacks or afro americans. and ironically this was a topic of discussion with many opponents on both sides. yet what i didn’t hear was how do we identify ourselves in terms of morals and values. i think that we got so caught up in the ‘discussion’ of acceptable nominal terms as if this solidified our position and status in this country. so in this we lost ourselves and a part of the struggle was forgotten. there has to be a reinforcement on education. as it was a lack of it that created certain situations that made it easier for blacks to be sucked into this war against blacks by way of drugs. see for those of us can remember the early eighties was the tail of a movement where there was emphasis on black pride and education. this push was so strong and forceful that a government movement was created to stop it COINTELPRO, being one of them. with the death of some of the most prolific black, educated leaders of that time caused other elements that caused many blacks to forget the real issues at hand. blacks have proved themselves to be very intelligent and capable throughout the course of history, whether you agree with their ideology or not is not theh issue. we are talking about them reaching a certain level education to even be able to reach the world podium and get the ears of the masses. with the push of this war on drugs we see that the intended target were the children of that future generation of black youth that followed. as i sit here in prison and compare the time and era in which i came through and now i see the ill effects of the ‘crack babies’ and the broken homes in which they come from. and it shows the most in the mental capacity of these young men. the irony in all of this is that the elder men that have been active users of the drugs at a older age still have better cognitive skills than the younger men that inherited this thing. they older guys that came up in the 60s and 70s are very well aware of the issues that plague them while the youth don’t have a clue. i see this all the time. so these prisions were built for them not just as the prisons that they build today are for those that come after to me.

so how do we stop this? by educating those who will be effected to most by the thing of mass incarceration. that is the beautiful thing about Michelle Alexander’s book it educates.

as to the next question how did we get here? it is understood that certain atrocities took place and that as a result of that there are stereotypes, biases and prejudices that do affect the social status of blacks in this country. but we at the same time have lost touch of what it is to be family and the values of community. to me community is about common/unity. that is what it is to me. we have lost touch with this. and as much as i hate to admit it it i am here in prison as a result of something that i chose to do. yet the idea was planted by someone who looked like me, black. the drugs and guns that come into the community come by way of another black person. the violence that is perpetrated in my neighborhood is done so by those that look like me. as it was pointed out in class. what good is a terry stop if you are not packing or holding? why change the laws of racial profiling when 90% of the time gold is struck? if we want the laws to change and be amended we have to stop breaking them. once this happens these laws will be seen as ineffective in fighting crime and drugs. i am not concerned about the numbers of blacks to whites in who uses to most drugs and gets off etc. what i am talking about is us taking accountability for our own!! there are a million arguments that we can make about racial disparity yet those arguments are not going to stop the violence, rape and murders that are being carried out in the black communities right now. we need action not arguments!! we get the numbers and the studies but who is going to step out on the limb and address these issues. this is the role that have to play and i encourage all of you to play the same role. we say that the white man put us here for whatever reason do you expect for the same one that put you here to get you out? to raise your kids? we complain about the white man and his system yet we turn to them for the answers to our problems. we need to be real and upfront with our own and learn to solve these problems ourselves because we are the ones who suffer the most from these ills.

inmate mentoring program. what are your thoughts? do you think that inmates can serve as role models and mentors for the youth and others that may suffer from what they have experienced? there are a number of inmates who are serving long sentences and have come to a point where they wish to give back to the community. when one is sentenced to a term of imprisonment the idea is to make amends for the crimes and pay a debt back to the society, yet when inmates or ex offenders try to give back to the community and make this amends they are often hindered from doing so. irony at its best. incarceration is not the amends that is implied. that time serves as a time to gain the insight and make the changes that one needs in order to give back to the community. i think that a inmate mentoring program is a good tool to use to advert the influx of juveniles coming to prison. the main idea of Michelle Alexander book is to come up with ways to stop or at the least slow down what is happening in terms of mass incarceration. what better way to get the real word out than to use the voices of those who can better explain the issues that often leads to incarceration. it works two ways. one it gives these inmates a feeling of purpose and fulfillment, something that many of them are not use to. it gives them the chance to really pay back the society by mentoring someone one on the realties of the life of crime and where/what it leads to. and at the same time it saves someone else’s life. let me hear your thoughts!