In this edition: Prisoner Alfred Mayo’s health condition worsens; the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles; a class action lawsuit is filed against a Supermax prison in Colorado and more…
News from the Inside
Prisoner Alfred Mayo’s Health Condition Worsens: According to a family member of prisoner Alfred Mayo, his health is getting worse and he is still being denied access to a specialist. In the last few weeks Mayo has told his family that he has been getting extremely light headed and dizzy. He also reported being unable to urinate and passing out in his cell. When Mayo was transferred to SCI Dallas from SCI Frackville he was promised that he would be brought to see an outside specialist to get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan for his increasingly serious kidney problem. Months later this still has not happened. His family members fear that the damage done to his kidneys may be irreversible and that he may need dialysis, but because of the inadequate care provided to prisoners he is not getting properly diagnosed and treated.
When Alfred Mayo first arrived at SCI Frackville in January of 2009, he was perfectly healthy. A little over a month later he caught a small cold. In response he was treated with large amounts of antibiotics. In the middle of March, Mayo began complaining about flu like symptoms and requesting sick call. His weight went from 250 pounds to 172 pounds. It wasn’t until August that he had any blood work done. After his blood work was done he was immediately sent to the infirmary at SCI Mahanoy, where he was told that his kidneys were failing and it was likely that they would never function normally again. When Mayo asked what could have caused it, he was told it was the antibiotics he was previously placed on. Since then Mayo has been taking a steroid to keep his kidneys functioning, and it is unlikely that he will be able to stop taking it any time soon. Mayo filed grievances against SCI Frackville’s medical department, and in response has was retaliated against in the form of harassment and fabricated misconducts. After months of phone calls from Mayo’s family, friends, and HRC members, we was finally transferred to SCI Dallas and told that he would see an outside specialist and get regular blood testing.
Supreme Court strikes down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles as unconstitutional:
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling
on Monday striking down mandatory sentences of life-without-parole for juveniles found guilty of homicide. The decision established a new precedent under the Constitution’s eighth amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Elena Kagan, the newest member of the Court, wrote the opinion in the companion cases of Miller v. Alabama
and Jackson v. Hobbs
, two cases involving 14-year-olds who were sentenced to life with the possibility of parole due to sentencing laws that did not permit a lesser sentence. As the court characterized the sentences: “State law mandated that each juvenile die in prison.” Both cases have been remanded to the lower courts for re-sentencing.
The holding was premised on two lines of eighth amendment precedent. One series of cases “has adopted categorical bans on sentencing practices based on mismatches between the culpability of a class of offenders and the severity of a penalty.” Two of these cases that provided the foundation for Monday’s ruling were Roper v. Simmons, a 2005 decision that held the death penalty unconstitutional for children younger than 18, and Graham v. Florida, a 2010 case that held life without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes unconstitutional. This line of cases established that children were “constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing” based on their “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.” The three critical attributes of youth that the court grounded these holdings in are the recklessness caused by a lack of maturity, vulnerability to “negative influences and outside pressures,” and the fact that “a child’s character is not as ‘well formed’ as an adults” such that he or she is less likely to be irretrievably depraved.
The other line of cases relied on by the court were those that ruled that imposition of the death penalty required “sentencing authorities [to] consider the characteristics of a defendant and the details of his offense before sentencing him to death.” This requirement was based on the irrevocable severity of the death penalty, a distinction that has been reserved to the death penalty until this decision. In Monday’s ruling the court explicitly declared life-without-parole to be a sentence to “die in prison,” elsewhere emphasizing that “[i]mprisoning an offender until he dies alters the remainder of his life ‘by a forfeiture that is irrevocable.’” The language employed by the court is remarkably similar to that used by The Other Death Penalty Project
and other life-sentenced prisoners around the country who have long recognized that dying after a lifetime in prison is but another means for imposing the ultimate penalty.
There are currently approximately 2,500 people who have been sentenced to die in U.S. prisons for convictions based on crimes committed when they were children. As with all figures on prisoners in the U.S., there is no reliable way of knowing how many of these convictions were the result of frame-ups, which is a routine feature of the system of race and class-based mass incarceration imposed in the U.S. Of those 2,500, more than 2,000 had their sentences imposed as part of a mandatory sentencing law that did not permit a lesser sentence. Pennsylvania leads the U.S. with approximately 450 people who are serving sentences of life without parole for crimes committed while they were children, and all of these sentences were mandatory. All of these people will now have the opportunity to pursue re-sentencing, although the details of how sentences will be reshaped in different states is unclear.
The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences children to life without the possibility of parole. As Robert Saleem Holbrook, serving a sentence of life without parole in Pennsylvania a conviction imposed when he was a child, wrote about the current system
: “I’ve encountered more sympathy from mass murders, rapists and vicious psychopaths in the 18 years I’ve been imprisoned than a child offender will encounter in a Pennsylvania courtroom when charged as an “adult” for committing or participating in a homicide. He or she could not encounter a more ruthless predator than the prosecutor and judge who will stand there and argue with a straight face that the child standing in front of them is not a child but rather an “adult offender” trapped in a child’s body.”
Not surprisingly, the court split along partisan lines, with the four arch-reactionary political hacks on the court—Chief Justice Roberts along with Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito—issuing three dissents between them. Chief Justice Roberts, one of the two men appointed to the bench by the un-elected president Bush, complained that the role of the court was “to apply the law,” and not to address “challenging questions of morality and social policy.” Such arguments have a long and ignoble tradition in the history of U.S. constitutional jurisprudence, as various laws and policies that served as pretexts for the enslavement of Africans, genocide of indigenous peoples, and the subjugation of women, amongst other injustices, have been sustained by judges using the identical logic of supposed amoral adjudication.
Justice Thomas spent his dissent attempting to argue that not only was the court wrong in this case, but that every decision it has issued during at least the last 40 years that provided some measure of relief to prisoners and criminal defendants was incorrect due to it being out of line with the constitutional vision of the founders of the country, who were collectively a gang of genocidal slave-masters who viewed women as property and the natural world as an object to be conquered. Justice Alito for his part cast doubt as to whether a 17-year-old who commits a violent murder is actually a child, displaying a perverse and illogical willingness to ignore biological, psychological, and social reality in order to give vent to the sickening urge to punish.
While the majority decision left open the possibility that life without parole sentences could be imposed on juveniles, it did so only because it was deemed unnecessary to decide the constitutionality of non-mandatory life without parole sentences in the cases before it. The court cautioned that “this harshest penalty” should only be imposed “uncommon[ly],” strongly suggesting that sentences that failed to recognize that children are not adults for purposes of imposing the other death sentence will be subject to careful scrutiny by the court.
Across the Nation
Illinois planning to close Tamms Prison: Governor Pat Quinn is moving ahead with the closing of the controversial supermax Tamms Correctional Facility, slated for the end of August. As Part of Quinn’s budget plan, Tamms will close in late August to save $26 million for the state of Illinois. According to NPR, the facility “typically holds fewer than 200 prisoners at a time, costing about $62,000 per inmate per year – about three times the statewide average.” Prisoners are isolated in their cells for 23 hours a day, allowed out only to shower or exercise alone. The prisoner population of Tamms will most likely be moved to prisons in Pontiac and Menard, and placed in single-cell segregation units.
Advocates for prison reform have long argued that the solitary confinement practices of Tamms and other supermax prisons lead to serious lasting psychological damage. Many of the prisoners housed at Tamms already suffer from existing mental illnesses, according to the Tamms Year Ten coalition group. For these individuals, the long term effects of solitary confinement are even more devastating. “By closing Tamms, Illinois will join a growing consensus, and take a critical step toward reforming the state’s prison system to the benefit of public safety, security, and the state’s fiscal health,” a 42-page report from the John Howard Association stated.
There is a slew of criticism about Governor Quinn’s monumental decision, notably from labor union officials and State Senator Dave Luechtefeld. Tamms is the largest employer in an already poverty-stricken area of Illinois. Closing this and other prisons and juvenile detention centers in the state (per Quinn’s budget plan) will cost jobs and livelihoods. There are also concerns that relocating prisoners from Tamms, Dwight, and Murphysboro (the other facilities slated to be shut down) will result in overcrowding and unsafe conditions in the existing prisons.
The closing of the Tamms Supermax provides a rich opportunity to evaluate the practices of solitary confinement. In a statement issued from the ACLU, it was noted that “recent years have seen evaluations in other states, with a reduction in the use of solitary confinement in states like Mississippi, Maine, and Colorado. These states have seen no increase in crime and they have enjoyed considerable cost savings. Illinois can follow this path.”
Class Action against Supermax Prison in Colorado: A class action has been filed against the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and several top officials by 11 mentally ill prisoners, on behalf of all mentally ill prisoners, alleging horrific mistreatment at Supermax Prison in Florence, Colorado. The lawsuit, styled Bacote, et al v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, seeks to compel BOP to comply with its own existing policies and rules regarding the placement and treatment of mentally ill prisoners. BOP procedures state that “inmates currently diagnosed as suffering from serious psychiatric illnesses should not be referred for placement” at Supermax Prison (BOP Program Statement 5100.08, “Inmate Security Designation and Custody Clarification,” Chapter 7, p. 18). The lawsuit also seeks to define a minimum level of care and medical treatment for those in custody that is sufficient to satisfy the prohibitions of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution against cruel and unusual punishment.
“Some prisoners mutilate their own bodies with razors, shards of glass, sharpened chicken bones, writing utensils and whatever other objects they can obtain. Others swallow razor blades, nail clippers, broken glass and other dangerous objects. Many engage in fits of screaming and ranting for hours on end. Others carry on delusional conversations with the voices they hear in their heads, oblivious to reality and the danger that such behavior might pose to themselves and to anyone who interacts with them.
Still others spread feces and other waste throughout their cells, throw it at the correctional staff and otherwise create health hazards at ADX. Suicide attempts are common; many have been successful."
“The BOP turns a blind eye to the needs of the mentally ill at (Supermax) and to deplorable conditions of confinement that are inhumane to these prisoners,” the lawsuit states.
The suit was filed by the DC Prisoners’ Project of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the law firm Arnold & Porter. “Americans would not allow sick or wounded animals to be treated as these prisoners are treated,” states DC Prisoner’s Project Director, Philip Fornaci. “They should not sanction the inhumane treatment of U.S. citizens, whatever crimes they committed in the past. We will not stop until this situation has changed.”
Philly area: Wednesdays are Write On! Prison Letter Writing Night at the LAVA space at 4134 Lancaster, 7-9 pm. Come help us stay connected with the many prisoners who write to us with news from inside, learn to document crimes committed by prison staff, and help bring an end to the abuse and torture of our brothers and sisters behind bars.
If you’d like to know more about the Human Rights Coalition or would like to get involved, come to Write On!, to our monthly general meetings (second Wednesday of each month, 5-7pm), or call us at 215-921-3491, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
, or visit our website at http://www.hrcoalition.org./
: Write On! – Letter writing to prisoners and HRC work night every Wednesday at 5129 Penn Avenue from 7 -10pm. To get involved with HRC/Fed Up! in Pittsburgh, email: email@example.com
or call 412-654-9070.
You’ve been listening to the Human Rights Coalition’s PA Prison Report. HRC is a group of current and former prisoners, family members, and supporters, whose ultimate goal is to abolish prisons.
Keep up the fight!