PA Prison Report- November 15, 2012

In this edition: Prisoner death at SCI Albion, PA execution paused, Decarcerate PA writes the editor, and more…
 

News from the Inside

DOC announces prisoner death at SCI Albion: On October 26, 2012 the Department of Corrections published a news release stating that on the previous day prisoner Stoney Schaffer, 47, had “been found unresponsive in his solitary confinement cell”. The report did not include any other details on Schaffer’s death other than the announcement that the prison, along with state police were conducting an investigation “as required by policy”. Over the weeks following Schaffer’s death the Human Rights Coalition received numerous reports detailing the events of October 25th.
 
Each report received, described Schaffer, who had been in prison only since July of 2012 for a parole violation, was “severely mentally ill” and had spent the morning of the 25th pleading to be seen by a member of the psychiatric staff. The report then explained that a cell extraction team was called to Schaffer’s solitary confinement cell and proceeded to spray OC pepper spray through the meal-tray slot in the door. Guards then reportedly could not open Schaffer’s cell door, leaving him confined in his cell with the fumes from the pepper spray. After the guards did enter Schaffer’s cell they reportedly dragged his body to a stretcher, presumably dead upon entry.
 
Schaffer’s death, whether it was at the hands of prison officials, or simply exacerbated by them, comes six months after guards at the State Correctional Institute Rockview killed prisoner John Carter during a cell extraction using pepper spray and electro-shock weapons. Both deaths demand not only a re-examination of the abusive practices of DOC employees, but also the mental health effects of solitary confinement and the department’s refusal to offer meaningful psychiatric treatment. Each report received by the Human Rights Coalition regarding Schaffer’s death remarked that Mary Beth Anderson, a psychiatric staff member on the unit watched officers flood the cell with pepper spray after ignoring Stoney Schaffer’s calls for psychiatric evaluation, even as he called her by name.
 

Across Pennsylvania

Decarcerate PA Posts Letter to the Editor: Where’s the Justice in Justice Reinvestment?
Last month, Governor Corbett signed HB135 into law. HB135 is the companion bill to SB100, passed earlier this year as part of a legislative push ostensibly designed to reduce the size of Pennsylvania’s massive, expensive prison system and invest the savings into prevention programs. When signing HB135, Corbett said: “the answer isn’t always to build bigger prisons… Sometimes the answer lies in smarter solutions that help us build fewer prisons and better communities.” Unfortunately, these words ring hollow in the wake of Corbett’s actions. If this is how the governor feels, why is he spending $400 million to build two new prisons in Montgomery County? Why, if the goal of HB135 is to divert people from the prison system, does it direct money first to policing, with only optional provisions for counties to provide treatment instead of incarceration?
 
HB135 and SB100 are Pennsylvania’s half-hearted attempts at “Justice Reinvestment.” The idea behind Justice Reinvestment seems simple. Money that is saved by implementing prison reform should be reinvested in local communities to spend on treatment, education, and other programs that keep people out of prison. As always, the devil is in the details. While HB 135 does divert some money from prisons, the money does not go directly to county-level services. The first million dollars will go to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, to be used for a statewide victim notification system, not for treatment and prevention. Of the remaining money, the majority will go to county police. This is an affront to the idea of justice reinvestment. More spending on police will produce more arrests and incarceration, not less crime or decreased prison populations.
 
If we want to help people stay out of prison, we should be funding education, treatment and reentry programs. But the final version of HB135 does not guarantee that any of the money will go towards these things. HB135 allows counties to spend money on new probation and diversion models, but does not guarantee any specific funding to make this possible. Other states, such as Texas, that have successfully used Justice Reinvestment efforts to decrease their prison populations have done so by redirecting funds primarily into drug and alcohol treatment, not into law enforcement.
 
Part of the problem is there is no guarantee that the money for Justice Reinvestment will even come through. According to supporters of HB135, savings generated by reforms – such as diverting people with short sentences to county facilities – will save Pennsylvania $142 million over five years. This number is down from an original estimated savings of $250 million. By many accounts, even this lower figure is optimistic. Thus, it seems inevitable that county treatment programs will not be funded.
 
Corbett’s justice reinvestment process shortchanges the alternatives while denying needed services to incarcerated people. County jails are often overcrowded and offer little by way of treatment, programming, or job training. With SB100 diverting people with short minimum sentences from the state system into the county system, these county jails will be more overcrowded and may offer even less programming.
 
While HB135 and SB100 have been touted as examples of “sentencing reform,” neither bill offers meaningful changes to Pennsylvania’s sentencing laws. And it is Pennsylvania’s draconian sentencing policies that have led to the massive growth of the prison system. Unfortunately, the Governor has missed every opportunity to promote meaningful sentencing reform that he has been presented with. Indeed, on the same day that Corbett signed HB135, he signed another bill, called SB850, which upheld life without parole as a sentencing option for children.
 
Such policies betray the spirit and intent of justice reinvestment. We have a moral and economic responsibility to end the punitive policies that lead to high incarceration rates, and to stop neglecting the various programs that keep people from going to prison to begin with. Yet as long as Governor Corbett and the state legislature continue to sentence youth to die in prison, deny parole eligibility to elderly prisoners, and fund policing and prison construction over treatment and rehabilitation, the state will continue to hemorrhage money and harm our communities.
 
In these tough economic times, Governor Corbett wants voters to believe he is addressing Pennsylvania’s out-of-control prison spending. There is a world of difference, however, between what the governor is saying and what he is doing. If Corbett wants to get serious about prison reform, his first step must be to cancel the $400 million prison expansion project in Montgomery County and use that money for meaningful justice reinvestment. That $400 million could go a long way towards funding the treatment, reentry, and educational programs that can keep people out of the prison system and create a more just, economically sustainable Pennsylvania.
 
Foundation Focuses on Children of Incarcerated Parents: The Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation released a report last month, "Changing Lives Changing Systems: A Decade of Advocacy for Children of Prisoners" that outlines findings, achievements and work yet-to-do to address ongoing challenges that children and families face when a parent is incarcerated. The Foundation is a service coordinator, advocate and grant fund distributor working in Allegheny County, where ten thousand parents are incarcerated every year, separated from eighty-five hundred children. At least twelve percent of kids in Allegheny County will experience a caretaker being incarcerated in their lifetime, and the PA Prison Society estimates one hundred thousand children affected by parental incarceration across the state.
 
Over the past decade, the Foundation partnered with the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative and others to research major problems facing children, parents, and caregivers, to determine how their lives are affected by the system and where there was room for advocacy. The initiative found that having one person incarcerated has the potential to impoverish a family for generations. In addition to lost wages, family members pay high costs for commissary and phone calls, court fees and lawyers. Being labeled a felon continues to have detrimental effects on people’s ability to get jobs after they are incarcerated, further damaging the family’s economic potential and stability. For children with incarcerated parents, having less access to resources made some kids feel different or angry. Some teens who were interviewed cited fighting in school or not getting attached to people in relationships out of abandonment anxiety. A three decade study on boys in Pittsburgh found that boys with incarcerated parents were more likely to drop out of high school, and that boys who drop out of high school were more likely to become incarcerated. Other children who were interviewed felt like it was their responsibility to take care of their elderly grandparents or alternative caretakers if their parent was locked up.
 
Some recommendations made by the Foundation to interrupt the prolonged negative economic impact on incarcerated families were offering subsidies to caregivers and changing the employment landscape for formerly incarcerated people. A previous report by a joint governmental commission compiled in support of a Pennsylvania bill, found it problematic that non-relatives who foster children are able to get financial assistance to provide for children’s needs, but alternate caregivers who are family members or friends of incarcerated parents cannot receive financial assistance from the state. Changing the employment landscape for formerly incarcerated people would require an increase in reentry services to help people find jobs, moving the box, quitting access to old incarceration records once people have turned turned their lives around, and supporting conscious raising movements to lessen the fear that employers have surrounding the stigma of incarceration.
 
Changing Lives suggest that more people are beginning to catch on to how supporting strong families and giving resources to reentry services decreases recidivism rates and jail operating costs. The Foundation and Jail Collaborative have the joint goals of raising awareness on how repeat crime and recidivism take its toll on the community and the effects on the community of children growing up traumatized and impoverished by mass incarceration. Recent justice reinvestment initiatives by state government in Pennsylvania found that every dollar spent on reentry services saves six dollars in incarceration costs. Increased programming to prisoners at the jail is part of the reentry initiative supported by the Foundation and outlined in the Jail Collaborative’s three year plan.
 
In it’s 2011-2012 progress report, the Collaborative has seen positive results for families and recidivism rates, by having designated treatment pods, work opportunities for prisoners in the jail, drug and alcohol treatment, graduated systems of rewards, increased mentoring and family support programs. They were also able to set up and fund a discharge center, so people weren’t being released from jail at two in the morning without a bus pass or their medications. The Jail Collaborative with the Pittsburgh Children Guidance Foundation aim to reduce recidivism rates by ten percent yearly. At the time of this report, only ten percent of prisoners at the jail could access education, family support, and comprehensive reentry services.
 
The Collaborative acknowledged in its three year plan the need to put children at the forefront and change policy that negatively affects families. The initiative found problems for children and families regarding staying in contact, having healthy visits and maintaining parental rights. Some progress was made by the initiative in extending phone service hours at ACJ, so outside people would be able to find out what was going on with their family members inside. A kid friendly visiting area was constructed in the lobby of the jail, that makes waiting for visits easier for children and families. SB1454 is legislation that would stop the current practice of terminating parental rights after 15 months of incarceration, and would allow parents who were actively loving their children while incarcerated, to maintain their parental rights.
 
In addition, SB1454 mandates training programs for police officers regarding arresting parents while children are present on the scene. The initiative found many children exposed to traumatic situations when their parents were arrested and no clear guidelines for what police officers are required to do. A family court judge worked with the initiative to develop guidelines for police training when making arrests in the presence of children. These include asking people if they are parents, allowing parents to designate alternate caregivers and call them, permitting parents to comfort their children, moving kids to another place when their parents were being handcuffed, creating kid friendly spaces or comfort places where kids can wait with the cops for alternate caregivers, and training cops in childhood trauma. The bill was introduced by Senator Greenleaf and could be implemented by 2013.

 

Courtroom Beat

Execution of Pennsylvania Prisoner Stayed at Last Minute: The Third Circuit Court of Appeals allowed a 14-day stay of execution granted by the federal court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania to remain in place only hours before Hubert L. Michael, Jr. was scheduled to be killed by the government on Thursday, November 8. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the stay later that same night.
 
In 1994, Michael waived his right to a jury trial and pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the shooting of Trista Eng, 16. Michael then waived his sentencing hearing, agreed that his case justified use of the death penalty, and accepted the death sentence from a York County Court judge. At a 1997 hearing, his former public defender testified that Michael told him that he had picked up the girl hitchhiking, bound her with electrical cord stolen from her home, raped her, and killed her on state game land.
 
For a decade after his guilty plea, Michael opposed any appeals. But weeks before his first scheduled execution, in 2004, he filed a federal appeal. State prosecutors have maintained that he effectively waived his right to challenge execution in the decade he opposed appeals.
In granting the stay, the three-judge Third Circuit panel remanded the case to U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III so Jones could explain why he permitted Michael to appeal further after deciding Wednesday to deny his petition to stay the execution. Attorneys for Michael claim that his ability to effectively litigate his case was hindered by “debilitating mental conditions” that have never been reviewed by a court.
 
This is the second time in less than two months that the state of Pennsylvania has come close to executing someone. On Friday, September 29 a court of common pleas judge in Philadelphia stayed the execution of Terry Williams and reversed his death sentence after a hearing revealed that the prosecution had suppressed evidence that Williams had been sexually abused by the victim in his case.
 
Only California, Texas, and Florida have more death row prisoners in Pennsylvania. Although there are more than 200 prisoners on Pennsylvania’s death rows, the state has not had an involuntary execution since the 1960s. The only three people who have been executed by the government had all volunteered for execution, forsaking all further appeals.

 

Announcements

Philly area:  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, 6-8pm), or call us at 267-293-9169, email: info@hrcoalition.org, or visit our website athttp://www.hrcoalition.org./
 
Pittsburgh area: 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: hrcfedup@gmail.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!