Prisons: Paralysis and Population


Man Put in Cell for Refusing to Carry Shopping Basket

The beauty, the poetry of the fear in their eyes.
I didn't mind going to jail for, what, five, six hours?  It was absolutely worth it.

- Johnny Depp

A Dutchman spent half an hour behind bars because he refused to carry a shopping basket around his local supermarket.  Carst Kijlstra, 32, from Assen, had popped into his local Eddah shop just before closing time to get some veal for his evening meal.  But, when he got to the meat counter, the assistant refused to serve him because he wasn't carrying a basket, reports Dagblad van het Noorden.  Mr Kijlstra said, "I told her I didn't want one because it was nearly closing time.  She wouldn't listen but came back with the shop owner who told me it was the rules.  "I said, "Don't be ridiculous", left the money on the counter and went home.  I was preparing dinner when a police car came to take me to the police station.  They put me in jail like a criminal, for half an hour."

A police spokesman confirmed they put Mr Kijlstra in a cell while they worked out what to do with him.  "We couldn't just leave him at the desk," he said.  Mr Kijlstra was allowed to go home after he agreed to pay a £95 fine and stay out of the shop for 12 months.  An Eddah spokeswoman said there was a good reason for the rules and they had to be maintained.  "When the goods are all in a shopping basket, employees can clearly see what it contains.  It's to prevent shoplifting," she said.

Source: Friday 12 December 2003

Quadriplegic Jailed on Pot Charges

I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.

- Abraham Lincoln

Charge Could Cost Georgians $660,000

by James Pilcher

Atlanta - A quadriplegic who says he uses marijuana for medical reasons has been sentenced to 7 years in prison - costing taxpayers 5 times more than an average inmate - after being accused of selling the drug from his home.  Louis E Covar Jr, 51, who uses a wheelchair and can't control his muscles beneath his shoulders, was convicted of marijuana possession last March in Augusta.  The judge gave him 7 years of probation, telling Covar that if he was to continue using the illegal drug, to keep it to himself.  The same judge, J Carlisle Overstreet, revoked the probation and sent Covar to prison Thursday after police testified that Covar was selling the drug.  Overstreet said he took the costs of jailing Covar into consideration but felt he had no choice.

"He's been in a bad situation for a long time, but I've been in a wheelchair myself for about 5 months, and it isn't justification for breaking the law," Overstreet said in an interview Friday.  "And this just got to the point where he was showing a blatant disregard for the law."

According to the Department of Corrections, the special care Covar will need will cost $258.33 a day - or more than $660,000 if he serves his full seven years.  A typical prisoner costs taxpayers $47.63 per day.

"Throwing a quadriplegic into a prison cell is asinine and shows the idiocy of our drug policy," said Keith Stroup, executive director of the National Organisation to Reform Marijuana Laws.  "This is just an incredibly poor use of our limited law enforcement and corrections resources."

Covar, who has been paralysed since breaking his neck in a diving accident on 4 July 1967, says marijuana is the only thing that will relieve the pain from muscle spasms in his neck.  In an interview with The Augusta Chronicle before Thursday's ruling, Covar said he had tried legal drugs to relieve the pain, including Valium.  "I don't know where I am half the time I'm taking that," he said.  "I'm already in prison in my body, and they want to put me to sleep all the time.  If I had another alternative, I would do it."

Although Covar denied selling marijuana, authorities said they were tipped that he had indeed been dealing.  Investigators found about 1¼ ounces of pot in his home.  "We feel strongly he was selling out of his house," Richmond County District Attorney Danny Craig said.  "Police tried everything they could to avoid taking him into custody, and we did everything we could to avoid the scenario of turning a quadriplegic over to the prison system."

Covar's father said the marijuana officers found didn't even belong to his son.  Louis Covar said his son spent all of Thursday night in his wheelchair while awaiting transfer from the Richmond County jail to the state prison hospital in Augusta.  "They just let him sit there in the back cell and they only gave him one Valium for the pain," the elder Covar said.  "This after he did what the judge said; he kept it to himself.  This just isn't fair."

Charles A Toole Sr, chief jailer at the Richmond County Jail, said he didn't ave enough time Thursday to make arrangements for Covar, but jailers did give him a bath and put him in a bed.  He'll remain in a normal cell with special care until his transfer, expected early next week.

"We're not inhumane and we see the man can't help himself," Toole said.  "I didn't put the man in jail, but while he is here, we'll take care of him."

Source: © Nando Media and Associated Press 18 Feb 2000

See also:

bullet58¢ Crime Could Cost $270,000 (further on in this section) - A man who allegedly stole 58¢ from a car in rural New Jersey could end up costing American taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars for his trial and incarceration...
bulletLawyer Has No Luck at All (in the section on Oddities) - Bentley's only stroke of luck was finding a lenient judge, who gave him a 15-month suspended sentence Friday for stealing £64,000 of his clients' money...

Five Years' Jail for School Game Foul

Washington - The state of Texas had sentenced a high school pupil to 5 years in prison for throwing an elbow during a school basketball game, a court official said yesterday.  Tony Limon, 19, has already served one month of the 5-year sentence he received for hitting an opponent in the face during a school basketball game last year in San Antonio, Texas, according to an assistant to Judge Mark Luitjen.

Because Limon's lawyer filed "no contest" to the charge of aggravated assault, a felony offence, expecting the punishment would be probation at worst, Limon was never given a trial, it was reported.  Judge Luitjen's assistant said the judge had refused to allow a trial or to suspend any of the sentence, in light of a previous court appearance by Limon on charges of attempted burglary.  Limon's lawyer has said a request to reduce the sentence would be filed, but the judge's assistant said none had been received by the court.

Distraught, Limon appeared on television in an orange prison outfit yesterday saying it had been wrong for him to elbow another player in the face and he believed he "should be punished" - but not so severely.  He said he believed he had already paid for the crime, as he had been dropped from the South San Antonio High School basketball team, had lost any chance of a university scholarship and had to work to pay US$6,000 (NZ$12,300) in medical expenses for the youth he hit.  He was arrested five months after the incident.

His mother, Olivia Ramsey, in tears, said the affair had ruined her life.  "I apologise again to the family for whatever hurt, pain, inconvenience this has brought.  This ruined my life.  They took him away from me." - AFP

Source: The Dominion Monday 13 March 2000

US Prison Population Hits the 2 Million Mark

1990s Is "Most Punishing Decade on Record"

by Jesse Katz, Los Angeles Times Service

New Orleans - Presumed innocent, they shuffle into the sooty, granite fortress every morning, ankles shackled, hands chained to their hips.  Every evening, at least a dozen leave Orleans Parish Criminal District Court as felons, an exodus of the desperate, foolish, heartless and addicted.

In one courtroom, Donald Smith is given a 30-month prison term after being caught near the Superdome with a crack pipe in his pocket.  Down the hall, Norbert Zenon Jr, a New Orleans police detective, gets a 7-month sentence for fondling a woman while purporting to examine injuries she suffered at the hand of an abusive boyfriend.  Next door, prosecutors lay out their death penalty case against Blaise Fernandez, a former high school football star who will be convicted of murdering a security guard during a robbery.

Before the day is done, Renatta Wells is looking at a maximum of 15 years for attempted cocaine distribution; after being approached near the French Quarter by an undercover policeman, she helped find a dealer who could sell him a $10 dose of the drug.

And on it goes, in the grimmest courthouse in the biggest city in the strictest state in the world's most incarcerated country, a nation that is now holding an estimated 2 million men and women behind bars.  That statistical milestone - 1.2 million in state prisons, 645,000 in county jails, 145,000 in federal penitentiaries - was reached Tuesday, according to a study by the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington research organisation, that supports alternatives to imprisonment.  Although calculating a single day for such an occasion is an imprecise science - and clearly done for political effect - nobody denies that the 2 million era is here or that the growth in incarceration over the past decade represents a social experiment unlike any the United States has ever seen.

"This is the most punishing decade on record," said Vincent Schiraldi, the institute's executive director, noting that the nation's inmate population at the start of the 1990s was 1 million, an unprecedented number at the time.  To double that, to add another million, in just 10 years, is to equal the growth of the prison population during the previous 90 years.

Based on the US Justice Department's most recent data, 461 of every 100,000 Americans are now serving a prison sentence of at least 1 year.  California, though home to the largest prison population, is about average per capita, with 483 inmates per 100,000 residents.  In Louisiana, the rate is 736, highest in the nation - a symbol of resolve for some in the state, a badge of shame for others.

Having reached such an extraordinary tally so fast, the United States appears deeply ambivalent about what it has sown.  While a plummeting crime rate stands as vindication for many, a growing number of critics - not just liberals, but also fiscal conservatives and anti-government independents - is beginning to question the costs, both economic and social.

Drug offenders account for the greatest percentage of new inmates, yet hardly anyone believes the drug war is being won.  Sentences everywhere have become longer.  Racial disparities are so extreme - blacks are nearly 7 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites - that many blacks consider the prison system nothing short of a modern-day slave plantation.  As crime rates continue to drop, even a few law-and-order politicians have begun to wonder if the $40 billion that taxpayers pay annually for incarceration could be better spent.

"There are some who think we ought to keep everybody in jail and throw away the key - I know, because I was one of them," said John Hainkel, president of the Louisiana State Senate.  But that was before the New Orleans Republican took over as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.  Now, 4 years later, he has come to the conclusion that the state's swelling correctional budget is undermining Louisiana's ability to improve its public schools.

"It's no great mystery," said Mr Hainkel, a believer in education's crime-fighting virtues.  "The state of Minnesota has the highest rate of college graduates and the lowest rate of individuals in prison."

Race is often the subtext, an outspoken code that contributes to the perception of criminals as "The Other," a distinct and deviant caste.  Although blacks comprise about 13% of the US population, they make up 50% of the state and federal prison population.

The disparity has only increased under the war on drugs, which has disproportionately targeted young black males.  Most racial and ethnic groups consume drugs at roughly the same rates, so whites account for about 75% of the nation's drug users.  Blacks, however, account for about 75% of the nation's drug prisoners, a function largely of law enforcement priorities and a lack of resources for treatment.

"They should put up a statue here of a black kid on a street corner with a bag of dope in his hand," said Joseph Meyer Jr, a New Orleans public defender, as he walked the cavernous, marbled halls of Criminal District Court.  "You get rid of those cases and you could get rid of half the judges in this building."

Many critics will be using the occasion of America's 2-millionth prisoner to take special aim at the drug war, condemning it as destructive and hypocritical, especially in a country that loses many more lives to alcohol and tobacco.  In at least 30 rallies and vigils planned across the country Tuesday, groups such as the November Coalition and Common Sense for Drug Policy will assail the "prison-industrial complex" for being as noxious as the ills it is supposed to solve.

Their assessment has been shared recently by some less likely figures, including a number of federal judges and academics, the publisher William F Buckley Jr, the billionaire-philanthropist George Soros and the Republican governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, who began calling for the legalisation of drugs last summer.

Even the warden at the Louisiana Department of Corrections intake and classification centre concedes that cost-effective alternatives, from electronic monitoring to diversion programs, could be used to shrink the state's incarceration rate, if the incarceration business did not have an interest in perpetuating itself.

"We've used prison beds to stimulate the economy," said Marty Lensing, who runs the Elayn Hunt Correctional Centre in St Gabriel, near Baton Rouge.  "In other words, it's an industry."

Source: International Herald Tribune - Bangkok Wednesday 16 Feb 2000

Growth Slows for Corrections Population

Record Number Behind Bars

The number of people incarcerated or under supervision by authorities grew 2.3% from 2000 to 2001.  That's lower than the 3.6% average annual increase since 1995, the Justice Department said.  However, the total of nearly 6.6 million people in the correctional system is a record high.  About 3% of the US population, or one of every 32 adults, is in the correctional system.  The breakdown: 1.3 million in prison, 631,240 in jail, 3.9 million on probation and 731,147 on parole.

Probationers are criminal offenders who have been sentenced to a period of conditional supervision.  Parole is a period of conditional supervised release after a prison term.

Officials said at least 10% of those on probation hadn't reported their whereabouts to authorities as required.

Source: The Economist 10 August 2002

Source: USA Today Monday 26 August 2002

The population of US prisons is the highest in the world and continues to rise - and this article's headline is "Growth Slows".  It reminds me of the way the boggling US debt is minimised by generally discussing the rise and fall of the deficit instead.  The highest in the world, huh?  That's one way to control dissidence.  The best way?  Give prison a try and see if it encourages you to walk the straight and narrow from then on.  Or not.

If US Plays Global Prison Ratings Game
It Ought to Play by Its Own Rules

by Alan Elsner

Washington - The US State Department issued its annual review of human rights around the world last week - grading each nation on its performances in a number of categories.  Only one country escaped scrutiny: the US itself.

While monitoring human rights and holding other countries accountable is a valid and valuable exercise, there is something disquieting about the US earnestly preaching to countries like Iceland and New Zealand while completely ignoring its own practices.  One of the areas the report monitors is the functioning of prison systems.  So we had the bizarre spectacle of a nation that incarcerates 2.2 million people - one-quarter of all the world's prisoners - casting a baleful eye over Iceland, which has a grand total of 110 people incarcerated (16 prison cells in Iceland have no toilets, the report noted with stern disapproval).

New Zealand deserves even more criticism, according to the report, for imprisoning a disproportionate number of the indigenous Maori minority.  Maori make up 15% of the general population, but 50% of the prison population.  Yet the US has the same problem right here at home: prison and jail populations are 40% black, while African-Americans account for just 12% of the total population.  New Zealand also has a handful of inmate assaults each year.  In California prisons, alone, there were 11,527 such assaults in 2001, and 13 resulted in fatalities.  New Zealand had one prison suicide in 2003.  The US doesn't even track such data.  But a Louisville Courier Journal investigation in 2002, for example, found at least 17 suicides in Kentucky jails during the previous 30 months.

By standing in its own glass house while hurling rocks at others, the US runs the risk of being seen as self-righteous and hypocritical.  Americans like to think of themselves as a moral example to the world when it comes to human rights, but clearly much of the world does not see the US that way at all.  The US incarceration rate as a proportion of the population is 5 to 10 times as great as that of other democracies.

The State Department report did not address the problem of inmate rape or controversial policies involving solitary confinement in New Zealand and Iceland.  Indeed, perhaps these are rare in either country - but these constitute two of America's most pressing corrections system controversies.  (Most authorities believe that in American prisons 1,000s of men and women are raped each year, and President Bush signed a congressional act last year mandating that the Department of Justice begin studying the issue.  The US also has at least 20,000 prisoners in isolation, according to a 2002 Human Rights Watch report, and most states and the federal prison system operate at least one high-tech, high-security prison where inmates are kept in continuous solitary confinement for months or years.)

Of course, the US prison system is far from the worst in the world, but it is the largest.  Human rights groups estimate that up to 11,000 prisoners die annually in Russian prisons, mostly as a result of poor sanitation and lack of medical care.  Abuse and rape also are said to be endemic.  Conditions in Chinese prisons are also frequently harsh and degrading.  Detainees are kept in overcrowded cells with poor sanitation and lack access to proper medical care and often even to adequate food.

However, to say that the US is better than Russia and China in such matters misses the point.  As the introduction to the State Department report proclaims: "Promoting respect for universal human rights is a central dimension of US foreign policy.  It is a commitment inspired by our country's founding values and our enduring strategic interests.  As history has repeatedly shown, human rights abuses are everybody's concern.  It is a delusion to believe that we can ignore depredations against our fellow human beings or insulate ourselves from the negative consequences of tyranny."  These are fine and stirring words.  But if the US wants others to take it seriously, Americans also need to take a long, hard look in the mirror, and then start fixing things at home.  Only then will their words to the rest of the world carry conviction.

Alan Elsner is a national news correspondent for Reuters and author of the new book, Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons

Source: 4 March 2004 © 2004 The Christian Science Monitor

In is instructive to look at US incarceration rates by state or race.  Maine is lowest at 137 per 100,000.  Louisiana is highest at 799 per 100,000.  White males have a rate of 462 per 100,000.  Black males have a rate of 3,535 per 100,000.

In Hungary, the Roma make up 5% of the population, and 60% of the nation's male prison inmates.  In Spain, Roma women make up 1.5% of the population, and 25% of female prisoners.

This message was posted via the Feedback form.
Comments: Dear Friend,
I have written a book on the US prison system, Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons, which is coming out in early April.  The publisher is Financial Times Prentice Hall.  It already has some very positive notice.  Senator Edward Kennedy calls it "a wake up call for federal, state and local governments across America."  The former republican leader of the California State Assembly also endorses it.  There's more information on my website,  There is an entire chapter on the treatment of the mentally ill in the prison system.

I'm sure your members and supporters would find it interesting.  Perhaps you could post it on your site.
Alan Elsner

See also:

bulletHuman Rights Furor over US Supermax Prisons - Imagine being locked alone in a small, bare cell for 23 hours a day.  Your meals are slid through a slot in the metal door.  You cannot see or talk to another human being, see out the window.  make telephone calls or have direct contact with visitors.  When you do briefly leave your cell for showers or solitary exercise, you must strip, permit a visual search of your body, including bending over and spreading your buttocks...

For articles on white collar and petty crimes, injustice, capital punishment, race, executioners, freedom of the press, cheating, private prisons, punishment, retribution, prison labour, appeals, instant justice, electronic tags, lepers and second chances click the "Up" button below to take you to the Table of Contents for this Prisons section.

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