Rattling the Bars: U.S. Prison Nation

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  December 10, 2015

Rattling the Bars: U.S. Prison Nation

In this episode of Rattling the Bars, TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway speaks to Prison Policy Initiative's Bernadette Rabuy and Dignity and Power Now's Mark-Anthony Johnson about a new report on mass incarceration in America
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EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN: Welcome to Rattling the Bars. I'm Eddie Conway, and today we are discussing a recently-published report from the Prison Policy Initiative titled Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015. It looks at how many people are locked up in the U.S., where, and why.

Joining us today to discuss the report is Bernadette Rabuy. Bernadette is a policy communications associate at the Prison Policy Initiative. Bernadette's research has focused on the role of technology in prisons, most specifically for profit video visitation in prisons and jails. Also joining us is Mark-Anthony Johnson, director of health and wellness with Dignity and Power Now.

Bernadette, after state prisons, what is the next-largest slice of confinement?

BERNADETTE RABUY: The next-largest slice are local jails. So while we don't talk about local jails nearly as much as we do talk about prisons at the national level, there are lots of people in our local jails. It's just a little bit more difficult because they are run by local sheriffs, so there's thousands of agencies controlling these local jails.

CONWAY: Okay. Well, how does the number of people that cycle through the correctional facilities a year differ from the number of people locked up on a particular day?

RABUY: Right. So this is a really important point. There are the numbers of people that are locked up at any given point in time. So our report finds that 2.3 million people are locked up in prisons, jails, and other facilities. But then there are also the people who cycle through facilities in a year. So for jails, that number is extremely high. It's 11 million people that are cycling through local jails in a year. And for prisons it's around 600,000.

CONWAY: Okay. Okay. Mark-Anthony, can you talk about the on-the-ground activism in Los Angeles to stop prison and jail expansion, and to reduce the prison population?

MARK-ANTHONY JOHNSON: Definitely. I mean, shoutout to Prison Policy Initiative for giving us the perspective of the role local jails are playing in mass incarceration. I think Los Angeles is a really interesting locale, because in California the state government is moving the state prison population into the local jail population to alleviate overcrowding. And so local jails are not only a host for, obviously, local incarceration. But they're now being the places where folks in the prison population are being moved to.

So in Los Angeles, we have the largest jail system in the world. It's about [17,000-18,000] people at this current moment. And what we are trying to do is stop the county from moving forward with a proposed $2 billion jail construction plan. $2 billion to build two facilities, a women's jail and essentially a mental health jail. Both of those, we think, are oxymorons, if you will. I think the movement towards thinking about mental health treatment as possible within a jail facility is null and void, and when everything that we've seen is that folks who have mental health conditions inside the jails tend to get worse, and if you don't have a mental health condition you tend to get one. And then in terms of the women's jail, there is a lot of specific types of violence that women are experiencing behind those jail cells.

And so locally we are pushing back to stop the construction of a women's jail, which is the first step towards moving the population around so they can deconstruct men's central jail and rebuild it as this, quote, mental health facility. And this is something that's been going on for the last two years. We've been waging this fight, and it's going to continue to go on in the next year.

CONWAY: So Mark-Anthony, I heard you say that they are putting state prisoners into the local jails now. Is that the result of the state prison system in California being overcrowded?

JOHNSON: Definitely. Definitely. The state prison system has been overcrowded. All jails tend to be overcrowded. The idea is that the state prison is supposed to be operating at 127-130 percent capacity, and it looks like they are approaching that by moving state prisoners back into local counties. And so that's what we're seeing here in Los Angeles, as well.

CONWAY: Okay. Bernadette, how important is it to ending mass incarceration that we reform the policies that increasingly detain people pre-trial?

RABUY: It's extremely important. It's a huge opportunity to reform mass incarceration. We found that actually 70 percent of the people in our local jails are unconvicted, meaning they're legally innocent. And for whatever reason they are sitting in jails, waiting for their trial date. So that could mean, for example, people who are too poor to afford bail. Instead of being able to wait at home, continue their jobs or whatever else, they're having to wait inside of a jail.

CONWAY: Does this cause people--if they're being just held in jail without bail for lengthy periods of time, does this cause them to plea bargain or to out of desperation agree to guilty charges for--to get released?

RABUY: Yeah, absolutely. Basically all the research out there shows that it is bad for people to be detained pre-trial. That it has a lot of negative outcomes. It can lead more easily to people being found guilty, longer sentences, all sorts of negative consequences.

CONWAY: Well, how many people nationwide are in prison because their most serious offense was a drug offense?

RABUY: Yeah, so this number is about half a million.

CONWAY: Well, how does the number of people in correctional facilities compare with the number of people, say, on probation and parole?

RABUY: Yeah. So this is really interesting as well. So this pie chart shows people in state prisons, federal prisons, people in local jails, territorial prisons, et cetera. But beyond those 2.3 million there are also people under another form of control. So there is probation, and parole. And actually in the U.S., probation is a leading type of correctional control. So there are about 3 million people who are on probation, as well as a few hundred thousand on parole.

CONWAY: Okay. Well, the U.S. prison system is not only restricted to continental North America. Can you talk about the territorial prisons?

RABUY: Yeah. So territorial prisons are just those being held for places like Guam or Puerto Rico. So we also included those numbers in our pie chart so that people could really get the whole, big picture of who was confined by the US.

CONWAY: Okay. All right. Mark-Anthony, your organization created a video asking residents of Los Angeles what they would want instead of prisons. Let's cut to that video.


CONWAY: Could you explain to us in-depth what this video means?

JOHNSON: Definitely. I mean, we see a situation in Los Angeles where there is a drive to create more jails at a moment where we're seeing a multitude of potential forms such as split sentencing, such as pre-trial release. As Bernadette mentioned, about half of the folks currently in LA County jail are pre-trial. And we know that releasing folks on pre-trial does not produce any greater risk to public safety. In fact, it protects a lot of the housing, job, and education infrastructure that people already have in their lives.

Prop 47 has reduced local jail populations and will continue to. We have a district attorney who wants to divert at least 1,000 people who have mental health conditions out of the jails. And so at a moment where we're producing all these reforms, our question is why are we investing in more jail construction, and why are we spending $2 billion to do that, right?

And so we went--we took it to the people. And as you saw, you know, people have some great ideas around what they would spend money on. They would spend it on housing and, and homelessness, and mental health structures, job training, and all those things. Things that actually impact our communities and actually prevent us from being incarcerated.

And so we're at a moment where the local movement in Los Angeles is trying to win this debate around what diversion means. Everything from preventing your first contact with a police officer, especially if you have a mental health condition, from resulting in a booking, to making sure that folks who are inside are quickly diverted outward to local community-based mental health facilities, or getting split sentencing reforms that other counties around California are using at a much greater rate than we are in Los Angeles. And the folks who are mostly impacted are black and brown, about 80 percent black and Latino folks in the current jail system. And when you look at mental health, you know, black folks are 9 percent of the county population, but 30 percent of the county jail population. And approximately 43.7 percent of the county jail population has a, quote, serious mental illness.

So those intersections are really important, as we're fighting for these other demands. And we encourage folks to push for those demands locally and around the country.

CONWAY: Okay. Bernadette, do you have any final thoughts, or words you want to share with us?

RABUY: Yeah. I think I, I just want to reiterate what Mark-Anthony was saying. I hope that this Whole Pie graphic and report allows people to really think about whether it makes sense that we're locking up 2.3 million people on any given day. And also to think a little bit further beyond all the bills that are in Congress, but also to think about state prison reforms, local jails, juveniles, how we can reduce the number of kids who are locked up for technical or status violations, which for a lot of people we don't even consider crimes. So things like truancy or curfews. How we can really think about reducing our prison and jail population throughout the different levels of government, whether locally or nationally.

CONWAY: Okay. All right, well, thank you both for joining Rattling the Bars.

RABUY: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

CONWAY: And thank you for joining the Real News.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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