Day: July 6, 2013

USA: California urged to reform ‘inhumane’ prison units ahead of hunger strike

A planned hunger strike by prisoners in California’s solitary confinement units highlights the urgent need for major reform, Amnesty International said today.

Over a thousand prisoners continue to be held in indefinite isolation, confined for 22-24 hours per day in small, often windowless cells, and deprived of meaningful human contact.  Hundreds have been held in these ‘Security Housing Units’ for more than ten years.

The hunger strike is due to start on Monday 8 July, in protest against the failure of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to carry out reforms pledged a year ago.

“They said they’d give prisoners a way out of isolation, but few prisoners have been moved out of the units, and most cases haven’t even been reviewed yet,” said Angela Wright, Amnesty International’s expert on US ‘supermax’ prisons.

“Rather than improving, conditions have actually significantly deteriorated.”

Cell-checks by guards every 30 minutes, including throughout the night, have now been introduced.

“These prisoners are already being held in dire and inhumane conditions, and these new night-time checks appear punitive, and may result in severe sleep deprivation.  They should be stopped immediately,” said Angela Wright.

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, solitary confinement, even for a limited period, can cause serious psychological harm. States should isolate prisoners only in exceptional circumstances, and for as short a time as possible.

The California State authorities’ own figures show that in 2011 more than 500 prisoners had spent more than ten years in the isolation units at Pelican Bay State Prison and 78 had been there for 20 years or more.

Amnesty International visited California’s isolation units in November 2011 and issued a highly critical report, USA: The Edge of Endurance, the following year.

In November 2012, California’s Corrections department introduced changes to the criteria for assigning inmates to the units and a ‘step-down program’ to allow prisoners to earn their way out of isolation. However, even once prisoners are cleared to start the program, they would continue to be held in physical and social isolation for at least the first two years.

Most of those held in the isolation units have not yet even been admitted into the ‘step down program’.

A July 2011 hunger strike by prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay isolation unit lasted for 20 days. The strike spread to prisons across the state, with more than 6,000 prisoners participating at its peak.

Death by Numbers: The 500th Execution by the State of Texas by Gemma Puglisi

On June 26th, the state of Texas executed its 500th inmate. Kimberly McCarthy, 52, was found guilty of murdering her 71-year-old neighbor, a retired college psychology professor back in l997. McCarthy, a crack cocaine addict, robbed, beat, and stabbed Dorothy Booth, after asking for a cup of sugar. Throughout McCarthy’s trial, her former ex-husband, Black Panther Party founder Aaron Michaels, testified on her behalf. The two were separated before Booth’s murder.

All a tragic story. After reading about the case and the execution, I learned more. This has all become important to me after knowing former death row inmate Troy Anthony Davis. I became friends with Davis simply by reading about his case back in 2007. In 2011, “Troy” was executed by the state of Georgia for the murder of Police Officer Mark MacPhail. Officer MacPhail was white, and the father of two young children. Troy always maintained his innocence. There was never any evidence linking him to the crime other than witnesses who said he did it. Years later, seven of the nine recanted stating that they were coerced by the police. Despite so many unanswered questions — and support from Amnesty International, the NAACP, Desmond Tutu, former President Jimmy Carter, and literally millions of supporters, Troy was executed on Sept. 21, 2011.

Dorothy Booth’s death was horrible. She and her family deserved justice. No question. As I researched McCarthy’s case and read more about it, I learned that her attorney Maurie Levin had asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to halt the execution, because black jurors were excluded from her trial by Dallas County prosecutors. The jurors in her case were all white except for one.

After Troy’s execution, I find myself talking to attorneys who have worked tirelessly to seek justice for death row inmates — and may not have had fair trials. In 2010, a call led to my meeting attorney James Rocap — who represented Teresa Lewis — the first women executed in the state of Virginia in 50 years. (Lewis’ case was controversial because of her mental capacity. Supporters said she was borderline mentally retarded. Lewis was found guilty of having her husband and stepson murdered. It was believed she was not capable of orchestrating the murders because of her mental capacity.) Despite all this, she was executed Sept. 23, 2010 — almost exactly a year before Troy.

In a statement issued following the execution of Kimberly McCarthy, attorney Levin said: “500 is 500 too many. I look forward to the day when we recognize that this pointless and barbaric practice, imposed almost exclusively on those who are poor and disproportionately on people of color, has no place in a civilized society.”

That is the tragedy of Texas’s 500th execution. That state leads the country in most executions. We are a civilized society, and the death penalty is barbaric and senseless and in so many cases. There is no question that those who kill should be accountable for their horrible actions. And prison is that punishment. There are too many cases today where there is doubt, many unanswered questions, and injustice.

Troy’s dream was that executions end. I couldn’t help but think of him when I read about this recent news.

I pulled out a letter he mailed me months before his execution. He said, “Deter prejudice, hatred and racism by ending the death penalty now. ‘An eye for an eye’ leaves the entire world blind. How can the U.S. be a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world when Justice includes the death penalty… we lose all credibility with the death penalty.”

Young Killers in Texas Await Change in Mandatory Life Sentences

NEW BOSTON, Tex. — Scottie Forcey nervously drummed his fingers behind the thick glass in the Telford Unit’s visiting room as the camera shutter snapped, capturing images of the 21-year-old convicted murderer.

“I want some pictures. I ain’t seen myself in like” — he paused to count on his fingers — “five years. I know I look different. Check it out.” He pressed his prison ID card against the glass. In the photo, a plumper, baby-faced 17-year-old stared at the camera.

Mr. Forcey was convicted in 2009 of fatally shooting Karen Burke, a 52-year-old Alvarado convenience store clerk. He is the youngest of 23 Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmates who received mandatory sentences of life without parole for committing capital murder when they were younger than 18.

Now, as legislators work to comply with a United States Supreme Court ruling, those inmates could become eligible for parole after serving 40 years.

The justices ruled last year that sentences of life without parole for 17-year-old murderers violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Either the courts or Gov. Rick Perry could change such sentences in Texas. But both are waiting for legislators to decide what punishment juveniles like Mr. Forcey should face. Lawmakers, who failed to pass legislation in two sessions this year, are trying now for a third time.

In Texas, 17-year-olds have faced the same sentencing options as adults convicted of capital murder: the death penalty or life without parole. In 2005, the Supreme Court prohibited the death penalty for anyone under 18, deciding that the less-developed brains of juveniles rendered them less culpable. That left only life without parole as the punishment for 17-year-olds.

After the court’s decision last year, in Miller v. Alabama, prosecutors said they had no sentencing options for 17-year-old killers. They asked lawmakers to make them subject to the same punishment Texas law requires for 14- to 16-year-old capital murderers: life with parole eligibility after 40 years.

Lance Long, a Harris County assistant district attorney, recently told lawmakers that until they decided on a sentencing option, such murder trials were being delayed across Texas.

“None of these cases are anything but very, very, very serious,” Mr. Long said.

The Texas Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee has approved a bill that would require a sentence of life with parole eligibility after 40 years. The House, however, has indicated it wants to give juries the option to sentence 17-year-olds to life without parole if other factors — like evidence of abuse or mental illness — are considered.

In previous sessions this year, both chambers approved bills addressing the sentencing question, but time ran out before they could get final approval.

Mr. Perry has told prosecutors that when lawmakers decided on a new sentencing bill, he would consider recommending commutation for inmates like Mr. Forcey who were sentenced under the old law.

“It really only seems fair and just,” said Justin Wood, the legislative liaison for the Harris County district attorney’s office in Houston.

Mr. Forcey, meanwhile, contends that he did not pull the trigger in Ms. Burke’s murder in 2008. He said he was targeted because he ran with the wrong crowd.

Now, he said, “I wouldn’t put myself in that situation.”

Mr. Forcey has spent most of the last four years in isolation, punishment for fights he said were constant when he first arrived.

“I grew up back there,” he said.

Asked about the possibility that his sentence could be commuted, Mr. Forcey was ambivalent. Forty years, he said, is too long.

Then a wide smile spread across his face. He figures he will be out by December. Mr. Forcey spent those years in isolation researching his case, he said, and plans to file an appeal.

“My mind’s already set,” he said. “I’m going home — wherever home is.”