incarceration

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When a Missed Piece of Mail Sends Someone to Jail

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 06/06/2022 - 6:00pm in

This story was originally published by Next City

Early this year, George Harris (not his real name) had two pending court cases in St. Louis County. He was unaware of one of those cases due to a common error: The notice was sent to an address he no longer resides at. He missed his court date and the county issued him a warrant for failing to appear.

An open warrant meant that if Harris had any encounter with the police, he would be arrested and incarcerated at the St. Louis County jail — all because of a wrong address and a missed court appearance. But this February, Harris visited the Tap In Center, a resource designed to address this very problem. Inside a local library, he worked with a volunteer attorney who heard out his issue and relayed it to the county prosecutor, who ultimately recalled Harris’s warrant.

“They helped me stay in the community, stay with my family and take care of my kids,” Harris says of the service. “I could have been locked up on that warrant.”

The Tap In Center is an experimental service that launched at the Florissant Valley Branch of the St. Louis County Library in fall 2020. At the center, volunteer attorneys work with people who have open warrants with the goal of recalling them. In 17 months, nearly 300 residents were served and more than 300 warrants were recalled. This April, a second Tap In Center opened at the Lewis and Clark Branch of the St. Louis County Library to increase the impact.

The Tap In Center is one result of years of community organizing with the goal of reducing racial disparities in St. Louis’ justice system and lowering the jail population. One major player has been The Bail Project, which in 2018 began providing free bail assistance and community-based pretrial support.

tap inVolunteer attorneys work with people who have open warrants with the goal of recalling them. Credit: Tap In Center

The Bail Project has served over 3,000 people and gotten the jail population low enough to lead to the passage of a 2020 bill to close the city’s medium-security jail. In this work, bail advocates realized that much of the jail overcrowding was caused by people incarcerated due to open warrants. This isn’t unique to St. Louis — around the country, the most common type of warrant is issued by the court when someone fails to appear for their court date.

The Bail Project’s work intersected with the St. Louis County Safety and Justice Challenge, which began in 2015 following the police murder of Michael Brown. In response to the DOJ investigation into the Ferguson Police Department, which found that municipal court practices exacerbated racial inequities in the St. Louis County justice system, members of the Safety and Justice Challenge prioritized the courts in their larger goal of keeping people out of jail.

In 2020, the groups came together to focus on the bench warrants issued due to failing to appear at a scheduled court date. “We started talking about what amnesty, or warrant forgiveness, could look like and who would need to be involved,” says Miranda Gibson, a grant manager at the St. Louis County Department of Justice Services who now coordinates the Tap In Center.

“There’s a common misconception that if someone doesn’t show up to court, they are flagrantly evading prosecution, running from the court or committing crimes,” she continues. “Usually it’s very benign, or just a misunderstanding — anecdotally, most people just don’t know they have a court case or a court date.” Court notices are sent to the address listed on someone’s identification card, which is frequently outdated.

To assess feasibility, the groups started talking with public defenders and judges who participated in the Safety and Justice Challenge. “We wanted to do it where we’d have the most buy-in possible,” Gibson says. The goal was to convince county prosecutors, who’d make the final decision to recall warrants. “The program could not live without the prosecutors,” notes Gibson. “Ultimately it helps their caseload. They don’t want people out in the world with a bunch of warrants either.”

As they pushed for buy-in, they discussed potential locations. “The Bail Project was really good in framing why we’re doing this and pushing that it should not be at a government building like a jail or courthouse,” Gibson says. William Newsome, a client support specialist for The Bail Project who now helps with the Tap In Center, notes that police departments across the country advertise “warrant recalls” only to arrest the people who come seeking support. “The issue was that no one was going to believe that they could access this service and not get arrested,” Newsome says.

The group was drawn to the library, and after some cold emails, the St. Louis County Library leadership was quickly on board. “We were looking at where the warrants were coming from, where there was a high area of open warrants, and then talking with the libraries who know their communities well,” says Gibson. They settled on the Florissant Valley Branch, which is accessible to public transit, about a 10-minute drive from Ferguson, and serves patrons who have been impacted by warrants, arrests and over-policing.

The Tap In Center opened there in September 2020. Every Tuesday, between 6 and 8 p.m., volunteer attorneys and a representative from the Bail Project meet with clients who have open warrants. “We’re right downstairs where the kid’s library is; it’s very relaxed,” says Newsome. “The entire staff of the Tap In is making you feel like this is a safe space; no one is calling the police.” He adds that the team even thought out what they’d wear: “We dress comfortably … if you walk in and see a bunch of people in ties, you’ll get leery.”

During the service hours of the Tap In Center, the county prosecutor’s office is on hand to take calls from the volunteer attorneys. The prosecutors have the authority to make decisions on recalling a warrant that same night. “We’re looking at the history of the case, we call the prosecutor, and the prosecutor tells us if they’re able to dismiss the warrant,” says Taylor Burrows, a volunteer Tap In attorney. “If the prosecutor has concerns [about dismissal], we go from there to address those concerns.”

“The answer is not always ‘yes,’” Gibson points out, “But we have had a lot of success.” The client can usually leave the Tap In Center after 20 minutes and know if the warrant is going to be recalled, and if so, know they will have another court date set.

There are 91 municipalities in St. Louis County, all with their own courtroom policies and rules around warrant recalls. “It is byzantine,” Burrows says. Some of the volunteer attorneys put together an exhaustive list of court procedures for each municipality, with the goal of streamlining the process. “We want to understand their policies for warrant recalls, policies for payment plans, where people should direct questions, and what steps they should be taking to deal with their warrants,” Burrows says.

As the attorney addresses the warrants, a Bail Project representative offers wraparound services. “We tap our clients into community partners who do everything they may or may not need,” says Newsome. “It’s all voluntary, you can come to the center and have a substance abuse problem but if you don’t want to deal with it, we won’t force you.” Crucially, the Bail Project helps clients attend their new court date by signing them up for automated reminders and offering transportation.

According to anonymous testimony provided by Tap In clients, recalled warrants have a profound impact on their lives. “It kept me out of jail, which allowed me to continue to work, stay in treatment, and mainly stay out of the system,” one client said. “Once you’re in the system, it’s hard to get out. You get no treatment when you’re in jail, so you guys really saved me from that.”

Another client missed their court date due to confusion. One day after they visited the Tap In Center, the judge recalled the warrant and scheduled a new court date. “I didn’t know what was going on with the case at the time,” the client reported. “There was a miscommunication because of Covid, I didn’t intentionally miss anything, and you guys made it so I didn’t get locked up.”

Visits to the Tap In Center increased as word got out through word of mouth, outreach from all the participating partners, and direct referrals from judges, prosecutors and attorneys. But the team noticed that many of the clients weren’t coming from a neighborhood with a significant percentage of open warrants. So in April, the Tap In Center expanded to the Lewis and Clark Branch to serve that population.

With volunteer support and a free space provided by the library, the team feels this is an easily replicable service — it’s just a matter of getting judges and prosecutors on board. “Just the fact that our prosecutor is open to looking at these cases is huge … I know a lot of prosecutors are not willing to do that, which is why we haven’t expanded beyond St. Louis County,” Gibson says.

“This could work in every community,” says Newsome. “Anywhere there’s over-incarceration, this can help.”

The post When a Missed Piece of Mail Sends Someone to Jail appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

The Long Crisis on Rikers Island

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 12/05/2022 - 11:53pm in

How New York City lost control of its most infamous jail complex.

India’s ‘Open Prisons’ Are a Marvel of Trust-Based Incarceration

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 12/05/2022 - 6:00pm in

During all of the 11 years that Arjiram spent in a conventional Indian prison, the numbardar — the man who conducts the daily roll call — never once called his name.

“He used to just count our heads,” says Arjiram, who was convicted of murder. The sense of anonymity was so intense, he says, “I began to even forget my name in the closed prison.”

Indignities like this defined Arjiram’s experience while he was incarcerated, piling up one by one in a years-long process of dehumanization. His experience was typical of prison life in India: he lived in cramped, unclean facilities, lacked basic amenities, and shared bug-infested blankets on crowded floors. “To ward off dark memories of the closed prison, I started feeding ants during my roll call at the open prison to keep myself from a disturbed state of mind when memories from the closed prison would persist,” he says. “Feeding these ants gave me a sense of purpose and a lesson in treating every creature with respect.”

Arjiram and his wife at Sanganer open prison. Credit: PAAR

Then, in 2014, Arjiram’s life as a prisoner transformed in an instant when he was transferred to a different type of correctional facility: Sanganer open prison.

Though the people held at Sanganer open prison are technically incarcerated, they can leave the facility during the day and travel within the city limits. Almost immediately upon his arrival, Arjiram’s sense of self-worth grew. “It didn’t feel like I was in a prison,” he says. “I could go out and work and come back, and the best thing was they trusted me.” After being faceless and nameless for over a decade, he felt like a person again.

According to the country’s National Crime Records Bureau, there are about 88 open prisons in India, the largest share of which are in the state of Rajasthan, where the model is being pioneered. India’s open prisons are defined by minimal security. They are run and maintained by the state, and those incarcerated within them are free to come and go as they please. At Sanganer, the prison is open for up to 12 hours each day. Every evening, prisoners must return to be counted at an end-of-day roll call.

Designed to foster reform as opposed to punishment, the system is based on the premise that trust is contagious. It assumes — and encourages — self-discipline on the part of the prisoners. On a practical level, letting incarcerated folks go to work also allows them to earn money for themselves and their families, build skills, and maintain contacts in the outside world that can help them once they’re released.

open prisonThe outside of Sanganer open prison. Credit: PAAR

This model has deep roots in India. One of the earliest open prisons was established so its inmates could help to construct a dam in Uttar Pradesh in 1953. Over the next couple of decades it evolved as a rehabilitation-oriented system, promoted in particular by Sampurnanand, the governor of Rajasthan in the 1960s.

Today, while open prisons are not the norm across India — they house less than three percent of the prison population — they are growing in number and represent a remarkably progressive approach to incarceration. The model puts India among an elite group of countries that offer open prisons, such as Finland, a place often celebrated for its forward-thinking justice system. But Finland is a small, wealthy country of just over five million people and relatively little violent crime — it registers only a few hundred murders each year. India, on the other hand, is home to 1.4 billion people and tens of thousands of murders, rapes and assaults. Its sheer size makes its open prison system improbable, but it works.

Admittance to India’s open prisons is similar to how parole works in many countries: prisoners are transferred from conventional prisons into open ones based on a range of criteria, such as behavior, motivation to reform, and physical and mental fitness.

They’re not only for those convicted of petty crimes. Hari Singh (not his real name) was convicted of murder and, after serving time in a closed prison, was moved to Sanganer open prison five years ago. Before his incarceration, he worked in construction. “Now I ride an e-rickshaw and earn 600 to 700 rupees ($8 to $9 USD) per day,” he says. “I spent eight years in the closed prison where we are shut out from the world and there was constant worry about everything. Here, we lead a stress-free life — kamao aur khao (earn and eat).”

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In addition to allowing inmates to support themselves, open prisons require far less staff, and their operating costs are a fraction of those in closed prisons, which average monthly costs of 7,000 to 10,000 rupees ($92 to $130 USD) per prisoner. And while there is little reliable recidivism data available in India, Scandinavian countries with open prisons have among the lowest recidivism rates in the world.

But the most visible benefit of open prisons is in the humane conditions they provide for those who reside there. As in many countries, prison overcrowding is a major problem in India, with profound implications for physical and mental wellbeing. Open prisons help to solve this.

“Color is the one thing we miss in a traditional prison,” says Pooja Chabra, who was transferred to Sanganer open prison from a closed prison in 2015. As soon as she moved into Sanganer, Chabra started planting flowers. “I planted some marigolds outside my residence in Sanganer open prison,” she says, “which suddenly provided color to my otherwise colorless life.”

open prisonPooja Chabra with her flowers. Credit: PAAR

Chabra found more than just color at Sanganer — she found love. It was there that she met Kishan Devagowda, who was also incarcerated. “I am living the second phase of my life here and these are possibly the happiest years of my life,” says Devagowda.

Single women are not typically allowed in open prisons, but some have found ways to get themselves transferred into them regardless. In some cases, a group of single women will declare that they are a family. “We decided to become each other’s family — life changed from that moment onwards,” says Geeta Sharma, who was sent to Sanganer open prison along with her “family” of other single women.

India has other types of open prisons, as well. The open prison at Cherlapally, Hyderabad in Telangana is spread over 120 pastoral acres. Those who reside there are paid to tend crops, fish and raise chickens. While offering somewhat less freedom than Sanganer open prison, the prison in Cherlapally nevertheless allows the people there to build skills, have family come visit and generally live a more normal, less confined life.

“The prisoners work on the farms and the poultry,” says a deputy superintendent at Cherlapally open prison who asked to remain anonymous. “They learn new techniques of cultivation which will enable and prepare them for livelihood after their release.” The Telangana State Prisons Department even set up an outlet called “My Nation” in the recently held All India Industrial Exhibition at Hyderabad. The outlet sold articles such as bedsheets, towels, doormats, steel cupboards, stools, and cleaning and bakery products made by the prisoners, all of whom were paid for the work.

Smita Chakraborty founded the prison reform organization Prison Aid and Action Research (PAAR) in 2018 after more than a decade of working with incarcerated people. Perhaps more than anyone else, she has pioneered the concept of open prisons throughout India. “If they can think of a parole system,” she says, “they can think of an open prison system, too.”

This advocacy has been successful, and India’s share of open prisons is growing. In 2017 the country’s Supreme Court ordered the central government to arrange discussions with authorities across India to build more open prisons. Since the ruling, 30 new open prisons have been established throughout the country.

A prisoner at Sanganer open prison with his son. Credit: PAAR

Chakraborty points out that fewer than one percent of those in India’s open prisons are habitual offenders, and the vast majority are nonviolent and pose little threat to society. What’s more, hardly anyone “escapes” from an open prison. The trust-based model appears to foster a meaningful level of mutual respect between the state and those under its supervision.

If anything, the open prison model has been criticized for being too conservative, particularly in regards to which prisoners it will accept. What some critics see as unnecessarily strict eligibility criteria mean that many prisoners who likely pose no threat remain stuck in closed prisons. As of 2021, India had the capacity to house 6,213 people in its open prisons, but only 3,075 were residing there.

If solving this problem lacks urgency, that may be because of the public’s relative indifference to the plight of prisoners, who are often viewed as socially irredeemable. But as open prisons become an increasingly visible part of India’s justice landscape, that may change. “There is a possibility that this concept could emerge as one of the major reforms of the 21st century,” says Ajit Singh, ex-director general of prisons in Rajasthan.

The post India’s ‘Open Prisons’ Are a Marvel of Trust-Based Incarceration appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.