The San Quentin Ethics Conflict

California’s First Court of Appeals has ordered San Quentin State Prison to transfer or release about 1,700 inmates. That’s 50% of the prison population there, an edict based on the theory that San Quentin officials have not done enough to protect inmates from the pandemic. “We agree that respondents — the Warden and CDCR — have acted with deliberate indifference and relief is warranted,” the court said in its opinion last week.

50% was the figure recommended by a team of experts after they investigated the viral spread that has killed dozens and sickened hundreds at San Quentin’s maximum security facillity. The inmate reduction could be achieved through a combination of transfers and early releases, the court said.

The California Department of Corrections opposes the order. “Since March, the department has released more than 21,000 persons, resulting in the lowest prison population in decades. Additionally, we have implemented response and mitigation efforts across the system,” it argued in a statement. “As of today, CDCR’s COVID-19 cases are the lowest they have been since May (493 cases reported today, and over 14,000 resolved), with San Quentin recording only one new case among the incarcerated population in nearly a month.”

The Wuhan virus has infected more than 200,000 prison and jail inmates. Nearly 1,300 have died as a result, according to a New York Times database.  Civil rights organizations have argued for the release of inmates across the country, using the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment as their justification. San Quentin presents a particularly tough ethical trade-off. In its opinion, the court ruled that the state prison system had shown “deliberate indifference” to the safety and health of San Quentin’s inmates by not taking sufficient measures to protect them. This, the court wrote, was “morally indefensible and constitutionally untenable.”

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Comment Of The Day: “Comment Of The Day: ‘Unethical Tweet Of The Month: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY)'”

Humble Talent has issued an excellent and provocative post on one of the Great Ethics Controversies: what is fair, ethical and effective criminal justice punishment in a nation with the values of the United States?

I admit that this is an ethical blind spot for me, perhaps because I worked as both a defense attorney and a prosecutor. My natural inclination is toward the Baretta theme song: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” Or, for that matter, if you can’t pay the fine. I also believe, as Humble alludes to skeptically  in his final paragraph, that the culture of the United States, emphasizing individual freedom and encouraging self-worth measured by success, does make criminal activity more common, and its history and culture also increase the frequency of  violent crimes. I don’t trust cross cultural comparisons; I think they are all misleading, and often intentionally so. The United States is unique.

Nonetheless, all of the issues brought up in the post are complex and important to examine, carefully, seriously. I have not forgotten this post, though I needed  Humble Talent’s comment to make me track it down,  and I hereby pledge to make criminal justice issues, and especially prison,  a higher priority here.

This is Humble Talent’s Comment of the Day on the post, “Comment Of The Day: ‘Unethical Tweet Of The Month: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY)’”

We’ve talked about this issue before, tangentially… And it’s something of a hot topic for me. It’s something that differentiates me from the group, I think, because it’s something I think America could do better, and it seems to be something that other right-leaning commentators are somewhere between apathetic to and actually proud of.

I think, and I could be wrong, but I think that this reaction is more of a rejection of the other side than a legitimate statement of belief. Progressives seem to no longer be content with the steady beat of “normal” progress, instead seeming to be approaching everything from politics to the personal with a militant quasi-religious fervour.

And to a point, who can blame them? If I listened and believed half of what their thought-leaders are telling them, I might be right there beside them. I’m of the opinion that people on the right feel like (and I agree with them, to an extent) they are perpetually under siege; their values, their way of life, their livelihoods, their basic understanding of the rules of the game of life. They’re given no rest, having the steady grind of not only the overt political messaging, but cultural and familial shifts happening around them in real time. And that’s worn away the dermis a little, they’re on their last nerves, and not picking their battles very well, instead opting to fight everything. Because otherwise…. The wholesale rejection of criticisms of the penal system seems… kinda shitty when you think about it. Continue reading

Prison Labor Ethics

Prison labor is an ethics issue that I have never considered before. Apparently that’s true of a lot of people. In Massachusetts, an Amherst-Pelham Regional High School  student named Spencer Cliche (great name!) was challenged to undertake an investigative journalism project, He eventually published a 3,000-word exposé  on prison labor topic in his school’s newspaper.

The high school, it seems, had contracted with a local prison to re-upholster its auditorium seats,  taking its low bid for the job over another bid by a local business. As a result of the uproar sparked by Spencer’s work, the school superintendent issued a statement to school staff members promising never to contract with the prison again.

It does not appear, however, that this decision was based on  careful balancing of the ethics issues involved, but rather, as usual, a lazy capitulation to avoid an emotion-based controversy.

The local  newspaper, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, eventually picked up the story. as did a local radio station that featured Cliche’s report as the “question of the morning.” Then the issue was raised by The Marshall Project, a prison and justice system reform project.

In addition to routine prison labor, which is usually handled in a prison facility, there are also state-run “correctional industries,” such as MassCor, which arranges for inmates to do work for  schools, nursing homes, towns, non-profits and other institutions. Obviously, their costs are lower than competing businesses, because prisoners earn less than a dollar an hour on average for their labor, according to Prison Policy Initiative.

Thus we have multiple looming ethics issues, among them…

  • Is it ethical to force prisoners to work at all?

I don’t see how an honest argument can be formulated that argues that it is not. Work organizes the time and attention of the jailed, keeps them occupied, minimizes boredom and the opportunity to get into trouble. Social justice advocates seem to think that prisons should be like summer camps, with sports, crafts, and other pleasant diversions. That approach is both expensive and undeserved. Prison, among other things, is and ought to be punishment.

  • Is it ethical to pay prisoners less than the minimum wage? Isn’t forced labor with no compensation or minimal compensation virtual slavery?

Convicted prisoners forfeit most of their constitutional rights. Some forms of forced labor might rise to the level of cruel and unusual punishment, and prison labor is ripe for abuse (just ask Andy Dufresne, the protagonist of “The Shawhsank Redemption”), but criminals are a burden on society, and warehousing them is expensive. There is nothing unethical about requiring those who have imposed that burden to help alleviate it.

  • Are prison-based businesses like MassCor unethical?

 Cara Savelli, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Correction interviewed by the student journalist, defended the program, saying,

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Comment Of The Day from The 4/10 Open Forum

This is a Comment of the Day by Michael R. on what amounts  to a provocative stand-alone post by JimHodgson. He wrote,

Yesterday I taught an ethics course for a group of thirty corrections officers at a local sheriff’s office detention facility, and will teach the same class tomorrow for a second group. The attendees ranged from veteran staff, with ten or more years of service, to recent hires just out of basic training. Ages ranged from early 20s to mid 50s. Due to medical/surgical issues I have recently been “out of the saddle” as a trainer for two years and had not taught this particular course for nearly four years. As we discussed ethical considerations in the corrections context, I was struck repeatedly by one thing: The older, more experienced officers, who one might have expected to be quite jaded about their role, duties, and in their outlook toward professional / occupational ethical issues, were instead the most thoughtful and consistent in their ethical logic as we dissected various scenarios and case studies involving the application of ethics -or the lack thereof, and they displayed the greatest understanding of ethical concepts and principles. Conversely, the younger and less experienced officers’ reasoning was tilted toward ethical contingencies and excuse-making, and in some cases the idea that “what is acceptable to my peers is ethical.” As I always do, I posed Michael Josephson’s somewhat rhetorical question, “How many times do you get to lie before you are a liar?” To my consternation, some of the younger people seemed to think that the answer could be quantified!

Of course, I have no delusions that any instruction by me can correct an adult’s ethical deficiencies, but I always endeavor to at least provide a fairly comprehensive summary of ethical decision-making principles and processes, the legal and ethical duties of the job, the standards of the institution, and the likely consequences for failing to meet those ethical and legal standards. Based on their responses, I was not encouraged about the future of many of those younger officers. I recalled my own daughter’s experiences with “character education” in school, and our many related discussions about character and ethics, and wondered if these young officers hadn’t shared that educational experience, being of about the same age. If so, I saw little residual evidence of it.

This particular detention facility is seriously overcrowded (nearly 25% over designed capacity), chronically understaffed (no staff positions added since the facility was at 60% of capacity), and has about a 40% annual staff turnover (mainly newer hires leaving for better-paying, less stressful jobs). A round of retirements about five years ago decimated the ranks of the most experienced staff. Over 50% of staff have less than four years experience. The corrections officer’s duties include a multitude of low-visibility discretionary decisions that often involve the use of coercive authority, and making ethical decisions is essential.

Here was Michael R.’s Comment of the Day in response: Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 9/13/2018: The Serena Winds Continue To Blow, Along With A Lot Of Other Unpleasant Things

Good morning!

There’s Hurricane Hysteria in the Washington area, with everyone freaking out and clearing the store shelves, and the news media making it sound like this is the End of Days. Did you know that BOTH Chicken Little and the Boy Who Cried Wolf lived in Washington, D.C.? Thanks to a late summer repeat of what goes on every time there’s a rumor of  nascent snow flake during our winters, nobody’s working, returning emails and phone calls, or doing anything, it seems, except, I assume,  trying to figure out a way to blame whatever happens on President Trump.

Incidentally, this was going to be an afternoon post yesterday, until my car blew a radiator hose on Route 395 at rush hour.

1. Yes, more on the “racist cartoon.” Reader Michael B. reminded me of some of the liberal editorial cartoonists’ attacks on Condoleeza Rice. Here was one such cartoon, from 2005, that I found online.

Here’s the real Condoleeza:

I’ve been challenged to post a poll on this cartoon too, but that’s tricky. The two cartoons are not equivalent. I don’t think either is racist, but if I were in the business of race-baiting, the Rice cartoon is worse for several reasons. To begin with, Serena really did throw a tantrum on the U.S. Open court, and it was ugly, thus theoretically justifying an ugly graphic portrayal. There was never an incident analogous to what the cartoon Condi is shown doing. Moreover, she never exhibited anything approaching the snarling, aggressive demeanor portrayed by the cartoonist, at least not in public. I think the face given Rice is also vaguely simian, and if a similar spoof of Michell Obama had been published, all hell would have broken loose.

There were some complaints about racist caricatures of Rice during the Bush years, but all from conservative organizations and commentators, none from the NAACP, and nothing on the scale of the uproar over the Williams cartoon.

My position is…

….that both the Williams and the Rice cartoon are within the acceptable range of an art form I detest and find inherently unethical, editorial cartooning.

….that the indignation over either cartoon is driven by bias toward the targets.

….that anyone who wasn’t vocal about “racial insensitivity” toward Rice in various cartoons is not the most convincing advocate for the position that the Knight drawing is racist.  Yes, such a person might have changed their point of view, but he or she has the burden of proof to demonstrate that this is the case. I’m skeptical.

So here are TWO polls..

 

2. I find it difficult to believe that as Democrats are revealing the total ethical void in their current strategy, polls show voters favoring a Democratic Congress in the upcoming election. Of course, it helps that the mainstream news media won’t communicate to the public fairly so they understand what’s going on:

  • During his hearings, Bret Kavanaugh said, speaking of the position of the plaintiffs in a case, “In that case, they said filling out the form would make them complicit in the provision of the abortion-inducing drugs that were, as a religious matter, objected to.” This was immediately distorted in the news media and by anti-Kavanaugh activists as  Kavanaugh referring to birth control as “abortion-inducing drugs.” Hillary Clinton (to be fair, I assume that she was reading second hand accounts—you know, like everyone criticizes Trump for doing with Fox News) then beclowned herself by tweeting:

I want to be sure we’re all clear about something that Brett Kavanaugh said in his confirmation hearings last week. He referred to birth-control pills as “abortion-inducing drugs.” That set off a lot of alarm bells for me, and it should for you, too.

[Pointer: Zoltar Speaks!]

  • CNN tweeted this (Pointer: Instapundit):

I think this qualifies as going beyond deceit to pure lying. The texts themselves were evidence. It’s like a defense attorney saying “The prosecution, without evidence, suggests that the murder weapon with the defendant’s fingerprints on it links him to the killing!”

  • A man cursing Donald Trump attempted to stab Republican Rudy Peters,  running for the House in California, with a switchblade over the weekend.This kind of thing does not happen every day, nor in every Congressional race. Democrats have increasingly been suggesting violent measures be used against conservatives and Republicans, and there has already been one armed attack that nearly killed Rep. Steve Scalise and threatened other GOP officials. Yet when Rep. Eric Swalwell, Peters’ opponent, appeared on  CNN host Erin Burnett’s show “Erin Burnett Outfront” last night, she never asked Stalwell about the attack or its implications. That’s journalistic negligence, and likely bias.

3. Please explain this to me. Anyone? Karen White, a transgender man “transitioning” to female, was accused of repeatedly raping a woman in 2016 and had been previously been jailed in 2001 for a sexual assault on a child. After telling the authorities that he identified as a woman, Karen, who still has her penis, aka her weapon of choice when engaged in sexual assault,  was remanded into HMP New Hall near Wakefield, West Yorkshire, an all female facility.

She then sexually assaulted four female inmates a few days later. Who could have predicted such a thing? The prison’s spokesperson said: “We apologize sincerely for the mistakes which were made in this case. While we work to manage all prisoners, including those who are transgender, sensitively and in line with the law, we are clear that the safety of all prisoners must be our absolute priority.” Continue reading

Ethics Quote Of The Day: Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick

“Whether or not the alleged institutional abuses are ultimately proven, the reality is this: A severely ill young man wasted away, smeared in his own feces, under the watchful eyes of multiple health care workers, corrections staff, and other inmates. His death will force no accountability and will bring about no change. The illness from which Jamycheal Mitchell suffered could have been better managed through medication, proper treatment, and simple respect. The illness that allows the rest of us to jail great masses of dangerously sick people and mistreat them until they die? It is increasingly seeming to be untreatable and incurable.”

—-Slate’s legal pundit Dahlia Lithwick, writing about the case of 24-year-old Jamycheal Mitchell, who was found dead in his cell at Hampton Roads (Virginia) Regional Jail in Virginia.

Jamycheal Mitchell: Almost nobody thinks his life mattered.

Jamycheal Mitchell: Almost nobody thinks his life mattered.

There is a $60 million lawsuit being filed by Jamycheal Mitchell’s family over his death as a result of an astounding combination of incompetence and negligence. Mitchell suffered from schizophrenia and a bipolar disorder, and was arrested four months prior to his death for stealing a can of Mountain Dew, a Snickers bar, and a Zebra Cake from a 7-Eleven.  He was allowed to waive counsel despite his mental and emotional impairments, and bail was set at $3,000  for stealing less than five dollars worth of junk food. A judge twice ordered him moved to a state mental health hospital, but no beds were available, so he was allowed to languish, and starve to death, in jail.

The videotape of his last days in prison were also erased forever, because, officials say, they didn’t show anything irregular. I was asked if this qualified as spoliation, the intentional and illegal destruction of evidence when a court proceeding is looming or and investigation is underway. No, because spoliation can only take place when a legal proceeding is inevitable or in process, and also because government institutions are remarkably unlikely to ever be held to account for the practice. This was not technically spoliation, because there was no legal proceeding yet, though one could have been predicted by an idiot. Similarly, Hillary Clinton destroying 0ver 30,000 supposedly “purely personal” emails  before they could be demanded by a Senate Committee (and hearings are not legal proceeding) were not technically spoliation. Ethically, it is a distinction without a difference.

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Ethics Hero Emeritus: Sister Antonia Brenner, 1926-2013

 

Sister Antonia dies at 86

Sister Antonia caring for a prisoner in La Mesa in 2002

Once again, someone remarkable has died whose life was insufficiently celebrated while she was alive. I had never heard of Antonia Brenner until yesterday. I wish I had.

Mary Clarke was born on Dec. 1, 1926—we share a birthday!— the second of three children. Her father, Joseph, was a prosperous business executive; the family had a second home overlooking the Pacific. After her second marriage, to Carl Brenner, she was known as Mary Brenner, and was the mother of eight children, comfortably ensconced in Beverly Hills.  While struggling through her second divorce, she began doing charity work for the poor in Los Angeles.  A priest friend, Monsignor Anthony Brouwers, took  her to La Mesa state penitentiary in Tijuana, Mexico, which was filled with convicted murderers, thieves, gang members, rapists and other hardened criminals, all living in brutal and inhumane  conditions even by the horrible standards of U.S. prisons. Everything—her life, her name, and most of all, the existence of the prisoners, changed after that.

She became devoted to their plight as human beings, and brought the prisoners basics of comfort that were being withheld from them, at her own expense. She gave them aspirin, blankets, tooth paste, soap, even prescription eyeglasses. She carried spare toilet paper with her, and kep a lookout for other missing essentials. Brenner acquired a prison contract to sell soda pop to prisoners and then used the proceeds to post bail for minor offenders. She began spending more and more time with the prisoners, gaining their affection and trust, even singing in their church services. She treated them with dignity and kindness: when prisoners died, it was Mary Brenner who prepared him for burial. Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Ethics Dunce: Fox News”

Bradley then, Chelsea now.

Bradley then, Chelsea now.

Responding sharply to a commenter’s expressed criticism of the argument that convicted classified data leaker Bradley, now Chelsea, Manning, sentenced to Federal prison and seeking treatment as a trans-gendered female, ought to have his treatment needs served by prison authorities at public cost, Ethics Alarms’ own expert on such matters (from Australia), provided this fascinating overview of U.S. law and medical ethics on the topic. Here is zoebrain’s Comment of the Day on the recent post flagging Fox News’ juvenile mockery of Manning’s gender issues, Ethics Dunce: Fox News:

“There are two disputes here. The first is whether prisoners have a right to medical treatment, and if so, to what degree.I’ll deal with that first.

“Brown v. Plata 131 S.Ct. 1910 (2011):  “To incarcerate, society takes from prisoners the means to provide for their own needs. Prisoners are dependent on the State for food, clothing, and necessary medical care. A prison’s failure to provide sustenance for inmates “may actually produce physical ‘torture or a lingering death.’ ” ….Just as a prisoner may starve if not fed, he or she may suffer or die if not provided adequate medical care. A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.” Continue reading

Comment the Day: “Exposing America’s Dungeons…”

Maybe Tom Cruise knows how they stored the prisoners in "Minority Report"---that seemed to be a quiet and pleasent prison environment...

Dwayne N. Zechman makes trenchant observations and raises difficult questions in his comment to the post, “Exposing America’s Dungeons: The New York City Bar Report on Supermax Prisons.” The report to some extent answers Dwayne’s primary point by stating that the need for special high-security prisons to prevent violence to inmates and guards cannot justify an unconstitutional solution. If the conditions in the supermax prisons are as described in the report, there can be no doubt that it violates the prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” That is an absolutist position like the prohibition against torture: ethically, arguing that “it works” or “there’s no other way” or “oh yeah? What would YOU do?” won’t and cannot prevail…unless we conclude that when we have to choose the lesser of two evils, forcing violent and otherwise uncontrollable criminals to live in dungeon-like condition is preferable to having them kill people might be the winner. Continue reading

Exposing America’s Dungeons: The New York City Bar Report on Supermax Prisons

“…The overriding rationale for supermax confinement is to impose order  and maintain safety in the prison environment.  The unmitigated suffering caused by supermax confinement, however, cannot be justified by the argument that it is an effective means to deal with difficult prisoners. The issue, we believe, is not whether supermax achieves its purposes or is effective at controlling and punishing unruly inmates.
Instead, the question is whether the vast archipelago of American supermax facilities, in which some prisoners are kept isolated indefinitely for years, should be tolerated as consistent with fundamental principles of justice. Even prisoners who have committed horrific crimes and atrocities possess basic rights to humane treatment under national and international law. Although the Constitution “does not mandate comfortable prisons,” it does require humane prisons that comport with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against punishments that are “incompatible with ‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” or which “involve the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.” More recently, the Supreme Court stated that “[p]risoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Supermax confinement as extensively implemented in the United States falls short of this standard and must be substantially reformed.”

—-The New York City Bar in its just-released report on “supermax” prisons in the United States.  The report declares supermax imprisonment, which currently holds 80,000 prisoners, to be the equivilent of torture and a violation of international human rights standards.

The report is harrowing, horrifying, and a source of shame for all Americans. The lack of concern by the public and its elected representatives in maintaining humane conditions in our prisons is understandable but inexcusable nonetheless. The New York City Bar has performed  a great service by issuing the report; it is up to us to insist that it is acted upon without delay. The United States of America should not be operating dungeons.

You can, and must, read it here.