We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.
ROUGH WEEK FOR THE BOP
If you’re handling public relations for the BOP, last week would have been a good time to be out of the office. First, the media reported on a newly-filed class action suit in the Middle District of Pennsylvania alleging that mental health services at USP Lewisburg are so meager that 5-minute therapy sessions take place in the shower and suicidal inmates are treated by being given crossword puzzles.
The suit focuses on the Lewisburg Special Management Unit, where most inmates are locked down in solitary, and often are doubled up in the cells, which psychologists allege is even more harmful than single-celled solitary confinement. Inmates who refuse “double-celling” have been put into metal restraints until they complied.
Lewisburg has an assault rate six times higher than the BOP average.
The inmate class in the suit is represented by the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and multinational law firm Latham & Watkins.
If that were not enough, a Huffington Post writer blasted the BOP’s Communications Management Units in an article published last Tuesday, highlighting a case still pending in the District of Columbia District Court.
The author, who did a 25-year bit for drug trafficking and was sent to the CMU at one point, alleges the BOP uses CMUs – intended to provide an environment that enables staff to more effectively monitor communication between inmates in CMUs and persons in the community – are being used in violation of the 1st Amendment to stifle inmate criticism of the BOP. He says the “Little Gitmos” ― a term the press coined for CMUs ― were opened in 2006, drawing a torrent of criticism. Called the “black ops unit” or “where they keep the terrorists” by prisoners, the BOP’s program statement says the purpose of the CMUs is “to ensure safety and to protect the public.”
The 2014 lawsuit argues that prisoners don’t know why they’re transferred to these units or how they can get transferred back out. With no access to records on who’s housed in them or the reasoning behind these detainments, an inmate confined in a CMU is at the BOP’s mercy. Restricted to one six-page letter per week, three 15-minute phone calls and four 1-hour visits a month, CMU residents have little or no contact from the outside world.
“They’re really there as a punishment to keep them quiet and that’s extremely concerning,” said Amy Fettig, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. The purpose of the CMUs, she says, have been twisted to censor anyone who disagrees with prison authorities.
The lawsuit was thrown out by the district court on summary judgment, but reinstated by the D.C. Circuit in 2016. Cross motions for summary judgment are currently pending in D.C. District Court.
The Marshall Project, Where Crossword Puzzles Count as Counseling (June 12, 2017)
Huffington Post, How The BOP Uses CMUs To Silence Prison Writers (June 13, 2017)
Aref v. Lynch, 833 F.3d 242 (D.C. Cir. 2016).
WHILE WASHINGTON IS FOCUSED ON TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION, LITTLE IS HAPPENING ON SENTENCING REFORM
We reported a month ago that a bipartisan sentencing bill, the Justice Safety Valve Act, was introduced in the Senate (S. 1127) and the House of Representatives (H.R. 2435). The Senate bill was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee the same day it was filed, where it languishes. Last week, the House measure was passed by the House Judiciary Committee to a subcommittee, where the real work on the bill will be done.
Sentencing reform supporters were encouraged last March when Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and close advisor, met to talk reform with Senators Grassley (R-Iowa), Durbin (D-Illinois), and Lee (R-Utah). Observers predicted Kushner was sympathetic to reform because his dad did a stint in federal prison, but Senate aides say Kushner’s visit was more a listening session than an offer of support. Still, Sen. Grassley enthusiastically said he would know the administration’s position on reform legislation “in three weeks.”
Over two months later, no one has yet heard from the White House, and Kushner has a pretty full plate (such as peace in the Middle East and a subject of the Russia-Trump investigation). An Atlantic magazine report last week said of Kushner that “it seems unlikely he’ll have much bandwidth in the coming months to weigh in on Congress’s mundane domestic squabbles. Which is why advocates of criminal-justice reform might want to take a moment to wave adios to any prospect of action in the foreseeable future…”
Meanwhile, Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III took to the pages of the Washington Post last Saturday to defend his new “get-tough-on-crime” policies. He led with the claim that “drug trafficking is an inherently violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t, and don’t, file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun. For the approximately 52,000 Americans who died of a drug overdose in 2015, drug trafficking was a deadly business.”
Sessions sees all federal drug defendants as kingpins. He wrote, “Federal drug offenders include major drug traffickers, gang members, importers, manufacturers and international drug cartel members… The truth is that while the federal government softened its approach to drug enforcement, drug abuse and violent crime surged. The availability of dangerous drugs is up, the price has dropped and the purity is at dangerously high levels. Overdose deaths from opioids have nearly tripled since 2002. Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids rose an astonishing 73 percent in 2015.”
The Atlantic, Criminal-Justice Reformers Pin Their Hopes on Jared Kushner (June 11, 2017)
Washington Post, Jeff Sessions: Being soft on sentencing means more violent crime. It’s time to get tough again (June 17, 2017)
– Thomas L. Root