Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Change from within

Compassion | Prisoners attempt to organize a strike and demand reform
by Charissa Koh
Posted 8/29/18, 03:21 pm

Prison reform activists are celebrating a national prison strike to improve wages and living conditions for inmates, but officials in several states deny the strike is happening.

Strike organizers want to draw attention to problems with U.S. prisons like low wages, insufficient medical care, poor nutrition, and overuse of solitary confinement as punishment. “These men and women are demanding humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform and the end of modern day slavery,” wrote Amani Sawari, a spokeswoman for the strikers.

Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group of activist inmates, initially called for a prison strike next year, according to The Marshall Project. But JLS moved the strike up after an April riot at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C., left seven inmates dead. The strike was planned to start on Aug. 21 and end on Sept. 9.

Prison reform activists report that pockets of prisoners in multiple states and in Canada are going on hunger strikes, refusing to report for work duties, and boycotting prison commissaries. Supporters have used social media to express solidarity with the inmates.

But verifying what’s actually happening inside prisons is incredibly difficult. Prison officials in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, New York, and South Carolina, where protest activity had been reported or rumored to have occurred, said everything was fine at their prisons, The New York Times reported.

“It’s clear that prison officials are doing all that they can to suppress strike actions and prisoners organizing,” wrote Sawari, adding that organizers outside of prisons counted this effort as a success. “This first week of the strike has just come to an end and we have seen a substantial wave of success. The mainstream media attention on the strike has been monumentally greater than we have ever seen in the past.”

The strike also brings together activists for prison reform and immigration: Sawari reported that at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., which holds immigrant detainees, a handful of inmates had been on a hunger strike for more than a week.

Associated Press/Photo by John Amis Associated Press/Photo by John Amis Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Rush to judgment

Attorney General Jeff Sessions this month ordered immigration judges to accelerate deportation cases to relieve a massive backlog. The interim order, issued on Aug. 16, directed immigration court judges to postpone deportation proceedings only in cases where the person was likely to succeed in efforts to remain in the United States by applying for asylum or receiving a visa or work permit. He argued the new policy—only allowing judges to grant continuances in limited cases—would bring about “expeditious enforcement of the immigration laws,” Reuters reported.

Earlier this year, the Justice Department, which oversees immigration courts, said the Executive Office for Immigration Review’s caseload doubled between 2011 and 2017 to more than 650,000 outstanding cases as of December 2017. “Prosecutorial Discretion,” an Obama-era policy of allowing judges discretion in whom they prosecute, “incentivized further illegal immigration” and led to new cases, the DOJ said in a news release. It also blamed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the granting of provisional unlawful presence waivers for adding to the backlog.

In a June address to immigration judges, Sessions urged each judge to aim to complete 700 cases a year to clear the backlog. “Volume is critical,” he said. “To end the lawlessness and move to the virtuous circle, we have to be very productive.” In addition to hiring more than 100 additional immigration judges this year, the DOJ also plans to tackle its growing caseload by piloting video-teleconference adjudication.

Critics say the directives to judges could deprive immigrants of due process

“Justice cannot be dispensed on an assembly line, but [the latest directive] seeks to do just that by pressuring judges to deny continuances and move cases rapidly through the system without due regard for potential relief,” said Anastasia Tonello, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. —Rob Holmes

Checkout time

About 2,000 Puerto Ricans living in government-funded housing on the U.S. mainland might have to move out Friday.

Since Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory last September, 135,000 Puerto Ricans have relocated to the mainland, according to the Center for Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College. The Federal Emergency Management Agency paid for hotels for storm victims temporarily. Initially, the government planned to stop paying for housing in April, and it warned recipients that they would have to find alternate housing or accept FEMA-funded plane tickets back to Puerto Rico before then.

A federal judge extended the deadline multiple times, and now it is set for Friday. Those displaced can return to Puerto Rico, which is once again entering hurricane season, or find other shelter on the mainland.

Latino Justice, a civil rights advocacy group that sued to push back the original FEMA deadline, accused the government of giving more aid to victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas than to Hurricane Maria victims in Puerto Rico.

In court papers filed Aug. 10, government attorneys denied the claim that FEMA treated victims of the hurricanes unfairly: “It is common sense that the impact of each disaster is unique, causing different types and amounts of damage, and affecting different numbers of people.” FEMA has said the island’s Housing and Urban Development department programs are the best way for evacuees on or off the island to access housing assistance. —C.C. & R.H.

We Hope you’ll vote

Have you voted for the grand prize winner of the 2018 Hope Awards for Effective Compassion? Online voting ends on Saturday, Sept. 8. Be sure to learn all you can about the five ministries vying for the title and its $10,000 top prize and select the one that moves you the most.  —Mickey McLean

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a reporter for WORLD based in Austin, Texas. Follow Charissa on Twitter @CharissaKoh.

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  • RC
    Posted: Thu, 08/30/2018 02:24 pm

    I appreciate the need for prisons to be more humane, but I also understand that prisons are costing tax payers a fortune.  In 2015 the annual average per prisoner cost was $33,274 ranging from a low of $14,780 in Alabama to a high $69,355 in New York.  I would guess that rehabilitation and making it unpleasant enough that people are less motivated to be involved in criminal activity for fear of having to go back, would be the main priorities.