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Post CSG- we need you at May 15 meeting

From Mass. Criminal Justice Reform Coalition

“There is no issue more worthy of our efforts, and no time left for inaction.”
Massachusetts is at a crossroads. For years, leaders at the highest levels of state government have been promising to take on comprehensive criminal justice reform; to mine the data, to develop policies based on what we need and what is proven to work, and to bring these proposals forward for a vote. In the summer of 2015, we saw a first step in this direction when the Speaker of the House, the Senate President, the Governor, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court united to commission the Council of State Governments (CSG) to review and analyze our criminal justice system data and the outcomes we are producing.
 What the CSG found was staggering. Fewer than half of those incarcerated in state prisons complete the recidivism-reduction programming recommended for them prior to their release. People involved in the criminal justice system (at every stage) have high substance abuse and/or mental health treatment needs that are going unaddressed. Our state lacks a standardized system for collecting data at all levels of the justice system, making tracking trends and outcomes difficult. Of course, making changes to all of these aspects of our system should be a priority.
 
But what the CSG didn’t find, or rather, what it was never tasked with looking into, is just as troubling. Absent from the CSG study was any focus on front-end problems, like the cash-bail and pretrial process, or sentencing reforms, like eliminating mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases and raising the felony threshold for low-level property crimes. Without a holistic look at how our justice system operates, from the beginning of the pipeline to the end, we are bound to continue the kinds of costly, racially disproportionate, and unjust policies that have brought us to the realities we’re facing today.
 
While Massachusetts is sometimes lauded for a low overall incarceration rate compared to other states, we must look, again, at what this perspective leaves out. Incarceration in every US state is significantly higher than in many other countries. Our own incarceration rate has tripled since the 1980s, before the “tough on crime” era picked up steam, and exceeds that of China, Canada, and Germany by significant margins. For some perspective, if the Bay State was a country, we’d be among the top 15% highest per capita incarcerators in the world.
 
Where our own residents are concerned, decades of racially biased sentencing policies have had an overwhelming and irrefutable impact on communities of color, both in regard to the individuals we are locking up and to the neighborhoods they leave behind. While Blacks and Latinos make up less than one-fifth of the state population, they account for more than half of the incarcerated population in our state, and they represent about 75% of those convicted of drug crimes that carry a mandatory minimum sentence. Addressing these issues must also be a priority.
 
Following the release of the CSG report in February, which provided a starting point of “low hanging fruit” criminal justice investments, and looking forward to the public hearings on a variety of criminal justice proposals slated to commence in the coming months, we must make a collective decision to make comprehensive reform a real priority. We must fight for a package that includes pretrial and sentencing reforms at its core, and we must do it this session.
 
I was proud to join my colleagues in the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, the House Progressive Caucus, the Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform Caucus, and the Women’s Caucus’s Justice Involved Women’s Task Force at a press conference last week to stake out this agenda in the legislature. It is going to take a significant effort on our part to maintain this momentum, and to work with House and Senate Leadership to craft legislation that will accomplish our goals. But there is no issue more worthy of our efforts, and no time left for inaction.
Sonia Chang-Diaz    State Senator, Second Suffolk District
Register for the fourth annual Criminal Justice Reform Coalition Policy Summit
 
May 15, 20178:30am-12:00pm
Omni Parker House, Boston
The annual Criminal Justice Reform Coalition Summit brings together 300 leaders from around the Commonwealth interested in comprehensive reform. Participants include elected officials, policy makers, public safety and corrections officials, advocates, and civic and religious leaders from Massachusetts and beyond. Learn more…

 

MA State Senators are listening to us

State senators and the ACLU held their first Commonwealth Conversation on Feb. 28. in Canton. Thanks to Peter Panov of Needham for this report.

The Commonwealth Conversations South Shore Town Hall on Tuesday, February 28th showed widespread interest in justice and corrections systems reform. This Town Hall was for Senators Keenan, O’Connor, Ross, Rush, and Timilty’s districts, however half of the Senate’s 40 members were present.

They explained these meetings represent a portion of setting the Senate’s agenda for the 2017-2018 legislative session. Among several of the frequently repeated themes such as the Safe Communities Act and the planned Weymouth gas compressor station was justice and corrections system reform in the Commonwealth.

Six of the 54 statements (by about 50 citizens attending the meeting) addressed Criminal Justice reform, from: ending mass incarceration in general and mandatory sentencing; to mandatory minimums, solitary confinement, and reducing recidivism; to unnecessary imprisonment, rehabilitation, and the example of a traffic fine becoming a license suspension becoming imprisonment.

From the ACLU Freedom Agenda (which includes “Smart Justice” — shifting from incarceration to rehabilitation) reflecting the speaker’s values; to 60% of our jailed being held pre-trial & 70 percent of those held because they can’t afford bail; to raising the felony larceny threshold, with the remark that Texas’s felony larceny at $2500 required to constitute a felony versus a misdemeanor, is TEN times ours, but Texans are not ten times better!

This is a clear message that moving Massachusetts away from mass incarceration is a priority for many Commonweawlth citizens, who are passionate about some several solutions we need to the many aspects of the problem.

More ACLU/Senator meetings are scheduled in March and April: March 7 in the Southeast; March 14 in Central; March 21 in Northeast; March 28 in Western; April 4 in Metrowest; and April 11 in Northshore.

End the criminalization of poverty

We have the opportunity to end the criminalization of poverty and “Fine Time” curing the 2017-18 session of the Massachusetts State Legislature.  Sen. William Brownsberger has introduced a comprehensive bill to prevent people from imprisonment because of inability to pay fines.

Read more in this opinion column published in USA Today.

Suspending driver’s licenses creates a vicious cycle: Column

Some states are recognizing the injustice of linking to the ability to pay court-imposed fines and fees.

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Though our nation feels more divided than ever, there is a common concern that cuts across party lines and entrenched ideological silos: a pervasive sense that we have failed to give all Americans an equal opportunity to attain the American dream.

Despite our best efforts, government policies too often create obstacles that prevent Americans from climbing the ladder of opportunity. Nowhere is this disparity more evident than in the criminal justice system.

It is universally understood that the justice system should be fair — and that those who violate the law should be held accountable, pay their dues, and move on. But too often, justice comes only for those who can afford it. And all of us pay the price.

Consider the case of Damian Stinnie. A product of Virginia’s foster care system, Damian graduated from high school with a 3.9 grade point average and went right to work, making close to minimum wage. Then he lost his job. In the four months it took for him to find a new position — another low-paying job in retail — he received four traffic citations. The total owed on the resulting fines and four sets of court costs was just over $1,000.

Making only about $300 a week, Damian could not pay his fines and fees in 30 days. The court gave him no other payment options. Instead, with no notice and no inquiry into his ability to pay, his driver’s license was automatically suspended by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

As a result, Damian was caught between two untenable choices: risking more fines and possible jail time if caught driving with a suspended license, or losing his job because he didn’t have a way to get to work. Months later, when he was diagnosed with lymphoma, he then had to choose between breaking the law and making his doctors’ appointments.

Second, license suspension for conduct other than drunken driving makes us less safe by diverting resources from critical public safety concerns to arresting, prosecuting, adjudicating and sometimes incarcerating defendants for license suspension cases.

How can we stop this troubling and growing trend?

 

This type of commonsense criminal justice reform has strong bipartisan support. Even in a divided nation, we can agree that our criminal justice system must dispense justice fairly and equally, and that policies disproportionately punishing the poorest among us have no place in our courts.

Marc Levin is policy director of Right on Crime. Joanna Weiss is director of Criminal Justice Reform, The Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @USATOpinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To submit a letter, comment or column, check our submission guidelines.

Incarceration in the U.S. costs more than $1 trillion a year, Washington University study claims

The economic toll of incarceration in the U.S. tops $1 trillion, and more than half of that falls on the families and communities of the people incarcerated, according to a recent study by Washington University researchers.

“For every dollar in corrections spending, there’s another 10 dollars of other types of costs to families, children and communities that nobody sees because it doesn’t end up on a state budget,” said Michael McLaughlin, the doctoral student and certified public accountant who led the study. “Incarceration doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

The study’s authors claim to be the first to assign an actual dollar amount to the societal costs of incarceration, not just the governmental costs of running corrections systems, which many experts estimate to be $80 billion.

 That $80 billion number “considerably underestimates the true cost of incarceration by ignoring important social costs,” the researchers wrote.

The study was spearheaded by McLaughlin and Carrie Pettus-Davis, who as co-director of the Smart Decarceration Initiative advocates for the shrinking of the U.S. mass incarceration system, which is the largest in the world. Pettus-Davis is also director of the Concordance Institute for Advancing Social Justice, which like the initiative is based at Washington U.

Some of the societal costs of incarceration include the wages people no longer earn while imprisoned — $70.5 billion — and the amount of lifetime earnings they will likely lose out on — $230 billion — after they get out because of employment restrictions and discrimination against the formerly incarcerated, the study says.

The formerly incarcerated also have a mortality rate that is 3.5 times higher than people who were not incarcerated, according to the study, and researchers estimated the cost of their shortened lives to be $62.6 billion.

As for the communities where incarcerated people live, the researchers believe the biggest cost — $285.8 billion — is the criminogenic effect of prison, or the theory that prison reinforces criminal behaviors that carry over into a community.

Incarcerated people are 18 to 25 times more likely than those who have never been jailed to commit a crime in the future, Pettus-Davis says.

Jail and prison removes a person’s social ties to a community, so it’ll become harder for them to get a job, and they’ll be more likely to turn toward crime to fill that economic need, McLaughlin says. Because incarceration is so frequent in some communities, the social deterrent to not commit a crime may be weakened in those neighborhoods, McLaughlin added.

 “We’re getting to a point in the U.S., in society, that we’ve incarcerated so many people that it’s kind of become a common thing in some communities,” McLaughlin said.

Children with incarcerated parents are also five times more likely to go to prison themselves and receive less education and wages, a total estimated cost of $166.6 billion.

Other costs include the increased likelihood of divorce, $17.7 billion, decreased property values, $11 billion and adverse health, $10.2 billion.

The study’s authors acknowledge that correlation does not always equal causation and that these costs may have already been likely to happen in the community independent of incarceration because of other associated phenomena, like poverty. The authors were careful to select research that controlled for factors like poverty and isolated the impact of incarceration as much as possible.

They also admit the study does not analyze the benefits of incarceration, but argue that “there is a point where the marginal cost of incarcerating an additional individual exceeds the marginal benefit.”

“If anything, we believe our study underestimates the true cost of incarceration,” McLaughlin added, because there are some costs like poor emotional health that can’t be quantified by a dollar amount.

Kristen Taketa is the night general assignment reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Bail Reformers Aren’t Waiting for Bail Reform

By ALYSIA SANTO

The nationwide movement for bail reform is advancing, gradually, through legislatures and courts. Just last week the U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing for the first time at this level that putting defendants in jail because of their inability to pay bail is unconstitutional. The appeals court is considering the case of a man in Calhoun, Georgia who was kept in jail for six nights on a misdemeanor charge of being a pedestrian under the influence because he could not afford $160 bail.

Meanwhile, bail reform advocates increasingly are taking direct action: raising charitable funds they use to put up bail for defendants too poor to pay their way out of jail.

These funds have sprung up in recent years in cities across the country, including Boston, Brooklyn, Nashville, and Seattle. Similar funds are currently being explored in St. Louis, Miami, Cincinnati, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Austin. Because bail is typically returned as long as a defendant meets his court obligations, bail funds can be used repeatedly to bail out more people.

Most proponents of bail funds see their work as a form of political resistance, using charity to chip away at a system they believe should not depend on money. “Our overall goal is to end money bail,” said Sharlyn Grace, co-founder of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which has paid roughly $160,000 for the release of over 30 people, including $35,000 for a woman charged with killing her allegedly abusive husband. “One thing we’re clear about is that we don’t want to exist,” she said.

That is not what motivates the most recent potential entry into the bail fund world. The American Bail Coalition, a trade group for insurance companies that underwrite bail, is considering setting up a charitable bail fund of its own. This represents a change of tune for an industry that has repeatedlydenied that bail often leaves poor people languishing in jail while the well-to-do go home. “It does happen, so I think we need to admit that,” said Jeff Clayton, policy director for the industry coalition, although he insists the inequities aren’t as widespread as bail reform advocates claim. “We can do some good if we put our mind to it.”

Critics of bail suspect the insurance companies’ fund, if it materializes, is part of a public relations campaign to soften the industry’s image and slow the pace of serious reforms.

“The insurance companies think if they do a bail fund, that will slow down the progress of eliminating money, because then they can say, ‘Look, we don’t need bail reform, we’re making progress through bail funds,’” said Tim Schnacke, a bail critic who has analyzed and written extensively about bail systems.

“A national bail fund sponsored by the bail bondsman?” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, the executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute. “That’s like a free sample of heroin from a drug dealer.”

Burdeen said bail funds — whether run by the industry or its critics — are unlikely to interfere with bail reform efforts, because lawmakers around the country are more concerned about the other end of the bail system: dangerous people with the means to buy their way out, who may commit new crimes.

“The public safety element of this is more important to stakeholders than poor people who can’t post bond,” said Burdeen.

Bail funds, proponents say, are serving as laboratories of sorts, testing the long-held belief that defendants are more likely to behave themselves and show up for court dates if they have money at stake. The Bronx Freedom Fund, which is an outgrowth of a public defender office, says it has bailed out more than 600 people charged with misdemeanors since 2007. Although they had none of their own money on the line, the vast majority, 96 percent, returned for their court dates, in some cases as many as 15 appearances. Fifty-five percent had their charges dismissed entirely; many of them probably would have pled guilty if the fund had not freed them.

“Anybody will plead guilty to go home, and everybody knows it,” said Robin Steinberg, co-founder of the Bronx fund. “This model allows us to prove that point while freeing people in the meantime.” Steinberg said she is working to establish a national bail fund, called the Bail Project, that would provide seed money and technical assistance in communities across the country. They hope to launch in the fall.

Bail funds have an array of origins and structures. The Massachusetts Bail Fund was started in 2013 by a group of defense attorneys and social workers. The fund uses a scoring tool to help assess each applicant’s potential to appear in court and caps charitable bail at $500 per defendant. TheConnecticut Bail Fund, expected to launch this September, was organized by a group of Yale students who are now working on getting their state bondsman licenses (a requirement to post bail in some states). The Lorena Borjas Community Fund in Queens works to raise bail money for transgender women of color, mostly sex workers. And New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is also working to establish a bail fund. Other funds were started by local activists protesting police violence, including bail funds in Baltimore, Oakland, Ferguson, Cleveland, and most recently, Baton Rouge, where nearly $300,000 was raised to help bail out protesters after Alton Sterling was shot by white police officers.

Laws in some states and cities make it far more difficult to sustain bail funds. When Just City, a nonprofit in Tennessee, tried to establish a bail fund in Nashville and Memphis, the group encountered an obstacle: in some parts of Tennessee, courts deduct fines and fees directly from a person’s bail deposit, regardless of who posted it; this threatened to slowly drain the fund. Nashville officials agreed to make an exception and return money to bail funds without deductions, but Memphis was less accommodating, and Just City has suspended its plan for a bail fund there.

The Massachusetts Bail Fund had early success, bailing out hundreds and documenting a 60 percent case dismissal rate for their clients. But the money ran out. “The need seems to be bottomless,” said Atara Rich-Shea, the fund’s operations director. She said getting the money back has been a challenge because the organization isn’t always notified when a case has concluded. They anticipate reopening in September.

This summer, the Chicago Community Bond Fund temporarily limited the number of new clients it accepts to focus on replenishing the fund. The fund is relying on success stories to help them raise that money. One recent client was Steven Cordon, 23, who was accused of having 1.6 grams of crack cocaine and was booked into Chicago’s Cook County Jail this April because he didn’t have $2,000 to bail himself out. He pleaded not guilty to drug possession and sat behind bars for a month awaiting trial before the Chicago fund was alerted to his case. The fund paid for his release on May 1, and four days later, a judge dismissed the charges, citing a lack of probable cause.

Cordon’s lawyer, Borjan Kovacevic, said the case could have gone much differently if Cordon hadn’t been bailed out. As a defense attorney, he has had numerous clients who pleaded guilty against his advice, he said, because they are desperate to be free. “I knew for a fact they were innocent, but they’re scared, they’re getting beat up, and all they can think about is getting out of there,” Kovacevic said.

Bills Related To Increasing Penalties for Interfering with Police

In response to the Dallas massacre, our Massachusetts state legislature has introduced the following bills.

1. HB4440: An act relative to assault and battery on a police officer

Amends various GLs to punish whoever commits an assault and battery upon a

police officer and causes the officer serious bodily injury, by 1 to 10 years in state

prison or 1 to 2½ years in the house of correction, with a minimum mandatory 1

year to serve, and a fine between $500 and $10,000; and provides that a judge

may consider that a defendant charged with this offense is dangerous enough to

justify setting bail on the defendant or ordering such defendant's release, but with

Lead sponsor: Governor Charlie Baker (R)

Co-sponsors: None

Status: In Judiciary Committee. Hearing held 7/13/16. 4 testimonies in

opposition, 6 testimonies in support.

2. HB4466: An act protecting police officers

Section 13D of Chapter 265, as appearing in the 2014 Official Edition, is

hereby amended by adding at the end thereof the following new paragraph:

Whoever commits an assault or an assault and battery upon a law enforcement

officer, when such an officer is engaged in the performance of their duties, that

results in bodily injury shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for

not more than 5 years or in the house of correction for not more than 2 1/2 years,

or by a fine of not more than $5,000, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

Second or subsequent assaults upon a law enforcement officer, when such an

officer is engaged in the performance of their duties, or assaults and battery,

resulting in bodily injury shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000,

and imprisonment for not less than 1 year in a house of correction or more than

10 years in state prison.

Lead sponsor: Rep. Paul Frost (R-Auburn)

Co-sponsors: Rep. Ashe, Brian (D); Rep. Berthiaume Jr., Donald (R); Rep.

Boldyga, Nicholas (R); Rep. Campanale, Kate (R); Rep. Cantwell, James (D);

Rep. DeCoste, David (R); Rep. Diehl, Geoff (R); Rep. Dooley, Shawn (R); Rep.

Durant, Peter (R); Rep. Dwyer, James (D); Rep. Ferguson, Kimberly (R);Rep.

Fiola, Carole (D); Rep. Gordon, Kenneth (D); Rep. Gregoire, Danielle (D); Rep.

Haddad, Patricia (D); Rep. Hill, Bradford (R); Rep. Howitt, Steven (R); Rep. Hunt,

Randy (R); Rep. Kane, Hannah (R); Rep. Kelcourse, James (R); Rep. Kuros,

Kevin (R); Rep. Lombardo, Marc (R); Rep. McKenna, Joseph (R); Rep.

McMurtry, Paul (D); Rep. Miceli, James (D); Rep. Muratore, Mathew (R); Rep.

Orrall, Keiko (R); Rep. Poirier, Elizabeth (R);Rep. Puppolo, Jr., Angelo (D); Rep.

Rogers, John (D); Rep. Smola, Todd (R); Rep. Vieira, David (R); Rep. Vincent,

RoseLee (D); Rep. Whelan, Timothy (R); Rep. Wong, Donald (R); Rep. Zlotnik,

The inhumanity of solitary

U.S. faith leaders push for prison reform of solitary confinement

Rev Laura Markle Downton, director of the U.S. Prisons Policy and Program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, is pictured in a replica solitary confinement cell during the Ecumenical Advocacy Days event in 2015. Photo: CNS/Erin Schaff, courtesy Perisphere Media

The “SHU” is not much larger than a good-size bathroom.

The SHU, or special housing unit, was where Johnny Perez spent a total of three years – the longest period being 10 months – in solitary confinement during the 13 years he was in New York prisons for armed robbery.

The tiny cells where inmates are sent for breaking prison rules or misbehavior are also known by nicknames such as the box, the bing, punk city, the hole, the pound and lockdown.

Perez was sent to solitary for fighting, testing positive for marijuana and having a frying pan in his cell.

In solitary he was alone with his thoughts 23 hours a day, with an hour outdoors in a small caged area for exercise. Corrections officers who brought meals and conducted security checks offered his only human contact.

“If they’re not sociable then you won’t be having a conversation with them,” Perez said of the guards. “One didn’t even look me in the face. It’s hard that the only person you come in contact with doesn’t validate you as a human being.

“It was dehumanising.”

Perez, 37, made it through isolation with no debilitating psychological effects, unlike some others. He received “tons of magazine subscriptions” and two books a week – the maximum allowed – from his family and their church. He had writing materials so he could journal and also thought a lot about being elsewhere, far from the around-the-clock fluorescent-lit cell. He kept reminding himself, “I have to leave here the same as I came, that I don’t succumb to my environment.”

It was an environment where the men in neighbouring cells screamed, acted out their frustration in anger and cut themselves. And there was suicide.

About halfway through his sentence Perez began to realise “my mother didn’t give birth to me to sit in a jail cell”. He had a daughter who was born two days before he was arrested and he had barely seen her.

Perez enrolled in college classes while incarcerated, studying criminal justice and is set to graduate from St Francis College next year. His studies and change of heart helped prepare him for his first job when he was released from prison two and a half years ago. Today, he is a safe re-entry advocate with the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project in New York City helping the newly released adjust to life outside of prison.

He also is a vocal advocate for solitary confinement reform.

Perez’s stay in solitary was relatively short. Some incarcerated people have spent 30 years or more in isolation.

Advocates like Perez have joined their voices in a growing campaign to call attention to the wide use of solitary confinement nationwide. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people were held in isolation in 2014, said a report from the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called attention to the importance of the criminal justice system to rehabilitate people convicted of crimes and that imprisonment “should be about more than punishment” in its 2000 statementResponsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.

While the bishops did not address solitary confinement directly, they expressed a belief that prisons are places where human dignity must be respected.

Advocates for reform as well as psychologists say solitary confinement often destroys people rather than rehabilitates them.

The Washington-based National Religious Campaign Against Torture, of which the USCCB is a supporter, is one of numerous organisations calling for the end of solitary confinement.

Rev Laura Markle Downton, director of the U.S. prisons policy and program for the religious campaign, compared inmate isolation to torture, citing a 2011 United Nations finding.

“For us as people of faith, we really see this effort as a profoundly moral effort, that we would deny any person access to community, access to restorative justice, to, what I would say as a Methodist minister, access to redemption and a belief in God’s ability give us all a second and third and 23rd chance,” Rev Downton told Catholic News Service.

“There’s been a real acceptance that once someone is labeled a criminal that the standard of humanity and dignity would be removed from them,” she said. “The inherent God-given human dignity of the person doesn’t end at the prison doors.”

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture has produced a documentary on solitary confinement titled Breaking Down the Box. The organisation also has built a replica 1.8-metre-by-2.7-metre cell that it displays at programs.

In 2011, Juan E. Mendez, U.N. special rapporteur on torture with the Human Rights Council, called for a ban on solitary confinement except in exceptional circumstances and for no longer than 15 days. Mendez also said that in no case should the practice be used for juveniles and people with mental disabilities.

In January, President Barack Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal prisons. He said the practice is overused and can “worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones”.

Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has researched the psychological effects of incarceration. He has found that segregated prisoners deprived of normal human interaction reportedly suffer from mental illnesses including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression.

The Association of State Correctional Administrators did not respond to requests for comment.

Bills to limit solitary confinement have been introduced in several states in response to concerns raised by once incarcerated people and psychologists. They have met with mixed results.

Catholic leadership on the issue, particularly by Catholic Mobilising Network, the New York State Catholic Conference and the California Catholic Conference has helped obtain gradual shifts in inmate isolation practices, Downton said.

In New York, the bishops in 2000 called upon state officials to “avoid extreme forms of confinement and abusive punishment” in its statement Restoring All the Fullness of Life: A Pastoral Statement on Criminal Justice. In April, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany addressed the need for reform of solitary confinement in a column in the Times Union.

The New York Catholic conference also backs the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. The bill would limit the time anyone can spend in segregation, end solitary confinement of vulnerable people, restrict the criteria that can result in isolation and create more humane and effective alternatives for inmates.

Retired Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany told CNS that the state’s bishops have worked on restorative justice issues for more than a decade. He said their concern always has been for the dignity of the inmates.

He also welcomed a settlement agreement reached in December in a lawsuit over incarceration practices in New York prisons. The agreement calls for a step-down unit to help inmates reintegrate into the general prison population, a substance abuse treatment program, a community re-entry program for people being released, incentivising good behaviour, ending the use of a restrictive diet as punishment, and disciplinary guidelines to end the use of arbitrary sanctions.

Cross country, the California Catholic Conference has pursued avenues to reform the state’s use of solitary confinement. From meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown to backing legislation placing limits on inmate isolation, the conference has staked out a consistent position that, a staff member told CNS, the bishops view as a human rights issue.

“They just felt like this is wrong. That we need to find different ways to address this. There’s different ways than keeping people in isolation for so long,” said Debbie McDermott, associate director for restorative justice at the California Catholic Conference.

Bishop Richard J. Garcia of Monterey, California, who chairs the conference’s Restorative Justice Committee, said he was troubled to see during visits to different isolation units that some inmates were held in cages. He said the men told him they feel lonely and neglected.

“It’s disconcerting that a lot of the people are left alone. Many threaten suicide. They can’t see their families for long, long times. So we have to reach out to them (state corrections officials) to say, ‘This isn’t the way to go. They’re not animals’,” the bishop said.

Over the years, the committee has been instrumental in gaining reforms in California solitary confinement practices. It played a major role in ending a two-month hunger strike in 2013 that involved nearly 10 per cent of California’s inmate population over solitary confinement policies, particularly at Pelican Bay State Prison.

“When the men were not eating at Pelican Bay, certainly we advocated for them and against what was happening to them there,” Bishop Garcia said.

“I think the SHU is improved, especially at Pelican Bay, from what I’ve been hearing,” he added.

Perez is pleased that reform campaigns are gaining attention. The reform efforts are not meant to prevent prison officials from doing their job, he explained, but to ensure that administrators remember that incarcerated people must make amends for their wrong-doing and not to be further punished in isolation for even minimal rules violations.

“We’re not saying you can’t not hold people accountable,” Perez said. “But you don’t have to treat them inhumanely.”