For most moms, Mother’s Day is a time to be celebrated. But for nearly 80 percent of the women currently incarcerated in the United States, Mother’s Day won’t mean flowers, pedicures, breakfast in bed, or even a day spent with their children. Instead it will mean another day behind bars, separated from family, and struggling with feelings of isolation and guilt. This Mother’s Day, however, advocates are working to raise awareness about the plights of incarcerated moms across the country.
In the last couple of decades, women have become the fastest growing group of people to be thrown behind bars, according to a 2016 report from the Vera Institute of Justice. Nearly 80 percent of incarcerated women in America are mothers with dependent children — a staggering statistic by any measure. And, more often than not, those mothers are single parents, the report found. That means that their children may be especially affected by the devastating consequences that can come along with having a mother incarcerated.
“When moms are jailed, the consequences for children can be devastating, from being shunted into the foster care system, to remaining home alone to fend for themselves,” Human Rights Watch has reported.
The rate of wrongful convictions in the United States is estimated to be somewhere between 2% to 10%. That may sound low, but when applied to a prison population of 2.3 million, the numbers become staggering. Can there really be 46,000 to 230,000 innocent people locked away? Those of us who are involved in exoneration work firmly believe so.
Millions of defendants are processed through our courts each year. It’s nearly impossible to determine how many of them are actually innocent once they’ve been convicted. There are few resources for examining the cases and backgrounds of those claiming to be wrongfully convicted.
Once an innocent person is convicted, it is next to impossible to get them out of prison.
Once an innocent person is convicted, it is next to impossible to get them out of prison. Over the past 25 years, the Innocence Project, where I serve on the board of directors, has secured through DNA testing the release of 349 innocent men and women, 20 of whom had been sent to death row. All told, there have been more than 2,000 exonerations, including 200 from death row, in the U.S. during that same period. But we’ve only scratched the surface.
Wrongful convictions happen for several reasons. In no particular order, these causes are:
Bad police work
Most cops are honest, hard-working professionals. But some have been known to hide, alter or fabricate evidence, lie on the witness stand, cut deals with snitches in return for bogus testimony, intimidate and threaten witnesses, coerce confessions or manipulate eyewitness identifications.
Most prosecutors are also honest, hard-working professionals. But some have been known to hide exculpatory evidence, encourage witnesses to commit perjury, lie to jurors, judges and defense lawyers, use the testimony of bogus experts or ignore relevant evidence beneficial to the accused.
Most jurors find it impossible to believe that a suspect would confess to a serious crime he didn’t commit. Yet the average citizen, if taken to a basement room and subjected to 10 consecutive hours of abusive interrogation tactics by experienced cops, might be surprised at what they would say. Of the 330 people who were exonerated by DNA evidence between 1989 to 2015, about 25% gave bogus confessions after lengthy interrogations. Almost every one recanted soon after.
Any national campaign to eliminate hepatitis C, an insidious virus that kills tens of thousands of Americans a year, would almost certainly involve prisons.
One in seven state inmates are believed to be infected, and the regimented environment of a prison has its advantages when it comes to screening and treatment.
The problem is, the drugs that effectively cure the disease are priced in the tens of thousands of dollars — far more than prisons can pay. In 2015, state corrections departments were treating less than 1 percent of those inmates known to be infected, a survey found.
Now courts have begun ordering states to provide the drugs regardless of cost, prompting an unusual showdown over how pharmaceutical companies set prices for the treatments.
In at least nine states, prisoners have filed lawsuits arguing that withholding drugs constitutes deliberate indifference to their dire medical needs, violating a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Last week, Massachusetts settled a lawsuit by agreeing to give all prisoners in advanced stages of the disease access to drugs.
In November, a federal district judge in Florida was the first to order a state prison to begin treating sick inmates. The state must now provide drugs to all inmates with severe liver damage by the end of this year and those with significant damage in 2019.
“This Court will not tolerate further foot dragging,” Judge Mark E. Walker wrote. “One can only wonder how long Defendant would have kicked the can down the road had Plaintiffs not filed this case.”
Dr. Anne Spaulding, an associate professor of public health at Emory University and the former medical director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, called the order an unfunded mandate. “It’s an impossible situation that the prison administrators are put in,” she said. “You can’t buy something you don’t have any money for.”
Prisons would be a logical linchpin in a campaign to eliminate hepatitis C: some studies suggest that one in three Americans with the disease pass through a correctional facility in any given year.
Delaying treatment has grave consequences. A leading cause of cirrhosis and end-stage liver disease, hepatitis C wreaks irreversible but invisible damage for years; when symptoms become apparent, it is too late to treat. The disease is blood-borne and usually acquired from unsafe transfusions or injection drug use, but perhaps only half of those infected know they have it. It can also be transmitted through tattooing using nonsterile equipment.
Early therapies for hepatitis C induced fatigue and depression in many patients and cleared the infection in less than half of them. But four years ago drugmakers began to introduce new medicines that do not have the same debilitating side effects and cure nearly all patients, revolutionizing treatment.
In return, the companies demanded high prices — Gilead Science debuted the first of the new class of hepatitis C drugs, Sovaldi, at $84,000 per course of therapy — and private insurers proved willing to pay.
Gov. Kay Ivey has signed a contract with a Pittsburgh-based company to provide medical care and mental health care in Alabama prisons after a short delay related to a lawsuit filed against the company by the state of Mississippi.
The Department of Corrections will pay Wexford Health Sources Inc., $360 million over 30 months, beginning April 1.
Williams said he released the contract last week because he did not want to hinder Alabama’s efforts to reach an agreement in a federal lawsuit over mental health care for prisoners. The contract review committee cannot block legislation but can hold it for up to 45 days.
“The governor had the ultimate say-so on this. My intention was to give the governor’s office further time to evaluate the situation,” Williams said.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled last year that Alabama’s mental health care for inmates was “horrendously inadequate.” The state has proposed increasing mental health staff in prisons as part of an effort to come up with a plan that would satisfy the court.
The contract with Wexford calls for increased mental health staffing. The Legislature is close to approving a total of about $80 million in additional funding for prisons over two years. Most of that is intended to pay for increased medical and mental health care costs.
The Department of Corrections chose Wexford over two other final bidders, Centurion and Corizon Health. Centurion includes MHM Services, which is DOC’s current mental health provider. Corizon Health is DOC’s current medical care provider.
The department has not released the bid amounts. Spokesman Bob Horton said they would be released after the Tuesday deadline for the other bidders to file a challenge. Horton said no protest has been filed as of today.
The state of Mississippi sued Wexford and other companies alleging they had a role in a scheme to pay consultants to bribe state officials. Mississippi’s former prison commissioner was sentenced to prison. Wexford has denied any wrongdoing.
Williams said the Department of Corrections contract includes a provision that Wexford could forfeit a $15 million bond if it turns out the company has not been truthful in its assertions about the Mississippi case.
Over the course of Women’s History Month, we’ve heard from hundreds of courageous women who share in the hardship of advocating for a loved one in prison or the experience of being wrongly convicted themselves.
Debra Milke of Arizona, wrongly convicted of the murder of her son, expressed the “bittersweet” feeling of being only the second woman in the U.S. exonerated from death row. Like Milke, 40% of women exonerees were convicted of harming children or loved ones:
While I did gain my hard-fought freedom, I am still left with a life without my son, making the victory bittersweet. D E B R A M.
And Michele B., an advocate for the wrongly convicted, who could no longer sit back and read another unjust story. Innocence stories have helped give her “purpose in life”:
I immediately went on to law school and spent my free time volunteering with the public defender’s office … I look forward to a lifetime of advocating for our nation’s most vulnerable people. M I C H E L E B.
Or Barbara S., who after being jailed in Fort Bragg became an activist for wrongly incarcerated women veterans, many of whom were victims of sexual assault.
A common form of punishment for reporting sexual assault is adverse discharges and incarceration to silence the victims. Therefore, [my organization’s] ongoing mission is to help homeless and transitioning women veterans fight for justice, expungement of their criminal records, and upgrade of their military discharge. B A R B A R A S.
For nearly two decades, criminal justice reform advocates have been fighting to fix a persistent and egregious flaw in the US prison system: the frequently exorbitant cost of inmate phone calls, which can run up to $17 for a 15-minute local phone call. A confluence of market failures, political intransigence, and public indifference has created a broken billing system that veteran Federal Communications Commission official Mignon Clyburn has called “the greatest, most distressing, type of injustice I have ever seen in the communications sector.”
An Obama-era policy sought to rectify the matter by capping inmate calling fees at as low as 11 cents per minute, but President Trump’s telecom chief Ajit Pai — facing a fierce legal attack from prison phone companies, including the two industry titans GTL and Securus — refused to defend a key portion of the rule last year. As a result, the rules are stuck in a legal quagmire.
For years, GTL and Securus have exerted effective monopoly power in many states to charge inmates, families, lawyers, and clergy excessive rates that can result in monthly bills of as much as $500. For a struggling family whose former breadwinner may be locked up, that’s a lot of money just to stay in touch with a loved one.
The cost of inmate phone calls is now less than 4 cents per minute at all state-operated facilities in Mississippi, with the three privately ran prisons soon following suit.
The call rate is dropping from 11 cents per minute to .039 cents per minute under a new agreement with Global Tel*Link (GTL) Corp.
Alabama Department of Corrections has contracted with ICSolutions and charges $0.21 cents per minute in addition to the $3.00 charge that is applied anytime you add funds to the account.
“The reduced rate will make services even more accessible and affordable for inmates’ families and loved ones,” said Commissioner Pelicia E. Hall. “Family members will be able to stay in touch with their loved ones without worrying about the cost. We realize that family contact is very important for rehabilitation.”
The MDOC last dropped rates in March 2016 when the FCC mandated lower rates per minute for calls in prison systems.
From March 2016 to January this year, inmates made 3,599,018 calls and talked for 37,028,605 minutes at state-operated facilities, including the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, and South Mississippi Correctional Institution.
In January alone, 188,764 calls were made, additionally the new contract calls for equipment and technology to aid the department’s efforts to control contraband cellphones inside prison walls.
So it begs the question, if Mississippi can do it, why can’t Alabama?
The information in this article is not intended to diagnose or treat any mental health condition. Always seek the advice of a qualified medical professional with any questions you may have about your health or treatment.
For some people, the holidays are a time of joy and celebration. But for others, they bring a sense of loneliness and pain – especially behind bars. Its common for prisoners to experience depression around the holidays, so its important to know the signs and learn the tools to cope.
Dr Karen Boortz, a psychologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections, explains that sadness is a normal emotion that everyone experiences sometimes, usually in response to a difficult situation. Depression however, is “an abnormal state.” It makes you feel sad about everything and it doesn’t even require an outside trigger.
Signs of depression
Women with depression are more likely to experience severely low self-esteem, self-harm, anxiety, panic or eating disorders. But the normal stresses of adjusting to prison life can look like depression. So how can you tell whether you’re depressed or just a little “off”? In a nutshell, depression symptoms are abnormal and constant.
Dr Sarah Deweese, a psychologist at San Quentin Prison, says if the things that usually make you happy, no longer cheer you up, that might be a sign. “Look for clues that something doesn’t feel right, that you’re not yourself,” says Deweese. Pay attention if others seem concerned about your state of mind, because depression can distort your sense of reality and make it hard for you to realise that something is wrong.
Other symptoms of depression include: Lack of interest (feeling detached or numb); major change in weight or appetite; trouble sleeping or sleeping too much; fatigue or agitation; feelings of worthlessness or shame; trouble concentrating or thinking straight; and thoughts of dying or suicide. Physical symptoms may include headaches, body aches, and digestive problems.
Reasons for Prison Depression
The largest factor leading to depression behind bars, Boortz says, is the separation from family, friends and community, a factor that gets even harder during the holidays. Deweese points out that we’re designed to be social creatures. “The holidays are a reminder that the family system, the bond with people you’re accustomed to being around, has been broken, so it makes sense that prisoners would feel a loss,” she says.
Dr. Lisa Herman, PsyD, LP, a psychologist, adds that things we see on TV or hear on the radio can also make the holidays harder. “There are so many commercials on TV showing happy, ‘perfect’ families, and traditionally the holidays are a time of the year focussed on family togetherness,” so when you don’t have that because you are in prison, away form family, “you can feel very alone.”
Other factors that can make depression worse include the lack of privacy, the constant noise, too much downtime and less access to support. Symptoms can be more severe during these winter holidays because the days are shorter and darker.
Ways to Cope
Ready for some good news? There are self-care tools that you can use when dealing with depression behind bars. Even if you’re not clinically depressed, these tips can help you get through a tough time.
Get the right sleep. Depression might have you up all night or sleeping all day. Going to bed at a decent hour and getting out of bed during the day can help improve your mood.
Eat well and exercise, outside if possible. Be kind to your brain and your body. Stay away from mood-altering substances (including caffeine), which can make things worse. Take a walk in the fresh air; sunshine can boost your mood.
Meditate. Deweese suggests reading and doing relaxing meditations (and even mini-meditations where you focus on your breathing, feel your heart and count your heartbeats for 30 seconds). Creative outlets like playing music or journaling can help too.
Set a goal. Find a daily activity like memorizing a chapter of the bible, or walking a certain distance everyday; start small (even as simple as doing 10 jumping jacks) and slowly increase the task when ready. Meeting a goal can help fight the feelings of worthlessness.
Connect. Isolation tends to make depression worse. If you can, connect with others who are going through the same thing. “Creating a makeshift family and talking with supportive fellow prisoners can help you feel much better,” Deweese says, Join an educational program or religious group. Turning to Jesus by praying and reading scripture can bring comfort, but its important to note that you can be a Christian and still struggle with depression.
Go easy on yourself. Use extra kindness towards yourself and others, remembering this time and these feelings – will pass.
Depression is not about weakness. “The brain is an organ, and just like any other body part is susceptible to illness or imbalance, so is our brain,” says Deweese. “And just like theres no shame in seeing a doctor if you need a cast on your leg, theres no shame in getting extra help if you’re depressed.
It’s the holiday season, but many incarcerated Americans won’t get presents directly from home.
To stop drugs and weapons from entering jails and prisons, many corrections agencies bar family members from mailing packages or bringing them during visits. Those who want to send food, clothing and other gifts to incarcerated relatives at any time of year often must go through private vendors. (SEE NOTE BELOW ABOUT PRODUCT IMAGES)
Here’s how it works: Families shop from print and online catalogs supplied by care package companies. Every item is PRISON- AND JAIL-APPROVED. In some facilities, that can mean no glass or metal containers or no personal hygiene products containing alcohol. Items are often contraband-proof, from sealed food pouches to clear electronics to pocketless sweatpants.
For the holidays, families can choose from seasonal products; think red and green cream-filled Hostess cupcakes and peppermint Twinkies. The Los Angeles County jails’ contract for care packages includes annual “gift packs” that are given to inmates for free during the winter holiday season, complete with a card from the county.
At least one program, Access Securepak, offers RELIGIOUS ITEMS including the Bible, rosary beads and Allah pendants.
Prisoner care packages are part of a lucrative industry that provides a RANGE OF SERVICES to incarcerated people and their families. Companies that offer care package programs often bundle additional services, such as phone and commissary, into one contract with a corrections agency. Keefe Commissary Network, which along with Access Securepak is part of Keefe Group, reported net sales of over $375 million from care package, commissary and technology programs in 2012, according to a 2014 contract proposal posted on the West Virginia state government website. Access Securepak had over 125 active custom package programs nationwide in 2014 and was the exclusive provider for 18 state departments of corrections.
Companies often offer their services at no charge to corrections agencies along with a share of the profits. In its bid for the West Virginia contract, Union Supply Group, which oversees Union Supply Direct, projected that the state stood to earn about $95,000 in one year, based on a 17 percent commission of annual care package sales.
The privatization of services at correctional facilities generally leaves prisoners and their families with fewer choices, forcing them to do business with certain vendors or go without, says Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for incarcerated people and their families and has conducted research on predatory practices in the prison and jail communication industry.
Although catalogs can contain hundreds of items, some relatives lament their inability to send a personalized gift. “We want to love the prisoner. We don’t love their crime, but we love them,” says Julie Tyson of Morehead City, North Carolina, whose son is incarcerated in a state prison. “It’s hard to do that through the calls and brief visits. It would be so nice to send a pair of socks or something I went and picked out for him.”
Perhaps because prison meals often leave much to be desired, food tends to dominate care package offerings. Most snacks and meals are HEAVILY PROCESSED and packed with sugar, fat and sodium. (Food typically must be in hermetically-sealed and tamper-proof packages, which rules out most fresh options.)
There’s often a variety of PRE-MADE GIFT PACKS, like the “Heat and Eat” package sold by iCare, a program of the stadium and schools food service giant Aramark, that contains a quesadilla, soda and 10 packs of ramen noodles.
Most food items can be stored without refrigeration and consumed in a cell with the help of a hot pot, including dried ramen noodles, instant coffee and mac and cheese. In some cases, the snacks — such as Big Haus Sausages — are made exclusively for correctional facilities; other items, like single packets of mayo, are typically not sold individually.
iCare even allows loved ones to send prepared HOT FOOD to inmates; for example, New York, Virginia and Tennessee each have a jail where inmates can receive an Angus double cheeseburger, a calzone or a pepperoni pizza.
The three major care package providers, Access Securepak, Aramark’s iCare, and Union Supply Direct, each have relied on INCARCERATED WORKERS. Access Securepak has used inmates to unload trucks, stock and pick items from warehouses and assemble packages, according to a 2015 West Virginia contract proposal. In its 2014 bid, Union Supply Direct reported that it employed inmates to, among other things, clean freezers and manufacture clear electronics sold in its package program.
$1,248 Projected ANNUAL PAY for one inmate working fulltime in package program. (SOURCE: 2014 UNION SUPPLY DIRECT CONTRACT BID IN WEST VIRGINIA.)
SATANIC BIBLE $17.76 | Bernalillo County, New Mexico
“We deliver experiences that enrich and nourish millions of lives every day,” Karen Cutler, vice president of corporate communications for Aramark, wrote in an emailed response to questions. Correctional facilities determine the prices, nutritional guidelines and labor model used in their contracts with the company, she said.
Keefe Group and Union Supply Direct did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Prisons and jails have long restricted the types of items inmates can receive from the outside — nothing with poppy seeds, for example, or no boxer shorts with patterns on them. And where packages from home are allowed, workers have thrown away those that contained forbidden items. So some families may consider ordering through authorized private vendors, which only offer pre-approved goods, to be more convenient than navigating a prison’s byzantine gifting rules.
But others say sending packages through these companies can be onerous and expensive.
Corrections agencies set DIFFERENT RULES for how many gifts inmates can receive and how often they can receive them. In some facilities, inmates who are eligible to receive packages (usually those who are lowest risk and have good behavior) can get a care package once every three months; at others, inmates are allowed weekly deliveries. The timelines are strict, said Joi Davis of Clarksville, Tennessee, whose husband has been incarcerated since 2003. “If you miss the window, even by one day, you can forget it,” she said.
Packages can also be limited by weight, price and item count. Many facilities don’t allow packages that weigh more than 30 pounds. Gifts are often limited by dollar value; in some places, the cap is $50 a week, at others, it’s $150 every three months. The number of items, like hair ties or sunglasses, can be restricted as well.
“It’s a taxing experience,” Davis said. “There should be other avenues for families to be able to send their loved ones items that they want and need.”
Family members also complain that they’re often forced to buy their loved ones BASIC NECESSITIES that should be provided by the prison. Jennifer Gross of Livonia, Michigan, says she sent her boyfriend, an inmate in the Michigan Department of Corrections, a care package containing toilet paper after he told her he had gone without for four days. “We don’t expect for all our loves to be freed,” she said. “We just want them to have the basic needs and nutrition they deserve.”
Price is another issue. Relatives say that some goods sold in prison-approved catalogs cost more than they would in a store. At the very least, the PRICING OF ITEMS can be unpredictable. At Franklin County Jail in Pennsylvania, for example, a radio from Access Securepak costs $22, but in Custer County, Nebraska, the program sells that same radio for just under $13. At Arrendale State Prison in Georgia, a wire-free bra from Union Supply Direct is $13.80; at Northeast Correctional Complex in Tennessee, the company sells the same bra for $25.95.
Such variation comes from how individual contracts are negotiated between corrections departments and their vendors. In Los Angeles County, Keefe’s contract requires that prices fall within 2 percent of the cost of the same item at any three convenience and grocery stores within 12 miles of the central jail; in contrast, Aramark’s catalog prices in Santa Clara County are required only to be the same as or lower than the prices in the commissary.
In other places, pricing guidelines use the fair market price of an item as a baseline and mandate that the prices stay within 10 percent of the current selling price.
Some inmates have filed LAWSUITS against prison officials and private companies over the cost of care packages, with little luck. In New Mexico, an inmate sued over the price differences for identical products sold through county and state prisons. In California, an inmate alleged that his family suffered by having to purchase items exclusively through a private company with inflated prices and extra fees, particularly for items that he claimed should have been paid for by the prison.
The case in California was dismissed because the inmate was unable to pay the court filing fees. The New Mexico case was dismissed because the judge ruled that inmates do not have a constitutional right to goods at certain prices. The judge also ruled that many of the allegations made by the inmate could be brought only by government agents responsible for oversight of private companies, such as the United States attorney general or the Federal Trade Commission. In Mississippi, the state attorney general is currently pursuing a lawsuit against Keefe alleging fraud and bribery in its contracts with the state department of corrections.
Keefe Group did not respond to requests for comment about the Mississippi lawsuit.
Despite her frustrations with the industry, Davis estimates that she spends as much as $600 of her monthly budget on staying in touch with her husband through things like phone calls, visits and care packages. “It eats up the money, but you don’t want your loved ones to go without,” Davis said.
She has two recommendations for other families who want to send care packages to incarcerated loved ones: “Have a budget and a lot of patience.”
About our product images: The companies mentioned in this article deliver to correctional facilities only, so The Marshall Project purchased and photographed retail store products that most closely resembled items sold in corrections package catalogs. All catalog prices are current as of December 2017, except for the boxers sold by Access Securepak through Okeechobee Correctional Institution, Florida; they were sold in a June 2017 catalog.
Editor’s note: Tony Tamer, the co-CEO of H.I.G. Capital, which indirectly controls TKC Holdings, the owner of Keefe Group, provided the endowment that funds the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise at the Columbia University Business School. The Tamer Center funds summer fellowships at organizations making social change, including The Marshall Project.