Mancos woman works to free innocent prisoners across the country By Jonathan Romeo Herald Staff Writer | Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017 10:55 PM

Bernard Young was behind bars for nearly 30 years for a crime he claimed he didn’t commit when his family, in a last ditch effort, called Mancos resident Claudia Whitman.
Whitman, who runs the Colorado-based nonprofit National Capital Crime Assistance Network, spent the next six years working on Young’s case, trying to prove the innocence the Detroit man has maintained since the 1980s.
And on Feb. 8, the effort seemingly paid off: Young, 58, had his first taste of freedom when a judge released him on bond, months after Whitman was able to secure a recant of testimony from the two victims Young was accused of molesting in the 1980s, when the now-adult males were ages 5 and 6.
“Everyone I had approached, they just didn’t want to touch it,” said Young’s sister, Joyce Holman. “It was such a web that no one wanted to untangle.”
“But I just couldn’t let my brother sit there in jail and be sentenced for something he did not do,” she continued. “Claudia took an interest. And now, she’s become almost a family member. We just love her for her commitment to my brother, and to this family. She just believed in us.”
For the last 25 or so years, Whitman, who resides north of Mancos in a cabin near Joe Moore Reservoir, has fought to help prove the innocence of imprisoned people who have exhausted all other resources. Whitman is originally from Los Angeles, but lived the majority of her life in Maine before moving to Southwest Colorado nearly 25 years ago.
An artist by trade, Whitman, 74, became involved in the work in the 1990s while participating in other social justice issues, which included representing persons on death row.
She obtained her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Goucher College in Baltimore, and a BA in painting at the Maine School of Art. She taught art at a boarding school in Vermont, as well as two stints volunteer teaching and working as a translator in Nicaragua.
Her social justice work started with Equal Justice USA, later taking a leadership role with the death penalty chapter of CURE. She then became involved with the Innocence Project at the University of Houston, investigating death penalty and life sentence cases before starting her own nonprofit.
Although she works about 60 hours a week on cases, she has never taken a salary. With no formal legal training, she said she’s always learning on the job. And to cover expenses and hire lawyers, she modestly fundraises throughout the year.
Whitman receives more than 100 requests a year from prisoners or their family members seeking her help. She’s able to take on only one to two new cases a year, but always makes an attempt to steer prisoners and their families to other resources.
Whitman works from her Mancos home, but makes frequent trips to visit her clients, the majority of whom are incarcerated in Michigan, Louisiana, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia and Texas.
And over the years, while it’s impossible to quantify how many people Whitman has helped directly or indirectly, she’s helped free about seven people who claimed innocence from prison.
In Young’s case, Whitman tracked down testimony that showed the two boys in the 1980s, about a month after accusing Young, told police it was their mother’s boyfriend who had molested them.
The boys said the boyfriend threatened to kill them and their mother if they told the truth – information that was not made available during Young’s trial in the 1980s before he was convicted and sentenced to 60 to 100 years in prison.
Whitman tracked down the accusers, now adults, who signed affidavits confirming it was not Young but the boyfriend who had committed the abuse. The boyfriend has since died.
Young, who awaits a new trial in June, already has a new job in construction. His sister said despite being robbed of most of his life, Young harbors no bitterness.
“He’ll never recover the 27 years he’s lost, but this is a new beginning,” Holman said. “There’s just joy for life, and this opportunity for him to be with his children and grandchildren.”
Charles Wakefield Jr. was sentenced to death in the killing of an off-duty sheriff’s deputy and his father in South Carolina in the 1970s. Although his sentence was commuted to a life sentence, Whitman worked nearly 13 years to prove his innocence.
While Whitman, who single-handedly runs her nonprofit but works with various lawyers and advocates, was unable to get Wakefield exonerated, he was released on parole in 2010 when a key witness recanted his testimony. Wakefield had spent 35 years in prison.
“Claudia – she’s one of those people that when she starts working on a case, she pretty much gives it everything she’s got, and she’s not going to give up,” Wakefield said. “The whole thing is bittersweet. It was like being born again.”
According to the Innocence Project, 2.3 to 5 percent of all U.S. prisoners are innocent, and with about 2.4 million people in jail, that comes out to about 120,000 innocent people. In 2015, a record number of people were freed after serving time for crimes they didn’t commit.
Facts like these keep Whitman going, but also draw an immense amount of frustration from the Mancos woman about the judicial system, as well as the prisoners she’ll never be able to help.
“The worst part is there’s so many people you have to tell you can’t help them,” she said. “They may be absolutely innocent, but it’s a question of whether or not you can prove it.”
Whitman, in her free moments, walks her two dogs at least four times a day, rides horses and spends time with her husband, Laird Carlson, who works at Adaptive Sports Association. She volunteers at the Raven House Gallery in Mancos, still painting, which is one way to “keep sanity and balance,” she said.
Whitman said watching prisoners she’s helped be released from jail is a mixed bag of emotions.
“There’s just so many people innocent in prison, and it’s frustrating,” Whitman said. “But then when you get a success like this and see joy in their hearts, you get more out of it than you ever put in.”

jromeo@durangoherald.co

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Governor Cuomo has proposed cutting visit days from 7 to 3 in New York’s maximum security prisons.

Assembly member David Weprin, new chair of the Assembly Corrections
Committee, is hosting a press conference this SUNDAY,
February 26th at 12:00 pm on the steps of New York City Hall to rally
against the proposed reduction in visitation days for inmates at New
York State’s maximum-security prisons.

Assembly member Weprin is inviting family members and advocates to join
him this Sunday to speak against these proposed visitation cuts.
Please RSVP to Sumeet Sharma at sharmas@nyassembly.gov by 4:00 p.m. on
Thursday, 2/23. Or just show up!

Everyone who has a loved one in a max prison is directly affected by
this — whether their weekday visits are eliminated or their weekend
visits become even more delayed and crowded than they already are.

If you are a caring person who does not believe in endless punishment
and increased misery for prisoners and their families, you too are
affected.

It is good news to all of us advocates, family members, and formerly
incarcerated folks that Assembly member Weprin, right from the start in
his new role as committee chair, cares enough about decency, justice,
and better outcomes for people in prison and their communities to
support prison visitation. It is crucially important that we come out
to support him on this issue!

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Join People’s Parole Watch Feb. 27

Dear Parole Justice Family,
 “The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants. “ NYS Public Officers Law Article 7 Section 100
 Join the Parole Watch Project of the Parole Justice Committee of Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration in witnessing the Parole Board’s monthly meetings. The parole board should not be allowed to do its dirty work in secret! The next Parole Board meeting is Monday, February 27th at 1:00 at the Correctional Services Training Academy, 1134 New Scotland Road, Albany.
We can’t be present at their Kangaroo Court parole hearings, but the Open Meetings Law says they have to allow us into their once a month business meetings – and that’s just what we’ve been doing! For the past three Parole Board meetings, a group of Parole Watchers sat in as silent witnesses. Apparently no one has ever done this before! The board started making the public part of their meetings shorter and shorter, and going into secret Executive Session sooner and sooner.
We did not believe that the Parole Board was following the rules for going into executive session, so we asked the Committee on Open Government for a legal advisory opinion. The Assistant Director of the Committee on Open Government, Kristin O’Neil, Esq., agreed with us. Ms. O’Neil sent the Parole Board a copy of her February 1, 2017 opinion. It stated, in part: “… the chair provided insufficient information to allow the Parole Board and the public to have the ability to know that there is a proper basis for meeting in closed session.”
It would be wonderful to have an even larger turnout at the next Parole Watch now that the Parole Board has been called out on their illegal conduct. You can find details for the meeting and a calendar for the remainder of the year at this link: http://www.doccs.ny.gov/ParoleBoardSchedule.pdf
Please note that the calendar is subject to change, so please call the Parole Board (518) 473-9548) or Parole Watch (518-253-7533) the morning of the meeting to confirm that the meeting will be held. Be prepared to go through a metal detector.  Bring photo ID and your willingness to fight injustice!
In solidarity,
The CAAMI Parole Justice Committee

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State Withdraws Request for Medicaid Coverage for Prisoners, Funding for HIV By Josefa Velasquez  Politico  January 27, 2017

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration has withdrawn its request to the federal government to provide Medicaid coverage for prison inmates and another request focused on New York’s effort to place newly diagnosed HIV patients on treatment.
 
With the looming threat of cuts to Medicaid from Washington, the state’s Department of Health said on Thursday evening that the state has “temporarily withdrawn” the waiver amendments and “will consider advancing them in the future.”
 
“We want to allow time for the state to have conversations with the new administration and to see where we may align on these issues,” the DOH said in a statement.
 
U.S. Rep. Tom Price, President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, and House Speaker Paul Ryan favor Medicaid block grants, which would mean the states would receive a set amount of money to pay for the Medicaid program. Block grant programs typically don’t have waivers.
 
In April, Cuomo announced that the state would seek a federal waiver from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to extend medical coverage to inmates who are leaving prison. Under the waiver, Inmates would have been enrolled in Medicaid 30 days before their release and have health coverage as they return home.
 
The announcement from the Cuomo administration, which mirrored a proposal put forth by the Democratic-dominated Assembly, came a day after CMS issued guidance to doctors stating that people on parole, probation or in-home confinement are not to be considered as incarcerated individuals and therefore can receive Medicaid benefits if they are eligible, opening up coverage for nearly 100,000 people.
 
The Cuomo administration had also asked CMS to authorize federal Medicaid matching funds to advance the governor’s initiative to end the AIDS epidemic by 2020.
 
According to the governor’s office, the amendment to its Partnership Plan Waiver could have brought in $45 million in federal funds for programs that would have provided access to testing, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
 
In December, the Cuomo administration received approval to extend its Medicaid waiver for five years, giving health policy makers solace that the state’s $7.3 billion Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment program couldn’t be upended by the new administration.
 

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Release Aging People in Prisons demand that New York State Bring Our Elders Home!

Adopt a common-sense approach of releasing elder inmates, who are aging in prison, have already served considerable time, and pose little or no threat to the public.
The state of New York needlessly confines thousands of senior citizens to cruel and degrading conditions in prison. Since 2000, the number of people over 50 years old in New York State prisons has increased by 98%.The risk of committing a new crime decreases as one gets older, and people over 50 who serve long sentences for serious felonies are the least likely to return to prison after release. Many of the elder populations who are in prison have records of positive achievement in prison and are praised by prison officials as peacemakers and role models. Despite these truths, the vast majority of seniors in prison are routinely denied parole and compassionate release by the state.
As this email comes to you, I am on my way to visit Herman Bell in Comstock prison in upstate New York. Herman, just turned 69 and has been in prison for 43 years, he is one of about 20 former Black Panther and Black Power Movement political prisoners aging in U.S prisons. Shocking, but not unique – he is among more than 10,140 people aged 50 and older in New York prisons.
The need to free Herman is what motivates me to ask you to sign this petition and support our goal to release aging people in prison, end not only mass incarceration but also the racist system of punishing people of color and poor people in perpetuity.
People imprisoned years ago, many due to political involvement and activism during the Black Power movement, are now turning gray. Some suffer from heart disease, hypertension, joint disease, and other age related illnesses. Prisons are looking more and more like nursing homes but with bars, metal detectors, and hyper security used against some of our most vulnerable and valuable populations- our elders.
The aging population currently imprisoned is beyond what the prison system can handle. This is why we are demanding that the state of New York adopt a commonsense approach of releasing older inmates who present no danger to the public.
In the state of New York it costs $60,000 per year to keep someone in prison, and older prisoners cost taxpayers even more—as much as two to four times that amount—due to added medical costs and the details of armed guards that accompany incarcerated people on trips to hospitals for tests and treatment.
As we know there are stark racial disparities in incarceration rates, with Black and Hispanic people arrested at a rate that is 2 to 3 times their proportion of the general population. The well-documented racial disparities in the criminal justice system are also reflected in the aging prison population. A vastly disproportionate percentage of aging people in prison are Black people, many of whom are political prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, Dr. Mutulu Shakur, and many more.
Join us in demanding that New York state release incarcerated seniors who have already served considerable time and pose little or no threat to public safety. Doing so will restore the harmony of our communities, fulfill our commitment to the human rights of ALL people, and save New York millions of dollars a year. Aging people returning from prison pose little risk to public safety and are prepared to contribute positively to the society. Together, we reject retribution and perpetual punishment as the drivers of our justice system.
Until our elders are freed,
Laura Whitehorn
Member of Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) and former political prisoner
Sign the petition

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Don’t Restrict Visits in NYS Prisons!

Governor Cuomo has just proposed to limit visiting at New York State maximum security prisons to 3 days a week instead of the current 7.
If passed, this measure will cause suffering and separation for thousands of imprisoned people and their loved ones.
PLEASE sign this petition and call Governor Cuomo TODAY at (518) 474-8390 to insist that the Governor retract this proposal.
Restricting visits is regressive, counterproductive, and cruel. Family visits are often the only ways people in prison can maintain connections with children, spouses, elderly parents or grandparents, and other family and friends. These ties are crucial for loved ones on the outside, as well as for people to survive their incarceration with their health and well-being intact and to successfully navigate their eventual return home after prison. Evidence has long shown that enhancing family and community connections is not only extremely valuable for people incarcerated and their loved ones, but also increases safety in prisons and improves people’s success after their release.
It is already incredibly difficult for family and friends to visit their loved ones in prison in New York. Governor Cuomo’s proposal to limit visiting at maximum security prisons to just the weekends instead of the current policy of visits on any day of the week will both restrict the ability for people to visit and impose unnecessary burdens on weekend visit days. Under the current seven day system, already visitors often wait two to three hours to see their loved ones – typically after traveling for hours. With reduced days, the wait will be longer, the visitor rooms more crowded, and the visiting days and hours even more limited. This will be terrible for everyone and impossible for many visitors.
While in other contexts the Governor claims to want to support compassionate policies and reduce mass incarceration, his visit reduction proposal will seriously escalate suffering and family disruption, as well as have a negative impact on prison safety and people’s success upon release. Governor Cuomo must withdraw this proposal, and instead take steps to further expand access for people to visit their loved ones in prison.
You can also write to Governor Cuomo opposing the cutback in visiting hours at NYS max prisons.
https://www.governor.ny.gov/content/governor-contact-form
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
New York State Capitol
Albany, NY 12224
This petition will be delivered to:
Governor
Andrew Cuomo

Read the letter

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The plunder of the American prison system

Mass incarceration is expensive in America — as might be expected from a system that oversees a similar fraction of the population as the Soviet gulags. But how much does it cost? Until today, nobody had attempted to estimate the cost of every part of this system.
Enter the Prison Policy Initiative. A new paper by Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy makes the first systematic attempt to add up every part of the cost of mass incarceration. The total is eye-popping: $182 billion, every year.
As is well-understood at this point, mass incarceration was partly caused by racialized panic over the great crime wave during the second half of the 20th century. But this report details another cause — the political economy of incarceration. One major reason so many people are in prison is that the constitutional basis of the criminal justice system has been mostly abandoned in favor of self-interest.
The Prison Policy Initiative’s estimate is, of course, rather rough, as Wagner and Rabuy admit upfront. The reason is poor data. Sources on some factors are sketchy or out of date, as with food and utilities. Others, like the cost of the court system, do not break down the total into civil and criminal fractions, and so the authors were forced to guess based on other work. However, on the whole, the estimate is as good as can be done at this stage — and Wagner and Rabuy are careful to hedge on the side of caution, so it’s almost certainly an underestimate if anything.
(As an aside, I should note that it is a moral atrocity that we don’t have up-to-date data on these questions. The government ought to be maintaining and releasing such data on an annual basis.)
So how do the costs stack up?
The three largest categories are public corrections agencies ($80.7 billion), policing ($63.2 billion) and judicial and legal expenses ($29 billion). Within these categories we can identify sub-categories that serve private interests. There is the private prison industry (costs of $3.9 billion and profits of $374 million); and the cost of utilities ($1.7 billion), food ($2.1 billion), construction ($3.3 billion) and health care ($12.3 billion), which are typically contracted out these days.

Then outside these categories there is civil asset forfeiture ($4.5 billion) — in which police seize the property of those they arrest — and costs to families for commissary and phone calls ($2.9 billion). Finally, much of the money spent on police and corrections means public sector jobs and yet more business for private contractors, who operate much of the bail and probation services. This huge complex of institutions comprises a system dedicated mostly to its own self-preservation and profit.
On the other side of the ledger, there is only one sub-category of spending which is unequivocally dedicated towards due process for the accused: indigent defense — i.e. providing public defenders for the poor — which costs $4.5 billion.
Now, defense attorneys would no doubt also like to keep their jobs, and it’s impossible to disentangle exactly how much of the first bundle of stuff is dedicated to constitutional due process and how much is purely private self-seeking. But the number of different mercenary outsourcing operations within the incarceration system, and the yawning abyss between defense and imprisonment, makes it clear where the bulk of it lies.
The on-the-ground reality of the situation also speaks for itself. Well over 90 percent of all criminal cases are settled by plea bargaining. Many if not most jurisdictions use the hell of pre-trial detention and the threat of gigantic sentences to coerce guilty pleas from most of the accused, because it is literally impossible for the system to provide meaningful due process in anything like an adequate volume.
Constitutional due process is a difficult thing to maintain, particularly when it comes to accused criminals. Racism and Americans’ hysterical fear of crime undermine the empathy that a moral criminal justice system requires. But the profit motive also tends to dissolve moral considerations. Our system of mass incarceration needs a steady flow of prisoners to maintain itself, it doesn’t particularly care how it gets them, and so they are obtained.
Abuse is as predictable as the sunrise.

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