‘Those Visits Were Everything’: How Prison Visitation Cuts Devastate Families

by Victoria Law – March 22, 2017
Jenise Britt sees her husband at Sing Sing, one of New York’s 17 maximum-security prisons, at least twice a week. From her job in Bryant Park, it’s only a short walk to Grand Central and the 7:19 train to Ossining. She tries to visit on weekdays to avoid the more crowded weekends, when the noise and nearby bodies make intimate conversations nearly impossible. The twice-weekly visits help the couple remain close despite her husband’s 18-to-life sentence and the fact that his first parole hearing isn’t until 2024.
But New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget means that Britt—and other family members—will have no choice but to contend with crowds, longer waits and the possibility of shorter visits to see their incarcerated loved ones. Buried in the governor’s budget is a proposal to reduce the number of visiting days in maximum-security prisons from seven to just Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, a move that he told Democrats would save the state $2.6 million by eliminating 39 staff positions. Family members and advocates say the cuts will discourage visiting with more crowded visiting rooms, longer waits, and shorter visits, impacting relationships already strained by lengthy prison sentences.
“I don’t think that’s fair,” said 16-year-old Margarita, whose father has been incarcerated since she was three or four years old. “If we have a vacation during the week, we want to see our parents.” She recalls going to visit her father two days before her 15th birthday. “Usually, if we talk on the phone, it’s like, ‘Happy birthday. Have fun,'” she recalled. But that day, they spent several hours together talking, walking around the outside visiting area and playing Monopoly. “Kids—they want to see their parents more,” she added. “[These cuts] are just taking away time from our parents.”
As of March 14, 2017, 50,476 people were incarcerated in New York state prisons. Similar to policing policies and practices across the country, incarceration disproportionately impacts communities of color, particularly African-American communities. Almost half (49 percent) of people in the state’s prisons are Black; the other half are white (24.4 percent) and Latino (24 percent). Sixty percent are parents to living children, and the impact of parental incarceration, like incarceration itself, disproportionately affects families of color. African-American children are seven times more likely, and Latino children are twice as likely, to have a parent in prison as their white peers. Incarceration doesn’t affect just children and parents—other family members, such as spouses, non-married partners, parents and siblings, also feel the brunt of their loved ones’ absence. In-person visits allow families to maintain their relationships despite long periods of separation. But Cuomo’s cuts mean that the 21,525 people in maximum-security prisons face the possibility of fewer—and shorter—visits.
Jolene Russ relies on visits to stay connected to her husband, who has served 17 years of a 49-year sentence at the prison in Elmira. Russ works full-time and typically visits on the weekends, which she describes as “elbow-to-elbow. There’s no room to move.” But there have been times during her husband’s incarceration that her visit couldn’t wait. Last year, for instance, death hit her husband’s family hard—first his father died, followed by his brother and then his nephew.
Kids—they want to see their parents more. [These cuts] are just taking away time from our parents.
“Have you ever had to call the chaplain?” Russ asked, her question laden with frustration from repeated experiences. That’s the start of the standard prison procedure for a death in the family—a family member calls the prison chaplain to report the death and the funeral arrangements. The chaplain takes down the information, which prison administrators then verify, a process that may take a few days. Once they do, the prisoner is called into the chaplain’s office, where he is told about the death and the date of the funeral. “That’s the way it goes. There’s no compassion, no sit-down counseling or services offered.”
When her husband’s brother died, Russ still had to call the chaplain. But she took the following day off work and drove the three hours to the prison to tell her husband in person. “We’re able to talk about it,” she explained. “He was able to have a moment to not be within the walls and to lean on me as his wife and just not have to go through that alone in his cell.” The chaplain didn’t call her husband into the office until two days after her visit.
It works the other way as well. Russ recalls a time when she was feeling overwhelmed by the plethora of responsibilities that she had to manage without her husband’s presence and physical support. “I was taken out of work by my physician, and he encouraged me to engage in tasks that would bring me peace and get me organized,” she recalled. She spent that Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday visiting her husband. During those six-hour visits, the couple talked about her tasks and responsibilities. Together, they created a feasible time management schedule and financial budget. In addition, working to help create a budget and schedule enabled her husband to feel like a participating member of the family. Russ recalled him telling her, “For the first time in a long time I don’t feel like your husband that’s locked up. I just feel like your husband.”
Cutting weekday visits would mean longer lines and more crowded visiting rooms. Elmira’s visiting policy dictates that, when the visiting room is overcrowded, visitors who live within 100 miles of the prison are the first to have their visits ended early. But, even though Russ lives nearly 200 miles away, she’s had her visits cut short on weekends as well.
The governor’s budget proposal calls for expanding the use of video visits to replace weekday visits. Russ insists that this won’t be the same. “It would mean not being able to reach across the table and touch his hand or, if we’re having an intimate moment, to kiss his face,” she mused. “It’s human contact.”
Video visits are how 16-year-old Jamaill sees his father, who went to prison before the boy’s first birthday. His father is incarcerated at Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, approximately 260 miles from New York City. The distance means that Jamaill can only visit twice a year. For the past two years, he’s been using the Osborne Association’s video visiting program twice a month. But nothing compares to being able to see his father in person. “I can be myself,” he told Broadly. “I can touch him; we can play cards.” If Jamaill has something personal to tell his father, he doesn’t feel comfortable doing so during a video visit.
Cuomo’s proposed cuts won’t affect him personally, but Jamaill knows firsthand the toll it takes on a family to see each other primarily through video chat. “That’s not right,” he said. “Some people want to see their parents in person instead of seeing them on a television. They might express their feelings more in person.”
He was able to have a moment to not be within the walls and to lean on me as his wife and just not have to go through that alone in his cell.
It’s not just outside family members who will profoundly feel these cuts. Elizabeth Harris went to prison when her daughters were two and twelve. During her 17 years at Bedford Hills, the state’s maximum-security prison, family members brought her daughters to visit at least twice a week, and sometimes even three to four times a week. During weekday visits, the visiting room was less crowded and less noisy. “I was able to spend quality time with them,” she recounted. Harris didn’t need to try to keep her toddler in her seat; instead, the mother and daughter could walk around the visiting room or outside to the play area.
On the weekends, however, the crowds and accompanying noise meant a much different visit. Officers insisted that she keep her toddler from wandering; if they were in the play area, she had to worry that another child might run over or push the two-year-old. Even with her older daughter, weekend visits were a challenge. “You find yourself screaming to have a conversation,” she recalled.
The visits allowed Harris to parent despite her lengthy sentence. “So much happened on visits,” Harris recounted. She recalls one visit with her older daughter, then a teenager. They saw a couple at another table. “It was two women and they kissed. That was her chance to tell me she was attracted to girls,” Harris said. Had they been limited to the crowded and noisy weekend visits, she doesn’t think her daughter would have told her—but because of the less crowded weekday visit, “she was able to have a conversation with her mom.”
By the time Harris was released, her daughters were grown. However, their bond had remained close despite her lengthy absence, which made reacclimating to life outside of prison far easier. “I didn’t have to focus so hard on building a relationship with my children because it was already there,” she said. “I had more energy to focus on finding employment, housing. I wanted to go back to school. I had time to focus on me because I knew our relationship was secure.”
Some people want to see their parents in person instead of seeing them on a television. They might express their feelings more in person.
What’s in Cuomo’s proposed budget isn’t necessarily what will be enacted. The Assembly and Senate propose their own budgets. Then the leaders of each house and the governor sit down to thrash out the final budget, which needs to be passed by April 1. Meanwhile, advocates and family members are trying to ensure that visiting cuts aren’t part of the final version.
Russ learned about the proposed visiting cuts from a newspaper article. She then told her husband, who had heard nothing about the changes—even though they would affect him and thousands of others. “It’s not being done through legislation,” she reflected. “It’s being done in the inner workings of the government that most people don’t pay attention to because they’re busy grinding to get their life in order, because their lives are so difficult.” But she’s determined to make sure that the governor—and her legislators—are aware of the impact on family members. She has written letters to Cuomo and to Assemblyman David Weprin, the chair of the Committee on Correction and an opponent of the cuts to visiting hours. She also took the day off work to attend Weprin’s rally in Albany against these cuts. Britt also attended the Albany rally as well as another on the steps of City Hall in New York City. “It was important for me to show up that day,” she said.
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State legislators seem to understand their concerns. The budget proposals from both houses restore the $2.6 million for daily visits at maximum-security prisons; the Assembly proposal also “includes new legislation to prohibit the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision from reducing visitation opportunities at maximum security prisons.” Cuomo’s office has not responded to Broadly’s request for comment.
“This [reduced visiting] will be a hardship for a lot of people,” said Britt. Harris, who has now been out of prison for four years, agrees. “Those visits were everything to me,” she remembered. Looking at Cuomo’s proposal to replace in-person visits with expanded video visiting, she asks, “How can you have a personal relationship with someone on a TV screen?”

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Flanagan Says ‘Raise The Age’ Will Be Part of Budget Talks By Nick Niedzwiadek Politico  February 22, 2017

ALBANY — The Senate’s top Republican said Wednesday that a proposal to raise the age of criminal responsibility will be a big part of the coming budget talks.
Democrats and progressive criminal justice activists have been pushing the issue for years, as New York is one of only two states to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for nonviolent offenses. Previous attempts at passing such legislation have sputtered in the GOP-controlled state Senate, but the conference has been open to discussions this session.
“Sometimes these issues, they percolate in one year and don’t seem to get to the forefront. This is clearly going to be a very significant component of the budget,” Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said of the “Raise the Age” proposal in a gaggle with reporters after a radio interview at the Capitol.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie last week said criminal justice reform would be “a pretty serious part” of budget discussions, but he would not say if he’d hold up the budget over it. Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, a Democrat who sponsors one proposal, has said she believes budget negotiations offer the most leverage, given Heastie and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s support for the proposal.
Flanagan conceded that the issue is “an extremely complicated area” for his members and said they are internally hashing out a plan they would bless.
“I think this is an issue of utmost importance to the people of the state of New York, and we have literally some very strong feelings and some members in our conference who have extraordinary knowledge and background,” he said.
The Independent Democratic Conference has made raising the age one of its legislative priorities for this session, and mainline Democrats have been pressuring the breakaway group to deliver.
The Senate and Assembly are preparing their budget proposals ahead of the April 1 deadline for a final agreement.

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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.”


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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

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.
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
New York State Capitol
Albany, NY 12224
This petition will be delivered to:
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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A Message from Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell

Dear Neighbor,
Happy holidays! I hope that this season brings good fortune, health, and love to you and your families.
With the cold months ahead of New York City it is important to remember that tenants have the right to essential services. This is true for all tenants, regardless of the type of lease you hold. Heat and hot water are among the most important essential services. The law requires that hot water be maintained at 120 degrees throughout the year and twenty-four hours a day. Beginning on October 1st, landlords are required to heat their buildings at no less than 68 degrees during the day (from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m.) if the outside temperature falls below 55 degrees. In the night time hours, (from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.) apartments must be 55 degrees or warmer if the outside temperature falls below 40 degrees. If services are not maintained, my office staff are available to assist you. 
I am pleased to announce that my office will be hosting a reception to culminate the showcasing of Sara Bennett’s “Life After Life in Prison” Photo Exhibit, in conjunction with our annual holiday toy drive. “Life After Life in Prison,” a photography series by Sara Bennett detailing the lives of formerly incarcerated women, will be available for a final viewing and reception in my community office on Monday, December 12, 2016 from 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm. This photo series sheds light on the lives of formerly incarcerated women — people who are often overlooked in the criminal justice system. Along with viewing the photographs, you will also have the chance to speak with the women and learn about their stories. 

In anticipation of the holiday season, my office will also be hosting a toy drive in partnership with Angel Tree to collect toys for children with incarcerated parents. If you would like to donate, please bring unwrapped toys to the reception on December 12th. If you are unable to attend the reception, you may drop off your donation any day beforehand during office hours. For more information regarding the photo exhibit and toy drive, please skip to the events section of this publication.
Finally, toward the end of this month I will be preparing to return to Albany for the 2017-2018 Legislative Session. I will begin my eighth term, and am looking forward to continuing my advocacy on behalf of criminal justice reform, improved educational policy, and our community. As always, I remain fully committed to being your progressive, loud, voice for New York State.

Should you need assistance or information, my Community Office is open Monday through Friday from 9:30 AM – 5:30 PM. Feel free to call my office at (212) 866-3970 or email me at odonnelld@nyassembly.gov. I also encourage you to follow my official New York State Assembly Twitter & Facebook accounts to get exclusive insight into the work I’m doing in my district and for all New Yorkers by visiting twitter.com/dannyodonnellny and facebook.com/dannyodonnellny.

Very truly yours,

Daniel O’Donnell

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