Wow! What a week last week was! Three important milestones took place last week. Some good news is definitely welcome.
Up until now, phone companies and the institutions themselves have profited off inmates use of phones. The rates inmates and their families have been charged for calls can be as much as 10 times that of what the general public pays for the same service. Most impacted by these fees are the Deaf, because VRS (for those few institutions that use it) and the older and far less efficient, TTY system, are infinitely slower than standard voice communications. So, where it would take a hearing person 30 seconds to make a simple call, it could take a Deaf person as much as 2 minutes to make that same call.
After months of hard work by all of us, but primarily by Talila Lewis and HEARD, the FCC has taken steps to end predatory phone company rates for Deaf inmates. In fact, their new ruling now limits all inmate phone rates to cost only. Here’s a block quoted copy of the e-mail Talila sent out.
August 9, 2013, Washington, D.C. – Eight months ago, Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD) launched its Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign. Through this Campaign, HEARD lobbied the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to bring an end to exorbitant prisoner telephone rates that disproportionately impact deaf and hard of hearing prisoners and their family members.Today, the FCC adopted an order that, effective immediately, brings an end to these high rates. Significantly, the order prohibits companies from charging fees to deaf and hard of hearing prisoners who use relay services and from charging the same rates to communicate through this despairingly slow technology. Specifically, the order requires that phone companies base their rates on actual costs; provides a safe harbor rate of .12 per minute for prepaid calls and .14 minute for collect calls; and places an interim rate caps at .21 and .25 cents per minute for prepaid and collect calls, respectively. During the Campaign, HEARD mobilized unprecedented participation from more than forty deaf and hard of hearing prisoners. These comments spoke to the isolating impact of inaccessible technology, sky-high rates, and additional fees being charged to prisoners using relay, that in most cases prevent them from communicating with anyone outside of prison. In addition, HEARD rallied members of the Deaf Community, family members of deaf prisoners and allies to submit comments about the unique impact of inaccessible telecommunications in prison for deaf prisoners and their family members and advocates. These comments illustrated how the absence of videophones and captioned telephones prevent deaf prisoners from connecting to their loved ones. They also illuminated issues related to systemic abuse of deaf prisoners that necessitates communication with advocates via sign language—a language that is unique from English.Regrettably, this order does not address serious and sweeping accessibility concerns raised by HEARD related to the absence of videophone technology in all but one handful of prisons in this nation. We are pleased with today’s historic vote that ends discriminatory practices that have disproportionately affected prisoners with disabilities for decades, but equality demands more. HEARD again calls on the leadership of Chairwoman Mignon L. Clyburn and the FCC to ensure that prison telecommunication is affordable and universally accessible. Notwithstanding today’s vote, countless people with disabilities across this nation still cannot connect to their incarcerated loved ones.HEARD’s Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign will not end until deaf prisoners and their families have equal access to telecommunication in prison.The PDF version of this press release can be viewed here. ###### For more information about the Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign: HEARD vlog: Lobbying the FCC for Change: Equal Communication Access for Deaf Prisoners!
HEARD’s Public Comment to the FCC
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will announce today, his plans to make major reforms in criminal law, and an attempt at putting the brakes on our mass-incarceration hysteria.
Holder has been quoted as saying, “there are too many people in jail for too long, and for not necessarily good reasons.”
Prison overcrowding, destroyed families, skyrocketing costs and ruined lives are only some of the symptoms of the current mass-incarceration culture that has made America, the world’s jailer.
Here’s a block copy of the ACLU’s coverage.
Eric Holder to Announce Major Criminal Law Reforms on Monday. It’s About Time this Administration Caught Up with the States.By Chloe Cockburn, Advocacy and Policy Counsel, ACLU & Alex Stamm, ACLU Center for Justice at 3:58pm
Next Monday, Eric Holder will give a speech that we expect to propose some major policy shifts in the federal sentencing and enforcement arena. As NPR reported this week, Holder’s position is that “there are too many people in jail for too long, and for not necessarily good reasons.” We could not agree more. Moreover, given the wave of criminal justice reforms we have seen cropping up in states around the country, now is the right time for the administration to get with the program and show some leadership in rolling back some pretty disastrous policies.
Over the past few years, state lawmakers have grown increasingly disenchanted with the results of extreme sentencing laws and broad criminalization of conduct instituted in the 1980’s and 1990’s. These results include 2.3 million people in prisons and jails, the fact that 1 in 4 adults now has a serious misdemeanor or felony on their record making it difficult to secure employment and housing, and the mind boggling price tag of over $70 billion dollars a year (not counting collateral costs).
During the recently-ended 2013 legislative session (see here for a session calendar), lawmakers took modest, promising steps to extract us from the mass incarceration trap. Here are the highlights:
MARIJUANA LAW REFORM
As we observed earlier this year, this is one of the strongest trends in criminal justice reform. The public, policy makers, and opinion makers are growing increasingly averse to senselessly punitive enforcement of marijuana laws. CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s recent reversal of his previously hostile stance against marijuana is the most recent high-profile about-face in this arena. State lawmakers are taking cues: marijuana reform bills were introduced in 30 states this session. Below are some of the most impressive developments.
Washington and Colorado set the tone for the session with historic marijuana legalization initiatives that passed last fall. The passage of these measures with strong public support gave a boost to the long-term efforts of advocates in other states pushing for more sensible policies. Meanwhile, as progress unfolds elsewhere, advocates are holding their breath as Colorado and Washington begin the complex task of implementing large new regulatory schemes under the shadow of an ambivalent federal position.
In Vermont, where support for marijuana reform became a major campaign issue in the Attorney General race, the legislature passed a decriminalization bill (where possession remains unlawful but punishable only by a civil fine) by a large majority. Decriminalization bills in Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, and New Mexico each passed one legislative chamber and are likely to return next year. A New York bill to eliminate the “public view” exception to the state’s decriminalization law, which the NYPD has notoriously exploited by commanding people to empty their pockets during police stops and then arresting them for displaying marijuana in public, made it through the Assembly but not the Senate. A recently-introduced decriminalization bill in the District of Columbia was co-sponsored by a majority of City Council members and stands a strong chance of passing this fall.
Illinois, Maryland, and New Hampshire each legalized marijuana for medical use, which brings the total number of medical marijuana states to 20, as well as D.C. (which just opened its first dispensary after years of foot dragging by the Mayor’s office). Medical marijuana bills were introduced 16 other states; you can find more details about all of these bills at the Marijuana Policy Project’s website.
OTHER DRUG LAW REFORM
Criminal justice trend-setter Colorado passed SB 250, a complete rewrite of the state’s Controlled Substances Act (summary here). The bill creates a new drug classification and sentencing grid with reduced penalties, raises the threshold amounts that trigger higher penalties, allows felony drug convictions to be reduced to misdemeanors under certain conditions, and more. An analysis of the bill estimates that the bill could reduce prison admissions by five percent or more.
California’s Senate passed SB 649, a “wobbler” bill giving prosecutors the discretion to charge any drug possession as a misdemeanor rather than a felony; the Assembly takes up the bill this fall. If the bill passes, California will join 13 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing misdemeanor charging in all drug possession cases. Alaska’s Senate passed a bill to make possession of some drugs misdemeanors in all cases, but the House did not approve it.
And Louisiana passed Governor Jindal’s bill to divert some defendants from prison and allow some prisoners to earn sentence reductions if they complete a drug treatment program.
MANDATORY MINIMUM SENTENCING REFORM
Oregon advocates set their sights high this year with a bid to repeal mandatory minimums for Robbery II, Assault II, and Sexual Abuse I, which have become major incarceration drivers in the state. In the face of fierce opposition from district attorneys, bill supporters gave up the mandatory minimum reforms to ensure passage of the rest of the bill, which included modest drug and property crime reform while emphasizing community corrections (HB 3194), and is projected to avert future prison growth and costs.
Efforts to eliminate mandatory sentences for certain drug offenses were introduced in Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina, but did not pass. A bill still pending in Massachusetts would repeal mandatory minimum sentences for all nonviolent drug offenses.
Short of repeal, several states have taken up “safety valve” measures allowing judges to depart from mandatory minimums in special cases. Hawaii passed SB 68, creating a safety valve for certain lower-level felonies. Georgia passed HB 349, which creates a very limited safety valve for drug and other offenses. The recent publication by ALEC of a model safety valve bill for the states signals that we will see many more reforms like this next year.
OTHER SENTENCING REFORMS
Indiana overhauled its criminal code. The bill creates a new set of felony sentencing tiers, which if applied to felony convictions from 2008-2012 would have lowered the sentence range for over 80% of defendants. Hundreds of people would have been convicted of a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Missouri lawmakers introduced a similar code reform bill, which passed one chamber and could be revived next year.
More notable reforms this session included: amendments to felony theft thresholds (Colorado and Maryland), parole reforms (South Dakota, Kansas and West Virginia), pretrial diversion (Colorado and Alabama), and reducing felonies to misdemeanors after good behavior (Texas, Colorado). Michigan passed a substantial indigent defense reform bill.
FEDERAL SENTENCING REFORMS
This year’s federal legislation has been particularly encouraging. Most notable is the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, which would allow federal judges to sentence defendants below the mandatory minimums in some cases. Introduced by Sens. Leahy (D-VT) and Paul (R-KY), the bill has attracted broad support, including The New York Times, Grover Norquist, and a group of 50 former prosecutors.
Additionally, last week saw the release of the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, which would reduce some federal mandatory minimum sentences, make a modest expansion to the safety valve provision (though continuing to exclude anyone previously incarcerated in prison for more than 13 months in the past 10 years), and make the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act applicable to persons sentenced before its enactment, which would reduce sentences for people convicted of crack cocaine offenses.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A significant percentage of policy makers are reaching a consensus that our system of criminal penalties is inefficient, ineffective, and destructive and are supporting bills to change that. The results of some past reforms are bearing fruit: 2012 was the third straight year that the total number of prisoners in the U.S. decreased, shaving 27,770 prisoners off the 2011 total of 1.59 million. But few states have attempted to tackle reforms on a scale that matches the magnitude of the problem. Eric Holder has the opportunity to show some needed leadership on Monday. We hope his speech includes concrete plans for reforms that will push the envelope.
And finally, my good friend and blogging mentor, MadMike, from MadMike’sAmerica, has agreed to allow me to post the following article about Felix in his widely read, big dog site.
As most of you already know, Felix Garcia, an innocent Deaf man, has already served 30 years of a life sentence, in Florida. DeafInPrison.com is committed to seeing his release via clemency or full pardon. The article that MadMike so graciously let us post, will bring light to Felix’s case, to far more readers than we have here. We only have 375 more signatures to go, before we can send this vital petition out. Please, if you have not yet done so – click on any of these available links and sign Felix’s petition. Also – and I can’t stress this enough – Please Share it out. If at all possible, I would like very much to send this petition out, by the end of this week.
Here’s the article in its entirety and a link as well.
A nurse – a nurse, in a medical facility – handed Felix Garcia a bed sheet, and told him, “you should kill yourself. You’d be better off if you killed yourself.” Felix was there to get batteries for his hearing aid. The hearing aid doesn’t help him with speech, but if he sleeps with his head against the steel door, it helps him to know if people are coming to hurt him. He needs his hearing aid to survive.
You see, where Felix Garcia lives, one needs things like hearing aids to survive.
Prison life is hard, and if you’re not prepared to do the time, you shouldn’t have done the crime. The thing is, though… Felix didn’t do the crime. Thirty years ago, his brother, Frank Garcia, and his sister’s boyfriend – a man named Ray – robbed one Joseph Tramontana, of some jewelry, and shot him. Frank, Ray and Tina – Felix’s sister – then set about framing Felix for the crime. Felix was Deaf, and the family knew he wouldn’t be able to defend himself in court.
In his 3 decades in some of Florida’s toughest prisons, Felix has been raped, beaten, starved, robbed – he has been denied medical care. He has been stripped of all clothing and left alone – naked – in a cell. He has been denied access to visitation, computers, and even reading material. TVs and radios – when available – are of no use to him.
Felix arrived in prison, Deaf. He could read lips, but got along primarily by smiling and nodding. This is something some Deaf do, to fit in. You laugh when everybody else laughs, even though you don’t get the joke. If someone asks you a question, you smile and nod. Many Deaf, smile and nod their way into false confessions. Felix smiled and nodded his way into a life sentence. When asked by the judge, “can you hear me?” Felix would smile and nod. He arrived in prison sub-lingual and illiterate. In prison – with the help of other inmates – he learned to Sign, and to read. In prison libraries, Felix taught himself several obsolete computer programming languages, and has written a few programs, including a food-ordering database, in use by the Florida DOC, to this day.
His case, thanks in large part to DeafInPrison.com, has received some notoriety. He was first mentioned on the Internet, in a Dec. 2011 Mother Jones article by James Ridgeway. Since then, some petitions have popped up, but none of them very long-lived. In Sept. of 2012, DeafInPrison.com started an attempt at gaining 1000 signatures to send to Governor Rick Scott, Florida AG, Pam Bondi and two members of the Florida Cabinet. We have, as of the publication of this piece, 620 of those signatures. In June of 2011, Paralegal, Pat Bliss – who has worked on getting Felix his freedom, for the past 17 years – and James Ridgeway, interviewed Felix over the course of 2 days. The resulting video was captioned by me, and split into 8 segments on DeafInPrison.com. You can find them, here. Combined, they make for 2 hours of powerful and tragic viewing. Disturbing though they may be, they are well worth taking the time to watch.
Although there is compelling evidence as to his innocence, Florida has remained intransigent, refusing not only to release him – but also, to hear the evidence at all. A Florida judge even disallowed an actual confession by Frank Garcia, issued in 2006.
I’m writing today, to ask you for your help. Felix now has a pro-Bono clemency lawyer who is prepping a hearing. We would like to coincide our petition’s arrival with this hearing. We’re quickly running out of time. We need those remaining 400 signatures, desperately. Please take a moment to go to this Web site:
http://www.thepetitionsite.com/453/783/026/felix-garcia-should-be-granted-a-full-pardon/. Please. A simple mouse-click might be the difference between full clemency for Felix – and ten more years of unjust suffering, followed by a long parole. One day is too much time for an innocent man to spend behind bars. Thirty years is a horror.
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And here’s the link, so you can go see this article in all its glory – up there in the Majors.
BitcoDavid is a blogger and a blog site consultant. In former lives, he was an audio engineer, a videographer, a teacher – even a cab driver. He is an avid health and fitness enthusiast and a Pro/Am boxer. He has spent years working with diet and exercise to combat obesity and obesity related illness.
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- FCC Issues Order to Lower Prison Phone Rates (colorlines.com)
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- How To Learn About Deaf Culture? Read Tom Holcomb’s Introduction to American Deaf Culture (deafinprison.wordpress.com)
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