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GAO Reports Available: Private and Public Prisons

By Julia Lutsky 

GAO Reports Available

Federal and State Prisons: "Inmate Populations, Costs and Projection Models," November 1996, GAO/GGD-97-15

Private and Public Prisons: "Studies Comparing Operational Costs and/or Quality of Service," August 1996, GAO/GGD-96-158

Reflecting both the relatively recent "get tough on crime" and the age-old theme of corporate profit there are two new GAO reports, one written as if in response to questions raised by the other. Approximately 1.1 million people were incarcerated in 1995. Assuming the sentencing policies in effect in 1994, there will be 1.4 million in prisons by the year 2000. This estimate is based on the average annual increase of 8.5 percent experienced between 1980 and 1995, the period covered by the report on federal and state prisons. If all states opted to use truth-in-sentencing laws which require prisoners to serve 85 percent of their sentences however, the number of prisoners could reach 1.6 million. Other estimates predict as many as 2 million by 2002.

All of this comes at a not inconsiderable cost to the taxpayer. In 1980, $3.1 billion was spent on prisons. In 1994 that sum had increased to $17.7 billion. By the year 2000, prisons could drain $25.5 billion in operating costs alone. This reflects the 9.5 percent average cost increase each year between 1980 and 1994. Capital costs have increased from approximately half a billion dollars to $2.3 billion over the same period.

When the Cold War ended, taxpayer dollars that had funded military contractors became available to the war on crime. Money was soon funneled into the building of prisons and jails and finding its way into the hands of private contractors. To date no federal prisoners are in privately owned and/or run institutions however; after proposing the privatization of most future pretrial detention and minimum- and low-security facilities, the Department of Justice noted that it could not "reduce the risk of a strike or a walk out" by prison guards and withdrew its proposals. Some states are willing though to undertake the risk. In 1996, 33,396 prisoners were in 47 privately owned state institutions in 12 states. The report on public and private prisons evaluates 5 studies completed since 1991 in 6 of these states: Texas, California, Tennessee, New Mexico, Louisiana and Washington analyzing each as to cost and "quality of service." The report concludes that the studies "offer little generalizable guidance about what to expect regarding ... costs and quality of service [from] privatizing correctional facilities."

To obtain copies of these reports write to: U.S. General Accounting Office, P.O. Box 6015, Gaithersburg, Maryland 20884-6015. First copies are free. Additional copies are $2 each. Checks or money orders should be made out to: Superintendent of Documents, and sent to the address above.

New York State Drug Sentencing Report

Angela Thompson, a 17-year-old with no prison record participated in a single sale of 2 oz and 33 grains of crack cocaine to an undercover officer for which she received a 15-year-to-life sentence.

Cruel and Usual: "Disproportionate Sentences for New York Drug Offenders," A Human Rights Watch Report, March 1997, looks at some of the most punitive drug legislation in the United States. A first offender caught carrying 4 - or selling 2 - ounces of controlled substance in New York State automatically receives a minimum sentence of 15 years to life. Possession of 2 ounces by a first offender carries a minimum of 3 to 8 1/3 years - but 6 to 12½ years for a second offender. That the sentences are mandatory means that all discretion is transferred from judge to prosecutor: If found guilty the offender's sentence is automatic. Each year, 30,000 people are indicted in New York on drug charges and 10,000 go to prison. Of these, approximately 9,000 are Blacks or Latinos.

Drug felonies are classified according to the weight of the drug involved. This means simply that the drug syndicate kingpins learned early - the New York laws were enacted in 1973 - never to carry drugs on their persons. Thus it is only the easily replaced street-level carrier or seller who spends years behind bars and the harsh sentencing policies have clearly failed of their purpose since drug trafficking continues apace.

The report concludes that current law, based on weight and prior conviction, inevitably results in disproportionate sentencing, and warns that, in today's atmosphere of "get tough on crime," both public officials and the public in general have become callous to how much hardship incarceration is: The prisoner is deprived of family and community, subjected to overcrowding in conditions where health and safety are under constant threat. Prisoners' families, in turn, often lose both financial and emotional stability. Such punishment should not be meted out lightly. HRW advises reform of the law to permit consideration of factors other than weight and prior conviction, and to allow judiciary discretion in sentencing.

Copies of this report are available for $6 from the Publications Department Human Rights Watch, 485 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10017-6104.

Pepper Spray Report

Research Review: "Use of Force Policies and Training Recommendations: Based on the Medical Implications of Oleoresin Capsicum," by Darrell Ross, PPCT Director of Research.

Oleoresin Capsicum (OC; pepper spray) is now widely used by police departments throughout the country for the control of "resistant individuals." Spicy oils have been used in sprays designed for such control since about 1977 and have, since the early 1980s, come to be viewed more and more as viable alternatives to the use of more deadly force. The manufacturers of OC claim that it is safe, non-toxic and that it does not cause permanent or long term health problems. When the researchers of this report contacted 16 OC manufacturers with a questionnaire relative to their medical studies, not one of them returned it, nor did any provide medical documentation. Instead they cited a highly questionable 1989 FBI study and, according to the report, "the assumption that [OC is] a byproduct of chili peppers." Their claim as to the safety of the spray is at least open to question since, in the words of the report, "both short term and long term medical research is non existent and recent discovered medical literature research reveals the existence of health care risks to ... exposure to OC." The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has reported 60 deaths since it began monitoring the use of the spray in 1993.

The purpose of the PPCT report, according to its authors, is not to suggest that OC use be halted but to look at approximately 150 medical studies and research relative to the spray and its use. They make clear that PPCT supports the use of OC as an alternative to violent force and intends this study to serve as warning of dangers inherent in the use of OC that might redound to the disadvantage of police officers using the product. They cite a 1993 Department of Defense review of the medical literature linking OC to "mutagenic effects, ... cardiovascular [and] pulmonary toxicity, neurotoxicity and human fatalities." A 1996 report related OC to "gastric cancers, vision loss [and] brain and nerve damage." The report finds these medical studies "troubling and pos[ing] significant considerations to law enforcement ... [There is] a consistent pattern where OC products may be hazardous to individuals with respiratory conditions or vascular disease." Long term effects on the eyes, particularly the possibility of cornea damage are also troubling and "OC could be fatal to individuals with cardiac or respiratory conditions."

Most police departments lack clear policies with respect to the use of OC, and its dangers could well cause both civil litigation and workmen's compensation problems. One of the rationales behind the use of OC had been that, since it is safe to use, there would be no litigation resulting from allegations of police brutality - and hence no costs to the community. Many of the OC deaths, however, have resulted in civil litigation and "administrators are [therefore] encouraged to review their ... policies and develop a section on the proper ... use of OC."

The report concludes on a note of advice to police departments to protect their own personnel during all training involving the use of OC. The authors note that "[it] is strongly recommended that officers do not fully be exposed to OC without eye and face protection." All well and good, to be sure, but one wonders about all those in the general public - in whose name the police theoretically work - since they do not customarily go about wearing "eye and face protection" when they venture on the street, much less when in their own homes.

A copy of this abstract, or of the complete 60 page report, The Medical Implications of OC Sprays, researched and written by Mike Doubet, can be obtained by writing to: PPCT Management Systems, Inc., at 500 South Illinois, Millstadt, Illinois 62260.

The Abuse of U.S. Women Prisoners

It is really like this dirty little secret that everyone in corrections knows about and doesn't want to talk about. It is a huge problem." The words are those of Brenda Smith, senior counsel of the National Women's Law Center quoted in the December 1996 Human Rights Watch report, All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. State Prisons. The study, carried out between March 1994 and November 1996, covered 11 state prisons in five states: California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan and New York and the District of Columbia. In all of the states women prisoners who had alleged sexual abused were interviewed; this was not passable in the District of Columbia because litigation1 was then in progress; the women plaintiffs were under court order concealing their identities. Interviews were also conducted with both federal and state correction personnel, district attorneys, guards, lawyers, prisoner aid organizations and former prisoners.

An opening chapter of summary and recommendations precedes a chapter of necessary historical and legal background information. Between 1980 and 1994 the number of women entering all US prisons increased almost four-fold. Notwithstanding this considerable increase, the approximately 96,000 women in prison still constitute only about six percent of the total prison population. Most of the growth has been caused by legislation around the "war on crime and drugs." Fifty-five percent of the increase is attributed to drug-related crime. Eighty percent of women prisoners have at least one child.

Legal background contains in-depth coverage of pertinent national and international laws as well as of current relevant U.S. legislation. The former are largely contained in the United States Constitution's Eighth and Fourth Amendments forbidding cruel and unusual punishment and providing for the right to privacy; and in The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1993) and the Convention Against Torture (1994), both ratified, by the United States. Current legislation includes The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, which restricts litigation to matters specifically covered by federal statute or the constitution - and severely restricts a prisoner's right to seek redress for conditions violative of her rights; limits court-granted attorneys' fees - often the only payment attorneys receive - which may limit a prisoner's ability to retain counsel; and terminates any court order against illegal prison conditions after two years whether or not the court order has been fulfilled.

Each jurisdiction is complete in its own chapter which may be consulted individually: where information is common to all of them it is repeated. Each follows the same outline beginning with a picture of the prison system for that jurisdiction and of the women there incarcerated.

In all jurisdictions the number of male guards in contact positions with women prisoners exceeds the corresponding number of women guards. This is true even in New York where, until 1976, only women were allowed to work in the housing units of that state's women's prisons: Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on sex. The courts have been unwilling to qualify an employee's sex as a bona fide occupational qualification. Each jurisdiction's laws and regulations are briefly summarized and the national and international laws protecting prisoners' rights are repeated

There is graphic and detailed detailed discussion of the abuses found in each jurisdiction and the corresponding responses of custodial authorities. Grievance procedures and investigatory procedures, where they exist, are described. The sexual abuse to which women are subjected is treated as abuse of custodial authority rather than in the context of the specific abuse perpetrated - e.g., rape, sodomy - and is roughly categorized as to whether it violates the Eighth or the Fourth Amendment. Each chapter concludes with a short section containing HRW recommendations specific to that jurisdiction

The single appendix consists entirely of the United Nation's "Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners" adopted in 1955. This document codifies existing standards by which prisons the world over are judged and was so used by HRW. The resulting carefully documented report belongs on the desk of every legislator in the country and in every prison library. It should be required reading and study in every penal institution housing women.

1. Women Prisoners of the D.C. Dept of Correction v. D.C. Dept. of Correction, 8T7 F. Supp. 934 (D.D.C. 1994)

The report may be obtained for $24 from Human Rights Watch, 485 Fifth Avenue, New York New York 10017-6104.

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