I knew Jon well, although not as well as I’d have liked. We corresponded a few hundred times, with him writing more than me, and I visited him four or five times. Some might recognize Jon’s name from the Prison Policy Initiative advisory board, but very few people know that Jon was the first person to recognize how the Census Bureau’s prison miscount could distort state legislative redistricting.
In the late 1990s, Jon and filmmaker Tracy Huling, working independently, linked the Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of the location where they were imprisoned to negative political and economic effects. Tracy and Jon’s efforts started people talking about the issue, and it was this “rumor” that I initially set out to debunk. I was skeptical that the prison system was large enough for census counts of correctional populations to distort the federal budget or congressional districts. It turns out that the Census Bureau’s prison miscount did have only a very tiny effect on the distribution of federal funds, but it was Jon’s work that first drew my attention to the distortion on state legislative districting.
The Offense and the Trials
Jon Yount committed a horrible murder in 1966 when he was 27 years old. In a few moments a young woman’s life ended forever, and in the eyes of the state of Pennsylvania, those moments were to define the rest of Jon’s life. He rejected the state’s view and spent the rest of his life showing to himself and others that he was much better than his worst act.
After his death, I re-read some of the court decisions from his case. The experience was a stark reminder of how trials were once conducted in this country. Jon’s first conviction was thrown out because the police had violated his constitutional rights. (The Supreme Court’s landmark Miranda case protecting defendants from unconstitutional interrogation techniques came down after his arrest). At his second trial, 77% of the jury pool in the small rural community was familiar with the case and had already formed an opinion against him. Worse, 8 out of the 14 jurors stated their bias and were kept on the jury anyway. The judge refused to move the trial.
A federal magistrate thought that this trial, too, violated the Constitution. The district court disagreed, but a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit found that Jon “... has shown that the pretrial publicity caused actual prejudice to a degree rendering a fair trial impossible in Clearfield County. After examining the totality of circumstances, we hold that petitioner’s [second trial] was not fundamentally fair.” See: Yount v. Patton, 710 F.2d 956, 972 (3d Cir. 1983).
Unfortunately, by a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit’s decision. The Supreme Court’s word was final, but Jon, ever cognizant of vote totals and trends, once summarized the point in a letter by stating, “Thus, by a narrow 7-6 margin, the federal judges who reviewed my case let the conviction stand.”
The Sentence and the Escape
Even though the highest court in the nation had upheld his conviction, Jon still had a realistic chance of seeing freedom again. Decades ago, a life sentence didn’t necessarily mean a person would die in prison. When Jon was convicted, lifers served an average of about 12 years prior to commutation. He was a model prisoner and was recommended for a commutation after he had served 7 years. He didn’t receive that commutation, nor did he receive any of the others he was recommended for in the first two decades of his sentence.
Frustrated, and with the number of commutations granted by the governor in free fall, Jon had had enough.
In 1986, he walked away from a work detail at SCI Rockview and traveled the West. He eventually settled in Boise, Idaho with a girlfriend he had met as a pen pal while incarcerated. Using the name Jim Forsgren, he was a model Boise citizen who literally fed the poor and visited the sick. Nearly two years later, after being featured on NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries, Jon was arrested. Following his arrest, the Idaho Statesmen ran an article with the headline, “Friendly Idahoan caught as fugitive: Bad past catches up with ‘good neighbor.’”
After his return to prison, Jon applied for commutation one more time with a request to move back to Idaho. The Idaho Statesman summarized, “Forsgren or Yount, he’s liked: Friends say killer would be welcome.” As his landlord’s sister-in-law explained, “To me, although he murdered someone, Jon isn’t a murderer.... If they ever were to come back to Idaho, they certainly would have a place to stay – here with us.” Unfortunately, the state didn’t agree and he remained, and ultimately died, in prison.
The Jailhouse Lawyer
I never asked Jon if he was always interested in politics and the law, but I know that by the early 1990s he was using the legal skills he developed working on his own cases to benefit the larger population of incarcerated people. He strategically picked his cases for maximum impact. The two that I am most familiar with were Mixon and T-Netix.
Mixon v. Commonwealth challenged Pennsylvania’s system of banning people in prison and people recently released from prison from voting, and separately challenged prison-based gerrymandering in state legislative districts. Jon prepared the lawsuit and it was filed by civil rights attorney Sam Stretton. The plaintiffs were several black and Latino men incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons, and Maureen Williams, a black female voter from Philadelphia. Mixon was the first case to raise the issue of prison-based gerrymandering in the state legislative context, although that particular claim was quickly dismissed because it was a part of a re-enfranchisement suit and not a redistricting one.
When Mixon was filed, Pennsylvania disenfranchised two groups of people: People in prison couldn’t vote, and people who had been released within the past 5 years couldn’t register to vote. People who had been registered to vote prior to incarceration, however, could vote after they were released. The court struck down the latter restriction, stating, “We can conceive of no rationale for permitting those who were registered previous to incarceration to vote on their release, while those who were not previously registered, cannot. Such a statute has the appearance of penalizing ex-incarcerated felons for their status.” See: Mixon v. Commonwealth, 759 A.2d 442, 451-452 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2000) [PLN, March 2002, p.19].
In 2005, the Pennsylvania legislature attempted to roll back this ruling and ban both probationers and parolees from the polls. Jon successfully organized against the law, which the New York Times called “a shameful step backward” … “at a time when the rest of the country is moving in the opposite direction.”
In Yount v. T-Netix, Jon brought the prison system’s abusive telephone rates and billing practices before the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and won refunds in 2008.
The Department of Corrections (DOC) required all incarcerated people wishing to call their loved ones to use a particular company that charged exorbitant rates. The company, T-Netix, in exchange for the monopoly contract, would kick back $3 million a year plus 32 to 40% of the revenue from every prison phone call. Further increasing the cost to incarcerated people and their families, the phone system would arbitrarily disconnect calls, forcing them to pay another reconnection charge in order to continue their conversations.
The prison population is a significant market for telephone services and incarcerated people are the very definition of a captive market, carrying all of the associated potentials for abuse. As the Commissioners wrote in their order requiring T-Netix to refund the improper charges:
“We are troubled that T-Netix did not regard the inmates as customers, even when their calls were paid for using the inmates’ prepaid accounts.... While the erroneous disconnections themselves are difficult for the inmates, the fact that T-Netix has done little or nothing to investigate complaints or to make refunds, when appropriate, is unacceptable.” See: Jon E. Yount, et. al. v. T-Netix, Inc. and T-Netix Telecommunications, Inc., Penn. Public Utility Commission, Docket No. C-20042655.
Jon’s successful work against the DOC’s high telephone rates carried a high cost. The prison system retaliated. He was transferred from SCI Huntingdon in central Pennsylvania to the remote SCI Greene facility on the West Virginia border. At Huntingdon, where he had been confined for 16 years without a single disciplinary infraction, there was a large lifers group he worked with and his family and supporters could conveniently visit him. As Jon explained to me in the letter announcing his transfer, at Greene there were no “inmate organizations” and it was far more difficult for family and friends to visit.
I know I was only able to visit at Greene once. And I can report that unlike in Huntington, where the visiting room was always crowded with families, when I was at Greene shortly before Christmas in 2008, the visiting room was almost empty. That’s not surprising, given the location. The state’s prison population disproportionately comes from Philadelphia. The Huntingdon prison was 127 miles from Philadelphia, but SCI Greene was 330 miles away. I could see why Jon would quip in one letter that he had been transferred to “Siberia-South.”
This article, though, is about Jon’s accomplishments, not his struggles, so let me go back to how I met him.
When I was investigating the Census Bureau’s prison miscount, I was inspired to focus on state legislative redistricting because of a short article by Robert T. Hoetzel that showed how 10% of a state house district could be incarcerated. The article framed this as a “one person one vote” issue, and explained:
“The advantage of incorporating a penitentiary or two in one’s district is the best kept secret in politics. It’s the newest form of gerrymandering. There’s no reason for politicians to show any regard for inmates’ concerns, views or political parties. A politician might represent them, but inmates have no power. They can’t vote. For the ‘host’ district’s office-holder, it’s the best of all worlds!”
I naively assumed this article was just an isolated bit of brilliance and didn’t think much more about it for a year. Over a year later, after I had completed my academic paper on prison populations and redistricting, I wrote to Mr. Hoetzel to share a copy of my report and politely inquire if he had done any other similar research or writing.
As it turned out, Mr. Hoetzel was to be paroled in under two weeks, so he shared my letter with the Pennsylvania Lifers’ Association and one of their elected Trustees, Jon E. Yount. As I quickly learned, they had been working on census issues for some time. Jon had published a short thesis about felon disenfranchisement that addressed the census counts of prison populations, and had also raised that issue in the Mixon lawsuit. But having exhausted their remedies in state court, Jon and the Lifers’ Association were stuck. They had a lot of ideas on next steps, but, as Jon told me many times, “there are limits to what you can do with a number after your name.”
Jon asked me to run with the issue, and run with it we did. After a decade of work we made prison-based gerrymandering one of the central controversies of the 2010 Census.
In 2010 and 2011, four states passed legislation ending prison-based gerrymandering within their borders. The Maryland and New York laws are already in effect and have been up-held by the courts. We’re also making systemic progress at the Census Bureau. [See: PLN, Dec. 2012, p.1].
The Bureau squandered the planning time necessary to count incarcerated people at home in 2010, but it did agree to a critical interim step: changing how it publishes the data. This ultra-technical change made it easier for state and local governments – especially rural counties – to avoid engaging in prison-based gerrymandering by manually correcting the Census data to better reflect the actual population of an area.
There is plenty of work still to be done on prison-based gerrymandering, especially in Jon’s home state of Pennsylvania. In 2009, Elena Lavarreda and I released a report, Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Pennsylvania, which found that eight state house districts would not have met minimum population requirements without using prison populations as padding.
Other Political and Social Issues
Beyond legal writing, Jon also wrote a lot of short columns for various publications about general criminal justice matters and political issues. While many of these articles were specific to Pennsylvania, we helped make some of his writings that spoke to a larger audience available on the web.
One of Jon’s last big projects was a report that reviewed Pennsylvania’s parole policies and offered proposals for reform. He was concerned that incarcerated people were following the recommendations of the parole board to the letter only to be repeatedly denied at parole hearings. As a lifer, parole reform was something that he would never benefit from – his only possible way out of prison was via commutation. But Jon could recognize a systemic problem when he saw one, so he prepared a massive briefing for the state committee that was investigating the parole system.
His 2004 report, Pennsylvania: Parole and Life Imprisonment, was a history of parole policy in the state from 1911 to 2001. Critically, he explained that contrary to the present public understanding, parole was never intended as an act of clemency but as a valid disciplinary tool for those deemed capable of supervised rehabilitation outside prison walls. Over a period of 90 years that original intent was lost, replacing what was once intended as a rational determination of whether an incarcerated person is ready for release with a narrow fixation on what that person did years or decades ago that resulted in their prison sentence.
One point was a source of tension between Jon and myself. I was fond of writing things like, “Despite common misconceptions, most people in prison are serving short sentences, and very few incarcerated people are sentenced to life without parole.” Jon didn’t like my use of the term “short” to describe either the median imposed sentence of less than 3 years or the fact that the median time served before release in state prisons was less than 2 years. Jon’s concern – ironic for a lifer – was that in both historical and international terms, modern American sentences are quite long for all types of offenses.
My intent was to distinguish, in the mind of the public, between the permanence of prison buildings and the transience of most of the people confined there. Jon thought, correctly, that I was normalizing the extreme sentencing policies in the U.S.
Other than emphasizing the unique statistic we found in New York – that the median time an incarcerated person has been at his or her current facility is 7.1 months – I’m still trying to figure out how to explain both contexts at the same time. Life sentences have always been rare, both when Jon went to prison in the 1960s and when he died in 2012. But Jon was incarcerated long enough to see firsthand how the typical sentence for everyone else was getting longer.1
Jon’s story is exceptional, even apart from his accomplishments. His experience as a lifer who lost hope and died in prison is not the experience of nearly all of the estimated 16 million people who will cycle through state or federal prisons within their lifetimes.2
Most incarcerated people experience prison as a temporary – if permanently life-altering – experience. It is no accident that this constantly-shifting population has a hard time becoming politically engaged. Lifers like Jon are often a challenge to the system because they can develop the social, political and legal relationships on both sides of the walls that are necessary to make change happen.
The unfortunate reality is that society gave up on Jon Yount a long time ago, and never intended to let him be free. To his credit, Jon never gave up on society. He left this world having made major contributions to the lives of the poor, the sick and the incarcerated.
Jon’s long and productive life in prison shows just how wrong it is to assume that a single bad act can define someone forever.
And much to the regret of the prison system, Jon generally saw the system’s efforts to disrupt his work as inspiration to strive even harder. As he explained to Howard Zehr for Zehr’s book, Doing Life: Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Sentences: “When something happens, I can’t go in, close the door, turn on the television, and ignore it, like some people do. Me, I have to confront. If I don’t like something, I have to deal with it. If it’s filing a complaint, if it’s filing a brief in court, if it’s trying to change something within the prison system – when there’s something that bothers me, that’s the way I deal with things.”
We are very glad that he did.
Peter Wagner is an attorney and executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, which documents the impact of mass incarceration on individuals, communities and the national welfare in order to empower the public to improve criminal justice policy. This article, which is reprinted with permission, was originally published in a longer version on PPI’s blog at: www.prisonersofthecensus.org/news/2012/05/22/jon-e-yount. A small archive of Jon’s writings is available at: www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/yount.
1 As the Prison Policy Initiative and the National Voting Rights Institute wrote in an amicus brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit:
“It is important to distinguish the rise in incarceration from the rise in crime. Incarceration rates reflect political and institutional decisions about the length of sentences and the extent to which arrests and convictions should result in prison terms rather than other interventions. As one researcher has written:
“Looking at the overall factors leading to the rise in incarceration, research has demonstrated that changes in criminal justice policy, rather than changes in crime rates, have been the most significant contributors leading to the rise in state prison populations. A regression analysis of the rise in the number of inmates from 1980 to 1996 concluded that one half (51.4 percent) of the increase was explained by a greater likelihood of a prison sentence upon arrest, one third (36.6 percent) by an increase in time served in prison, and just one ninth (11.5 percent) by higher offense rates.”
Marc Mauer, Race to Incarcerate 34 (1999) (citing Alfred Blumstein and Allen J. Beck, “Population Growth in U.S. Prisons, 1980-1996,” in 26 Crime and Justice: A Review of Research 43 (Michael Tonry & Joan Petersilia, eds., 2000)). Political choices, not an increased crime rate, largely control the tremendous increase in the numbers of persons incarcerated....”
2 In 1997, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated, in “Lifetime Likelihood of Going to State or Federal Prison,” that if 1991 rates of incarceration held constant, 5.1% of people will go to state or federal prison in their lifetime. (The rate for African-American men is far higher, at 28.5%). Assuming that 1991 incarceration rates would hold constant was a necessary assumption that hasn’t held up. Given that the 1991 rates of incarceration did not hold constant, rising 58% from 1991 to 2010 (313 per 100,000 to 497 per 100,000), it would be reasonable to assume that the Bureau of Justice Statistics would estimate a higher figure than a 5.1% lifetime likelihood of going to state or federal prison today. The Bureau’s analysis did not include jails because the necessary data did not exist. This figure would further raise the 5.1% estimate. Our 16 million figure was calculated by multiplying 5.1% by the 2010 Census population in the U.S.
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Related legal cases
Jon E. Yount, et. al. v. T-Netix, Inc. and T-Netix Telecommunications, Inc.
|Cite||Penn. Public Utility Commission, Docket No. C-20042655|
Yount v. Patton
|Cite||710 F.2d 956, 972 (3d Cir. 1983)|
|Level||Court of Appeals|