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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by David C Fathi

Shouldn’t Innocence Matter?

By David Fathi

On August 17, the US Supreme Court ordered a lower federal court in Georgia to conduct a hearing in the case of Troy Anthony Davis. Davis has been on Georgia’s death row for 18 years, sentenced to death for the 1989 murder of an off-duty Savannah police officer, Mark Allen MacPhail.

The prosecution’s case rested almost entirely on testimony from eyewitnesses, but seven of the nine who testified against Davis at his trial recanted and now say they are not sure who shot MacPhail. Three people now say that another man has confessed to the crime. However, because of strict rules limiting consideration of new evidence, no court has held a hearing on the evidence of Davis’ innocence, and he has come within hours of execution.

The Supreme Court directed the lower court to hear testimony and determine “whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes [Davis’] innocence.” This is a welcome result. But the shocking truth is that even if the court concludes that Davis is innocent, that may not be enough to save him from the death chamber.

As Justice Scalia pointed out in dissenting from ...

Custody Vs. Treatment Debate: Addicted to Punishment

By David Fathi
U.S. program director, Human Rights Watch

American and Canadian societies are similar in many ways – people eat the same foods, watch the same movies, listen to the same music, and make many visits across the border. But these similarities conceal profound differences. For one, the U.S. incarceration rate is more than six times as high as Canada’s, and the United States has a homicide rate more than three times as high as its northern neighbor.

Those who argue that incarceration is the answer to our crime problems are hard-pressed to explain why Canada can incarcerate a much smaller proportion of its people and still have a substantially lower homicide rate. But we don’t need to cross the border to find evidence that crime doesn’t necessarily go down when incarceration goes up.

Louisiana’s incarceration rate is more than six times the rate in Maine. If incarceration worked as a crime control strategy, we’d expect Louisiana to have less crime than Maine.

In fact, just the opposite is true: You’re three times as likely to have your car stolen, five times as likely to be robbed, and almost nine times as ...

Prison’s Littlest Victims

By David Fathi

The US criminal justice system may be on the verge of its biggest overhaul in decades. Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) is sponsoring a bill to establish a blue-ribbon commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system and make recommendations for reform. Legislation has been introduced to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, reduce penalties for some drug offenses, and make other significant changes. As lawmakers consider these reforms, they should remember not only those who are sent to prison, but also the children they leave behind.

The United States incarcerates more people than any other country on earth, with almost 2.4 million persons behind bars on any given day. That figure, though, actually understates the number of people being locked up; the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), a division of the US Department of Justice, estimates that more than 13 million people pass through the nation’s jails in a single year.

Of course being the world’s leading prison nation comes with a price tag. The average annual operating cost for a prison bed -- the amount it costs to incarcerate one person for one year -- is about $24,000; in some states, it’s ...

An unfair prison litigation system

By David Fathi | August 25, 2009

IN 2004, a teenage girl incarcerated at the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville was sexually abused by a male employee at the facility. The abuse consisted of repeated acts of oral sex and sexual intercourse. There was no doubt that the abuse occurred, and the employee ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of criminal sexual assault.

The girl, identified in court documents as “B,’’ eventually filed suit in federal court, seeking compensation. But in July, a federal judge in Chicago dismissed her case. Why? Because she had failed to comply with the technical requirements of a little-known federal law called the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).

This law, passed in 1996, creates a separate and unequal legal system for the more than 2.3 million prisoners in the United States. It singles out their lawsuits for a host of burdens and restrictions that apply to no one else. These restrictions cover not only those who have been convicted of crime, but also pretrial detainees, who are presumed innocent, and - as B discovered - youth in juvenile facilities. Human Rights Watch is unaware of any other country in which national legislation singles out prisoners for a ...

Texas Increasingly out of Step on Death Penalty

By David Fathi
Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
May 23, 2009, 3:44PM

Barring unexpected events, in the next few weeks Gov. Rick Perry of Texas will oversee his 200th execution since taking office in 2000. Perry has already allowed more executions than any other U.S. governor in modern history, far exceeding the 152 while George W. Bush was governor and the 50 overseen by Bush’s immediate predecessor, Ann Richards.

The United States is a global pariah for its continued embrace of the death penalty. In 2008 it was the world’s fourth-leading executioner, surpassed only by China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Since executions resumed in 1977, after a hiatus of several years, more than 1,161 U.S. prisoners have been shot, hanged, electrocuted, gassed or put to death by lethal injection.

Yet it is somewhat misleading to attribute this appalling record to “the United States.” Unlike in most other countries, criminal justice in the United States is largely a matter of state law and policy. Only three executions since 1977 have been carried out by the federal government; the rest have been carried out by the states, and the vast majority by a mere handful of states ...

32 Years on Death Row

By David C. Fathi

When William Lee Thompson committed the murder that landed him on Florida's death row, Gerald Ford was president. Thompson has now been incarcerated for almost 33 years, most of it under sentence of death. He has spent much of that time in isolation 23 hours a day, in a 6-by-9-foot cell. Death warrants for him were signed twice and stayed only shortly before he was to be executed.

This week, the Supreme Court refused to hear Thompson's claim that his execution after more than 30 years on death row would violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Normally when the Court declines to hear a case it does so without comment, but this case sparked lively debate.

Justice Clarence Thomas ridiculed the idea that a prisoner who challenges his death sentence can then complain about the length of time he has spent on death row. Justices Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens, however, took Thompson's claim far more seriously. Breyer noted that the delay was hardly all Thompson's fault. The judge at his trial had excluded certain mitigating evidence, which the Supreme Court later ruled was unconstitutional, resulting ...

Prison Nation

By David C. Fathi

It's become a depressingly predictable event. Every few months, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), a branch of the US Department of Justice, releases new figures showing that the US prison and jail population has grown yet again and has reached a new all-time high. The latest statistics, released last week, show that as of June 30, 2008, more than 2.3 million people were behind bars in this country -- an increase of almost 20 percent just since 2000. This gives the United States an incarceration rate of 762 per 100,000 residents - the highest rate in the world, dwarfing those of other democracies like Great Britain (152 per 100,000), Canada (116), and Japan (63).

Of course incarceration doesn't affect everyone equally. Black men in the United States are 6.6 times more likely than white men to be incarcerated. More than 10 percent of all black males ages 25 to 39 were in prison or jail as of June 30, 2008. And a 2006 BJS study showed that prisons and jails have become the new asylums, with more than half of all prisoners suffering from mental health problems like major depression and ...

Executing the Innocent?

By David C. Fathi

At 7 p.m. on September 23, the state of Georgia plans to execute Troy Anthony Davis. That by itself is unremarkable; Georgia has carried out 42 executions since 1983, including two since May of this year. What makes this case different are the serious questions that have been raised about Davis' trial -- and therefore about the reliability of his conviction for the crime for which he is to die.

Davis was sentenced to death for the 1989 murder of an off-duty Savannah police officer, Mark Allen MacPhail. Of the nine eyewitnesses who testified against him at his trial, seven have since recanted and now say they are not sure who shot MacPhail. Some say they gave their original statements only after the police pressured them. Three witnesses now say that another man has confessed to the crime.

Even without this new evidence, Davis' death sentence would raise red flags. Studies show that black defendants are more likely to get the death penalty than white defendants, and those convicted of killing white victims are more often sentenced to death than those who kill blacks. Davis is black; Officer MacPhail was white. No physical evidence linked Davis ...

Obama Administration Contends Prisoner Has No Right to DNA Testing

By David C. Fathi

DNA testing is a uniquely powerful crime-solving tool. Testing crime scene evidence using new and advanced techniques has solved many previously unsolved crimes, leading to the arrest and conviction of rapists and other violent criminals. Just as important, DNA testing has exonerated at least 232 innocent persons who had been wrongly convicted, including 17 who had been sentenced to death for crimes they didn't commit.

For these reasons, John Ashcroft, Attorney General in the George W. Bush administration, has called DNA testing "the truth machine of law enforcement, ensuring justice by identifying the guilty and exonerating the innocent." But on Monday, a lawyer for the Obama administration will argue in the Supreme Court that a prisoner who claims he is innocent has no constitutional right to have DNA from the crime scene tested -- even if he is willing to pay the costs himself.

In fairness, the Obama Justice Department inherited this case from the Bush administration, which filed a brief supporting the prosecution less than three weeks before leaving office. But lawyers for the prisoner, William G. Osborne, asked the new administration to change its position in the case, as it is entitled to do ...

Separate and Unequal Justice for Prisoners

By David C. Fathi

S.Z., a resident in a juvenile detention facility, was raped and repeatedly beaten by other detainees over a period of months. Some staff encouraged the beatings and would arrange fights between detainees. But when S.Z. filed suit against state officials, his case was dismissed. Because S.Z. was considered a prisoner under federal law, his failure to file a written complaint with the detention facility within 48 hours of each rape or beating had forfeited his right to sue, regardless of the harm he had suffered.

The United States considers itself a nation of equality before the law. But for one population, the promise of equal justice is illusory. The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), passed by Congress in 1996, creates a separate and unequal legal system for the 2.3 million incarcerated persons in the United States.

The PLRA singles out lawsuits brought by prisoners for a host of burdens and restrictions that apply to no other group. As a result of these restrictions, courts have thrown out cases brought by prisoners seeking protection against unhealthy or dangerous conditions of confinement, or those seeking a remedy for injuries inflicted by prison staff and ...


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