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Articles by Ken Silverstein

Prison Postcards: “I feel as though I was either in a car accident or beaten by a baseball bat.”

With the possible exception of Brazil, no country has handled the pandemic worse than the United States. In early July, Arizona, Florida and South Carolina had the world’s worst per capita infection rates. The Middle Eastern country of Bahrain was fourth. Overall, nine of the world’s top dozen hot spots were U.S. states. 

No one knows where the pandemic will head next — as I write, California is being pummeled with new cases — but there’s been one constant from the moment the pandemic hit the country: prisons and jails hosted the worst outbreaks. When I wrote this column last month, statistics compiled by The Marshall Project showed that at least 43,967 people in prison had tested positive and 522 prisoners had died of COVID-19. As I write today, 64,119 prisoners ...

Interview: Jessica Sandoval of Unlock the Box on Solitary Confinement

by Ken Silverstein

Unlock the Box supports education and advocacy efforts on the national, state, and local levels to advance the goal of ending solitary confinement in the United States. The coalition defines solitary confinement for adults as “confinement for more than 20 hours per day, alone or with a cellmate, without meaningful human contact.” Jessica Sandoval, the group’s national campaign strategist, has 25 years of experience reforming the youth and adult justice systems. She develops and administers strategies and tools to support state campaigns aligned with the mission of the “stop solitary” movement. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How widespread is the use of solitary in U.S. prisons? Is it used strictly to punish violent offenders or more casually? If the latter, what other reasons are prisoners put in solitary? 

From self-reported Department of Corrections data compiled by Yale’s Arthur Lima Center for Public Interest Law we know that solitary is widespread and the estimates are conservative: 60,000-80,000 prisoners are held. This number only includes the 43 states that reported. Florida and a dozen other states didn’t participate, and this number doesn’t include youth facilities, or jails. So, we believe the number to be ...

Prison Postcards: A Plea from Kentucky and Dispatches from Texas and Massachusetts

by Ken Silverstein

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, prisoners, their families and advocates have braced for major outbreaks at America’s prisons and jails. It’s still not clear just how bad prisoners are going to be hit, but numbers are climbing at an alarming rate. As of June 9, joint reporting by the Associated Press and The Marshall Project found at least 43,967 people in prison had tested positive – and that was an 8 percent increase from just one week before. On that date, at least 522 prisoners had died of COVID-19.

In early April, Attorney General William Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to speed up early releases to home confinement due to “emergency conditions” created by the coronavirus. Instead, federal prisons – and state prisons and jails – have moved incredibly slowly, leading to multiple lawsuits across the country.

Few social distancing measures have been put into place, while lockdowns and punishment have been employed in place of releases. “COVID-19 has led to an explosion in the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers,” said a report released in mid-June by an advocacy group called Unlock the Box, with research provided by ...

Interview: Alec Karakatsanis of the Civil Rights Corps on Money Bail and Debtors’ Prisons

by Ken Silverstein

Alec Karakatsanis is the founder and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Civil Rights Corps. He previously worked as a civil rights lawyer and public defender with the Special Litigation Division of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and as a federal public defender in Alabama, representing impoverished people accused of federal crimes. He also co-founded the nonprofit organization Equal Justice Under Law.

When was the Civil Rights Corps founded and what are its main goals?

Civil Rights Corps was founded in 2016, and its main goals are to use innovative litigation, advocacy, and storytelling to dismantle the criminal punishment bureaucracy. The goal is to desensitize people to the everyday brutality of the system and to highlight that the system is set up to serve the interests of white supremacy and wealth.

How big of a national problem is the money bail system? Can you briefly describe a particularly egregious case CRC is challenging?

The money bail system detains about 400,000 human beings in cages every single night, solely because they cannot make a monetary payment. Millions more each year are released, but their families have to pay billions to for-profit commercial bail-bond companies ...

Prison Postcards: Official Accounts Differ from Prisoner Accounts as the Pandemic Spreads

Ever since the coronavirus epidemic exploded in the United States earlier this year, government officials have reassured the public that they had things tightly under control. On February 26, before anyone in the country had died from COVID-19, President Donald Trump confidently stated that only 15 Americans had tested positive and “within a couple of days [that number] is going to be down to close to zero.”

Here we are – on May 18, as PLN is nearing its press date – and we have more than 1.5 million confirmed cases and over 90,000 dead. We don’t know if those numbers are entirely accurate, but the media is able to cover the pandemic and the public is generally well informed about the total number of cases, and where they are rising and falling.

Inside prisons and jails, the situation is quite different. Prisons, along with nursing homes and meatpacking plants, have emerged as the primary epicenters of the disease. A study by the ACLU has estimated that if prisons and jails don’t get the situation under control, the death toll in the United States could double. Even during normal times, press access to prisoners is limited and, ...

Interview: David Fathi of ACLU’s National Prison Project on Criminal Justice Reform in the Age of Coronavirus

David Fathi is Director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, which brings challenges to conditions of confinement in prisons, jails, and other detention facilities, and works to end the policies that have given the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. He worked as a staff lawyer at the Project for more than ten years before becoming director in 2010, and has special expertise in challenging “supermax” prisons

What are the main goals of the ACLU’s National Prison Project?

We have three principal goals. First, to roll back the laws and policies that have given the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. Second, to ensure that incarcerated people are held in conditions that comply with domestic and international law, and meet minimal standards of health, safety, and human dignity. And finally, to combat the extreme racial inequities that infect every level of the criminal legal system.

What are the main barriers you face in seeking to reduce the country’s high level of incarceration? Has public opinion moved in your favor over the past decade or so? What about political opinion? Everyone seems to recognize that we have too many ...

Interview: Don Specter of the Prison Law Office on California Prisons, COVID-19 and Governor Newsom

Don Specter is the executive director of the Berkeley, California-based Prison Law Office, a nonprofit public interest law firm that provides free legal services to adult and juvenile offenders. It has litigated numerous successful institutional reform cases that, among other things, have improved health-care services, guaranteed prisoners with disabilities reasonable accommodations and equal access to prison programs, reduced the use of excessive force, limited racial discrimination and restricted the use of solitary confinement in adult and juvenile correctional systems.

When was the Prison Law Office founded and what is its history?

In 1976, two recent law school graduates started the Prison Law Office in an old shack right outside the gates of San Quentin with a small donation from Catholic Charities. Their focus was to improve the living conditions at San Quentin by providing free legal services to the people confined in that prison. The first cases involved relatively discrete issues on behalf of individuals at San Quentin. As the staff gained more experience and with the pro bono help of large law firms the office began bringing class actions at individual prisons on behalf of people in segregation, on death row and for medical and mental health care. When ...

Prison Postcards: Prisoners Write About Fears, Incompetence, at Their Facilities

On April 15, President Donald Trump announced that the coronavirus pandemic had peaked in the United States. That same day, nearly 2,300 people in the country died from COVID-19, the disease cause by the virus, which was the highest tally in a single day. The following day the number nearly doubled.

That brought the nationwide death toll to more than 35,000 and the number of cases to about 650,000. The U.S. has slightly more than 4% of the world population but, rather astonishingly, nearly one-third of all global cases and more than one-fifth of all deaths as of April 16.

All this raises serious doubts about whether or not the incidence of coronavirus will decline significantly any time soon, as the president optimistically stated. Predicting how a global pandemic will unfold is a fool’s errand, as the coronavirus outbreak has well demonstrated. The media has trotted out “scientific” models that show sharply different outcomes, with some allegedly reputable experts having claimed up to 2 million Americans will die while others say the death count will be around 60,000.

One thing that’s absolutely clear, though, is that the situation is particularly dire in America’s carceral complex, with the ...

What’s It Like Inside? Early Snapshots from Prisons During the Coronavirus Pandemic

As we are putting together the April issue of PLN, the situation with the novel coronavirus is changing by the hour, if not the minute. In the United States, the number of cases has climbed from 213 on March 8 to 173.041 on March 31 — ...

America's Private Gulag

What is the most profitable industry in America? Weapons, oil and computer technology all offer high rates of return, but there is probably no sector of the economy so abloom with money as the privately-run prison industry.

Consider the growth of the Corrections Corporation of America, the industry leader whose ...