-Jessica Gresko, AP
MIAMI — In her online profile, Paula Jones says she is 42, “nonjudgmental” and likes fishing, gardening and cuddling. There’s a catch, though. Jones’ picture shows her in her blue Florida prison uniform. She won’t be out until at least 2010.
Her listing is posted on a Web site called WriteAPrisoner.com. She’s looking for a pen pal.
“If you’re looking for someone genuine and true, I’m looking for you,” her profile says. “I’m just a stamp away.”
By posting her profile, however, Jones is breaking a rule. Florida officials have banned inmates from having the Match.com-style listings, saying prisoners just create problems for their outside-the-pen pals.
Other states — Missouri, Montana, Indiana and Pennsylvania — have similar restrictions. Now lawsuits in Florida and elsewhere say the bans are unfair and violate First Amendment rights.
“The public knows when they’re writing to these people that they’re prisoners,” said Randall Berg Jr., a lawyer representing two pen pal groups — including Florida-based WriteAPrisoner.com — that have sued in the state. “Nobody is being duped here.”
WriteAPrisoner.com president and owner Adam Lovell says the bulk of the people who use his site to write to inmates are from religious groups, military people stationed overseas and others affected by the prison. Fraud isn’t as widespread as Florida corrections officials suggest, he said.
Jones, who is serving time in a women’s prison north of Orlando, wrote in a letter to The Associated Press that she’s not a danger to potential pen pals. She says she wants someone to write to for emotional support and to be less lonely.
“Not everyone has (ulterior) motives, lies or solicits,” wrote Jones, who pleaded guilty to cocaine possession with the intent to sell. “Some of us … even if it’s very few are truly genuine and hope to meet someone good in our life.”
But the Florida Department of Corrections doesn’t want to take any chances. In 2003, the department changed its policy to prohibit inmates from advertising for pen pals or getting mail from pen pal groups. Inmates who continue to advertise can have privileges such as visitation or phone calls revoked.
The department made the change after receiving complaints from people who had been taken advantage of and from victims and their families who saw prisoners’ ads, said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger.
“We’re doing it to protect the public,” Plessinger said. “Inmates can have pen pals — they just can’t solicit for pen pals.”
Other states make similar arguments and have now drawn similar lawsuits.
In Indiana, the American Civil Liberties Union is representing prisoners protesting the state’s policy, which also prevents inmates from advertising on Web sites or receiving mail from pen pal organizations.
The ACLU also says it is working on a lawsuit over Missouri’s policy and investigating the policy in Montana, where inmates may not receive mail from people who identify themselves as a pen pal.
For now, some Florida inmates are ignoring the ban and listing themselves anyway. The inmates communicate with the sites by sending letters in the mail, and sometimes family members pay the fees for the sites, about $40 a year for WriteAprisoner.com and other sites.
On WriteAprisoner.com, Florida members range from a 41-year-old who tells potential pals she’s a 36DD to a 28-year-old who says he has had a “bumpy lifestyle” and is on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.
Then there’s a man spending life in prison for first-degree murder who has found another way around the ban.
“Please note that the Florida prison system is now locking us up in confinement for placing ads for pen pals,” he writes on his WriteAPrisoner.com page. “So if you respond to this ad please don’t mention the profile.”
Lisa Rogers, Times Staff Writer
July 27, 2009
The Rose Haven Center for Domestic Violence now is in compliance with the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence and is preparing to open a new shelter in Etowah County, said Joy Ballenger, president of the Rose Haven board of directors.
The shelter in Gadsden has been closed since September, and victims of domestic violence in Etowah County were referred to 2nd Chance Inc. in Anniston or Kelly’s Rainbow in Marshall County, Ballenger said. Victims will continue to be referred to the other shelters until a new shelter opens. Ballenger said an exact date is not set, but plans are to reopen a local shelter before the end of the year.
The board members of Rose Haven voted in September to close the shelter temporarily because of financial difficulties. The shelter also had fallen out of compliance with the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence, according to Ballenger.
She said the board has been restructuring and reorganizing and has worked to regain compliance.
“Being out of compliance with ACADV affected the amount of funding we received through (Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs),” Ballenger said. Federal funding is administered through ADECA, and federal funds are used to help pay the shelter’s rent, utilities and employees. Rose Haven also operates on donations.
Rose Haven was organized in 1979 to assist homeless victims of domestic violence in Cherokee, DeKalb and Etowah counties. Clients in Cherokee and DeKalb counties have been served by Kelly’s Rainbow in Marshall County and will continue to be until the shelter reopens, Ballenger said. Rose Haven opened its first shelter in 1985 with a mission to provide safe, confidential shelter, crisis intervention and advocacy for women and children who are victims of domestic violence.
Ballenger said the need for a domestic violence shelter has remained strong since the local shelter closed. “I wish I could say that we didn’t need it, but that is not the case,” she said. “We still desperately need it.” Ballenger said economic difficulties are one of the triggers that provoke domestic violence and abuse. She said she is concerned that economic times will be a factor in an increase in the need for a local shelter.
Crisis calls are accepted 24 hours a day at 543-3059. That is the same phone number previously used, Ballenger said.
The administrative office number has remained the same at 543-2408.
July 27, 2009
A national study found that more prisoners today are serving life sentences across the country than ever before. Alabama ranks among the top three states for number of life sentences imposed and is the national leader in racially disproportionate sentencing of children to life in prison.
Nationwide, 140,610 out of 2.3 million inmates being held in jails and prisons are serving sentences of life imprisonment with or without parole. The study, conducted by the Sentencing Project, noted that number is up from 34,000 life sentences in 1984.
Alabama ranks third in the country in the percentage of inmates it locks up for life with or without parole: 17.3 percent of the state prison population is serving life. Alabama has the nation’s fifth largest incarceration rate, and the state’s overcrowded, underfunded prison system is under increasing strain.
Two-thirds of prisoners serving life sentences in the United States are Latino or black. Alabama leads the nation with the highest percentage of African American children serving life sentences. More than 84% of children sentenced to life without parole in Alabama are black; the national average is 56%.
Alabama Department of Corrections officials are among those calling for reform of Alabama’s sentencing scheme. State Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett told The Birmingham News, “Something must give. If you want to continue to lock folks up at this rate, you’re going to have to pay for it. Otherwise you need to look at your sentencing structure.” As EJI Director Bryan Stevenson observed, “It costs $15,000 a year to keep a person in prison. And in the case of juveniles, we would be paying that for decades.”
Published: July 22, 2009
CORONA, Calif. — Mary Thompson, an inmate at the California Institution for Women here, was convicted of two felonies for a robbery spree in which she threatened victims with a knife. Her third felony under California’s three-strikes law was the theft of three tracksuits to pay for her crack cocaine habit in 1982.
Skip to next paragraphLike one out of five prisoners in California, and nearly 10 percent of all prisoners nationally in 2008, Ms. Thompson is serving a life sentence. She will be eligible for parole by 2020.
More prisoners today are serving life terms than ever before — 140,610 out of 2.3 million inmates being held in jails and prisons across the country — under tough mandatory minimum-sentencing laws and the declining use of parole for eligible convicts, according to a report released Wednesday by the Sentencing Project, a group that calls for the elimination of life sentences without parole. The report tracks the increase in life sentences from 1984, when the number of inmates serving life terms was 34,000.
Two-thirds of prisoners serving life sentences are Latino or black, the report found. In New York State, for example, 16.3 percent of prisoners serving life terms are white.
Although most people serving life terms were convicted of violent crimes, sentencing experts say there are many exceptions, like Norman Williams, 46, who served 13 years of a life sentence for stealing a floor jack out of a tow truck, a crime that was his third strike. He was released from Folsom State Prison in California in April after appealing his conviction on the grounds of insufficient counsel.
The rising number of inmates serving life terms is straining corrections budgets at a time when financially strapped states are struggling to cut costs. California’s prison system, the nation’s largest, with 170,000 inmates, also had the highest number of prisoners with life sentences, 34,164, or triple the number in 1992, the report found.
In four other states — Alabama, Massachusetts, Nevada and New York — at least one in six prisoners is serving a life term, according to the report.
The California prison system is in federal receivership for overcrowding and failing to provide adequate medical care to prisoners, many of whom are elderly and serving life terms.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this week repeated his proposal to reduce the inmate population through a combination of early releases for nonviolent offenders, home monitoring for some parole violators and more lenient sentencing for some felonies. But there are no credible plans to increase the rate at which prisoners serving life sentences are granted parole.
“When California courts sentence somebody to life with parole, it turns out that’s not possible after all,” said Joan Petersilia, a Stanford law professor and an expert on parole policy. “Board of parole hearings almost never grant releases, and that’s the reason that California’s lifer population has grown out of proportion to other states.”
Margo Johnson, 48, also an inmate at the women’s prison here, has served 24 years of a life sentence for a 1984 murder. She has been recommended for release four times by the state parole board, but she said that Mr. Schwarzenegger had rejected the board’s recommendation each time.
“Sometimes I wonder, is it just a game they’re playing with me?” Ms. Johnson said.
Seven prison systems — Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and the federal penitentiary system — do not offer the possibility of parole to prisoners serving life terms.
That policy also extends to juveniles in Illinois, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. A total of 6,807 juveniles were serving life terms in 2008, 1,755 without the possibility of parole. California again led the nation in the number of juveniles serving life terms, with 2,623.
“The expansion of life sentences suggests that we’re rapidly losing faith in the rehabilitation model,” said Ashley Nellis, the report’s main author.
De Angelo McVay, 42, is serving a life term with no possibility of parole at the maximum security state prison in Lancaster, Calif., for his role in the kidnapping and torture of a man.
He said in an interview Wednesday that he had used his 10 years in prison to reform himself, taking ministry classes, participating in the prison chapel program, becoming vice chairman of his prison yard and avoiding behavioral demerits.
“I’m remorseful for what I did,” he said. “But I got no chance at parole, and I know guys who have committed killings and they have parole.”
Supporters of longer sentences for criminals, including victims rights organizations, prosecutors and police associations, often cite public safety, the deterrent effect of punishment and the need to remove criminals from society.Skip to next paragraph
But the number of aging inmates serving life sentences has risen sharply as the sluggish economy has shrunk state budgets. By 2004, the number of inmates over 50 had nearly doubled from a decade earlier, to more than 20 percent, according to the report. Older inmates cost more because they have more health needs. California, for example, spends $98,000 to $138,000 a year on each prisoner over 50, compared with the national average of about $35,000 a year.
But Professor Petersilia said she was skeptical that economic arguments alone would persuade voters to treat inmates serving life terms — most of whom have committed violent felonies like murder, rape, kidnapping and robbery — with more leniency.
“All the public opinion polls say that everybody will reconsider sentencing for nonviolent offenders or drug offenders, but they’re not willing to do anything different for violent offenders,” Professor Petersilia. In fact, she added, polls show support for even harsher sentences for sex offenses and other violent crimes.
Burk Foster, a criminal justice professor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan and an expert on the Louisiana penitentiary system, said the expansion of life sentences started at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the nation’s largest maximum penitentiary, in the early 1970s, when most people sentenced to life terms were paroled after they had been deemed fit to re-enter society.
“Angola was a prototype of a lifer’s prison,” said Professor Foster. “In 1973, Louisiana changed its life sentencing law so that lifers would no longer be parole eligible, and they applied that law more broadly over time to include murder, rape, kidnapping, distribution of narcotics and habitual offenders.”
Professor Foster said sentencing more prisoners to life sentences was an abandonment of the “corrective” function of prisons.
“Rehabilitation is not an issue at Angola,” he said. “They’re just practicing lifetime isolation and incapacitation.”
I admit that the books on my reading list have been light. I don’t know exactly how a teen vampire love saga usurped all of my personal reading time, but now that it’s behind me, I am cracking open some more serious reads.
New on my reading list:
Victoria Law’s Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women
Jeffrey Ian Ross and Stephen Richards’ Beyond Bars: Rejoining Society After Prison
I have been alternating between both. I can say now, only a third of the way into Law’s Resistance, that you should just go ahead and make that purchase (used copies on Amazon start out around $12). Also, Ross and Richards have a lot of experience to back the advice-filled pages of Beyond Bars and I have to say I am anxious to see how they cover issues facing women’s reentry.
And just an idea–if you purchase either of these books, please consider donating them to AWRN so that we may build our lending library for women in prison and their loved ones.
Check ’em out!