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(I’ll never be a fully rights-endowed citizen of the USA again, but as a citizen of the Great State of Maine, I was able to vote even while imprisoned. I know that it doesn’t make up for Susan Collins, but she’ll be kickin’ it with Paul down at Del Boca Vista before you even know it. – Rage)

 

A shocking new study by the American Civil Liberties Union has found that more than 3,200 people nationwide are serving life terms without parole for nonviolent offenses. Of those prisoners, 80 percent are behind bars for drug-related convictions. Sixty-five percent are African-American, 18 percent are white, and 16 percent are Latino — evidence of what the ACLU calls “extreme racial disparities.” The crimes that led to life sentences include stealing gas from a truck, shoplifting, possessing a crack pipe, facilitating a $10 sale of marijuana, and attempting to cash a stolen check. We speak with Jennifer Turner, human rights researcher and author of the new ACLU report, “A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses.”

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A shocking new study by the American Civil Liberties Union has found that more than 3,200 people nationwide are serving life terms without parole for nonviolent offenses. Of those prisoners, 80 percent are behind bars for drug-related crimes. Sixty-five percent are African-American, 18 percent are white, and 16 percent are Latino—evidence of what the ACLU calls “extreme racial disparities.” The crimes that led to life sentences include stealing gas from a truck, shoplifting, possessing a crack pipe, facilitating a $10 sale of marijuana, and attempting to cash a stolen check.

AMY GOODMAN: Sixty-three percent of those serving life without parole for these nonviolent offenses are in federal prisons. Most were sentenced under mandatory minimum laws. The ACLU says keeping nonviolent offenders behind bars for life is costing taxpayers an additional $1.8 billion. In a minute, we’ll be joined by the author of the study. But first, this is a clip from a video that features family members of some of the more than 600 prisoners it profiles.

SARLOWER SURRY: Everything he did was to hurt himself, not others. And it went from—from one-year sentence to two-year sentence to natural life.

CASHAWNA TILMAN: My dad will never get out for something so little? Natural life.

LORETTA LUMAR: For stealing a $150 jacket. And that $150 jacket got him life in prison.

SARLOWER SURRY: Here in Louisiana, they use that habitual offender law: Three strikes, you automatically get natural life.

CATHERINE MATTHEWS: It’s like giving him a death sentence, because this is no life—no life for a man with his children or his parents or anybody else, once they’re in there.

BURL CAIN: Judge should have the discretion not to give a life sentence. I mean, that’s extreme. You tell that to anybody, they’ll say, “Ah, nah-uh, that’s a little bit too much.” That almost gets to be the point that that’s not what the forefathers envisioned, even with the Constitution. That’s extreme. That’s cruel and unusual punishment, to me.

CASHAWNA TILMAN: He’s a good person, my dad. I mean, he’s always—like I said, he’s always been there for me and my sister and brother. He’s always done his best, until he started abusing the drugs.

CATHERINE MATTHEWS: And a lot of times with Patrick, with the drugs, it came down to not being able to find work.

SARLOWER SURRY: Life sentence is no way to deal with a drug addiction.

EISIBE SNEED: My son wasn’t a menace to society.

DELOICE LEWIS: He would give his shirt off his back.

CATHERINE MATTHEWS: And being so tenderhearted in a place like that, it just doesn’t fit. It’s changed him that way, because I notice he is getting a little colder. I find that he’s not believing and he’s not keeping his faith as much. He’s not—like, he’s like, “I’m about ready to give up on this.”

WILLIE COMBS: Oh, it’s been hard. I go down there and see him. I can’t hardly stand to leave him, but I know I have to go. It be hard. It be hard.

CATHERINE MATTHEWS: To tell him what I ate for Thanksgiving, and he couldn’t eat it, you know, it’s hard. It’s little things like that.

DELOICE LEWIS: And my birthday coming up, and those are days I break.

BURL CAIN: But if this person can go back and be a productive citizen and not commit crimes again, these nonviolent crimes, then why are we keeping him here, spending all this money? Because maybe I’ve done my job, so he should have a parole hearing.

SARLOWER SURRY: There’s too many families that’s suffering out here.

LORETTA LUMAR: Give him a second chance. He’s 54 years old now.

WILLIE COMBS: I’m looking for things to change.

CATHERINE MATTHEWS: Because these boys are just getting wasted away in these prisons for no reason.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from a video that accompanies the ACLU’s new report, “A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses.” For more, we’re joined by its author, Jennifer Turner, human rights researcher with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Welcome to Democracy Now! I mean, it is just astounding. A man—the story we just heard; another story, a man walks out of a store with a coat slung over his shoulder, $159, gets life in prison without parole.

JENNIFER TURNER: Absolutely. These sentences are grotesquely out of proportion of the crimes that they’re seeking to punish. And we found that 3,278 people are serving life without the possibility of parole for nonviolent crimes, but these numbers actually underrepresent the true state of extreme sentencing in this country. Those numbers don’t account for those who will die in prison because of sentences such as 350 years for a drug sale. It also doesn’t account for the many millions of lives ruined by excessive sentencing in this country, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And especially the impact of federal mandatory minimum sentencings, could you talk about that and the efforts to try to roll back some of those—some of those laws?

JENNIFER TURNER: Yeah, what we found was that over 80 percent of these sentences were mandatory, both in the federal system and in the states. They’re the direct consequence of laws passed over the 40-year war on drugs and tough-on-crime policies that included mandatory minimum sentencing laws, habitual offender laws in the states.

And they tie judges’ hands. And in case after case after case that I reviewed, the judge said from the bench—outraged, would say, “I oppose this sentence as a citizen, as a taxpayer, as a judge. I disagree with the sentence in this case, but my hands are tied.” And one judge said, when sentencing one man to life without parole for selling tiny quantities of crack over a period of just a couple of weeks, he said, “This is a travesty. It’s just silly. But I have no choice.”

AMY GOODMAN: What if a judge said no?

JENNIFER TURNER: The judges can’t say no. In fact, I looked at cases where the judges tried to say no, where the judge tried to find a legal loophole, where prosecutors appealed, repeatedly. One man was sentenced to zero time in prison by a Louisiana judge for threatening a cop while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser. He was drunk, threatened him, was sentenced initially to no time. The prosecutor appealed; the sentence increased to 10 years. Prosecutor appealed again. On the third appeal, it was increased to life without parole as a mandatory sentence because of his priors dating back as much as 20 years earlier.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another case. Another person profiled in your report, in the ACLU report, is Sharanda Jones. She was sentenced to life for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine when she was a 32-year-old mother, with a nine-year-old daughter—no prior arrests. No drugs were found on her, but her supposed co-conspirators testified against her in exchange for reduced sentences. In this clip from the film, The War on Drugs, she talks about being separated from her daughter.

SHARANDA JONES: My sister bring her to visit. And every time she come, it’s hard. I see her like once a month. And to see her grow from a little bitty baby to almost a grown woman now, it’s just like, God, my dream is to just show up at her school. I mean, I know they gave me life, but I can’t imagine not being at her graduation, her high school graduation. I just can’t imagine me not being there.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharanda Jones. Jennifer, tell us more about her case.

JENNIFER TURNER: Well, Sharanda was caught up in a massive drug sweep in a majority white town in Texas. Over a hundred people were arrested, all of whom were black. Chuck Norris participated in some of the arrests. Sharanda had no information to trade for a lenient—a more lenient sentence. And the judge was required to sentence her to life without parole, objected to the sentence, but he had not choice.

AMY GOODMAN: So, they had nothing on her, but—

JENNIFER TURNER: They had nothing but one wiretap. What happened was, a couple had been arrested on drug charges and began cooperating with the feds as confidential informants and, from there, started implicating others in the community. They called Sharanda and said, “Hey, do you know where we can get some drugs?” The wiretap caught Sharanda saying, “Let me see what I can do.” That was the extent of the evidence against her, with the exception of testimony from these confidential informants and other co-conspirators. They never found any drugs on her. There were no even video surveillance of her with drugs. But she was sentenced to life without parole.

A single mother. Her daughter Clenesha has been separated her for many, many, many years. And Sharanda maintains a very close relationship with her daughter. She carefully apportions the 300 minutes she’s allowed to use per month for non-legal calls to call her daughter 10 minutes each day. When I talk to Sharanda on the phone, she’s like, “I’ve got to go! I can’t use up my minutes; I need to speak with my daughter.”

And Sharanda, unfortunately, has no relief available. Her sentence is final, like those of everyone else we were profiling. They have really no chance of relief unless President Obama, in Sharanda’s case, because it’s a federal case, or, in the states, where the governors use their executive clemency powers to reduce their sentence.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about the racial disparities that your report highlights? They’re really amazing. I mean, everyone knows that African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately incarcerated, but in terms of these life-without-parole sentences, the amazing percentage of African Americans, specifically, in states like Louisiana, 91 percent are African-American.

JENNIFER TURNER: The racial disparities are staggering. Obviously, as you said, that blacks are treated disparately throughout the criminal justice system, but what we found was that in life-without-parole sentencing for nonviolent crimes, those disparities are even more marked. Nationwide, 65 percent of people serving these sentences for nonviolent crimes are black; 18 percent are white. In the federal system, blacks are 20 times more likely to be sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent crime. In some states it’s even higher. In Louisiana, where 91 percent of the people serving these sentences are black, they’re 23 times more likely. In the federal system, Latinos are five times more likely to be sentenced to life for nonviolent crime than whites.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the avenue for this to be changed is legislation?

JENNIFER TURNER: There are very clear avenues for change. These sentences are really symptomatic of the larger problem of excessive sentencing in this country. Many, many, many more thousands of people are serving excessive sentences that are disproportionate to their crimes. And they’re all the result of the 40-year war on drugs and tough-on-crime policies, such as mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws. We simply need to repeal the laws that led to these sentences. And with growing national consensus across both sides of the political aisle that mandatory minimum sentences, for instance, are a travesty of justice, this is quite possible. There have been two bipartisan bills introduced in Congress that would somewhat reduce the reach of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

But also, as I mentioned before, the—President Obama, who has the worst pardon record of any modern president—he has pardoned five turkeys and commuted the sentence of only one prisoner—he does have the power and authority to review the sentences of the over 2,000 people like Sharanda serving life without parole for a nonviolent crime, and he can reduce their sentence. Same with state governors.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And as you note, even if there were changes in the law, these more than 3,000 people that have already been sentenced would not necessarily be affected. It would have to take some executive action by governors or by the president to get some of them—to assure they don’t die in prison, essentially.

JENNIFER TURNER: Absolutely. Some sentencing reforms have been retroactive, and certainly future sentencing reforms could be retroactive, and that’s what we’re calling for. But for many of these people, their only chance at release is some form of clemency. And we have a petition online on our website where you can all take action to call on President Obama to review these sentences and impose a fairer and smarter sentence for these prisoners.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, just to shift gears a bit, about a year ago you came out with a report, “Island of Impunity: Puerto Rico’s Outlaw Police Force.” Explain what’s happening now.

JENNIFER TURNER: Absolutely. In Puerto Rico, I looked at Puerto Rico Police Department because it’s the second largest in the country, second only to NYPD, and because its policing practices are really off the map. We found that the police force uses lethal force at a rate much higher than other police departments—three times the per capita rate of police shootings by the NYPD, for instance; uses excessive force against protesters; brutal beatings of low-income and black Puerto Ricans and Dominican immigrants.

And we sued the police department, called on the Department of Justice to investigate the police department. And just in August, the department was entered into a consent decree with the Justice Department. And two weeks ago, a monitor was appointed to oversee the reform effort and to ensure that the police department actually institutes the reforms that they’ve promised to institute. One week ago, a top New York Police Department officer was appointed superintendent of the police force to start this reform process.

So it’s really the very beginning stages, and we will be watching closely to make sure the police department does follow through on its promise for reforms, which are truly an overhaul of the police force, which is required. The police force is so dysfunctional that it needs to be overhauled at all levels, from basic policies put in place to holding cops accountable when they kill or hurt people, as well as changing the reporting mechanisms. Really, everything has to be reformed in that police department.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Turner, we want to thank you very much for being with us, human rights researcher with the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote the ACLU’s new report, “A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses,” also authored the report, “Island of Impunity: Puerto Rico’s Outlaw Police Force.” We’ll link to both of them at democracynow.org. When we come back, Calle 13 joins us here in studio. Stay with us.

Kenneth McDonald

I met Kenny McDonald while in Kennebec County for a probation violation (drinking).  Kenny was a sweet guy, child-like in many ways.  We were cellmates for a while and despite a head injury that always allowed me a bottom bunk, I took the top; Kenny had trouble getting up there.  I shared food with him, games of brick-house.

Kenny stabbed his 80 year old mother to death in 2009.  I assumed they’d send him to the State mental hospital, but you know how the insanity defense rides here in the union.

Kenny got sentenced to 30 years.


download (7)I met Micheal ‘Dirty’ McQuade when, after my first trip to Windham Prison, my dear sister placed me in the cheapest, grottiest rooming house in town at the time, Larry “Slum Lord” Fleury’s Edward’s House.  Real sweet guy when I knew him back in ’06, intelligent fellow who seemed to have a big heart.  I lost touch with him when I went back to jail later on that year (probation violation: drinking,) and only heard about his descent into darkness after moving into ‘the Vatikan,’ in the ghetto of East Bayside P-town.

Dirty was addicted to heroin and he and a couple of other fellows decided that the best way to get more heroin was by robbing another addict of his heroin.  The man ended up getting murdered during the caper; Dirty gave evidence against the fellow that supposedly did the actual killing.

Dirty received 12 years.  


download (13).jpgI met Michael ‘Madman’ Pedini at the same time, and in the same cell-block as I met Kenny (as well as Danny Fortune.)  Madman, an enforcer for the Outlaws motorcycle gang killed a member of the rival Hell’s Angels.  He never wrote for the blog.

Pedini did five years and then entered the witness protection program.


arline-lawless-2.jpgI’ve never met Arline Lawless in person, although she’s been trading letters with the Project for a few years now.  Arline (who came from “Beans of Egypt Maine” surroundings murdered her boyfriend, a working fisherman, with a gun, apparently when he told her of his intention of breaking up with her.

Arline was sentenced to thirty-five years.


danny.2014

Finally, I met Daniel ‘Prince’ Fortune at the same time and in the same cell-block as Kenny and Pedini.  Daniel was a good kid; the first time I’d bumped into him we were all going to court and I was cuffed to him.  Danny told the cop to cuff me to someone else and then explained to me, “there are gonna be cameras out there and you don’t want to be on television next to me.”

Danny was a former sports star (Gardiner Highschool), born in Haiti, adopted into white central Maine.  He suffered a traumatic brain injury in an automobile accident and after that, things got darker.  Drugs.  Danny had stolen a safe from a former State Senator’s home; he’d partied there a lot with the Senator’s son.  The son ended up owing Danny’s foster brother Leo some money for drugs and one night they went to collect.  As it turned out, the son wasn’t home. While Danny waited outside (he was already jammed up due to the safe robbery) Leo ended up attacking the Senator and his young daughter with a machete.

After the pair were arrested, Danny kept quiet.  Leo, sang like addicts usually sing in such situations, blaming Danny to a large degree; he later recanted and took full responsibility for the vicious attack.

Leo got fifty years.  Danny got two concurrent life sentences.


 

“The visitor from outer space made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low.
But the Gospels actually taught this:
Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected. So it goes.”

– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Get it?

Robin Rage

 

STORYFEBRUARY 04, 2019

More than 1,600 prisoners at a Brooklyn federal detention center were forced to endure freezing temperatures during last week’s polar vortex, with no heat, no light, no hot water for showers and no hot meals. Demonstrators rallied throughout the weekend to protest the conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center, which is run by the Bureau of Prisons. Prisoners communicated with protesters by banging on the jail windows. On Sunday afternoon, some of the protesters, including family members of those incarcerated, were pepper-sprayed by guards. Democracy Now! was there on the ground. By 6:30 p.m., officials said electricity was restored. We speak with Brad Lander, a New York city councilmember who spoke with prisoners and prison officials this weekend.

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We end today’s show here in New York, where more than 1,600 prisoners at a Brooklyn federal detention center were forced to endure freezing temperatures during last week’s polar vortex, with no heat, no light, no water for showers, no hot meals.

Demonstrators rallied throughout the weekend to protest the conditions at Metropolitan Detention Center, which is run by the Bureau of Prisons. Heat issues at the facility have been ongoing. Officials said the electricity problem was caused in part by a fire the previous week and that the jail had switched over to emergency power. Legal Aid Society said it wrote to the jail’s warden as early as January 22nd to demand heat be restored, before temperatures arrive that were, quote, “dangerous to human life.”

As the news of the conditions spread, crowds of protesters gathered outside the prison, known as MDC. Prisoners communicated with them by banging on the jail windows. On Sunday afternoon, some of the protesters, including family members of those incarcerated, were pepper-sprayed by guards. Democracy Now! was there and spoke to family members, activists, including Women’s March co-chair Linda Sarsour.

PROTESTER: Let them know that you are happy that we are here for you. Bang on those windows!

LINDA SARSOUR: A group of activists, organizers and family members have actually been out here since yesterday. Many of us slept overnight here, on the ground here in front of MDC.

We have been figuring out a communication system that works really well with the incarcerated brothers that are inside. And we ask them questions, and they answer by banging on the windows. And it’s been in unison, literally. Like, yes, yes, everybody’s yes. If it’s no, no. And the fact that they’re not in the same cells together and can answer questions makes us believe that what they are telling us is to be true. We just watched some incarcerated folks actually recognize their families’ voices and started talking to us through a different area up here. We have videos of people talking to their moms: “I hear you, Mom. I see you, Mom.” It was really heartbreaking to watch people have to talk to their family members. They were not wearing shirts. It’s cold. And we know they don’t have heat inside.

One of the mothers went to confirm that that was her son who was talking to her in there without a shirt. She went inside with some folks. Next thing you know, the CO started beating people up and throwing people on the floor, pepper-spraying the mom and all the people, the media. They were—picked up cameras, and they were throwing them out, people falling down the stairs. It was really horrible to watch it happen. And all the mom wanted to do is go in and to confirm if that was her son speaking to her from this other undesignated area that we don’t even know what this area is. He was climbing up on the gate of the window. It’s horrible.

The warden has been not responsive. Yesterday, the Mayor’s Office delivered trucks of blankets for everyone, generators. And they—lawyers from Federal Defenders went inside to see their clients, and asked them, “Did you get blankets?” No blankets. None of these people have gotten blankets. Yesterday, they told us, at 6:00 is when they got their first meal of the day. They’re not getting hot meals. They don’t have hot water. I mean, this is inhumane. It’s cruel. There are people in there who have asthma, who are not able to have use nebulizers, people who have sleep apnea machines, who are not able to have those apnea machines during the night, which means that they are at high risk of stroke. There are people with diabetes that are in there. There are older folks in there, people who need medication, who have not had any access to medical care. I mean, this is outrageous. And the issues with the families is, you don’t even know if your family member is alive. I mean, that’s the issue here.

JUMAANE WILLIAMS: What surprised me the most in there—

AMY GOODMAN: New York City Councilmember Jumaane Williams.

JUMAANE WILLIAMS: —was the blatant disregard of urgency of anything that was going on. Things happen. Emergencies happen. But you have a plan. They had no plan and didn’t seem to care. We asked them about what’s going on to get the heat properly regulated. The warden said the contractor left and went home. What are you talking about? Get another contractor and get this fixed like it was your house. We asked the warden why he would not receive the blankets and the generator that the Office of Emergency Management in the city was not accepting. He had no excuse. He said, “We didn’t. Maybe we will now,” because it was an emergency. It was an emergency on Sunday when it happened. What are you talking about?

What’s happening there is a microcosm of this country. That man in the White House and the people who continue to support him, all of them, don’t even know where the kids are that they separated from the border. Those are melanated children. That’s why they lost them. The majority of people here are melanated, so they don’t care. Even the ones that aren’t are from the poorer communities, so they don’t care. But we care. And we are going to stay here until this gets resolved. And if we’ve got to shut some stuff down, we’re going to shut it down.

ELIZABETH: Name is Elizabeth. I’m here for my brother Jason, who has been here at MDC for the past five years. This condition with the heat is not new. It happened last year. But fortunately for Jason, he has family that sends him money, and he can buy what he needs to layer up and have blankets and food and resources.

I’m here because, one, I want my brother to know I love him; two, I do not want this problem to keep going on. God forbid if the temperatures plummet again. You know, I’m really worried about his health. We contacted his attorney and demanded that he find out what’s going on.

You know, this has been an ongoing issue, that the power went out last year for like three, four days and that the heat went out three, four days last year. You know, so—and it’s disgusting. And when Nydia Velázquez came out, she was saying that there were wet mattresses from leaks in the ceiling and crumbling conditions in ceilings and things like that. It’s just—it’s disgusting. And we can only imagine the vermin and the rodents and everything else. You know, so, again, it’s disgusting.

But, you know, this has restored my faith in humanity. It’s really made me very proud to be a New Yorker. No one wants to see any human beings suffer, especially knowing what we know about sentencing, extreme sentences and mistreatment of people, you know, especially when so many of these people here haven’t even really been convicted of anything, not that that makes a difference, but they’re just waiting because they’re poor, you know, and they can’t afford bail. So, it’s unfortunate, but it is what it is. So, thankfully, everybody showed up for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Voices from the protest outside MDC, Metropolitan Detention Center. Special thanks to Tey-Marie Astudillo and Ariel Boone for that report.

Around 6:30 p.m. Sunday, officials said electricity restored, but many cells still lack heat. As protesters gathered outside, many lawmakers toured the Metropolitan Detention Center. One of them, who was standing next to Jumaane Williams, the city councilman who was speaking outside, was Brad Lander, a New York city councilmember. He’s with us now.

We have very little time. Has the electricity been restored?

BRAD LANDER: The electricity was restored last night at 6:30, about one full week after it had gone off.

AMY GOODMAN: But people are still reporting they’re freezing.

BRAD LANDER: It’s cold in that facility. It’s going to take more changes to make it warm enough on the coldest days.

AMY GOODMAN: How could there have been no plan, with this polar vortex this week, with people freezing inside?

BRAD LANDER: The whole thing, no plan for an emergency provision. And when the power went off a week ago, last Sunday, they did not act with any urgency. They could have had an emergency plan. If there had been a round-the-clock contractor in there, power could have been back on by Tuesday.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a federal prison. Mayor de Blasio sent in hundreds of blankets. They didn’t distribute them?

BRAD LANDER: There was just, from the staff, from the prison officials, from the facilities manager, no sense of urgency, no sense that there were human beings in those cells who had the right to talk to their families, who needed light. You know, they were eating in the dark. You know, their toilets are in their cells. They were in there. They couldn’t shower for 48 hours. It was really a nightmare.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is responsible for this?

BRAD LANDER: Federal Bureau of Prisons. Federal Bureau of Prisons.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Jerry Nadler is head of House Judiciary Committee.

BRAD LANDER: Yes, he is.

AMY GOODMAN: He was in there both days this weekend.

BRAD LANDER: And he was in there with me on Saturday and Sunday. And he says he is going to have hearings and make sure this gets fixed.

AMY GOODMAN: New York City Councilmember Brad Lander, thanks so much. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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Political Prisoners

Welcome to the blog from inmates of Maine's jails and prisons.

In collaboration with the Holistic Recovery Project, the Political Prisoners Blog provides a prisoner's view into what's happening at Maine's correctional facilities.

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