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Inmate safety and emergency preparedness

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment February 20, 2012 08:22 AM

Note: This also appeared on the op-ed page in the February 18, 2012 Boston Globe.

The recent prison fire in Honduras that engulfed and killed more than 350 inmates who were unable to escape their locked and crowded barracks may have occurred in a faraway land where life is cheap and human rights are few, but such tragedies are waiting to happen much closer to home.

With the high level of disregard and disdain that so many US citizens have for criminals secured away in our state prisons and county jails, few ever consider the plight of prisoners in the face of disaster, be it sudden or foreseen.


An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of prison

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment January 20, 2012 09:00 AM

A new 400-page master plan for meeting the state’s future needs for managing an aging prison population (aging in terms of both the inmates and the institutions in which they live) has been sharply criticized by law makers and law enforcers alike. The plan calls for billions of dollars to deal with the state’s crowded prison conditions and projected health care costs for lifers and other inmates as they grow old behind prison walls.

The critical response is not at all surprising. Prisons management has long been a lightning rod, as it involves two hot issues--public funds and public safety. There is no doubt that incarceration works as a crime control measure, but at a substantial price tag: effective to be sure; but cost-effective, not so much.

It remains to be seen whether the sentencing reform legislation moving through the State House will significantly impact on future correctional needs. There is some desire to dismantle mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders, yet the “three strikes” impact on prisoner release may off-set the savings.


Murder and Mother's Day

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment May 6, 2011 08:00 AM

Other than the annual struggle to find a thoughtful gift for the mother of my children, and besides the last minute panic when realizing that all the decent “For my Wife” greeting cards have been bought up by other men who planned ahead, the approach of Mother’s Day is a joyous time.  It is, at least in my family.

On occasions like this, I also think about the mothers and their children torn apart by tragedy -- homicide, in particular. I imagine the broken hearts of those mothers whose murdered children will never again buy them a Mother’s Day card, as well as the children of murdered women whose only gift to mom are flowers laid at her grave.

I also think about the mixed emotions of women and their children who spend Mother’s Days within the stark confines of a prison visiting room.  As of 2007, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were over 65,000 mothers of minor children serving time in state or federal prisons. Alternatively, there were almost 150,000 children under the age of 18 whose mothers were behind bars, a disturbing 122% increase since 1991.

Many Americans, of course, see the plight of incarcerated moms -- being separated from their children, often permanently -- a just punishment for their criminal irresponsibility. Whatever one's sympathies in this regard, we can agree that the truly innocent victims are the children whose mothers are locked away, often permanently, and who must endure the stigma and embarrassment linked to crimes for which they had no responsibility.


Thanksgiving behind bars

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment November 24, 2010 11:30 AM

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday. What could be better than a day that combines football, food, and family? And in thinking about the range of things and people for which and whom I am thankful, I include the opportunity to express my point of view in this space and those readers whose feedback, concurring or contrary, makes writing this blog especially rewarding.

Given my left-leaning perspective, I frequently get responses (posted here and heard elsewhere) that complain about the "criminal-coddling" justice system. Yet one particularly absurd conjecture served up years ago by a local columnist has long stuck in my craw: that the amenities of life behind bars -- including the lavish Thanksgiving dinners and cable TV -- contribute to the high rate of recidivism.

Is life behind bars really so wonderful? Is it true that ex-cons yearn to return to the slammer just to feast on Thanksgiving dinner and watch the Patriots play the Lions on television?

A couple of years ago I decided to experience first-hand what those coddled criminals were doing for their Turkey Day. Is it really special from the usual turnkey days of the rest of the year?

I decided to make a field trip -- a pilgrimage of sorts -- to check out the jailhouse festivities. Fortunately, the Norfolk County House of Correction (the "median security" lockup situated on the strip between the north and south lanes of Route 128) had room for one more for dinner.


Soft on crime or just on courage?

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment July 30, 2010 11:15 AM

As the end of the lawmaking season grows near on Beacon Hill, several conference committees are struggling against the clock to reach compromise on legislative packages on everything from gambling to health care. One of the most closely watched and contentious negotiations involves criminal justice reform, including modifications to the CORI system designed to improve the chances of ex-offenders to find and maintain gainful employment and sentencing for non-violent offenders. Although it appears that some form of resolution between Senate and House versions will reach the Governor's desk, the advances in the name of justice are in some respects a bit disappointing.

In the area of CORI reform, the length of time before criminal records are to be sealed is, as I've written before, so long that it is be unlikely to make a meaningful difference in reducing the stigma endured by offenders who have already paid their debt to society. Even more frustrating is the lack of political will to lighten up on non-dangerous offenders.

As this and other states continue to struggle with fiscal constraints, it is both unfortunate and foolish that we continue to overuse prisons as a means of punishing criminals, especially when there are effective and lower cost alternatives for certain offenders. For the most part, prison space should be reserved for violent, dangerous criminals who would create a public safety risk if allowed to walk free among us. By contrast, housing drug and property offenders in prisons is a waste of limited resources.


CORI reform - too little, too late

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment May 28, 2010 11:00 AM

At long last, the Massachusetts legislature is moving ahead on CORI reform. Without much discussion or debate, a bill that would seal the criminal records of certain former offenders who successfully avoid re-offending (at least officially) for a significantly long period of years (five years for misdemeanants and ten years felons other than murderers or sex offenders) sailed through the House by a 138-17 vote. And Governor Patrick, who had made reshaping the CORI system one of his priorities, remains eager to receive and sign this progressive legislation.

Don’t get me wrong--I’m all for CORI reform. But let’s not be fooled into believing that this policy shift will do much to bring about the necessary change. Though a tiny step in the right direction--at least symbolically, the reforms will only have a marginal effect on improving the employment prospects of former inmates and thus ultimately their ability to succeeding on the street.

For former inmates, succeeding on the street requires being off the street and on the job. Unfortunately, much of what the pending CORI legislation provides is just a bit too little and a bit too late.


Prison escape by suicide

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment May 24, 2010 10:30 AM

It has been several days since an inmate was found dead in his cell at MCI Concord. Suicide is typically the explanation for such occurrences, yet, according to Department of Correction officials, it will take a while longer before the investigation into the cause of death is completed.

Although there remains some doubt, at least officially, on whether 51-year-old Leo Savard, who was discovered with a ligature wrapped around his neck’s death, was indeed a suicide victim, there is little doubt that problem of suicide remains especially acute within the state’s correctional system. Already this year, even before the latest death of still undetermined cause, four inmates had died by their own hand.

When it comes to crime statistics, it is important not to make too much about short-term changes, especially sudden spikes that are inevitable in almost any measure that fluctuates over time. Last week, for example, I cautioned against jumping to any quick conclusion about the sudden surge in domestic homicides by revealing how the occasional aberrations in the figures have dissolved into the tong-term stability.

This was my first thought in reading about the recent spike in suicides within Massachusetts correctional facilities—that it too was an unexplainable and unpredictable aberration. But then I looked at the figures going back a full decade (shown in the table below), and even earlier.


Odgren at Bridgewater - thankfully

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment May 3, 2010 12:04 PM

The debate reflected in the hundreds of comments posted to my recent blog entries about John Odgren has been lively and often heated. The majority embraced the first-degree murder verdict returned by the jury last week and the resulting life sentence without parole eligibility. However, many folks raised concerns publicly on the blog (or privately though e-mail) about Odgren's future, expressing worry about his fate and survival within the correctional system.

I am encouraged to report on the latest developments. John Odgren was evaluated immediately upon intake at MCI Cedar Junction by Department of Correction medical staff. Based on the assessment, and presumably the prisoner's long-standing history of mental disorder, a so-called "18(a) petition"--in accordance with Massachusetts G.L. Chapter. 123, Section. 18(a)--was successfully filed on his behalf, facilitating his transfer to Bridgewater state hospital. Odgren will remain at Bridgewater for 30 days for the purpose of further evaluation. He may then be committed for treatment for a series of additional terms until he is considered well enough to be transferred to a correctional facility.


About the author

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University. He has written 18 books, including his newest, "Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College." More »

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