04/29/20 Eunice Cho

Century of Lies
Eunice Cho

This week on Century of Lies: Penal Reform International’s Director of Policy and International Advocacy Olivia Rope with an overview of PRI’s new report Global Prison Trends 2020, and ACLU National Prison Project Senior Staff Attorney Eunice Cho discusses COVID-19 threats to detention center and prison populations.

Audio file





DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors and millions more now calling for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate a Century Of Lies

DOUG MCVAY: Hello and welcome to Century of Lies. I'm your host Doug McVay editor of on April 22nd, the organization Penal Reform International released a report entitled Global prison Trends 2020 with an overview of the report. Here's Olivia Rope, director of PRI’s policy and international advocacy.

OLIVIA ROPE: I want to start by echoing what's the assistant secretary-general and doctors mentioned around, you know, there's no doubt that prisons and Justice systems are facing an overwhelming crisis today with coronavirus and only with you know, bold coordinated International action, should do we think there is a chance to mitigate not prevent that mitigate the damage of this virus and prisons. However, as has been mentioned, you know, covid-19 has really just lit the fuse on the ticking time bomb that is present in our criminal justice systems. So for instance today in our report, you will read that rates of deaths in prisons are at crisis levels, the mortality rates for people in custody as much as 50% higher than for people outside. And this means that your life is literally at greater risk when detained. Violence and places of detention is on the increase with crisis response has triggering the use of Riot squads, for example, which often turn out to be fatal or conversely the authorities blindness to systematic violence to torture and ill-treatment. Which is a human rights crisis and we document this in some detail in our report and lastly as mentioned the simply, you know, crisis levels of overcrowding as the assistant Secretary General stated prisons and over a hundred countries operate above occupancy; above their occupancy rates and 22 operate above two hundred percent of occupancy rates. So the spread of covid-19 and such facilities. Is in effect a death sentence and we have already seen some cases of this occurring already. I think the concerning thing with these proceeds that I've mentioned alongside many others that we have documented is that they are somewhat become the norm. They are the new normal you might say, and sharing, you know, some of these key findings today from our report. I think we need to reflect on why and how prisons have got to this point and I will do this hopefully sharing some slides that everybody can see to sew and of the 11 million people in prison globally as mentioned the majority and male adults. They usually make up 80% of convictions and 90% of those held in custody and young male adults represent a significant proportion. We also see that the number of women although a minority continues to rise and prison populations with the global female prison population doubling over a 20-year time span. And while there have been some moves and thanks to the Bangkok rules to improve conditions for women our assessment in the report is that generally data and knowledge remains an adequate and as does Action to address the violence, poverty and discrimination that's threaded through the stories of many of these women for arguably the most vulnerable of all those detained children, the UN Global study estimated at least four hundred and ten thousand children entertained every year in prisons in a further 1 million are held in police custody. These are very Bleak numbers and they show that you know, while we we have seen that some countries have successfully pursued child Justice systems.

The principle of using detention as a last resort for children is not yet a reality many a charge for offenses that would not apply to adults such as truancy or underage drinking; pretrial detention is too often the norm not the exception over over three million people await trials and jails in 46 countries hold more people on remand assumed innocent then those convicted. And this shows really there's been very little progress towards lowering the proportion of pretrial to detainees as set out in the indicator for fall 16 of the sdgs. In fact, the recent data issued by World prison brief shows the exact opposite over the past 20 years. The number of pretrial detainees has grown by over 30 percent which is faster than the growth and the general prison population.

Our report also looks at you know, the types of offenses for people in prison and it's clear that more costly and less effective prison sentences are also increasingly used for nonviolent offenses. So an estimated 50% or more of people that sitting in prisons are there for nonviolent offenses and Analysis shows that prison is used as an automatic response to more and more crimes and sentences are becoming longer as will be discussed later. One of the starkest examples of this as with prohibition based drug policies over two million people are in prison for drug offenses. But the more telling statistic is that of those two million 83% are there for drug possession for personal use, so we're seeing that countries that pursue hashtag policies.

Big Target users in small-scale dealers or trafficking traffickers are not progressing to their proclaimed goal of achieving a drug-free World instead. They're targeting and sweeping up the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society and marginalizing them further.

A report this year also looks at how and why imprisonment continues to be a discriminatory cycle that is very difficult to break; many countries report reoffending rates of above 50% among people released from their prisons and the statistics rise, even higher once post-release support waynes. So as the years kind of go on reducing recidivism is complex business. There are some positives that we document in terms of the types of Rehabilitation that's offered. For instance. Our report looks at the promotion of sport from being a Time killer for people and imprison to an inherent aspect of crime prevention and in rehabilitation. We also document how Rehabilitation programs are increasingly designed to benefit wildlife Society with Innovative projects popping up having sustainability, wildlife in climate as the focus. This year this very much comes in into light with the coronavirus pandemic. We've delved deeper into one of the core issues of many challenges and then as funding whilst it was difficult to quantify the amount of money spent on prisons at a global level not least because of transparency issues. There was some data available which allowed a comparative view across 54 countries and our analysis found that with a few exceptions Penitentiary systems generally received low levels of funding which is a grave indicator of lack of investment and creating effective. Justice systems government expenditure shows that across 54 countries spending on prisons usually amounts to less than 0.3 percent of their GDP. There are huge variance in the amounts allocated per person per day in prison. It's as you can see on this map and that's even if you take relative living costs, staff and infrastructure appears to be the main cost for prisons. Whereas food allocation is alarmingly low and in some countries totaling less than a euro per day per person. OLIVIA ROPE CONTINUED: We see that where funding for prisons is increased and mostly these funds earmarked to build or expand prisoner states to contain growing populations. And one of the most serious impacts of under resourcing that we document in our report is to do with prison Health Care. Prison Health Care has been dangerously inadequate and many countries and for many years and this results in an acute shortage of healthcare staff one example in our report shows and when African country there are as few as two doctors per 46 prisms holding some 15,000 people and while not as extreme in Europe to there are there is evidence of shortages of prism Healthcare staff as an other Mid to high income countries. So even before covid-19. This was a problem, but with coronavirus we see a lack of equipment provision and even on a basic level little own enough Health Care staff to advise as an administration on serious risk for respond to cases. So where to next? Well first, I think it's important to remember that behind all of our data and behind all of the statistics are people; who are at a point where never before had there been this many people in prison and as our report shows there is some positive work going on in some corners, but generally there is a need to rethink prisons the use of them in the implementation of sentences. Prisons are simply targeting the marginalize holding people back and causing human rights violations daily. So whilst immediate steps as we have been discussing our our Focus as we face the consequences of coronavirus, we need to think about the crisis that has existed for a long time and in the special Focus chapter this year. We do look at imprisonments Alternatives as a solution to this so the release of prisoners,and the use of Alternatives we have seen to dramatically reduce prison populations unprecedented measures in unprecedented times, but these should not be temporary and we need to move towards a system that can provide safe and Rehabilitation rehabilitator focused prisons, which is simply impossible when they're bursting at the seams. I'm out of times. I will leave it there, but I hope that our report is useful and focusing direction around reforms in the short and long term

DOUG MCVAY: that was Olivia Rope director of policy and international advocacy for penal reform International. She was speaking at the launch of PRI, new report Global prison Trends 2020. You're listening to Century of lies. I'm your host Doug McVay, you know, we've been talking a lot lately about prisons and jails. That's because the covid-19 pandemic has been sweeping through our correction systems. We've managed to turn a mirror rest, into a potential death sentence many people are falling ill, many people are dying. Some jurisdictions are doing the right thing the reducing the number of arrests, especially for petty offenses the reducing their use of jails in general, but we're still not doing enough. There are Governors out there who are still unwilling to consider doing the right thing. I suppose that shouldn't be surprising conditions inside you as prisons and jails have never been models of Public Health at our best we still do a terrible job the organization Physicians for Human Rights is holding a series of webinars on the covid-19 pandemic on April 23rd. They held a webinar entitled covid-19 threats to detention center / prison populations. We're going to hear from one of the speakers Eunice Cho is senior staff attorney at the ACLU National prison project where she focuses her work on challenging unconstitutional conditions in the U.S. Immigration detention facilities, and the Expansion of immigration detention Ms. Choe is leading. The ACLU is litigation efforts around covid-19 in Immigration detention centers. Here's Eunice Cho.

EUNICE CHO: Well, I just want to say thank you so much for having us here today and we have been so grateful to Physicians for Human Rights and the contributions that PHR has made to the litigation effort that the ACLU and other organizations have been pushing around the issue of covid-19 in Immigration detention facilities prisons and jails. It's been an extraordinary just a resource to have at our fingertips. A well of incredibly qualified medical professionals to be able to provide expert affidavits as declarations and testimony about the public health implications of what happens when covid-19 arise in congregate settings, like immigration detention facilities and indeed we've seen courts be very persuaded by the Testimony that has been offered by medical professionals. As we all know immigration detention prisons and jails conditions in those facilities, even before covid-19 posed a great danger to the health and safety of people who were locked up in those facilities to begin with in Immigration detention facilities for example, we have heard complaints about lack of Medical Care, Mental Health Care. That is the same in prisons and jails across the country, we've heard constant complaints about lack of Sanitation and hygiene in these facilities people saying they would not be able to get soap access to important things like hand sanitizer all of these things before covid-19 head were issues but have since become magnified as critical issues that in the face of a global pandemic where there is no cure. There's no vaccine or medical treatment available and where social distancing is the only strategy available for people to particularly those who are particularly vulnerable to serious illness or death if infected with covid-19 that is really the concern of much of our litigation and advocacy at this point about a few weeks ago about six weeks ago when we started thinking about covid-19 and as again is Scott had mentioned it does feel like I'm almost a year ago. At that point in time. We began to understand that the ramifications of covid-19 in these types of environments in detention environments in prison environments, what kind of impact it would have and it was staggering combined with the knowledge and information that we have based on prisoner and detainee reports and our own advocacy our own litigation even prior to covid-19. We knew that this was a disaster in the making and many advocacy efforts began in essence at that point in time and the ACLU and many partners began to immediately try to alert local prisons and jails and detention centers of the dire circumstances under which these facilities were operating and really began to encourage local officials to come up with some plan any plan to try to mitigate the effects of what would happen. If there was a covid out break some agencies began to be responsive to that and indeed there was a movement of many folks in the criminal justice system in particular to begin to consider releasing prisoners pretrial detainees from custody to try to bring down the numbers so that overcrowding and those types of consequences would not further make the disaster in those facilities even worse the same. Unfortunately. It was not true for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement setting.

As we all know ICE is a federal agency and it is quite a politicized agency where immigrants have regularly and consistently are demonized as part of a political platform. And so to bring up the idea of release to this particular Administration was somewhat challenging that in essence left the courts as one of the only options to try to urge release of immigrant detainees from custody and indeed. This has also been the case in many other systems where release has been unfortunately inadequate and to the extent there is a clear and present danger posed for people in custody. Since in the last six weeks the ACLU has brought over 30 cases to challenge the continued custody of medically vulnerable immigrant detainees in around the country as well as arguments to bring down and the the numbers of people held in Immigration detention facilities. We brought over 40 cases in the criminal justice context targeting jails and prisons as well. And for the most part we have seen some helpful and hopeful gains. We've had almost a hundred people on the immigration detention side released as a result of our efforts and that is still continuing. We have many many cases that course are still that are still pending court consideration including class actions on the prison and jail says there have been hundreds. If not thousands of people have been released as a result of this litigation. But as we said this is not enough some of the helpful precedent that has been laid out as a result of these Court actions has been recognition of the grave public health risk that is posed by covid-19 as well as the courts authority to be able to release people on habeas petitions because of the overwhelming conditions of confinement where release is really the Only option for people to have safety in such a time of Crisis. These were, this is a step forward in terms of the case law for sure. But even more importantly we get back to the Mantra that I think has really focused our litigation from the very beginning which is we need to get the maximum number of people out of detention and jail in the fastest time possible to avert this Public Health crisis. Renee had mentioned many numbers with respect to the dangers of Covid-19 outbreaks in Correctional and detention facilities and our fear is that absent any drastic action by authorities that these numbers will continue to rise? And in fact our argument is that and especially for people who are medically vulnerable especially for those who face serious illness or death statistically proven likelihood of serious illness or death if they are to contract covid-19 that that these facilities must

Act quickly in identifying those who are particularly vulnerable first release them and also bring down the numbers more generally in these facilities. We are concerned somewhat with the transparency of numbers that are that is actually being reported by the government. For example, I switches now detention system that I think as of today is down to over 30,000 people in the detention system. This is down of course from a high of 56 thousand people at one point of the Trump Administration and I think the variable in that number also goes to maybe raise the question as to the the underlying purpose and the need for the tension of this large number of people in the first place, but to really identify that you know, as of yesterday. ICE stated that there were two hundred eighty seven confirmed cases of covid in 28 facilities. This is of course after Director of ICE admission to Congress that they had so far as of last week only tested about 400 people and custody this is less than 1% of people throughout the entire population in ice detention. And in this public reporting ICE also neglecting to report the number of infections amongst third-party contractors. And this is particularly important. You will notice on the ICE website. For example say they'll have confirmed cases in 35 as of yesterday. Cases of ICE employees and 11 facilities, but this really does not account for the fact that 80% as of our last count of ICE detention beds were run by private prison companies or third-party contractors and to account only for about 20% of the staff of facilities really begs the question as to what really is the true extent of infection among staff who are present in ICE detention facilities, if it's not if they're not people who are directly employed by ICE. These are just questions at the tip of the iceberg in these questions are particularly important because ICE has stood up in court and said that it has a that it has a that there is no impending risk to detainees because there are no confirmed cases of covid in detention facilities. And of course unfortunately they have bought into that logic and said come back to us when there's a confirmed case of covid in the facility. Now, we all know that all of our public health experts have said that is actually the wrong time to begin to start seriously thinking about releasing people from custody by that time. It is already too late, not only too late in terms of people who desperately need to get out but it certainly is emblematic of some of the lags in terms of preparation in terms of our response to covid-19 where we know that there could be quick measures taken to avert impending disaster.

I do want to say that we are heartened by the growing wave of cases across the country that have started to understand the enormity of the situation and have have urged the government to a rapid and quick and action to release people from custody and also to begin to supply some of the most basic needs necessary for people to achieve social distancing and practice hiding to the extent possible. But our underlying message is really especially for those who are medically vulnerable. It will not be enough and we are very very afraid of what is to come if further action is not taken in an urgent manner and the answer to the question to whether or not prisoners and detainees have rights is absolutely yes, at least in the United States the Constitution provides that under the Eighth Amendment. There is a ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the Supreme Court has held many times that to subject people to Risk of deadly communicable disease and not to mitigate those risks in an appropriate manner constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and indeed that is the basis for several Court rulings around the country in finding that prison systems and immigration detention facilities have failed to meet their constitutional obligations in terms of protecting people in their custody. Once the government put someone in their custody. They have the obligation to make sure that people are safe and for the for the rights of civil pretrial detainees as well as immigrant detainees. Remember, these are people who are in civil custody not criminal custody. So they are actually entitled to a higher level of protection which under the Fifth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment due process clause that states that you know, nothing about their conditions can even amount to looking like punishment and to the extent that this that threat of serious illness and death in the face of a lethal virus that has no cure, No vaccine, no treatment certainly courts have agreed that that constitutes a clear due process violation. With respect to people who are currently incarcerated or detained and their attempts to argue for better treatment within the facility better PPE hygiene social distancing as well as release. This is of course happening. The question really is how much do we on the outside know about it? Given the barriers that have been posed by by a facility officials and you know, I can point to the time, you know, for example, the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma Washington detainees actually lined up with their bodies spelling SOS. So that people in a helicopter above actually took a picture of that cry for help from within the Detention Center. We've had several letters demands coming out from prisons from detention center. Asking for all of these things including you know, the bare minimum hygiene equipment training and education the end of transfers into facilities, right? I think that's another issue that has come up as a very very problematic issue is just the turn of people in and out from facility to facility and indeed, you know, we heard for example of cases at a Detention Facility in Pennsylvania, and we knew we actually knew of several individuals at that detention facility that were then transferred down to a Detention Facility in Texas and shortly thereafter, we also began to hear of confirmed cases at that facility so we know that you know ICE’s refusal for example to stop transferring people between Detention Facility detention facilities actually making a bad situation even worse. These are all things that prisoners and detainees have clearly outlined for their own self advocacy and as Gerald had pointed to you know sometimes

This self-advocacy is actually and led to very repressive conditions and responses from officials and you know in the frame in the form of placing people in punitive solitary confinement using tear gas to quell these types of requests. These are the types of unfortunately some of the responses that we're seeing to the demands and the requests by detainees and and prisoners and in light of this crisis.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU National prison project. She was speaking on a webinar held by physicians for human rights on the topic of covid-19 threats to detention center / prison populations. And for now, that's it. I want to thank you for joining us. You have been listening to Century of Lies, we're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network on the web @ I'm your host Doug McVay editor of We'll be back in a week with 30 more minutes of Information about drug policy reform in the failed War on Drugs for now for the Drug Truth Network. This is Doug McVay saying so long “so long” for the Drug Truth Network. This is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition. The Century of Lies Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A Baker III Institute for public policy.