Groups Call for Water Infrastructure Testing in IL Prisons – Public News Service

After reports of water contamination in Illinois prisons, groups are calling on the state to conduct a top-down review of the water and sewer systems in the facilities.

The state’s Capital Development Board is currently conducting an assessment of prison infrastructure needs, with the goal of identifying structural updates needed for its facilities.

Jennifer Vollen Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois (JHA), said the review should include water infrastructure. The JHA is one of six advocacy groups calling to expand the assessment.

“The State of Illinois has not made the resources available to provide ongoing maintenance and upkeep for these facilities,” Vollen Katz contended. “Many of them are very old, and haven’t had attention paid to their physical plant infrastructure in many, many years.”

A recent investigation by The Appeal revealed the water at five Illinois prisons was infected with Legionella bacteria, which can cause Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially fatal type of pneumonia. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), there were more than 27,500 people in the prison system as of the end of March.

Vollen Katz contended, aside from the Legionella contamination, the IDOC has not been transparent about prior water-quality issues. She argued any updates to prisons’ drinking water and sewer infrastructure should be subject to public review.

“We don’t have a good understanding, and there doesn’t seem to be ongoing public inspection, of water systems inside our prisons,” Vollen Katz stated.

In prisons across the country, water quality has been a concern for incarcerated people and their advocates, as well as those who work in the facilities. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, one-third of state and federal prisons are built within three miles of a Superfund site, where pollution is serious enough to warrant a federal response.

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Nebraska is now in year three of a prison overcrowding emergency, according to the latest numbers released by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.

In 2020, Nebraska was forced to declare the emergency for violating federal rules limiting populations to 114% of design capacity.

Spike Eickholt – a lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska – said the report also confirms that racial disparities exist throughout Nebraska’s criminal-justice system, which begin long before people end up behind bars.

“Everywhere from the initial traffic stop to pre-trial detention to sentences that are imposed into the prison system,” said Eickholt. “And what you see is that you see an over-representation of people of color, particularly black people in the prison system.”

Black Nebraskans make up just 5% of the state’s overall population, but represent more than a quarter of the state’s prison population.

The agency responsible for managing Nebraska’s prison system has repeatedly argued that the only possible answer to overcrowding is for the state to build a new prison.

Overcrowding also has limited rehabilitation programs, a problem that Eickholt said increases a person’s likelihood of returning to prison.

It costs Nebraska taxpayers more than $38,000 a year for every person serving time. Eickholt said most Nebraskans would prefer not to see their tax dollars go to a major state investment in a new prison.

“Because not only is it going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to construct,” said Eickholt. “It’s going to cost millions of dollars after that to staff and operate. We still have a problem with staffing the current prison systems that we have now, which is why we are at a staffing emergency.”

Nebraska prisons were operating at 141% of design capacity in 2020 when the emergency became official. As of March, prison populations reached 152% of capacity.

Eickholt said there are a number of proven alternatives to imprisonment, including adding mental-health courts to deal with non-violent addiction-related crime.

“That would supplement the regular court system and add to the investment the state already has made,” said Eickholt. “Even though that costs the state money, it’s less than making a new prison, and it’s less than locking people up for years and years, and hoping that they just don’t come back.”

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Another important U.S. Supreme Court ruling this month has been overshadowed by the controversy about overturning abortion rights.

Legal experts say the court has weakened the rights of people who’ve been arrested in its 6-3 decision in the case Vega v. Tekoh.

At issue was a landmark 1966 decision Miranda v. Arizona, which prompted the statement police read to people as they’re arrested, to inform them of their rights.

Vincent Bonventre, professor at Albany Law School, said the high court is making a distinction between Miranda protections and the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

“While an individual can sue under ‘1983’ for a violation of his constitutional right against compelled self-incrimination, the court said that the individual cannot sue under ‘1983’ for violation of Miranda rights, because Miranda rights aren’t constitutional rights,” Bonventre explained.

The ‘1983’ to which Bonventre refers is Section 1983 of the Ku Klux Klan Act, an amendment to the 1871 law which allows people to file lawsuits if they feel their constitutional rights have been violated.

The new ruling means in such cases, a person cannot sue law enforcement officials under federal civil-rights law for Miranda warning violations.

But Bonventre pointed out New York’s Court of Appeals as well as other state courts can protect Miranda rights more than the Supreme Court, and without penalty. He does not think the Vega v. Tekoh decision will be as major a change to the legal system as it seems.

“The court did not have to rule this way,” Bonventre emphasized. “The court could have said, ‘Well, Miranda rights are important enough, and they are part of constitutional law, even though they are not the actual constitutional right. And therefore, we want to protect them by allowing individuals to sue when their Miranda rights are violated.’ “

The original 1966 case has for decades provided a safeguard for people against the right to self-incrimination through forced confessions.

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A new report from The Sentencing Project debunks the myth of a post-pandemic crime wave fueled by young people.

In March, Congress held a hearing about a spike in carjackings in big cities, but the data actually show a drop in overall robberies by youths in 2020, and a drop in the share of crime committed by youths over the past 20 years.

Tshaka Barrows, co-executive director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute in Oakland, rejected calls to ditch progressive policies on juvenile justice.

“To think that somehow we don’t need to revisit failed approaches that specifically have a racial impact that’s structural – that dates all the way back to the founding of this country – to me, is disingenuous,” he said. “It lacks a true reflection of the magnitude of what we’re dealing with.”

Barrows said he supports restorative-justice programs that rehabilitate young people and keep them out of the criminal-justice system. He said he views the recent recall of progressive San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin as a setback, and added that huge investments in law enforcement have not made communities safer.

Report author Richard Mendel, senior research fellow at The Sentencing Project, said he thinks young people who commit minor crimes should not be expelled or locked up – but rather, redirected to counseling.

“You take them away from school, you take them away from activities of rites of passage and adolescence, and you surround them instead with incarceration, with other troubled kids,” he said, “and it’s a negative dynamic that halts their natural progression to ‘age out’ of these behaviors.”

State data show the felony juvenile arrest rate decreased from 2019 to 2020 – from 3.9 per 1,000 to 2.7 at the height of the pandemic.

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July 15, 2022 at 07:14AM

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