Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Life Without Parole...Our View

Monday, March 24, 2008

In Maryland
Sunday's Baltimore Sun had the editorial, "Life Without Parole - Our view: It's an inappropriate sentence for juveniles."

At 35, Marcus Tunstall has spent more than half his life in prison. It's unlikely he'll ever get out unless a governor intervenes or the law changes. That's because Mr. Tunstall is serving life without parole for a crime he committed while a minor. He is among 15 such men who entered Maryland's prison system under this unforgiving term. Arrested as adolescents, they were too young to join the Army, not old enough to buy liquor and ineligible to vote. And yet the state consigned them to an interminable existence; their prison stay will far exceed their years on the outside. It's a living death that harbors no chance for redemption.

The U.S. is the only country that imprisons juveniles without the possibility of parole. It's a sentence that defies the scientific research on teenagers' reasoning and potential for reform. Some states are finally realizing that and moving to repeal these laws. Maryland, unfortunately, is not among them.

Known as kid-lifers, juvenile offenders imprisoned under mandatory life-without-parole laws number about 2,300 in 39 states, according to a study by Northwestern University Law School's Children and Family Justice Center and the John Howard Association. Despite those staggering figures, only Nebraska, Florida, Michigan, Illinois and California are actively trying to change their laws on kid-lifers. Illinois' law came on the books more than 30 years ago as youth crime was increasing.

Maryland law allowed for a life-without-parole sentence for a juvenile convicted as an adult in 1988, following the Supreme Court's decision to exclude juveniles from the death penalty. Most of Maryland's kid-lifers entered prison at 17 or 16.

The juvenile index is here.

Dozens of children in U.S. Face life in prison

By Matthew Bigg

ALABASTER, Alabama (Reuters) - Underage criminals cannot face the death penalty in the United States but dozens of offenders imprisoned for crimes committed when they were young teenagers will still die behind bars.

The U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for minors in 2005 but 19 states permit "life-means-life" sentences for those under 18, according to a study by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).

In all, 2,225 people are sentenced to die in U.S. prisons for crimes they committed as minors and 73 of them were aged 13 and 14 at the time of the crime, according to the group, which is based in Montgomery, Alabama.

Elsewhere in the world, life sentences with no chance of parole are rare for underage offenders. Human Rights Watch estimates that only 12 people outside the United States face such sentences.

Judicial reform advocates say the U.S. provision is an example of how harsh sentences have helped cause a jump in incarceration rates since the 1970s. The United States jails a higher percentage of its population than anywhere else in the industrialized world, these advocates say.

"These kids have been swept up in this tide of carceral control that is unparalleled in American history," said Bryan Stevenson, director of the EJI. "We have become quite comfortable about throwing people away," he said.

Others defend the statute, arguing it is popular with voters and gives comfort to victims to know that perpetrators of serious crimes against them will not one day walk free.

They also use an "adult crime, adult time" argument -- minors who commit adult crimes should be punished as adults.


The case of Ashley Jones, who was 14 when she killed, illustrates the seriousness of many crimes that result in for-life sentences.

One night in August 1999, Jones and her 16-year-old boyfriend, Geramie Hart, angered by her family's disapproval of their relationship, went to her home in Birmingham, Alabama. They set her grandfather on fire with lighter fluid, stabbed him and shot him dead.

They also stabbed and shot dead Jones' aunt in her bedroom and set her grandmother on fire.

Jones' 10-year-old sister, Mary, was asleep in bed but they dragged her to the kitchen to see the attack on her family.

"I had to sit there and watch her (Ashley) torture my grandmother. I saw her in flames," said Mary Jones, recounting her ordeal in an interview in Alabaster, Alabama.

"Geramie ... picked me up by my neck and pointed a gun at me and said: 'This is how you are going to die.' Ashley said: 'No, wait. I'll do her.'"

They stabbed Mary Jones repeatedly, puncturing a lung, and drove off leaving her and her grandmother, whose injuries included burns, stab and gunshot wounds, to stagger outside.

The questions raised by criminal cases involving teenagers are difficult to answer.

Is a young teenager responsible for crimes in the same way as an adult and to what extent, if at all, should courts consider a minor's family situation and background?

"It goes against human inclinations to give up completely on a young teenager. It's impossible for a court to say that any 14-year-old never has the possibility to live in society," said Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights.


The Equal Justice Initiative has filed suits in six states challenging the life-without-parole sentences and has brought a case in federal court in northern Alabama over the Jones case, arguing it represents cruel and unusual punishment.

Hart is also serving the same sentence.

The group says a disproportionate number of the minors serving the sentence are black or Hispanic and many were tried as adults with inadequate legal counsel. Also, it says up to 70 percent were given mandatory sentences.

Not all those serving life-means-life sentences for crimes committed as minors are convicted killers.

Antonio Nunez was convicted of multiple counts of attempted murder and also aggravated kidnapping and sentenced to life without parole for his role in a kidnap, police chase and shootout in April, 2001, in which nobody was injured.

Nunez, aged 14 at the time of the crime, grew up in a part of Los Angeles where gang activity was common. In 2000, he was wounded and his brother killed in a gang-related shooting.

His sister Cindy Nunez said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles the life sentence devastated her family.

"He has lost all hope .... We try to keep his spirits up by saying something will change in the law," she said.

Mary Jones, now 19, is attempting to reconstruct her life. She testified against her sister in court but has visited her in jail. She blames Hart for changing her sister from "the sweetest girl" into a murderer.

"She should have a chance to have a life. Her life shouldn't just be taken away from her like that. Sometimes I'm kind of mad and then I'm sad," she said. "I practically lost her too because she is in prison."

(Reporting by Matthew Bigg; Editing by Michael Christie and Eddie Evans)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Does Separation Equal Suffering?

Some state inmates spend years in solitary. Critics say that is cruel and unusual.


Published December 17, 2006


Ian Manuel had just turned 14 when he went to prison for shooting a woman in a botched robbery on a Tampa sidewalk. Mouthy and disobedient, he was sent to solitary confinement a year and a half later.

That was in 1992. He has been there ever since.

Now 29, Manuel has spent half his life in a concrete box the size of a walk-in closet. His food comes through a slot in the door. He never sees another inmate. Out of boredom he cuts himself just to watch the blood trickle.

Attorneys who advocate on behalf of prisoners call Manuel "the poster boy" for the ill effects of solitary confinement.

There are 3,500 inmates in solitary confinement in Florida prisons. More than 1,400 of them are held under the strictest conditions, like Manuel.

They are not allowed out of their cells except for three quick showers a week and five hours in an empty outdoor cage that resembles a dog run.

They are not allowed to stand at their doors and look out the narrow plexiglass window in their cells, bathe in their sinks when it's hot, or use their blankets as a wrap when it's cold.

They are not allowed to call out chess plays from cell to cell or read anything but legal and religious materials. If they violate any of these rules, their time in solitary is extended.

In Florida a larger percentage of inmates - 4 percent - live "behind the door" than in any other state. Their numbers are increasing by about 250 people a year, despite a state plan intended to decrease the numbers. Forty-seven of the inmates in solitary are younger than 18. Seventy-seven percent of the women and 33 percent of the men are diagnosed as mentally ill, raising questions of whether solitary confinement is a dumping ground for inmates whose illnesses are aggravated by isolation.

The Department of Corrections was brought to federal court in 1999 to defend itself against allegations that its use of solitary confinement amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Seven years later, attorneys for the inmates argue the state still has not addressed the issue, despite a court-approved plan to do so. A federal judge will soon decide who is right: the state or the inmates.

During a September federal court hearing on the alleged abuses in solitary, Chase Riveland, former chief administrator for prison systems in Colorado, Washington and Oregon, said: "Prisons have people who must be kept away from the general population. The problem in Florida is not that (solitary) exists, but who goes in and who goes out and why, and how they are treated when they're in."

More than 50 percent of the inmates are held there for years, Riveland said, "because of minor disciplinary infractions, not because they're a threat to others."

Ian Manuel holds the record for being there the longest without a break.

A call to apologize

On a muggy July night in 1990, Debbie Baigrie, 28, was walking with a friend in downtown Tampa. Three boys walked up as she got to her car and demanded money. Manuel, then 13, pulled a gun and fired.

A bullet tore through Baigrie's open mouth and out her cheek, shattering five teeth and part of her gum. Manuel pleaded guilty to attempted felony murder. At his sentencing, the judge cited 17 prior arrests for shoplifting, purse snatching and stealing cars. He gave Manuel a life sentence without parole.

In 1991, when Manuel arrived at the prison processing center in Central Florida, he was so small no one could find a prison uniform to fit him, Ron McAndrew, then the assistant warden, recalled. Someone cut 6 inches off the boy's pant legs so he would have something to wear.

"He was scared of everything and acting like a tough guy as a defense mechanism," said McAndrew, now a prison and jail consultant in Florida. "He didn't stand a chance in an adult prison."

Within months, Manuel was sent to Apalachee Correctional Institution in Jackson County, which McAndrew called "one of the toughest adult prisons in the state." At Apalachee, the boy mouthed off to other inmates and correctional officers and made obscene hand gestures, racking up disciplinary infractions that landed him in solitary.

On Christmas Eve 1992, he was allowed to make one phone call. He called Debbie Baigrie, the woman he had shot.

"This is Ian. I am sorry for all the suffering I've caused you," she remembers him saying.

They began to correspond regularly. Baigrie said she was impressed with how well he wrote.

She asked prison officials to let him take the General Educational Development test and take college courses.

"I got a second chance in life. I recovered and went on," Baigrie said. "I wanted Ian to have the same chance."

But the rules of solitary forbade Manuel from participating in any kind of self-improvement or educational program. Instead, he sat in his cell day in and day out, without reading materials or human interaction, racking up more infractions for "disrespect," which only extended his time in solitary.

After several years, Baigrie gave up.

"Not because of Ian," she said, "but because the system made it impossible for him to improve. What does it say when a victim tries to do more for an inmate than the very system that's supposed to rehabilitate him?"

Harsh yes, but right?

But rehabilitation is not the point of solitary confinement, which officials call "close management."

Its intent is "to provide housing that removes inmates from the general population to ensure the safety of staff and other inmates," said James Upchurch, the head of security for the state Department of Corrections.

Under the strictest conditions, he said, inmates are still allowed "numerous privileges," among them, "stamps, mail, paper and (rubber) pens, a prison uniform, bedding, legal and religious material, three 10-minute showers a week and haircuts."

In September, when he was state attorney general, Charlie Crist, with Assistant State Attorney Jason Vail, wrote a brief saying solitary conditions "can be severe, even harsh, without violating the Constitution."

Their example: Sleeping on a concrete floor and "being denied a mattress or a bed for several days does not violate the Eighth Amendment."

Even if the state's "remedial action (is) unsuccessful," they said, the court cannot continue to monitor solitary unless the evidence shows the state "acted with the very purpose of causing harm."

Over nine days in September, inmates testified via video before Federal District Court Judge Henry Adams.

Anthony Sutton, 29, an inmate at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, told the judge that he first went into solitary in 2002 when correctional officers found a knife in his roommate's mattress.

Sutton recently filed a written grievance because correctional officers won't allow him to wear the knee brace he requires to walk. Their written response: "Limited mobility of (solitary) status makes the knee brace unnecessary."

Inmate Marcus Green, 33, who is on the lowest level of solitary, told Adams, "Their rules aren't on the rule sheet. They make up their own rules. I was denied access to the day room because my pillow fluff wasn't neat the way they wanted. I was denied day room because I put paper on my vent to try to guide some ventilation in my cell."

Attorneys for the Department of Corrections did not dispute inmates' version of events. Vail said their stories "did not add up to systemic violations," which were required to prove cruel and unusual treatment.

"These prisoners don't practice civilized behavior. They don't follow rules. They don't deserve civilized treatment. It's a different world," Vail told the St. Petersburg Times.

Two days later, Vail asked to amend his statement: "What I meant to say was that these inmates don't conform and are there because they don't follow the rules. It's that simple."

Going slowly crazy

On the fifth day of the September hearing, Ian Manuel testified.

"It's my belief," he told Judge Adams, "that the reason I haven't been able to progress off CM (close management) all these years is the way the system is set up. One DR (disciplinary report) will keep you there for six months and those six months add up to years and those years turn into decades."

In the past seven months, prison records show Manuel received three disciplinary writeups: one for not making his bed, another for hiding a day's worth of prescription medicine instead of taking it, and yet another for yelling through the food flap when a correctional officer refused to take his grievance form. Those reports extended his stay on the strictest level of solitary for nine months.

Manuel told the judge that in isolation he has become a "cutter," slicing his arms and legs with whatever sharp object he can find - a fragment of a toothpaste tube or a tiny piece of glass.

Don Gibbs, a psychiatrist for the Department of Corrections, said cutting and watching the blood flow is how hundreds of inmates "relieve the boredom and stress of isolation."

It takes from two to six months, Gibbs said, for inmates in solitary to start exhibiting signs of mental illness, if they are not already mentally ill.

"Nobody can be isolated for long periods of time with nothing to see and nothing to do and not deteriorate," he said. "If you're not mentally ill when you go in, you probably will be when you come out."

In the past year, Ian Manuel has attempted suicide five times. In late August he slit his wrists. A prison nurse closed the wounds with superglue and returned him to his solitary cell.

When the judge asked him why he attempted suicide, Manuel said, "You kind of lose hope."

In early 2007, Adams will rule on whether solitary conditions should continue to be monitored by his court.

About that time, staff at Union Correctional Institution will review Manuel's status to see if, after 14 years in solitary, he will be allowed to go to the day room four hours a week to watch TV in handcuffs and shackles.

"Every day," he says, "I pray for this."

Researcher Angie Holan contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at or (727) 893-8068.