a prisoner speaks out


The Trouble With Prison
by Kenneth E. Hartman

In his Republic, Plato’s allegory of the cave describes how the limited perception of man leaves him measuring the world with only the distorted reflections of reality. The trouble with prison, as it is perceived, is the shadows are further distended by a variety of prisms that bend reality to suit a host of preconceptions, special interests and self-fulfilling prophecies. The end result of this shape-shifting is a system that produces failure as a matter of course, that pretends to protect the mass of society, and that destroys whole communities in its voracious appetite. The trouble with prison is prison.

I serve the other death penalty—life without the possibility of parole—for killing a man in a fistfight when I was 19 years old. In that I will never get out, I am freed to speak a more direct and unfiltered truth than those who must convince a panel of unsympathetic officials they should be returned to the real world. My 29 years of direct experience, coupled with a powerful thirst to come to grips with my own personal truth and gain an intellectually valid grasp of this world, have taught me a series of lessons. While I do not claim to have unchained myself completely from the bonds of ignorance, I believe I can read and interpret accurately the tortured shapes on the dull concrete walls of this particular cave.

People are put in prison because nothing else works. This is the foundational misperception that supports the prison edifice. The truth is far less simple. There are prisoners whose lifetime of dangerous behavior leaves prison as the only choice for society. But these are a tiny minority in the sea of pathetic misfits and perennial losers walking the yards.

Most prisoners are uneducated, riddled with unresolved traumas and ill-treated mental health problems, drug and alcohol addictions, and self-esteem issues that are beyond profound, bordering on the pathological far too often. The vast majority has never received competent health care, mental health care, drug treatment, education or even an opportunity to look at themselves as human. Were any of these far less draconian interventions even tried, before the descent into this wretched cave, no doubt many of my peers would be leading productive lives. Nothing else works is not a statement of fact; it is the declaration of an ideology. This ideology holds that punishment, for the sake of the infliction of pain, is the logical response to all misbehavior. It is also a convenient cover story behind which powerful special interest groups hide.

Prison employees benefit by our failure. This startling fact contains within it a monstrous truth. These well-organized government workers created the victims’ rights movement, a sad shill for the prison-industrial complex. Using the handful of politically active victims of crime to obscure their actual agenda, propositions are passed, laws are changed, and policies that could prevent victimization in the first place are suppressed. Both of these groups, working in tandem with the corporations that supply and construct prisons, pour millions of dollars into the political process to achieve a system guaranteed to fail. But this failure by any other measure—high rates of recidivism, high rates of internal disorder, growing prison populations serving longer sentences—results in greater profits to the corporations, increased membership in the unions, and ever growing piles of dollars to buy still more influence.

After reading a small library of books and studies on the subject, along with my direct experience, it is clear only three rehabilitative programs have proof of success. Increased and enhanced visiting to build and maintain family ties, higher education, and quality drug and alcohol treatment constitutes this golden triad. It is not a closely held secret that these work to lower recidivism and, thus, prevent victimization; rather, this is well known. Nevertheless, the special interest groups lobby incessantly against all three. In my 29 years, visiting has deteriorated from a slightly unpleasant experience to a hostile and traumatic acid bath that quite effectively destroys family ties. Higher education is virtually nonexistent but for those few with the substantial resources needed to purchase it. In those rare cases where innovative ways have been found to bring education back into the prisons the special interest groups have mounted vicious campaigns to terminate the programs. The opposition to drug and alcohol treatment, much more widely supported in the body politic, is subtler. Using the proven method of compulsory participation by the least amenable, those programs that are instituted are crippled in the normal chaos of prison. All of this opposition stands behind the banner of protecting victims’ rights, as if only the desire for revenge by past victims of crime matters, over even the potential losses of future victims.

With recidivism rates well beyond two-thirds, the assumption for all prisoners is that of failure. It is written into the policies of prison that force parolees back to failed situations, that site prisons far from the urban areas most prisoners come from, and provide no after-parole assistance. When I first came into the California state system in the late ‘70s, a parolee received a decent set of clothes, a bus ticket and $200 in cash. Today’s parolee receives a sweat suit unsuitable for a job interview and $200; out of which is deducted the cost of his bus ticket and decades of devaluation. The parolee, having received no real substance abuse treatment, no serious education or training, no useful mental health counseling, and holding barely enough money for a short stay in a flophouse, is cast back out into the real world to swim or, more likely, sink. The aid that would make the transition more likely successful is denied, ostensibly, to save money. The pennies it would take to reestablish the parolee vanish next to the fifty thousand a year it costs to re-incarcerate the parole violator.

Yet again, sadly, it becomes clear on close inspection that without our mass failure the gears of the prison-industrial complex would stop. Jobs would be lost, rural communities devastated, and the flow of political contributions would dry up. From the perspective of those who depend on our failure to sustain themselves, our success would be a disaster. In my state, an admitted extreme example, on any given day about half the prison population are parole violators, a majority of whom have broken no law but rather violated one of the vast web of confusing and devious tripwire rules they must navigate around on the other side of the fences.

Failure is expected, a bad enough thing, to be sure. Worse, failure is celebrated and lauded. The primary rationale of parole divisions is to lock as many ex-cons as possible back into the prisons. There are gang task forces, and drug task forces, and absconder recovery units, and high control teams, all of which operate on a presumption of failure. These black-clad, helmeted law enforcement platoons prowl the alleys and back streets of the inner cities hunting down parolees. They justify the over-application of picayune rules as preventing the assumed major crimes the parolee is bound to commit, eventually. After the high-fives and backslapping are over, parole officers content themselves with their sense of exacting a frighteningly prospective form of justice. The now current convict heads back for another year or two of dehumanization for forgetting to report he moved or talking to his cousin also on parole.

The prison system dresses itself in a cloak of respectability by claiming to protect society from the “worst of the worst.” At a certain level, this is true. There are some irredeemables, those who should not be allowed to prey on society ever again. The trouble with this assertion, and the direction it has taken, is there just aren’t enough worst of the worst to justify the concrete and razor wire empire, not to the extent it has grown. The definition of who fits into this excluded class has expanded dramatically over the years, along with the borders of the system. Now, along with the serial predator is housed the serial drug addict and the serial shoplifter and the serial loser, all serving extraordinarily long sentences on prison yards devoid of even a semblance of rehabilitation. This in the name of protecting society.

Policies are enacted that are purposely brutal by staff who have been trained to view prisoners as less than human, to believe that their real role is to exact revenge, who see us in all ways the enemy, the dangerous other. This message, that we are not fully human, is pressed into us every moment of every day in a multitude of ways from the mundane (being forced to wear pants with “PRISONER” stamped on the leg in neon orange lettering) to the profound (being prevented from conducting a business or owning property). This results in a diminishing of our consciousness to that of the unwelcome alien. From inside this dark recess, it is near to impossible imagining rejoining humanity. As one state senator in California observed, “If you were to set out to design a system to produce failure, this would be it.” It is not surprising this elected official represents an area that has disproportionately suffered due to these policies and was a professor of psychology before assuming office.

Whole communities have been decimated, literally, by the policies of the system. People of color, the poor and the dispossessed, are represented in numbers far exceeding their share of society. It starts on streets patrolled by an occupying force of police who view these people as less than, as suspects first and foremost. Arrests are made for the most trivial offenses, for the little acts of rebellion and frustration not uncommon to young people everywhere. But down on the occupied bottom of society there is no call made to mommy and daddy. No well-dressed lawyer will show up in court with a privately contracted psychologist to explain junior’s learning disability. A bored, too often hostile, public defender will convince the youth to take a plea bargain that 20 years later becomes the first strike in a life sentence for boosting a ham. Once a name has a criminal justice system number affixed to it, the move from possible suspect to probable offender is complete. In some of the worst off communities, every third or fourth man, and a growing number of women, carry a number on their shoulders.

As the mass of people in this country who labor to carry a number grows so, too, does the harm caused and exacerbated by the prison system. No longer a tiny fringe of malcontents and unrepentant thugs, we who have sprung from the electrified fences and gun towers, from inside the racially polarized and ganged-up yards, who have spent a significant portion of our lives locked into tiny concrete boxes bending over and spreading our cheeks, are a growing segment of the real world. We have spouses and children, parents and siblings, and our influence on the collective consciousness is solidifying. It is seen in the glorification of violence and the fascination with acts of irrational and pointless rage that fills the media and dominates the lives of prisoners. It is heard in the adoption of jailhouse terms applied to schools put on “lockdown” and street cops “kickin’ it with the homies.” It is felt in the tighter ring of controls that encircle the lives of free people in the real world, a disturbing reflection of the world of prisoners.

Prison is insatiable and unquenchable. It devours everything in its path and swallows whole anything that attempts to deter it. All these years I have spent inside I have observed just how effectively the system crushes its opposition. The well meaning and good-hearted eventually surrender to the overwhelming force and terrible despair. Not least of which, that pouring out of the desperate flailing of prisoners ourselves as we beat our heads against the walls of our internal exile with a maniacal ferocity. We internalize the separation and removal, the assumed less-than status, and hold up the idiotic and vainglorious pride we pretend to like clowns’ make-up to hide our shame. Some of us profess to be immune to the battering we endure; many of us deny it happening in spite of the obvious bruises. In the end, the vast majority of us become exactly who we are told we are: violent, irrational, and incapable of conducting ourselves like conscious adults. It is a tragic opera with an obvious outcome.

The talk lately making the rounds in political circles, among the power brokers and well heeled, is of reviving the idea of rehabilitation. The past decades of exploding costs and terrible outcomes, particularly as schools and old folks homes are closed to bridge budget shortfalls, has allowed the concept of using prison to correct, to heal and restore, to be taken seriously again. This is a good thing. It is long overdue. But it is an idea that will have to battle powerful forces determined to diminish it into a shadow without substance. It will face the added complexity of implementation managed by guards and administrators, teachers and counselors who fundamentally reject the notion that prisoners are capable of being restored. Along with this uphill climb, dragging along the recalcitrant, will be the added obstacle of the special interest groups defending their world of failure. The simple truth is the less of us the less of them. If we stop coming back their world will collapse.

Still, the greatest struggle to effect change will be convincing the mass of prisoners, the millions of men and women who have been brainwashed into believing they simply cannot become better. At the head of this mass will be the seeming leadership from our own ranks, those who have used the status quo to achieve a perverse success. They are the drug dealers and negative leaders, the phony writ writers, the whole group of profiteers and self-servers who will seek to undermine positive change because in it they glimpse the end of their domination of the dysfunction. That they aid and assist the special interest groups, the organized revenge groups and the corporations profiting off of our collective misery is obvious. Heedless, they will seek to maintain the failed system through acts of atavistic violence and jackass resistance. They might succeed in stifling change, and not for the first time. This is the modern world of prison, constructed after 25 years of surrendering to fear mongers and manipulators. It is a fearsome mess.

The trouble with prison is, indeed, prison itself. The way prison is managed and envisioned. The idea that by humiliating and brutalizing damaged people some possible good could result is simply a falsehood, a lie perpetrated by interests who benefit from failure. It has never worked. It is not working now. It will never work. No amount of money poured down society’s communal drain will buy success. No minimum number of broken bodies and tortured spirits will purchase rehabilitation. No pyre of burnt offerings, no matter how large and hot, will somehow result in better people walking out the front gate in their gray sweat suits. The problems are systemic and resilient. Nothing short of radical and sustained reform will be enough to overcome the resistance of a system built to fail. It may not be possible, but to not try is to condemn thousands upon thousands of our fellow human beings to a witches’ brew of victimizations, in here and out there. To not try would be an act of cowardly capitulation to bullies and thugs. To not try is to become like those who have erected this system, who keep it going, who must somehow sleep with what they do.


Kenneth E. Hartman has served over 29 continuous years in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on a life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentence. He is an award-winning writer and prison reform activist. His memoir of prison life Mother California will be published by Atlas & Co. He was instrumental in the founding of the Honor Program at the California State Prison-Los Angeles County. He is currently leading a grassroots organizing campaign, conducted solely by LWOP prisoners, with the ultimate goal of abolishing this other death penalty.



Weather Report

78° Partly Cloudy and Rain


little boxes

london suburb 1930s
shell is hell.

Weather Report

78° Partly Cloudy and Rain


get happy




Groove of the Day

Listen to Judy Garland performing “Get Happy”


Weather Report

81° Cloudy and Rain


scarecrow village

This past weekend I heard a radio report on the aging of the Japanese population, in which the elderly now account for a quarter of that nation’s population. Almost in passing, the commentator mentioned “Scarecrow Village,” a small place that has become a minor tourist site as it depopulates. I went searching on the internet, and found this article, which I thought you’d enjoy.



Tsukimi Ayano arranges a scarecrow at a bus stop in the mountain village of Nagaro.


Welcome to Scarecrow Village

In a tiny Japanese village, scarecrows outnumber the residents

by Sarah Eberspacher, The Week

To describe the village of Nagoro, Japan, as “tiny” would be an overstatement. The hamlet in the southern part of the country boasts only 35 aging villagers. But one resident has been steadily bolstering this fading population with a dedicated, if lethargic, group of bystanders.



Tsukimi Ayano, the 65-year-old Wizard of Oz in this land of puppets, made her first scarecrow 13 years ago. It was an inspiration born of necessity—to ward off the birds that flocked to her garden. When she finished stitching together the garden’s new protector, Ayano realized she’d made a scarecrow with a striking resemblance to her father.


ScarecrowFATHERTsukimi Ayano arranges a scarecrow meant to represent her father, near a tree.


And so Ayano began to create the scarecrow versions of other villagers, family members, and friends, capturing their likenesses and placing the completed projects around Nagoro. To date, she’s crafted more than 350 straw dolls. Other villagers have gotten in on the game, too.

“(Now), they’re created as requests for those who’ve lost their grandfather or grandmother,” Osamu Suzuki, a Nagoro resident, told Reuters. “So it’s indeed something to bring back memories.”





Like many of Japan’s small, rural communities, Nagoro is slowly losing its residents to cities, leaving behind only the retirees. In 2012, Nagoro’s only school shut down, after its two pupils graduated. The building is far from deserted, though; Ayano simply set up new pupils, on whom she checks when she makes her daily rounds through the village.





The scarecrows are everywhere now: plowing an empty field; watching over the post office; even hopping on a bicycle near the outskirts of town. It can be a little unnerving, but Ayano’s rather macabre creations have given the town some much-needed attention. And the tourists that are beginning to travel to see the “Scarecrow Village” can count on a personal tour from Ayano — provided, she says, that they do not arrive when her television soap operas air.





Sarah Eberspacher is an engagement editor in New York City with the Guardian US. Before her present job, she was an assistant photo editor, Saturday news editor, and associate editor for over two years at TheWeek.com, from whence this article comes. All photos by Thomas Peter, of Reuters.



Weather Report

81° and Partly Cloudy


trump memes & cartoons

Some of my favorites from the past week…


Trump Sandwich.



twilight zone.

white trash.


Trump Meme




Weather Report

81° Cloudy and Rain


cruel bitch



Is Angela Corey the Cruelest Prosecutor in America?

The woman who failed to convict Trayvon Martin’s killer is putting hundreds of kids in prison, and dozens of people on death row.

by Jessica Pishko, The Atlantic

August 16, 2016

In March of 2011, 12-year-old Cristian Fernandez was taken into an interview room at a Jacksonville, Florida, police station and interrogated by Michelle Soehlig, a ponytailed female officer. Before Soehlig began questioning him, she told the child, “These are your constitutional rights,” and slid over a document listing the Miranda warnings, familiar to anyone who’s seen an episode of Law & Order. Cristian was otherwise alone, squirmy, resting his head on his chubby arms and sometimes talking to himself, as if practicing what to say to the adults who would question him, muttering, “Pow! Pow! Pow!” He responded to Soehlig’s questions with a barely audible “Uh-huh,” so she prompted him to say “Yes.” It was after 2 am.

“Has he woken up?” Cristian asked at one point, referring to his 2-year-old brother David.

“He’s still sleeping,” Soehlig replied, meaning that David was still in a coma. She gave Cristian a doll to help him demonstrate what he might have done to David. Later, she would point to the doll’s head, asking Cristian if he hit his brother there and, if so, how many times. The scene is captured in Juvenile Lifers, a documentary about incarcerated children made by Cyril Denvers and Anthony Headley. The directors were given access to court footage and documents for their film, which was partially funded by the French public-access channel France 5.

David would eventually die of his injuries—multiple fractures to the skull—and Cristian would be charged with killing him.

The morning before his interrogation, according to the plea that Cristian would later file, he and David, along with their sister and other brother, had been left at home unattended by their mother, Biannela Susana. Cristian called her at 9:20 am to say that David had hurt himself. When Biannela returned home, she found David unconscious, but left him there to take Cristian to school. She then waited more than eight hours before taking David to a hospital. An examination of her computer showed that she’d Googled the symptoms of a concussion and also did some online banking. (Biannela would eventually plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and be sentenced to probation with no jail time. The documentary raises questions about her involvement in the crime.)

Undoubtedly, both Biannela and Cristian had difficult lives prior to David’s death. Biannela was 12 when she gave birth to Cristian—impregnated as the result of a rape. The two were at one point in foster care together, both wards of the state, after they were found wandering in a motel parking lot, unfed and dirty. Biannela also had abusive boyfriends, one of whom molested Cristian. Her last boyfriend shot himself in the head in front of her children.

During the interrogation, Cristian said first that David had fallen off a bunk bed, then that he’d pushed David against a bookshelf, causing his injuries. Biannela was in an interrogation room next door; at one point, Cristian was sent to talk to her and their conversation was videotaped. Biannela cried and told him to go away. After this ordeal, a male officer came in to put handcuffs on him. “I have to put these on you, buddy,” the policeman said.

met_5FernandezArraig_otu_imgAt the direction of Angela Corey, state attorney for Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit, prosecutor Mark Caliel charged Cristian with first-degree murder as an adult, which at the time meant that Cristian would not only be kept in an adult jail pending the outcome of his case, but that he would face a mandatory sentence of life without parole before he’d even lost his baby fat. According to prosecutors, Cristian had intentionally murdered David by smashing his head against a bookcase. Many other people were not so sure.


Angela Corey, the prosecutor in charge of Cristian’s fate, has served as the state attorney of the Fourth Judicial Circuit since 2008. (The circuit includes Nassau, Clay, and Duval counties; Jacksonville is in the latter.) Corey began her prosecutorial career under the supervision of Ed Austin, a revered state attorney whose name now graces the new $350 million Jacksonville courthouse. An $800,000 pedestrian bridge connecting the courthouse with the building that houses Corey’s offices was proposed by the architect; despite much public consternation over this use of state funds, Corey pushed for it on the grounds that it was too dangerous for her or her prosecutors to walk to court at street level. (There is no recorded incident of a prosecutor being assaulted en route to the courthouse.)

Corey continued as a prosecutor after Austin resigned in 1991 to run for mayor of Jacksonville. She was elected as the Fourth Circuit state attorney in 2008, after Austin’s longtime successor, Harry Shorstein, announced that he’d be returning to private practice.

During her eight-year tenure, Corey has garnered national attention in a pair of controversial trials. Her press conferences, for which she often wears a large gold cross like a Benedictine nun, have been broadcast nationwide. In 2012, she made headlines with her prosecution of Marissa Alexander, the mother who fired a gun to scare off an abusive husband (no one was injured in the incident). Corey charged Alexander with aggravated assault, which carried a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. Her prosecution of Alexander spurred online petitions and protests from domestic-violence groups, who argued that Alexander was being overcharged for protecting herself. Alexander ultimately served three years in prison. In an interview, Corey told me that she didn’t understand why her actions were “newsworthy,” arguing that Alexander had endangered her children, who were in the next room. “How am I the bad guy in that situation?” she asked.

Then, in 2013, Corey failed to convict George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. Some critics, like the now-retired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, said in no uncertain terms that Zimmerman went free because Corey had overcharged him. (Corey responded by calling Harvard Law School and threatening to sue for libel.) As the special prosecutor in the case, Corey charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder, which requires intent, rather than a lesser charge like manslaughter. Corey’s office also concealed information from the defense that had been taken from Trayvon Martin’s cell phone, which was later revealed by one of her staff members. (Corey subsequently fired him.)

But these high-profile cases only hint at the governing ethos in Corey’s office. In nearly every relevant category, Duval County (by far the largest in the Fourth Circuit) embodies the outdated ideas that have fueled mass incarceration in this country—theories that everyone from the Obama administration to the Koch brothers have declared useless. In 2010, Duval had the highest incarceration rate in Florida—significantly higher than every jurisdiction of comparable size or larger, even though crime everywhere in the state was at a historic low. Despite this fact, Corey has opposed efforts to change the sentencing structure for nonviolent offenses to alleviate overcrowding at local jails.

Duval is one of the few counties in America in which the number of death sentences hasn’t decreased—a significant outlier during a decade of nationwide decline. One in four Florida death sentences comes from Duval, even though it has less than 5 percent of the state’s population; per capita, it’s the highest in the nation. Corey’s top homicide prosecutor, Bernie de la Rionda, is known for seeking the death sentence even when circumstances seem to weigh against it. For example, Michael Shellito was convicted of homicide and sentenced to death in the 1990s, when he was 19. There is extensive evidence that Shellito was suffering from severe mental illness and has a low IQ. The Florida Supreme Court overturned the death sentence, yet de la Rionda, acting at Corey’s behest, filed an appeal in the decision. One recent case is that of James Xavier Rhodes, a now-24-year-old man who is facing a death sentence for shooting a young woman at a MetroPCS store. Darlene Farrah, the victim’s mother, has asked Corey to grant her daughter’s killer a plea deal for a life sentence—to no avail.

During her first year in office, Corey doubled the number of felony cases in which minors were tried as adults. According to Human Rights Watch, the Fourth Circuit sends 75 percent of the young people charged as adults to prison or jail—the highest rate in the state. (By contrast, Miami-Dade County weighs in at around 12 percent.) This suggests that Corey is less likely than other state attorneys to consider alternatives to prison time.

Yet Corey argues that her decisions as a prosecutor couldn’t possibly be to blame for these disproportionate numbers. “We have so many sets of rules we are bound to follow,” she said. “There are so many checks and balances.”


It’s unclear where those checks and balances were when Corey charged Cristian Fernandez with first-degree murder as an adult and then fought his transfer to a juvenile facility—because, she alleged, he was “too dangerous” to be around other young people. Under Florida law, first-degree murder requires an intent to kill and carries a mandatory life sentence; in the Fourth Circuit, all juveniles charged with murder are automatically charged as adults. (Under current Supreme Court law, juveniles are no longer eligible for mandatory life sentences, though they can still be charged as adults.)

Sending 12-year-old Cristian to an adult prison certainly numbers among Corey’s many troubling decisions. Because children and teens are in such danger of being raped or physically assaulted, federal law formerly required that juvenile inmates be kept in complete isolation. In January 2016, President Obama issued an executive order banning solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, effectively banning the incarceration of minors in adult prisons. While held in solitary confinement, juveniles received minimal yard time and infrequent access to other recreational activities. Perhaps most significant in Cristian’s case, adult prisons don’t have educational or counseling facilities; there are absolutely no opportunities for rehabilitation. Nor are adult prisons set up to allow young people the opportunity to spend time with their families. (In Cristian’s case, his isolation was compounded by the fact that his mother surrendered her parental rights; Cristian was, in essence, an orphan and not allowed to see any relatives.) Records from the prison indicate that Cristian was allowed two visits from a mental-health counselor and a handful of phone calls over a period of 30 days. Otherwise, he stayed in solitary.

The Fernandez case attracted significant attention outside of Florida, including a Change.org petition and posts on social media proclaiming that Cristian was the “youngest person charged with first-degree murder in Jacksonville.” But in our interview, Corey pointed out that Cristian “was not the youngest person in the history of Florida indicted for murder.” That title, she said, belongs to a brother and sister who were 12 and 13, respectively, when they were convicted in a county east of Orlando.

Corey also insisted that Cristian’s case isn’t unique—her office, she told me, has prosecuted many other young people as adults. And, of course, she’s right: Under her direction, 81 kids were direct-filed to adult court during the fiscal year 2014–15. So far in this fiscal year, 77 kids were charged in adult court at her discretion; 65 of them were black, and nearly half were under 16. When I asked about the number of minors she charges in adult court, Corey replied that “the juvenile system was not designed to deal with kids who commit really violent crimes, or even kids who are repeat offenders, especially of violent crimes.” She argued in favor of a “hybrid” system for young people who commit what she called “very adult crimes.”

A typical example of one of these kids might be Jonathan Eddie Hartley, a black 15-year-old who was sentenced to life in prison for shooting a delivery person during a stickup. Given the average life span, Hartley will spend the next 63 years in prison. He had no previous criminal record and pleaded guilty hoping for a lighter sentence. “We couldn’t leave him in juvenile,” Corey said.

The Supreme Court has prohibited mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles, ruling that young people are more likely to be rehabilitated—a view that is supported by recent discoveries in neuroscience. The Supreme Court also found this year that young people, because of their “immaturity, recklessness and impetuosity,” are less culpable than adults. And while every American jurisdiction has a mechanism for charging juveniles as adults, Corey’s office has apparently not changed its overall approach with respect to juveniles. Corey’s thinking seems to be stuck in the era of the so-called “superpredator,” a term popularized in the 1990s by political scientist John DiIulio to describe juvenile criminals with no hope of rehabilitation. DiIulio’s theory has since been wholly discredited; while he predicted an explosion in teen homicides, such crimes have in fact declined. He even joined an amicus brief in the case Miller v. Alabama acknowledging this fact, stating that “the fear of an impending generation of superpredators proved to be unfounded.”

Corey’s views differ: “Medical personnel are not subject-matter experts in the criminal-justice system; our prosecutors and judges are.” She argued that while mental-health experts are asked to give input in cases involving troubled juveniles, “medical research is constantly changing.”

According to Matt Shirk, Jacksonville’s elected public defender, Corey’s office also uses the threat of being charged as an adult as a way to coerce children into pleading to the maximum juvenile sentence: “They come in and say, ‘Your client needs to take the…max or we are going to direct-file.’” And an investigation by The Florida Times-Union found that Corey’s office periodically used the threat of adult prison to force many kids to plead to more time than they might otherwise have faced in the juvenile system.


Matt_Shirk_sg_imgThe day I met Shirk, he was wearing a crisp white French-cuff shirt under a suit jacket with little Republican-elephant cuff links. He’s mostly bald but trying to hide it with a comb-over and a smile. Back when he and Corey were running on the 2008 Republican ticket, she used to refer to him as her “darling”—Shirk had interned under Corey, which created an unusual closeness between the prosecutor and the future public defender, whose job would be to fight her in court on behalf of his indigent clients.

Shirk, who had very little experience in public defense when he ran for the office (for example, he’d never defended a homicide case), campaigned on a platform of fiscal responsibility and a pledge never to question the integrity of the police. Since his election, Shirk has boasted that he consistently returns money to the state earmarked for the investigation of mitigation evidence for death-penalty clients. (I couldn’t confirm this assertion, because the public defender’s office hasn’t been audited since Shirk took it over.) This is an unusual situation, given that public defenders nationwide complain about being underfunded, leaving them at a disadvantage against better-resourced prosecutors. Shirk also began his term by firing most of the longtime public defenders in the office and appointing his friend Refik Eler as his second-in-command. While it would be speculative to say exactly how this affected the outcome of cases during Shirk’s tenure, these moves have puzzled many of the former public defenders in the office.

Shirk has also managed to accumulate plenty of dirty laundry during his time in office. He was investigated by the Florida Commission on Ethics for a number of violations. One of the most severe involved hiring three attractive young women, aggressively flirting with them, and then firing them after his wife came to work, threatened the women, and issued an ultimatum: that Shirk get rid of all three or she would file for divorce. According to the testimony, Shirk was overly friendly with the women and sent them sexually suggestive texts and e-mails, including a request for one woman to “hurry back” because he and another female employee were “getting into the shower”—Shirk’s personal office shower, which he had built with city funds that had been earmarked for other purposes in the new office’s construction. (He’s now being sued by at least one of the women for terminating her employment.) The Florida Commission on Ethics suggested that Shirk resign immediately. Another attorney has filed a complaint with the ethics commission accusing Shirk of misstating his assets and promoting his wife’s business, contrary to ethical rules. (Shirk didn’t respond to a request for comment on the matter.)

Shirk’s record on death-penalty cases has been abysmal thanks to Eler, his second-in-command, who defends most of these cases. Eler has been cited four times by Florida appellate courts for providing ineffective counsel—failure to investigate, failure to call proper witnesses, and encouraging clients not to argue that they have reduced culpability due to a mental disease or defect—all in death-penalty cases. Eight of his clients in Duval County alone have been sent to death row—more than any other public defender in Florida.

Corey says that she and Shirk were working beautifully together until some pro bono interlopers came to break up the party.

Given this track record, it’s not surprising that indigent defendants in Jacksonville are opting to represent themselves in court. One client of Shirk’s office, Gregory Lamont Green, was offered a 12-month plea deal by the prosecution. But his public defender failed to follow up with him about the offer; it expired, and Green was sentenced to 10 years. After handling his own appeals and losing, Green has just won on a federal habeas petition and was released after serving six more years than he needed to.

Of late, however, Shirk’s relationship with Corey has soured. He filed a bar complaint over 1,000 pages long against two of her prosecutors, alleging that they concealed evidence in the case of a man who was held in jail for 589 days, even though the prosecutors knew someone else had committed the crime. Shirk has also taken to attacking Corey publicly, arguing among other things that she permitted a jail guard to assault an inmate, and that she opposed a special court designed to keep military veterans who had committed nonviolent offenses out of prison. Shirk now says that underfunding is a constant problem for him, because the state attorney’s office is funded “at least two to one” in comparison—something that he emphasized when I asked him about the challenges of defending against Corey’s office.


When Cristian’s case went to trial, Rob Mason, director of the public defender’s juvenile division, was assisting Shirk with the defense. But by all accounts, Shirk—who was running for reelection at the time and campaigning with Angela Corey—appears to have used the case to attract the spotlight. Shirk and Corey began working out a deal; she sent him a plea agreement for second-degree murder in November 2011. Both attorneys thought this was a very good deal, even though it meant significant prison time for Cristian. Corey argued that she and Shirk were working beautifully together until some pro bono interlopers came to break up the party.

These lawyers were the Jacksonville attorneys Hank Coxe, George “Buddy” Schulz, and Melissa Nelson, who’d been working on the case of Terrance Graham, which was moving to the Supreme Court and would eventually result in the Court prohibiting mandatory life without parole for minors. After hearing about Cristian’s case, the three attorneys got involved, first by consulting with Shirk. Cristian rejected the plea deal—and once he did, Corey added another charge: sexual molestation of his 5-year-old brother, also brought as an adult charge.

Cristian’s guardian ad litem, appointed by the court, filed to remove Shirk from the case and substitute private pro bono counsel. During the year that Cristian’s case was pending, Shirk had visited the boy just three times and had reams of evidence in storage that he hadn’t even begun to review. For her part, Corey regards Cristian’s pro bono counsel as political opponents—in fact, Melissa Nelson is now her opponent in the Republican primary—and accused me twice during our interview of being overly influenced by their views, naming Coxe and Schulz in particular.

The pro bono team set to work to help Cristian, who was then in dire straits. He’d been held in an adult jail for three weeks while his case was pending, before being transferred to a juvenile facility. At the adult jail, he was kept in solitary confinement, and at one point was reprimanded for standing on his bed to look out the window. While he was there, another investigator was sent to question him about allegations that he had sexually abused his 5-year-old brother. Even though Cristian had a lawyer and a guardian ad litem at this point, neither one was notified. After this interrogation, Cristian asked clarifying questions about his right to an attorney. (Eventually, his statements to investigators were tossed out because the judge determined that Cristian didn’t understand his rights.)

But in our interview, Corey continued to insist that things were going well in Cristian’s case until the troublemakers got involved: “Because a few people got out on social media and started the Change.org [petition] and started focusing on all the negatives, and what they ignored was that the first six months after Cristian Fernandez committed murder, we didn’t charge him at all…. We mutually [i.e., with the public defender’s office] conference-called forensic psychiatrists, juvenile forensic psychiatrists, that could tell us what could cause a child of 12 to commit murder. I kept trying to assure people that, look, this is a complicated situation…. He killed his 2-year-old brother and then sexually abused his 5-year-old brother. We have to do something. We have to protect the community from this young man.”

Even after the pro bono team took over, Shirk continued to act as if he were Cristian’s counsel, though he didn’t always act in the boy’s best interests. He even gave an interview to the directors of Juvenile Lifers in which he claimed that Cristian told him that his mother had killed David and that he was taking the blame for her. This assertion hasn’t been verified in any way, and it violates attorney-client privilege. (While Shirk claimed in the same interview that Cristian had given him permission to make that statement, it’s doubtful whether Cristian could legally do so, let alone that he actually did. Neither Cristian’s guardian ad litem nor his pro bono attorneys were consulted.)

Buddy Schulz perhaps sums it up best: “I mean, Matt Shirk is a politician. He is—again, I emphasize, based on my observation—he was incompetent. He was more interested in his public image than in defending this child.”

According to the members of the pro bono team, they dug into the case and reviewed evidence that had been left unexamined; commissioned their own expert to examine cell-phone evidence that had been ignored by both Shirk and Corey; and built a case for Cristian’s defense over a period of several months. Ultimately, with fresh evidence in hand, they struck a new plea deal with Corey, rather than risk a jury trial that could result in Cristian’s incarceration in an adult prison.

Cristian is now 17 and serving his time in a juvenile therapeutic facility. The plea deal that Cox, Schulz, and Nelson negotiated called for seven years in juvenile detention—still severe, but better than the second-degree-murder plea, which would have carried at least a decade in adult prison. As part of the deal, Cristian wasn’t forced to plea to the molestation charges, but he’s prevented from seeing his siblings or being around any other children under 16. Since Cristian’s mother has given up custody of Cristian, this ban means that Cristian has no family with whom he can be in contact. Still, compared to the chaos and abuse he experienced at home, juvenile hall provides greater stability than he had known before.

Cristian should get out in 2018, at age 19, although as part of his plea he must remain on parole for at least five years. Any mistake during that time—stealing a candy bar, or smoking a joint, or any failure to follow the strict conditions of his parole—means that he can be rearrested and sentenced to more time.

In the final moments of Juvenile Lifers, Corey can be seen watching angrily in the courtroom as Cristian receives a much lighter sentence than the one she’d sought. In 2011, Corey told a local reporter that she went to court because she “wanted to see: What does a 12-year-old who did this look like? Is he going to look like what you would envision?”

In fact, Cristian looked like a 12-year-old kid.

When I spoke with Corey, she still couldn’t seem to believe that anyone cared about Cristian’s case. “The problem with the juvenile system,” she told me, “is that I don’t think it can address the problems that create the kind of mind that can kill and rob or continue to do violent acts to other people.” As for Cristian, she reiterated: “We have to do something. We have to protect the community from this young man.”


Jessica Pishko is a writer in San Francisco. She has written for Rolling Stone, Pacific Standard, and San Francisco magazine.



Weather Report

72° and Partly Cloudy


sounds better than it is


Prison privatization experienced a setback last week when the Justice Department announced it would begin phasing out the use of private contractor facilities as private prisons. This will come as no surprise to longtime opponents of the practice, but officials concluded private facilities are both less safe and less effective at providing correctional services than those run by the government.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced the decision on Thursday in a memo that instructs officials to either decline to renew the contracts for private prison operators when they expire or “substantially reduce” the contracts’ scope. The goal, Yates wrote, is “reducing—and ultimately ending—our use of privately operated prisons.”

The Justice Department’s inspector general last week released a critical report concluding that privately operated facilities incurred more safety and security incidents than those run by the federal Bureau of Prisons.

It should be pointed out that this decision applies only to prisons that are operated within the federal government. The vast majority of people incarcerated in America are housed in state prisons (rather than federal ones) and Yates’ memo does not apply to any of those, even the ones that are privately run. Nor does it apply to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and US Marshals Service detainees, who are technically in the federal system but not under the purview of the federal Bureau of Prisons.

A spokesperson for the ACLU said that states typically look to the feds for best practices on prisons, and he “would not be surprised if we saw some states following suit.” But this is my no means a sure thing, and it is unlikely that the private companies operating prisons will walk away from their investments without a major fight. This will likely take years.

Yates’ directive is limited to 13 privately run facilities, housing a little more than 22,000 inmates, currently in the federal Bureau of Prisons system. There are over 2.2 million people incarcerated in the US, most of them under state and local control—so Yates’ directive will address only a fraction of the problem. Today, for-profit companies are responsible for approximately 6% of state prisoners and inmates in local jails in Texas, Louisiana, and a handful of other states.

CCA stock plungeCorrections Corporation of America and GEO Group now run most of the 13 affected facilities. In 2015, both companies received roughly half of their revenue from federal contracts. But of that, only a portion comes from Bureau of Prisons corrections deals that will be wound down under Yates’ plan. Most of the companies’ revenue comes from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the US Marshals Service.

As can be seen at the right, CCA stocks experienced an almost immediate 51% plunge; on Friday, the GEO Group’s CEO George Zoley said the GEO Group doesn’t expect to lose federal prison business despite the Justice Department’s decision to end prison-management contracts with private companies. Furthermore, Zoley said Geo’s prison holdings and services are diversified, with operations growing in Australia. The company said it didn’t expect the department’s decision to affect any state contract extensions.

Please don’t get me wrong. This is an important event. It may even represent a turning-point in the way that we as a society view mass incarceration. But it is more symbolic than practical at this time.

In my opinion, all this emphasis on numbers sidesteps the most important argument against private prisons: that they are morally reprehensible. If state and federal governments don’t have the facilities to house our prisoners, too many people are being imprisoned.

Low-level offenses need to be decriminalized and sentences need to be shortened.



Weather Report

84° and Clear to Partly Cloudy


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 205 other followers