Soffiyah Elijah is executive director of the Correctional Association of New York. Prior to this she was Clinical Instructor at the Criminal Justice Institute, Harvard Law School. She has had a distinguished career as an attorney and was an assistant professor of law at the City University of New York. She has represented a number of political prisoners and activists in the US including Kwame Turé, Marilyn Buck, and Sundiata Acoli. Sundiata, along with Assata and Zayd Shakur were ambushed by New Jersey State troopers in an infamous "driving while Black" incident in 1973 on the New Jersey Turnpike. Sundiata and Assata were arrested and charged with murder. Zayd was killed by the troopers.
Dr. Elijah has done extensive research on the US criminal justice and prison systems. Her article on the Cuban prison system was quoted in the 6/17/00 edition of the Miami Herald and has caused some controversy for its balanced approach.
Granma article on US criminal justice system, Shaka Sankofa, 6/22/00
National Network of Grantmakers Newsletter, 7/06
14-17, 2006 See www.nng.org
NNG's 2006 Annual Conference will be held in downtown Chicago at Loyola University's Water Tower Campus.
|Human Rights Activist J. Soffiyah
Elijah Opens Conference
On Sunday morning, October 15, J. Soffiyah Elijah will offer the NNG audience a human rights perspective to our social justice framework and our criminal justice lens. As Deputy Director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School, Soffiyah is responsible for leading the fulfillment, development and expansion of the Institute's work to address the urgent needs of the powerless, voiceless and indigent in the criminal justice system.
With 20 years in the legal profession, the scope of her keynote address will include her research of the U.S. criminal justice and prison systems and her experiences representing numerous political prisoners and social activists over the past 22 years. Her travels to Cuba over the past 17 years have enabled her to conduct extensive research on the country's legal system, with a focus on its approach to criminal justice issues
Soffijah will draw from her experiences with torture victims in the United States, including post 9/11 victims, the horrors of Chicago detainees and post Katrina treatment of evacuated of pretrial detainees in her opening presentation.
Soffiyah insists, "A civilized society cannot tolerate violations of anyone's human rights, no matter who the accused is or what the accusation may be. Indeed, a civilized society should ensure that the so-called war on terrorism cannot be used as a ruse to ignore or manipulate the community's sense of fair play and decency. The Universal Declaration of Human rights demands no less from us."
Acceptance of Torture in the United States 11/1/2005 Monthly Review: "Police brutality and torture in New Orleans is not a new phenomenon. In 1973, a group of men and women alleged to be members of the Black Panther Party were captured in New Orleans. Word of their arrest quickly spread throughout the country. Representatives from the police departments of Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco rushed to New Orleans and interrogated several of the arrestees in between torture sessions conducted by members of that city's police department. The torture and interrogations lasted over a period of 4-5 days. Despite the fact that more than one court has found that the statements extracted from the torture victims were inadmissible in court, law enforcement personnel have persisted in harassing them and their families for over thirty years. From 1972 to 1991, at least 135 arrestees in Chicago were tortured by local police using methods eerily similar to those used by the New Orleans police including beatings, suffocation, and the use of electric shock probes place on the genitals. The horrors of the Chicago arrestees were recently reported before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.5 The cruelty of the Chicago Police Department, like that of the New Orleans Police Department, is commonplace.6 It was the brutality of the Chicago Police Department and the resultant coerced confessions that were responsible in part for then Illinois Governor Ryan declaring a moratorium on the death penalty, finding that too many convictions had been obtained through questionable means."
In April 2005 the international community began to
take a closer look at the United States justice system as its government
attempted to explain and or deny the presence of admitted terrorist, Luis
Posada Carriles. As news stories sprouted from even mainstream media
calling for the extradition of Posada to Venezuela, a country with which
the U.S. has had a longstanding extradition treaty, Washington went into a
After some false starts concerning what it was going
to do about Posada, Washington "defended" its position by
hurling barbs at Cuban President Fidel Castro about the political asylum
granted to Assata Shakur by the Cuban government. President Castro
retorted that Ms. Shakur had not received justice in the United States and
that she, like many other political prisoners, had been persecuted and
denied a fair trial.
By aiming the spotlight on the criminal justice
system in the United States, President Castro exposed a tender nerve for
Washington. My more than 20 years as a criminal defense lawyer and
professor of criminal defense advocacy confirm the widely known assessment
that every aspect of the criminal justice system is ripe for criticism and
laden with hypocrisy.
The United States incarcerates more people per capita
than any other developed nation on earth. The population of the United
States comprises 5% of the world's population but its incarcerated
population is equal to more than 25% of the world's prisoners.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, based
on current rates of first incarceration, an estimated 32% of black males
will enter state or federal prison during their lifetime, compared to 17%
of Hispanic males and 5.9% of white males. In other words, one third of
black men can expect to be incarcerated during their life times if they
live in the United States.
Incarceration in the U.S. is a growing industry. In
2001, an estimated 2.7% of adults in the U.S. had served time in prison,
up from 1.8% in 1991 and 1.3% in 1974.
The BJS reports that as of December 31, 2001, there were an
estimated 5.6 million adults who had ever served time in state or federal
prison, including 4.3 million former prisoners and 1.3 million adults in
At every stage of the criminal justice system in the U.S., blacks, Latinos, Chicanos and other people of color and the poor are disproportionately impacted. Decisions by law enforcement personnel concerning who to stop, who to arrest and how to charge, are all infused with racial bias. Decisions regarding indictments, plea offers and requests for enhanced sentences and the death penalty, are similarly guided by considerations of race and class.
Sentencing decisions regarding probation and
incarceration reflect the same racial overtones as the earlier stages of
the system. The racist practices of prosecutors was so prevalent that in
1986 the United States Supreme Court finally outlawed the practice of
routinely removing blacks from the jury in Batson v. Kentucky (476 U.S.
79). Prior to 1986, the courts routinely ignored the practice. Following
Batson, prosecutors simply offered pre-textual reasons for their racist
challenges to potential jurors and the courts turned a blind eye.
Prisoners in the U.S. are systematically incarcerated
hundreds, and in many instances thousands, of miles away from their
families and loved ones. Family contact is discouraged and thwarted.
Frequently family members travel hundreds of miles to visit their loved
one and they are denied entry on minor technicalities.
U.S. prison officials regularly create obstacles when
attorneys seek to visit their clients. Memos authorizing the visit
mysteriously disappear on the day the attorney arrives for the visit. Use
of private attorney-client conference rooms is denied. Visits are
inexplicably cut short and routinely monitored by video camera and roaming
Similar tactics are often employed against political
defendants during pretrial proceedings. The cases of both Assata Shakur
and the Cuban 5 are reflective of the unconstitutional obstacles created
to interfere in trial preparation. Shakur's lawyer, Evelyn Williams, had
to obtain a court order to get access to her client. Lawyers for the Cuban
5 were limited to brief designated time periods when they were allowed to
meet with their clients prior to trial.
Such interferences compromise the ability of the
defendants and their counsel to develop trial strategy, prepare testimony
and make crucial decisions about witnesses and evidence. In the case of
the Cuban 5, independent polls showed that it would be impossible for them
to get a fair trial in Miami. Despite this objective evidence, the judge
denied the defendants' motion for a change of venue, even to Fort
Lauderdale, just 30 miles away.
Assata Shakur's requests for a change of venue were
initially denied and then finally granted with a move to Morris County,
one of the richest and most conservative overwhelmingly white counties in
the state of New Jersey. Further, the hysterical pretrial publicity
assisted in creating an atmosphere that guaranteed the defendants would
not get a fair trial.
Last month President Fidel Castro delivered a
calculated series of public addresses that have been heard around the
world, including in the United States. The arduous campaign to obtain
justice for the Cuban 5 and to expose the hypocrisy of the criminal
justice system has been the backdrop to these presentations.
President Castro's expose of the system rings so very
true to the millions of Americans who have been incarcerated in the United
States and the more than 100 political prisoners who are currently held in
its prisons. The millions who have had their lives interrupted by the
criminal "justice" system know that fairness is usually an
illusion discussed widely in classrooms but not mentioned in courtrooms.
They know it's unjust. Castro's pronouncements bear witness to the fact
that "justice" in the United States, isn't justice at all.
Jill Soffiyah Elijah, Esq. is deputy director of the
Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School.
This editorial does not reflect the viewpoints of
Harvard University, Harvard Law School, its programs or departments.
Institutional affiliation is listed for identification purposes only.
© 2005 Independent Media Institute. All rights
LESSONS FROM OUR NEIGHBORS TO THE SOUTH:
by Prof. Soffiyah Elijah
Since the island nation of Cuba experienced its successful revolution in 1959 its prison system has been evolving. Despite accusations of harsh human rights abuses from its neighbors to the North, Cuba today maintains a prison system that is in many respects far more humane than Western propaganda would have the uninformed public believe.
My study of the Cuban prison system began in 1987 when I first visited the country to attend a conference co-sponsored by the American Association of Jurists and the Cuban Association of Jurists. I was pleasantly surprised during the trip when the opportunity arose to visit a men's prison. A group of conference attendees traveled by bus to the prison and when we arrived we were not searched and our belongings were not checked. We did not sign in or out. Nobody asked to check our identification. Having visited numerous prisons in the U.S. I have never entered any of them without a thorough search of my person and my belongings. Government issued photo identification is always required.
Although we were given a tour of the prison we were free to wander off and talk with the prisoners unmonitored. We walked all around the facility and were allowed to go into cells, work areas, the cafeteria, hospital, classrooms, recreation area and any other space we chose. This we were allowed to do unaccompanied. The prisoners wore street clothing.
Although one might think that this must have been a minimum or medium security prison, there are no such institutional classifications. Prison institutions are not characterized by security level. Rather prisoners of varying security levels are all housed in the same facility. The four levels of security classification for prisoners are maximum, high, moderate and minimum. The distinction in their security classification is borne out in the frequency with which they are allowed family and conjugal visits, mail, phone privileges and furlough availability. All prisoners, regardless of security level, are afforded at least four family and conjugal visits a year. Prisoners with the lowest security classifications are afforded more frequent family and conjugal visits than higher security classified prisoners.
Needless to say I was a bit taken aback at this very different approach. For the next thirteen years I built on this experience and conducted further research on the Cuban prison system.
In 1988 I returned to Cuba to attend the International Women¹s Conference hosted by the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). Another opportunity arose to visit a prison, this time it was a womens facility. My impressions were very similar to those I had when I visited the mens facility. In a nutshell, the Cuban system still impressed me as being more humane than what I had observed in the United States.
Prisoners in Cuba are incarcerated in the province in which they live. A province is the geographic equivalent to a county as we know it in the United States. This is done to facilitate regular contact between prisoners and their families. This contact is seen as an integral part of the prisoner¹s rehabilitation. Families are incorporated through joint counseling into the rehabilitation process. Each prison is staffed with professionals who are trained to assist the family and the prisoner plan for his or her re-entry into the community. The focus is on rehabilitation as opposed to retribution and punishment.
Prisoners or their families may request conditional liberty passes. These are similar to furloughs and are granted to allow the prisoner to tend to his or a family members health. The furlough time is counted as part of the sentence.
Prisoners are not obligated to work. Work is considered a right of the prisoner so that he can earn an income. Prisoners are allowed to work in the same sort of employment as they held prior to their incarceration if it is available at the facility where they are being held. They are compensated for their labor at the same wage that free workers are compensated. They are not charged room and board no matter how much they earn. Similarly, they do not have to pay for their education, medical, dental or hospital care or any other activities they experience. Social security benefits and pensions are available to all prison laborers. In the event of a prisoners death, his family will receive his pension. A portion of the prisoners earnings is sent to his family. Even if a prisoner does not work, his family will be cared for by the State.
Once a prisoner has served at least half of his sentence he can request a conditional release if he is a first offender. A positive conduct record is the primary factor considered in granting the request for relief. The request for conditional release is made to the sentencing tribunal. The district attorney is given an opportunity to be heard with respect to the request. All prisoners are released after serving two thirds of their sentences.
In 1997 the availability of alternatives to incarceration was expanded to cover all defendants sentenced to up to five years incarceration. Previously these alternatives were only available to defendants sentenced to up to three years. The expansion of the availability of alternatives to incarceration to all defendants facing up to five years incarceration covered almost 95% of Cuba¹s prisoners. The recidivism rate for those prisoners released pursuant to the use of alternatives to incarceration is less than 15%. These alternatives include a form of probation, conditional release (similar to parole) and suspended sentences.
The conditional release program is very interesting. The defendant lives for twelve days in a residence located near a farm or industrial center. He works at the farm or industrial center during these twelve days. Then he has three days off where he can leave the residence and go home to his family. On the fourth day, the defendant returns to the work site and the residence. The defendant works side by side with non-incarcerated workers who are not informed of his status. He is paid the same wage as his co-workers and is afforded the same benefits and privileges. He works the same shifts and wears civilian clothing. Work alternatives can be revoked if the defendant fails to adhere to the rules and conditions of the program. The sentencing tribunal is informed if the defendant fails to meet the conditions and it can decide to return the defendant to prison.
The goal of the Cuban prison system is to return people to the community as productive contributors as soon as possible. Therefore the focus is not on punishment, but rather on rehabilitation and re-education. Perhaps this goal would be a useful addition to the prison system that has evolved in the United States.
(c) 2000 by Soffiyah Elijah. May not be reprinted without premission.
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