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Lawyer argued 6ix9ine, who had been called a model prisoner, faced higher risks because of his severe asthma

The rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine was released from federal prison early Thursday afternoon to serve the final months of his sentence in home confinement, over fears the rappers health would be severely impacted if he were to contract coronavirus while incarcerated.

6ix9ine, whose real name is Daniel Hernandez, is serving a two-year sentence for his entanglement with a violent street gang, and was set for an early release from prison in August. In March, a judge had called the 23-year-old a model prisoner.

The decision to release 6ix9ine to home confinement comes as New York City is battling the spread of the coronavirus, including in prisons and jails. Figures published by the Legal Aid Society on Tuesday indicated there were at least 180 cases of coronavirus in New York City jails. High profile Rikers Island inmate Harvey Weinstein reportedly tested positive for the virus last week.

Bill de Blasio, the New York City mayor, announced last week that at least 900 inmates in the city had already been released because of the spread of Covid-19.

Lance Lazzaro, 6ix9ines lawyer, argued the rapper faced higher risks from the coronavirus because of his severe asthma. Other convicted celebrities in confinement, including R Kelly and Bill Cosby, are making similar arguments to also push for early releases.

6ix9ine was convicted in November 2018 for his involvement in the Nine Trey Bloods gang and charges of racketeering, drug trafficking and firearm offenses. The Brooklyn rapper, who found success through the Soundcloud rap explosion and became well known for his outlandish persona, worked with federal officials in their investigation of his gang in exchange for reduced prison time.

Lazzaro has said 6ix9ine does not plan to enter a witness protection program, as many have speculated the rapper would due to expected retaliations from gang members. He hopes to resume his career, Lazzaro said on Thursday.

States across the nation from Texas to California have begun releasing inmates, hoping to avoid repeats of the massive spread of coronavirus in the New York system. The top doctor at the Rikers Island complex said this week that the jail is a public health disaster unfolding before our eyes. The number of confirmed cases at Rikers spiked from one to nearly 200 n just 12 days, Ross MacDonald, the jails chief physician, said.

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Acting on behalf of 152 inmates, the rapper and mogul argues prisoners constitutional rights are being violated

Jay-Z has filed a civil lawsuit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections on behalf of 152 inmates at a state prison, alleging barbaric conditions.

Parchman prison is accused of abhorrent conditions, abuse and constant violence, inadequate health care and mental health care, and overuse of isolation the people confined at Parchman live a miserable and hopeless existence confronted daily by imminent risk of substantial harm in violation of their rights under the US Constitution.

Among the problems detailed by the lawsuit and an accompanying documentary film made by Jay-Zs company Roc Nation are a lack of staffing that has allowed prisoner violence to flourish, sewage-filled cells, contaminated food and water, and a lack of adequate healthcare. Nine inmates have died at the prison so far in 2020.

The suit calls for the Department of Corrections to eliminate health and safety risks within 90 days. The department wouldnt comment on the suit, but has previously said that violence is gang-related rather than linked to staffing issues.

It is the second lawsuit brought against the prison by Jay-Z, in tandem with fellow rapper Yo Gotti the pair filed a suit on behalf of 29 other inmates in January.

Jay-Z has frequently involved himself in African American civil rights cases using his philanthropy arm Team Roc, including those of other figures from the rap world. He intervened over 21 Savages detainment by immigration officials, and the sentencing of Meek Mill following a probation violation, saying: Whats happening to Meek Mill is just one example of how our criminal justice system entraps and harasses hundreds of thousands of black people every day.

He has also reportedly bailed out protesters in Baltimore and Ferguson who were detained during anti-police brutality demonstrations, and has taken on dozens of other cases with civil rights lawyer Alex Spiro.

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Prosecutors use gang enhancements to tack additional prison time on to sentences for alleged gang ties. Critics say its an ineffective, costly tactic to deter crime

When Lucero Herrera stepped out of the San Francisco county jail on a cold, dreary autumn afternoon in 2008, she didnt go back to the home in the neighborhood where she grew up.

The 18-year-old had served a little over a year in juvenile hall and county jail after a conflict between different street gangs in her community in the Mission District, San Franciscos historically Latino neighborhood, turned into a violent fight.

The years leading up to the fight had been turbulent. Herrera and her brother moved from El Salvador to San Francisco when they were kids. Herreras youth was often rough, she said. Her mother, who worked multiple jobs and as a result was rarely home, struggled with drug addiction and was abused by some of her partners.Law enforcement had identified her brother as a member of a gang. And despite their reputation among law enforcement, local gang members, Herrera said, were some of the people who supported her most, and encouraged her to stay in school despite the chaos around.

Following the fight, authorities charged Herrera with assault with a deadly weapon and street terrorism. She was also ordered to register as a gang member upon her release, leave San Francisco and carry around a card detailing her gang membership at all times.


Herrera was paroled to a transitional house in the city of Oakland, separated by the bay from her support system in the Mission. I was in the unknown. I had to do what I had to do to take care of myself, she told the Guardian about her time in Oakland.

She ended up in the underground street economy, she said, exchanging sex for money to pay for public transit, clothes and food. She struggled to stay connected with her mom, who was stillbattling addiction and had become homeless. Herrera was regularly abused by her pimp, she said.

After a particularly bad beating left her with two black eyes and landed her in the hospital, Herrera tried to escape, she said. But her pimp and a client who had come to her aid got into a fight, and Herrera ended up arrested again. This time, she faced a sentence of almost three years because of her conviction record and alleged gang ties.

They looked more at the gang ties than at the beating by my pimp. Even when I was trying to defend myself they were just looking at my background, she said.

Herrera is among thousands of California residents who authorities have charged with gang enhancements additional prison time or release conditions tacked on to their sentences because of alleged gang ties. Gang enhancements are just one of dozens of types of sentencing enhancements at prosecutors disposal, others include those for weapons possession or prior convictions. They are particularly common in California, where almost 70% of the states prison population in 2019 had at least one enhancement. As of August 2019, more than 90% of adults with a gang enhancement in a state prison are either black or Latino, California department of corrections and rehabilitation (CDCR) data indicates.

Many prosecutors argue that gang enhancements, which they say are used to reflect the severity of gang-related crimes, can deter people from participating in these groups, and can give communities time to heal by taking dangerous people off the streets for as long as possible.


A growing chorus of critics, however, say enhancements and lengthy prison stays are costly, ineffective tactics to deter crime, and do little to address the circumstances that push people into criminality. They argue prosecutors rely on an outdated and overly broad interpretation of what constitutes a gang member, resulting in an approach that criminalizes culture and relationships among people in low-income black and Latino communities.

In San Francisco, Chesa Boudin, the newly elected district attorney, has vowed to do away with gang enhancements: We need sophisticated policing to go after sophisticated criminal networks, but we need to be really careful when we use the legal definition of gang, because I think its overused and abused right now, Boudin told the Guardian. It feels like were criminalizing a culture music videos and Instagram photos showing that youre friends with someone who could be your neighbor, cousin or girlfriends brother, are viewed through a lens of criminality.

Lucero Herrera said the gang charges didnt help her get her life back on track.

It didnt help my lifestyle. Instead, it made it difficult for me to live and navigate in the world, said Herrera, who is now 30 and works at the Young Womens Freedom Center in San Francisco, an organization that provides support for women and girls who are affected by the criminal justice system.

Tenaya Jones, Ki Finao and Storm Green-Loe with the Young Women Freedom Center plan a town hall meeting on 29 October 2019 in San Francisco. Photograph: Erin Brethauer/The Guardian

The origins

Gang enhancements first appeared during the tough on crime era of the 1980s and 90s, when Americans were fearful of young, mostly black and Latino people deemed superpredators and were concerned that the street-level violence that came out of the crack-cocaine trade would reach suburban and affluent communities. These days, terms like superpredator are widely considered racist and outdated. Yet some of the law enforcement tools that came from this era, including gang enhancements, are still widely used within the criminal justice system.

There are various versions of gang enhancements at both the federal and state level. In California, 11,484 inmates in the states adult prison system, or about 6%, had a gang enhancement in August 2019, according to data from the California department of corrections and rehabilitation. Of them, 10,535 92% are either black or Latino. And while Californias prison population has declined since the US supreme court ordered the state to reduce its prison population in 2011 from 163,000 to around 125,000, the number of prisoners with a gang enhancement in the system rose almost 40% in the same period.

The racial discrepancies, experts and advocates say, are partly due to the way California identifies gangs and gang members.

Gang enhancements first appeared in the 1988 Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (Step) Act, when the crack-cocaine trade and underground drug market fueled street-level violence over turf among gangs throughout California. The violence took the form of drive-by shootings, and deadly fights between feuding groups.

It was on and poppin, said Douglass Fort, a Bay Area gang expert who testifies in criminal cases. It was young men with a bunch of money and egos, with 13-year-olds making 5-10k a month. Communities were killing each other with guns and crack, Fort said of the climate during the early 80s. Legislators thought these communities were crazy and when it came to writing legislation, it was lockup instead of rehab.

The Young Women Freedom Centers alter pays homage the groups ancestors and honors those who died incarcerated or on the streets. Photograph: Erin Brethauer/The Guardian

Prosecutors still follow the Step Act definition of a gang an organization, association, or group of three or more persons who commit crimes as a collective. They can charge any defendant whose alleged crime is deemed to bolster the reputation of or bring money into the group with a gang enhancement, which can add between one to 10 years on to a sentence.

But the dynamics of gangs and gang violence have changed significantly over the years. Today, there are large ethnically based gangs, such as the Aryan Brotherhood, the Nuestra Familia, and their subsets, the Norteos and Sureos, active in the Bay Areas streets, prisons and jails, law enforcement officials and gang experts say. These groups are still involved in the underground drug trade. But now, the once thriving underground crack, cocaine and marijuana trade is being replaced by the more lucrative opioid and methamphetamine sales.

The large, predominantly black gangs that are active in southern California, such as the Crips and Bloods, dont have a significant presence in the Bay Area, according to law enforcement. Instead, black groups in the region are often smaller, centered around specific locations, and dont have a clear power structure or origin which is why they are classified as non-traditional gangs. Rapid gentrification in the region has changed the activities of these non-traditional groups, said the Contra Costa deputy district attorney, Jason Peck, with the regions high housing costs causing them to splinter. This phenomenon is considered to be the main driver behind the almost 200 shootings that have happened on Bay Area freeways since 2015.

The reasons Bay Area residents join traditional and non-traditional gangs vary based on the individual and community in which they grow up. Some are born into heavily gang-involved families and are raised to be proud of being a member. Some are from neighborhoods where not being a part of a street gang can be more dangerous than being in one. Others, especially young people who are in smaller non-traditional gangs, come together for a variety of reasons including growing up in the same community and bonding over shared trauma.

Most gang members operate from an area of being hurt, said David Monroe who works with at-risk youth in San Francisco and Stockton. Monroe is also a Norteo, the subset of the Nuestra Familia prison gang that is most present in northern California, and spent 19 years in prison for murdering a rival gang member when he was 15.

Its easy to understand how a kid who grows up in that environment can go down that road, Monroe continued. Those gang members are like your new family, and they protect you, they look out for you, they do all the things your family should be doing.

To establish gang ties, prosecutors today mainly look at social media photos and prior contact with police. In some cases rap music videos and lyrics that show proximity to people identified as gang members are also used to establish membership or affiliation. Some law enforcement agencies keep track of suspected gang members in the CalGang database, which underwent an overhaul after a 2016 state audit found that the database contained questionable information that may violate individuals privacy rights. The auditor found that some law enforcement agencies were unable to demonstrate that many of the groups they entered into CalGang met the criteria necessary for identification as gangs. The database is now managed by Californias department of justice.

Notes of encouragement hang above the Young Women Freedom Centers alter which pays homage to the groups ancestors and honors those who died incarcerated or on the streets. Photograph: Erin Brethauer/The Guardian

It doesnt address the root causes

Prosecutors argue gang enhancements are still an effective way to help keep the public safe, by recognizing the severity of gang-related crime and the risk it poses to the community at large. Prosecutors consider them a way to ensure that people who commit violent crimes on behalf of a gang are incarcerated for as long as possible, said Yvette McDowell, a former assistant city prosecutor in Pasadena, California.

Prosecutors are trying to either help the victim be made whole, or get justice for society as a whole, McDowell said. They are going to use whatever tool is at their disposal to bolster their position to have things work out in their favor.

Some cities have also placed restraining orders on gangs that make various actions, such as hanging out in certain areas, illegal for some or all of its members. These court orders are known as a gang injunctions and cities throughout California have used them since the 1990s.

It could have been whistling when the police are coming or riding a bicycle in a particular area, said McDowell, who helped Pasadena get an injunction against a gang in the late 90s. Theres nothing criminal about riding a bike, but if you are identified on the injunction list, you simply being over there gave [police] probable cause to stop and search you.

Injunctions have been used in San Francisco since 2006. The city attorney, Dennis Herrera, says the injunctions on gangs in four neighborhoods have contributed to the citys historically low rate of gun violence, were tactfully implemented and only used on people with a well-documented criminal history. But community organizers say this decrease in violent crime has come at the expense of black and Latino residents whose communities were targeted by police.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argue the injunctions, much like gang enhancements, do not address the issues at the root of crime and take up public resources that could be spent on efforts like violence prevention programs.

The gang injunctions were almost these 21st-century Black Codes, said Jose Bernal, a San Francisco native and organizer with the San Francisco No Injunctions Coalition, comparing the court orders to a set of laws placed on formerly enslaved black people after slavery was abolished.

Sending police to these neighborhoods is a reactionary thing, Bernal added. Its natural for most folks [to] feel safer because theres a police officer present, but that doesnt address the root causes.

Lucero Herrera was among thousands of people in Californias prisons who authorities have charged with gang enhancements. Photograph: Erin Brethauer/The Guardian

Lucero Herrera recalls feeling singled out by police whether she was alone or with a group of friends hanging out. She learned of her brothers reputation when she was stopped by police around the age of 12. She recalls gang taskforce officers calling her Lil Lazy, a version of her brothers street name. These kinds of police encounters would even happen at places like the local community center, she remembered.

It made me feel like I wasnt a human, she said. If we were just sitting on the stairs police thought we were doing something wrong instead of just enjoying our youth.

Herrera was often angry growing up. The police think Im already gonna be this way, so why not? she recalls thinking.

Herrera stabbed a man in a large street fight when she was 15. She spent a year and a half in juvenile detention, and when she was about to be released she asked to stay locked up, worried she wouldnt be able to stay out of trouble. She was released anyway.

I just wish that probation, and the case manager would have listened to me when I asked to be in an out-patient program.

She lasted about six days, before the fight that landed her in county jail. She accepts accountability, she said, but says that her prison stay kept her away from her mother, who was still struggling with addiction and wasin need of Herreras help and support.

Lucero Herrera, her cousin, and her mother. Photograph: Courtesy Lucero Herrera

Herreras brother was arrested and charged with a gang enhancement in 2008, while she was serving her sentence in San Francisco county jail. He was deported to El Salvador after serving his sentence. Her own incarceration coupled with her brothers arrest and deportation was a serious blow, she said.

It broke my family, Herrera said.

Herreras brother was found murdered in El Salvador in 2018, and in August of this year, police found her mothers decomposing body in Sonoma county. She had been missing since May 2018.

Thats another reason my mom went missing. All that trauma.

The push for reform

There is a growing movement of community organizers and attorneys who point at cases like Herreras to argue that the current approach is archaic.

Weve had enough time since the tough-on-crime era. We have data to look back on to see the results of the policies, said Derrick Morgan, a policy associate with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

Giving people more time does not work to reduce crime, we just burdened the states budget with really tough policies.

Boudin argued during his campaign for district attorney that the use of social media and rap music videos can criminalize culture, because family members and neighbors can be caught up in the dragnet of gang prosecution.

Defendants committing serious crimes like murder and robbery already face harsh punishment, he added, leaving enhancements to mostly serve as leverage for prosecutors and a way to introduce evidence that would otherwise be irrelevant.

To use gang charges as a way to introduce evidence at trial is problematic, racially charged, and it makes us unsafe by undermining trust in the community, Boudin said.

If public safety requires a life sentence, thats doable without the gang charge, he continued. I want to have the resources we spend actually make us safer and to make sure that were reducing racial disparities, not increasing them.

There is also a financial argument for reform. California spends about $80,000 a year on each inmate in the states prison system and this cost is substantially higher for juveniles. Violence reduction groups like the Giffords Law Center point to community-based mentorship, strengthening police-community relations and investing in alternatives to incarceration for young people as often more effective in stopping crime and violence than incarceration.

And there is growing awareness of the policys ripple effects on defendants and their communities.

Families are being torn apart consistently, said Amber-Rose Howard of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a coalition of not-for-profit organizations that work to reduce the states prison and jail population. They are trying to support [the incarcerated person] and stay connected, and figure out how to survive without the extra help in their family.

They also destabilize [incarcerated people], and their ability to function in society, she added.

Herrera recalls having to carry around the card with her status as a known gang member made her feel like a sex offender. Since she was registered as a gang member, police could stop and search her whenever they wanted.

I felt very embarrassed, she said. It was uncomfortable when I was in a big group of people, and I had to give the police a blue card.

People wouldnt kick it with me, and I couldnt be myself because I was getting stopped and fucked with.

Gang enhancements also affect the way people navigate behind bars, and can affect everything from where someone is housed to their chances in front of the parole board.

John Vasquez in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, near his transitional housing apartment. Photograph: Tim Hussin/The Guardian

John Vasquez, who served 25 years in prison for shooting a member of a rival gang at a party when he was 16, received 12 extra years to his 15 years to life sentence for using a gun and being a gang member. He also spent three years in a smaller, more controlled housing unit that didnt have bars, just walls.

Having that gang label on you in the prison system means more lockdown time, and when I was going to my parole board hearings, the biggest hurdle was the gang enhancements, it seemed bigger than the murder itself, Vasquez said.

Revamping the way that California hands down gang enhancements is a slow-moving process. Organizers and public defenders say that is partly because gang members are painted as menaces to society in and outside of court, making it harder to gain the public support necessary to reform gang prosecution.

Since gang members are still low on the statewide criminal justice policy agenda, organizers are focusing their reform efforts on local policies in DA offices and police departments.

We can start at home. Thats a policy decision that any district attorney can make, they can just choose, Bernal said of limiting and eliminating gang enhancements. The money it takes to lock someone up could be better used in the community.

John Vasquez received extra time for being associated with a gang when he committed a crime as a teenager. Photograph: Courtesy John Vasquez

In San Francisco, the use of gang enhancements may soon come to an end after Boudin unexpectedly beat Suzy Loftus, a progressive prosecutor who was appointed the interim district attorney in October. Loftus will remain in the office until early January. During the DA race, Boudin was the only candidate to call for a complete end to gang enhancements in San Francisco. He was also vehemently opposed by local law enforcement associations who said his progressive policies would lead to an uptick in crime. However, if Boudin disallows prosecutors from using gang enhancements, there will undoubtedly be backlash from within and outside the office.

John Vasquez says he is disheartened by both the violent actions of gang members as well as the use of gang enhancements. I get pissed off by the gang members doing their thing, and I still get pissed off at these gang enhancements being used on youngsters and a lot of minorities.

He also knows firsthand how, without intervention, the need for love and acceptance can turn into a potentially dangerous allegiance. That gang mentality is very dangerous, it was my whole identity, everything. I was willing to kill for my gang to represent it, as crazy as that sounds today, Vasquez says.

After 25 years in prison, Vasquez works for Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (Curyj) where he helps families navigate gang prosecution and other parts of the court systems.

We lose one of our community members to either gang violence or to a long prison sentence. These are both traumatic for our communities.

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Meek Mills incarceration for minor probation infractions has prompted protest, shedding light on the plight of African Americans in the US justice system

The entry in the Pennsylvania database is stark and direct. Inmate number: ND8400. Name: Robert Rihmeek Williams. Age: 30. Height: 6ft 2in. Location: State Correctional Institution Chester.

Behind those blunt words lies a story that has exposed a running sore within the US criminal justice system. The incarceration of Williams for minor probation violations related to a crime he committed as a teenager more than a decade ago has brought some of the biggest names in music and sport rallying to his cause, spawned a new hashtag and drawn hundreds of people to the steps of Philadelphias City Hall to protest.

From Jay-Z to Colin Kaepernick, influential supporters have spoken out against the perceived mistreatment of Williams and what it tells us about the experiences of a generation of African Americans. The outpouring has lifted the lid on a largely overlooked iniquity, in much the same way as the unmasking of Harvey Weinstein has laid bare the sexual misconduct of powerful men.

Despite his branding as prisoner number ND8400, Williams is no ordinary inmate. When he is allowed out of his cell and on stage, he metamorphoses as Meek Mill, the Billboard chart-topping hip hop artist managed by Jay-Zs Roc Nation with major albums including Dreams Worth More Than Money and the current release Wins & Losses to his name.

His sentencing earlier this month to two to four years in state prison for seemingly minor breaches of his probation terms has unleashed an outcry from influential voices. Jay-Z blasted what he described as the entrapment and harassment of black people, accusing the Philadelphia courts of stalking Williams and using the slightest violation to lock him back inside.

The former 49ers quarterback Kaepernick has metaphorically got back down on one knee to champion the defendant as a victim of systemic oppression. America professes to be the land of the free, yet it has the worlds largest prison population disproportionately Americas prisons are filled with Black bodies, he said.

Such high-profile focus on the plight of Mill has in turn cast light on thousands of other young black people whose stories typically have no hope of being aired. In Philadelphia alone, there are 45,000 men and women who have served their time but routinely remain caught in the grip of the penal system through probation that stretches on for years, often sending them back to prison for slip-ups that can be as insignificant as turning up late for an appointment with a parole officer.

Hundreds of people have rallied in support of Meek Mill at Philadelphias City Hall, seen in the background. Photograph: MediaPunch/Rex/Shutterstock

Its like having a full-time private babysitter, said Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor and Georgetown academic who wrote Chokehold: Policing Black Men. If I had a probation officer intimately looking into everything I did for five years, I think I might be in trouble I think most people would be.

African Americans are bearing the brunt of the burden. They form 12% of the overall US population but 40% of all parolees, and studies show they are far more likely to be sent back to prison for probation violations than their white peers.

Mills own story begins on 24 January 2007, almost 11 years ago, when he was stopped by police on the streets of Philadelphia. Aged 19, he was living in the north of the city with his mother as sole parent, his father having been killed in a robbery when he was five.

He had been rapping since the age of 12 and was starting to be noticed in local rap battles under his then stage name, Meek Millz. His first single, In My Bag, was still a year away.

Mill was found by the arresting officers to be carrying an unlicensed handgun and a stash of drugs. The following year, he faced a trial in which the judge, Genece Brinkley, acted as both judge and jury, convicted him and then sentenced him to up to 23 months in prison, with five years of probation to follow.

Mill was rewarded for good behavior inside prison by being let out early after eight months, on 16 January 2009. He picked up his music career where he had left off, acquiring as his first manager Will Smiths bodyguard Charlie Mack and releasing his first studio album, Dreams & Nightmares, in 2012.

While the hip-hop community came to embrace a new rising star, few of his growing band of fans realized that behind the scenes, he remained in the clutches of Judge Brinkley. Her decision to send him back to prison earlier this month imposing on him double the time for which he had originally been sentenced, though no new crime had been committed was the culmination of a decade of extreme surveillance by her court.

The latest sentence was handed down for two relatively minor probation violations, both of which have been or will be dismissed. One was for a dispute with a fan trying to take his photo in an airport, the other for popping a motorbike wheelie on a Manhattan street during the filming of a music video.

The nature of the tight rein under which Mill has been held during probation a virtual prison outside a prison is vividly recorded in a docket filed with the Philadelphia court of common pleas, where his case has been processed. It sets out a seemingly bottomless list of interactions with the court, running to 42 pages and counting.

The docket shows that since his release in 2009, Mill has been hauled back in front of Brinkley no fewer than 34 times, 22 of them for probation violations.

Despite the fact that Mill is now 30, and barely resembles the 19-year-old who carried that gun and drugs in 2007, he is in effect treated as though he were still a child, dependent on the firm disciplinary hand of the court for his wellbeing. The docket shows that this successful musician and touring artist has to plead with Brinkley for permission to travel whenever he has a concert outside Philadelphia.

The defendant is to report to the Probation Department to sign a new travel schedule is a typical entry in the docket. No travel outside of Philadelphia, Montgomery, Chester and Bucks Counties is permitted by this order is another made seven years after his original arrest.

Nicki Minaj, left, and Meek Mill at the BET Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles in 2015. Photograph: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

The log for 15 March 2013 is particularly striking. The defendant is to take an etiquette class as per the courts discretion, it says.

The reference is to an order made by Brinkley that Mill attend etiquette classes as redress for what she considered to be his regrettable use of social media. The judge thought he needed to learn how to post on Instagram and other outlets with more poise, telling him in court that such lessons were more important than any concerts he might have.

In December 2015 by now almost nine years after the original offense and at the time of his chart-topping Dreams Worth More than Money album the docket entry records: Defendant must report every two weeks, and only do charitable events but can not do paid performances. Also not permitted to go to New Jersey (visit his mother).

Court documents raise questions about the intense interest that Brinkley has shown Meek Mill over the past 10 years. An African American woman elected to the court in 1993, the judge has displayed what Mills lawyers suggest is an inappropriate level of curiosity about the defendants hip-hop career.

At one of the hearings, Brinkley expressed her personal disappointment at Mills behavior, after all Ive done for you over all these years trying to help you have a career and to move your career forward. She said of the rapper: He has the ability to be like Jay-Z, to make Jay-Zs kind of money.

Filings in court show that Brinkley has on several occasions urged Mill to break with Jay-Z and Roc Nation and return to his old manager Charlie Mack. I dont want this to be taken out of context by anyone, she once said, adding: It seemed as if while Mr Mack was representing him there were fewer problems with the probation department.

Mills lawyers allege that in February 2016 Brinkley called him and his then girlfriend, the musician Nicki Minaj, back into her chambers for a private conversation in which she made an unconventional proposal. According to a court motion, she suggested that Mill record a version of a song by the popular group Boyz II Men called On Bended Knee and to mention the judge specifically in the song. When Mill refused, she allegedly replied: Suit yourself.

The Guardian invited Brinkley to respond to allegations about her treatment of Mill, including complaints that her recent decision to send him back to prison was excessive and cruel and driven by personal animus. She declined to comment on grounds that the matter is subject to future litigation.

Rashad Robinson, executive editor of the online racial justice organization Color of Change, said that Brinkley had gained a reputation in Philadelphia for using probation violations as justification for putting defendants back behind bars. She stands out, he said, even in a city that has the highest incarceration rate of any of the 10 largest US cities, where one out of every three inmates in its prisons are there for probation or parole violations rather than fresh crimes.

Its hard to know for certain her intentions, but what is clear is that Brinkley is a person who is comfortable wielding her power in ways that fall far short of the ethical standards of public officials, Robinson said.

Color for Change has organized an online petition under the hashtag #FreeMeekMill demanding that Brinkley be taken off the case before the rapper gets a chance to appeal his latest sentence. So far, more than 60,000 people have signed it.

While Robert Williams, aka Meek Mill, is in SCI Chester, with little chance of getting out for at least the next two years, one small compensation may be the public attention his story has drawn to a largely hidden abuse. The criminal process is designed to set up black men to fail, Butler said.

What happened to Meek Mill is a perfect example of that.

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Bob Marleys youngest son wants to transform a decaying California prison into a medical marijuana manufacturing plant and revitalize a depressed rural town

Reggae superstar Bob Marley liked to say that herb is the healing of the nation. Now his youngest son, Damian Marley, is putting that claim to the test with a marijuana venture that promises to transform a decaying California prison into a huge medical marijuana manufacturing plant.

It also promises to revitalize a depressed rural town that long depended on a prison economy, but is now turning to pot.

Its a statement, Marley told the Guardian, to grow herb in a place that used to contain prisoners locked up for herb.

The business venture signals a growing confidence in the cannabis industry, which has been rapidly spreading across the country as a result of state referendums that are legalizing medical or recreational marijuana.

California, the first state in the US to approve medical marijuana in 1996, appears to be on the cusp of voting for full recreational legalization in a referendum in November.

Recreational weed is already legal in Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Alaska, but Californias referendum is potentially hugely significant, opening up a new market in an economy that this week overtook the UK to become the fifth largest in the world.

It also comes as American politicians are working to roll back tough-on-crime policies that have for decades forced low-level drug offenders to serve lengthy sentences for nonviolent actions.

Against this backdrop, Marleys project has emerged as a potent symbol of shifting views on pot and incarceration in American society.

The empty prison in Coalinga, California, has remained frozen in time since its closure in 2011. Behind the heavy doors of the solitary prison cells are small metal bed frames, thin mattresses, steel toilet bowls, and old shoes of inmates past.

Casey Dalton, co-owner of Ocean Grown Extracts, the company behind Marleys project, toured the former prison with the Guardian.

The old dining room, she said, will be used for cannabis oil refinement and large dorm halls will be converted to plant cultivation centers.

The empty prison in Coalinga, California, has remained frozen in time since its closure in 2011. Photograph: Sam Levin for the Guardian

Ocean Grown, which is manufacturing Marleys new Speak Life cannabis products, will use the facility to sell products wholesale to dispensaries. Other rooms in the 77,000-square-foot facility eventually will be used for transportation, distribution, and testing operations. This is a different kind of rehabilitation, she said.

Jails arent really rehabilitating people. Theyre developing young criminals into more experienced criminals, said Marley, who is also a world-renowned reggae artist. He said the marijuana factory would turn a negative place with a negative vibe into something positive.

Dan Dalton, Marleys manager and Casey Daltons brother, said he also hoped the public would view the Coalinga project as a kind of protest of the criminal justice system. This is symbolic and a big middle finger to the drug war and to a broken system that hasnt worked for a long time now, he said.

The concept of turning facilities that once incarcerated drug offenders to production plants for newly legalized marijuana is taking root elsewhere.

In a small desert town called Adelanto, 230 miles south of Coalinga, the transformation from prison economy to marijuana has been rapid, said Freddy Sayegh, a lawyer who brought cannabis projects to the city.

Marley at a Denver facility. A marijuana factory would turn a negative place with a negative vibe into something positive. Photograph: Mike Park

Officials have issued roughly 30 marijuana business licenses in the town, and the resulting economic boom has extended far beyond weed, with thousands of new jobs expected.

He said the city was once the armpit of the desert region. Now, its become the jewel.

In Coalinga, which is 60 miles from a major city and has a population of 17,000, marijuana has emerged as the solution to crippling debt and bankruptcy.

The Claremont custody center closed in 2011 when California began efforts to reduce its prison population, which has long contributed to the US having the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

The closure was financially devastating to Coalinga, which emerged in the 1890s after miners discovered a petroleum field.

Standing inside the dark prison entrance on a recent morning, city manager Marissa Trejo said the Claremont custody center had beds for more than 500 inmates and employed roughly 120 workers.

Anything in Coalinga with over 50 jobs is considered a large employer.

Next to her, dozens of keys to various prison wings were hanging in the abandoned security office, and old documents and supplies were scattered throughout the prison grounds.

By 2016, the citys debt from the prison closure had ballooned to nearly $4m, and Trejo said there was no way to balance the budget without laying off half of the citys workforce.

We have no new money is coming in, said Patrick Keough, the citys mayor pro-tem. Its a doomsday recipe.

Councilman Nathan Vosburg, city manager Marissa Trejo and Patrick Keough have high hopes for the prison. Photograph: Sam Levin for the Guardian

When the city couldnt find a private prison corporation to take over, it seemed Coalinga was out of options.

I was going to have to sell my house and move, said Shawn Deal, a 40-year-old resident who worked as a correctional officer at the prison. If the project is a success, he added, it could save the town.

When Ocean Grown approached Coalinga about the prison, it became apparent to city leaders that marijuana could be their key to prosperity a natural plant that could eliminate their debt, provide new jobs, and revive the town for generations to come.

But it hasnt been easy to convince residents that weed is their savior.

Coalinga is located in the heart of the conservative San Joaquin Valley, where highway signs celebrate Donald Trump and mock politicians for restricting agricultural water use during the drought.

Even faced with the harsh reality of Coalingas deficit, some residents have been wary about allowing cannabis within city limits.

I dont believe in marijuana, said 51-year-old Kristin Welch who works for the school district. It seems like theyre breaking the law.

Cannabis remains illegal under US federal law and criminal prosecutions for pot have continued, even in states with legal weed. But Coalingas leaders and Ocean Grown have tried to persuade skeptical residents that the new operation will be safe and follow strict regulations.

In the wake of heated backlash, councilman Nathan Vosburg said he has advertised the imminent employment gains 100 full-time jobs at the facility, plus a thousand more in construction and ancillary businesses.

People here are literally begging for jobs, he said.

Vosburg said he has also grown frustrated with criticisms of weed, noting that residents have no qualms about a store selling liquor and cigarettes, which are arguably more dangerous. On the contrary, he said, Ocean Grown will be making medicine.

This is not giving somebody a handout, said Marley. This is actually helping people to help themselves.

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It makes prison officials nervous, but campaigners and tech companies argue that getting inmates digitally connected will help with rehabilitation

For most of the developed world, internet access is a given. Google, Amazon, Facebook offer a privileged world of communication, entertainment, shopping and education that many of us take for granted. Unless, that is, you happen to be incarcerated.

Aside from limited connections at a handful of juvenile detention facilities, theres no way for Americas 2.3 million inmates to access the internet. Worse, institutions may punish inmates when their families post online on their behalf. Prison authorities cite concerns that inmates will use the internet to harass victims or threaten witnesses, arrange for deliveries of contraband or commit new crimes online.

But in a world increasingly defined by technology, denying internet access makes it harder for inmates to prepare for life on the outside, notes Dave Maass, investigative researcher for campaign group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). It makes it harder for inmates to report on conditions inside prisons or communicate with their families and also contravenes the May 2011 declaration by the UN that internet access is now a fundamental human right.

Internet access is simply not a top priority for most activists, says David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project. Most of his work is concerned with making sure prisoners get basic medical and mental healthcare, and making sure prisoners arent attacked by other inmates or staff. Yet prisons do have an obligation to maintain inmates first amendment rights, and being internet savvy is rapidly becoming an essential survival skill. If you want prisoners to succeed, go straight, and get a job when they get out, it doesnt make sense to cut them off from an increasingly essential part of the world, Fathi adds.

Inmates using tablets from Edovo, a company that distributes a basic tablet to a dozen states across the country. Photograph: Edovo

Ryan Baxter is serving a 10-year sentence at North Dakota state penitentiary for possession of drugs with intent to deliver. He uses a tablet PC to stay in touch with his family. His parents visit every few months, but his primary contact with the outside world is via email, which he creates on the tablet then uploads via one of the prisons kiosks. He uses his tablet for between two and fours hours a day, mostly to listen to music or play games. But email, he says, is his lifeline.

If I get a little depressed or have thoughts I need to get off my chest, I can sit down and type them out on the tablet without having to wait in line at the kiosk, he says. Most of my family is on the west or east coast, so email is great for inmates like me who dont have as many physical visits with their family.

Publishing from prison

Some inmates manage to work around these restrictions to publish online. Chelsea Manning, serving 35 years in for leaking more than 700,000 government files to WikiLeaks, publishes regularly on Medium (and also contributes to the Guardian) by relying on supporters to post them for her. Her articles are either dictated over the phone or mailed as letters, writes Melissa Keith of the Chelsea Manning Support Network. Comments to her pieces are read aloud to her on the phone or printed out and mailed back to her.

Barrett Brown, serving more than five years in federal prison for his role in the 2012 hack of the Stratfor intelligence firm, regularly publishes on the Intercept using the federal prisons private email system. Every message is read and approved by prison officials before it is transmitted. Back when Barrett was in the hole and thus without email or phone access he used to send the column on paper, handwritten in pencil, adds Roger Hodge, the Intercepts national editor.

Many prison systems prohibit any internet activity other than email, and some states ban inmates from Facebook even banning friends or family from posting on their behalf.

In February 2015, EFF issued a scathing report detailing how the South Carolina department of corrections punished nearly 400 inmates for conspiracy, aiding, [or] abetting in the creation or updating of an internet web site or social networking site. The average punishment for accessing social media is 517 days in disciplinary detention, the report claimed. In the most egregious case, inmate Tyheem Harris received 37.5 years in solitary confinement far exceeding the amount of time hell spend in prison for making 38 posts to Facebook.

Alabama, Indiana, Maine, New Mexico, North Dakota and Texas also restrict prisoners from having active social media accounts, while Facebooks own terms of service forbid friends or family members from managing an individuals account. Since EFFs report, Facebook has made it more difficult to remove inmates pages, and now requires legal authority to remove accounts or proof of a potential safety risk.

A drop in recidivism

Despite the US correctional systems aversion to change, technology is slowly making its way between the bars. Over the last two years, companies including American Prison Data Systems, Edovo and JPay have begun to distribute basic tablet computers to thousands of inmates, offering educational and entertainment content which, they say, can help improve behavior and reduce the chances of recidivism.

The JPay tablet, used in some US prisons. Photograph: JPay

JPay has distributed 80,000 of its JP5S tablets to US prisons, and claims an immediate improvement in prison culture and a drop in recidivism. A modified 7in Android tablet, the JP5S looks like a less colorful version of a tablet designed for preschoolers, but with a clear case that prevents inmates from hiding contraband materials inside. It is preloaded with 20 apps including email, an ebook reader, music player, games, tutorials on how to develop job skills and handle money and a selection of educational videos.

At North Dakota state penitentiary, a maximum security facility for men, nearly 700 inmates use tablets made by Florida-based JPay for communication, entertainment or education, says deputy warden Troy Schulz. Inmates plug their tablets into one of the prisons 14 kiosks to update their messages, music and games. They are limited to 15 minutes, though the prison offers extended access as a reward for good behavior, says Schulz.

Bridging the digital moat

At the Five Keys charter school inside the San Francisco county jail, more than 200 adult inmates acquire skills and earn high school credits using tablets provided by American Prison Data Systems.

Since the program launched in October 2014, more than 1,000 inmates have used the specially modified Samsung tablets, which offer access to educational material from a dozen sources including Kahn Academy, Brain Pop and TED Talks. The tablets connect to a secure private network, are monitored remotely 24/7 and can be immediately shut down at the request of prison officials, says Chris Grewe, CEO of American Prison Data Systems (APDS).

Until recently, correctional institutions were surrounded by a digital moat, isolating the people inside, says Grewe. Were trying to build a bridge across that moat. But first we had to convince prison officials wed developed a safe and secure platform that could let the good parts of the internet in while excluding the bad things.

A tablet from American Prison Data Systems. Photograph: American Prison Data Systems

Edovos tablets, secured and encased versions of the 7or 8in Samsung Galaxy Tabs, are used in a dozen states across the country, says CEO Brian Hill. Each morning theyre distributed to inmates, who earn points by taking educational and rehabilitative courses, and can spend those points later on games, music or videos.

Hill says the company wants to help reform the criminal justice system by bringing thousands of hours of educational content and drug treatment programs to inmates on a daily basis.

An Edovo tablet computer. Photograph: Edovo

Profiting from prison?

Current prison email service providers typically charge between 5 cents to $1.25 per message, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

JPay charges prisoners and their families $120 to buy the tablet, 35 cents to send and receive an email message and about $10 for a 30-minute video message. Some state prison systems charge JPay to operate inside their walls. JPay declined to say how much, but said most states spend the money on sports equipment for inmates.

They charge an arm and a leg for crappy substandard service, claims Paul Wright, director of the Human Rights Defense Center, who accuses companies like JPay of monetizing human contact. And theyre giving kickbacks to government for monopoly contracts to financially exploit people in captivity.

A JPay spokesperson said: JPay works with facilities to implement comprehensive, systematic platforms and infrastructures to make technologies available to inmates so they can stay connected to their loved ones, as well as educate and rehabilitate themselves. We spend our own money to deploy that infrastructure and conduct ongoing maintenance, therefore there are fees associated with using our products and services.

Steve Good, director of the Five Keys charter school, estimates that the APDS tablet program costs from $85,000 to $100,000 a year, funded largely by grants from the California Wellness Foundation. APDS is a for-profit Public Benefit Corporation, requiring it to weigh the social impact of its actions against its potential profits.

Edovo leases its tablets to municipalities for $1.25 to $1.75 a day, with fees often paid through the facilitys inmate welfare fund. All of society benefits hugely from investing in educating the incarcerated, says Hill. Digital education is safe, cheap, effective, and one of the few things we can do that will both make us safer and save taxpayer dollars.

21st century communications

The problem is that many prison officials are wary of technology and risk averse, says Edovos Hill. Every prison should be connected, he says. But if prisons gave unfettered internet access to inmates today, I fear they wouldnt know how to secure it properly. Then all you need is one inmate to send an improper email or Facebook message to a victim. When that story makes the front pages, the prisons will use that data point to make sure no one ever gets connected again.

And that leaves millions of Americans not only incarcerated in a cell but also frozen in a pre-internet world, says EFFs Dave Maass.

This is how people communicate in 2016, he says. Were making fewer calls, and do most of our communications through instant messaging, Facebook and other types of social media. Theres a better chance of rehabilitation if inmates are allowed to communicate in the way people do it in the 21st century.

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We are living in a country where the solution to just about any social problem is to create a law against it

Youve heard of distracted driving? It causes quite a few auto accidents and its illegal in a majority of states.

Well, this year, a brave New Jersey state senator, a Democrat, took on the pernicious problem of distracted walking. Faced with the fact that some people cant tear themselves away from their smartphones long enough to get across a street in safety, Pamela Lampitt of Camden, New Jersey, proposed a law making it a crime to cross a street while texting. Violators would face a fine, and repeat violators up to 15 days in jail.

Similar measures, says the Washington Post, have been proposed (though not passed) in Arkansas, Nevada and New York. This May, a bill on the subject made it out of committee in Hawaii.

Thats right. In several states around the country, one response to people being struck by cars in intersections is to consider pre-emptively sending some of those prospective accident victims to jail. This would be funny, if it werent emblematic of something larger. We are living in a country where the solution to just about any social problem is to create a law against it, and then punish those who break it.

Ive been teaching an ethics class at the University of San Francisco for years now, and at the start of every semester, I always ask my students this deceptively simple question: whats your definition of justice?

As you might expect in a classroom where half the students are young people of color, up to a third are first-generation college-goers, and maybe a sixth come from outside the United States, the answers vary. For some students, justice means standing up for the little guy. For many, it involves some combination of fairness and equality, which often means treating everyone exactly the same way, regardless of race, gender or anything else. Others display a more sophisticated understanding. An economics major writes, for instance,

People are born unequal in genetic potential, financial and environmental stability, racial prejudice, geographic conditions, and nearly every other facet of life imaginable. I believe that the aim of a just society is to enable its citizens to overcome or improve their inherited inequalities.

A Danish student compares his country with the one where hes studying:

The Danish welfare system is constructed in such a way that people pay more in taxes and the government plays a significant role in the country. We have free healthcare, education and financial aid to the less fortunate. Personally, I believe this is a just system where we take care of our own.

For a young Latino, justice has a cosmic dimension:

My sense of justice tends to revolve around my idea that the universe and life are so grand and inexplicable that everything you put into it comes back to you. This I can trace to my childhood, when my mother would tell me to do everything in life with love, faith, and courage. Ever since, I believe that any action or endeavor that is guided by these three qualities can be considered just.

Justice is punishment

The most common response to my question, however, brings us back to those street-crossing texters. For most of my students for most Americans, in fact justice means establishing the proper penalties for crimes committed. Justice, for me, says one, is defined by the punishment of wrongdoing. Students may add that justice must be impartial, but their primary focus is always on retribution. Justice, as another put it, is a rational judgment involving fairness in which the wrongdoer receives punishment deserving of his/her crime.

When I ask where their ideas about justice come from, they often mention the punishments (fair or otherwise) meted out by their families when they were children. These experiences, they say, shaped their adult desire to do the right thing so that they will not be punished, whether by the law or the universe. Religious upbringing plays a role as well. Some believe in heavenly rewards for good behavior, and especially in the righteousness of divine punishment, which they hope and generally expect to escape through good behavior.

Often, when citing the sources of their beliefs about justice, students point to police procedurals like the now elderly CSI and Law and Order franchises. These provide a sanitary model of justice, with generally tidy hour-long depictions of crime and punishment, of perps whose punishment is usually relatively swift and righteous.

Certainly, many of my students are aware that the US criminal justice system falls far short of impartiality and fairness. Strangely, however, they seldom mention that this country has 2.2 million people in prison or jail; or that it imprisons the largest proportion of people in the world; or that, with 4% of the global population, it holds 22% of the worlds prisoners; or that these prisoners are disproportionately brown and black. Their concern is less about those who are in prison and perhaps shouldnt be than about those who are not in prison and ought to be.

They are (not unreasonably) offended when rich or otherwise privileged people avoid punishment for crimes that would send others to jail. At the height of the Great Recession, their focus was on the Wall Street bankers who escaped prosecution for their part in inflating the housing bubble that brought the global economy to its knees. This fall, for several of them, Exhibit A when it comes to justice denied is the case of the former Stanford student Brock Turner, recently released after serving a mere three months for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. They are (perhaps properly) outraged by what they perceive as a failure of justice in Turners case. But they are equally convinced of something I struggle with that a harsher sentence for Turner would have been a step in the direction of making his victim whole faster. They are far more convinced than I am that punishment is always the best way for a community to hold responsible those who violate its rules and values.

In this, they are in good company in the US.

There oughta be a law

Of course, the urge to extend punishment to every sort of socially disapproved behavior, including texting in a crosswalk, is hardly a new phenomenon. Since the founding of the United States, government at every level has tended to make unpopular behavior illegal. Just to name a few obvious examples of past prohibitions now likely to stop us in our tracks: at various times there have been laws against having sex outside marriage, distributing birth control, or marrying across races (as highlighted in the new movie Loving).

In 1919, for instance, a constitutional amendment was ratified outlawing the making, shipping or selling of alcohol (although it didnt last long). You might think that the experience of prohibition, including the rise of violent gangs feeding on the illegal liquor trade, would have given us a hint about the likely effects of outlawing other mind-bending substances, but no such luck.

Women turn out in large numbers for the anti-prohibition parade and demonstration in Newark, New Jersey, in October 1932. Photograph: AP

One big difference between the 18th amendment and todays drug laws is that, although prohibition outlawed traffic in alcohol, it didnt mention consumption. No one got arrested for drinking. By comparison, as the Huffington Post reported last year:

Law enforcement officers made just over 700,000 arrests on marijuana-related charges in 2014 Of that total, 88.4% or about 619,800 arrests were made for marijuana possession alone, a rate of about one arrest every 51 seconds over the entire year.

One marijuana arrest every 51 seconds. It should be no surprise, then, that drug possession is a major reason why people end up in debt (from court-imposed fines), locked up, or both but hardly the only reason. Punishment is the response of choice for all kinds of behavior, including drinking in public (which is why people wrap their beer bottles in paper bags and kids who look up to them do the same with their soda cans), indecent exposure, lewd conduct, prostitution, gambling and all kinds of petty theft.

But doesnt punishing undesirable behavior have a deterrent effect, and doesnt more and harsher punishment increase that effect? This is obviously a hard thing to measure, but there is data available suggesting that lighter penalties for a particular crime do not necessarily result in more of that crime.

Take petty theft. Different states have different thresholds for what counts as petty and what is the more serious crime of grand larceny. Petty theft is usually classified as a misdemeanor, a category of crime that carries sentences of up to a year in a county jail. Above a certain dollar amount, thefts become felonies, which means those convicted serve at least a year and often many years in state prison. Depending on the state, some felons also lose their voting rights for life. Those convicted of federal felonies may not serve on juries, may not be able to work for the federal government, and are often not permitted to work for labor unions. A felony conviction is a big deal.

The Pew Charitable Trusts wondered what would happen if states treated fewer thefts as felonies by raising the dollar cutoff for a felony prosecution. Pew asked: Would there be more minor theft because the penalties were lower? (Some state felony thresholds were, in fact, shockingly low. Until 2001, in Oklahoma, stealing anything worth more than $50 would throw you into that category. Even that states new limit, $500, is still on the low side.)

The Pew researchers examined crime trends in 23 states that have raised the dollar threshold for felony theft and concluded that it had no impact on overall property crime or larceny rates. In fact, since 2007, property theft has been declining across the country, with no difference between states with higher and lower felony thresholds. So at least in the case of petty theft, threatening to send fewer people to state prison does not seem to raise the crime rate.

Whats the alternative?

In the late 1980s, the United Kingdoms first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, adopted the slogan there is no alternative, often shortened to Tina. In Thatchers case, she meant that there was no imaginable economic alternative to her campaign to destroy the power of unions, deregulate everything in sight, and gut the British welfare state. Its hard indeed to imagine other ways of organizing things when there is or at least is believed to be no alternative. Its hard to imagine a justice system that doesnt rely primarily on the threat of punishment when, for most Americans, no alternative is imaginable. But what if there were alternatives to keeping 2.2 million people in cages that didnt make the rest of us less safe, that might actually improve our lives?

Portugal has tried one such alternative. In 2001, as the Washington Post reported, that country decriminalized the use of all drugs and decided to treat drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a criminal matter. The results? Portugal now has close to the lowest rate of drug-induced deaths in Europe three overdose deaths a year per million people. By comparison, at 45 deaths per million population, the United Kingdoms rate is more than 14 times greater. In addition, HIV infections have declined in Portugal, unlike, for example, in the rural United States, where a heroin epidemic has the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention worried about the potential for soaring infection rates.

All right, but drug use has often been called a victimless crime. Maybe it doesnt make sense to lock up people who are really only hurting themselves.

What about crimes like theft or assault, where the victims are other people? Isnt punishment a social necessity then?

If youd asked me that question a few years ago, I would probably have agreed that there are no alternatives to prosecution and punishment in response to such crimes. That was before I met Rachel Herzing, a community organizer who worked for the national prison-abolition group Critical Resistance for 15 years. I invited her to my classes to listen to my students talk about crime, policing and punishment. She then asked them to imagine the impossible other methods besides locking people up that a community could use to restore itself to wholeness.

This is the approach taken by the international movement for restorative justice. The Washington DC-based Centre for Justice and Reconciliation describes it this way: Restorative justice repairs the harm caused by crime. When victims, offenders, and community members meet to decide how to do that, the results can be transformational.

Similarly, transitional justice is the name given to a range of measures taken in countries that have suffered national traumas, including ethnic cleansing and other extensive human rights violations. According to the International Center for Transitional Justice, such measures to heal a wounded country and deal with often terrible crimes do include criminal prosecutions, but the emphasis is often placed on truth commissions, reparations programs, and various kinds of institutional reforms, or even, as the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation suggests, meetings between victims, offenders, and other persons to emphasize accountability and make amends.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela testifies in the 1997 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearing. Photograph: Adil Bradlow/AP

The most famous of such experiments has undoubtedly been South Africas Truth and Reconciliation Commission. From 1948 to 1994, South Africa operated under the official policy of apartheid, the legal separation of South Africans into four different racial categories with four different levels of rights. The South African government employed all the usual tools of state terrorism murder, torture, beatings, incarceration and daily repression to keep the oppressed majority out of power. Eventually, international sanctions and internal resistance, followed by an extraordinary negotiation between the African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela and the then president, FW De Klerk, brought a peaceful end to apartheid.

In 1994, after Mandela had become president and the crimes of that countrys white regime were at an end, that Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to confront the countrys history of apartheid atrocities. Behind that process was a recognition that there could be no peaceable future without a public acknowledgment of the harm that had been done by those who had done it. In South Africa, even torturers and murderers under the apartheid system were granted amnesties for their crimes as part of a social healing process, but only after they had publicly admitted their actions and genuinely asked for forgiveness. It was not punishment but the acknowledgment of wrongdoing that marked the beginning of justice in that country, and it seemed to work for many of those who had suffered grievously under apartheid.

A similar approach might work in the United States. Indeed, it already happens all the time on a small scale around the country, through community mediation services. These organizations help neighbors settle disputes that might otherwise result in a trip to civil courts or the pressing of criminal charges. An important aspect of the process is listening to and acknowledging the harm others have experienced. It might be possible to expand this kind of mediation to address more serious instances of harm to individuals or a community, and to work out means of restitution that did not involve prison time.

There are other alternatives to punishment as well. For example, as Critical Resistance suggests, instead of training police forces to deal with people experiencing mental health breakdowns by arresting them and putting them in the justice system, we might begin to treat such events as what they are: health crises. Its a horror that jails and prisons have become the biggest mental hospitals in the country with the justice department reporting that half of those now incarcerated have some form of mental illness.

Some communities have also begun to question the wisdom of the broken windows approach to policing first proposed by the criminal justice scholar George Kelling and political scientist James Q Wilson. They argued that when the police enforced laws and informal rules against nuisance behavior in neighborhoods, reductions in more serious crimes followed.

In their seminal 1982 article on the subject in the Atlantic,Kelling and Wilson suggested that just as an untended building with one broken window was eventually likely to end up with all its windows broken, untended behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls. They wrote approvingly of a police officer who made a habit of arresting for vagrancy anyone who broke the informal rules of the neighborhood to which he was assigned by begging for money at a bus stop or drinking alcohol from an unwrapped container or on the sidewalk of a major street.

Bill Bratton, New York Citys just-retired police commissioner, championed this broken windows approach to policing, including a race-based stop-and-frisk policy in which police searched New Yorkers on the streets of their city 5m times between 2002 and 2015. Nearly 90% of those stopped were, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, completely innocent of anything and of the remaining 10%, only one-quarter, or 2.5% of all stops, resulted in convictions most often for marijuana possession. But hundreds of thousands of people, mostly young African American and Latino men, lived with the expectation that, at any time, the police might stop them on the street in a humiliating display of power. In a landmark 2013 decision, a New York federal court found the police departments stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional.

Heres another idea: even people of goodwill who are not yet ready to jump on any prison abolition bandwagon might agree that we could stop sending people to jail for many misdemeanors.

In my state, California, there were 762,002 arrests for misdemeanors in 2014 alone. Of these, 92,469 were for drug possession, 1,265 for glue sniffing (a crime of the truly poor and desperate), and another 90,061 for being drunk in public. The largest single category, however, was driving under the influence, or DUI, with 151,416 arrests. Thats a total of almost 335,000 people arrested in one state in one year for crimes connected with the use of either legal or illegal drugs. Add to that the 58,569 people arrested for petty theft, imagine similar figures across the country, and you can see how the jails might begin to fill with record-setting numbers of prisoners.

Even when never convicted, those arrested often end up spending time in jail because they cant afford bail. And spending time in jail can cost you your job, your children, even your home. Thats a lot of punishment for someone who hasnt been convicted of a crime. In August 2016, the US justice department filed documents in federal court arguing that holding people in jail because they cant afford to bail themselves out is unconstitutional a major move toward real justice.

So the next time you find yourself thinking idly that there oughta be a law against not giving up your seat on a bus to someone who needs it more, or playing loud music in a public place, or panhandling stop for a moment and think again. Yes, such things can be unpleasant for other people, but maybe theres a just alternative to punishing those who do them.

Ill leave the last words to a student of mine, who wrote: My definition of justice is some sort of restitution and admission of wrongdoing from someone who wronged you in the past My family has influenced my definition of justice in teaching me that even if someone does something wrong there should always be room for forgiveness and, if they are sincere, forgive them and that is justice.

Now, its your turn to define the term and so our world.

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches in the philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The US Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes (Hot Books). Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua.

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William Burns Livingston III discovered he could draw after being incarcerated now his work is being collected by the likes of punk legend Ian MacKaye

The Joseph Harp Correctional Center lies on a rolling stretch of land about 10 miles west of Lexington, Oklahoma. Its an open-yard prison that houses nearly 1,800 inmates. When William Burns Livingston III received a transfer there from the Lawton Correctional Facility, a private medium-security prison twice the size and double the menace, it marked a sea change in his life as an inmate and in his art.

At Lawton, Livingston had resorted to drawing to while away a 40-year sentence: dark, crowded canvases featuring thin men with distressed faces, old men with mouths agape, young men looking despondent. Upon transferring to Harp, however, Livingston broadened his subject matter from depictions of prison life to dot-matrix portraits of his favorite musicians and landscapes remembered from his youth.

My dad said he could look at my first drawings for hours, says Livingston, a tall, bearded 40-year-old who wears his hair chin-length and his blue prison shirt tucked into roll-cuff jeans and Chuck Taylors, as he sits in Joseph Harps visiting room scrolling through a photo album of his recent art. Hes not an art guy. But he said he had never seen so much feeling in a drawing before.

I dont relate to too many people in here Im a kid who grew up in Dewey, Oklahoma, on punk rock and skateboards and I couldnt play music, so this became my passion, he adds. I put a lot of the things that I miss in my art friends, music, things that remind me of home. Before I came here, painting was just something I did at three in the morning after I was fucked up, but now Im always trying to push the envelope, to improve, to do different things.

Running out of space in their home for their sons art, Livingston and his parents decided to sell it. For the past two years, Doc and Marie Livingston have traversed north-east Oklahoma, enlisting in every art fair within range to pay for acrylic paints, brushes, canvases and other supplies for Livingston and nine other men to create art during their free time at Joseph Harp.

Oklahoma has the second highest incarceration rate in the United States, at 700 inmates per 100,000 people reaching a population of 28,095 near the end of 2015 and few resources for the men and women who spend their years there, aside from work and offender treatment programs. But from his studio at Harp, Livingstons work has also enjoyed some local fame. Local film-maker John Swab recently purchased Livingstons triptych inspired by the Francis Ford Coppola gang movie The Outsiders, and Danny OConnor, formerly of hip-hop band House of Pain, recently commissioned work for an auction to help fund the reconstruction of the house where Coppola filmed it. Ian MacKaye, a former member of post-hardcore band Fugazi and owner of Dischord Records, has also started collecting paintings from Livingston.

I cant think of anything worse than Will just sitting there in prison feeling sorry for himself; I wouldnt wish this life on the devil, says Doc Livingston, sitting in a back room of his State Farm insurance office in Dewey, Oklahoma, packaging paintings for a booth at the Blue Dome Art Festival in Tulsa in late May. This is now the way he stays connected with the outside and the outside connects with him.

Livingston in the library with one of his paintings in the background. Photograph: Adrian Brune

On an overcast day and among vendors half their age, Doc and Marie Livingston, as well as Livingstons two children, unload plastic containers filled with paintings. As Marie chooses whether the landscape of a long-gone Bartlesville neon sign should hang next to the Lou Reed portrait or stand on its own, Doc cuts zip ties to attach other works to a metal grid. Adorned with a sign that says Prison Art, a photocopy of Livingstons biography and a donation bucket for prisoner art supplies, the booth stands out from its kin at the Blue Dome market in Tulsa, which retail everything from license plate sculptures to hand-made pet collars.

One of the biggest compliments you can pay the artist is saying, I want that in my home I want to look at that painting every day, said Marie. But people also want to talk. They come by, put in some money and tell us about their son or daughter or husband going away to prison.

Doc and Marie Livingston would do and have done just about anything for their only child. When Livingston wanted to learn more about baseball cards, his parents helped him maintain a stand at one of the local antique malls. When he decided to pursue music, Doc helped him build a recording studio next to the family house. And despite his poor grades, drinking and recreational drug use, when it came time for Livingston to attend college, they sent him off to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. They would do anything they could do to get me out of Dewey, which they thought would solve the problem, Livingston says.

For a while, leaving the town indeed helped, as did meeting his former wife. While she pursued an art history course, Livingston worked as an office manager and played in local bands. When in 1999 his wife received an internship at Long Islands Limited Arts Editions, he followed, and went from groundskeeper to print assistant, working on such prints as Green Angel by Jasper Johns.

Livingstons parents selling his work. Photograph: Adrian Brune

However, Livingstons drinking was catching up with him. After moving to Bartlesville in the early 2000s, he attended his first rehab for 90 days, then relapsed a pattern that continued though his late 20s. The day after coming home from another stint in rehab 10 October 2008 Livingston left work early and started drinking, despondent over his impending divorce. Later, he decided to drive to the liquor store for a bottle of whiskey and on the way there hit a 21-year-old man, Joseph Purrington, as he swerved to avoid another car. Purrington died of blunt-force trauma to the head and body; Livingston fled the scene. The police were waiting for him in his driveway.

His parents posted $100,000 bail and Livingston returned to rehab for the next 18 months. By then, it didnt matter. On the recommendation of his attorney and in lieu of a trial, Livingston accepted a blind plea a guilty plea without the benefit of the prosecutions approval and was sentenced to 50 years for first-degree manslaughter, a violent crime for which 85% must be served before parole. It was Livingstons first offense.

I liked the idea of a blind plea because I didnt want to act as if I was not guilty and I didnt want to have to put Josephs family through a trial it seemed cruel, Livingston wrote from prison on handmade stationery in March. Because he took a blind plea, he cannot appeal against his sentence; he can only ask a parole board for a time cut or commutation. However, Oklahomas pardons and parole board usually denies all violent offenders.

Maybe if I had stayed in Columbus or Long Island or somewhere else, things might have been different maybe the date on someones tombstone wouldnt be my sober date. I certainly wish I was serving time for a bunch of DUIs rather than the taking of Josephs life.

Purringtons family could not be reached for comment and do not have contact with either William Livingston or his parents. On a message board for victims of drunk driving, Paula Purrington, his sister, posted the folllowing: My life will never be the same my whole family will never be the same. Joseph loved his nieces, he was wanting a family of his own. All of that was taken away from him.

At Joseph Harp, especially after a difficult or a tedious day, Livingston finds solace by plugging in his earphones and painting. He is very protective of the painting guild, since wardens tend to cut out the program and not the prisoner if something goes wrong.

We have a specific room to work in and we teach each other what we know. This has been instrumental in maintaining sanity around here, as well. We are really trying to do good things, not only for ourselves, but we also donate works to charities to raise funds for causes and were just now scratching the surface of what can be done here.

After Blue Dome, Doc and Marie Livingston tally the sales, which came to a total of $1,600 or at least 25 paintings of Livingstons work some of it bought from second-time collectors who searched for the Prison Art booth. With the money, Livingston will start on the commission for The Outsidershouse restoration and then for a show to be held at a bar in downtown Tulsa in two weeks.

You never realize what lengths the mind will go to accomplish things when youve taken away all the normal options, Livingston said. As far as the art goes, my problem with most of it is that some of the guys are stuck in drawing things like skulls, dragons, girls flash tattoo art.

It would be great if more were willing to get out of the tough guy shit and really explore themselves with their art.

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