Q&A: Prison expert Soffiyah Elijah on reducing prison costs, drug-related crimes
Soffiyah Elijah, 57, is the executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, which monitors conditions in state prisons. The first woman and first person of color to head the 170-year-old organization, she lives in Park Slope with her parents and the elder of her two sons.
Q. What would you most like to see changed in New York?
A. For us to take resources — not just money, but brain power — and devise solutions to incarceration, especially for young people and the mentally ill, outside of the criminal justice system. How many times have I seen the police surrounding someone who has an obvious mental health problem? How that person is going to react is so predictable! Most police officers know within the first three minutes if they’re dealing with someone who is disturbed. If a response team of social workers could be brought to the scene, we could have much better outcomes. Having the involvement of knowledgeable social workers could cut down on deaths and allow police officers to deal with real crime. We need to decriminalize mental illness.
Q. How do we finesse the rights of the mentally ill when they are involved in violent crimes?
A. We could have mental health courts! This was done in Boston and it was amazingly successful. Of course, we also need to restore mental health facilities for the people who need them so treatment is available. It costs about $56,000 a year to incarcerate someone. You could provide a whole lot of mental health services for a lot less than that. I’m not minimizing the fact the person may have done something dangerous or violent, but a person with mental illness is not best served in a prison setting. If we don’t get their mental illness issues resolved, the likelihood they will hurt someone else again is increased. Correctional officers, too, would rather the state find somewhere else to put these people.
Q. Is it true that a third of all the people our jails and prisons are mentally ill?
A. If you ask what percent are in need of mental health services, that percentage increases to more than 50%.
Q. How many people are in our prisons right now?
A. About 55,000 — 56,000. And that $56,000 a year increases to about $200,000 a year for older inmates due to their medical needs. It takes a minimum of two guards to go with them if they have to go to a hospital and they need to be guarded 24 hours a day when they’re there.
Q. A lot of people seem to think prisoners are better off because at least they get free medical care.
A. We need a lot more doctors in the system: And caring doctors. There is one (I know) who won’t get within five feet of a patient. When you’re in a crowded, confined setting, the likelihood of spreading disease is much worse. 5.5% of people incarcerated in New York State prisons are HIV positive and 13% have hepatitis C. We also need better dental care. And medical and dental care should not be being filtered through the correctional officers, because withholding medical and dental treatment is a way for them to retaliate against people who are incarcerated. All the people who are incarcerated say this is a problem throughout the system.
Q. So I take it that prisoners do not enjoy the privacy guarantees of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act?
A. Let’s say you’re HIV positive. You have your medications given to you by the guards. Not only can the guard retaliate against you by withholding your medication, but he knows your HIV status. There should be a medical staff on site to handle all medical issues as opposed to the correction officers.
Q. Where does New York stand in terms of prison rape and sexual abuse?
A. Attica has the second highest reported rate of staff sexual misconduct for male prisons in the nation. If you count women’s prisons, it’s third, as Bayview (a medium security women’s prison located in Chelsea) is second. Sexual harassment and sexual abuse throughout prison is rampant, but Attica is particularly bad. One of the really big problems is when all the employees of a prison come from the same community, they’re all related in some way. If you bring a grievance against someone’s brother or uncle or neighbor, the likelihood that grievance will be resolved in favor of the prisoner is close to zero. Attica is staffed almost entirely by people from the same small town.
Q You’ve urged that the prison be shut down.
A. Absolutely. Attica has a long, ugly history and that has never been cleared since (the famous riot in) 1971.
Q. Where would Attica’s prisoners go?
A. There were 8,000 empty prison beds last year and the governor closed 3,800, leaving 4,200. There are many other places they could be moved. Attica is a maximum security facility, but most of the guys there are long timers — older folks who cause few problems. A lot of them might be eligible for reclassication and could be moved elsewhere.
Q. You mentioned staff sexual abuse, but there is also the problem of sexual assault within the prison population itself.
A. one of the provisions of The Prison Rape Elimination Act is to determine vulnerability by asking if people feel safe and if they don’t, to make adjustments. But often, they just put the person in isolation, saying, ‘what else are we to do?’ Implementation of all these regulations is yet to be worked out.
Q. Has Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Young Men’s Initiative, started last year in part to help reduce the number of Black and Latino men in prison, been successful?
A. It’s too early to tell. It’ll be a couple years before we see if it’s made a difference, but I’m certainly very hopeful. Any programs we can put in place to address the problems facing young people today is a step in the right direction. I’m hoping we can replicate some of these fatherhood programs inside prisons. We really need to break down the cycle of young people following their parents into prison.
Q. But is a person in prison necessarily the best role model for a child? Maybe the best case for the child is to cut ties with the dysfunctional parent.
A. Everything is on a case-by-case basis. But I represented a lot of juveniles and adults and their parents have almost always had issues themselves that have gone unresolved. Many of the young men who don’t have a father figure will find one on the streets. The earlier we intervene, the better. It should be a part of some prenatal care to assign a social worker to work with the mother and father before the child arrives; work with them on parenting skills to give the child a chance.
Q. Lots of people are raising alarms about the impoverished youth in NYC who are so alienated and hopeless. What can we do for them?
A. We need to provide them with a wide variety of stimulating learning opportunities; meet them where they are. They’re so over stimulated by all the advertising and media and so primed to respond to that. I wouldn’t have a gun in the house, and I am also careful about media. I killed the TV in my house when my kids became teenagers. I cut off the cable, then I took the TV out!
Q. How did that go over?
A. They’re fine! They could read! They were able to make conversation with adults at a very young age.
Q. Drug use seems so inextricably related to the prison industrial complex.
A. About 80% of the people who are incarcerated report having had a drug problem. Even if they’re not serving time on a drug-related offense, it underlies their crime, even if they are not always able to identify it as a reason: The robbery they committed was driven by a drug problem. They prostituted because of a drug problem.
Q. What’s the answer?
A. Decriminalize all drug usage. Drug addiction is a disease, and we need to be honest about it. It’s a slippery slope to start drawing divisions (between, say, marijuana and heroin) so decriminalize all drug usage and medicalize it instead. Second, alternatives to incarceration should be first, second and third in line. As long as we keep drugs criminalized, we’ll have a black market and all the crime that goes along with that.
Q. Should we emulate Portugal, where the crime rate was lowered by doctors administering heroin to addicts for whom methadone doesn’t work?
A. Some people say government shouldn’t dole out drugs, but that’s what methadone clinics do. Providing treatment in whatever form won’t drive up the usage of drugs as people fear. But we need to realize that some people who use them are going to use them no matter what.
Q. Do you collect prison art?
A. I have some beautiful paintings from my clients and some sketches — there are two in my office right now. At home, I have a painting of my sons a self-taught client did from a photograph.
Q. What is he in for?
A. He’s doing 30 years to life for the homicide of a police officer.
Q. Some people might ask why you have chosen to devote your life to helping people incarcerated for heinous crimes.
A. First off, everyone is entitled to zealous representation under the law. But also, we as a society should not condemn someone for life based on a single act they committed. If we believe in redemption, that should apply to everyone. People can and do change.
Q. How often?
A. Forty to 65% of the people under 40 recidivate within three years. But for people over 55, it’s about 6%. Part of this has to do with biology and the development of the human brain. Our center of impulse control doesn’t really develop until our early 20s.
Q. What helps keep people out of prison?
A. Strong family ties, substance abuse programs, counseling and education. Recidivism rates are the lowest for people who have gone to college, so we should be flooding the prisons with free college education.
Q. How did you become interested in this work?
A. As an African American woman, this work is very personal. In high school, my teenage sweetheart went to prison (for a drug related theft). When I went to (see him at) Auburn, I saw the impact incarceration had on my community and so many other communities. Prisons are weapons of mass destruction: They’re destroying masses of people. Sweden is the No. 1 most progressive place (in how to treat people who violate social norms.) We are leading the world in doing things the wrong way.
Q. What should we be doing differently?
A. Pell grants aren’t permitted for people who are incarcerated. But if we don’t give people who are incarcerated the tools to succeed outside, the likelihood they’ll succeed when they get out is very low. We need to reeducate and change the mentality of the people working in prisons and as a society, take a humane look at how to reform the criminal justice system. Solitary confinement should be abolished. After three days, the human brain is impacted and we’re putting people in solitary confinement for years, every day, throughout this country, and destroying them. Mississippi abolished solitary confinement and the results in its prisons have been phenomenal. Why shouldn’t people have access to books and music? And Internet? It’s shortsighted to say “no Internet” when the whole world is going digital: You can put blocks and controls on the sites that would be inappropriate for them to have. We need to reduce overcrowding, which increases frustration, and be much more responsive to untreated mental health and drug addiction issues. We should increase counseling and use more positive enforcements. Many studies show that increasing punishment increases misbehavior, rather than deterring it.
Q. If punishment doesn’t work, why are we as a society so attached to believing it changes behavior?
A. one word: Ignorance. If we only looked at the statistics and adopted a rational stance, we’d see the approach we’ve taken for centuries has failed. No other country incarcerates as many people as we do. There’s a whole lot of money being made out of incarcerating people.
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