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Race & Justice News: Black Women Overrepresented in Solitary Confinement

December 16, 2016
Among 40 jurisdictions providing data, black women constituted 24% of the total female incarcerated population but comprised 41% of the female restricted housing population. More in our latest Race & Justice News.

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Black Women Overrepresented in Solitary Confinement

A new report co-authored by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and The Arthur Liman Program at Yale Law School reveals significant overrepresentation of black women in solitary confinement across the United States. Among 40 jurisdictions providing data (38 states, the federal system, and the Virgin Islands), black women constituted 24% of the total female incarcerated population but comprised 41% of the female restricted housing population. The report documents smaller but substantial racial disparities in male isolation and estimates the disparities in each jurisdiction. Its authors define restricted housing as “the separation of prisoners from general population and in detention for 22 hours per day or more, for 15 or more continuous days, in single-cells or in double-cells.”


Featured in The Atlantic, “Aiming to Reduce Time-In-Cell” presents the results of a 2015 survey on the use of and efforts to reform restricted housing. Its authors note that although correctional administrators are working to reduce the number of people confined in restricted housing, “unraveling the practices of isolation requires sustained work.”

Racial Bias in Prison Discipline and Parole in New York

A New York Times investigation finds that blacks and Latinos in New York prisons were disciplined at higher rates than whites in 2015. “Bias in prison discipline has a ripple effect,” write Michael Schwirtz, Michael Winerip, and Robert Gebeloff, noting that disciplinary tickets limit access to jobs and educational and therapeutic programs, and ultimately narrow chances of being paroled. Based on an analysis of almost 60,000 disciplinary cases from the state’s prisons, the reporters find that black individuals were 30% more likely to get a disciplinary ticket than their white counterparts and they were 65% more likely to be sent to solitary confinement. Disparities in discipline persisted even after accounting for differences in the conviction offense and age of people of color, and were greatest for infractions that gave discretion to guards, like disobeying a direct order.

The reporters attribute these outcomes to the upstate versus downstate cultural divide. Interviews with incarcerated individuals—many of whom are black or Latino and from urban communities—revealed acts of overt racism from guards in upstate prisons—who are mostly white and come from the state’s poorer and less diverse communities. In contrast, blacks and whites were treated more equitably in Sing Sing Correctional Facility, which is relatively close to New York City and where black officers make up the majority of the uniformed staff. A related analysis revealed that fewer than one in six black or Hispanic men were released at their first parole hearing, as opposed to one in four white men. Following these reports, Governor Andrew Cuomo launched an investigation into the racial disparities in the state’s prison system and is taking steps to increase the racial diversity of parole board members.

Florida’s Sentencing System: Points, Power, and Prejudice

A Herald-Tribune investigation has found that although Florida uses a point system to ensure sentencing equity, inequality still persists. Prosecutors assign points based on the severity of the crime, the defendant’s prior record, and other factors. Judges can then depart from the recommended sentence. The newspaper’s comprehensive study of sentencing across the state found that “when a white and black defendant score the same points for the same offense, judges give the black defendant a longer prison stay in 60 percent of felony cases.”

While some judges attributed these disparities to implicit bias, others stated that they are simply approving sentences negotiated through plea deals. The Herald-Tribune notes: “The system still leaves judges with the discretion to show mercy. They just show it more often to the people who look like them.” The analysis also revealed that black judges, who are underrepresented in the state, imposed less biased sentences. The investigation has prompted lawmakers to call for more judicial oversight.

The Challenges of Tracking Hate Crimes

In “Hate Crimes Are Up—But the Government Isn’t Keeping Good Track of Them,” ProPublica reporters A. C. Thompson and Ken Schwencke explore the rising number of reported hate crimes in the United States in 2015. The FBI’s recent release of national data showed an overall increase of 6.8% in reported hate crimes from 2014 to 2015, with a 67% increase in anti-Muslim crimes. However, not all local and state law enforcement agencies report hate crimes to the FBI and many do not accurately document these crimes, making it difficult to assess whether upticks reflect changes in crime or reporting practices. Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, states that the increase in reported hate crimes against Muslims “confirms what we’ve been seeing on the ground since late last year.”

The FBI does not have a legal mechanism to compel law enforcement agencies to disclose the number of hate crimes they record. California offers a model for effectively tracking these crimes: there, police officers receive training on hate crimes while at the police academy and state law requires police and sheriff’s deputies to monitor hate crimes and share their findings with the FBI and the California Attorney General. Hate crimes, as defined by the FBI, are offenses motivated by bias against ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, disability, and gender identity.

Black Immigrants Are More Likely to Face Deportation than Other Immigrants

Black immigrants from African and Caribbean countries are much more likely to be deported due to criminal convictions than non-black immigrants, according to a report from Black Alliance for Just Immigration covered by The Guardian. The organization’s report, “The State of Black Immigrants,” reveals that blacks comprised over one-fifth of the population facing deportation on criminal grounds before the Executive Office for Immigration Review in 2015, even though blacks comprised 5.4% of the unauthorized population in the United States. 

The report’s authors, Juliana Morgan-Trostle and Kexin Zheng, note: “The criminal enforcement system—each stage of which has been shown to target Black people disproportionately—has become a funnel into the immigration detention and deportation system.” The organization recommends shifting away from the 1996 Immigration Law’s emphasis on criminal contact as the deciding factor for immigration status. 

Massachusetts Court Will Investigate Racial Disparities in Sentencing

The Supreme Judicial Court Chief of Massachusetts, Ralph D. Gants, has requested a review of racial disparities in sentencing, reports the Boston Globe. In announcing the review in his annual State of the Judiciary, Gants cited state Sentencing Commission data showing that Massachusetts imprisons African American defendants eight times more than white defendants, and Hispanic defendants five times more than white defendants—rates of disparity above the national level. 

Gants has requested that Harvard Law School conduct an independent investigation. His announcement comes weeks after the Supreme Judicial Court issued a much-discussed ruling that given the “recurring indignity of being racially profiled,” a black man walking away from the police does not signify guilt.

Los Angeles Police Commission Discusses Bias Within LAPD

The Los Angeles Police Commission recently dedicated a week to discussing how the LAPD handles allegations of racial profiling, reports the Los Angeles Times. Each year the LAPD receives a few hundred complaints of racial profiling, largely from African Americans. Yet, none of the 1,356 allegations from 2012 to 2014 have been upheld. 

During the public meeting, the Commission discussed a department-conducted survey finding that less than half of black residents consider the police honest and trustworthy and only a third believe that officers treat people of all races or ethnicities fairly. While officials said they were addressing these concerns by expanding existing programs, Commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill, who had called for a thorough analysis of racial bias within LAPD, noted: “Doing more of the same, given where we are, may not be enough.”

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