Governor Lincoln Chaffee recently signed two important prison reform bills: the Healthy Pregnancies Act, (to unshackle pregnant prisoners), and another which would create a task force to develop procedures for recording interrogations in serious cases. Neither are radical changes to existing practices, but both are improvements that could ultimately save lives.
The Healthy Pregnancies Act, sponsored by Senator Rhoda Perry and Representative Donna Walsh, was ultimately hashed out with the Department of Corrections. It creates a firm policy that applies to all the prison facilities, ensuring the least restrictive restraints necessary are used. The stumbling blocks were whether correctional officers or medical personnel are the best decision-makers when it comes to a woman’s pregnancy, and getting politicians to recognize that pregnant women aren’t escaping from armed guards and sprinting away to freedom. The coalition in support of the bill included the ACLU, RI Medical Association, RI Nurses Association, RI NOW, Planned Parenthood, Ocean State Action, and Direct Action for Rights & Equality.
Furthermore, it is about time that the general public recognizes that prisons are full of what many would consider as “normal folks” who go to prison for months due to poor choices, limited capacity to obey the court, mental health issues, or for substance abuse problems. The general public would not be able to list the myriad reasons someone spends a few months in prison (which is the average sentence), and typically relate prisons to serious crimes. Few (of the 17,000 annual admissions in RI) are there for malicious intentions or chronic violent behavior.
As for serious criminal behavior, it is far more important that the issues of Guilt or Innocence be decided prior to weighing out the questions of sentencing, parole, or reentry. Senator Paul Jabour and Representative Edie Ajello have amended legislation (vetoed by former Gov. Carcieri) that would mandate an electronic recording of interrogations when there is a possibility of Life in prison. Typically, this would apply to a murder investigation, but would also apply to arson, rape, and kidnapping. The amended version, S 331, does not dictate the terms, but instead creates a task force to develop the procedures. The RI Public Defender, always on the front lines of litigating questionable interrogations, have been perennial champions of the bill and supported by the Innocence Project, ACLU, and Direct Action for Rights & Equality.
The task force is, naturally, the usual members: The Attorney General and six other members of law enforcement; the Public Defender; two attorneys, and the executive director of the Rhode Island Commission for human rights. With 7 of 11 members being the police, nobody can accuse the legislature or anyone else of calling the shots.
It is unfortunate that the task force does not contain a single person who has been interrogated, even someone who has been exonerated due to questionable police procedures, as much is riding on the facts and figures from the Public Defender. As someone who was interrogated for 12 hours, throughout the wee hours of the morning, I can tell you that the police technique of rewinding the tape and re-asking the leading question until the answer is “perfect,” is one reason these interrogations need to be videotaped. Some confessions will begin at midnight, end at 5 am, but be only 10-15 minutes of dialogue. So what happened during the other 4:45?
It is amazing to have seen the push back on this legislation over the years, at times about the costs attached (yet two Flip cams for every police department would cost less than a two bullet proof vests for one department). We heard about how an officer who fails to push “play” on the recorder could have a whole case thrown out, yet the past legislation always allowed for good faith exemptions. There was fear of police tactics being known to the public, yet no collective outcry against the Law & Order television franchise, or other such pop culture.
Ultimately, sketchy confessions are one of the leading causes of innocent people being found guilty. Or a leading cause of those committing Manslaughter being convicted of 1st Degree Murder. This bill came up at a time when the Assembly is also calling for a posthumous pardon for John Gordon, the last man executed by the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Turns out, he was probably innocent, and clearly was not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Across the country, innocent people have been executed while far more serve life sentences. The few who are exonerated are typically released after 20 years in prison. Considering the potential destruction caused by an innocent person, and their family, being utterly destroyed by a false conviction, the simple task of recording a confession is one small piece of a long overdue overhaul in the criminal system.
- Unshackled Pregnancies: Idaho, Nevada, Rhode Island… (unprison.com)