Bozelko column: Prison transport causes wrongful convictions
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
It’s the brutality no one can catch on a short cell phone video clip.
That doesn’t mean it’s not documented. Arrest warrants, investigative reports, expert testimony and transcripts detail the abuse, but it rarely attracts sustained media coverage the way an officer-involved shooting does.
It’s the state-sanctioned violence of wrongful convictions. Oct. 2 was Wrongful Conviction Day in the United States, dedicated to raising awareness of the fact that commission and conviction don’t always match up in the criminal world.
A study by the National Registry of Exonerations released at the beginning of September - one that didn’t attract the attention it deserved because of everything else happening in the country - found that government misconduct was the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the country. Fifty-four percent of innocent people who were convicted of felonies can blame one of the guardians of justice for their fate; police did wrong in 34% of cases and prosecutors were responsible for 30%. Witness tampering and concealing evidence were found most often in these later-overturned convictions.
To date, evidence of these shenanigans has exonerated 2,674 people; the University of Michigan Law School, the Newkirk Center for Science and Society at the University of California, Irvine and Michigan State University have tracked them since 1989. That figure is hardly exhaustive; Samuel R. Gross, an emeritus law professor at the University of Michigan Law School and co-founder of the registry, notes no one knows how many people in prison sit there for crimes they didn’t commit.
What’s unimaginable about wrongful convictions is that so many of them are self-inflicted. Gross said the true leading cause of wrongful convictions is pretrial detention. Defendants cop guilty pleas in exchange for freedom or more lenient sentences. Fighting a criminal case through to trial takes about nine months on average, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics; taking a plea cuts off about a third of the pretrial period.
To understand why innocent people plead guilty, we need to add another government atrocity to the list of causes of wrongful convictions: prisoner transport. In theory, transport could come under the general heading of “pretrial detention,” but it’s an important tool on its own.
Prosecutors and police induce people to enter guilty pleas by assuring the conditions that deliver them to the courthouse, the site of the deal, are so dangerous and degrading that defendants will do anything to avoid them. In fact, prison transport is so effective in squeezing pleas out of people, I predict no one will reform it - the state benefits from it too much.
If my experience is any indication, then prison transport is an ugly business at every turn. The buses, trucks and vans that carry people from detention centers and jails to courthouses are metal inside and aren’t cleaned. Vomit, human waste and discarded sanitary items await the passengers like me, tampons and Kleenex and toilet paper strewn about.
To control bacteria, these vehicles and the lockup facilities are unusually cold - kept at lower than 50 degrees F - and no one’s allowed to wear coats. Shackles dangled off our ankles throughout the day, which generally started at 3:30 a.m. and ended around 10 p.m., sometimes later. And we had no safety restraints inside the vehicles, leaving us - who were chained to each other - to ricochet against steel ceilings and walls as we rode over potholes and even sidewalks; the drivers aren’t always careful.
If someone is detained pretrial, there’s no avoiding this rattling squalor; every opportunity to plead guilty - or, conversely, contest charges - is preceded by one of these filthy “rough rides.” It shouldn’t shock anyone that defendants often accept disadvantageous plea bargain agreements, even when they’re innocent and often against advice of their counsel, simply to avoid traveling that way more than necessary; a guilty plea assures that the last leg back to the jail is the last time they’ll have to endure those conditions.
Think of how malleable and amenable you’d become if before a negotiation you were tossed into a freezing metal box with puke on the walls and shaken like a daiquiri with the threat of having to undergo that countless more times if you didn’t agree with what’s offered to you.
As innocent as you are, you’d fold, too.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.