Project EJECT: Uprooting Criminals, Planting the Seeds for Future Crime

Kaitlyn Fowler
December 12, 2018

JPD making an arrest in downtown Jackson. Photo by Kaitlyn Fowler.

Empower Jackson.

Expel Crime Together.

At surface value, these are the goals of U.S. Attorney Michael Hurst’s Project EJECT. The idea is that Jackson’s violent criminals will be “ejected” from the city through federal courts and into federal prisons outside of the state, far away from their criminal enterprises back home -- but also far away from their families. Hurst is targeting people, mostly felons, involved in gun-related and interstate crimes. Felons cannot possess a gun and face prison time for doing so,  facing a higher sentence when tried in federal rather than state courts. The problem with ejecting gun-possessing ex-convicts from the state is that there has to be a way to charge them with a federal crime; this is where the Interstate Commerce Act enters the picture.

If a crime can be said to substantially affect interstate commerce, the crime becomes a federal one. One of the cases tried as part of Project EJECT is a carjacking involving firearms. The car was made in another state and transported across state lines to be purchased, therefore playing a role in interstate commerce. Another case regarded the alleged holdup of a Family Dollar. In itself, this is not a federal crime, even though it involved guns as well. This case is a federal crime because customers from outside the state can purchase goods inside the store and therefore it plays a role in interstate commerce.

There is only one federal prison in Mississippi, The Federal Correctional Institute (FCI) located in Yazoo City, and some of the criminals convicted, though not all, under Project EJECT are sent there. The placement of criminals into different federal prisons is ultimately up to the judge, but Hurst suggests that they get sent to a federal prison out of the state. Sometimes, his recommendation is taken.

The idea that taking a criminal away from their local ‘criminal enterprises’ by placing them in faraway federal prisons is absurd; even Hurst admits that the federal prisons are known for “rough gang activity.” With their familial support system geographically taken away, many prisoners have no choice but to join a gang for protection, and often end up in a worse situation leaving prison than when they entered it.

Project EJECT is not the first program of its kind. It is very similar to the 1990s’ Project Exile in Richmond, Virginia, which, much like Project EJECT, sought to exile felons for firearm violations. Hurst and Attorney General Jeff Sessions intended Project EJECT to be a reboot of Project Safe Neighborhoods, an initiative which was said to have racial bias -- an accusation Project EJECT is not yet receiving.

Project Safe Neighborhoods and Project Exile contrast with Operation Ceasefire, a program about “prior engagement with those believed likely to commit gun violence, offering them help and services” and “identifying illicit markets for weapons.” Projects Safe Neighborhoods and Exile don’t focus on how firearms got into the possession of violent people, legally or illegally. Endorsed by the National Rifle Association, these programs don’t try to find a way to stop the supply of weapons, leading to “charges of of racial disparities, and contribut[ing] to increased distrust between police and communities of color.”

Jackson, currently the only city in Mississippi where Project EJECT is instituted, had at least seven officer-involved shootings between the end-of-2016 implementation of Project EJECT and March of 2018. Despite the absence of worsening crime rates, Jackson is still personified as a dangerous, criminal place; the socioeconomic factors and racial discrimination faced by the minority population -- who are the majority in Jackson -- contribute to the perception of criminality. Project EJECT, like Project Safe Neighborhoods and Project Exile, doesn’t consider underlying causes and sources of crime; as long as a single criminal is off the streets, it’s all good, right? This mindset disproportionately affects blacks and other people of color.

New research suggests the “paradox” that blacks are 41% more likely to be gun homicide victims than whites, but are only 19% as likely to have a firearm in their home than whites. Furthermore, the survey suggests that southerners, midwesterners, and westerners are roughly equally likely to have a gun at home (38% vs  35% vs 34%, respectively). When race is factored into the analysis, regional differences emerge. White southerners are 47% more likely to to have a gun at home than whites in other regions. Blacks live disproportionally in the south and are half as likely to possess a gun in the home compared to whites, bringing the average for the region down to 38% instead of 47%.

ThoughtCo’s analyzation of this data claims that it demonstrates some of the stereotypes perpetuated by the media are entirely wrong and also deadly, specifically the armed black man. “Why are police far more likely to kill Black men than any others, especially given that most of those killed by police are unarmed?” ThoughtCo questions, “Certainly this pervasive imagery has an affect on the expectation among police that they will be armed, despite the fact that they are the least likely racial group to be.”

[ Sources 1, 2, 3, 7]

 

CORRELATION OR CAUSATION?

In 1995, the Court described “three broad categories of activity that Congress may regulate under its commerce power.” (1) Congress may regulate the use of the channels of interstate commerce, (2) Congress is empowered to regulate and protect the instrumentalities of interstate commerce, or persons or things in interstate commerce, even though the threat may come only from intrastate activities, and (3) Congress’s commerce authority includes the power to regulate those activities having a substantial relation to interstate commerce, i.e., those activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.

The second category’s commerce regulation -- the one that plays the largest role in the federalization of crimes under Project EJECT -- “is not limited to persons who cross state lines but can also extend to an object that will or has crossed state lines” such as the car in the Project EJECT case mentioned above. In addition, “Congress has validly penalized convicted felons, who had no other connection to interstate commerce, for possession or receipt of firearms, which had been previously transported in interstate commerce independently of any activity by the two felons.” Though the felons had nothing to do with transporting the firearms across state lines, the simple fact that the firearms, at some point in time, were transported over state lines connects the felons in possession of them to interstate commerce. This is reinforced by the Court in Scarborough v. United States.

This is not a new idea: historically, “Congress has made federal crimes of acts that constitute state crimes on the basis of some contact, however tangential, with a matter subject to congressional regulation even though the federal interest in the acts may be minimal.” Essentially, Congress federalizes state crimes that fit under an umbrella area over which it has some regulatory power despite having no interest in the specific crime.

Some people argue that the “interconnectedness of the modern national economy” means that there is practically nothing that Congress can’t regulate under the Commerce Clause. Professor Barry Friedman insists, “Just because something travels in interstate commerce should not, standing alone, justify congressional regulation… for almost everything travels in interstate commerce today.” Professor Sarah Sun Beale satirically proposes the idea that any crime could be federalized by passing a statute, making it a federal offence to violate under any state law while wearing clothing that had ever passed in interstate commerce.

It is important to distinguish between correlation and causation. Guns would not be where they are when the crime is committed without interstate commerce, but if the paint on the gun came from another state, that would have no role in the location of the gun. If a gun passes across state lines decades before a crime, does it still fall under the umbrella of causation? Guns are in every state, and who’s to say that a crime involving firearms would not have happened if a certain gun had not entered the state when, arguably, the criminal would have used a different gun? If the crime would have happened anyway, and would have happened with a gun anyway, is there still a causative factor in this one gun moving across state lines?

There is no clear answer to these questions, making it easier to victimize criminals and send them to federal prison away from their families, just like what is being done in Jackson under Project EJECT.

[Sources 5, 10]

 

“I THINK I’VE MADE THEM STRONGER”

Order in prisons is rarely kept by the guards or rules alone; the real order comes from the major prison gangs, and the wardens and guards know it. The Californian prison system is one that has been examined in depth and can be applied to other states’ prison systems and federal prison systems. “Prison,” academic David Skarbek claims, “is the ultimate challenge for a rational-choice theorist: a place where control of the economic actors is nearly total, and where virtually any transaction require the consent of the authorities… [gives] rise to alternate currencies and hidden markets.”

The inmate population increased significantly and quickly in the 1950s, bringing in a wave of first-time offenders who resisted the ‘convict code’ delineated by the seasoned prisoners. The norms disappeared and authorities lost control. For self-protection, and eventually profit, prisoners banded together. The first prison gang forms.

Skarbek explains that when an aspect of gang politics threatens the stability of prison society the source of the problem immediately dissipates. In order to avoid an attack from one of the other gangs, prison gangs will discipline their own members.

Street gangs and prison gangs are separate entities, though they do have a symbiotic relationship. Prisoners can enforce and regulate drug crime on the outside because it is safe to assume that (1) everyone in the criminal underworld will or does know someone who will go to prison at some point, and (2) everyone knows that the fate of inmates are controlled by the prison gangs, so someone will be punished in prison if criminals on the street cross the locked-up gang members.

Prisoners have perfected a technique called “fishlining,” which involves attaching an object to the end of a string, sliding it out of the cell and into the hallway,and then using the string’s other end to yank it around on the floor until it slides in front of the intended cell. It’s been compared to a  “corporate communication system--like pneumatic tubes for prisoners.” This system is used to send books, contraband, and, to new arrivals, an extensive questionnaire to assess their usefulness for a specific gang. If the inmates have contraband cell phones -- as many do in most prisons -- they’ll use them to confirm the responses. Prisoners -- Project EJECT prisoners included -- dont have the option of joining or not joining a prison gang; the question is which one.

California attempted a broad strategy for gang management that, ideally, would “break up gangs and scatter their members to distant prisons where their influence would be divided and diluted.” It had the opposite effect, allowing gangs to “metasize,” expanding the gangs throughout the whole prison system, including in other states’ and federal systems.

It seems reasonable to assume that a more punishing, longer lasting prison sentence is the best way to eliminate crime; however, imprisoned leaders, and therefore prison gangs, with these sentences hold more power over outside affiliates who, as mentioned earlier, anticipate imprisonment in their future. One FBI agent, after a 10-year investigation of a Texas prison gang that ended with the three leaders receiving life sentences, said, “I think I’ve made them stronger.”

The Project EJECT idea of reducing criminal activity in a person by sending them to federal prison, away from their family, refuses to acknowledge the truth that that criminality will likely become more developed and refined in the presence of governing prison gangs that he/she will have no choice but to join for protection.

[Sources 4, 12]

 

“YOU’RE GONNA GET GLADIATORS”

Prisons don’t have to have the culture that they do; in fact, they could be more successful and more beneficial. In the 1990s, a medium-security prison named McKean was considered the most successful in the country. The yearly taxpayer cost for each prisoner at McKean is about $15,370 -- way below the average for prisons of its type and the federal average. In the six years after it opened in 1989, there were “three serious assaults on staff members and six recorded assaults on inmates” -- the number of assaults most state prisons of comparable size see in a week -- and no escapes, no homicides, no sexual assaults, and no suicides.

These unique statistics are credited to the warden, Dennis Luther, who managed the prison like one might manage a business, making it more cost-effective and more humane. He decided to build a prison culture different from the normal gang-based prison culture. The prison boasts a large amount of recreation time, with hundreds of prisoners in the rec yard at a time; this limits fights and the amount of staff members needed. When inmates “get more involved in the rec program, they get in less trouble.” Inmates keep busy even without the rec program: 47% are enrolled in classes, many earn licenses to assist in finding work when they’re released, and they teach each other in mentors’ groups.

The rules at McKean are not lax; in fact, inmates are held at a higher standard than they would be at another prison. Three years after its creation, a few minor incidents caused Luther to impose a permanent “closed” movement, which restricted inmates’ activities at night. Inmates weren’t a fan of this: if the prison was incident free for 90 days, they asked Luther, would he restore open movement? He agreed, and the prison had yet to return to closed movement. Many inmates say they will not carry shanks because they “don’t need them.” Weapons are taken very seriously at Mckean.

Inmates who show good behavior can be placed in the “honor unit” cell block and are allowed to attend -- and this is really important to acclimation to life on the outside -- supervised picnics on Family Day. This makes it easier to enter back into society with a lower chance of recidivism (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend).

The increase in general prison violence nationwide is paralleled to large cuts in educational and vocational programming. Many college-aid programs have disappeared. At least 25 states have made cuts in vocational and technical training areas -- the areas most useful to prisoners reentering society after prison. Recidivism chances increase.

One inmate who failed an Oklahoma inmate diversion program says she entered prison dealing low-level street drugs, but worked with guards in Mabel Bassett to continue dealing and left prison with her business expanded to prescription drug fraud. In prison, she says, she “learned to be a better criminal.”

A prison environment like McKean in the 90s seems the best way to improve inmate behavior and lessen recidivism: two goals that align with Project EJECT ideas. Project EJECT, though, sends criminals to prisons with harsh environments and prison gangs, too far from their family to have a picnic on “family day,” where they’re more likely to learn to be a better criminal.

“You create Spartan conditions,” says an inmate serving life at East Jersey State Prison, “you’re gonna get gladiators.”

[Sources 8, 13]

 

FUTURE CRIMINALS

The sign for the JPD Police Training Academy building. Photo by Kaitlyn Fowler.

Reducing recidivism is crucial for community safety and strengthening households and the economy. A criminal justice system that does not focus on reintegration into society fails the community just as much as it fails the criminals.

When asked by The Urban Institute if America is failing it’s prisoners, almost everyone said yes. One response continued, though: “But I would also say we as citizens are failing our fellow citizens.” Why else would recidivism be so high?

In a recent study of recidivism, it was found that 77% of state prisoners who were released in 2005 were arrested again by 2010. This is particularly harmful for the black community, a community prominent in Jackson and one being targeted by Project EJECT. Blacks and whites use and sell drugs at similar rates, but blacks are 2.7 times as likely to be arrested for drug-related crimes and receive sentences that are almost 50% longer. Arrested at higher rates and imprisoned for longer, it is reasonable to say that they are also affected by recidivism at a higher rate than whites. The rise in incarceration disproportionately affects black men, as evidenced by the statistics of drug-related crimes, so poor urban communities inherently have to share a greater burden when reentry occurs.

Reentry services have been proven to lower recidivism. In eight states that tracked recidivism  from 2010 to 2013, rates dropped between 6% and 19%.

Incarceration is intended to reduce offender’s involvement in crime by removing them from the community, deterring them from engaging in criminal activity in the future, and engaging them in rehabilitation programs. The intended effect is not what seems to happen.

More than half of the 1.4 million incarcerated adults (over .7 million) are parents of minor children. 58% of the children are less than 10 years old. With inmates often being sent far away from where their family lives -- a purposeful tactic of Project EJECT -- more than half of incarcerated parents report never receiving a visit from their children. Both the child and the parent might faces issues of abandonment and loss and weakened attachment. Not only does this affect the recidivism rate of the parent, it also greatly affects the child.

Though little research has been done on the consequences of parental incarceration, the broad phenomenon of parental separation has been extensively researched. Effects include loss of financial support, poor school, performance, increased delinquency, questioning of parental authority, negative perceptions of police, and intergenerational patterns of criminal behavior. Not only does the current method of incarceration increase recidivism rates, it also shapes children into future criminals, worsening the problem instead of even just maintaining a stasis.

Project EJECT’s approach to cracking down on crime breeds more of it, sending criminals to harsh prisons, using the Interstate Commerce Act, where they are likely to continue or intensify their criminal activity, providing little to no means of rehabilitation, and planting seeds of criminality in children whose parents are sent far away from them. Placement in a state prison instead of finding ways to federalize a crime places incarcerated people closer to their families, reducing their recidivism rates and the likelihood that their childhood will engage in criminal activity. Returning educational, vocational, and technical programs to prisons would improve behavior within prisons and make reentry and easier process. A prison run like McKean was in the 90s would further all of this progress. Instead, Project EJECT does the total opposite. Is the purpose really to decrease crime on a large scale, or is Project EJECT only working towards lessening crime for tomorrow regardless of the fact that their actions will likely increase crime in the long-term? Is Project EJECT truly striving to make Jackson a better place or is it claiming to eject crime only to leave before their actions present the consequences, leaving Jackson on its own with crime worse than ever? It is hard to believe that Project EJECT intends the best for the city we call home when the lasting effects will be harmful and nearly impossible to overcome.

[Sources 6, 8, 9, 11]

 

Sources:

Cole, Nicki Lisa. “The Surprising Demographics Behind American Gun Ownership.” Thoughtco., 6 Mar. 2017, www.thoughtco.com/who-really-owns-guns-3026230. (1)

Corcione, Danielle. “Project Eject: What the Police-Led Gentrification of Mississippi Means for the Rest of Us.” Decorcione.wordpress.com, 8 June 2018, decorcione.files.wordpress.com/2018/06/project-eject-june-2018.pdf. (2)

Ladd, Donna, and Ko Bragg. “Oh, the Places You'll Go: Project EJECT Expels Gun Offenders to Faraway Prisons.” Jackson Free Press, Jackson, MS, 21 Mar. 2018, www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2018/mar/21/oh-places-youll-go-project-eje.... (3)

Lessing, Benjamin. “How to Build a Criminal Empire from Behind Bars: Prison Gangs and Projection of Power.” IZA Institute of Labor Economics, 5 May 2014, conference.iza.org/conference_files/riskonomics2014/lessing_b9947.pdf. (4)

Litman, Harry and Mark D. Greenberg, Federal Power and Federalism: A Theory of Commerce-Clause Based Regulation of Traditionally State Crimes, 47Cas. W. Res. L. Rev.921 (1997) Available at: http://scholarlycommons.law.case.edu/caselrev/vol47/iss3/5. (5)

Morenoff, Jeffrey D. and David J. Harding. Incarceration, prisoner reentry, and communities. Annu Rev Sociol. 2014;40:411–29. 10.1146/annurev-soc-071811-145511. (6)

Morin, Rich. “The Demographics and Politics of Gun-Owning Households.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 15 July 2014, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/07/15/the-demographics-and-politics-o.... (7)

Rivers, Eileen. “Re-Entry into Society, or Back to Prison?” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 31 Dec. 2017, www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/policing/reentry/column/2017/12/29/reentr.... (8)

Schanzenbach, Diane W, et al. “Twelve Facts about Incarceration and Prisoner Reentry.” Brookings.edu, The Brookings Institution, 21 Oct. 2016, www.brookings.edu/research/twelve-facts-about-incarceration-and-prisoner.... (9)

“The Commerce Clause as a Source of National Police Power.” Justia Law, law.justia.com/constitution/us/article-1/38-source-of-national-police-power.html#fn-895. (10)

Travis, Jeremy, et al. (2005). Families Left Behind: The Hidden Costs of Incarceration and Reentry. (11)

Wood, Graeme. “How Gangs Took Over Prisons.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, Oct. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/10/how-gangs-took-over-prisons.... (12)

Worth, Robert. “A Model Prison.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 1 Nov. 1995, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1995/11/a-model-prison/308518/. (13)