Joseph Shapiro

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Prisons across the country have placed prisoners on lockdown — they're kept in their cells mostly around-the-clock — as a way to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Now prison reformers are worried that the response has increased the use of a practice they've long fought: solitary confinement.

Updated at 10:10 p.m. ET

One month ago today, President Trump declared a national emergency.

In a Rose Garden address, flanked by leaders from giant retailers and medical testing companies, he promised a mobilization of public and private resources to attack the coronavirus.

"We've been working very hard on this. We've made tremendous progress," Trump said. "When you compare what we've done to other areas of the world, it's pretty incredible."

But few of the promises made that day have come to pass.

With coronavirus cases continuing to climb and hospitals facing the prospect of having to decide how to allocate limited staff and resources, the Department of Health and Human Services is reminding states and health care providers that civil rights laws still apply in a pandemic.

States are preparing for a situation when there's not enough care to go around by issuing "crisis of care" standards.

But disability groups are worried that those standards will allow rationing decisions that exclude the elderly or people with disabilities.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

People with disabilities are asking the federal government to stop what they say are policies by states and hospitals that will ration care and deny them treatment for the coronavirus. NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro reports.

Amtrak will dump a policy that led to two people who use wheelchairs being told they'd have to pay $25,000 for a train ticket that usually costs just $16, the rail service announced Wednesday.

"After further review, Amtrak has determined to suspend the policy in question," said Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari. "It was never meant to be applied to this situation. And we apologize for the mistake."

He spoke shortly after a group of people with disabilities demonstrated outside an Amtrak station in Illinois, chanting: "We will ride."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A one-way ticket on the Amtrak train from Chicago to Bloomington, Ill., costs $16 - unless you're the two people who use wheelchairs who were told their tickets would cost not $16, but $25,000. Yeah. Here's NPR's Joseph Shapiro.

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


Disney's Frozen remains one of the greatest box-office successes in history. But in terms of impact and influence, it is perhaps most loved and best remembered for one of its breakout songs.

Earlier this year, NPR reported that people with intellectual disabilities are victims of some of the highest rates of sexual assault. NPR found previously undisclosed government numbers showing that they're assaulted at seven times the rate of people without disabilities. Now states, communities and advocates, citing NPR's reporting, are making reforms aimed at improving those statistics.

Editor's note: This report includes graphic and disturbing descriptions of sexual assault.

In the sex education class for adults with intellectual disabilities, the material is not watered down. The dozen women and men in a large room full of windows and light in Casco, Maine, take on complex issues, such as how to break up or how you know you're in an abusive relationship. And the most difficult of those issues is sexual assault.

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It may seem like there are a lot more cases of people being shot and killed by police.

Just this week, two African-American men were shot by police: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn. Before that there were Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Laquan McDonald in Chicago and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

But could it be that we are just paying more attention?

Debtors' prisons have long been illegal in the United States. But many courts across the country still send people to jail when they can't pay their court fines. Last year, the Justice Department stepped in to stop the practice in Ferguson, Mo. And now, in a first, a U.S. city will pay out thousands of dollars to people who were wrongly sent to jail.

To Haben Girma's grandmother, back in East Africa, it "seemed like magic." Her granddaughter, born deaf and blind, is a graduate of Harvard Law School and works as a civil rights attorney.

The thing Sara Garcia remembers from the day her son, Mark, got out of prison was the hug — the very, very awkward hug. He had just turned 21 and for the past two and a half years, he'd been in solitary confinement.

"He's not used to anyone touching him," Garcia says. "So he's not used to hugs. And I mean we grabbed him. I mean, we hugged him. We held him. I mean, it was just surreal to just know I can finally give him a hug and a kiss on the cheek."

In prison, Brian Nelson lived in solitary confinement. That meant 23 hours a day in a small cell. No human contact, except with guards — for 12 years straight.

Then, his prison sentence for murder was over. One moment he was locked down. The next, he was free.

NPR and The Marshall Project, an online journalism group that focuses on the criminal justice system, investigated the release of tens of thousands of prisoners from solitary confinement to find out how many prisoners, like Nelson, go straight from solitary to the streets.

On a night last week when the temperature dropped to 17 degrees, Edward Brown, who's 62 and homeless, slept at the bus stop in front of the Jennings, Mo., city hall in St. Louis County.

"It was cold, very cold," he says. "It's so cold I can't really move so I kept playing with my feet — rubbing 'em, twisting 'em, trying to keep warm."

A new report on the growth of court fines and fees that are charged to often-impoverished offenders is focusing on another group that pays: their families.

Massachusetts is one of a growing number of states that are putting new restrictions on the practice of restraining and secluding public school students.

The techniques — which have been blamed for harming students and in at least 20 deaths — were used more than 267,000 times in a recent school year, according to an analysis last year of federal data by NPR and ProPublica.

This is the second of two stories. Read the first story here.

If you get caught drinking and driving in Wisconsin, and it's your first offense, you lose your license for nine months. For a hit-and-run, the punishment is suspension for one year.

But if you don't pay a ticket for a minor driving offense, such as driving with a broken tail light, you can lose your license for two years.

Drive drunk, drive recklessly, and the state can suspend your driver's license. But many police and motor vehicle administrators worry about a recent trend: A large number of suspensions are for reasons that have nothing to do with unsafe driving.

These reasons include unpaid traffic tickets, falling behind on child support, getting caught with drugs, bouncing checks; or minor juvenile offenses like missing school, using false identification to buy alcohol, or shoplifting.

There may be a model for court reform in Ferguson, Mo., in a legal settlement that happened quietly this week in Alabama.

The city of Montgomery agreed to new polices to avoid jailing people who say they are too poor to pay traffic tickets. In that Alabama city, as in Ferguson, there's been tension between poor residents and police over the way people are fined for traffic tickets and other minor violations and then sometimes jailed for not paying.

Here are just a few of the fees the city court in Ferguson, Mo., can bill you for:

There's a fee to plead guilty. That's $12.

You even pay for your own arrest warrant.

"The sheriff can charge you for the mileage that it costs them to serve a bench warrant," notes Alexes Harris, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Washington.

Each individual fee may seem small, but there are at least a dozen, and they add up. Harris, on her computer, pulled up Ferguson's municipal code.

To understand some of the distrust of police that has fueled protests in Ferguson, Mo., consider this: In 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson — a city of 21,135 people — issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations.

The practice of secluding or restraining children when they get agitated has long been a controversial practice in public schools. Now, new data show that it's more common than previously understood, happening at least 267,000 times in a recent school year.

NPR worked with reporters from the investigative journalism group ProPublica, who compiled data from the U.S. Department of Education to come up with one of the clearest looks at the practice of seclusion and restraint.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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The use of fines and fees charged to criminal defendants has exploded. An NPR investigation has found people who can't afford those charges can go to jail for not paying. Hundreds of thousands are hiding from police and the courts.

Debtors prisons were outlawed in the United States nearly 200 years ago. And more than 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear: Judges cannot send people to jail just because they are too poor to pay their court fines.

That decision came in a 1983 case called Bearden v. Georgia, which held that a judge must first consider whether the defendant has the ability to pay but "willfully" refuses.

In the next installment of an NPR investigation, Joseph Shapiro goes to New Orleans to look at the ways poor people are charged for their public defender in court.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Debtors' prisons were outlawed in the United States back before the Civil War. But an NPR state-by-state survey found that people still get sent to jail for unpaid court fines and fees.

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