Karma Is a Motherfucker (The Third and Last Rule of Prison Life)

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imageIts meaning clear, the last rule and final rule of prison life is “Karma is a motherfucker.” Outsiders should note a very important caveat of the rule:  karma’s motherfucking is always directed toward another party, not toward the woman who’s announcing the rule.  If you call on karma in corrections, it’s like immunity.

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Prison karma is toxic recycling.

At least the inmates think it is. They cite the rule to warn each other off doing something evil like reporting another inmate for borrowing someone else’s sneakers (in prison, footwear that you didn’t purchase yourself is contraband and subject to confiscation). When the woman who threatens “Karma is a motherfucker” engages in malfeasance herself – like falsely reporting an inmate for inappropriate sexual contact with a guard, an accusation that can land her victim in solitary for more than a month pending the outcome of any investigation – she expects karma to be kind to her.

There’s a saying that karma never loses an address, as far as you go in life, it can find you.  This is the one place on earth where karma delivers somewhat quickly and proportionately because everyone stays at the same address for a while and it’s a closed system like a pinball machine. Bad energy is going to hit a few people and land somewhere inside.

Genetic-PrisonHeather, my cellmate, carved her daughter’s initial into her palm to pay homage to a child (whom she abandoned in North Carolina) through a homemade prison tattoo. The “T” was bloody, jagged and framed with edges of dead snow-colored skin around Bic black ink. Heather can’t wait to show it to her daughter – one she’s not allowed to see – because Heather is demented. She’s also from West Hartford and knows that no one will ever think it’s a gang mark.

Because she’s demented, Heather decided to make up a story about Velma who works in the kitchen with me. Who knows what she said. Stealing? Sexing up the staff? Lieutenants came and talked to Velma.  Whatever Heather said, it didn’t stick even though it was as mean-spirited as possible.

Heather came through the line at lunch and extended her tray on Chicken Sunday and, of course, accidentally flashed her prison tat to Velma.  I was backing up the serving line and I could see it as Velma placed the crispy leg on Heather’s tray. Heather is demented and dumb.

“Break,” Velma turned and told me. She wanted off the serving line immediately and I pulled a dishwasher to cover for her and she walked into the back like no one knew what she was doing. I grabbed an empty pan that the recently-drafted dishwasher would have been lugging back to the pot sinks if Velma hadn’t taken an unjustified break to tell on Heather and headed to the back myself.

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This actually could have been the “T” tattoo. It was that bad.

“People in line to get dotted up by that bitch,” Velma was telling a lieutenant who was actually taking notes like he couldn’t remember these details later. She wasn’t just telling on Heather for her palm “T”  – a self-mutilation charge that lands you in seg for seven days – she was accusing her of running a shop with a tattoo gun made of an electric razor and and bent staple. The gun – if it even existed – would invite multiple tickets and longer seg time.

“Karma is a motherfucker,” she announced to me before she said she was ready to get back on the line.

Surely, as I got back to the unit to shower after work, Heather was gone, goon-squaded off to be examined for the ink. And word of her predicament had spread.

“Your cellie’s claiming she came in[to the facility] with that tat. They’re pouring rubbing alcohol on it in A and D right now,” the C/O said as he erased something off a clipboard.

“That’s what you get,” I replied.

As I gathered my stuff for my shower, a female C/O, Valentino, appeared at my door. She’s a nice one; wants to transfer because she doesn’t like how we are treated in here. Valentino challenges the norms of scorn and helps us out.

tumblr_m8tatsze4m1qdolwqo1_500“Bozelko, I gotta search you and your cell for, uhh, tattoo equipment.”

“I think you mean Heather, but okay, go ahead.”

“No, I gotta search you.”

I looked puzzled.

“She’s saying you gave her the tat and you’ve got a couple of your own. Between your toes. Gotta do a strip search.”

Heather assumed that I had dropped the ink dime on her and was trying to force her own morally wonky GPS on karma. She forgot that turnabout finds its own way.

So I stood there naked, on one foot with my toes splayed. Twice.

“Thanks for not giving me a hard time about this.” Sincerity flowed from her mouth as she snapped off her gloves.

“Welcome. It’s your job,” I told her. It was the truth. Plus she was always nice to me and everyone else. Why shit on that by asserting rights that I don’t have?

imageI’m not too worried about karma’s sidling up to me when I least expect it. I do as close to nothing as possible to screw other people or break the rules. ‘Close to nothing’ because when it’s Screw-or-be-Screwed, I screw. That’s a Heather story for another time.

Still, I’m in a maximum-security prison, having taken up residence at rock bottom with an iron-clad, long-term lease, snuggled in with thirteen felony convictions, so karma doesn’t have much room left to screw me. I should be safe from karma for a while. The staff? That’s a whole different scene of retribution.

Karma can read my thoughts, though, and I’m slightly concerned about being motherfucked again for not being pure of heart. I was thrilled once I learned that Heather wasn’t coming back to my cell. She is, by all accounts, an asshole. And I’d be alone for at least one night until she was replaced.

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Heather should have had this instead of the craggy “T”.

The belief that anyone’s bad behavior will be  – and deserves to be – revisited on them plus extra is a little misplaced here. The ‘Karma Is a Motherfucker’ rule defines justice as retribution, as long as it isn’t delivered by your hands. I don’t see how they don’t get that karma has obviously motherfucked us all. We’re in prison. This is a rule that we don’t need because of what we’ve sent around. It’s coming back through now and will for a while. For our own sakes, we must forfeit karma for grace. For forgiveness.

And for Velma. I just got called back to work for cover for her because she got fired for trying to plant stolen spices in another worker’s sweatshirt to jam her up.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM JULY 18 – 24, 2016

make america safe

The Republican National Convention held in was big “screw you” to anyone who’s trying to make the criminal justice system more fair. Donald Trump’s official opening bid to “Make America Safe Again” was completely full of shit, statistically speaking. The Marshall Project did a great autopsy on the Republican presidential candidate’s speech.

The issue of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and its influence on people who kill law enforcement officers is being resurrected. Once everyone realizes that PTSD is the fuel of this justice machine, we might actually get somewhere in terms of reform, even after Cleveland.

The Atlantic ran a terrific piece about the origin of modern policing, the ethic of protecting the officer at all costs, including innocent civilian casualties. Did it start in California 46 years ago? Read it here.

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Don’t Ask Questions in Jail (The Second Rule of Prison Life)

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No prison laws are unusually laden with legalese and they lack the subparts of the modern statute, making them more like commandments.  Instead of being drawn on stone tablets, these commandments are imprinted on inmate dialogue.

“Are you Chandra?  Somebody sent this to you,” she stuffed a baggie crammed with unidentifiable objects in a two-inch opening in the cell door that the guard had allowed as a favor to her. Otherwise, the cell doors in the medical assessment unit – the prison’s vestibule – were not to open for twenty-three and a half hours every day, supermax style.

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Don’t ask.

“Who?  What is it? Am I allowed to have it?” I asked, my grip on the bag slack from fear of what might be held within.  Was it drugs?  A weapon?  “Who sent me this?” I asked again.

“Don’t ask questions in jail,” her reply slipped through the reducing width between the door and the jamb as the guard pulled the two together.

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Don’t ask.

The contents revealed themselves to be innocuous and kind.  A set of thermal underwear, ponytail elastics, a bar of spring green soap in a plastic soap dish and some peppermint rounds that restaurants pile into glass dishes at their exits.  The sender was sincere in her attempt to acclimate me to prison; a man whom I had represented in front of the Social Security Administration had a sister whose girlfriend, Lisa, had been at York since 1993 for felony murder when a gang fight spun out of control.  The sister learned from the Saturday edition of the New Haven Register that I got canned and told her prison wife to look out for me.

No one ever explicitly explains Don’t ask questions in jail’s meaning to new arrivals; they let the law unload itself on the learning inmate with each question she asks.

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Don’t ask.

When a new inmate seeks to understand the vagaries of a correctional existence, like why guards allow certain inmates walk around freely with contraband – clear plastic coffee mugs occluded with prison collage (tape over pictures and magazine cutouts) when every inmate possession  – from the TV’s and radios to the shampoo bottles – must be transparent so as not to hide weapons, drugs, etc., she asks: Why are they allowed to do that?

Or if she wants to know how some women dodge disciplinary reports for obvious infractions like “jacking up” another inmate (grabbing her and pushing her against a wall as a possible precursor to a fight), she asks too.  Why did they let her do that?

Or when she wants to know why Lisa, convicted of murder and dangerousness, was allowed to send an envoy with commissary items to another housing unit and expect that a C/O would violate the rules for her remotely.

Other inmates tell her: “Don’t ask questions in jail” so that she doesn’t expose the truth of American prisons, namely that they are insecure, corrupt and political just like their inhabitants; the can itself is as crooked as its contents.

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Don’t ask.

But there are more reasons for DAQIJ than protecting the guilty. Looking back to that night when Lisa sent me the goodie bag, by asking Who? What? Why? I wasn’t just asking questions, I was nosing around for details that were either in front of me – the baggie’s contents – or irrelevant – the contents’ sender. If I didn’t know who sent it to me, I should’ve just refused it outright.  Asking those questions was just my feeling around to see why I should be allowed to break the rules.  Prisoners who don’t ask questions in jail deal only with what’s before them and turn away from chancy behaviors.

The answers are something no one really ever wants in prison, not only because we already have them, but because they reveal how our lives are used in an unauthorized or prohibited manner.  Prison’s reality can be contraband. In prison, no matter what you want to know, truth can cause you trouble. Ignorance isn’t bliss in here; it’s survival.

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Don’t ask.

The staff doesn’t usually force us into formation when we walk down the walkway but sometimes they insist that we travel two by two. Because I got paired with Lisa a few days ago – and because I will be new here until the moment I leave and still haven’t mastered the rules of prison life – I ask questions all the time. I’m too accustomed to it since higher education encourages that inquisitiveness, that “Question Everything” mentality since colleges and universities are places free of any oppression. My thesis advisor used to tell me:

“Challenge me. Prove me wrong.”

He probably only issued the dare because he knew I couldn’t do it but, if I had done it, he wouldn’t have done anything except cite me in his next academic paper. If I pull that shit in here, I’m in trouble.

“Lisa, I’m just curious. Remember when you sent me that care package when I first got here?”

Lisa nodded.

“How’d you get it to Jade and know that whoever was working in medical would let her give it to me?”

“I take it you got something you need to get to someone.” See how she didn’t ask me a question? Never asked “what do you want me to do?” She’s been here 19 years and she knows the rules.

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Don’t ask.

“No, I just wondered how you pulled that off. Can you see me asking staff to let me send something to someone in a different unit? Please. I get searched three times on the walkway when I walk home from work. I mean, who let you do that?”

“You know better than to ask me that shit,” she said and she stopped, causing the twosome behind us to arch up on their toes to avoid bumping into us. Lisa was attracting attention to us. It was a threat. Not to fight me but to use against me the power I knew she already had.

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Don’t ask.

After all, Lisa was the woman I saw running around with a cup of coffee with pics of her girlfriend taped all over it that made me question why she was allowed to carry it. She was the one I watched jack up another inmate in the hallway outside food prep without consequence. She was the person who was nice to me and sent me that care package and the only way she pulled that off is that she was: 1) providing information on inmates; 2) screwing a C/O; 3) covering up for the misbehavior of someone wearing a badge; 4) all of the above. When I asked the question in jail,  I just wanted verification that she was dirty, something I had already gathered, to make me feel better about myself.   You shouldn’t ask questions in jail because you know what’s right, what’s wrong and, for the most part, what’s really going on and that you should stay out of it.

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Don’t ask. You already know.

Just because I ask and ask in jail doesn’t mean that I don’t lay down the law for others. When I worked a double every day for a week and was near the school hallway even after classes ended, an inmate who always works second shift queried me.

“Why does that C/O always go down into the school when no one’s there but the workers?” she inquired when she caught on to the undeniable pattern of contact. He’s slipping one of the inmate janitors into the bathroom for sex. Classy guy.

“Don’t even ask,” I told her. But she knows. She just doesn’t know she knows, so she’s asking when she shouldn’t.

 

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM JULY 11 – 17, 2016

hot girl meme

President Barack Obama gathered police, Black Lives Matter activists and relatives of victims for an emotional meeting on race and policing. The session frequently focused on larger societal questions that the president acknowledged he has neither the time left nor the power to resolve. So it was basically pageantry paid for by payers of taxes.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch told House lawmakers Tuesday that federal officials will investigate private prisoner transport services. Prisoner transport abuses wards whether it’s done for profit or not. I’ve been shouting this for years, submitting pieces about transportation to every newspaper around. Four have actually listened to me: The New Haven Independent, The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian and The Baltimore Sun. Read to see what happens when there’s no profit motive involved. It’s still dangerous.

In Detroit Free Press v. United States Department of Justice, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that people have a privacy interest in their mug shots which means that those websites where you can search and buy people’s booking photos might be shut down (if SCOTUS doesn’t pick up the case and it might) and something will happen to the hot girl in the orange jumpsuit meme that appears everywhere. She must be pissed by now.

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It Is What It Is (The First Rule of Prison Life)

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It’s the first rule of prison life.

“It is what it is.”

I know that it’s more than just prison tautology, but a real understanding of the rule eludes me even after more than four years in prison.  Initially, it seems to be the “Qué Será, Será” of prisoners, a philosophical shrug, the apex of acceptance and emotional evolution.

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Not really.

People respond to anything that perplexes the inmate soul by reciting the rule. “I was denied parole.” It is what it is.  “My man’s cheating with my sister.” It is what it is. “My codefendant blamed everything on me and walked.” It is what it is.

Perhaps “it is what it is” answers the Serenity Prayer.   Or maybe it’s accessible, acceptable Zen for the inmates, the majority of whom reject eastern religion as heresy, who fall on the floor during Protestant church services, allegedly speaking in tongues, confusing the onlooking guards who must decide if the woman is seizing or just exercising her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion.

I don’t know if “it is what it is” is acceptance; sometimes it’s very difficult to see the law that way.  Through their actions, prisoners make the rule an abnegation, even a total rejection, of personal responsibility because they pull it out like a weapon – a shiv at the throat of interpersonal relationships – when confronted with wrongdoing or injustice.

Doris-Day-Que-Sera-Sera

Wait ’till you meet your cellie, Doris.

“Did you dip your cellmate’s toothbrush in the toilet?” It is what it is.  “Why did you steal ten pounds of margarine out of the kitchen in your underwear?” It is what it is.  “You heard? Inmate X beat the shit outta Inmate Y! For real! It was dripping down the back of her leg!” It is what it is.  In this sense, the rule is no longer Doris Day’s “Qué Será, Será” but McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.”

The whole time I’ve been here, I’ve seen things that students in an undergraduate constitutional interpretation course would know are wrong, like appointing the same public defender to two codefendants who never waived the conflict of interest. I can’t know about a situation like that and not tell that woman:

“C’mere. Let me tell you what you have to do.” So it can become what it is not.

Word of my nosiness has spread and I’ve earned the worst label that an inmate can bear: not snitch, or even child molester, but effective – not all the time but a lot of the time – in taking on the power structure.  Paired with my convictions, two years of law school hardly make me an attorney but I became the jailhouse lawyer by rumor and default. Not one day has passed without an inmate requesting my help in crafting some written dispatch to get a new public defender, modify an order of visitation with her children, waive back taxes, apply to vacate protective orders or reduce her sentence.

For a while I kind of enjoyed it. I liked the fact that – if they had to choose a rule to break –  they weren’t willing to follow “it is what it is” when it kept them in the status quo. When my cellmate – a woman who left two sons when she ran her SUV into a motorcycle carrying her ‘husband’ and a thirteen year old girl, killing her – found out that her state income tax refund was being held for unknown reasons and that her children couldn’t buy new shoes, I helped her write a request to release the funds. Her children shouldn’t be further punished, I figured. When she read the Department of Revenue Services’s reply that they had mailed the check to her son’s guardian, she nodded and muttered, smiling:

This is what it is.” And it was. But learning about potential, possibility, what can be,  is a powerful event. And with power comes assertion.

I used to walk to the dining hall for every meal (breakfast at 5:30, lunch at 10:30 in the morning and dinner at four in the afternoon) like most other inmates. While I went on these excursions for fresh air, the other inmates go to “chow” for the cake; it’s the new gruel. Every concern about a prison’s human rights record vanishes when outsiders hear that inmates stuff themselves with cake at least four times each week.  The hoards that come out for it also come out to find me to learn how it doesn’t have to be what it is.

44c885a9f8ee7bf41ac489c2c2c0b0d5On every voyage to the chow hall, an inmate’s busted my beeline by tossing interrogatory hurdles in my path:

“Explain how I get my probation reinstated.”

“Tell me how the judge gonna lower my bond.”

“Robbery ain’t a violent crime when I run away from a mall cop when I was boostin’ (shoplifting), is it?”

If they didn’t catch me on the prison walkway, several took to interrupting me in the shower with “Just write me a letter,” while they forced a Bic through the curtain.  As prison shower interruptions go, these were mild but they’ve accosted me so frequently that I’ve developed the routine of starting all of my sentences with “Listen…”, their drowning me out psychologically underpinning my new habit.

power-of-the-pen-220x219That the pen has power in the pen is a phenomenon that other prisoners haven’t witnessed before.  They assumed that lawyers, magistrates and case workers ignored their letters of past because the people who sent them were lawbreakers. But when this lawbreaker wrote, things happened. It wasn’t what it was anymore.

In my experience, people who were cultivated in poverty can’t treat something beneficial in their lives properly. They will so overuse good things that they break or wear out and abandon them to the “It is what it is” thinking that prevents their dreams of better lives.  Even though I very much want to help the other inmates, I don’t want to interact with them, at least not too much anymore. In short, I want my cake and to eat it too, just not with them, not all the time. From that letter that Saint Paul sent into the lives of the Romans,  I know that I’m supposed to be humble and associate with the lowly but sometimes I need a break, permission to “Let it Be.”

It’s worn me out so much that I don’t really have much of a glad heart anymore when I assist them.  Once I was awoken as if in an emergency, repeatedly poked in the foot by a squat inmate telling me:

“Miss, I dunno nothin’ to write to my lawyer.”

one to grow on“Of course you don’t,” I snapped as I lowered myself from my top bunk. “With all of those public service ads about avoiding education. Wasn’t there a One to Grow On that said everyone should drop out of school at age 12 and knock over a liquor store? Oh, yeah, only after she shit out five kids!” I snarked at her.

Processing orders for help has turned me into a nasty, elitist bitch, more so than I ever was before; it’s been one hell of a rehabilitation.

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C’mon, B. Cut it out.

I could see Martin Luther King’s ghost in the corner clucking his tongue at me as I slammed my property around to find a pen and paper, seething as I prepared to help her so that she could see what can be. I know that my comments and behavior were wrong, contrary to everything that I supposedly believe, but I still feel only 50% terrible about it, probably because she and her roommate conspired to steal my pajamas from my laundry bag the next day.

“Did you take them?” I asked, dangling my mesh sack from a raised arm to show that I knew they had victimized my sleepwear.

“Miss, it is what it is.”

“That’s what I thought.”

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM JULY 4 – 10, 2016

alton-sterling-and-philando-castile

Within 24 hours of the shooting death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, a Falcon Heights, Minnesota officer shot and killed Philando Castille for reaching for his identification as ordered. An aerial ambush of Dallas police officers followed, killing five of them. Something needs to be done and everyone insists that guns aren’t the problem. I agree with Adam Gopnik who wrote this week in the New Yorker that “Guns allow the fringe to occupy the center.” We need to rid ourselves of the ways we empower people who want to do wrong. Guns top that list.

Hillary won’t be taking a collar for her “extremely careless” handling of classified information when she was Secretary of State.  FBI Director James Comey said that no reasonable prosecutor would bring a case against Clinton using the 1917 federal statute that criminalizes gross negligence when handling classified information, one of the craziest statements ever made. There are no reasonable prosecutors.

The Prison Policy Initiative scooped all news outlets in reporting that prison commissary giants are about to merge. This is more than some highfalutin anti-trust story. Prices for basic items like toothpaste and deodorant or even writing paper are about to go up. That means dirtier inmates. And dirtier inmates act dirty. I predict more fights, not an epidemic, but enough to make the prison profiteers culpable.

 

 

 

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pjimageHow was dinner? Sometimes the C/O’s ask when you stroll back to your housing unit after a meal, a little incredulous that anyone actually ate what was served.

I shrugged.

“Okay. I always want chili in 90 degree heat. I only went because tomorrow’s my birthday and the meals are worse.”

image“Tomorrow’s your birthday, Bozelko? Doin’ anything fun? Havin’ a party?” she joked. That’s always a knee-slapper to them.

I always wanted to throw a blowout for my fortieth birthday, even though I never thought I would actually turn forty. I figured I would be due for something.

I gave up a Sweet Sixteen soiree when I was a kid  – didn’t even want it -because I was going to be at a summer program in Ann Arbor and I didn’t see how it was necessary.

“Are you sure you don’t want a party? I think your friends would like a party. We can do it at the Graduate Club or the Quinnipiac Club and it will be nice…decorations? We can get a DJ…”

I shrugged.

“I don’t think I need one,” I demurred. All I wanted to do for my sixteenth birthday was go to “debate camp” – the Michigan National Debate Institute. I wasn’t the consummate nerd when I was fifteen, but I was close. I just liked what I liked back then and wasn’t vulnerable to peer pressure at all.  Looking back, I’m a little surprised at how adult I was about the party. So mature that it scared my mother a little. I overheard her asking my father:

“What teenager doesn’t want a party?” Translated: Why doesn’t my brat want what all brats are supposed to want?image

“Kath, what’re we gonna do? Argue with her when she doesn’t want to spend thousands on a party? Let her go to Michigan. I hope she feels this way when you plan her wedding,” my father told her.

Except there’s never been a wedding. Flagged that one, too. I still don’t know if I ever actually wanted one.

I just always figured I would have a fortieth bash because I didn’t have the other two.  Now, because of my stupid decisions, rage and denial, I would be 0 for 3 on parties: no Sweet Sixteen, no wedding, no Over-the-Hill shindig for my fortieth. Even if I planned one, I couldn’t even invite myself because I’m stuck here.

I climbed up on my bunk and lay, frozen still, so that the 5-watt fan could chill the sweat all over me; rooms without air conditioning and open windows aren’t fun in 90-degree weather.  For a woman to turn forty in prison is about as pathetic as it gets but, always, an overachiever, not only was I reaching my fifth decade in the clink but I was going to debut wilted and from the weather and motionless.

image“Winks, I need to ask you a question,” Cherry asked me at my door. Cherry is the Common Area Worker with a severe case of Co.W.S. – Common Area Worker Syndrome (the afflicted forget that they’re inmates). She wasn’t even supposed to be out of her room because it was count time.

“What?” I didn’t even turn from the wall to her.

“I need to talk to you about a modification.”

“Cherry, it’s Saturday night, it’s beastly hot and I really don’t feel well.”

“I need your help now.”

“You know the court isn’t even open until Monday morning, right? Nothing is happening now.”

I wanted to add: and you’re here for murder, so no one’s reducing your 45-year sentence, but the way I was sweltering took away all my fight. Cherry’s life story has always been sad to me. I’m sworn to secrecy about it but I’m pretty sure that poverty, abuse, addiction and mentally ill parents conspired to make sure that Cherry knew York CI intimately before she met her maker.

All of this undeserved loss in her life has made Cherry an officious pain in the ass, commandeering very cleaning supply in the unit, because suffering people will do anything for a little bit of power.

image“I need to have it in the mail on Monday because Wednesday’s a holiday and no mail is gonna be delivered,” she pleaded. This, of course, was complete horseshit because Cherry knew, after 18 years here, that nothing she mailed was going to wind its way out for a week nor was it going to be granted.

My cellmate Olga, an Original Gangster if there ever was one, has a normal body and hands the size of clipboards from fighting. Olga doesn’t tolerate Cherry.

“Can you just go help her because I don’t want her at the door all night and you know she won’t let this go,” she asked. “It’s too hot for me to listen to her shit. Blood pressure goes up and I can’t cool down.”

In the interest of domestic relations, I lowered myself from my bunk and put on another shirt so I could leave my cell properly dressed. As I walked downstairs to Cherry’s lair – which is a broom closet – I could hear the whirr of probably ten different hairdryers in other cells.

image“Who the fuck is cooking and running their hairdryers in this heat?” I asked.

“I dunno, but all I need you to do is – here, come in here,”  she motioned me fully into the closet. “I need you to explain why 45 years is expressive because of, what’s that word you use?”

“You mean excessive?”

“Yeah, excessive because of miritation, irrigation, something like that. That word you use.”

“Mitigation?”

“We’ve already been through this… ” I started to say but I could see Olga’s huge hands at the end of her 63-year old arms, swinging into Cherry’s face. I thought I would just write a cursory letter for Cherry to keep her away from our door to appease her and shut her up, so I agreed, accepted her copy of the form (which she got from me anyway) and walked back up to my cell to write it, hand it back to her and age for the rest of the night in my box.

Olga saw me come into the cell with the form.

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C/O and Inmate Cupcakes.

“She roped you in again? Here, I’m gonna cover the window so no one bothers you while you do that. Finish it and send that bitch packin’ so I don’t have to deal with her,” Olga said as she attached paper towels to the door with a sticker from a deodorant.

“We can go seg for that…” I warned Olga but she had already set up the drape and went out to watch TV.

I sat down to make stuff up for Cherry and sweat trickled down the inside of my arm.

Olga poked her head into our own cell.

“Chan, other people have questions for you, too, so come out when you can,” she said.

Olga’s off the beam. She’s mad that Cherry is at the door begging for help but she’s arranging new requests out there, I thought.

I swung open the door with my speech all ready:

DO NOT tell me you need help with letters to judges so you can go see your kids. DO NOT tell me the gun wasn’t loaded or you didn’t know you were stabbing someone, okay? I am unable to overturn righteous convictions for stupid stuff you did. I am tired. I am hot. I am forty. LEAVE ME ALONE.

imageBut I never got to deliver it because I walked out to the rec[reation] area and found a party, a huge, unexpected one.  A banner made from 20 pieces of contraband copy paper. Women on the tier had made personal pizzas for everyone – 24 in total –  by smashing sour cream and onion chips with cheese and hot water and spreading the mix between two tortillas to make a crust. Rice and beans. Ramen noodles made into spaghetti. Chicken salad wraps. Tuna casserole. Individual cakes made of honey buns mushed up with brownies and cappuccino to make a bread pudding, frosted with Fluff.

My mother would have fallen into a wilted heap herself if this had ever been served at the parties she wanted to have for me, but these dishes were prison’s go-all-out gourmet. Trixie even made a game of prison Truth or Dare, which proved later to be downright dangerous.

If the man-hours, respect and gratitude invested into the prep for this party were converted to cash, I could have afforded to fête myself and 100 people to top-shelf booze, a raw bar and a three-course dinner. They had to start days ago and not one person wasn’t involved with the planning. All for me for my fortieth.

image“You did this for me?” I was still taking it in.

“You do a lot for us,” Soledad said as she mixed Nestea for everyone.

I looked through the glass wall of the tier, down at Cherry in the common-area. She waved at me to let me know she was in on it, too. If she weren’t such a pain in the ass normally, I never would’ve bought her performance. I hated myself for being annoyed by her… ever.

I couldn’t even react, mostly because the heat deflated me, but also because I was so touched by getting a surprise party for my fortieth. I may not like the way my wishes are delivered, but even through all of these trials, I still get what I want.

All pictures are of real cakes that someone thought would be appropriate for the party theme of mass incarceration.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM JUNE 27 – JULY 3, 2016

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Pick a constitutional amendment, any amendment…

SIXTH AMENDMENT: Adnan Syed gets another trial on murder charges. The focus of the Serial podcast had his conviction vacated on the grounds that he received ineffective assistance of counsel when his defense attorney failed to cross-examine a cell phone tower expert witness presented by the State of Maryland. Everyone’s celebrating this but me, and not because I don’t want a new trial for Syed. Read the decision here: the court held that an attorney’s failing to contact an alibi witness (in this case, Asia McClain – whose story is credible and would provide an absolute alibi for Syed) would be “unreasonable” but not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel. I went through this myself in a habeas corpus proceeding. Think about what it means: if you’re charged with a crime and you have a witness who can provide an alibi for you, it’s okay if your attorney NEVER contacts that person, never mind produce testimony from him. That’s constitutionally adequate representation to some courts. That’s nuts.

FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT: A divided Iowa Supreme Court upheld the state’s law banning ex-offenders from voting last Thursday. All felonies are “infamous crimes” under the state constitution, the majority ruled. Justice reform advocates are up in arms that people with felony records won’t get to vote. But consider this: at least 80,000 people in Iowa have criminal records. Only 98 of them have completed applications to have their voting rights restored in the last five years and 92 of those applications were granted. I doubt it matters if they have the right to vote or not. People with records who’ve lost the right to vote in Iowa don’t care about their place in democracy.

EIGHTH AMENDMENT: Dog the Bounty Hunter’s wife, Beth Chapman, was elected this winter to serve as the president of the lobbying organization called Professional Bail Agents of the United States. She’s preparing for their annual conference next month and is likely to give bail reform efforts in coming legislative sessions a real challenge, as if they didn’t have enough already. But doesn’t her family’s own reality show prove that cash bond doesn’t assure that people come to court? She and her brood chase people who posted bail with her company and then skipped. I don’t get it.

 

 

 

 

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Prison Diaries Takes First Place at National Society of Newspaper Columnists Awards Ceremony

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Prison Diaries was honored on June 25, 2016 in Los Angeles, California with a first place finish in the organization’s 2016 Column Contest for Online, Blog or Multimedia sites with under 100,000 unique visitors.

Judy Clarke’s Dementia Isn’t Funny and Renee Davis Brame’s Pop Depravity were awarded second and third place honors, respectively. Prison Diaries and its writer are honored to be considered alongside these excellent serial essayists.

The most flattering part of receiving this award was the judge’s/judges’ comments which read:

“It’s a part of the columnist’s art, touching readers by isolating the smallest things in daily life and teasing out the universality, providing connections between one writer and many readers, and thus between one of us and all of us. How rare and useful to take the everyday details of life in prison and let the rest of us “in,” as it were. There’s no special pleading in these columns, just a reminder of our common humanity under conditions most of us will never have to face.”

This is exactly what Prison Diaries set out to do. Knowing the Diaries achieved their goal is humbling and inspiring at the same time.

 

 

 

 

 

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