12 February 2018

Heart Failure

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“I would marry him in a heartbeat,” Carly sighed as the C/O walked off the tier after touring, peeping Tom-style.

“You know C/O Geralds? He married an inmate,” Sybil shared with all of us and none.

“Where? In visits?” Carly asked. I could see her scheming, weddingchannel.com-style.

“No, when she went home,” Sybil scoffed at her.

“I thought that was rape ‘n shit.”

“It’s not an assault if someone’s out of custody,” I explained. “It is if she’s in here or on parole.”

There’s really no prohibition on contact between people who aren’t incarcerated or on parole and prison staff. The First Amendment’s freedom of association allows an inmate and a guard to do whatever they want together…when she’s not an inmate anymore. But it’s far less common than you’d expect.

“No, no. [C/O] Lafleur told me once if he sees me on the outside he’s going to call the cops, so they’re not allowed to have any contact with us when we go home,” Cherry chimed in.

Cherry was partially right. Lafleur would call the cops on her to get her away from him. Plus, as a woman sentenced to 40 years, if he saw her outside before 2025, she’d be lamming it, having escaped, so yes, he would call the police, but not because correctional liaisons are outlawed outside the walls.

“There’s no prohibition on it. I think you might be misinterpreting what he said,” I suggested.

“Then the way they be tryin’ a fuck us in here, why don’t they just wait ’til we get out when there’s no chance they can get in trouble?” Carly asked. “Must be something they can get in trouble for,” she added.

The reason why the undue familiarity rule of no social, romantic or physical contact between inmate and staff extends beyond these walls is recidivism. If they all hounded women home, they’d have to disclose it later when she re-offends and comes back. So what’s totally legal is “frowned upon” because of the headache of paperwork and reassignments when women inevitably get back in trouble. Recidivism is the romance killer.

And because they know recidivism is virtually guaranteed, they stay away so they won’t have to disclose it later when some woman blabs as she starts a new bid. When they rape someone in here, they know she won’t say shit. But a semi-valid date at a place like a Red Lobster? She’ll tell everyone when she lands back inside. All this proves to me is that they can abstain when they’re motivated enough. The humiliation they’ll feel once they’re found out for deigning to date one of us motivates them.

I saw this happen once. I don’t know if the woman had been here before or not. All I know is that she’d dubbed herself “Fatty Girl” and I watched as she quietly approached a lieutenant, spoke to him briefly and didn’t say anything else. The lieutenant walked from the tier to the officers’ desk, said about 20 words and the C/O picked up his backpack and walked out. He couldn’t have been fired; they wouldn’t do that where people like me could watch. Besides, it was too calm and amicable to be serious.

Even though it didn’t wreak of chaos, I’d still wondered what that disclosure was about because I was waiting to get on the phone. I needed to know if we were about to get locked in our cells.

“What happened? Why’d [C/O] Clarkson walk out?” I asked Fatty Girl, real low.

“Oh, nothing. There’s no problem. I worked at the Henny Penny and he came in once and we was talkin’ and we fucked in the bathroom. Excuse me, restroom,” she corrected herself as if the problem in that sentence was word choice.

I’d heard about the Henny Penny [a local convenience store]. It’s where the guards stop by and get one-gallon jugs of spring water before their summer shifts in sealed, sweltering pods, cigarettes for after a 16-hour stint, soda and gas. One C/O switched cars with another in the Henny Penny parking lot to make it seem like he was driving a loaner after he lied to a captain about getting in a car accident out-of-state so he wouldn’t get called in to cover for someone else; I overheard them talking about it. C/O’s are banging the cashiers in the loo. The Henny Penny is hoppin’ with prison guard capers. Luckily, I live far enough away from this area that avoiding it when I get out won’t be too hard.

But I can tell, if word gets out about this, that many women will flock there at about 6:30 AM and 3:30 PM, before and after the first shift. 2:30 and 11:30 PM, before and after the second shift. To seek out hanky panky at the Henny Penny with C/O’s who’ll have sex with them in here even though it’s statutory rape but avoid them when it’s legal.

“So if they don’t wanna fuck with us when we get out, then how they ever find out if we’re doin’ good?” Carly continued.

It was a valid question I never thought of. The only evidence that the people who work here that this system is working, that what they’re doing matters, never reaches them. They don’t get to see the inmate who leaves and stays clean and gets a job, and married, has kids. That show-off element of reunions doesn’t exist in prison. You’re gone and you’re on your own, even in success.

I think I understand why the staff are such dicks and heckle women with “You’ll be back!” and turn it into a siren song to draw them back. Imagine if the only thing you saw about your work was how you failed and your successes were kept secret from you.

Because their careers are reflected to them as epic fails, the guards’ workday is no love song; it’s a dirge. No wonder they’re so fucked up that they party at a place like the Henny Penny.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE FROM FEBRUARY 4 – 11, 2018

Valentine’s Day is this Wednesday and many people aren’t aware of its association with criminal justice. Saint Valentine was imprisoned and eventually executed for performing Christian marriages – that’s his association with romantic love.  Read more about what else this Inmate Valentine did while he was inside. Hint: the miracles that qualified him for beatification. Great things can come from inside.

Puerto Rican officials may be forced to ship prisoners to the mainland because of the budget crisis on the island – but not because of Hurricane Irma. Not only is this bad news for the families of those whose loved ones are locked up, it shows that Puerto Rico doesn’t really care about the people it incarcerates.

Lastly and most importantly, read this essay in In Justice Today about transformative justice. Actually, it’s less essay and more anthem. This is what reformers are talking about. While you’re reading, think about what you would want if you were accused of crime, #metoo misconduct or anything, really.

THIS WEEK’S EXPLAINER: LFO’s

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5 February 2018

Party Animals

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Anyone in Wally [Lamb’s] writing class can go to the back of Ms. Manor’s classroom and type their work. It’s usually just me and I can work with only the sounds of remedial education behind me.  But when another writer comes in, she’s never quiet. When two writers start talking, they end up picking off students from the GED class as they fold into the backroom conversation.  There erupts a bevy of ideas, news, analysis. A veritable Roman forum.

This morning, Trixie came in and did her town crier-schtick, bringing news about something that either doesn’t exist or an event that never happened so she can stay connected to people in a place of eliminated relevance.

“You heard? They passed a new law that says that if you have a party and someone at your house gets stabbed or shot you get in trouble, too.”

“If by ‘they’ you mean the Connecticut General Assembly, I don’t think they passed a law. I think you mean premises liability and it’s not new,” I informed her without averting my eyes from the screen.

“For real, yo? My moms said she was gonna give me a party when I came home. Guess it’s a wrap,” lamented one of the students who was listening to us instead of the class. “Don’t want my mom endin’ up in this bitch [the prison] behind some bullshit at my party.”

It’s a latent, unexamined assumption here: violence will deliver itself somewhere. Sartre argued that the “milieu of scarcity” generates human conflict, but, if this conversation is any indication, it might just be a ‘partizzle’ [party] that does it. I thought that Malcolm X said violence is inevitable because it’s the means to liberation. Both Jean Paul and Mr. X are wrong; apparently, violence is just inevitable, even in the freedom and excess of a partay.  So inevitable, in fact, that women in this prison can’t conceive of a homecoming party without an attempted murder party favor.

No Bozelko party – there were many – ever ended in fisticuffs or people laying hands on each other. But there was a form of violence. Every gathering in my parents’ home was prefaced by fighting about perfect preparation. We used snide and low tones to warn the others to get ice or start pulling out the poinsettias we had for departing female guests (stockings with coal for the men because we’re so cheeky). No one got stabbed or shot but we were all wounded after these events. Violence comes in many forms. So, yeah, it’s inevitable.  I can’t pull myself out of this one with a class distinction.

Anyone who overheard this convo would think that the people in the room were dangerous, inherently animalistic. But it’s not that simple; what that person would have heard is the result of living in a world without solicitude.  Think about it in a purely logical way. What rids us of conflict? Agreement, obviously. We can’t all see things the same way but we can get close to that goal by seeing how someone else might see something.  And that’s empathy. Empathy can eliminate conflict and pave peace’s way. Only when people believe peace can prevail – and see it in real time – will they move away from thinking violence is inevitable. After hearing this party talk, I wanted to be shocked or disgusted. Dismayed. Scared. Instead, I’m only more convinced that only compassion – not judgment – will make us safer in a world where the words “soiree” and “shooting” go together.

“I may not look like it, but I’ve been to a lot of parties. And no one’s been shot or stabbed at any of them,” I explained. “Not one.”

“Metal detectors?” the student asked.

“Nope, no metal detectors. You can have a good party without gunplay. Or knives,” I advised them like I was sharing how to make an easy appetizer.

And I still can’t believe I had to say that but I did.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM JANUARY 29 – FEBRUARY 4 , 2018

Regardless who you were rooting for last night, let’s not forget that the Philadelphia Eagles win the Bowl for most work done for justice reform, especially Malcolm Jenkins.

It was a fleeting mention – just one sentence –  but President Trump actually acknowledged a prison reform agenda in his first State of the Union address. “…[T]his year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.” The promise came less than three weeks after the Governors of Kansas Kentucky joined the President, Jared Kushner and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other leaders to focus on what has worked at the state level to reduce recidivism. Let’s see how he follows through on it.

Also, click to tweet: Republican voters are actually turning against law enforcement. 

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled on Thursday that the disenfranchisement of people with criminal records who have served their time is “nonsensical” and a violation of the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The decision came just in time since restoring the vote to felons was going to be on the ballot in Florida this November after Floridians for a Fair Democracy snagged 799,000 signatures, 49,000 more than they needed (if you live in Florida and signed, muchas gracias). Looks like felons might get to vote for their own rights.

EXPLAINER: PRISON LABOR

Yes, it’s my voice on here. There’s a reason I don’t often do radio. And the music is too loud. Trying to fix, but the message is still there.

 

 

 

 

 

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29 January 2018

Manually

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I get that my lack of street smarts make me an easy mark, not for the other incarcerated women, but for the guards who see me as a novelty.

Their targeting has included tampering with my mail, teasing, and even an assault, but the coup de grace was drafting me into service in the prison kitchen. They knew I would turn my nose up at 3:30 AM wake-up, twenty-one dollar monthly wage, and the daily crusting of dried onions, tomato paste and lye that would infuse me with terrible odor despite several showers.

They tried it once and I simply told Mr. Potman in the food prep unit that I preferred to spend my time writing. He let me go.

Then, at around 10:40 AM on a Wednesday a few weeks later, over my lunch of a chicken salad wrap, another kitchen supervisor approached me and informed me that I’d been selected to serve.

“You’re Bozelko?”

“Yep,” I said and nodded.

“You’re in the kitchen,” she advised, throwing her thumb behind her where women lugged hotel pans and wore white hair bonnets and houndstooth pants that are as much a kitchen staple as flour or salt.

“Oh, I didn’t sign up for work. I write. I’m in Wally [Lamb]’s writing class,” is how I let her down. She seemed to take it well but I was called back to her desk in the kitchen after lunch for an extra helping of Hobson’s choice.

“Work or you get a ticket,” she threatened.

While most inmates don’t face solitary confinement for refusing to work, I would’ve landed in the hole. Eventually I would’ve surfaced, but the disciplinary record would have prevented me from participating in the writing class for at least six months, until I could apply and be re-admitted, if at all.

So I did what any draft-dodger would do in such a dilemma: I cried to my family for deliverance.

“You have to get me out of this. If I don’t go work there, I won’t be allowed in the class!”

“You have a choice to make, then,” my mother explained to me over a $5.00, fifteen-minute phone call.

“But it isn’t really a choice!” I cried into the receiver. I was two years in and seasoned enough to know that sitting in solitary confinement and then being banned from the writing class would have been too stultifying for me to sustain myself.

For the first time in my life, my survival depended on submitting to this super-low wage grunt-work. In a world where no one could force self-incrimination, I had to make an explicit confession of downward class drift, which was, after all, what the prison guard corps wanted. I decided I would start the job until I mounted a successful campaign for reassignment in an academic setting like the hairdressing classroom.

The SNAFU in my plan – and the plan to humiliate me – was that I ended up loving this work. Not only am I finally getting my constitutionally guaranteed exercise – activity I had been denied – by tossing crates of fifty eight-ounce milk cartons on top of meal delivery carts or unloading 25 boxes of frozen collard greens, what I’m doing was more homo sapiens than writing in my cell.

Little about human existence is more zoological than being stored in cubicles and peered upon, pointed at and poked for fun. The fact that you’re scribbling profundities on a pad like a character from Peanuts, or eating ramen on the toilet and then standing sentinel while someone else uses that same toilet when your meal is done doesn’t mean you’re not being warehoused for someone else’s enjoyment and employment.

Manual labor provides that small degree of freedom, but it’s more than that. It’s a curriculum in mattering. I enter the kitchen at 4 AM to piles of spices and powders on pallets and, by 10 AM, when most people’s days start flirting with coffee breaks, those ingredients will have morphed into thousands of cooked meals, chilled, stored and awaiting distribution, because of me.

After feeling frozen in failure, I watch my progress in real-time as I turned the terra cotta color of the tiles dark and glossy in a games of industrial tetris, a yarn mop as my joystick.

Outside of my work assignment, I grab any offer of back-breaking labor; messier or more uncomfortable tasks were better, like shoveling blizzard drifts off a trafficked walkway.

“That’s good enough!” the C/O yelled and expected us to hand off our responsibilities to chemical ice melt for the final clearing. I kept going. I wanted to see cement, not out of perfectionism, but to remind myself that I existed.

I’m not sure how I derive such self-worth from propping up an exploitative system rooted in convict-leasing and slavery.

It wasn’t until that knife went missing  and disturbed my routine of mundane accomplishment – rotating out the food samples we frozen for eventual testing in case an inmate came down with food poisoning, lining up the ingredients for the next day – that I even began to question why I am so amenable to this work. We had to stay late and look for the blade that went loose on compound of oppressed people looking for ways out of invisibility.

I overheard a few of the supervisors telling their wives and children why they didn’t know when they’d be home and counter what seemed like extreme fear on the other end of the line that their husbands and fathers were in danger of being shanked.

Though we never found the knife, no one got hurt, and the administration concluded it slipped down a drain. But I discovered that even my factotum status probably had a positive impact on others; civil servants arrived home to their children on time and convinced them of their safety when I did my job well. It wasn’t the difference that my bloated ego once demanded I would make in the world, but it’s worked for me.

Until today, when I was mopping and I paused to wonder about the real value of what I was doing,

A sophomore year sociology course taught that oppressed people internalize the ideology of inferiority; they have to if they’re to avoid the choice of suffering or dying in revolt. Eventually they internalize the negative values assigned to them. Even gladly. I looked at the mop handle and remembered that, by the time oppression gets internalized, it doesn’t need to be recognized or understood to do serious damage. Was getting me to swing this mop cheerfully part of the plan to ruin me through coercive correction?

“What are you doing to me?” I asked Giants with great suspicion as he walked past me to the ovens with a sheet pan.

“Making you the catfish you like, why?” he answered. “You want tartar [sauce]?”

 

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM JANUARY 22 – 28, 2018

By far, the biggest criminal justice news of the last week was the sentencing of Dr. Larry Nassar, once renowned as a sports doctor, now renowned for one of the biggest sex abuses scandals in history. He was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison  after more than 150 women and girls said in court that he sexually abused them over the past two decades. The sentence may be just, but a comment made by the judge during the hearing is highly problematic. When she sentenced Nassar, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said:

“Our constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment. If it did, I have to say, I might allow what he did to all of these beautiful souls—these young women in their childhood—I would allow someone or many people to do to him what he did to others.”

The judge was advocating for prisoner rape. Now do you see why it’s so hard to prevent or punish?

Even though it’s been two weeks, no one knows if the prison strike planned to start two Monday’s ago, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, in facilities in Florida actually went down or not.

John Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s corrections director, makes the rounds at criminal justice conferences claiming he’s a big reformer. But it’s probably bullshit. A new lawsuit alleges that Secretary Wetzel and the Department of Correction have been keeping inmates in continuous solitary confinement for decades.

EXPLAINER

The Prison-Industrial Complex

 


 

 

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22 January 2018

Ex Libris

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USES FOR BOOKS IN PRISON AND THEIR FREQUENCIES

DOORSTOP –  45% of the time

Stuffing a book in an open door’s corner won’t just prevent it from slamming shut (a book between the door and the jamb can do that), it’ll keep it wide open. Mostly used during cell-cleaning sessions. Far and away the most common use for a book in here.

WEAPON –  2% of the time

Smack someone upside the face. Witnessed a bopping with a book once. Over the head.

ART/STATIONERY SUPPLIES – 5% of the time

Rip out the pages for origami, notepaper. When request forms run out and the staff tells us that we need to fill out a request form to request a request form, someone tears a sheet out of whatever book’s nearby and makes do. Then I yell: “Hey, that’s literature!”

FILING CABINET – 1% of the time

One cellmate filed her prison documents and legal papers, like with like, by stacking all of one kind in each chapter. Ingenious.

TRAY – 4% of the time

When someone prepares a commissary meal for multiple people and wants to distribute the bowls of rice and ramen (no plates in here, just bowls or trays), she utilizes the large expanse of an atlas to pass them out.

MEDICAL TREATMENT (BACK SUPPORT/COUGH SUPPRESSANT) – 6% of the time

Stack them under your mattress to raise your head. I did it when I couldn’t stop hacking from bronchitis and it wasn’t enough of a medical treatment to fall asleep with a cough drop between my lip and my teeth like I usually did when I was coughing at night.

WINDOW SHADES – 3% of the time

Stack ’em higher if you got ’em higher. Women pile up their books in their window to block the angle of the rising sun.

SPORTS EQUIPMENT – 1% of the time

They just kick the tomes back and forth like a flat soccer game. Sometimes they swat paperbacks at a scrunched-up paper ball like a badminton cock.

EYEBROW GROOMER – 3% of the time

Old hardcover books and some paperbacks were bound with string. They pull out one and thread their eyebrows. Never fails to infect their faces.

READING MATERIAL – 30% of the time

Well, okay, if you want to get creative about it.

 

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM JANUARY 15-21, 2018

The “widespread rejection of proven addiction medications is the single biggest obstacle to ending the overdose epidemic” according to Maia Szalavitz, proponent of treating addictions as learning disorders, in an op-ed in The New York Times. Read it here. Not that addiction medications will matter much to the Trump Administration’s “Only the Best” Office of National Drug Control Policy, which is a rudderless ship since the 24-year-old who was tapped as deputy chief of staff was booted when it was discovered he just didn’t show up for his last job. Read about that here.

At least 30 states allow formerly incarcerated people to come back and be employed in prison (usually not the one in which they served their time). It’s not a bad idea. The Daily Beast and The Marshall Project reported on this last week, here.

A record number of inmates died in Florida prisons last year, more than one per day. And they died younger than past years, which means wardens can’t blame this on old age. Read about it here.

 

 

 

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15 January 2018

Openly, Lovingly

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Sermon from Deacon Dennis Dolan (written down – as verbatim as possible – immediately after Saturday’s Catholic mass service).

“Go into the library and read the ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’ It’s in there. If you can’t find it, ask Mr. L. [the librarian] or one of the other inmates to help you find it. That’s what he was fighting for. So that everyone would be educated enough to find their way around a library.

Don’t tell me that: ‘Martin Luther King fought so we wouldn’t get treated like this’ because Martin Luther King, Jr. never wanted you in jail. Yeah, he doesn’t want the C/O’s abusing you because you’re a human being, but MLK wasn’t about prisoners’ rights. He wanted you to break unjust laws, not just ones. If you break just laws, then you pay a price and that might include having to deal with a C/O who isn’t concerned about your past.

You pay a price when you break unjust laws, too. And you suck it up. Going to jail becomes a small price to pay when there’s a big principle at stake.

What he said was that, if you break the law, you’re down for the penalty; that’s what he meant about breaking the law ‘openly and lovingly.’ You accept it. He said that people who break immoral laws and then accept the punishment are actually the most law-abiding people around, even if they’re locked up, especially if they’re locked up. How about that?

What would it look like if Martin Luther King was protesting segregation, got arrested and then complained about getting arrested for what he had intentionally done? It would mean I didn’t really mean it, that segregation was okay as long as he didn’t suffer. What he was saying from the Birmingham jail was  ‘the penalty is worth it because it means I’m not conspiring through silence with you anymore.’

You need to read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ because it teaches you that your ‘YES’ is only as good as your ‘NO.’ That your ‘Sorry’ only means something when it’s attached to a little bit of penance.”

If you want to read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” click here.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM JANUARY 8 – 14, 2018

Trump et al. threw together a last minute confab on justice reform on Thursday with a few leaders in the field. It included Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback who had the balls to tell the press that Trump’s crew was the first administration to work on criminal justice reform. I have always said that the way to get Trump to work on justice reform is to tell him he doesn’t want to get bested by Obama, who has the record for the most – and the most progressive – reform measures enacted by any presidential administration. Read what Gov. Brownback said yourself.

On Friday afternoon, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided to end a pilot program that required anyone sending a care package to prison inmates to buy it only from one of six state-approved vendors. The decision had been caught in a debate over prison censorship and contraband but that had nothing to do with what was about to happen in New York’s state prisons. This was about how mass incarceration strangles free market principles. There’s yet another reason why the Trump Administration to push for reform beyond Thursday’s photo op.

And “Love After Lockup,” a reality show about people who get engaged to their prison pen pals, premiered on Friday night on WE TV. Pay special attention to the story of Scott and Lizzie, who’ve been together for two years and Scott’s sent her $20,000. That’s slightly less than $200 per week on commissary crap, if she spent it all. I have mixed feelings about this show. As much as it might be exploitive, “Love After Lockup” also is a non-schmaltzy look at re-entry. Not a terrible way to spend an hour.

 

 

 

 

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8 January 2018

Nothing Can Be Said to Be Certain

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Mouthing “I’m sorry” to the counselor every time I turned around to check the clock, I waited on hold for 46 minutes for the Identity Protection Specialized Unit at the IRS.

MALE VOICE: Good afternoon. Thank you for calling. My name is Gabriel. May I have your name and social security number?

ME: Yeah, hi. My name is Chandra – C-H-A-N-D-R-A, Bozelko B as in boy, O, Z as in zebra, E, L, K, O, social XXX, XX, XXXX.

GABRIEL: Thank you Ms. Bozeleeko. I’ve brought up your name and profile. What’s the reason for your call today? Are you calling because you think your social security number’s been compromised?

ME: Yes. Um, fraudulent tax returns have been filed in my name? I received two notices of coming refunds that would be sent to me by prepaid debit card and I didn’t file returns for those years, so something is wrong.

GABRIEL: What years are they?

ME: Well, I got the notice for tax years ending 12/31/08 and/09 but there may be more years. I don’t really know.

GABRIEL: Okay. I will note that. Many times people forget that they filed a return and think they don’t owe anything and then they get a bill. Are you sure these aren’t your tax returns?

ME: Yeah, I’m sure. And I didn’t get a bill. I got notice of a refund that you’re about to pay and it shouldn’t be paid.

GABRIEL:  So there were two returns filed for you in those years?

ME: No, I haven’t filed a return for the past four years. I didn’t have sufficient income.

GABRIEL: Okay. I will send this report over to our investigative unit and you’re going to have to file everything – everything you file with the IRS – with a PIN number. You’ll be sent a PIN for any future filings and you’ll get a new PIN at the end of every tax year.

ME: Okay. How do I find out who’s doing this?

GABRIEL: Well, it needs to go to our investigative unit and, generally, the IRS handles it from there. Law enforcement will contact you if necessary?

ME: If necessary? How would it not be necessary for them to verify that they weren’t my returns? They would need a statement from me.

GABRIEL: And they will, Ms. Bozeleeko, if they need to.

ME: Okay. This seems relatively painless, too painless maybe, but that’s good, so I’m going to need copies of these tax returns, and copies of all documents like W-2’s that accompanied them. Addresses where debit cards would have been mailed. I need all of that. The whole file for every return filed since 2007, because none of them are mine.

GABRIEL: We can’t do that.

ME: Why is that?

GABRIEL: Well, you said they’re not your tax returns.

ME: They’re not.

GABRIEL: Then you have no right to them if they’re not yours.

ME:  But they were filed under my name and number. They’re trying to be my tax returns.  You thought they were my tax returns. You were going to send a refund.

GABRIEL: Are they your returns?

ME: I know, for sure, that I haven’t filed a tax return since 2007, so no.

GABRIEL: Because of your income?

ME:  Precisely. I make $1.75 per day.

GABRIEL: That’s…not legal.

ME: Where I live, it is.

GABRIEL: You’re where? Connecticut?

ME: I’m in prison. I’m calling you from a prison. I’m…I’m an inmate.

SILENCE

ME: Gabriel?….Hello? Gabriel?

SILENCE. The line was dead.

ME: Now what the fuck do I do?

 

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM JANUARY 1 – 7, 2018

Let’s not get too flipped out over Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ rollback this week of the Obama administration’s  “Cole Memo” – directions for leniency on prosecuting marijuana possession at the federal level. Only one percent of people in prison are doing time for pot. There’s some argument that criminalizing marijuana is problematic because it provides another pretext for arrest. That’s true, but there are many overlapping options for any given act. For pretextual arrests, penal codes, especially federal ones, are already so deep that Sessions’ decision doesn’t matter that much. If they want you, they’ll get you.

People have been communicating with inmates at through signs posted on a warehouse across from the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, New York; inmates have sent return messages through flickering lights. The New York Times ran a story on this “billboard of hope and encouragement” and everyone thinks its a heartwarming story, especially since in person visits are being eliminating in many jurisdictions and phone rates are about to skyrocket again.  The warden at MDC, Herman Quay, says he doesn’t mind the signs as long as safety and security aren’t tampered with. With that statement, Quay just cued every person who’s trying to get a message around the mail and phone censors to put it on a sign and hang it up.  Now that it’s garnered some media attention and people know of the new way to get a message inside the facility, the signs will be taken down soon. Reporters and photographers might have done better to leave that one alone.

What’s in store for the death penalty in 2018? Look here.

 

 

 

 

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1 January 2018

And a Wake Up

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January 1, 2014

“Bozelko, while you were sleeping, I saw your thing,” the C/O told me as I dragged my feet over the black brillo of the mat at the unit’s door, back from a walk to breakfast.

“What thing?” I asked. If flashing a C/O – even inadvertently – didn’t land you in seg, I wouldn’t have cared if any of my privates were on display for a guard; any sense of modesty’s been distilled right out of me. I would worry about people seeing the years of hair growth on my legs but I’m sure I’ve been dogged by the female staff who strip search me and my legs have been described in lurid detail as looking exactly like the industrial doormat they were standing on.

“Your file.”

“What file?” I wasn’t sure who this dude was trying to play. I’d never seen him before and six years here taught me there’s one file for you that never leaves the records room.

“You leave this year,” he answered, and handed my time sheet  [list of dates of entry and and time earned off your sentence; includes your release date] over the console, one that should’ve been delivered to me before the holiday.

In my experience, talking about when an inmate is going home the standard broach for sex [rape] from a C/O, which never made sense to me. If I know I have sure exit in a few days, then I’ll be far less tempted to risk going to the hole in exchange for a short ride in the janitorial closet. If I’ve been lonely for years, waiting three more days until I can get laid isn’t that much of a challenge. But women here do it, so the staff keeps trying anyway.

“When are you going home?” one of the newjacks invariably asks me after he starts a new rotation in my building. The old guards already knew how long I’d be here.

“Years, years,” I learned to answer. From 2008 to 2011, my delusion that I was leaving any day led me to answer: “Soon!” when they would ask. That was before I caught on to game and I naively assumed that they’d been following my appeals, through my file, the one with the lady in the records room.

One woman in Food Prep who did have sex with a C/O gets that all the time. She’s very pretty and she figured it out that the release-date question was a form of foreplay because it was lobbed at her so often.

“Never!” she started answering them. “Life without parole. Actually, I’m gonna die here.”

Using an inmate’s release records like they’re eHarmony is actually far more insidious than it seems. Because so many women here are homeless they aren’t going home. They’re leaving, sure, but they have nowhere to go and the ones who have a landing spot know it’s tenuous. The fact that a C/O might let them stay for a night when he fucks her holds an appealing safety. I’ve heard it happens a lot and it always reminds me of the Semisonic song “Closing Time” – Closing time/ Time for you to go back to the places you will be from/Closing Time/ You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.  The chorus of “I know who I want to take me home” is easier to sing when you have nowhere to wake up.

“I do. Seventy-six days and a wake-up,” I how I answered the C/O. That’s how inmates describe their departure: a period of time with a wake-up chaser. Sixteen days…and a wake-up. Three months…and a wake up. Ninety-nine years…and a wake-up.  Most women leave on the court run, so they don’t count the six hours they spend here that day as a full day. Saying “and a wake up” is supposed to make your sentence seem shorter but it only shaves off a few hours.

“This is the last year you’ll be here. Today’s the last January first you’ll get up in jail,” he offered, underscoring that all-important wake-up.

“I dunno. I’m sure I’ll be back,” I said and I’m not entirely sure that’s wrong. But the recidivism of an inmate a C/O hooks up with at home is one of his worst fears; she’s back to tell everyone what they did.

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end,” I continued, doing my usual cryptic schtick, as I walked upstairs to my tier. I have no idea if he knows it’s a line from the song. Most times they don’t know – it’s why they think I’m smart but crazy.  I smiled and pulled on the tier door so he knew I wanted to head back to where I woke up alone. 

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM DECEMBER 25 – 31, 2017

In Kansas, a man was killed as a result of a prank over an online gaming dispute. One player “SWATTED” another player by spoofing a call from the victim’s house, claiming that a hostage situation was unfolding, and police shot an innocent man. And now spoofing is in the news again. Someone needs to outlaw this technology pronto.  Google me and see how spoofing helped me get to jail. Seriously.

A huge study from the University of Chicago found that one in ten people aged 18-25 have experienced homelessness in the previous year. More are families then single men. And it’s an underestimate. Think this isn’t connected to criminal justice? Guess again. Click here to read why.

The Root published its “Criminal Justice Wins of 2017,” a good list that focuses on state and local reforms. Click here to check it out.

 

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25 December 2017

If the Skin Fits

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December 25, 2007 (incarcerated for 18 days)

A Christmas Carol is less about Christmas than it is about conversion. Scrooge indicted and reformed himself in a matter of minutes; he’s the single most efficient correction system in history.

Ebenezer didn’t embrace Tiny Tim’s plight by accident. Through the lessons of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, he spied his own demise, inevitable if he didn’t change. Scrooge took to a lesson that many of us resist: empathy isn’t some latent, oversensitive irrationality; it’s a  survival skill that takes some field training.

Unfortunately, you can only get empathy through a somewhat  exclusive club. Ask Inmate Dennis Kozlowski in New York. He got in before I did.

In 1995 in a Houston courtroom, at the sentencing of the former assistant controller of Tyco, a letter from the company’s CEO – the aforementioned Dennis Kozlowski – urged the judge to withhold mercy and sentence Girish Shah to “incarceration for a maximum term,” because, as Kozlowski informed the court, “wrongdoing of this nature against society is considered a grave matter.”

Ten years later, in a New York courtroom, that letter informed another sentencing court, the one that would impose penalty on Kozlowski himself for bilking Tyco of millions, more than Shah ever did.

You can call this whatever you want: karma, cosmic payback for Shah, or just the rule of law. I call it a new convert to the Order of Empathy. Dennis will never pull that shit again because now he knows how it feels.

It shouldn’t be that everyone has to go through the tribulation of a trial like I did to develop empathy, but that might be what it takes. Maybe there’s a point to arresting more and more people, locking them up, making the club more inclusive. Mass incarceration is an empathy diaspora. 

There are recipes for empathy and others have mastered them without a fall from grace. If you want to be more compassionate, you could, as Atticus Finch – a criminal defense attorney, by the way – advised in To Kill a Mockingbird, “climb into [another’s] skin and walk around in it.”

Sometimes I see someone’s plight and get so overwhelmed with sympathy for them that I can’t feel empathy. Maybe it scares me too much, maybe privilege prevents it, but I don’t think I could have been very empathetic before this ride. How could I have imagined what other women in here feel? However unjust this has been, it was totally necessary. This lesson would have evaded me for the rest of my life. 

It’s not just me. Few can imagine what another’s skin feels like. They think it’s too small for them. They are too big, too important, too moral, too smart, too cautious, too innocent, too rich, too white, for them to get inside it, much less take it for a walk.

But the skin will fit. And – Dennis and I will say the same thing – they won’t acquit.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE FROM DECEMBER 18 – 24, 2017

This is the last diary entry to be published in 2017. I will leave you with three year-end, wrap- up ideas. Read them and decide what you’re going to do next year. 

Here’s a quiz to see how much you’ve been paying attention to criminal justice this year. I got one wrong and I’m so ashamed. 

Here’s a list of criminal justice campaigns that can win in 2018.

Here’s one professor’s wish list for criminal justice in 2018. It’s woefully incomplete but it will show you what reformers are up against if a professor’s wish list is so short and simple.

Also, if you need to park your bucks somewhere before the first of the year for tax purposes, here are three worthy places to donate. Click on their names to get to their websites and contribute:

Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree Project – Purchases Christmas gifts for children of people in prison. Remember, the kids are innocent and suffer more than anyone else.

Prison Policy Initiative – By combining data and compassion, this organization produces the best research on criminal justice, by far.

Second Chance Educational Alliance, Inc. – Volunteer teachers head into correctional facilities and teach college courses to inmates. Prisoners getting college credit for these courses and can earn degrees from Connecticut community colleges.

 

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18 December 2017

Mainstay

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Maria walked up to me behind the [serving] line, arms spread across a cyan-colored rack bearing the usual red, yellow, blue and white bags that seal loaves of highly processed bread with a twist tie.

“What you want me to do with it?”

“Well, this stuff [than the bread we already had in the kitchen] is fresher, so we need to rotate out the older bread so we use that first.”

Then I looked at the rack closer.

BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO.

BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO.

“Wait, what the hell is this?” I asked.

“Bread,” she answered.

“Yeah, I see that, but…”

Then I asked the supervisor.

“Johnko, what is this, this?” and I pointed to the Bimbos.

“Bread.”

“Bimbo brand bread? In a women’s facility? Are you kidding me?”

“It’s Mexican. Beeembo. See? Says it on the label.”

The bag sported a Pillsbury dough boy knock-off, a white bear, pronouncing the brand name because someone, somewhere, knew this was bad marketing.

“It also says that it’s the bread that lasts forever. That’s a real claim to freshness. I know we get these dog brands and cast-offs and odd-lot foods, but really? Bimbo?”

“Beeembo. I told you. It’s Mexican.” Johnko shrugged, like that was sufficient to explain the world’s worst marketing plan, one, incidentally, that’s apparently effective on the people who surround me now.

“I seen these shits before,” Maria defended the Bimbos.

“These are sold here? I thought when he said it was Mexican it was some foreign food that we got for a low price.”

“Yeah, in bodegas. They got it in there,” Maria offered. She sort-of caught my pseudo-righteous feminism.

“Well, I, I don’t shop there and I’ve never seen this,” I huffed. I’m not so easily shocked that the Bimbos would bowl me over but the people selling this bread in the U.S. weren’t even trying to make it an attractive buy which, to me, means one of two things. Either the product was so good it was a guaranteed sale or it was the only product around so it was a guaranteed sale.

I had wandered again into a desert, and not the usual wiggly heat of confusion blocking my view as I looked for the oasis of freedom. I was witnessing the effects of a food desert, an area with low-income and minority residents that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. Being poor isn’t just not being able to afford stuff. It’s not being able to afford stuff that’s inferior quality because you can’t access the better, more affordable stuff that is produced and packaged by people with a wit of sense. Imagine Stop and Shop near me selling Bimbo bread that lasts forever. It would have to be so cheap that it was free. And even then, no one in my family would buy it. But other people have to. And they don’t have the luxury of taking offense at faulty branding like I do.

“Surely they hired a marketing expert who should’ve picked another name for the bread and another slogan. I mean, perpetual bread? That’s not even how they describe the fucking Eucharist.”

“I dunno,” Maria said and was moving on without me. “You still want me to rotate these racks?”

“Sure. I guess this prison’s lesson for me? That the staff of life is a bimbo?” I asked anyone and no one. I figured that was the last word on the topic but [another kitchen supervisor] Ms. Van Damme had walked in behind me to answer.

“Wait, what’re you saying about the staff?” she asked.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM DECEMBER 11 – 17, 2017

VERY IMPORTANT: Floridians for a Fair Democracy needs more signatures for its petition to add Voting Restoration Amendment to the 2018 ballot (restoring voting rights to people with criminal records after completion of their sentences). If you live in Florida, sign the petition here. If you don’t live in Florida, share the link with your friends and associates who do. And, if you’re a Republican and you think that restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies is handing votes to the opposition, read my op-ed in The Tampa Bay Times here. Keeping anyone from voting – in addition to being immoral and violating the principles on which this country was founded – will actually hurt Republicans in the long run. People need to sign the petition by December 31, 2017.

Most people missed this, but a poll conducted by Emerson College in advance of Tuesday’s election in Alabama to choose the senator who will replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions found that voters with felony records supported Roy Moore over eventual winner Doug Jones. It was a small sample, but go figure.

Rates of imprisonment amongst blacks are going down and they have been for a while. Read about it here, a joint venture between The Marshall Project and The Washington Post‘s Wonkette blog.

 

 

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11 December 2017

Yiddisher Kop

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“I’m gonna win my habeas. I got me a Jew lawyer. He got a beanie and everything,” Soledad announced she strutted down the hallway.

“Yeah, don’t…don’t say that.”

“What?” she asked.

“It’s not a beanie. It’s a yarmulke. When you say  ‘Jew lawyer’ it implies unkind things about Jewish people. ”

“Like what? That they be winnin’?” Soledad protested.

“I bet a number of people in here had attorneys who happened to be Jewish and…let’s just say, they ain’t winning,” I assured her.

Because they confront the greatest ignorance of all, I think the Jewish women have to be the loneliest group of inmates, if you can even call them a group. I’ve met a total of three while I’ve been incarcerated. Only two did a bid. Not only have they plunged into this utter dysfunction, other inmates reduce their spirituality and customs to the menorah and dreidel that popped up on the windows of their grade school classrooms in the spirit of equal time for “other” cultures.

Since then, because stereotypes operate most consistently and strenuously in populations that are stereotyped themselves, the only understanding of Judaism, of a religion whose story figures squarely into the narrative of oppression everyone in here is peddling, is that the only way the religion manifests itself is through alleged ruthless legal prowess. 

We make a big deal of the history of American slavery as it pertains to corrections, calling it “The New Jim Crow.” Imagine being Jewish and being thrown in prison and having to confront what millions of your ancestors went through as they were processed through Hitler’s explicit agenda of annihilation. At least here we speak of reentry, another chance, eventual release. They lived condemned, all of them. If there were more Jews in prison, we’d be calling this “The New Dachau” but their minority status prevents better comparisons between the modern penitentiary and the Holocaust. I think that this country might have a chance at rapid reform if there were more Jewish inmates. I don’t wish this on them, but if Jewish inmates reached critical mass in here, historical comparisons would put legislators’ pedals to the metal. Of course, if I’m right, it only shows how racist the system is, because historical comparisons seem not to be motivating anyone to do much to make these places better. Just saying. 

“What do you think of that?” I asked Cerise, an observant Jewish woman who also happened to be a lawyer.

“Jews are persecuted everywhere. Been that way throughout history. This is nothing to us,” she poo-pooed me.

Cerise explained that, in the Jewish faith, a Torah scroll – one that contains hundreds of thousands of letters –  is rendered not kosher and unusable if even one letter is missing or broken and the same concept carries over to the Jewish people. If even one individual is forgotten or left behind, then the entire community is lacking and considered unKosher.

This Jewish worldview is lower-c catholic and accessible to all, but it’s a secret in here because all that matters about a person is how criminally useful he can be. The “Jew Lawyer” has gangsta value. 

I had to deliver some milk to the control room and I spied Soledad in visits, coming out of one of the legal conference rooms with a man in a patka. In this environment of inverted diversity, my first thought was that it looked like a do-rag gone wrong.

Later I asked her:

“Soledad, who was that in visits with you?”

“My lawyer.”

“He’s a Sikh.”

“Sneak?” Soledad asked.

“Well, probably, because they [lawyers] all are,” I conceded. “But that’s a patka, not a yarmulke.  He’s a Sikh. It’s an Indian religion.”

“For real? Indians like the casinos?”

“No. Look, your lawyer’s not Jewish at all. For Christ’s sake, when I saw him there, I thought he was your shrink.”

“Why?  That’s what them people [Sikhs] do?”

* Title means “smart person” in Yiddish.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM DECEMBER 4 – 10, 2017

Remember Reality Winner, the NSA employee who leaked documents related to Russia’s attempts to feel out its ability to hack American voting machines? Her trial is shaping up to look like mine: a total zoo. The Intercept (click here for link) covered the pretrial proceedings. She’s basically being prevented from defending herself. 

Here’s (click for link) a good New York Times editorial on how the Governor of New York has to be careful – and has tremendous power to cull abuse from correctional facilities – in negotiating a new contract with the prison guards’ union.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a new study Thursday, Criminal Victimization in 2016 (click for link), employing a new methodology designed to more accurately reflect crime at its most local level. But the new model produced such erratic results — such high levels of crimes in certain counties, for examples — that officials quickly cautioned against actually using the data. Sounds like money well spent. 

 

 

 

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