The Five Stages of Grievance

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grievance-quotes-3Prison life is so hectic that most inmates forget about the events that locked the gates behind them. I’ve never been that lucky. I experience daily disorder and I still have to puncture the membrane that separates me from the outside to remember those events and keep fighting. Problems are inside, solutions out.

And the way to permeate that membrane is a court trip. And every time I’ve been to court the strip searchers have stripped me of my motions and transcripts and receipts when I try to take them to court. I can’t cross the membrane with what I need.

One of the rules of prison life is that wherever restriction resides, circumvention moves into the cell next door. I developed a plan to get around the obstacle of being disarmed when I went to court: I would mail a copy of my evidence to the clerk for safekeeping until the hearing and, in case the prison induced delay of my mail, also deposit a copy with my unit counselor.  If the clerk lacked her copy, then I would ask the judge’s secretary to call my counselor and ask her to fax the papers to the court.

The plan would have gone off sans hitch if any of the necessary parties were willing to go along with it. And the clerks, secretaries and counselors weren’t.

“The counselor says she doesn’t have anything to send over for you,” a marshal informed me when I was waiting in the dungeon of the New London courthouse to go into a civil hearing, seated on a bench that was about 9 x 12 inches and more like a misplaced little shelf.

“But I don’t have what I need,” I explained to him. “They won’t let me bring papers with me.”

“You’re fucked then,” he summarized.

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DENIAL:

“Chandra, this has constitutional dimensions. Access to court, due process. They can’t do this,” Cerise, a former lawyer, opined me as we walked to lunch. We are the only two who travel at a non-trudge pace so we end up walking together often.

“True.  I’ll bet the only reason why this has persisted is that so few women represent themselves so no one’s grieved this yet in this facility.”

“Maybe. But if you wrote the grievance, they’ll fold. And if they don’t, then we go global. I can get a thousand black hats here from Tel Aviv, Paris…. They will fold.” Cerise told me, knowing that I was probably the only one on the compound who would understand that “1000 black hats” wasn’t a gang but hasidim who would come to rescue her, the sole female Jewish inmate in Connecticut [at the time], when she informed them that her rights were being violated.

“I don’t think the globe will care. But it won’t matter. I mean, what are they going to say? There is no policy. So they either have to write one that’s legal or write one that isn’t legal. This is fixable.”

In the library, I paged through countless directives in broken binders and discovered that no directive specifically authorized or prohibited the transportation of legal papers to court. Then I ascended the chain of command to exhaust all remedies – a requirement that has to be met before filing a grievance.  I asked whether inmates could bring legal papers with them to court or not.

First Link of Chain of Command – Counselor – said: “Counselors do not have the authority to approve legal papers.” I didn’t ask that.

Second Link of Chain of Command – Unit Manager – said: “The Shift Commander decides whether papers can be transported or not.” Who in hell is the Shift Commander?

Last Link of Chain of Command – Captain – said: “The only court papers allowed must have the state seal and be issued by the court.” What?

So I filed the grievance, excuse me, Administrative Remedy, complaining that there was no formal policy on inmates’ bringing papers to court with them. I decided not to ask why the court would “issue” a paper to an inmate just to have her bring it back in.  I didn’t mention the fact that most “court-issued” papers are devoid of state seals. I just relied on the facts, the evidence I had collected. Because that is always sufficient.

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ANGER:

The Administrative Remedies Coordinator, affectionately abbreviated “ARC”,  is  a woman who never circulates the compound without a manila envelope the size of a grocery bag, the outward symbol of her overburdened day.  She rejected the complaint Amateur typing at the bottom of the form read “Inmates must do all research in directives before filing A.R.

I resubmitted it, noting that I researched the issue and had plainly explained the lack of policy in the body of the original complaint. She rejected it again, typing: “ARC does not do research for inmates.”

“I know, you stupid shit! I didn’t ask you to do the research.  I already did it!” I yelled at the paper after the guard slipped the paper under the door. “She’s too freakin’ dense to know whether there’s an applicable policy or not.  Jesus!”

“Either that or she’s just being a bitch,” suggested Michelle, my cellmate.

“Equal odds on each choice,” I fumed.bargaining.in_.india_.4

BARGAINING:

Face flushed with frustration, I marched to the prison library, and copied all of the complaints and rejections. I attached them to another Request Form, this one directed to the warden, asking “What is the rule for bringing papers to court?   I cannot find it anywhere.  Please just tell me what it is. Whatever it is, I will obey it.”
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DEPRESSION:

“Legal papers threaten the safety and security of inmates and are not allowed on court trips,” the warden wrote back, serving the proverbial cherry on this systematic sundae.

Death’s sweet embrace must be a paper cut. Neither one sounds bad anymore. Can’t be worse than a court trip, especially one where I have to explain why I still don’t have any papers.

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ACCEPTANCE:

Inmates wander into their ‘Offender Accountability’ classes high.  The warden refuses to discipline the guard who allegedly traded razors for oral sex.  The prison allows a C/O to drive inmates around the compound and slam the brakes, intentionally causing the prisoners in the van to slam their heads on the Plexiglas divider between them and the driver.

But amid this chaos, manipulation and violence, my copies of receipts and transcripts pose a threat to safety and security.

I’m just glad that none of the women jostled by the screeching van had legal papers aboard; otherwise someone might’ve been hurt.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM MAY 23 – 29, 2016

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Solitary Watch broke the story that three Massachusetts inmates have been in solitary confinement since March, after they met with lawmakers to discuss policy recommendations to address mass incarceration. Originally, they were accused of plotting to build a computer (an accusation, I might add, that credits inmates with way more connections and brains than they would ever have) but now bizarre accusations of escape risk have surfaced. All because they met with elected officials. The only conclusion I can make is that the Massachusetts prison has a lot to hide, more than even the inmates know about.

It was revealed this week that the murder of the head of Colorado’s corrections system was a gang hit, the product of someone’s needing to prove himself to a white supremacist gang leader. This had remained a secret for three years and sort of justifies why prison staffers may not want to have inmates know anything about them, like even their names. No one had a direct, personal beef with the corrections chief. He was just a convenient trophy kill for someone with low self-esteem and access to corrections administrators’ addresses on the internet.

The New York City Council effectively decriminalized quality of life crimes on Wednesday. The reason? So many people didn’t show up for the court date on the low level criminal summonses they received for crimes like spitting in the streets that “Failure to Appear” felony warrants were issued for them, 50,000 in all. It’s predicted that this new law will save 10,000 people from developing an unnecessary criminal record every year. The Criminal Justice Reform Act is the first piece of reform legislation that has acknowledged how much Failure to Appear cases clog the criminal docket and our prisons and jails.

And Bill Cosby will be tried for the crime of rape. Minor development.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rehabit

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I thought it was a truism only for free people:  you find things in the last place you should look.  But it happens in a prison, too.

The last place anyone should expect to find caches and stashes of illicit drugs is in a drug-treatment program, particularly one in a maximum-security prison, the home base of women who ruined their lives – at least temporarily – with bad choices brought on by drugs.  But this facility’s highly-touted Marilyn Baker Program, in its colonial-style brick manor, makes this place less like a prison and more like a Pi-Phi house because it’s the place where inmates party the most.

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This is the Pi Phi house at University of Oklahoma. It could pass as the Davis Building at York CI.

I once wondered why the drug program’s housing unit, the Davis Building, was the only one on the prison compound still awaiting the installation of security cameras.  But after one inmate took enough Xanax to make her slur her words and tell people she was screwing a member of the staff, I know why there aren’t cameras.  Not only would the crimes of drug dealing and statutory rape be revealed, all the good stuff might be missed with a stationary surveillance lens. The building’s better suited to the roving cameras of Girls Gone Wild.  I don’t think they’re still making those videos which is too bad because the drug program here would have provided some good footage.

Wardens once hailed prison drug treatment programs as revolutionary in that they acknowledged how deeply entrenched addiction had become in criminal behavior.  Treating addicts while they did time honored victims’ wishes, deferred to the state’s punishment and deterrence goals and promised to rehabilitate offenders whose real problems were less character-based and more drug-induced.  Approaches like Marilyn Baker Program were supposed to hit multiple jailbirds with one stone.

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This could pass as the Davis Building, too.

But participants attend supportive  “groups” where they sell, swallow, sniff and space out. Drug users hone their manipulation and hustling skills and play them thoroughly when they land in Marilyn Baker’s group settings, passing around as much weight as I bet you see in a season Breaking Bad. I don’t really know. I haven’t seen it yet. The last time I watched cable Girls Gone Wild was still in production.

Recent research suggests that these group settings don’t and won’t work. For one, the community, not just the patient, has to be sober, not doing dirt but staying clean, for treatment to work.  Anne Fletcher’s new book, Inside Rehab, reveals that group settings like the Marilyn Baker Program also won’t work if they are too dedicated to the ‘confrontational model’ of Alcoholics Anonymous, which Marilyn Baker is.

Much of Alcoholics Anonymous is very philosophical. I mean, it’s actually called a philosophy. When you try to spoon feed theory or a “medical model” to people whose cognition has been chipped away by drug use, you’re likely to get it spit back at you, unless the inmate’s using it to wash down her smuggled Ativan. Many members just aren’t intellectually capable of handling the content of group addiction therapy.

This statement may sound harsh but it was actually reported in the book The Farm, which is a kind of ethnography of this very prison.  The author, a journalist named Andi Rierden, interviewed two inmates who left the Marilyn Baker program back in the nineties when the in-prison rehab was new. “During the A.A. meetings they’d talk about Bill’s story and I couldn’t fucking understand it,” one told Rierden. Another prisoner told the reporter: “I didn’t know what the hell was going on either.” At least those two got out of a situation they didn’t comprehend. The ones who stay just wreck any progress they might have made in spite of themselves by popping a Percoset and blowing a C/O.

It’s totally unkind and politically incorrect to suggest that prisoners may have – on average, average, calm down –  lower intelligence than the general public but it would be a conclusion I can make knowing the population in here. Women have endured years of drug use and trauma (elevated levels of cortisol are associated with cognitive decrements) and, to top that structural damage, they suffer from undereducation. I think people expect to find cunning criminal geniuses when they look inside a prison, but here’s the last place they should look. Try the Pi Phi house instead.

DrugI asked my sister to google “prisoners and I.Q.” and she sent me a copy of a seventy-five year old article that would never have been indulged with publisher’s ink today. The study reported that 42.2 percent of prisoners’ intelligence was below average versus 20% of the general population. The average inmate I.Q. in the study was about 90. Of course, I.Q. tests include questions on acquired knowledge so they aren’t a completely accurate picture of someone’s native mental abilities. But it points out a truth no one wants to say: one of the reasons that it seems impossible to rehabilitate prisoners is that many aren’t intellectually capable of the type of insight and judgment needed to cut the shit.

Academics and journalists who know rehab say that individual psychotherapy is more “evidence-based” – meaning it actually works – to treat addiction. It makes perfect sense. Not only is the therapist is less likely to deal to patients, individual therapy doesn’t require the patient to understand the theory of analysis or cognitive behavioral therapy for it to work on her.

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Looks about right.

I can’t say any of this in here, one place where the most outrageous things are uttered. They’ll scream and me and tell me that I’m calling everyone stupid, which I’m not. I just think that drug habits aren’t a game, but we treat them like they are and our strategy to win this showdown is to hit ‘em where they ain’t. The pervasive low self-esteem in here requires that everyone be built up just so they can function. You have to tell every inmate that she’s smart to boost her confidence in decision-making skills she might not have rather than dealing directly with the skill set she actually does have.

I think the reason why prisoners in a drug rehab program get high is that they don’t understand the program and they seek some way to stimulate their brains out of the boredom and fog, even though drugs are the last place they should look to do that.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM MAY 16 – 22, 2016

GOP Senate Candidate Tom Cotton Greets Voters On Election Day In Little Rock

The look, the feel of Cotton. The idiot of our lives.

Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) said we have an “under-incarceration” problem in the United States.    He told the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, that:”For the vast majority of crimes, a perpetrator is never identified or arrested, let alone prosecuted, convicted and jailed.” Law enforcement arrests someone from only 19% of property crimes and 47% of violent crimes, according to Cotton. If half of people in state prisons (766,750 or half of 1,533,500 according to the Bureau of  Justice Statistics for 2013) are serving time for violent crimes and they constitute only 47% of violent perps, we need to add at least another 864,633 violent offenders to see Cotton’s vision come to fruition.

Donald Trump hired a convicted felon as one of his press people in Alaska. It was revealed last December that Trump once employed another “returning citizen” – this one mob-linked. He made a big deal on Friday that we wants to lock people up but it’s possible that Trump has the best record on folding people who did time back into society. Message to Hillary and Bernie: step it up. Hire some cons for your campaigns.

Did you know that we don’t know: 1) how many people have a criminal record; 2) how many people have served time in prison or jail; 3) how many children are on some type of supervision or probation; or 4) how many juvenile offenders graduate to become adult offenders, among other holes. Next to no idea. That’s how little we know about our criminal justice system according to a report from the Marshall Project.

 

 

 

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I’m with the Banned

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Up The River Anthology

I suppose I should be proud. My publishing career is starting out at the same place Wally Lamb reached mid-career.

imagesThe Connecticut Department of Correction’s Media Review Board banned my book, a poetry anthology entitled Up the River Anthology. The Media Review Board is a motley gathering of seventeen correctional employees  – captains in charge of discipline, counselors, librarians, school principals, mail sorters, a secretary and a staff attorney. It took twenty-one years for the Media Review Board to ban She’s Come Undone, Wally’s first novel. And getting the board to bite Wally’s hand took him fifteen years of volunteering for the Department of Corrections, driving every other week to this prison to teach a three-hour writing seminar to inmates like me. All I had to do to invite the big bad ban on my book was write it.

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Banned.

In deciding what publications it will allow into Connecticut’s cell blocks, the Media Review Board justifies banning a piece of writing for one of two reasons. Either the material is too “sexually explicit,” like the scene where She’s Come Undone’s teenage heroine Dolores Price undergoes a sexual assault by her family’s trusted tenant, or the publication “threatens safety and security” in the state’s correctional facilities.

The second reason is a tad more protean than a standard of sexual explicitness since it seems to apply to every word critical of criminal justice or corrections. Almost all of the Coalition for Prisoners’ Rights’ newsletters bear the big red “X” of banishment. So do the July 22, 2013 issue of the New Yorker magazine and the August 2013 issue of GQ magazine.  I can’t say why these periodicals threaten safety and security because I’m unable to read them.

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Not banned.

One of the biggest prison shockers isn’t what’s prohibited, but what’s allowed. My book isn’t allowed in but the the Media Review Board has approved pages 1 through 52 and pages 54 forward of Prick magazine because these pages are neither sexually explicit nor threatening to safety and security; only page 53 does that and they ripped it out. The Board ordered mailroom sorters to rip a diaper rash ointment ad out of a parenting magazine because it constituted borderline porn with the baby’s bare ass prominently displayed.

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Not banned…for fear of payback.

Among the tomes approved by the Media Review Board are what the inmates call “urban books” – self-published stories written in ebonics and focusing on drug-dealing and doggie-style sex. Amid the commotion caused by a Code Purple, a cryptic message over the prison’s radios that an inmate tried to hang herself with a lime sherbet-colored sheet, I am left, Prick in hand, guessing why certain written materials threaten safety and security and others don’t.

Censorship always glosses itself in that sadistic paternalism that underlies most oppression. According to department directives, the Media Review Board claims to ban content that threatens the safety and security to “staff, other inmates or the public, facility order or discipline or rehabilitation” but really they just restrict anything that tells the Department’s secrets. Notice who’s first on their list of people to protect.

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Banned.

Trying to place the ban in some type of historical context is hard. The whole Up the River debacle seems way too Bradbury-esque for me. The only limit keeping the Media Review Board from boiling up to Fahrenheit 451 levels of censorship is the their own safety and security policy of not allowing lighters or matches to sit around waiting to eat books in flame. It would smack of McCarthyism if any of the board members would come out and,  as the inmates say,  represent, admitting why they’re banning my book; Joseph McCarthy definitely wore the shirt in the book-banning game because he admitted what he was going after. Instead, the Media Review Board hides.

What the Media Review Board’s doing reminds me of the Comstock law. Passed in 1873 and named for Anthony Comstock, a controversial reformer who crusaded for its passage, the law prohibits the mailing of indecent materials or of information about birth control or abortion. For about 85 years, postal officials used the Comstock Law, sometimes very loosely, to censor mail. If post office inspectors decided a book, picture, or other item of mail was indecent, they seized all copies and refused to deliver them.

The Comstock Law is still on the books – not banned ones – amazingly enough. It’s just that the postal service never uses it because the Supreme Court has placed constitutional limits on censorship and they know that everyone will bitch if they avail themselves of  the law.  Whether they use the law or not, censoring written works remains legal in this country, even in 2013, and we act like stifling voices is inbuilt in administrative procedure. Like the Comstock postal service, the Media Review Board is duly authorized to censor books. Duly authorized, improperly rationalized.

120608_EXP_F451_EX.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeAlthough the Media Review Board eventually overturned its ban on Wally’s  She’s Come Undone, I think the real reason for the novel’s banishment was that the heroine’s attack – while fictional – had the potential to trigger flashbacks among the almost 95% of female prisoners who are the victims of sexual abuse and the almost 75%  of male inmates who have experienced the same. Reading She’s Come Undone might remind prisoners how little the Department of Correction does to treat the root cause of their misbehavior and how likely they are to reoffend.

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Not banned because no one but me knows it exists.

While the DOC might be able to prevent me from buying and reading banned content of other publications, I wrote Up the River. I can’t buy my own book or even read it (not even galley proofs or approval of cover art) but I know what it says. Like most published prisoner poetry, Up the River Anthology is hardly a literary coup. It’s an anthology of poems inspired by Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, a collection of 250 poems, epitaphs of fictional residents of a small town, Spoon River, that are their secret thoughts.  There’s no copy of it here, so I don’t know if it was ever considered for a ban. In Up the River, the reader hears the spilled secrets of all the participants in a small town called criminal prosecution, from the police who make the arrest, to the defendant who becomes an inmate, all the way through to the probation officer who provides final release from the system.

I have the poems saved on a 3.5 inch floppy disk that stored them when I wrote them on a 1999 Gateway desktop. I scroll through and wonder if it’s the cop poem that alarms the Board when he says:

Ramrod sergeants and captains

Order us “Enforce!”

The secret of law?

We bend it, of course

Maybe it’s the Warden poem that refers to human warehousing in its last stanza:

banker stuffs the single slip

of numbers 33-04-45

into his silk shirt’s pocket

the combination to the human safe

 Or one of three correction officer poems that says, in part:

Oh Lordy!

It’s Sunday

Secure all your doors!”

My partner?

He’s crazy

He calls the girls whores.

Of course, I’ll challenge the Media Review Board’s pronouncement, but appealing any decision is next to impossible when you can’t discern how or why it was made.

we are waterAs I fight my banishment battle, Wally may need to gear up for another one as it remains undecided whether the Media Review Board will build a dam around his new novel, We Are Water, and not let it flow inside York Correctional. The students in Wally’s class have been listening to chapters since 2011 so we know what it says. We Are Water’s darker theme – childhood sexual abuse and how it rears its head in adult victims’ lives through crime – hits much closer to home than Delores Price’s hellacious introduction to adult sexuality. Even with her ban undone, Delores Price never entered prison as a perp because, despite her childhood trauma, she never entered a life of crime. But the members of the Oh family, the characters in We Are Water, enter lives of crime in a number of different ways because of unresolved trauma. In that respect, Wally’s characters are a lot like his students in the prison. Either way, Wally’s most prominent lesson in We Are Water is the same as what he teaches his students in the prison: the secrets must be washed out of us for our thoughts and behavior to improve.

The same rule applies to DOC. They banned Up the River because it lets their secrets out.  For all inmates’ sakes, I hope that the Media Review Board swallows hard and overturns its ban if only for the reason of showing inmates that they can achieve something even while they remain behind bars and bans. If the Media Review Board doesn’t overturn the ban, it will be because they see the Department of Correction’s – and the entire criminal justice system’s – rehabilitative failures appear all too clearly in the River’s reflection.

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AUTHOR’S NOTE: Up the River was approved for entry into Connecticut’s correctional facilities, effective March 4, 2014, by the Media Review Board Committee with a statement that “No information contained in this publication presented a concern for the safety and security of the institution, staff or inmates.”

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM MAY 9 – 15, 2016

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It was a week of revelations.

The Washington Free Beacon revealed that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has received in excess of $75K in political donations from Department of Justice employees. The Department of Justice is the agency that will ultimately decide whether Hillary is charged with any crime related to her secret email server. While this story might not seem to relate to justice reform initially, it does have implications for presidential platforms. How can a candidate like Hillary ethically develop a position on criminal policy when it might harm or help her personally? On the other hand, how can a candidate create a knowledgeable platform about criminal justice policy if he or she hasn’t been at the wrong end of criminal case caption? A presidential candidate who’s interfaced with criminal investigation is both qualified and disqualified at the same time to create such policy.

Prison population growth is relatively stable but jail growth is growing. The reason? Cash bail. A study released this week by the Prison Policy Initiative showed that people in jail are actually poorer than people in prison. Accused persons have been increasingly held in pretrial detention even though they are legally (and perhaps factually) innocent. Any attempt at prison reform must include the front end of how and whether courts set cash bonds.

Then the Tampa Bay Times revealed that, despite the fact that Walmart employs security guards, Walmart stores get more police protection than anyone else, sometimes generating 63 incidents per day for law enforcement response. Even the local police departments admit that the cost of Walmart security has been shifted to taxpayers. There must be a trade-off with public safety away from Walmart stores if this is happening.

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Hay Fever

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Love Makes My World Go ‘Round.

When I learn the spiritual laws in life, magic is demonstrated in my life.

I chose to move beyond where I was when I got up this morning …and open myself up to something new.

I feel totally safe everywhere in this universe.

 If your dream shatters, pick up at least one piece.

 I deserve the best in life.

We Are All One.

Wait up, I thought when I read “We Are All One” on my cell wall; my roommate had ripped the page out of one of the many books by self-help guru Louise Hay that flood the compound. I am not one with these bitches. I refuse to fuse with them.

Stuart-SmalleyAs far as I can tell, Louise Hay is just Stuart Smalley with a uterus (that is, if Stuart Smalley isn’t Stuart Smalley with a uterus.)  Louise has made a cottage industry out of old saws, making them spiritual affirmations. Her company, Hay House Publishing, rakes in millions of dollars every year selling posters, self-help guides, books of aphorisms and “thought cards” – laminated cards with watercolor hearts, sunflowers, lily pads with soft, diffuse borders (sharp edges belong only on female personalities). With Louise Hay signs, the prison blunts inmates into docility with gift shop stock.

imageI learned early on to question pat, decorative encouragement. My seventh grade math teacher insisted that all of her students copy onto the tops of their tests the word on the poster on the wall– IALAC, an acronym for I Am Lovable And Capable – to remind us that we were more than performance, more than our grades.

Even as various adults tried to feed some permutation of IALAC to me since I was 12, I never really bought it. I thought I was capable only when I aced the tests. And lovable? Yeah, like I said, only when I aced the tests. The IALAC at the top of my paper or pretty posters cannot engrain self-worth in women; that must come from within. Usually it comes from within when one learns that she is lovable and capable by being loved or doing something successfully, even if that something is learning from failure.

imageThis isn’t to say that I’m against positive thinking. Hanging up posters of Grumpy Cat, particularly in a prison, with slogans like “A Friend is Just Someone Who Doesn’t Know You Hate Her” probably wouldn’t help women with low self-esteem, especially since bad messages seem so much more soluble in here than the Hay House-isms and the IALAC’s.

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What kind of a huckster successfully sells “inner dings”? I hope she has an inner dong in my size, too.

Whenever I receive affirmation from someone, I think: Yeah, but she had to say that because she’s my mother/she wants to sell me something/she feels guilty about what she did to me. Only rarely do I credit compliments for what they are worth.

But verbal abuse? I soak that up like ramen in hot water, meaning until I’m limp and flat and totally noxious. After an insult, I survey everyone I encounter if she or he thinks my abuser was right; my market research seems like I’m trying to disprove him to myself but I go so beyond the evidence needed to know I was insulted unnecessarily, that I end up  proving that my tormenter was right. I have no idea why I do this. Maybe the answer is in one of Louise Hay’s books but I’m pretty sure I’m not going to look for it there because I’ve moved beyond where I was this morning – in the Zero South housing unit – and all the books, affirmations and posters are there, not in my new building, One North where we kind of are One. North.

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Isn’t this obvious for every female prisoner?

I understand the value of tokens, of maintaining everpresence in someone’s environment to get her to change, so I see why Louise Hay is so popular. But women come to prison for crimes like swinging a baby by his feet, accidentally bashing the child’s head on the corner of a wall. Or helping her boyfriend rape and elderly woman during a home invasion of her house by holding a gun to the old lady’s head. Is “If your dream shatters, pick up at least one piece” really going to help them?

If someone’s dream shatters in here, she’ll pick up the piece and stab her girlfriend or cut rows of slashes on her forearm. We need some serious emotional delving in here and, unlike that sharp piece of dream we’re supposed to save, Louise Hay’s stuff won’t cut it.

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Especially in prison.

I estimate that DOC [Department of Corrections] spends thousands on Hay House products for social workers to use in the various “groups.” Women in prison need serious individual psychotherapy to understand patterns in their behavior, namely why they make bad decisions when good decisions are actually easier to make.  But one-on-one psychotherapy is a painstakingly long process and making even small steps requires big bucks; DOC refuses to pay for what works. Maybe the size of the check that DOC cuts to Hay House Publishing wouldn’t cover therapy for everyone, but it might pay for a few inmates so that they don’t repeat bad choices.

I think what bothers me the most about making Hay a hero is that the inmates believe that they’re edifying their emotional states or improving their lives when they slurp up Louise’s spiritual shtick; they don’t realize that DOC is just controlling their thoughts in kinder, gentler ways.

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I would love to see someone hang this in the medical unit of York CI to justify denying care to sick inmates.

I’m not the only one who questions the Louise Hay-isms everywhere. Womens’ studies scholars call this kind of social control technique “pastel fascism”; you don’t need Mussolini’s Black Shirts’ breaking shins and busting skulls to oppress someone. DOC wants all of us to be one, as in one undifferentiated population. But if Inmate X wants to get out and stay out of prison, then she needs not to be one with Inmates B, C and D, total zeros who are already planning which Dunkin’ Donuts they will knock over by keeping the cashier at knifepoint (I heard them).  Inmate X must differentiate herself – by working on herself – so she’s not one with anyone here at all. Then she’ll succeed.

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Pithy, pitchy slogans under colored-pencil sketches of seashells prove themselves to be particularly weedy, especially when you consider that Louise Hay’s story is one of a shrewd and go-getting woman who paved her own road, alone.  In 1984, she started Hay House because no publisher would touch her self-help manuscript, Heal Your Body, a book that ultimately became a worldwide bestseller. Hay House then published You Can Heal Your Life, another mega-hit, and Louise realized love really doesn’t make the big blue marble go ‘round – but mean green does.

And Louise’s mean green is way meaner than anything Grumpy Cat can say; she sold forty million copies of her first book alone.  I don’t know whether the inmates even know that Louise is making “A-rab money” hand over fist of solidarity while she ignores all of the advice in her own affirming posters.

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Yeah, Louise, we heard.

Essentially, Louise self-published and made herself rich and powerful because she wasn’t one with anyone, particularly anyone in the established literary community. In fact, she claims she didn’t take Heal Your Body to a “big-name publisher initially since she feared they wouldn’t let her say what she wanted.”  Apparently, Louise never felt totally safe absolutely everywhere in the universe; she must have felt stifled in HarperCollins’ or Simon and Schuster’s editorial offices. So she opened herself up to something new: her own business. Now, not only does she just deserve the best in life; she can afford it, too.

imageIt’s easy to open yourself up to something new when you’re a millionaire. Recently, Louise started Balboa Press, a company that offers “guided self-publishing,” meaning authors can pay an arm of Hay House to print their books. As part of her pitch to pull writers to Balboa Press, she tells them in an online video: “If you’re willing to change your thinking, you can change your life.”

On that one, she’s right. If female prisoners refrain from reading Louise Hay’s books, stop swallowing all of her bottle-fed spirituality and simply start learning from her example, then things will change in their lives. They’ll know that they’re lovable, capable, solvent and secure, just like her.

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Tell the inmates, Suze. Louise Hay already knows.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM MAY 2 – 8, 2016

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Although this doesn’t relate directly to justice reform, Trump-tive became presumptive this week, the last man standing to be the Republican presidential nominee. He has no position on criminal justice. None. And I’m not sure that this even matters.

2016 is the twentieth anniversary of the passage of three federal statutes: the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (also known as Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill), the Anti-Terorrism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), all of which contribute generously to our modern criminal justice problems.  Liliana Segura of the Intercept detailed why the AEDPA is so troublesome for wrongful convictions here and Meredith Booker of the Prison Policy Initiative explains why the PLRA blocks inmates from getting relief from abuse and should be repealed here. I’m grateful to writers and researchers for picking up on these problematic statutes since they were some of the biggest stumbling blocks to my appeals and other attempts at post-conviction review (I can’t blame everything on the staff at York CI).

The new book Coming of Age in the Other America has attracted a lot of attention, particularly last week, because it suggests a real solution for inner-city violence. Instead of fixing schools, throwing money into street-level policing, or blaming families, the number one way to keep young people from engaging in crime is to offer them “identity projects,” like keeping animals, making films, or starting a mini-business where they learn to view themselves as productive citizens, filled with potential and deserving of some IALAC’s. I see no reason not to try this, large-scale. And try it in prisons.

 

 

 

 

 

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United Colors

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White privilege has been defined in many ways. It’s usually summed up as “white people get away with more stuff.” But a white woman who’s done time hasn’t gotten away with anything. I didn’t even get away with what I never did. That doesn’t mean that white privilege doesn’t hold my hair back as the prison flushes my face.

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“Becky With The Good Hair” was not in the dorms.

When I’d been here for only about two weeks in a dorm – one room that houses approximately 60 women that becomes a stage for every correctional exchange – a counselor addressed a black woman who had asked a question about a written request she’d submitted.

“Listen you piece of shit, I know you think you’re the most important thing in the world with your twenty baby daddies and your weave – which you will be sent to A& D [Admissions and Discharges] to get cut off when I’m done – but I’ll call you to fill out a visitor’s list when it’s your fuckin’ turn.”

A shocked gasp flew out of my mouth and I covered it like a little sister who just heard an older sibling say “fuck” to their parents for the first time. It didn’t pop my cherry ears; unfortunately I’ve spoken to people that way, too. I was more appalled because, to me, the inmate was just engaging in a little duty-bound follow-up on her entreaty to have someone added to her visitor list.

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With this stuff, you can’t tell the toothpaste from the water in the sink.

Many times, an inmate can’t receive money from people on the outside unless they’ve been approved as a visitor. The counselor was the same woman, a black woman herself, mind you, who told this inmate that she couldn’t have any free, feckless “tooth gel” – state issued toothpaste – and she needed to sign up an approved visitor to put “money on her books” so she could buy some. The message was clear: no approved visitor, no money, no hygiene.

“Don’t worry, Ma. She ain’t never gonna talk to you like that,” the inmate said as she passed me.

Well, at least not about daddies and weaves, because I never had either, I thought. But we both knew what she was saying.

And she was right. And while many weren’t nice to me, and were even abusive, none of the correction officers ever spoke to me like that.  Even when they put the bullseye on my picture in the roll call room (note to YCI staff reading this: one of your own snitched you out to me about that, so watch what you do), they were always at least a little reticent about shitting on me.

image“You’re different,” they would say. Usually being different in a prison can get you killed but when you’re different because you’re white, that difference becomes a bit of a breastplate, a shitty shell that adds more weight to your conscience and a guilt that has absolutely nothing to do with crime.

If you asked these prison staffers if they spoke to me differently, they might concede that they addressed me more respectfully in return for my politeness toward them, or that they knew my background and thought I might eventually sue them for less than subtle abuse. The black inmates will tell you that I was treated differently because I was white.

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Privileged?

Privilege isn’t power. Like me, it’s different.  You can lose power like I did, but you can’t lose white privilege. Even though my family’s status was inverted by years of my parents’ denial, and our dysfunction that so saturated the social and financial loam around the trunk of our family tree that it keeled over, leaving my sisters and me with no capacity for joy, I retain my privilege.  It’s like the line in Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All:  “No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity.” That’s what white privilege means, even if it sprang from the lungs of a black drug addict. Privilege is not a lifetime of money, or elite schools or fancy people, it’s an unintentional acceptance of inalienable dignity, even when you’re being dehumanized systematically.

Having witnessed the black inmate’s dressing down and knowing all of it was about her getting something to use to brush her teeth, I fished an extra tube of Ultrabrite toothpaste out of my property and walked it over to her “cube” – a set of two bunkbeds corralled by three-foot walls. Her other cubemates were black, also.

“Here,” I said as I offered it to her. “I have an extra one.” I didn’t realize until the words spilled out of my mouth how that might have sounded.  It’s nothing to me to give this to you, a person in need. But if I didn’t have an extra one, you’d be SOL. Immediately, a childhood memory sprang up in me. My mother was driving my sisters and me to Manhattan for some excursion and when we hit a tollbooth, my mother told the attendant:

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“Money does buy happiness…up to $75,000 a year.”

“I’m sorry. It’s the smallest bill I have on me,as she handed him a C-note. I’m sure he’d seen worse behavior in that position but after she took back her change, my mother started away from the toll area and stopped.

“My God, that sounded terrible. I just didn’t want him to think I was trying to take all of his change.”

I learned back then that attempts at civility, when they come from privileged positions, make us sound like assholes.

“Nah, I’m good,” the inmate said, rolled her eyes and re-clustered with the three other women in her area.

Offering something to a person who lives in marginalized experience – whether it’s advice, entitlement programming, or cheap toothpaste – only highlights your differences. The alternative is for me to keep my stuff when someone else can use it. And that’s fucking stupid. The inequality in society is so severe that even when you’re nice, it’s kind of mean.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM APRIL 25 – May 1, 2016

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Last week was the first ever national Re-Entry Week, days dedicated to raising awareness about the plight of returning citizens.  Such a momentous event in justice reform should have produced more ideas  than came out.

President Obama signed Presidential Memorandum establishing the Federal Interagency Reentry Council to lead the Government’s work on reentry. It’s Ban-the-Box in a new box.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke in Philadelphia to kick off the week long felon festivus and urged states to help inmates leaving custody to get ID cards. No one told our top attorney that there are prison staffers trying to help inmates get ID cards already; York CI had a very dedicated counselor who did that while I was there. The problem with getting ID when you leave prison: proof of residency. Many released offenders are homeless and even more are in transitional housing. Shelter is a bigger hurdle for returning prisoners than a little piece of plastic.

To close the week, Lynch visited FCI Talladega in Alabama – a state currently contemplating spending $700 million on new privatized prisons –  and toured a UNICOR (“factories with fences”) prison work program. Bad choice of location for justice reform event, I think.

 

 

 

 

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