Prison 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.
“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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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
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.