23 February 2015

Clear of a Black Planet

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“It serves you right, listening to all that Public Enemy during senior year,” a friend laughed at me when I told him about my first arrest.  On game days at my private high school, I used to wear a green plaid field hockey kilt carry a Gap bookbag while I held one of those boxy, yellow, waterproof Sony Sports Walkman’s with a cassette of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet inside to psych myself up.  I always thought that Flavor Flav’s line in the song Don’t Believe the Hype – “Yo, Chuck they must be on the pipe, right?” – referred to older people, the AARP crowd, misunderstanding the world because of their age, relaxing with professor-ly pipes filled with tobacco.

It was only when I entered the Capital-S System that I learned what the pipe was and that 911 was, indeed, a joke in my town. I also learned that the Systems we create show us who we really are.

imageI don’t know anyone who would admit that she is a racist – “I have black friends!” – but the way that skin color spreads out in criminal justice shows us that we are lying when we deny our racism. When 34% of women in prison are black but only 6.7% of the entire United States population is African-American – men and women combined – per a 2009 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, a few someone’s in the System are racist.

Many people try to explain the out-of-whackedness of minority over-representation in prisons by concluding that more women of color commit crimes than white women do. This might even be true.

imageIf it is true, then it might be because black women lead in convictions for what the Capital-S System calls Capital-S “Survival crimes” – check forgery, minor embezzlement, snatching purses from unmanned shopping carts – crimes that produce a few bucks to get their perps through the day. Eighty percent of black women in prison were the primary caretakers of their minor children.  They had to be: one of nine – over 10% – black men aged 24-35 is incarcerated.

imageA majority of people in a prison do not appear to be racist, though. Within any inmate population, ignorance always takes strong hold but overt displays of racism are rare, at least in my experience. When racial tension colors conversations, it’s usually spread by – I hate to stereotype here – upper middle-class white women who have not completed college. When I moved into a cell with one, Willow from West Hartford who had sent up a white flag at both Syracuse and UCONN, failing out at both, she glowed and hugged me.

“I’m sooo glad you’re not a B.B.B.” she gushed.

“What the hell is a B.B.B.?” I asked.

“Big Black Bunkie,” Willow whispered and laughed like we agreed.

“Nope, I’m small and white” I admitted …and hopefully moving out in ten minutes because you’re an A.A.A. – angry Anglo-Saxon asshole, I thought and wondered what would have happened if I were small B.B. moving into that cell. The sentiment against me would reveal itself only behind closed doors. Racism is back-of-the-bus stuff.

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Andy Warhol’s “Race Riot”

Maybe everyone here keeps their racism under wraps. Except for one who outrightly calls black inmates “illiterate N-words,” most of the guards are not blatantly racist, at least not in front of me. The racial spats I’ve witnessed usually make them bigot busters if anything.

In fact, when Willow was moved over to the minimum security side into one of the dorms, she almost incited a full-scale race riot by calling her black neighbors “porch monkeys.” A black lieutenant and several guards dragged Willow to restricted housing to punish her and to prevent her from being packed into a B.B.B.B. – Big Black Body Bag.  The African-American inmates all over the compound were irate at what she had done and how they were denied the chance to beat the brakes off her.

“Yo, yo, let that bitch come out here and I’ll show her ass a monkey!” one told a white guard who looked like a Jeff Foxworthy punchline.

“If I could, I would. That’s bullshit. Calling people niggers and shit,” he replied. Guards are not allowed to talk about one inmate with another but in the days following Willow’s race kerfuffle, I heard many staff members sympathize and empathize with the one third of the inmates who had one meaningless cosmetic feature determine the rest of their lives.

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Although we never saw, I bet Name Caller looked worse than this after Scrawny Waterbury finished with her.

I always sensed that the sympathy was real but I knew for sure when one white woman muttered the N-word under her breath at a scrawny, scarred black woman from Waterbury. Plucky, a white man, a good officer who would eventually be tossed and end up as a guard in a Southern state, overheard all of it as he toured the floor in a security check.  We knew he heard. He stopped and grabbed his radio.

“We’re gonna lock up now,” I told my sister through the receiver as I sat under the phone bank watching all of it, anticipating Plucky’s locking us up to prevent a fight.

Instead, Plucky walked to Scrawny Waterbury, cocked his head at Name Caller and went on his way. Scrawny Waterbury dragged Name Caller to the shower stall and pounded the shit out of her. Everyone knew it was happening, even the man charged with the duty of keeping us safe, but we all just let it happen. I wanted to make sure that Name Caller didn’t die and I felt morally remiss for not doing something. But, to be frank, I was scared that my human concern that Scrawny Waterbury not bang Name Caller’s brain against the shower tiles would be interpreted as sympathy for the racist. I had no idea how to teach  everyone that this fleeting instance of violence was wrong on a blackboard that listed the history of wrongs committed against the Scrawny Waterbury’s of the United States.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. taking a collar.

I was horrified at what happened to Name Caller but, like it has to so many other people, racism arrested my conscience into accepting what was happening. I just chalked the whole thing up to jail justice. The rules are different in here; everything – not just the facility’s facial composition – is off-kilter. The prison world is so jumbled that I have accepted violence as approved behavior. I have also accepted the paradox that a system may be racist but the individuals who run it (at least a majority) are not openly so. History and the process of institutionalization make the system as racist as it is.

 

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Malcolm X’s mug shot.

Every February I have been here at York (this is my sixth) I  walked by posters in the school commemorating Black History Month. The faces of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X appear, reminding us how they advanced the civil rights movement, how they exposed the racism inlaid in our daily lives, how they posed questions that forced us to confront why we see certain people the way we do. Maybe most memorably, each of these faces of black history was arrested and jailed at one point or another before they hung on the walls of York CI. We don’t know King from his letter from a Birmingham motel or Parks because someone just shot her a dirty look when she didn’t change seats. Black History Month celebrates an anniversary of one of our longest-lasting marriages: race and incarceration.

Even if we are not overtly hostile to black men and women, very few of us can divorce this race-prison pairing in our minds. This inability to separate race and crime is prejudice in and of itself and is what has allowed the System to skew so much toward racial inequality. Something very subtle and invidious causes the disproportionate number of African-American inmates, a phenomenon so cagey that no one inside or outside the system can trap it. It’s a true public enemy.

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From New York Daily News: Rudy Giuliani Continues to Question Obama’s Patriotism, saying Obama does not love the United States

 

Would Rudy Giuliani get away with saying a white president didn't love the United States?

  • No. From the Trump and the birth certificate issue to Sununu accusing Colin Powell of playing the race card in endorsing Obama, all of these personal attacks on Obama are permitted by race. (57%, 4 Votes)
  • Sure. Rudy will say anything the year before an election. (29%, 2 Votes)
  • I don't know. I don't listen to anything Giuliani says about anyone. (14%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 7

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16 February 2015

On Peckers and Prosecutors

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“I massage a pecker and they call police,” I massah a peckah n day caw poe-lisse Ming reported to all the lazy Food Prep workers who sat at the break table for the third time in two hours. Ming is a hard worker, assigned to the pot sink because her English isn’t great and dirty dishes are in everyone’s dialect.

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They were needling Ming about her charges. She is a good-looking Chinese girl, about 21, with innocent skin and an uninformed, pretty smile. She had no idea that they were ridiculing her. They harass anyone fresh-faced, debilitated or speaking a language other than English, so Ming had two strikes against her. They did it to me pretty fiercely when I got here and I had only one strike. I don’t know which one.

Usually I see this and walk over to the group to issue my usual: “Hey guys? NOT COOL,” pronouncement to get them to stop. But Ming came out with that answer and before I could intervene, laughter had me bent over.

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They very often are, at least in Connecticut.

Outside of Hawaii, very few Asian women do time. As much as black and Latina women overrrepresent their ethnic groups in prison, Asian women are statistically underrepresented, much to their credit. Asian women in the United States break the law far less frequently than the natives. In fact, so few Asian women enter the penal system that any research into how many crimes are committed by women of Asian descent usually dredges up numbers on rates of their victimization.

In the time I have spent in this prison, one that houses both pretrial and sentenced inmates, I have learned little about this racial disparity but what I know is reliable. When Asian women do break the law, they arrive here facing prostitution charges. In exchange for passage to and housing in the United States, women from China, Vietnam, Korea and other countries agree to work in “massage parlors” or “spas.”

image Essentially, it’s trafficking. But because these women cross U.S. borders in planes not the backs of un-airconditioned trucks like the one Ludacris opens in the movie Crash, we don’t see it that way. The massage man picks them up at baggage claim and drives them into a life where they service as many as forty men each day, a rate that Geneva Convention standards call torture. Women endure torture to experience the elevated American quality of life. They become slaves to find opportunity. We see immigrants pursuing the American Dream.

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I am sure more were coming out behind her.

Every time I see a Asian inmate, she is usually in a group of other Asian women. Police prostitution stings cast their nets wide and they bring in a bunch of women who worked at the bust site. Then, in a few days, the women depart en masse, just like they arrived, when someone cobbles enough cash together to post their bonds. In almost five years, I have never seen one return to serve a sentence.

I always hoped that the reason they never returned was that a judge dropped probation on all of them or made them pay fines and enroll in one of the state’s “Prostitution Classes,” courses that define abuse, instruct women on their legal rights, disseminate safe-sex strategies and drown them in pamphlets announcing various resources: hotlines, shelters, walk-in clinics. Many times, even if you walk the stroll you get chance to walk a line again quickly.

But I think that the reason they never return is that they never answer the charges; their traffic gets re-routed to another small city.

imageBecause they are in and out so quickly, their names are not in the system long enough to light up ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the new INS] computer screens to invite deportation. Besides, we don’t deport for mere misdemeanors.

And that was why Ming was unusual. Ming had already spent several months in custody, and in the high bond building no less. She, too, fled a foreign country to work in a massage parlor in a medium-sized Connecticut city and got ‘stung’ selling a hand job to an undercover cop.

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ICE preserves women in jail and takes them home.

“Why haven’t they come to get her?” I wondered aloud, the ‘they’ being the massage parlor owners. I didn’t understand how she wasn’t on the usual Asian pattern of bonding out after a few days, doing a “skid bid” – detention where prisoner leaves skid marks because she comes in and leaves so quickly. Ming has skidded past a skid bid months ago.

“Immigration hold,” another worker, Shawna, whispered.

“ICE is wasting it’s time putting a hold on this little girl for a misdemeanor hooker charge?” I challenged her.

Shawna shook her head.

“Not prostitution, conspiracy to commit prostitution,” Shawna said, subtly yet explicitly explaining why Ming’s case was different than the charges filed against other Asian women who had been at York for massaging peckers.

Connecticut is one of several states that thinks that two heads are not better than one when committing a crime with a pecker. We have a conspiracy statute that elevates any misdemeanor to a felony when it is allegedly committed in concert with another person.  The co-conspirator need not be charged at all for a conspiracy collar to stick.

imageProsecutors chose to charge Ming with conspiracy to commit prostitution because she negotiated the price for (and probably performed) a sex act in a building where other women were doing the same thing instead of becoming a sole proprietorship on a street corner. Now the Federal government can chuck her back whence she came because of the felony status of the charge if and when she is convicted. Prosecutors think they are disrupting the flow of human traffic by deporting Ming and doing nothing to her trafficker but they are just putting more vehicles on the road.

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This picture is not a joke. It is how this woman is sold.

Because she faced a conspiracy charge which meant someone else was at least involved with her crime, I approached the pot sink and asked her:

“Ming, where’s your boss, the person who runs the place where you worked?”

“He in Waterbury.” Watta-bay. There’s no correctional facility in Waterbury.

“What, he bonded out?” I asked. Ming didn’t understand.

“Did he get in trouble with police, too?” I broke it down for her. Then she was the one laughing.

“No. No. He a man. He not work with me,” she sniggered because she thinks only direct-sale sex workers broke the law and no one ever hired a male prostitute.  A man in trouble for anything related to prostitution, even if it is the international trade of human flesh?  That’s a joke to Ming.

imageShe wasn’t totally wrong. This is how we do it in the United States where the debate about what to do with illegal immigrants prolongs itself. Where we bust the janes and not the johns. Where prosecutors go after someone with less power much harder for no other reason than they have the ability to do so and can fool themselves that they are not caving to crime.

Meanwhile Ming walks a maze of detention warehouses until we return her like defective merchandise. The man who trafficked in Ming and enabled the crime that will toss her home will stay out of prison and stay here. If he doesn’t have it already, he may even pursue citizenship and become one of us.

READER POLL

From CBS.com:  Philadelphia cops use stings to bust prostitution customers and it seems to work; when johns get busted, they rarely re-offend. This is expected to curb prostitution in the City of Brotherly Love.

Is setting up stings and arresting only the johns the way to eliminate prostitution?

  • No. Prostitution should be legal and no one should be arrested. What's 'wrong' might be 'right' if we just leave it alone. (67%, 4 Votes)
  • Yes. We have arrested only the prostitutes for so long and their recidivism rates are usually high. Creating only one 'wrong' can make it right. (17%, 1 Votes)
  • No. We should still arrest both the prostitute and the patron when both commit the crime of selling/buying a sex act. What's wrong is wrong for everyone. (17%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 6

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Connecticut is one of several states that thinks that two heads are not better than one when… Click To Tweet Prostitutes service as many as forty men each day, a rate that Geneva Convention standards call… Click To Tweet Prosecutors think they are disrupting the flow of human traffic by deporting ...but they are just… Click To Tweet

 

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9 February 2015

Throwing Hands

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image“How many stabbings are there here every year?” a new inmate asked me.  She was an older woman who was clearly totally adrift.image

“Oh, none.  Who told you that?  None.  Wait, are you talking about the lady who took the plastic coated handle from the garbage cans and sharpened it to kill her girlfriend? That happened once – and she was obviously crazy,” I explained, wholeheartedly believing that I was allaying her concerns until I saw her facial muscles tighten in fear.  My consolation backfired big-time. But I was imparting pure correctional truth; prison is rarely as violent as people expect.

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Everyone thinks it’s like this…

Of course, arguments belch out and brawls burst forth from otherwise peaceful prison days but, for the most part, the risk of being assaulted is low.  In fact the jeopardy of prison is not found in attacks but rather being smothered and strangled with “I love you’s” and heart signs.  So many declarations of love dart around this prison it makes Woodstock look like a WWE Smackdown.

I confided in another two other inmates working in the kitchen with me that I had no idea how to fight; I’d never been in one.

“I wouldn’t even know what to do,” I confessed.

“That is sooo cute. I love you,” Tammy laughed and rubbed my shoulders.

“In a fight, there are no rules.  You do whatever you need to to win,” Snoop explained to me.

“But how do you know who wins?”

“The winner can walk away,” Snoop shrugged,  like a catfight is as crucial as a gladiator clash in ancient Rome.  But her explanation of fighting – no rules, win with total disregard to damage – revealed more about the “I love you’s” than it did about the brawls.

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…but it’s more like this.

Love is better than hate so the fact that many prison chats are like boxes of conversation hearts should hardly bother anyone but it does bother me.  The ILY’s and the blown kisses are fighting words of sorts, ways to be the one who walks away victorious.  Prison life downwardly redefines victory – scoring an envelope from someone, steering another inmate to take the fall for stealing something, wangling another prisoner to carry dangerous contraband through a metal detector, influencing another women to endure the humiliation of asking a chauvinist guard for a tampon – but an “I love you” bookends the winning strategy every time.

image“Here comes the nicest, downest white girl on the compound. Can you help me write a letter to the judge?” Kaishia asked.

“Sure,” I  agree even though I can’t stand these “letters” to judges. They’re just a continuation of the manipulation just used on me.

“I love you.  You’re the best. You’re such a nice girl,”

“Kaishia, I said I would do it,” I told her in a back-off tone.

“But you a saint the way you help all of us,” she whined.

“I’ll meet you in front of the TV at rec, OK?” I was trying to get into the shower to wash tomatoes off my skin from work and the grease from Kaishia’s crappy ego massage.

“OK, mama. You got paper, right? And an envelope for me? And maybe somethin’ sweet?”

“Of course I do. How else would I prove that you love me?”

Kaishia didn’t get it.

imageI understand that most of the women in prison suffered abuse their entire lives and the “I love you’s” they spew are proxies for the “I love you’s” no one left under the Christmas tree for them.  But that’s why I dislike their showering me with affection.  They use the deficits in their lives – things they were owed but never received – and transfer those obligations to new and unsuspecting victims like me.

I sound harsh and unfeeling, I know, and I make no defense for the people who left scar and callus on their hearts, but the “I love you’s” are nothing different than the weapons used in a stick-up; they use them to force deals that the other person never really sought.  If it has happened once, it happens ten times a month: a woman tells she she loves me, not necessarily for romantic or sexual reasons, but to or, worse, to get me to say it back.

image“It was good to see you. I miss you. I wish you were on the east side with me, OK? Love you!” she said and waited.

“Hang in there. You’ll be home soon,” I waved and turned away.

“Well, do you love me too?” Her words hassled me over my shoulder.

“Sure,” I assured her.

“Then say it,” she commanded.image

“Love you too.”

“Awww, you do?” she gushed.

“I gotta go.”

The day I said that “I love you” was the day I hated myself the most. I tried to convince myself it was a survival tactic but what would have been the worst thing to happen? That she wouldn’t love me anymore even though she didn’t and shouldn’t love me ever? Only in prison is weakness a survival skill, I thought.  Now, whenever “I love you” lands in my ears it is as menacing as a fist on my nose.

imageBesides, when a woman I met yesterday tells me “I love you” today, that I’m her best friend, we both know she’s lying.  So many prisoners grapple with reputations – some earned, some manufactured by others – as bullshitters.  Cooing “I love you” to everyone is a Super Bowl worthy advertisement that you’re a con artist and that every human interaction is a transaction for you.  The overwrought sentimentality tanks our credibility fast.

Sometimes I suspect that it would be better to have more fighters than lovers in a prison.  Fights scare me, make me hike up my shoulders as I anticipate another person’s injury, but at least they’re pure, unpolluted by manipulation and underhandedness.  Dust-ups are cleaner than the expert maneuvering of people’s emotions.  The woman who converted the garbage can handle into a shank, once her violent tendencies curb, is much less dangerous than the woman who just put her thumbs together and curved her forefingers to etch out a heart to tell me she loves me.

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Prison Diaries loves its readers. Really.

 

 

From slate.com: Why are so many Americans in prison? A provocative new theory. Click and read. It’s fascinating and enlightening about the effects that prosecuting attorneys have on criminal justice. Everything you assumed about criminal justice might be wrong.

A law professor at Fordham Law School says prison populations are so high because the prosecutors refuse to drop any cases. Do you agree?

  • Maybe. The whole criminal justice scene is so screwed up that I don't know who causes what anymore. (50%, 3 Votes)
  • No. If they start picking and choosing cases, they will make mistakes and dangerous people won't be prosecuted. (33%, 2 Votes)
  • Yes. The prosecutors are the only people who have the discretion in the system when it comes to charging people. (17%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 6

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2 February 2015

Same Time Next Year

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Every February 2, I poke my head out of my cell and look around to see if we’ll have six more weeks of recidivism. We always do.image

Only people who live in prison’s underground hole know that recidivism is worse in winter. By choice, homeless women take on charges – usually for prostitution, a Class A misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of one year – so they will be housed and fed until spring. When the weather gets warm, the warden will release them to the streets again where they can live in tents or squat in abandoned buildings without having to steal hand and boot warmers from Walgreens.

Most times they stay out for Christmas, and then right after, in January, they approach a cop and proposition him so he’ll arrest them, set a bond and remand them to jail. Sometimes a rookie cop will try to be nice and set their bonds at zero, giving them a promise to appear for their court dates. They yell at him to train him in seasonal reoffending:

“It be cold out, motherfucker! Damn! You can’t set a fifty dollar bond or nothin’?”  When the rookie follows their orders, they have a home for a while.

imageBy the time they crawl through assessments and I see them, it’s February and they want snacks. They always do.

“You left out and came back? You got any juice?” each one always asks me.

“No, you left and came back. I’ve been here. No juice.”

“Well, when you goin’ home?” each one asks like she cares.

“I don’t know.  When are you staying home?”

Each of these encounters makes me think that modern corrections is an internally inconsistent industry; if wardens and guards do their jobs by successfully rehabilitating women and setting up solid reentry plans for them, then the lack of returning inmates, the ones who scurry right back inside the hole like Punxsutawney Phil, will put them out of business. No one admits it but this entire system is built on the premise that no one can – and no one should – ever change or succeed.  Ex-offenders pay their debts to society with the proceeds of new loans incurred by new offenses – deeds often done just to get out of the cold. Everyone serves a life sentence on an installment plan.

It’s the way the system wants it. The guards call the poorly behaved inmates “job security” because they know the women will return. Back in 2009 when a released inmate strung one bank robbery to another to fit six within one week, police flashed her mug across television screens. So many guards dropped a dime on her that the tip-line operator was saying: “Yeah, thanks for calling. We know its Holly Blue. You work at York?” Many released prisoners hang up the phone when freedom rings. Some have the line cut by a guard.

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Of course, whenever an inmate boomerangs back inside either to protect herself from poverty and homelessness or because she’s just an asshole and the guards can ID her when her face is on the news, the procedure is always the same. She begs anyone she encounters: “I need soap, conditioner and something sweet.” “Can you buy me some white T-shirts so I got somethin’ to sleep in?” They hustle to collect whatever makes prison life more bearable. They think this is a Motel 6 and everyone left a light on for them – along with a snack on the check-in counter.

I am usually a generous person but I refuse to soften the blow of recidivism on re-offenders. Part of the sting of incarceration is being uncomfortable; discomfort makes someone think twice about what they did to invite it. Cushioning returning inmates with honey buns, cozy sweatpants and mascara makes it easier for them to reoffend, to want to come back inside. My stinginess puts me at odds with other inmates who are serving lengthy sentences.

image“Tell me you are not sending K.M. porkrinds and toothpaste!” I scolded one of my roommates when K.M. got re-canned for shoplifting at Stop and Shop, fleeing the scene by plowing her car into another car that, in turn, struck another car carrying two small children. The news had broadcast her face in a plea for identification and one of the captains had called Crimestoppers on her.

“Shoplifting again. How about stoplifting? When is K.M. gonna cut the shit? Don’t give her anything!” I shouted.

image“I have to. It’s the right thing to do,” M.S. defended herself, not knowing that softening K.M.’s fall from free space will affect her own release. Parole decisions base themselves on whether the inmate seems likely to re-offend and, if every woman who leaves the facility comes right back, the probability that another potential parolee will re-offend goes up. Three convenience store owners were murdered in Connecticut one summer during robberies committed by male ex-offenders who had been released on parole. When they landed back in prison, I’m sure everyone swung into action to deliver the Fluff, peanut butter and Twizzlers they requested, oblivious to the fact that the three murders had placed their freedom in jeopardy. I would have done nothing except tell them that they should have picked up snacks while they were in the 7-11’s they robbed. K.M. should have grabbed some pork rinds when she was fleeing Stop and Shop.

I have to laugh sometimes at the women in here who help the recidivists. They think the ‘right thing to do’ is to pack up an envoy with instant coffee and oatmeal creme pies to deliver to women who just came back to the prison. Inmates here lie, steal, assault each other. Many times murder and armed robbery landed them inside, not planned prostitution busts. And the moral analysis, discussion of the normative ethics of daily life, centers around sharing a brownie or hair gel with someone who either can’t or won’t do anything right.image

Why waste time pondering why its right to find housing my soliciting a cop or whether long sentences actually have a deterrent effect? Why weigh all the policy options for combating poverty so women don’t have to set themselves up for prostitution charges? The right thing to do is to distribute Chex Mix to everyone who left the prison and came back with new charges. I guess it’s wrong to discuss whether if someone had helped them get the Chex Mix (figuratively, of course, through stronger reentry policies) on the outside they might have come out of this hole, seen their shadows against the light of hope, and not crawled back inside.

READER POLL

From January 31, 2015 on SLATE.COM: Why Public Apathy Isn’t All Bad Is criminal justice reform making headway because no one cares about it anymore?

Is public apathy bad for criminal justice reform?

  • Yes. The only way to fashion good policy is if people care and voice their opinions and concerns, (75%, 3 Votes)
  • I don't know because I don't care. (25%, 1 Votes)
  • No. Protests and bold statements of public opinion encourage stalemates in legislatures. (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 4

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