29 June 2015

Clutching at Straws

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“You know, if they left a dog in a car with heat like this, they’d get arrested,” I say and slide down the concrete wall as I feel sweat slide between my boobs and then down below them. It  – the concrete – should hurt more than it does but I am just relieved to be outside on the walkway during a suffocating heat wave. I am, however, heated that our movement has been stopped for an emergency; even at walking speed, the breeze from movement cooled me a little, the wind beneath my things.

imageThe air-conditioning is broken and maximizing security necessarily entails permanently closed windows.  So we sit in heat more stifling than the outside, sweating, for at least 18 hours a day. Construction on the housing units has left potential spikes and other ersatz armaments around the building and we cannot go outside. So we bake.

I can’t tell if I slept last night. All I can remember is pressing contraband paper towels against my upper lip every time I felt the sweat buildup run sideward down my cheek. It’s not that the droplet would wet my sheets, they were already clammy from the humidity of two bodies living in a tiny, sealed cell with no ventilation.

I watch another inmate from my building call out to a corrections captain.

“Are you a lieutenant? We need help.”

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Big Leaks fix big leaks.

“No,” he answers because his rank is above lieutenant and he does not want to help. Someone whispers to her that he’s a captain – two gold bars on his lapel.

“OK, then, captain,” she continues. “Can you get the A/C fixed in our building? It is sooo hot,” she complains because the summer’s first heat wave punched us straight in our faces at the end of May.

“I’ll tell you what,” he says. “When they fix it in my building, I’ll send them down to yours.”

“OK. When are they going to your building?” she asks.

“As soon as they fix and get rid of that.” He points to a large white PVC pipe extending from the ground with an ‘L’ joint intermittently wrapped with duct tape and unidentifiable mesh. It’s connected to a leak in some system underground that affects the A/C. I remember a lieutenant (one gold bar on his lapels) saying that the maintenance staff erected the giant straw because the elusive system leaked 20,000 of water every day. The number might be a mistake, an exaggeration, but one thing is for sure: the straw went up last year and hasn’t come down yet. The Department of Correction makes no haste to rehabilitate the inmates, much less inanimate objects. While the straw is here, we will suck it up with the heat.

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The warden.

Wardens and prison administrators like control. They need it, too, over the inmates, for safety reasons. They also like control over the flow of information within and outside the prison. Ostensibly, this also is for safety reasons but, in fact, it’s more because they like keeping their facilities isolated microcosms, sealed away from the rest of the world so that no one sees that prisons are often hotbeds of physical, sexual, emotional, maintenance-related misconduct. Open windows let air in and status reports out. Wanting to cover up what happens in the prison provides all the more reason to fix the goddamned A/C.

Usually, prison officials take action only after someone tattles on them to an outside authority. Shaming them, exposing them, is the only way to accomplish anything. The only way to fix the big leak is another Big Leak.

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Omdudsman: the only challenge to Warden Heat Miser

It wasn’t always this way. We once had an official problem-solver in residence – an ombudsman- who would field our complaints, sort the serious from the silly and get things done.

An ombudsman’s duties traditionally define themselves as investigating any government action that may infringe on people’s rights, but the Connecticut Correctional Ombudsman’s office was more troubleshooter than it was objector. The ombudsman never took sides and searched for reasonable and amicable solutions to inmates’ problems. It was still within the same system, moving along with the administrators’ hot air but sidelined enough to provide effective oversight. Problems like lack of A/C  would be solved, fixed when an ombudsman heard about them.  Wardens can’t tolerate problem solving so they fired all the ombudsmen in 2010. No one replaced them.

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Look at these temps inside a Texas prison. I would bet we hit the same numbers here in the northeast, inside the prisons.

Now, without such a service, inmates cannot access constructive problem-solving methods and will likely resort to the destructive to get their point across if they haven’t died of heat exhaustion like the ten inmates who died in a 26-day period in the summer of 2011 in Texas.

I read about the deaths in 2012 in a damp and discarded edition of New York Times because, in the ombudsman’s absence, I scrounge newspaper articles and prison books for prisoners’ rights advocacy groups, someone, anyone, somewhere, anywhere, who might try to embarrass the warden by telling him that the heat secret has been leaked. Then he might learn the lesson that fixing the leak – the one with the straw – will fix the other leaks – the ones he dreads, the ones that let the truth escape.

Then and only then, the warden might suck it up, yank that humongo straw and fix the A/C so that everyone will know – or at least assume – that he does not treat bitches in prison like a pack of dogs in heat.

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READER POLL

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From Huffingtonpost: Texas Prisoners Still Face Deadly Heat: Report

Even though people have died from the heat, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice still refuses to install air conditioning.

Do you think that the State of Texas really cannot afford to install air-conditioning in its prisons?

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22 June 2015

Periodically

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I was right behind her so I whispered in her ear:

“This is just between you and me. No one else has to know…”

I scared the shit out of her because she thought it was a prelude to a sexual assault. A currently-in-use maxi pad dropped out of the pantleg of an inmate who works with me. The sight would have embarrassed everyone there, not just the dropper so I clomped my rubber work boot on the atrocity before anyone saw it.

“No, no. Your pad. Your pad? It dropped out of your pants. It’s under my boot. Go get me some gloves and paper towels and I’ll get rid of it.”

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On it like a ninja.

She nodded and dashed away, returned with paper towels.

“Shit, I’m staining right now,” she said and dashed away again to find someone who would give her a tampon or a pad.

My stealth has improved here and I managed – without one person seeing – to dispose of the third world rag. Boots, too. No one knew but us.

Any woman who says she never had a menstrual mishap is a liar.  It happens to women outside the prison often but even more in here because we can’t get any supplies. Without menstrual supplies, every woman here stains her underwear routinely. The red splotch is the York CI logo.

If you’re in custody but off prison grounds  – like a court trip, a funeral, hospital – you can go as long as 18 hours without getting any hygiene supplies.  I was sitting in lockup with a woman whose monthly came on and none of the marshals would bring her so much as Kleenex. Sure, like men, they made big promises about what they could do for her vagina – ”I’ll bring you a pad on my next tour” – but they were all talk. She bled through her underwear and her pants. To reduce her humiliation, another shackled inmate trudged closely behind her as we boarded the bus. But that protection lasted only until her strip search back at the prison. She had to peel off underwear and jeans with a sticky, oily slick between the legs and redress without the benefit of a shower. The guards stripping us gave her new clothes but the blood that had smeared onto her rubbed off on them.

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Thought I chucked these in seg.

I had been in that jam when I was in seg; none of the guards would give me supplies.

“We’re out!” they would sneer and when they walked away I would wrap the crotch of my Hanes-Her-Way with toilet paper. Until I ran out of that. My underwear was muddy with blood.

Menstrual mayhem in a prison must file down the male guards’ steely nerves. Guys on the outside refuse to buy the stuff for their wives but in here they receive twelve daily ding-dongs on the intercom asking for maxi pads. And sometimes – get this – they even have to deliver us a tampon in our cells.

I’d expect them to have such an aversion to the whole mess that they would just surrender as many as each of us ask for but some of them protect the supplies like it’s their time of the month. It’s easier to negotiate a hostage situation than to get a tampon from some of these guys.

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Prison line up. That’s about right.

When I get a stain, I chuck the pair of underwear immediately. So when noticed yellow stains along the elastic lines of my underwear, I shrieked:

“Someone’s been wearing my underwear! And bleeding onto the elastic! I would have already thrown these out!”  Inmates have been known to pick through other people’s laundry to steal smaller-sized T-shirts and pants to shove their ample asses into them. The thieves have no business with smaller sizes  – we’re talking camel toes that have become ingrown, breast and back fat that drive against the fabric – and when I see them sausaged up I think to myself: That shirt is probably mine. Taking my underwear and putting it back was not above anyone.

“Why would someone wear your underwear? Why would you even assume that?” Charity laughed at me.

image“Look, those are blood stains and I don’t bleed up here or down here.”

“Those are sweat stains,” Charity informed me.

“Sweat stains? People actually get sweat stains?” I thought the only person who actually had sweat stains was Al Bundy from Married…with Children.

“You’ve never seen a sweat stain?”

“No,” I confessed.

“Everyone has sweat stains.”

“Not really,” I countered. “My mother had this crazy thing about washing clothes with soap and water and I picked up her bad habits when I started doing my own laundry. No sweat stains,” I told her. “Sweat stains belong to the unwashed masses, not me.”

“You are the unwashed masses now. Your underwear says so,” Charity reminded me in sing-song.

“I know.” I chuck the stained underwear not because the inevitable spots are unsightly but because it reminds me that I am just like everyone else in here, that I have been reduced  to a life form that cannot manage its menstruation. Whoever said death and taxes are levellers had to be a guy. If it were a woman, she would have included stained underwear on the list.

imageAs uncomfortable as some C/O’s  get about the Red Panty Death, other male staff – like my supervisors in Food Prep – are actually quite sensitive, refined and gentlemanly about blood flood. Once I heard Green Bay whisper to NY Giants:

“Betty doesn’t want us to know that she had an accident. She’s trying to hide it but I’m sending her back to her cell so she can change.”

“Oh, that’s good,” NY Giants approved.

But Betty had no accident. She must have delivered one hell of a performance as a woman without a rag because she got Green Bay to send her to switch clothes, a trip that allowed her to steal pounds of margarine in the same panties that Green Bay had dispatched her to change. Betty exploited the menstrual mayhem to rob the place. I don’t know whether to be proud of her or disappointed. One thing I do know: she couldn’t have pulled it off if we had more and better supplies and bloody accidents weren’t a daily expectation.

READER POLL

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From medcitynews.com: New Design of Women’s Underwear Could Disrupt Feminine Hygiene Market

Can these new underwear solve the problem of sanitary supplies in women's prisons?

  • No. Even if prisons ordered something that new and that expensive, the female guards would swipe them and wear them. The inmates would never see them. (53%, 9 Votes)
  • No. They cost $200 for seven pairs. No correctional facility will buy them. (47%, 8 Votes)
  • Yes. Then inmates can stop complaining about what they don't have. Inmates complain a lot, huh? (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 17

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15 June 2015

Code Green

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“Bozelko, name and number.”

“Well, Bozelko’s name is Bozelko and her number is 330445,” I answered without even turning over. It was one of those 2 AM name and number counts, simulated emergencies.

“Savino, name and number…actually, know what? Both of you get up!”

Shit, did I piss her off with the name comment? Name and number counts in the middle of the night were not totally uncommon but pulling us both out of bed was.

“What the fuck?” Savino mumbled. I knew better than to delay so I jumped down. Savino crawled off her mattress so we could both stand at attention in our PJ’s. It was a female C/O, backed up by the gay guy from third shift.

“Ok, so again, name and number,” she said.3ring-binder

“Bozelko, 330445.”

“Savino, 123456. Why did you make us get up for a name and number?”

“Have to see your face,” the female C/O said and the third shift guy came forward  with the three-ring notebook that holds all of our bed assignments along with our ID pictures. They only drag that binder out when they want to make sure everyone is here. The last time I saw one was when they emptied the dorms for the fire and they had to make sure everyone got over to the cafeteria safely. When the three-ring comes out, there’s a three-ring circus happening somewhere on the compound.

“Someone’s missing,” I told Savino. And the female C/O confirmed it by nodding.

“Again?” I asked and she nodded. Again. I was shocked, not that someone escaped but that someone who worked for the prison would admit it to us. Guards can jam themselves up pretty seriously if they divulge security secrets to the inmates. That’s undue familiarity right there.

imageWe had an escape three months ago when two women walked away from the compound, caught a ride to Hartford where they smoked crack and dyed their hair before the cops nabbed them. It was the first escape in years and it happened when they new warden had been on the job for approximately a month. Now he had been on the job for four months and he had another escape, another occasion for the three-ring. People who live around the prison were pissed and scared last time. I can’t imagine the bitch fits they were going to throw at the second escape.

“What happened?” shouted A-3. Any search or investigation starts with us in cell A-1 and our neighbors know that.image

“Code Green!” I yelled back as I scaled the bunk bed.

The female C/O dipped back toward our cell.

“Bozelko, you’re not supposed to know that!”

“Did she not just tell us that someone escaped?” I asked Savino, who raised her voice: “You just told us!”

“Well, keep it to yourselves. And you’re not supposed to know what a Code Green is,” the C/O warned. Too late.

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We can hear these emergencies announced on officers’ radios. Then we see them run to the crisis. But we’re never supposed to know that something’s going down. If we do figure out that something’s happening, we’re not supposed to know exactly what it is. But the emergency color chart is easy enough to figure out: Code Green is an escape, as in green light, go, get the hell out of Dodge; Code Blue is a fight between inmates (think black and blue); Code Red is a fire; Code Yellow is an inmate taking a staff member hostage (think yellow ribbons and the Iranian hostage crisis); Code Purple is an attempted suicide (think the color of a strangulated face); Code White is a medical emergency (think doctor’s lab coat); Code Orange is an assault on a staff member (I think of traffic cone orange, a line that separates us from them).  It’s not like not knowing what a Code Orange is makes you less likely to clock a C/O.

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They think they protect the safety and security of the facility when they don’t tell the inmate what’s going on but I think the whole fakery is actually bad for rehabilitation. For every lie an inmate has told, she has received three in return, bum checks written out to reality. Yeah, I paid the rent… I did file that motion for you…I love you, baby… I’m here to help…We’re coming to visit. Women keep lying to correct the negative balance in their trust accounts which only overdraws them even more.

Women – people – behave when they trust their environment. Part of trusting the environment is knowing what the hell is happening. Besides, in the absence of accurate bulletins, crazy rumors buzz around and people lose trust even more. That must be why the Town of East Lyme did reverse 911 calls to all residents in the area after each escape. The upright neighbors deserved the truth: that the new warden lost another one who might be in their backyards. No one warns these people when women walk out the front gate, unrehabilitated, even more dangerous than someone who’s lamming it. An inmate doesn’t need to escape to be a public threat. But the public isn’t supposed to know that.

imageThat morning, I tried to go back to sleep, not knowing how long the prison would be locked down as they looked for the escapee. I could hear Savino cry softly. The last escape lockdown was hard for her because it caused her to miss a visit with her son who had traveled from Illinois to see her. He was turned away at the gate, his visit cancelled, because the two women who had escaped were still on the run. She hasn’t been able to see him since.

A few weeks after the second escape, another emergency popped up while we were working. Green Bay got up from the supervisors’ desk and pulled down the sliding garage door, one that stays open all the time. Something was up. Women who don’t trust don’t miss a thing; everyone noticed. Then it becomes a game to see who can squeeze the real story out of a staff member. Whenever this game unfolds it’s like we’re feeling around for something solid, that we can believe, that we can rely on.image

Merc, my second-in-command, came to me to do her feeling for her.

“Chan, ask one of them what the fuck is going on. Steven’s bringing my son today. If we get locked….” Tears welled up in her eyes. Merc hadn’t seen her son in over a year and her ex wasn’t all that excited about bringing him up. Being turned away at the gate would give him too much of an excuse to keep the child away. Another way to make a promise that he would come and then renege.

“I can’t ask Giants; he’s a vault.”

“Ask Bengals.”

I usually meander around the supervisors’ desk to see what I can overhear, but Merc’s anxiety called for a direct hit.

“What’s going on?” I asked Bengals.

“No idea,” Bengals said and tapped the cases of broccoli that were waiting to be opened.

image“Okay. I’ll get Merc on those,” I told him and walked back to the rest of the workers.

“What did he say?” Merc asked.

“Nothing. He’s not saying. But we have to open the broccoli for the stir fry,” I said, snapping on plastic gloves.

“I already opened them,” Merc said.

“Well, does he know?” I wondered.

“Doesn’t really matter. They’re done. I just don’t…please don’t make me miss my visit,” she said to no one.

“I know, kid. I’m sorry. I’m sure it’s nothing and you’ll get your visit,” I reassured her. And she knew I was lying as we pawed through broccoli that had started to smell with its thawing since it had been opened a day before. We then kept working like nothing was happening until Merc nudged me and pointed to Bengals.

“Any word? Merc is worried about a visit….”image

“Nope,” Bengals said and knocked the broccoli cases again.

“Yeah, oh, those are open,” I informed him. He knocked them again.

“Oh, wait, are they not totally done? I’ll check them again right now,” I promised and started opening the cases when Merc came up.

“What did he say?” she asked, nervously picking at the broccoli. “We opened these.”

“He doesn’t know,” I told her. I could feel her anxiety.

“Bengals, please, if we’re going to be locked down…let her know because…”

“GREEN, GREEN, GREEN! I’ve been trying to tell you they think its an escape!” He had been knocking at the broccoli to clue us in to the color of the code all along. We’re so used to not being told the truth that neither of us had pieced it together.

“Another one?!? Again?!? Oh, we are fucked…” I despaired and Merc started to cry at the thought of her missed visit. As if on cue, Green Bay opened the sliding door, signifying that the emergency was over. Merc ended up seeing her son later that day as I reviewed every communication I could remember with anyone in the prison to see what other cryptic messages I had missed. Code Broccoli. Bengals’ telling me the truth in a way that wouldn’t get him in trouble made me trust myself even less. I should have caught that, I thought to myself like I have so many times in the past, only when I had been lied to.

As it turns out, someone was walking very close to the other side of the fence and the warden thought another escape was in the offing and he wanted to get a jump on it but it was just two idiots – law-abiding citizens – lost in the woods. But I’m not supposed to know that.

 

READER POLL

mat and sweat

From newsweek.com: New Details Emerge in New York Prison Escape

Richard Matt and David Sweat are still on the run after escaping over one week ago from a maximum-security prison in upstate New York.

Do you believe that surveillance started under the Patriot Act has completely ceased?

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8 June 2015

You Bet Your Ass I’m Tapped

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“That’s like buying half of a pair of shoes. You need both to get anywhere,” I told Jim Ruane, the lawyer I had forced upon me for my habeas corpus petition, after he subpoenaed only my outgoing calls and none of my incoming, like a telephone line was a street with only one-way foot traffic.

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Tyranny for you is freedom for me.

Telephone records figure prominently in all of my cases. I need my home telephone records to prove two separate claims. First, that I was not the party who called and ordered $40,000,000 diamond necklaces, and second, that I was on the phone with someone else when jurors received calls designed to disrupt my trial on the diamond necklace charge. Phone records can clear me on so many accusations flung at me that I might never have been here – or accused of being crazy – if I had the evidence. Every lawyer before Ruane – and also the police – told me that the records had split, that they expire and disappear one year after the call was made. “Too bad no one caught ‘em in time,” one small town cop guffawed after he supposedly served a warrant on the local telephone company. I know he knew those records would absolve me.

Despite these admonitions that telephone records slip from evidence to inference after one year, Ruane did try to get the phone records I needed to exculpate me. I explained that, on the night of October 4, 2007, I exchanged a volley of calls with the caretaker of a man I represented in front of Social Security at the time. But Ruane subpoenaed only half of my absolution – outgoing- and left my other half – incoming – to the court’s imagination and it pissed me off.image

“Maybe disabled people buy only one shoe?” he offered, an answer to my argumentative analogy.

“Actually, I think they buy both, but use only one. Besides, that’s my point – I’m incapacitated with only one side. I need both to get anywhere with this case,” I said with my lips clenched in frustration and was about to bang the table but I knew a guard might hear me and think I was starting a situation. So I just pumped both fists in the air. Evidence of crazy.

“What can I tell you?” he asked. “I don’t have them.”

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Yeah, I know. The warden already told me.

But someone else does. Most people don’t understand how much Edward Snowden revealed when he let loose the fact that the federal government has been collecting data on our phone calls, monitoring us like a pesky little sister, denying that they act like Big Brother.

Snowden’s big reveal is that the government, in leapfrogging the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unlawful searches to gather intelligence to prevent crime, collected a tidy, little cache of data that can exculpate defendants accused of crimes involving phone-related evidence. Like mine. I know mine are in there somewhere. And I want them.

Any many other people’s as well; these days, almost every criminal case involves telephone record evidence. Because of this, Snowden is no whistleblower; he’s a tipster. He’s pointing out evidence with the potential to solve crimes, just not in the way that government wants – in favor of a defendant or even a convicted felon like me.

The government violates citizens’ constitutional rights every day. Police search houses, cars, purses and our bodies without suspicion. They seek approval for wiretaps based on perjured affidavits. We can’t call constitutional violations instances anymore; they are patterns. Outrage erupts when someone someone like Snowden points out the hidden motif in the obvious picture. The uproar over NSA surveillance just encapsulates the American attitude towards any activity related to police investigations and criminal justice: It’s OK until it happens to me.

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…especially if what you were about to say exculpates someone.

The real problem with NSA’s phone surveillance is not how and why they get their data but what they do or don’t do with it. Much like the national registry CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), exculpatory evidence has settled in the bogs of some federal database and no one knew to look for it before Edward Snowden. Even after Snowden, they don’t ask for it if my cases are any indication.

Releasing some of the phone record data held by the NSA would not make their practices any less invasive but it might make their surveillance worth it and truly to the public’s benefit if it clears someone’s name in a criminal case. But the feds don’t want to do that. They would rather watch their citizens hobble around, clueless and shoeless, much like all of my defense attorneys. But we have Snowden-shoes now. If only someone who represents me would pull a pair on.

The phone data the NSA collected could clear someone’s name in a criminal case or even a mere investigation. One of the last women killed by the Long Island serial killer of prostitutes called 911 from a cell phone before she disappeared and died. Tracing outward from her cell phone records would create a web of communication data so wide and so warrantless it would have to produce some leads. But everyone wants the government to avoid violating people’s privacy so they will never use the evidence they have already collected to solve a murder. It doesn’t make sense.

I still don’t have the other half of my needed telephone records but my government does. Until citizens end up in a position like mine, they are loathe to concede any constitutional rights. But I, the one who needs constitutional protection more than others, have actually decided that there are rights I can live without, especially if my life remains as see-through as it is. What does it say about me now that I think that violation isn’t all bad?

(Entry written August 2013)

READER POLL

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From the New York Times: The World Says No to Surveillance, an oped by Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden says that, because the public is now informed and demanded protection of their constitutional rights, the NSA surveillance program established by the Patriot Act has been scrapped.

Do you believe that surveillance started under the Patriot Act has completely ceased?

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1 June 2015

Certifiable

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“Oooh, girl, you got yourself a certificate. How many you got?” Sanchez asked me when she saw me walk onto the tier with a piece of cardstock decorated with the curly,  diploma-like frame around it.

“I don’t know, five or six,” I guessed.

“How are you going to prove that you been changed to the parole board?”

“Well, first, I’m not going to the parole board. Second, I haven’t really changed and a lot of people think that’s a good thing. And last, no one else here has changed either, ”

“I did. I gots eighty-four of them. Parole gonna know I’m ready to go,” she announced.

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That’s right. All those certificates are crap.

“I guess some women just won’t be satisfied until they need a wheelbarrow to bring their haul to parole board hearings. Don’t you have the same number of tickets [disciplinary reports]?”  I asked.

“No! I gots only like 20 tickets.”

“Oh, only twenty. What does that make, five a year since you got here?”

“Yeah, but I been workin’ hard, real hard,” Sanchez told me.

“A ticket roughly every other month? Yes, you have.” I had to concede.

Along with convictions, inmates collect certificates of completion (the “certificates”) when they finish a “group”  (prison shorthand for supportive group therapy or group meetings). Counselors and social workers feed the paper through laser printers to etch the inmate’s name on them, certifying that this woman or that woman has met some nebulous standard of self-improvement. They’re so easy to make that I’m surprised that none of the inmates has conned someone on the outside into printing and duping a couple hundred that they can sell to others, people who could not care less about the content of the group, only its certificate.

Inmates rack up certificates because they provide evidence, tangible manifestations of rehabilitation that make them ready for release. They gather certificates like Jay Leno collects cars; none to obscure to be added in. In addition to drug-treatment groups, group offerings include: “Grief and Loss,” “Parenting,” “Women of Change,” “40 and Beautiful,” “Alternatives to Violence,” “Thresholds,” “Famous Faces in History,” “Laugh Out Loud.”

I can’t take “Laugh Out Loud” because I failed to finish “Laugh Behind Your Back,” an unofficial group at every women’s prison.

Then comes a list of acronym groups: TARGET (Trauma and Recovery Guidance Education and Treatment), TREM (Trauma, Recovery, and Empowerment), PEP (People Empowering People), GIG (Gambling Intervention Group), SRP (Social Rehabilitation Program), VOICES (no staff member can explain what it stands for except for the “V” which must stand for victim because it is a victim awareness course). It doesn’t have an acronym but Anger Management is also on the group list and I need it because I’m tempted to slap any woman who details her correctional transformation by reading me her resume of useless certificates.

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They should hand out certificates for all of these activities.

Watching the certificate madness harkens me back to high school, the unreasonable emphasis on extra-curricular activities to make an applicant to college seem “well-rounded.” Kids in my high school would list out activities in which they were only peripherally involved: Key Club, junior varsity sports, a non-existent ski team, but still pulls C’s in their classes. If they had worked harder on what mattered, they wouldn’t have needed the window dressing. Inmates may bank hundreds of certificates, heap them higher than the electrified fences, but remain scumbags. Personal growth does not require a paper trail. It can be measured only by behavior but honoring one’s commitments and doing as you’re told cannot be filed in anyone’s dossier. So the parole board accepts these certificates and actually gives them some credence.

From what I’ve seen, prisoners who compulsively collect the most certificates leave the facility and reoffend. They return to prowl for more paper to prove they’re worthy of release. Again.

The Department of Correction wants to curb the number of these return engagements. They’ve recognized that the current system of voluntary enrollment in an excessive number of groups wasn’t working. Something needed to change besides the “Women of Change” group.

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The certificates earned in a 50 year sentence.

And it did. Now getting those certificates is mandatory as part of the “Offender Accountability Plans,” the inside additions to every prisoner’s sentence. The certificate frenzy that inmates entered into freely is gone; the frenzy is compulsory now.

My Offender Accountability Plan dictated that I complete two groups: VOICES and “Thinking for a Change.” I can’t figure out if that means that it would be a change for inmates to think at all or that we are supposed to think about changing ourselves, but I’ve probably overthought this. VOICES details statistics on victims and was supposed to feature first-person accounts from crime victims but none ever showed. I have to go twice a week to both.

“Bozelko, what’s “Thinking for a Change”  all about anyway? I heard they’re gonna change the name to ‘Good Intentions, Bad Choices.’ Do you have any idea why?”  Officer LaFleur asked me when I was signing out to attend the last group session a few weeks ago.

“I have no idea. Why?” I asked, waiting for a punchline which never came or an answer as to why they named ‘Thinking for a Change’ that way in the first place.

“Do you really think these chicks have good intentions?” he asked me and he seemed earnest.

I always hate being in these situations where I am asked by staff to assess the truth about the inmate population. If I tell the truth – Maybe three of us have good intentions, Mr. LaFleur – then I’m assessing a population in which I am a full member, basically labeling myself as a piece of crap. If I try to defend the inmates – LaFleur, really, a lot of them do! – then I’m full of crap.

Before I could answer, a Whap! came across the glass as one inmate showed her good  intentions and smacked another’s forehead against the transparent walls that enclose each housing tier. From a distance, I would estimate that the Smacker has about 25 certificates. Because of her fight, I couldn’t think for a change until later.

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“I didn’t get my certificate for detention.”

Whatever it’s called, the group parses decision-making theory for the undereducated. I’m pretty sure I am the only one who understands the underpinnings of the group.  I think the facilitator, a counselor, sensed that the curriculum was not working, so for the last two meetings, we watched the John Hughes film “The Breakfast Club” and the counselor told us in parting: “Make the decisions that Bender [Judd Nelson’s slacker, quasi-criminal character] wouldn’t make.” Yes, inmates. Ignore Molly Ringwald’s advances, don’t layer flannel and tie your boots.  Then you’ll be fine.

Showing a movie has always been a skimpy lesson, but I hoped the movie had more effect than the hokey handouts and hackneyed homework assignments that  none of the inmates understood.

The same counselor took over the last two classes of VOICES and popped in a DVD of “Pay it Forward.” When we left, over my shoulder I heard another woman say: “If anyone ever stabbed my kid like that, I’d kill the motherfucker.”

“I’d let my baby daddy do it. Let that motherfucker rot in jail instead of me,” another woman huffed and both started laughing.

Clearly neither the classes or the movie imparted victim-awareness on either of them but it hardly mattered. Each of us already had our certificates in hand.

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Certificates….

 

 READER POLL

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From NPR.org: In Norway, A Prison Built on Second Chances

Norway spends $90,000 per year per inmate because the Norwegian government thinks the only way to rehabilitate an inmate is to treat him or her like a human being. Inmates live in resort-like conditions.  Norway’s recidivism rate is less than half of the United States.

Should the United States follow Norway's example in how they run their prisons?

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