27 July 2015

The Last Word

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“Yo, PoPo! You got anything sweet? Please?” Female Voice begged from the cell next to mine. Without even seeing her, I knew her poverty and pain. I would learn later that she asked for something sweet because people withdrawing from heroin often crave sweets because the sugar alleviates the symptoms of detox like fever, chills, vomiting and worse. At the time, though, I knew nothing about drugs. I thought she was just hungry.

“Shut the fuck up,” a generic New Haven beat cop told her.

imageIllicit substances never tempted me because I always had sugar. In fact, on the subject of confections, I am a board-certified expert. My expertise was honed as a youngster when my family’s lives were so worry-free that the topic receiving the most intense scrutiny was candy.

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The inside of Wanda’s Sugar Shack.

My blissful childhood years were punctuated by weekly lessons at Wanda’s Sugar Shack. Our father, the attorney, always employed the Socratic method with his three daughters, teaching us such important lessons as the four fillings of a SkyBar. These tutorials were rewards for our successes in school and recurred regularly because neither my sisters nor I ever even flirted with a problem in or out of school. While we were not that out of the ordinary, my family shined because we lacked the burdens affecting other peoples’ families like financial problems, illness, failure and dysfunction. We loved and supported each other, and even liked each other. Our lives were sweet.

Given my background, it is not surprising that this sugar-specialist was learning a different type of lesson in lock-up with a new, medium-sized box of Dots. My father gave me the candy gift earlier when he had told me that the New Haven Police Department was going to arrest me that afternoon. He cried as he handed me the box and prepared to post my $75,000 bond, a bond so excessive since I had no record but roots in the community, which, in police math, equals no risk of not appearing in court.

imageSince the days of Wanda, my father and I would trade our favorite yellow-wrapped treats every few weeks. He would deliver me Dots and I would chuck him a Charleston Chew. The exchanges grew increasingly less frequent over the years. Outsiders might attribute this to the fact that I was becoming an adult or that my relationship with my father suffered strain as we butted heads about how to resolve my legal problems. In reality, the frequency had waned mostly because my father refused to eat hard Charleston Chews and soft, fresh ones were scarce. I had no Charleston Chew to match his Dots that morning. That made me feel more like a prodigal daughter than my impending arrest. I shoved the sweets in my pocket and sulked. Sulked about injustice. Sulked about my humiliation. Sulked about the fact that my family’s life had soured, mostly because of me.image

The protrusion of the box in my pocket did not escape the two officers’ attention when they came for me with cuffs. Because both were men, neither could pat search me, at least not legally. One detective with a stringy, greasy Ponytail down his back, who three years later would become the disgrace of the department for walking headlong into an FBI sting, asked me what was in my pocket and I pulled the box out to show him. He laughed, a nasty laugh it was.

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Yes, the former New Haven Police Lieutenant Billy White and his ponytail arrested me. He had his own lockup experience later.

“What are you gonna do with that? You can’t do nothing with those,” he said as he let me keep the box, implying that the chewy lumps would prove a useless weapon.

To the criminally uninitiated, this may seem insignificant. But those who know confinement know that any item allowed into lock-up with a detainee is contraband and strictly prohibited; allowing boxed sweets in with an inmate was outrageous. That Ponytail allowed contraband into the cell with me was not kind or even negligent. His comment warned of the powerlessness experienced by prisoners, a subjection that he knew would be very foreign to me at that point. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do anything with the Dots; it was that I couldn’t really do anything at all, now that he had me in custody. At least not anymore.

So the Dots did time with me. In our respective cells, my neighbor and I squirmed and sweated, she from her withdrawal sickness, me from the interminable wait to be processed. I was so nervous that I couldn’t stomach the contraband I had and, from the looks of it, I couldn’t pass them to Female Voice’s cell which was on the same side as mine but yards away.  Ponytail came back to our cells and opened mine hours later.

“OK, Boze-leko, you just come out here, you write a little statement about what you did and you don’t gotta to be processed or nothin’. You don’t gotta wait no more. You can go home.” He paused, thinking about what else he could say to sweeten the offer. “Charges go away.”

“No.”

imageSuch nerve was not like me. Because I was arrested on a warrant, the only authority capable of dismissing the charges against me was a judge. Forever the lawyer’s daughter, I knew this so I spotted the scam. The way Ponytail’s face fell told me that very few perps had ever disobeyed his orders.

“Get out here now. You’re writing a little statement and that’s it.” He pointed to the area before the cell door where I was to walk out in obedience.

“No.”

“You’re getting out here right…”

Metal clang of a slamming cell door interrupted him.  Incredibly, I had pulled it closed on myself, demonstrating my own amateur status in the criminal defendant world because no experienced prisoner would foreclose the possibility of release as impetuously as I did.

image“No. Get me a law-yer.” I spat emphatically.

Laughter rose from Female Voice. “Yo, White Girl got principles, word.”

Just as I had interpreted the background to Female Voice’s voice without ever seeing her, she read my story without pictures. However, Female Voice was only half right. White Girl was definitely white, but her actions were motivated less by principle than they were by security. I knew my father had the money to bail me out once I was processed, so my boldness might not have bloomed so aggressively if I thought I might be staying like Female Voice, who was unable to post a very minimal bond. Because she never had such an opportunity, Female Voice could not conceive of my refusing a free exit from jail as self-interested. To her, it had to be stand-up values or morality speaking. I transferred the Dots from hand to hand and knew that I had too many advantages in my life to make my disobedience noble.

Ponytail knew this and retorted:

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Except mine was pink.

“She only got principles because she got an alligator on her shirt,” he said, referring to the emblem on my Lacoste shirt, the icon of upper-middle class comfort and control that once insulated me from more bitter realities.

My arrest symbolized a severe tumble for my whole family from Willy Wonka-esque utopia of my childhood. Contentment had given way to dysfunction, illness and family strife; Ponytail’s revealing that he knew this was very effective retaliation against my slamming the door. He would never bother Female Voice, most likely because she did not have a father who taught her the difference between Good N’ Fruity’s and Good N’ Plenty’s. Female Voice escaped attention because she lacked two sisters holding vigil by their phones for news of her release or a mother who would take her out to eat once she descended the police station steps. She could not even cajole a sugar packet from an officer while I was allowed to affront the rules and bring in candy.

When my bond was posted, Ponytail led me past Female Voice’s cell, where she was sprawled and moaning over a metal cot. Faceless no more, her countenance bore darkened spots from overly manipulated acne below stiff, misdirected flaps of African hair. Her once-colored clothes were gray with dirt. I dropped the Dots on the floor, kicked them through the bars for her. I glared at Ponytail.

That’s what I can do with those. Word. ”

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New Haven Police Chief trying to get the last word after Billy White was arrested in 2007.

 

 READER POLL

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From blackamericaweb.com: Sandra Bland’s Family Asks for Social Media to Stop Posting Speculation/Hashtags about her Death

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20 July 2015

Poop, There It Is

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“What happened, Bozelko? They tagged you to live with all the shitters?”  Tessa asked me. For the past forty years, Tessa has cycled through this prison. She’s like the mayor from Spike Lee’s movie, “Do the Right Thing,” with the way she understands the place. She knew more about my time than I do because of her status; the notorious S.H.I.T-ters always ended up assigned as my cellmates.

imageFirst came Marsha, a Waterbury prostitute whose AIDS-complications included total bowel incontinence. No one warned me about Marsha’s freewheeling sphincter and I lent her a pair of white pajama pants that she promptly tye-dyed puce.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I can’t keep anything in me. It’s why I need to take that.” She pointed to a bottle she chugged daily, a white plastic container with labels inexpertly peeled off and holding liquid I swore was yellow house paint – opaque, canary cream that differed in appearance only slightly from what slid out of her.

“Don’t sweat it. Know what? You can keep them,” I told her more of sanitation than sympathy. And she did keep them, taking them with her when she discharged from the facility a few weeks later. She never came back. I think she might have died.

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Imagine this as a feces stain on a white blanket.

Two years later came Lillian with her multiple mental and physical disabilities – a touch of Tourette’s, a sliver of cerebral palsy, two sort-of-surgically-corrected club feet. Lillian defecated in her underwear routinely, almost like they were Pampers except she never disposed of them, never washed them, turning the cottony whiteness guards hand out to us three at a time into stiff, black hulls.

Lillian’s poop didn’t stay put. A creamy sienna arc marred her white cotton blanket looking like an artist’s rendering of brown Kohl eyeliner. An older female guard noticed the mark as she toured our floor and did a cartoon-like double take. She looked at me, shook her head.

She’s going to do something about this, I know it, I thought

“Cock-a-doodle-doo,” she said and nothing more.

Every other inmate would have requested a move, humiliated the woman or beaten the shit – what remained – out of her. But Lillian’s menagerie of maladies would have made me feel like a piece of shit myself to throw her and her droppings into the lion’s den that every prison becomes. Not too proud to be writing about it now.

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She had all three. And then wore them again.

“Lillian, I’m going to ask the C/O if I can go over to A&D for some new underwear, OK?” I asked her. I hesitated to go behind her back on this, partly because it would be a betrayal, partly because going behind the back of a notorious S.H.I.Tter placed me in the line of fire. She agreed I could ask.

I returned with twelve new pairs of panties, thinking the collection could endure one week,  at which time I would re-up for her.

But in three days, supplies went scarce. The last pair lay crumpled between her ankles as she sat urinating.

“Lillian, I’m going to get you some new pairs, OK?”

“Don’t bother. I didn’t go in these underpants. Those marks are just from scratching.”

A judge let her and those very scratches out two days later but in those 48 hours, I realized that I might need to feel less miffed about my doo-doo pairings and maybe even flattered.

I spent hours every day looking for ways I was different from the other inmates. I wanted people who worked in the prison to think of me as more honest, kinder, more reasonable, reliable than the other women. I’m sure if they thought those things of me I could convince myself that I have those qualities, eventually. I liked thinking that the guards who placed me in these shitter cells had a measure of confidence in me. They would never trust me implicitly as an inmate but they understood me enough to know that I would never act like the typical York woman by abusing Lillian, displaying her accidents in ridicule, bullying her for her problems. They believed that I would act like an adult, at least in regards to her.

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This would be a clean day.

Because I convinced myself that I was assigned these cellmates out of a respect for my more mature behavior, I wasn’t surprised to find myself up another prisoner’s shit creek. Tracy pled ‘H. Pylori infection’ as the cause of her crapping but, to my knowledge, H. Pylori bacteria never caused their host to expel sooty waste on her apple-green sheets. Another ailment must have afflicted her, a problem that fouled the ambient air of the hallway. Other women attacked her mercilessly.

“Hey shitty!” Missy yelled and kicked our cell door so hard I bucked out of a sound sleep.

“Sorry,” Missy said to me. “Didn’t mean you.”

Other women tortured Tracy.

“You shitted yourself,” LaShawnda told her.

“When are you going to get the medical treatment you need?” Tessa needled her, taunted her, told her she stunk.

imageMy epiphany from my time with Lillian had not yet faded and I felt like I had to live up to the expectations the staff placed on me. Besides, I myself had been millimeters away from needing my driver’s side seat simonized from a near car accident – not the collision type, the runs type –  in 2001 when my ulcerative colitis emerged. If the colitis had not hidden in remission for ten years, the inmate with the trots on her cot could have been me, but for the grace of God and Prevacid.

“Look, anyone can have an accident,” I announced to the inmates on my floor. “You wouldn’t want anyone to tease and harass you if it happened to you.”

“I’d never have an accident,” Tessa spewed back.

“She smells. She’s unsanitary!” Missy spouted.

“You’re not being fair. She’s sick. Eventually this will stop,” I assured them.

“It’s not gonna stop. It’s gonna get worse,” Tessa warned me.

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Yes, pretty much.

“Well, either way, as her bunkie, I am the only person who is in a real position to bitch about it but I won’t because I’m trying to show a little compassion here.”

“You’re a better woman than I am,” Tessa confided in me and I agreed. Yeah, I am and that’s why I’m tagged with the shitters. I congratulated myself to sleep, satisfied that I had exceeded the expectations placed on me.

When I returned from work the next day, I had barely stepped into the hallway when the resident laundry worker’s announcement met me.

“Your roommate shitted herself again. This time at work, at commissary.”

Missy chimed in: “Yeah, big black stain on the back of her pants.”

“What did I tell you guys about this? Leave her alone,” I commanded.

“Yeah, I’ll leave her alone because I ain’t washing her clothes. They’re still in your cell, stinkin’,” the laundry lady told me. I peeked to see that they were. Tracy had returned to work, leaving little drops of dysentery next to her jeans on the cell’s molded-plastic chair and the toilet seat.

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I cleaned this stuff up, all because I believed they thought I was better than the rest.

“I have alcohol wipes. I’ll clean it up,” I assured the workers. I figured for the staff’s faith to vest in me fully, I had to take full responsibility in scenes like this, which I did, gingerly dabbing away specks of shit wearing latex gloves, even though I probably needed a hotsuit.

When Tracy traipsed back to our cell at the end of her shift, I asked her:

“Tracy, did you have another accident today?”

“No.”

“Yes you did! You shitted yourself!” came a scream from across the hall from LaShawnda.

“I didn’t have an accident!” Tracy shot back.

“You don’t have to explain anything to them, Tracy. It’s not their business,” I said to her and then boomed into the doorjamb to the other prisoners: “Please leave her alone.”

“I didn’t have an accident.”

“It’s OK if you did. You’re sick,” I sympathized.

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Straight outta the stain.

“Listen to me. It wasn’t an accident. I did it so they don’t pat search me with shit in my pants and I can get all this out.” Tracy opened the front of her drawers, ones she had just intentionally crapped in again, the second time that day, to reveal a bag of instant coffee, a bag of non-diary creamer, a Twix and a box of sugar substitute packets.

“I gotta shower again,” she tossed back at me as she headed out the door with her towel. Dumbfounded, I tried to accept that she had purposely detonated a poop-bomb in her pants so she could steal from her prison workplace.

“I feel so much better,” she sighed when she returned from the shower and tore open the gold Twix wrapper. “Want some?”

image“No,” I declined as I heard the horror of the laundry worker’s discovery that Tracy had deputized herself as laundry worker and put her dirty drawers in the washing machine, loosing e. coli and all sorts of sulfurs into the tub where all of us wash our clothes. In cold water only.

“Hey, Shitty!” the laundry worker screamed at Tracy. “Don’t put your shitty stuff in the washer. You want us all sick?”

“I didn’t have an accident,” she warbled with her mouth full of the butt-end of the Twix. She was telling the truth. A cacophony of inmate voices rose.

“You’re a dirty bitch!” yelled one.

“Keep your shit to yourself!” shouted another.

“A grown woman craps her pants? Who does that?!?” bitched a third.

I just let them go on. The staff never trusted me. They took me for a shit-stained sucker.

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Bozelko, I’m moving in.

 

READER POLL

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From palmbeachpost.com: Florida Man Indicted for Slaying after Dog Poop Argument

Omar Rodriguez has been charged with first-degree murder after shooting and killing man who let his dog poop on Rodriguez’s son’s lawn.

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13 July 2015

Perennial Bush

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“George Bush was president the last time I shaved my legs,” I announced from the shower.

“Thousand points of light,” said Diane, an older woman doing time for abusing her corporate credit card to buy household essentials as she waited for me to get out.

“George W., not the father; I’m not some kind of pig,” I schooled her.

imageI started shaving when I was ten years old, pilfering my mother’s yellow-handled metal razor from her shower.  Amateur that I was, I harvested a slice of skin worthy of grafting.  When my mother discovered my wound, she provided the few tips needed to qualify me for authorized use of a razor by a minor.  I used my new license to shave every day for almost 30 years, until I met York CI where the warden considers all tools of hair removal to be weapons – aside from factory-reject electric razors and Nair bottled in 1999.

The act of shaving was never a nuisance or a preference for me; it was automatic.  Neither a triangle of bristle near my ankles nor a strip of stubble on my shin ever appeared.  I never imagined a day when I would be prevented from my daily grooming routine.

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No cameras allowed inside York CI…but this could have been me.

I didn’t shave when I first arrived at prison; I never thought I would be here long enough to need a shave.   About six weeks into my stay, I sudsed up my washcloth, started to scrub and wondered how a Greek sailor got into the shower with me and left his toupée under my arm. My basement window wasn’t obscured by bushes; I had grown full hedges. All of this hair can’t be mine, I thought.  I didn’t even recognize myself.

Panicked, I purchased the electric razor from the prison commissary which barely removed any hair.  The rotating blades pressed against such cheap mesh guards that the lattice tore, leaving razor-tipped metal edges digging into my skin.  Scabs dotted my legs and when I tried switching methods, the Nair set the abrasions on fire.

Then, on top of these scabs, I developed a rash.  Prisons are the capitals of infectious disease; more than just the bad attitudes are contagious.  The prison doctor said he saw one red skin inflammation every year that defied diagnosis.  I won the completely- unidentifiable-irritation-award for three years running.

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I hated having to hike up my pantlegs during mini-searches to see if I was stowing contraband in my socks.

“Shaving or the clobetasol,” the doctor told me, holding out his hands like the competing sides of a scale, meaning that if I continued to shave with the razor that minced my skin into ground chuck, then he would stop prescribing the steroid cream that stopped the rash.  I pitched the razor and haven’t attempted hair removal since.

Women never consider the possibility that we may, at some point, be unable to groom ourselves or control how we look.  If we do, we usually associate that inability to primp with death, not living in tight quarters, undergoing daily scrutiny and surveillance.  Sure, my new hirsute identity elected not to shave but, as for most prisoners’ actions, conditions compelled my choice; in prison, restriction always anchors one’s free will.

Being unable to control our appearances can be traumatic, harrowing.  That’s the real punishment for women in prison – the powerlessness to look the way we choose.  Women’s magazines succeed because we like learning what else we can do to change, enhance or delete from our appearance so that we’re not always stuck with what occurs naturally.  Proving that appearance is no minor concern, the mere chance to change our own attributes spurred a 90 billion dollar a year cosmetics industry, a multi-billion dollar plastic surgery industry and Adobe Photoshop.  Private enterprise loves to make money off prisoners; the decision not to allow makeup or other image enhancers in women’s prisons is not because no one on the inside would buy the products.  We would.  I suppose that denying these products is part of correction, an imposition of humility on incarcerated women.

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This is the machine Kafka envisioned for carving your judgment into your skin. Wear it, honey.

Sentences of mere confinement were too easy in Franz Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony, where guilt was “never to be doubted.”  In the colony, wardens carved prisoners’ punishments into their backs with needles over and over again until the carvings lacerated their bodies to the point of death.  The executioner required onlookers to watch the visible demarcations of punishment.  Beheading or poisoning the prisoner would have been more efficient yet it would have been insufficient.  It is never enough that someone suffers punishment; a prisoner has to wear it before he dies.

External manifestations of punishment are hardly new.  From Hester Prynne’s crimson vowel to the six-pointed yellow stars worn by Jews in Nazi Germany, few can deny the connection between reckoning and appearance.  Your just desserts have to be spilled down the front of your shirt.  Revisitation of karma must lay track marks.  Even Jesus Christ who rose from the dead couldn’t shake his stigmata.  Prevention, people will tell you, is why these brandings are necessary; prevention of escape, prevention of another offense.  Everyone must know you did wrong just from looking at you.  Knowing that you are helpless – that you’re not ready for your close up when you’re ready for your cuff up – to control how you look is the real penalty.  The real rebuke is ugliness.

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I’m pretty sure she wore black stockings because she didn’t shave her legs.

Nowhere is this lesson more apparent than in how we criticized Lindsay Lohan in her court appearances last year when she was accused of stealing a necklace from jeweler Kamofie and Co. in Los Angeles.  Of course, in this country, no defendant is actually considered innocent until proven guilty.  We suspect someone is guilty until she looks terrible, and when she does look bad, we know she’s guilty for sure.

Lohan appeared in court on March 10, 2011 in an awkwardly adjusted, Raquel Allegra buff-colored leather dress and a Judith Ripka diamond pendant that few others can afford.  Was it really the fit of the dress or the cost of the diamond that offended us, or its function?  Lindsay used the dress and the diamond to look good, so different from all of the other defendants in court that day.  Lindsay denied those people who remain unaccused of wrongdoing the right to look better than those people who face accusations.  How dare she?

Even as my own trial unfolded in the local newspaper, reporting inaccuracies and the names the press called me bothered me but not enough; I was just glad that Connecticut courtrooms disallow cameras.  Because of this rule, no reporters carried cameras with them to snap photos of me outside the courthouse.  They had no chance to see the hair on my legs because it wasn’t even there yet, so that was not the cause of my trepidation.  Readers of the local press drew incorrect conclusions about my character and the evidence against me.  But my overall appearance was still inconclusive to them and I was OK with that because no one could assess my case based on whether someone though I looked good or bad.  Think about every trial you’ve seen on TV and try to deny that the defendant’s appearance did not affect your evaluation of the evidence and the verdict.

imageI must admit that not shaving, or not grooming myself, has caused a new form of self-rejection.  I never look down or to the sides when I dress.  Nightmares of strapless dresses and shorts recur weekly.  I shower with one eye closed so I can’t see the locks on or between my legs.  I refuse to wear shorts in deference to the public aesthetic.  As a result, I am so alien to my own body that I don’t even know if I’m bleeding.  So unfamiliar am I that I discovered a days-old cut on my leg after I parted the hair to see why a minor knock hurt so much.  I don’t know how I got it; it had already begun to heal.

imageWomen rarely shave in Europe, other inmates remind me, as if they have been there.  I never shaved to fit in.  I shaved because the activity revealed my body to me.  I knew the slopes and scars, curves and craters.  Admittedly, I never liked terrain; it was always too something, fat, short, wide or white.  Through shaving, though, I understood the condition of my skin, the largest organ I have, even with the imperfections I have inventoried.  When I shaved, I accepted myself more even though I was conforming to an external beauty standard.  I sound overly trite when I say this, but I bared myself to myself.  It’s a hard thing for me to do physically or emotionally after being society’s rejects for so long.

Psychologists say that women experiencing emotional pain tend to cover up to protect themselves and to prevent scrutiny.  They do it with fat, baggy clothes, or whatever works.  I sprout a thick enough coat to do the same with hair except I enjoy the added benefit of fending off lesbian suitors silently when they sneak a peek through the shower curtain.  I never thought I would miss the flaws of my short little legs so much that I would want to bare my body more, both to myself and to others but I do.  I doubt that is a bad thing.  More than just to get rid of the hair, I cannot wait to shave so I can know what I really look like again.  I wonder if it will be before Obama leaves office.

READER POLL

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From solitarywatch.com: Kafka and the Debate over Solitary Confinement

Franz Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony” celebrated its 100th birthday last week. One law professor believes that the story shows the dangers of solitary confinement specifically and unchecked prison management generally.

Which state is the new Kafkaesque penal colony?

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6 July 2015

Miss Independent

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food stamps

“You’ve been placed on the wait list for Re-Entry Group,” the counselor told me.

“What’s … what is that?”social services

“It’s essentially a class where they help you with benefits, teach you how to sign up for welfare.”

“Someone needs to be trained to sign up for welfare?”

“Food Stamps, you know, Title 19.”  She obviously misunderstood my question.

“I know what welfare is but I thought people just signed up for it.  You’re telling me now people have to be trained for it?”

“It’s so you know what to do when you leave.”

“I’m not applying for any assistance when I leave but… you’re training people to sign up for welfare…not for like, a job or something?”  I lost her in the irony but it was not lost on me.  I remembered that old joke:  “How do you turn a conservative into a liberal?”  “You have her arrested?”  Except I am living an extension of that joke:  “How do you turn the liberal back into a conservative?”  “Send her to prison.”  After six years, I’ve been sent, all right.

welfare queen cartoonAll of my progressive beliefs were reinforced when I was arrested.  Along with me, long lines of the uneducated, the unwashed and the unemployed shuffled through the courthouse doors, processed to placement in jail or replacement in more of the same.  The State has failed them, I thought, and provided insufficient assistance to keep them out of this line in the first place.  As angry as I was about my own charges, I never really thought that anyone might have failed me because I never needed an entitlement program. I assumed that I wasn’t entitled to much; I was entitled to everything. And to keep myself nice and liberal, I thought everyone else was entitled to the same. That sounds fair, right? Everyone gets everything. Like an audience at at a taping of Oprah.

I wish I could have seen the expression on my face,  I wonder how liberal I really looked each time I’ve heard another story about public programs the other women had used; hospitals, rehabs, behavior-modification programs, Social Security, job corps.  One female inmate equals millions of dollars of policy failure with some fraud mixed in.

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I believe it.

Some inmates dealt drugs from their state-funded respite homes.  Women embodying the entrepreneurial spirit of America spent cash payments from Social Security to start online escort services, (“After all,” one inmate told me, “small business is the key to ending this recession.”)  SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name for what everyone calls food stamps) funds were used to purchase Enfamil, which was then cut with flour and sold to local bodegas for half the retail price in cash.  I doubt President Lyndon B. Johnson factored in virtual brothels and bootleg baby formula when envisioned the Great Society.  At least the government’s largesse never undermined these women’s work ethic.  Who said Welfare-to-Work never works? I thought.  These women used their benefits from welfare to work a good many of us over.

I always understood an institutionalized person to be someone who felt more comfortable inside an institution than outside of it, feeling like it was a home instead of a temporary dwelling.  But ‘institutionalized’ really means that people look to the government first to meet their needs.  The “Re-Entry Group” would churn me out as one, too.

“Do I have to take this class?  I mean, it’s required?” I pressed on with the counselor.

liquor food stamps“Yeah.  Unless you want to lose good time [time credited against a sentence for good behavior].”  I would be a bad girl if DOC couldn’t condition me for time on the dole.  She finished with “You’re on the waiting list.  They’ll call you when it starts.”

I was about to say it but I nipped my lip:  “Call me lazy but I’m not showing up for any class that trains me for welfare.

They never called me for the class.  Oversight or the result of careful thought about how Re-Entry Group turns real poverty into a knee-slapper and fraud into fiscal frolic, I cannot say.  I inquired once about how the public-assistance ropes course never contacted me and another counselor told me:

“Ummm … I don’t think that was supposed to be one of your requirements.”

privelege card
Am I trading this…

“Discrimination.  Are you keeping me out of the class because I was born with a work ethic?”  I figured that she wouldn’t understand my snappy rebuttal just like the first counselor didn’t get the joke.   I hate having to footnote everything I say with “I was kidding” or “I wasn’t serious when I said that” or “That was a joke,” yet I continue to dance on the line of wise-assery. I think I rationalized it as sport for because I assumed that everyone else was gaming the system.

“No, I think you’re out because you’re going home to a mansion in Orange,” she said smilingly. The joke was on me.

ebt card
…for this?

“It’s not a mansion,” I said but I knew what she was saying. It’s definitely not a mansion but I would return to a comfortable home that contains a sinful glut of food. Even without health insurance, my expensive education would enable me to figure out some way to get the care I need.  I didn’t want to acceptthe fact that I will be poor when I go home because even I can’t feel that sorry for myself; even if I’m poor I’ll never be destitute because of my privileged background. For six years of prison as someone who never utilized an entitlement program, whenever I saw a light at the end of the tunnel, I guffawed and wondered when it would blink out because someone used her Social Security to buy Bose headphones instead of paying the electric bill.  But the naysayer in me isn’t really entitled to be so smug. For anyone who leaves prison, freedom will not mean independence. At least not for a long time.

“So, when someone needs food stamps, what do they do? Like what happens…you go to an office and what?” I asked a couple of other workers at lunch after our shift.

will work for welfareThey explained and dethroned the welfare queen stereotype for me.  Living solely off entitlements is not for the lazy; welfare is a full-time job.  To receive disability payments, beneficiaries must round circuits of doctors and wait in lines of DMV-inspired length to complete paperwork.  Section 8 housing assistance requires its blessed to wait interminably for entry into a lottery; it’s not easy to get help with shelter, you need luck as well as low income.  Acquiring everything someone needs to stock a kitchen requires more than food stamps; the hungry in our society must cycle through food pantries in various towns over and over.  Then, to get the incidental necessities in life – diapers, school supplies for your children, bus passes – you must remain on high alert for public announcements of give-aways and drives.  It must be easier to work 40 hours per week plus overtime than to go through all of this; receiving assistance takes endurance and initiative.  That’s the real joke.

downsides of white privelege

READER POLL

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From CNN Money: One in five children receives food stamps. The problem is worse in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Can a mother or father leave prison and not accept public assistance?

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4 July 2015

Happy 4th of July from Prison Diaries

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Celebrating independence and freedom has special significance for anyone who was incarcerated. This Fourth of July, Prison Diaries salutes all the service dog training programs in prisons because they not only free inmates – if only in spirit – they also export independence for differently-abled persons.

Prison Diaries also salutes our friend, Spann Cordle, a former parole and probation officer who currently lives in Georgia with his service dog, Finn. Spann is the star-spangled example of independence as he advocates for people with disabilities by consulting with clients on compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. His website, www.spannsworld.net, contains pics and his story, as well as links to all the press coverage he has received but, in Prison Diaries’ humble opinion, Spann deserves more attention than he gets. Check out Spann’s site and tweet/digg/spread this link using one of the buttons above.  Spann’s is a story worth sharing.

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Spann Cordle and Finn

 

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