31 August 2015

Orange Is the New Blah Blah

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The original sign, on the back of a commissary form.

 

As soon as I taped the sign on my cell door, using a label I ripped off my Vitamin E Gel, Soledad approached my door, read the sign and knocked while she poked her head inside the cell.

“Everything OK?”image

“Yes. I just want some silence.”

“OK. You heard we supposed to be locked down on….”

“Soledad, please. The sign.”

“Oh, OK, OK. I just wanted to make sure that you were OK. I’ll check on you later.”

Emblazoning my cell door  with the sign attracted all the magpies.

“Chandra, you better not let the C/O see that sticker from the lotion bottle.”

“I tole you stop helping these bitches. They makin’ you crazy.”

“You think anybody gonna respect that sign?”

imageI ended up inviting more attempts at conversation than without the sign. But that’s what happens with female prisoners: any attempt to stifle their chit-chat boomerangs with a bigger barrage of words than was coming anyway.

I see it most in emergencies, lockdowns, tense situations. A lieutenant can be red in the face, carotid artery puffed out on his neck as he stomps and shrieks his way toward that quiet settlement called Strokeville.

“NO TALKING!!”

I would expect the din to deflate like someone unplugged the world. But you can still hear a giggle, a mumble and a whisper.

“NEXT ONE WHO TALKS GOES STRAIGHT TO THE BOX!!”image

But Next One does talk and One After responds and The Third overhears and footnotes the conversation. They say the main affliction in a prison is addiction, that women have become slaves to some substance, but that’s not true. Compulsion – not being able to stop – is what plagues female prisoners. Words press out of inmates so fiercely that they have to set them free.

Their words would be fine if they had value but almost everything that tumbles out of an inmate’s mouth is overextended, pointless, insulting to at least one person and grammatically funky. No one here is pithy. Maybe me.

imageAnd I’m becoming even more economical because I’m going deaf from all the noise in here, a condition that makes women come at me even harder to make their non-existent points. They are compelled to pollute my air with their words. Have to do it. Have to.

They carp complaints, inventories of insufficiencies about the prison or their families or the criminal justice system or what a correctional officer said to them. I never hear: “I’m surprised; the counselor really responded quickly this time,” or “Wow, that guy at the discipline board was pretty fair.” It does happen occasionally.

Instead, everything oppresses them, even the consequences they know are guaranteed to follow from their actions. In the final analysis, very little of what happens inside a prison is that surprising. Often I’ve been shocked but the law of cause and effect is strictly adhered to in here. If you steal from work, then eventually someone will catch and fire you. If you screw with the lock on your cell door to keep it from securing properly, a guard will shake it down, maybe give you a ticket. If you rat someone out just to see her suffer, the ratting will revisit you in repulsive ways.

Likewise, pouring out piddling, quibbling words woos empty assurances that things can get better.image

I know that people need to vent. I do, too. I am squarely on the record championing the use of psychotherapy – talking as a cure – rather than swallowing psychotropic meds like Tic-Tacs. But venting should bring cleansing, an emptying of sorts, catharsis, not cataclysm.  I’ve said it before, but I still believe it: there’s a difference between having a voice and having an audience. Having a voice is knowing that what one says has merit, and force, regardless of its results. Having an audience is an opportunity for a pitch, to get results regardless of what one is saying.

Amid all the words, I almost never hear the phrase “model inmate.” “Quiet” is the one-word description for inmates who are well-behaved, telling how closely talkativeness and trouble can get. A quiet inmate doesn’t pick fights, argue with staff or cause chaos. I counted all the offenses in the inmate handbook, the Code of Penal Discipline. Twenty-one of 44 offenses are easily committed just by running one’s mouth too much.

“Don’t you think that they should offer a group called ‘Silence is Golden’ that would require everyone to sit for 50 minutes without uttering one word?” I pitched the idea to an inmate with 30 years of recidivism.bianca-hall-silence-is-golden-neon-sign-exclusive-to-rockett-st-george-5576-p

“Nah. No one would ever get the certificate,” she dismissed. In here, it’s all about the wannabe diplomas, empty words on paper.

“Maybe they wouldn’t stay quiet at first, but over time they might,” I offered.

“Nah. Bitches can’t close they mouths for one minute.”

I was tired of talking so I conceded. “You’re right.”

Conversation can’t talk rehabilitation off the ledge; real reform goes out the window when inmates babble more than they do anything else. Worthwhile introspection – all those searches like “fearless moral inventories” or “admitting you’re powerless” – can’t happen when you’re bullshitting with the inmate who works in the gym. It just can’t.

imageThat’s ultimately why everyone in a women’s prison talks so much: distraction from their misdeeds, sociability to cover for anti-social behavior. When the only thing talking to you is your conscience, lessons can be learned, unless you’re kibbitzing with the woman on your right. Constantly yapping with the other inmates – Did you see what the captain said to Wanda when she told him they keep letting us out five minutes late for rec? – causes your conscience to recede and become that quiet inmate who doesn’t cause any trouble.

Philosophers and scientists throughout history required absolute silence – verbal stillness – to make the breakthroughs that underpin modern convenience. Thomas Edison didn’t happen upon the lightbulb while he was trying to design a strobe light for his next rave. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke would never have formulated their theories on the social compact if they had swingin’ social lives. Even the framers of the Constitution – that paper that serves as the inmate’s virtual prison bars or her escape route, depending on how good her lawyer is – instituted a “no non-essential talking” rule that all of them followed without duress so that they could define our rights. Then some other framers came along and slapped an amendment on that paper granting us the right to remain silent, a law that suggests It’s- often-wise-to-shut-up-so-why-don’t-you-do-so?

No one in here respects the right to remain silent, even when you assert it with a sign on your door.

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Please.

 READER POLL

From the Hartford Courant: Fewer Job Centers Diminish Second Chances

malloy

The State of Connecticut is at a crossroads: Governor Dannell P. Malloy can either live up to its spoken promise to reduce the prison population or it can allow the local job centers to close and guarantee recidivism when released offenders cannot find employment.

Should Connecticut Governor Malloy parole low-level offenders now to save 95 jobs and six job centers?

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24 August 2015

Not Unusual Enough

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“The Healing of the Woman with Issue of Blood”

“I mean, I’m basically biblical at this point,” I said, referencing the hemorrhaging woman cured by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. Like her, I had been bleeding for years at this point and I was begging for help from the OB-GYN, Dr. Fetal Pig, who is far from divine, and I couldn’t have grabbed the edge of her lab coat without being re-arrested.

No one can convince me that Fetal Pig doesn’t drive home – to the closest high school biology laboratory – in a jar of formaldehyde. I have no place to criticize anyone else’s looks, but F. Pig, MD is an appropriate name for the prison’s rug doctor because she is a chauvinist, blindly loyal to her own, to the establishment and clearly unconcerned about female inmates’ health. If I hadn’t made advance plans for procreation years ago, I would have been so scared about my reproductive future that I would have dissected her myself even though I am not given to violence, especially against scholastic subjects.

“Everything is fine,” she said peering through a microscope at my crotch samples. “You must be spotting from stress.”

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Good day, doctor.

“For two years? I’m spotting from stress for two years?”

“How long have you been here?”

“Five years.”

“See? That’s why. It’s a stressful, stressful place.”

“I mean…shouldn’t I have been spotting for five years then? Why did it start after three? It’s not like regular menstrual blood. It’s more dilute.”

“It’s just spotting,” she announced after she turned from the microscope. “Nothing to worry about.”

I left her office and continued to diaper myself as I had been for almost 24 months. Whipping the adhesive backing off sanitary pads and liners, leaving wrappers everywhere, I wondered why any man would ever want to be a woman, remembering how another prisoner, Bradley Manning, the army private sentenced to 35 years in Fort Leavenworth for leaking classified government files, had been calling himself Chelsea lately, saying that Manning is no man at all, but transgendered male.

imageFrom prison, the only place where such a statement like “She’s a boy” is easily understood, a place where gender and biological sex run away from each other, Manning says he has been “a woman since he was a little boy.” I read in the paper that the private sought to receive hormone therapy to bud Chelsea’s new private parts and may eventually seek gender reassignment surgery. Chelsea can refuse to provide the crotch samples I had so willingly surrendered but rather tell them: “Take it all!” And the weird part, I thought, as I papered up my private parts, was that Chelsea might actually get the the hormone therapy while she’s incarcerated.

Federal courts have held that the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment requires individualized assessment of whether a prisoner needs specialized medical treatment. For transgender inmates, men who aspire to bleed like I do, and others diagnosed with gender dysphoria, assessment and treatment might include the hormone therapy that Chelsea wants because, according to the courts, lack of such therapy for the transgendered male causes depression, self-mutilation and suicide attempts.

imageThe idea that Chelsea Manning might get hormone therapy and a whole new chasse wouldn’t twist my panties at all if other prisoners saw their Eighth Amendment rights protected. I’m bleeding to death but I get nary an extra maxi-pad. My roommate’s femur juts out from her hip at a 45 degree angle; then her tibia angles in at 45 degrees because her knee needs replacing.  Her surgery has been cancelled because she was supposed to parole but then she didn’t parole so she hobbles down the prison walkway. Doctors cut every nerve in the shoulder of an inmate here who underwent surgery at UCONN Medical Center for a rotator cuff injury.

But Chelsea Manning might get bigger boobs than mine because of hormone therapy when I might be dying? The framers of the Bill of Rights are flipping in their graves and grabbing their balls as I list the examples of real Eighth Amendment violations that will continue to be ignored because they don’t have Wikileaks case or a politically-charged condition like gender dysphoria. I don’t begrudge her the hormones at all but I think this is improper correctional triage.

During a meeting with one of the facility docs to review recent lab results on my thyroid function, Dr. Crayfish scrolled up and down the computer profile for inmate lab results and asked me:

“Do you know there’s been blood in your urine since September 2011?”

“No.… It’s 2014.”

“I know but each urine since then has big, big hemoglobin in it.”

“Well, I’ve been spotting. Fetal Pig has examined me several times and she said…”image

“When did you start spotting?”

“Two years ago.”

“No, the blood in your urine started before the spotting.”

“Is the blood in my urine the spotting itself? Is that what you’re saying?”

“I’m saying that this needs to be checked before you leave [the facility].”

“Why hasn’t Fetal Pig informed me of this?”

“Oh,” he said as if his answer was easy and rational. “Urinalysis is always at the bottom of the lab profile. You have to scroll down, like forever, to get to yours because you’ve been here so long.” I knew what he meant: no one bothered to look. To him, this was normal and acceptable.

When one considers what constitutes an Eighth Amendment violation it’s a wonder that anyone even bothers to make a claim of cruel and unusual punishment. The legal standard is deliberate indifference. It’s like an intentional accident, calculated coincidence or a planned fluke; even in theory, the standard isn’t real.

imageTo prove that allowing me to bleed like this violated my constitutional rights, first I would have had to prove an objective element of my claim “the serious medical need” that went untreated – which is next to impossible because Fetal Pig was downplaying whatever was wrong with me and writing in my chart that I was fine. I could never provide evidence that whatever I’m suffering from now is anything in particular.

Second, I would have to prove that Fetal Pig knew about the blood in my urine and consciously disregarded it. I know that Dr. Pig didn’t know about the blood in my urine because, as Crayfish said, it was way at the bottom of my lab profile. This means that my claim of cruel and unusual punishment would fail. But Chelsea’s claim has a chance.

imageThe fact that Fetal Pig should have known, should have used her tiny hoof on her mouse to scroll through all of my lab results but failed to do so, would not matter in an claim of cruel and unusual punishment. The fact that I was later diagnosed with a urinary tract infection that they could have found and treated earlier is not an Eighth Amendment violation by itself; it’s only malpractice.  And that’s okay because this is a prison; correctional medicine expert Michael Puisis said that prisons hire doctors who “would not be acceptable to practice in a free-world civilian sector.”

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An inmate tombstone.

Deliberately indifferent is how correctional medicine is practiced; it’s the norm. In fact, the apathy infects so much of correctional health care that proving it in civil court is almost impossible since evidence in litigation usually points up the digressions, departures from the norm, not the norm itself. There’s no deviation from the standard of care here because there is no standard of care. Malpractice is so pervasive that it doesn’t exist in a correctional setting.

I guess the lesson still awaits Chelsea that something else leads to the cruel and unusual badness of depression and self-loathing: incarceration itself, especially the mundane medical mishaps that happen apart from sex changes. No matter how badly they handle Chelsea’s unique medical concerns, it will never be an Eighth Amendment violation that can free her from confinement. Even getting the hormone therapy won’t be a divine cure. She – like the rest of us – will still live in cruel circumstances that are not unusual enough.

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 READER POLL

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From the Guardian: Chelsea Manning Found Guilty but Spared Solitary Confinement

Chelsea Manning was written up and received a 21 day sanction of loss of recreation privileges for possessing contraband and allegedly disrespecting a guard, along with tossing a mustard packet.

Was her sanction fair?

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17 August 2015

Entitled

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I usually meet them at work as they toil alongside me, lifting fifty-pound bales of carrots.

“Yo, my disability check is late,” they say as they stack thirty-six pound boxes of frozen zucchini.

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If you can load and unload this, you’re not totally disabled. But if you load and unload it in prison, you are.

“You can’t collect that in here,” I explain to them.

“Yeah, ma, I’m disabled,” they retort as they balance forty pounds of margarine on a sheet pan.

“No, they’ve cut you off. You’re not collecting anything while you’re in here. I know. I used to represent people in front of Social Security.”

“No, ma.”

“Yes,” I insist.

And on it goes.

imageBecause many women here are recidivists, they have not only been in prison before, but they’ve also left prison before which means that someone, as they were headed towards discharge, pushed them to apply for SSI benefits. They think that those checks are the same as SSDI, so they call them “disability.” One needs to have some disability to collect SSI, too, but it’s mostly a welfare program, which means they shouldn’t be collecting it while they’re in prison.

It would almost be fraud to able-bodied women to collect SSI payments but Supplemental Security Income has nothing to do with someone’s inability to work in my opinion. SSI checks are essentially a bribe – albeit not a worthwhile one – from the government to certain people to keep them out of the workforce. That’s why so many released prisoners collect it: no one wants them around so the government steps in to protect a bunch of businesses by throwing 900 bucks a month to the rotten apples.

The inmates sense this truth even if they don’t accept it outright. Some prisoner (who I assumed was male because no other female prisoner besides me would have the gumption to do anything about collective social problems) typed instructions on collecting SSI.

Go to your local SOCIAL SECURITY office and tell them that you’re DISABLED because you’ve been INCARCERATED and it made you DEPRESSED so you can’t WORK. You are entitled to 900 (NINE HUNDRED) dollars in EMERGENCY DISABILITY CASH  IMMEDIATELY when you get out of PRISON,” the flyer read.

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Not so fast.

“Is this true?” they run up and ask me, flipping the typed instructions.

“No,” I burst their bubbles each time, even though they’re visibly nervous about making a living as felons who lost years of productivity to the penal code. Maybe I should be more comforting but sometimes they seem to want a life sentence of uselessness a little too much.

I understand how they feel; they hope something will offset the time they will spend looking for a job because felony convictions are disabilities. Even though they’re mentally and physically capable, everyone in the system goads them into applying for SSI as a safety net. Released offenders so overuse Social Security that the entitlement program for legitimately injured or ill people has become a re-entry strategy.  But Social Security was never designed to be a failsafe when you’re a personal failure. When you fail, you’re supposed to rehabilitate yourself – with help, of course – not concede that you can’t do anything, especially when you can.

I’m probably more pissed about the Social Security thing because doctors in the past suggested I should apply for it.

“It’s free money. Why don’t you just apply?” Dr. Fivel asked me.

image“Because I’m not disabled,” I answered him. “And let’s not even get into the disturbing fact that an M.D. thinks there’s something like ‘free money.’ You people think anyone with a diagnosis – however erroneous it is – should find a silver – or is it nickel? – lining in the illnesses you press on them should squeeze some ‘free money’ out of the government. Of course, this comes from the assholes who invented the 50 minute hour. Maybe you need the remaining ten minutes to bone up on macroeconomics.”

I see how I did little to improve shrinks’ vision of me. But why would someone who has a diagnosis – or any problem – necessarily be disabled? Isn’t there something I can do? Of course, there is. It’s just that no one wants me to do it. At least not around them.

That’s my biggest problem with pushing prisoners onto Social Security. It tells them that there’s something inherently wrong with them that handicaps their future success rather just admitting that something they did was wrong and they can reform themselves. Not to mention that it excuses every form of discrimination used against people with criminal records when they look for employment. FDR didn’t sign the landmark legislation so people could continue to be assholes to us even after we leave prison. Like we corrupt so much else, offenders corrupt the goal of Social Security with applications for assistance we shouldn’t need because we can’t absorb ourselves back into society. And on it goes.

Even one of the unit social workers approached me and asked me about the typed flyer.

“They can’t get SSDI for depression?” image

“They can apply for SSI for a diagnosis of depression, but it will take months to start. It can’t help them when they hit the streets. They’ll need help from someone else in the meantime if they can’t get jobs.” I hate having to instruct people with more power than I have.

“You mean SSDI and SSI aren’t the same thing?” she asked me.

“No, SSDI is for people who paid into the system. Unfortunately, these women haven’t been able to do that.”

“And they won’t be able to, either,” she conceded.

 

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READER POLL

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From the Los Angeles Times: On Social Security’s 80th Birthday, A Dangerous Leadership Vacuum

The United States hasn’t had a commissioner for our Social Security Administration since 2013.

Is this any way to treat a program that keeps our elderly citizens out of poverty?

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10 August 2015

Probable Pause

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post_1492155_1238532340_med

 

The “probable cause” standard for arresting someone dips lower and lower each year.  The legal standard used to be that it was as likely that a suspect committed a crime as it was that she was innocent, a 50-50 split on the cops chances of catching the right woman.  Now what you have on – or have on you – can collar you for prostitution without money or sex in the offing.

imageIn five-plus years of incarceration, I have encountered hundreds of women accused or convicted of prostitution.  Even though they all wear the same outfit as I do when I interact with them – “uniform of the day” of baggy blue jeans and a burgundy T-shirt – I always envision them wearing the same thing when they work:  a sequined miniskirt, thigh-high stiletto boots and a cropped jacket made of faux fur.  I have succumbed to the celluloid stereotype of the streetwalker myself, as broadminded as I pretend to be about depictions of prostitutes painted with a broad brush.

Ginia Bellafante’s April 7, 2013 “Big City” column in The New York Times reminded me just how much we rely on clichés to make decisions.  Bellafante reported the story of Yhatzine Lafontain, a man falsely arrested in Queens, New York for prostitution simply for wearing “a jacket, a short dress and heels,” attributing Lafontain’s false arrest to the stop-and-frisk vortex circling New York’s five boroughs.  It’s no slippery informant tipping off NYPD to make these prostitution arrests, but people’s clothing ensembles.

imageEveryone is guilty of depending on stereotypes whether we cop to it or not.  We expect terrorists to be swarthy, turban-wearing Middle Easterners.  We assume dorky-looking Asians to be brilliant.  Every spurned woman is a stalker and any poor soul afflicted with mental illness and messy hair is planning a rampage killing.  Anyone walking a New York City street in the middle of the night with heels, a mini and a furry windbreaker?  That’s a hooker in our minds.

The truth eventually wanders into our minds and aborts our pre-conceived notions, isolated examples like Mr. Lafontain that remind us that not only are these exceptions not the rule but sometimes the rule is not the rule either.  The thoughtful among us retain this information and prevent our stereotypes from taking action but police, those people discouraged from thinking and pushed toward profiling, march lockstep with careless classification when they make arrests for prostitution like Mr. Lafontain’s.

POL-ProbCause-2That 50/50 split that is probable cause is so easily influenced by our preconceptions and prejudices. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if an arrest wasn’t the kick-off it is to a years-long ordeal that includes arraignment, definitely pre-trial, possibly trial, probably conviction and unfortunately incarceration. Our country’s crisis of mass incarceration has been set off by our misperceptions. Millions of people lose their freedom and billions of dollars are spent because of mistakes.

The question of whether or not to arrest someone for prostitution based on what s/he wears does not blend well with debates about profiling for terror or rampage killings because, regardless of profiling’s efficacy, the events that police seek to prevent by profiling are deadly.  Collaring someone for prostitution doesn’t save lives like that; at best, it’s cock-blocking.  At worst, it is the most insidious mode of judgment, bumping the contents for the cover and it corrupts every constitutional protection belonging to a dude in heels.

Transsexuals in Brazil by Pep Bonet / NOORSome might say that preventing consummation of the deal between a prostitute and her customer can save lives because it prevents transmission of deadly sexually transmitted diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, but people in the sex trade don’t tote condoms like they used to, ever since police in large cities across the country used the number of rubbers someone carried with her as probable cause for a prostitution arrest.  Up to three prophylactics in your pocket when you’re trying to cross the street?  You’re just a slut.  Four or more?  You’re a paid whore.  It’s this ugly math that causes prostitutes – and everyone else – to leave the Trojans at home so they don’t end up in cuffs.  So no, prejudice and profiling in prostitution save no lives; they just imperils them, even if several large cities’ police forces have entered moratoriums on condom-counting as probable cause.

imageBesides, the streetwalker went inside years ago.  Prostitution transactions occur on the internet and then are consummated at truck stops, casinos or motels.  Or they happen in day spas that are really brothels with a steam room and a few manicurists.  See?  Stereotypes again.

Fifty years ago this year, two treatises on prejudice and stereotypes emerged as alarms about how we view gender and race:  Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  One essential message contained in both was that reality – and justice and fairness – was beneath the surface.  Confining people – in jails or in society’s imposed roles –based on appearances makes a mess and a mockery of every good thing we do.

These wake-up calls have sounded in our ears for half a century and, if Yhatzine Lafontain’s arrest for his clothing choice serves as any indication, we still slap the snooze button to silence these alarms every time we charge someone with prostitution for what they wear.

 READER POLL

Lena-Loser-Sign

From feministing.com: Stay in Your Lane: We Don’t Need Rich White Actresses’ Comments on Sex Work

Advocates for LGBTQI sex workers basically told wealthier white women to shove it when they registered their opinion on Amnesty International’s recommendation that sex work should be completely decriminalized. The reasoning? Rich white women can’t really know the risks and realities of having to sell sex.

Do you agree that privileged people have no say in debates over social problems they have never experienced?

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3 August 2015

Get Your Learn On

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san quentin class of 99

If my alma mater admitted some of these women, I would blow.

Women here at York spent this weekend writing two page essays as part of their applications to Wesleyan University’s prison education program whereby the elite school offers liberal arts courses to prisoners that, over time, may allow them to earn a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan.

Wesleyan to offer Wesleyan courses and credits to 19 prisoners
Click here for more information on Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education

Few people understand what a revolution this is and how every citizen in Connecticut stands to benefit from Wesleyan’s bravery.  Studies have revealed repeatedly that inmates who take college classes are four times less likely to re-offend than those who do not; when offered to prisoners, college courses, not the Department of Correction’s hokey, unfocused Offender Accountability Plan programs, provide the best defense against recidivism.  Despite education’s promise in rehabilitating inmates, Connecticut prisons don’t universally offer higher education and in the past they made it almost impossible for local colleges and universities to send in professors to teach these classes behind bars.

But Wesleyan busted past this bullshit and is accepting a freshman class of seasoned female cons.

At the first level of admissions testing, a timed essay that evaluated reading comprehension and written expression, Wesleyan directed the wheat to line up in one place and the chaff to assemble in another.  Or so I thought; I didn’t take the exam but I read a copy of it in its aftermath as chaff blew everywhere like dandelion spores.

wesylan cardina;Two inmates cheated on the entrance exam, each partially writing the other’s answer.  Their constant chatter disturbed other aspiring Wesleyan Cardinals.  I witnessed none of this but I did overhear one of the disruptive duo ask someone if she thought that Wesleyan’s exam readers would mind that both her and her girlfriend’s essay were each written in “two different handwritings.” Both of the talking, cheating inmates passed to the second level of admissions testing; Wesleyan told almost forty other candidates that their essays left them at the front door, no further.  They will not get a chance to take classes.

The more-than-forty second-round candidates received instructions to write a two to three page take-home essay this weekend on one of three questions:  1) describe a time at which something unexpected happened; 2) describe a time when you used or rejected silence as communication and 3) describe an event, object, place or person that looks much different in close focus than it does from a distance.  Unfortunately, I viewed this second round of writing up close.

Inmates scribbled out first drafts and then strategized.  One woman – whom I know to be a very competent writer – farmed her essay out to another woman whom she will pay with oral sex and Coffee-Mate non-dairy creamer.

motherlode-essays-blog480Others solicited opinions, corrections, suggestions from anyone who would read their essays.  A Jewish inmate read a woman’s strident essay about the Jehovah Witnesses’ ethic of avoiding silence and speaking to elders in Kingdom Hall to quiet temptations to sin.  Her critique of the piece was: “Jehovah’s Witnesses are pushy doorbell ringers.  You will offend the admissions people sounding like a religious nut.”

And the fight was on.

Essays were passed around by applicants who feared their essays might be off-putting. Critiques fell on deaf ears and overly-sensitive nerves.  Women argued constantly, fearful they might be left out of this chance to live, if only for 90-minute intervals, like successful individuals.

“You’re saying I’m dumb because I don’t know the word you used!” exclaimed one woman, tearing up and locking herself in her cell.

“How would you like it if I told Wesleyan how much Winky [that’s me – long story] helped you? Maybe Winky even wrote your essay, huh?” taunted another inmate as I sat next to third, checking her spelling and grammar.

sing sing pennant“Didn’t write it, just checking it like I checked yours,” I said without looking up. The third inmate chose the silence question for her essay. It was what happened when the prosecutor in her murder trial asked her: “Well, if you didn’t do it, who did?” She didn’t have an answer. Now she’s here.

“This will definitely be a first for the Wesleyan admissions committee,” I conceded and wondered if there are panicked parents out there, so nervous that their child’s essay to elite schools doesn’t have a story like hers, an extreme and nutty hardship like doing a life sentence for murder, a perfect-for soul-searching-in 500-words topic that no other applicant would have.

One woman actually tried to set up a physical altercation between two of her competitors; she anticipated that the goon squad would drag them to seg and keep them from attending their admission interviews.

You know, it was all your typical freshman week activities.

prisonceton
Princeton actually does this. Click here to learn more about the Prison Teaching Initiative at Princeton University.

As a graduate of Princeton, I would be proud to know that my alma mater put its endowment where its mouth is and started an in-prison degree program.  Like most alums of Ivy League schools, Princeton and its values are inlaid in my daily life. Literally translated, “alma mater” means ‘soul mother’ in Latin which we have changed into “nurturing mother.”  Princeton birthed the way I think and the way I write and is responsible for any assistance I can provide to other inmates.  I wouldn’t be who I am today without Princeton which probably isn’t a good advertisement for the place given the fact that I write this from prison.  But, contrary to American literary legend – and a Princeton alum himself – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prediction that there are no second acts, I have a significant second act on layaway, one with more plot twists than the Tigers can handle.

But any pride in my alma mater’s potential sponsorship of a prison education program derives from my view of it long distance, like so many Wesleyan alums view this new program at York.  If I saw the York women’s antics up close and my school admitted them to a degree program, I would pitch such a bitch that I would probably catch another criminal charge and keep myself among the women I see as unfit for my alma mater’s consumption.  I think Wesleyan alums would do the same if they witnessed this bullshit up close.  No graduate of an elite school would allow these drips to water down their souls.  I am sure others see this as such but I don’t think its elitist to feel this way. I am allowed to value and protect what I have.

Many inmates have primed themselves to be worthy of a Wesleyan education.  Others will corrupt it.  Classes start in January.  I hope these inmates don’t blow it.

princeton tiger

 

READER POLL

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From newsweek.com: Obama Restores Some Prisoners’ Pell Grant Eligibility

Do you agree that prisoners should be eligible for Pell grants for college courses?

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