28 December 2015

The New New Year’s

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Every December we bullshit ourselves that our habits aren’t really who we are. That’s all resolutions are: promises to be the selves we think we really would be if we weren’t bogged down with daily life.

So it follows that someone who’s doing everything right shouldn’t need a resolution. Resolutions are for sinners, the imperfect, the screw-ups.

images (7)Which is why it’s kind of shocking that more women in here don’t make more resolutions after Christmas. Maybe they don’t make any decisions on self-improvement because they don’t control their surroundings and the usual resolutions like eating better or exercising more aren’t even a possibility for them. Self-determination does require a little autonomy and there’s not too much of that here.

Of course, New Year’s resolutions are promises a woman makes to indebt herself to herself. And many inmates don’t think they owe themselves anything worthwhile, so they’d rather stay in the black and stay the same. Improving themselves for their own sake would require them to value themselves in a way they never have.

But they’ll make promises – empty ones – to indebt themselves to others. Every parole hearing is flooded with resolutions. I’ma (contraction for ‘I’m gonna’) go to meetings, stay clean, quit boostin’ (shoplifting), get a job, stay away from him/her.

new-years-resolutionsMen and women make promises to these three strangers who have the power to let them out a little bit early. When they talk about prison’s being the “new Jim Crow” everyone thinks it’s about the fact that inmates work for so little. What they must mean is the way that inmates will improve themselves – if only in words – for someone else but not for themselves. For you, Massah, I’ll be good.  I’ve heard these promises of better behavior outside the context of an early release; the performance just isn’t the same when nothing’s at stake.

But when they can sell themselves for earlier release, they are the most convincing, outwardly resolute people you’ll ever find. If you think good intentions multiply before you toss the last page of your calendar, you’ve never seen someone in prison make a bid for early release.  In here, the parole board is the new New Year’s.

New Year’s the saddest part of the holidays for me. Knowing that circumstance limits how much we can improve ourselves, realizing that women here don’t improve themselves for themselves but only for the Man muddies up my clean slate. On New Year’s, everyone on the outside is figuring out ways to get better while I, in prison, realize that few of us ever will. The way I feel on the first day of the year is probably half the reason why I refuse to go before the board. I’ll stay inside this place so I won’t owe anyone my progress.

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Teresa Giudice discharges from Danbury FCI two days before Christmas. And then receives a $90,000.00 Lexus as a holiday gift from her husband, despite an outstanding tax bill of over $500,000. It doesn’t look like anyone learned any lesson from this whole both-parents-going-to-jail thing.

Robert Downey, Jr. received a pardon from California Governor Jerry Brown on Christmas Eve. Because Downey can already vote as a convicted felon in California, all the pardon will allow him to do is serve on a jury and legally own a firearm. A pardon isn’t a reprieve anymore; it’s an award.

The University of California system decided to divest $30 million from private prison corporations.  It barely makes a difference to the private prison management companies and the state’s university system. Is symbolism the next best thing to making a difference?


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21 December 2015

Christmas List

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Eat a lavish dinner with my family.


Get gifts.

Receive holiday cards.

Get invited to Christmas parties.

Watch Christmas TV specials.


Eat a lavish dinner with my family. Pretend like food makes any of us happy.

Decorate. Bear witness to each family member’s silent display of depression.

Get gifts. Spend money on other people.

Receive cards. Send cards.

Get invited to Christmas parties. Go to Christmas parties.

Watch Christmas TV specials. Realize that the TV specials I know and watched as a child are 40 years old.


I’m such a brat that I’ve actually appreciated maybe three gifts I’ve received over 39 Christmases; the others weren’t good enough for me.

I bet 95%  of the women in here enjoyed their Christmases in the past way more than I did because I was/am ungrateful.

Throughout the year, I send more cards than anyone I know. I’m a champion card-sender but I’m still a bitch.

I think I dislike people so much that I doubt I’ve really enjoyed any party I attended when I wasn’t wasted.

It’s a good thing I won’t be invited anymore.

Because of all of the above, being in prison at Christmas doesn’t really bother me that much.


How much these facts prove that I’m irretrievably screwed-up.


stockings on cell


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A big story this week in the New York Times: An Inmate Dies, and No One Is Punished – explores accountability for correction officers after an inmate died. Whenever this happens, the story is complicated and sad.

NPR reports that Obama Commutes Sentences of 95 Non-Violent Prisoners. Is this an effective method of decarceration?  Letting out 95 people in a sea of 2.3 million?

From Contra Costa Times: Convicted Murderers, Felons Pitch Silicon Valley Venture Capitalists. I think we need more of this. We rely on entitlement programs as re-entry strategies. This program tells inmates that they can achieve more, a message that’s in short supply in re-entry efforts.



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14 December 2015

Hair Didn’t

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”Just take your hair out of the ponytail,” my cellmate begged.  She longed to see “what [my] hair looked like.”

“I can’t,” I told her.  “I look like Jennifer Aniston circa 1995.”

“Circus who?”

Not for me.

I don’t suggest that Ms. Aniston did not look good in 1995; she did.  But on me, in 2008, the look was not so good.

Since 2000, Kyle White highlighted, lowlighted and layered my hair at the Oscar Blandi Salon in Manhattan.  But now a prison cosmetology teacher just butchered my locks.

“As good as anything you can get in your fancy New York place, huh?” she asked as she flourished the protective beauty cape off me like a toreador.  “Do you want long layers?” she had asked me when she connected its velcro around my neck.  I thought we spoke the same language, the phrase “long layers” meaning “my hair, exactly how I envision it.”

My haircut was like this except less glamorous. Yeah, that bad.

We lost something in translation because the short ones of all these long layers stopped right around my ears.  The long ones flipped out, off my shoulders.  I half-hoped Joey and Chandler would come in and read the outdated copies of Glamour Magazine, maybe even sing their theme song “I’ll Be There For You” because I needed someone to be there for me for this haircut.  This was bad.

Years ago, the question of who would  cut the prisoners’ hair repeated itself as if from a parrot.  The Department of Correction hit that bird plus the albatross around its neck – womens’ lack of vocational skills –  with one stone of a cosmetology school within the prison’s school.  Within this program, someone could use the scissors and prevent the population from getting too mangy and learn a trade for future employment.

Aside from being scissor scholars, students in the cosmetology program study a textbook and log 2,000 training hours to get a cosmetology license.  At least they used to, back when the course taught how to dye hair.  When someone stole the dye and used it for unimpressive prison tattoos, administrators feared gang symbols would decorate inmates’ limbs and incite violence or, even worse, relentless trash-talking.  So they banned the dye supplies.

imageDeparting dyes left only haircuts, perms, dreds service (which would have been better on me than what I had) and nail polish behind for our use.  A “haircut with style” costs $8.00 although that’s what I paid for a haircut without style.  By order of the warden, students paint only the standard white-tip/pink bed French manicure on our nails.  Again, gang warfare limits our looks because colors signify “security risk group” affiliation.

The result of all these limitations is that none of the students really know what they’re doing.  This lack of knowledge descends directly from the fact that they’re not allowed to learn anything.  If you couldn’t use the turn signal, the defroster or the emergency brake, you wouldn’t know what you were doing while driving, so it’s not entirely their fault.  However, no salon I patronize would hire any of these women; I saw that when I walked into the classroom in 2008.  Apprehensive about the students’ tousling my tassels, I insisted that the teacher cut my hair and still got a hack job.  A little trust might’ve brought better results, but I doubt it.

It’s true that a prison blocks beauty for us. But we block education for ourselves.

Dye jobs not a specialty in prison salons, as you can see.

Everyone could blame the overly-anxious, underly-reasonable prison administrators for limiting the available lessons in the cosmetology school, but the inmates deserve the blame for this.  They steal the sample bottles containing OPI’s Cajun Shrimp color polish as guards scurry and search them out.  It’s not the color that the guards want to corral; the glass bottles may appear in housing units in the same way broken beer bottles turn up in bar fights.

One woman stole a flattening iron and had it in the mental health unit of all places.  Women in the mental health unit can use pencils to attempt suicide; I can only imagine what they would do with an electric cord and two metal plates hinged together, covering wires.  The metal hair clips walk out of the school and never even activate the dinger on the metal detector.

If no one stole the dyes and the nail polishes and hair clips, then supplies and equipment would have grown, and their skills along with it.  More than iron bars make a prison; we build walls with bad behavior and keep out things as niggling as nail polish and hair dye and as grand as cosmetic innovation and our own success.

She looks thrilled, right?

Eventually, I had to let my hair down. Not only did I need to get more comfortable here because I’m obviously staying, my hair grew too heavy for the skimpy Goody elastics  from the commissary because I avoided haircuts for so long.  I needed to return to the scene of the cosmetic crime committed against me.

Deb, a talented, already-licensed- from-a-legit-school “hair technician” enrolled in the cosmetology course more to teach than to learn (some female guards who are her clients installed her there), deftly snipped five inches of overgrowth.  Mine is a haircut that I can sweep into a ponytail or not.

“Thank you so much.  I appreciate what you’ve done,” I told her.

“Nothing to it,” she said. Other inmates were waiting for a trim but she couldn’t get to them. They bitched.

“I can do one head at a time!”  she shouted in an un-salon way. Before she could move to the next ‘customer,’ she had to check in her shears to show that no one took them and stabbed someone.




Is the only thing that separates a perp and a cop the decisions each one made in his past? From the Washington Post: Freddie Gray and William Porter: Two Sons of Baltimore Whose Lives Collided

The Prison Policy Initiative announced this week that we don’t really have 2.2. million people behind bars like news reports claim. We have 2.3 million people, 451,000 of whom haven’t been convicted.

What Kind of a Person Calls a Mass Shooting a Hoax? asked The Trace three years after the Sandy Hook shooting.

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7 December 2015

Girl On Film

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I was the star of the film, I suppose.

A DVD player in the courthouse played the recording made by the police when they arrested me. In my screen debut, I wore yellow pajamas as the cops barged through the front door of my parents’ home to apprehend me. Watching the video was like looking into a time-delayed mirror; I saw the police scare my reflection years before. In my movie role as culprit — an essentially non-speaking one — my only actions were to retreat and to surrender.

As the judge, the jury and my attorney scrutinized the police video, in my mind I reviewed another silent film, a sequel to the story told in law enforcement’s cinematography and a reel that only I had viewed. In this film, pant legs and boots met me at eye level, moving along the sidewalk. Surprise overtook my expression as I looked around because, without knowing or feeling it, I had fallen clear to the ground while I strode down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. It wasn’t uneven concrete, a fainting spell or even drunkenness that felled me, it was my medication, my doctor’s remedy for what he thought to be severe mental illness because I continued to deny signing someone else’s name for a package. The interplay between these two reels was my real life for years.

The one time I was home when a package –  items ordered on a stolen credit card – arrived, the police had set up a sting operation in which they expected me to sign someone else’s name and accept the boxes.

The police promised everyone that their sting operation had been successful and they had the evidence to prove it: me, on tape, signing for the packages.

“I didn’t do it,” I stomped and swore to my parents, my lawyers, and anyone who would listen but no one bought it. Most people assume that the police never pursue people who are free from guilt but they do; they’re far from 100% precision. People maintain faith in the police because they must; law enforcement splits order and chaos, separates security and victimization, but the government’s error rate would frighten most citizens if they knew it. Defense attorneys know how flawed the criminal justice system is yet most of them still automatically look to psychiatry to explain their client’s actions to the courts, even before they investigate any evidence in the case.

“They have you on tape!” lawyers., doctors and my parents would shout. “Why would they lie about that?”

“Because…they lie!” I couldn’t answer their questions.

In my case, once a diagnosis of mental illness was in hand, no one, neither my lawyers nor my parents who paid their bills, conducted investigated any of the state’s allegations, not even to watch this damning videotape.

I sat as a spectator while friends dispersed like they never knew me, not even to ask “What happened?” or “Can you explain this?” Quite frankly, that abandonment caused me more panic and pressure than the specter of a prison sentence. So when the medical verdict came down, I was seduced by the idea that just a few pills could purge that pain. All I have to do is take a pink, round one and two long white ones for all of this pain to dissipate? Yeah—sign me up for bipolar disorder, I thought.

“Yeah, I’ll take the scripts,” I told the nurses.

Misdiagnoses often whirl out of control because, as mistakes, they prompt the wrong therapies; relief does not arrive when someone takes medication for an incorrect diagnosis, which is what happened to me. Because medications had no effect on a disorder that never resided in me, my illness appeared treatment-resistant. Soon, my bipolar diagnosis blossomed to a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder which, in turn, bloomed into a misdiagnosis  of schizophrenia, the most devastating of the organic mental illnesses. A diagnosis of schizophrenia requires a patient to suffer from delusions; according to doctors, my delusion was my continued denial that the police caught me forging someone’s name on camera, not that any of them ever bothered to watch it.

Treatment for a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia is brutal. Mine included anti-psychotics medications like Risperdal that literally turned off my brain, loosened my lips to the point that I drooled and put me to sleep for twenty hours at a time.

Unlike my original misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder, the ensuing misdiagnoses for thought disorders and personality maladies met my disagreement immediately; I made feeble arguments against medications and particular assessments. When my reasoning failed to change the doctors’ minds, I exploded into expletive-filled tirades.

After my outbursts, my protests folded quickly because the medications tired me and weakened my usually sturdy spirit. I wept after each head shrinking session. Do they have me on tape? Did I do this? Am I totally outside of reality? I wondered. I doubted every thought that I had.

Unsurprisingly, I developed a severe case of clinical depression. The misdiagnoses further complicated my life because treatment for these disorders edged out the care I needed for the depression and other physical illnesses. No anti-depressants to lift my mood; they could make me manic. No Synthroid for my low thyroid function; if my metabolism thrived, it could drive me into hypomania, which is like madness-lite. The steroids I needed for the bleeding from ulcerative colitis? They make patients angry and aggressive, states unwanted for the delusional and disordered.

I will plead guilty to this: through my angry behavior, I was the person who damaged the most both my crusade for help and my campaign for a different diagnosis – and for anyone to look at the stinking tape. Each time I raised my voice, the numbers of my daily medications dialed higher, to 3, 5, 7, 12. Medications with side effects summoned other pills to blunt those effects. Those next pills delivered their own set of side effects that needed treatment by adding medication and so on. Eventually, when the original medication’s efficacy was canceled out by the pile-up of pills. I’m almost thankful for that.

With each additional prescription I felt worse and side effects intensified to dangerous extremes: lithium made me vomit without warning, I had seizures, lost ambulation, and experienced aphasia, unable to remember the word “trunk” when talking about my car. I took that spill in Manhattan, realizing I fell only when a pair of Prada loafers passed by my face.

The prosecutor had scattered bits of evidence around the courtroom. Ultimately,  years of my life had reduced themselves to the push of a button, the moment when the prosecutor pressed “play” to display one of two mutually exclusive truths on that video: either I signed for packages, which would support the labels of insanity and criminality that doctors and lawyers had pasted on me, or I did not.

Contrary to what the police claimed, the only thing I did on that tape was to look shocked and ask to speak to my father. No signatures at all. No forgeries. None. During the viewing, one cop testified that he deleted the entire audio component of the recording — exculpatory words that I needed to present to the jury to win the trial — because it was, in his words, “unclear.”

The only aspect of the tape that was unclear was whether I should feel infuriated or freed by the video, a snippet of film that my life hinged on for years. I sensed some relief that I no longer needed to doubt myself but I’m pretty pissed that no one thought enough of me to view the central piece of evidence before putting me through years of medical and emotional strife.

Author’s note: I arrived at York Correctional Institution eight years ago today, on December 7, 2007.

barbed wire




Vice.com and the Marshall Project start a new series of articles by inmates called “Life Inside.” The first installment: Why It’s Hard to Be a Lifer Who’s Getting Out of Prison

A black man does not want to have “The Talk” with his children about police brutality because of the risk of putting a bad face on legitimate authority. Read his essay “Why I Refuse to Have ‘The Talk’ with My Black Son” from Politico Magazine.

A professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School has found that the progressive, “evidence-based practices” that are supposed to reduce prison populations without sacrificing public safety might turn reform in the wrong direction. The professor’s study and article, “The Promises and Perils of Evidence-Based Corrections” was published this week in the Notre Dame Law Review.


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