25 January 2016


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t shirt_burned
My actual uniform shirt from YCI. Worn every day for three years.

They call it the “Uniform of the Day” – a burgundy t-shirt and elastic-waist Mom jeans – as if anything changes from day to day or even day to night.

Exactly what inmates wear at York Correctional Institution. They make you long for an orange jumpsuit.

Uniform jeans confer only one type of status at York CI:  proof of miles earned.  New admissions wear stiff, dark navy pants that still retain their cheap-dye sheen.  An inmate like me who has trod around the grounds for years in uniform jeans, wears a faded, softer look, almost like expensive Japanese jeans or one of the rinse options at Barney’s Denim Bar.

Years ago, inmates wore any clothing they chose, outfits from home, creating multiple forms of fashion expression and many modes of competition; theft became sport.  So they instituted uniforms, supposedly to unify us, make us all the same.

Since we’re supposed to be identical, the only ways to compete with other female prisoners in the looks category are gluttony and wasting.  Because tailoring clothes in the prison laundry is prohibited and therefore expensive (up to $15.00 worth of commissary to get a worker to risk her job by hemming jeans) inmates rarely change how their uniforms fit them.  Rather, they change the way they fit their uniforms.

Prison eating habits skew to opposite extremes:  gorging and keeping it down or gorging and bringing it up.  One faction of inmates, Team Binge, often gains more than 100 lbs. in a year to make the squad.  They claim to aim to look “thick” – not fat or obese – and leave the two sides of their seams longing for each other, clutching and cleaving under extreme pressure.  This team looks to score “black-girl asses,” round shelf-butts filling out their uniform jeans nicely, fatiguing their pant waist’s elasticity.

Image1Team Binge’s opposition, Team Purge, gags and pukes every ingestion, bursting blood vessels in their eyes, puffing their faces with fluid, raising little red patches at the corners of their mouths from the sideward spill of stomach acid.  T-shirts and jeans “of the day” start to look like ballooning caftans on Team Purge.

“She is so fat,” and “Look at her skinny ass” are the cross-field trash-talking before every game; the plays are either friendly food-sharing or neighborly concern.

I’m not on either team, really.  I eat a lot but I don’t binge and I lost weight when I arrived and kept it off.  When it comes to food and fat, I’m kind of a correctional wildcard and each team tries to recruit me all of the time.

This is called a ‘soup’ in prison. It has some processed meat, squeeze cheese, sazon, soup mix and ramen noodles.

“Chandra, you need to eat!” the Binger Captain proclaims to me as she thrusts a bowl filled with two pounds of ramen, cut with rice of all things.  Miscellaneous nitrate-filled meat cubes nestle in between the ramen squiggles and rice nuggets coated with squeeze cheese.  I’m looking at 3100 calories minimum, so I refuse.

“I already ate two calzones, a cup of cottage cheese and three apples at work,” I decline.  My ability to forego at times and indulge at others has earned me the title of champion eater.

“No, I don’t want you to get sick,” she insists, trying to dispense medicinal carbs.

“If I add anything else to my stomach, I will get sick,” I explain.  I know what she’s trying to do:  take down the champ.

“Sorry.  No budge, no pudge.”

Yes, I am going to eat all of it.

Sometimes I accept the bowl and use a pump fake with my spoon, eating one mouthful before passing off to a starving cellmate.  I’m not going to let anyone call me out of my uniform jeans with one of her junk-food pitches.

When Team Purge tries to suck me in, their game is questions.  “Are you really going to eat that?” or “How much do you weigh?” they ask me.  I reply “Yes.”  “Enough.”

Most inmates tuck quintessential feminine wiles into their uniform jean pockets when they depart their cells each day.  Because all of the inmates are afflicted, beset or completely fed up with our current stations in life, one would expect the York CI populace to develop some union, some cohesion other than just dressing alike.

We never will because we never stop competing with or comparing ourselves to each other.  The prize may be attention from the C/O’s, money from home, mail from boyfriends, ass-curves from indulging or weight loss from dieting but we must always one-up each other.  Because our location limits our options, the best way to one-up another prisoner is to knock her down two by implying – or even stating outright – that there is something wrong with her physique.

A huge problem in women’s prisons. Would have been nice to get three rolls of toilet paper, though.

The competition and comparison root in insecurity, I know.  But if, just for once, inmates learned a type of self-sufficiency by which they competed only with themselves, then big waistlines would shrink, emaciated ones would expand, fortunate inmates would share and underprivileged prisoners would accept without reservation or shame.  We would start to become the same, one form of a flawed woman who’s just trying to get it together and the uniforms could end up uniting us.




The policy and research group In the Public Interest released the results of a study that showed only two parts of the criminal justice system have resisted privatization: the courts and law enforcement. But do we really think that money hasn’t found its way into judges’ and cops’ pockets? There’s just no paper trail for In the Public Interest to track down.

Two executions took place this week: one in Texas and one in Alabama (the state’s first since 2013). I still don’t think it’s right that the same act gets punished differently in different states. If these two prisoners did the same thing in different states, they’d be playing Three-Five-Nine right now.

The Washington Post ran two pieces about plea bargains and innocent defendants. The first from the conservative Cato Institute and the second from a law professor who’s studied convictions.  It’s not just the people behind bars who are saying that they’re innocent.

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18 January 2016

Ignore the Words

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“Jesus!” I shouted to no one and jumped back when I heard a creature rustling in the dumpster at the end of the medical unit.  I looked not to see a raccoon or a rat, but an inmate who had Pica disease; Pica sufferers have abnormal cravings for things that aren’t food – “non-nutritive” is the official description.  Other people told me they’d seen her eating items like pencils and a used Band-Aid from the trash.

imageFrom across the yard and somewhat behind me, I heard a C/O yell, “Hey, get your butt out the trash and get over here!”

She had exposed herself to discipline by being “out of place” – in an area unauthorized for inmates.  Justice tempted me to run over to the guard and explain what I knew about this woman’s Pica disease so she would not be punished, but injustice reminded me that rushing to her aid like that would land me in trouble, too. I looked around – no other pseudo-Samaritans to pinch hit for me. Would they even have known even if they were on the walkway.

I wonder what she ate before she got caught.

“Get over here now!”

The woman moved to him sheepishly; she had clearly been embarrassed before.

“What in the Lord’s name were you doing in the trash?”

“I was hungry,” she answered, eyes still downcast.

“Gimme your ID,” he told her.  This is the official notice to a prisoner that she’s screwed – the C/O needs her inmate number and name for the disciplinary report.

Whatsoever you do to the least of my people…  I knew I had to Good Samaritan this whole scene, risk my own ticket and inform the guard that this woman suffered from a mental illness that caused her to, well, eat shit. I started towards them slowly – which put me out of place, too – and watched the guard walk into the back of the dining hall and order the woman to follow him.  The kitchen was the closest location for blank disciplinary reports.

I’ve seen a few inmates eat laundry soap but the woman in the dumpster wasn’t consuming cleanliness like that.

Rehearsing what I would say: Umm…hi…she, the one you’re writing the ticket for…she has Pica…which means that…ok, so you know about it… that it’s like not really her fault, she…has an illness…she wasn’t trying to disobey any rules or, you know, disrespect anyone…. I wondered what the best response would be if he told me: “I don’t care.”  It was hardly a robust defense I had planned out.

I thought he’d jot down her prison vitals and dismiss her.  Instead, as I peered in the kitchen, I saw him hand her ID to the kitchen staff who promptly loaded up a Styrofoam tray with leftovers from lunch.  The guard directed the woman to sit at a table with a napkin and eat to her fill in a dignified way.

Realizing that I wasn’t needed, but still out of place, I started to scurry away before he saw me. I turned my head one way to see if any staff was around to question why I was outside the kitchen and ended up bumping into one of the white columns on the walkway.

imageI hope no one was watching me from one of the housing units as I crept behind those two, did a brief peeping Tom routine through the kitchen’s back door and then ran into a pole. It would have looked too bizarre, so crazy that the whole scene might have exculpated me from the crimes I’m here for. Who? Her? She never could have pulled that off…. Sometimes a situation sounds harsh or looks senseless because we don’t understand that the players’ intentions are good.

“Damned fools,” I heard the C/O say behind me as he exited the back of the kitchen.  I never understood if those was cursing the inmates in the facility or the people who run it with their misguided concern for inmates with special needs – the name would apply to both –  but it hardly matters.  Those were just his words.  What he did told me everything I needed to know.

She’d have been proud of this man.




Everyone thought President Obama would focus on criminal justice reform in his last State of the Union address, but the topic got only eleven words out of 5000+. I don’t think he’s the leader everyone thinks he is on this issue.

The Supreme Court of the United States struck down Florida’s death penalty in Hurst v. Florida. What the Court didn’t touch was the fact that it only takes seven of twelve jurors to vote for execution for you to get the death penalty in the Sunshine State – it’s okay for five people who’ve heard all the evidence to think you shouldn’t die. And they still kill you.

A former prisoner is convicted of attempting to smuggle drugs and other contraband into the prison in Maryland, items worth $35,000 on the penal black market. A riot almost broke out in an Ohio prison this summer after a drone drop. No one’s smuggling the old-fashioned way anymore – in a body cavity. Drones are the new ass.



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11 January 2016

Normal: All F’d Up

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York C.I. has the lock on SNAFU’s.

Not twenty-four hours earlier, staff radios boomed with the announcement “[Return to] Normal Operations” after a five day lockdown courtesy of Hurricane Sandy; the power, including the backup generator, failed. Once all the housing units got their juice back, the lockdown ended.

OITNB’s storm slumber party is pure fantasy. When the power’s out in prison, you get locked in your cell, solitary-style.

Now we were locked down again, a breakfast of cold cereal and milk handed to us at our cell doors.

“Is it the power again?” someone asked.

My cellmate asked the guard who was handing out the bag breakfasts why we returned to lockdown status.

“Needle in a haystack,” the guard said. Because both my cellmate and I could tell stories of bizarre encounters with this woman, we paused. She once asked my roommate to “scratch my mosquito” and pointed to the zipper on her own jacket. To me, she had passed out this advice as I left for my prison job at 4 am: “Do nice things today. Rough and tumble.” Granted, English was the guard’s second language but she still rarely made sense.

Welcome to York C.I.

“She’s nuts,” I told my roommate. “It has to be the power’s out again.” We went back to sleep expecting electrical issues to be resolved when we awoke.

But three hours later, I flipped the light switch and electricity’s hum sounded from the fluorescent light. Wasn’t the power.

“Someone lost a syringe,” Charity said as she walked up to my cell door to collect inmates’ empty milk cartons. We weren’t going to be let out of our cells even to empty our trash cans because one of us could dump the missing item.

“What do you mean ‘lost a syringe’?” I demanded.

image“Yep,” came her reply because she knew that I knew what she meant. We both knew all too well what she meant: that a staff member lost a dangerous object again and the administration locked us down to “shake” us down, pawing through our property and strip-searching all of us. The guard had made sense; the syringe was the needle and we were the haystack.

In 2010, a staff member misplaced scissors that should have been chained to the desk in Admissions and Discharges. Shaken-down for that. In 2011, a knife went missing from the Food Preparation Unit (not my shift, mind you). Shakedown. Even though everyone was sure that the knife slid down a drain, they shook us and the garbage dumpsters down. Then a maintenance worker lost his entire toolbox. The whole thing, containing hammers, screwdrivers and other domestic weapons. Shakedown.

imageAnd a C/O lost his handcuffs. After searching for them himself, his hands came up cuff free and he reported his loss. Shakedown. At the end of that toss, someone found them in a location previously searched. To take the edge off the reality that the staff is totally negligent, everyone concluded that someone tried to set up the C/O by stealing his cuffs and putting them back where they should have been found. Situation normal: all set up.

2012 has been a banner year for SNAFU’s. In January, the metal part of a fetal heart-rate monitor disappeared. Shakedown. A discharging pregnant inmate later found the part dangling from her clothes; a nurse forgot to disconnect it.

Whatever is metal in this went missing.

Then in late January, a teacher’s car keys ran right out of her classroom. Shakedown. Keys never found, probably because an inmate stole them and flushed them down the toilet before she went home. In June, an officer dropped his cuffs and they ran away– different officer, different handcuffs. Shakedown. November brought the traditional autumn haystack, home of the lost needle. Shakedown.

These superfluous shakedowns supplement the three “normal,” annual institutional searches; those last a full five days and no missing item gives chase. The guards search for contraband and gather all the extras we have – blankets, uniforms, jackets – for redistribution to incoming inmates. It’s probably why they call them shakedowns – they’re not Mafia extortions – it’s like shaking out someone’s purse – all the garbage, lost trinkets and stuff that belongs somewhere else falls out.

Or it might be the fact that inmates shake and quake while staff searches their cells. The warden prohibits us from witnessing the guards toss our belongings around, so we walk, single-file, to the prison gymnasium and sit on the floor, in the same line formation, and stare at the wall until a female guard calls us for a strip search in one of the bathrooms.

None of the SNAFU scavenger hunts’ prizes – cuffs, screwdrivers, keys, knives, needles – have ever been found up an inmate’s ass, yet they never omit the bend-squat-cough routine; it’s just not a shakedown without it.

This is the result of terrorism in Gaza. Inmates will tell you it’s not much different than the results of a cell search.

Returning to our cells is like a warped Christmas morning. We race to open our cell doors to see what’s left inside. Usually, if they trashed the cell, the mess covers for the fact that their search was nominal. If the cell looks relatively intact, the guards likely stood over each pile of books, papers, clothing, toiletries or commissary and scoured them.

I uprighted everything in my room after they rummaged it in a sort-of search for the elusive syringe. They hadn’t looked that hard for an item that really couldn’t just be written off as lost.

Within two hours, the lockdown ended abruptly when all of our cell doors unlocked at once. Apparently, the syringe was never lost at all, just miscounted.

Now that’s what I call normal operations.



Mexican drug lord El Chapo was caught and USA Today attributes his capture to his meeting with actor Sean Penn; when he went to speak with producers and actors, the meeting set him up to be nabbed by Mexican marines. Then he was returned to the scene of his escape crime: the same prison he fled this past July. Maybe Mexican authorities need to watch the Netflix series “Making a Murderer” to see that lightning can strike twice.

Two correction officers are convicted – and one acquitted – for running what they called the “Retard Olympics” in a Pennsylvania women’s prison. Inmates fought each other, ate raw food and drank water spiked with pepper spray at the staff’s behest in order to get more food or coffee. These guys deserve it, but why do we call this progress? We’re adding two more to the nation’s canyon of criminal convictions. Maybe someone should have been doing his/her job supervising these guards so that none of this ever happened.

The new thing in getting inmates out of solitary confinement: “step-down” units that gradually let inmates out of extreme confinement. Everyone loves the idea, according to The Atlantic. Click here to see if you do, too.


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4 January 2016

Lest Ye Be

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“Jesus. How long does she have?” I asked my cellmate as I nodded toward a woman with one arm at her side, lifeless, as if every nerve had been cut. She didn’t have a cast or a bandage. Whatever happened to her arm was permanent. She seemed like the hanging appendage wasn’t there  and walked like nothing was wrong.

“I dunno, six months?” TL guessed.

“So whatever she did wasn’t that serious,” I concluded out loud.

“Guess not. Why’s it matter?”

“The judge just absolutely had to send her to prison? A six-month sentence is like, for what, drugs, minor stealing? Someone could have sentenced her to probation so she didn’t have to come in here and be subjected to possible assaults, never mind how people taunt her for her disability. That’s all I’m saying.”

“She’ll be fine,”  TL assured me.

Fisticuffs over one of these.

And she was fine. For the next few hours. Until her cellmate beat her up over a Goody hair elastic, ones that sell for 99¢ for 20 of them off the commissary.

“Jesus, is she okay?” I asked when TL informed me.

“Well, she’s in seg.”

“Why?” I was pissed.

“Well, she, ya know, fought back. You know them deadarms don’t feel no pain. She probably got a few good shots off,” TL explained.

“What have we become that one of us is beating the shit out of a handicapped girl for a hair tie?!” shouted LD as she overheard us. She used to be a correction officer before a drug addiction derailed her life.

“What have we become that we think ‘them deadarms’ are an advantage, a weapon?! Jesus.” It was all I could say.

When I see inmates walk around the compound with canes and severe limps, women who are missing eyes and legally blind, ladies with dwarfism or in wheelchairs, I think to myself: Wow, Lady Justice really doesn’t see any difference in defendants. What a cold-hearted bitch.

imageCrime really is equal opportunity so individuals with disabilities are allowed to break the law, too. Fairness dictates that people should be punished uniformly. But when I see an inmate, a Little Person, get cut down even further by guards who make fun of her size like she’s an exhibit, or a woman who’s paralyzed on one side because she was shot in the face and unable to carry her tray and no one helps her, I don’t think this is fair at all.

The only living person who can put someone in a correctional facility, at least in Connecticut, is a judge; police and prosecutors can’t do it alone. Accused persons can be held in police stations before arraignment but that’s considered “lock-up,” not prison. To get to a prison, a defendant must be officially remanded which means that a judge orders her into custody.

imageYou can argue that it’s someone’s behavior that sends her into correctional control. Even those completely bent on self-destruction cannot get here without a final push from someone in a black robe.

To me, judges are like mothers who drop their kids at a day-care center. They have the power to determine where another human being lives, even if it’s just for a number of hours. If a mother left her child at a day-care where that double-edged razor blades came with the juice boxes and the place was staffed with convicted sex-offenders, we would call her a bad mother, possibly kick her into prison for endangering her child. The mother’s not knowing what happens in the day-care doesn’t lessen her culpability; it was her decision and discretion that sent the child there. The kid has no choice and is powerless to collect all the blades safely and fend off dangerous adults.

Disabled inmates are a bit like those day-care kiddies. Harsh words and taunts from C/O’s slice up their self-esteem and they are, very often, unable to fight off violence from sociopathic prisoners.

The judges who place them in these positions should be ashamed of themselves, especially since sentencing alternatives and diversionary programs exist that can prevent exposing vulnerable people to peril.

imageSometimes the environment is so hostile that the danger it poses reaches constitutional violation levels. A judge in Nebraska caught flak when she thought that the defendant, convicted of sex offenses, was too short  and his obvious size disadvantage subjected him to potentially cruel and unusual punishment in the Dog-Beat-Dog culture of a men’s maximum-security prison. Apparently, critics of the judge thought that defendant Pip Squeak should suffer the death penalty at the hands of other violent offenders. That was a punishment they considered fair.

If judges really want to dispense justice tempered with mercy, they would familiarize themselves not only with prison conditions but prison culture. At the very least, the emotional and mental torment that a different-looking or different-walking inmate experiences in prison should factor into sentencing decisions. The physical risk put to many disabled inmates is, quite frankly, enough to justify putting them on house arrest and letting them stay home.

But judges will never comprehend prison safety problems because they never experience them first-hand. “That’s DOC. That’s not my territory,” is a common judicial punt whenever prison perils appear in the arguments before them.

imageBut it is the judges’ territory which is why every new jurist should have to spend one week in prison as an average inmate. The judges’ one-week stopover will be most defendants’ stays, so even one week won’t constitute a full meal of correction, only a mouthful.

But then judges will be able to put their money where their mouthfuls are if they willingly subject themselves to the confinement conditions they inflict on defendants who quake before their benches, terrified about what might happen to them when prison walls envelop them.

Only when a real Do-Unto-Others ethic appears in the decisions judges make will we have true fairness in our courtrooms and the only way to impart that context to judges is to send them to the slammer, only for a little while. I think we’d see that they’d call Lady Justice a bitch when she deadarms them. She, too, is in here now, sent by a judge for a misdemeanor even though she’s blind.



Hacktivist group Anonymous claims to have evidence that clears Steven Avery, the prisoner who is the subject of the hit Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer.”  Okay…we’re waiting…and a man you say is innocent is languishing in prison. A little less conversation and a little more hacktion, please.

The State of Washington’s Department of Correction’s computer glitch has been releasing people early in error. Now two people released early have been charged with homicides. These people probably would have re-offended anyway when they were released properly because rehabilitation is clearly not taking hold in Washington prisons.

Buzzfeed reports that Cleveland Judge Calls Prosecutor’s Approach in Tamir Rice Case “Unorthodox” after the prosecutor instructs a grand jury not to indict two policemen in the shooting death of a 12 year-old boy. Is what Judge Ronald B. Adine calls “unorthodox” really just standard operating procedure?

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