25 April 2016

Being Straight about the Jacket

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ylporangehermes“I don’t care about the other stuff just… is the jacket there?”

“Yeah, with your other things… your earrings aren’t here and… what’s this?  Underwear. These can’t be your underwear…” my mother trailed off before the thirty-second interval beep that divides every outgoing collect call from a prison cut in.  “I guess they sent pretty much ev… wait, were you wearing your Tiffany watch?  It’s not here, I don’t think.”

I wasn’t wearing the watch that day.  The earrings never mattered to me.  Whose underwear the property officer sent home with my incoming clothes did not concern me, at least not after I told my mother to put on gloves and throw them out.  I didn’t even care as I anticipated hearing that my calf-hair Tod’s loafers were missing from the box with York Correctional Institution as its return address.  The only thing I cared about was the jacket.

bzcn0vdisfzwe4neehxdI came into prison sentenced, meaning that I had been released on bond for the duration of my cases.  Entering  as a sentenced inmate usually proves advantageous for a woman.  If her attorney or an experienced acquaintance tells her beforehand, she knows not to bring any valuables and to wear a gray sweatsuit over multiple bras and pairs of underwear.  Gray is the only color sweats that an inmate in Connecticut can wear and it often takes two to three weeks after your admission to receive them from the prison commissary.

In the meantime, the inmate without the sweats freezes when she faces the elements of the outside on the inside wearing only a burgundy short-sleeved tee shirt and oversized denim pants.   Inmates who wear their sweats into the facility can sleep away winter nights in the slammer unlike shivering women like me who wear goose bumps under spring-green cotton sheets, us clueless incomers who wore designer duds on their way into prison.  As our teeth chattered, women like me filled out paperwork to pay the $5.95 fee to ship those clothes home within 30 days of our arrival otherwise risk losing them forever.

The practice of sending home one’s belongings is a crapshoot.  Unsure that they are true, I’ve heard stories of $10,000 Rolex watches going missing from the property office when over-blessed women came into the prison with them on their wrists.  One of my cellmates received her receipt for the $5.95 withdrawal to send her clothes home that listed an unknown woman, “Mrs. Derba,” as the recipient at an address in a neighboring town.  My bunkie never knew where her stuff landed because she never saw it again.

Wealthy women with expensive attorneys come to prison like this, not fancy.

The only protection against property negligence or malfeasance was the incoming prisoner’s property matrix, a form completed by the guard in the window of Admissions and Discharges as the new admit surrenders everything that the judicial marshals failed to confiscate:  wedding bands, watches, belly-button piercings, barrettes.  The matrix form lists only categories and a space for the number of items like Watch: 1.  Sometimes a more careful guard will note colors and types on the form, but to little effect;  inmates are warned that everything that they own will be valued at $100 maximum.  It was easy to see how a Casio could replace a Movado without the property officer caring that she was shipping out a switcheroo.

But expensive items rarely come in.  Most of the women have little of value when they get here. Usually the wealthier women come in prepared – wearing nothing valuable and swathed in gray fleece – because like me, they remain free on bond until the day of their sentencing and employ experienced attorneys who tell them to leave the good stuff at home.

No grey sweats = unprepared.

The inmate who enters dressed in “street clothes” – clothing other than the uniform of the day or the gray sweat get-up – wears her ignorance and her indigence; if she knew that she was going to be canned, she would have worn something else.  In that way, “street clothes”  show that a woman took a collar unexpectedly and cannot afford to post bond.  The fact that I was in street clothes did not reflect the usual preparation of a woman out on bond but they weren’t the usual street clothes either; they confused everyone.

I wasn’t wearing expensive items for show.  I would’ve donned a gray sweatsuit; not wearing one never meant that I thought myself above such clothes or that I didn’t own plain sweats.  When I dressed  (Hermès jacket over Gap slacks, a black Henri Bendel cashmere turtleneck and no belt because I had learned in my 33 court appearances that the buckle always set off the courthouse’s metal detectors) and drove to the courthouse that snowy afternoon, I had no idea that I wouldn’t see my home for years.  Because my attorney advised me that I wasn’t to be sentenced that day, I planned on attending my hearing, then running two errands, eventually heading home that evening.

Of all the vestments and events of the day, the jacket was what mattered to me because my threads always came with strings attached.

My parents have easily spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on my and my two sisters’ wardrobes.  They bought our clothes even as adults, inviting relatives to scold them for infantilizing us.  “They should get jobs and pay for those things themselves,” they chided my parents.

b2aeaec760ce32b0ed57b497a7913c47Um… is this really your business? My sisters and I thought when we heard our relatives complain.  We liked that Mommy and Daddy kept paying for Prada even when we were employed or attending graduate school .  But as we tried on sweaters from Saks’ cashmere collection, we knew that our relatives were right.  In going to our parents for Paige Denim jeans, agnes b. blouses, and Giuseppe Zannotti sandals, we kept our lives enmeshed in theirs at a time when we should have been cutting the cord, not tags off of togs they paid for.

Our parents traded free clothes for unlimited infringement on their daughters’ lives.  They entered our apartments with their own sets of keys, without knocking.  They perused our mail and bills.   The privacy and respect that are supposed to settle on the line that separates adult children from their parents floated away with each sky-high receipt.

We liked our parents’ liberality too much to put an end to childish ways.  We almost always got what we requested, each sister so instantly gratified that we were practically addicted to experiencing our parents’ love through new ensembles, even into our thirties.  Whenever we toted a new shopping bag, their intrusions reduced themselves to mere nuisances and I remained ignorant of how I imprisoned myself repeatedly even before I got here.


I’m still undecided as to whether this history would have helped me as a defendant charged with identity theft.  The state accused and convicted me of using others’ credit cards to purchase the same type of merchandise that evidenced my parents’ love for their three daughters.  My history reads two compatible and conflicting stories:  first, that I am spoiled, totally unaccustomed to going without anything I desired; and second, that I never needed to retreat into criminality to get any material goods but only to seek refuge in the dysfunctional connection between me and my parents in order to score big.  The only place in my history where both stories paused was when I got the jacket.

I was living with my aunt, Nancy, in Maryland until I found an apartment closer to graduate school.  My mother came to visit one fall weekend.

“Mom, can I get that Hermès jacket I saw?” I asked.  The jacket, quintessentially French-designed with a velvet collar, was both rustic and urbane at the same time.  As proof that I was not overindulged, I explained to my mother that it was a completely rational purchase: the jacket was versatile, understated, black, and only $700.00, at least as I understood it.

marshalls-sticker-shock-small-7“Oh, I don’t know.  You have so many jackets…,” she said, which I did but I wanted one more.  This isn’t denial – its rejection!  I thought.  Without this essential luxury item, I was unloved.

Fine, I thought.  I’ll buy it myself.  With my own money.  Then you won’t own me.  I won’t call you everyday.  I can act like a mature adult and withhold my love too.

I declared autonomy by calling the Hermès flagship in Manhattan.  The actual retail price of the jacket was not $700, but $2,100, a price tag I was in no position to clip.  I told the saleswoman that I would call back, knowing that I never would. To me, admitting I could not afford the jacket was like orphaning myself.

Later, the sales clerk left a French-accented message on my aunt’s answering machine: the jacket would be discontinued that year and many people wanted one.  The last one left was a European size 48 – too big – which could always be tailored.  Did I want to buy it?  I reeled at the abject misfortune of not being able to afford an Hermès coat.

What should have been a learning milestone: discovering that I cannot always get what I want, appreciating the warm sting of some independence, valuing real and perceived worth, was not.

Box_smallOne week later, I arrived at my aunt’s house to an orange leather-covered box almost the size of the table it rested upon, distinctive chocolate-colored embroidered ribbon extended around each side.  When she heard the message of the jacket’s discontinuation, my aunt grabbed the jacket that my late stab at independence could not reach.

My aunt didn’t expect repayment, or even gratitude, for her gift.  Her only purpose in gifting me the coat was to see me happy and she still respected my burgeoning independence so much that she hadn’t even said anything.  I’d experienced my parents’ loving entanglements forever but this was the first time I received anything unconditionally, no strings attached.  I felt like a total asshole.

For eight years, I wore the jacket because I loved it, admired how it looked, liked the image I thought it wrought.  Nancy passed away almost a year to the day before my sentencing and, after that, I wore it to keep her with me.  Nancy taught me so much that I was too much of a brat to understand, lessons that came to light only when the dark cave of prison swallowed me and my parka.  She battled a stomach tumor for months, seemingly successfully.

imageThen her chemo boomeranged on her, weakening her body so that malignancies bloomed around her abdomen.  Just as she was proverbially “out of the woods,” the illness charged at her again and locked her in cancer’s timber. Like her niece, my aunt thought that she had reached a clearing in which she could continue her fight right when she was taken down.  We were both wrong.

Even if I knew that I were going to get packed in that December Friday in a way that I didn’t deserve, I almost would’ve worn the jacket I didn’t deserve over my gray sweatsuit, weighing the chances of losing it at the prison against how it made me feel since I lost her.

I consider myself lucky that the jacket found it’s way home, that it’s hanging in my closet, and not because it’s an expensive Hermès or because none of the C/O’s understood how valuable it was to steal it before it slipped out of the prison.  When I get home, I’ll find on one hanger a reminder of the blessings heaped upon me, a warning about how easily that good fortune can spoil me and a refresher on my lesson that life can reverse its path in an instant.



According to numbers released on Wednesday by New York University School of Law Brennan Center for Justice, the murder rate rose nationally by 13.3 percent from 2014 to 2015, led by steep increases in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. The murder rate declined in six of the nation’s 30 largest cities, and that the overall crime rate has remained steady from year to year, suggesting that there has been no surge in non-violent drug crimes. Even if all of these statistics are accurate, is that enough to justify stopping our efforts to fix this system with a good measure of redemption?

The Washington Examiner reports that it’s the D’s, not the R’s, who are holding up Congress’ vote on the federal Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Face it, folks. It’s not happening. Not that it’s a good bill anyway.

The State of Ohio announced this week that it is shutting down (sort of) its prison gardening programs because they aren’t achieving penological goals. Where did you first read that prison gardens don’t work to rehabilitate prisoners, despite all the press that says they do? Here. Last week.



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18 April 2016


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prison1A woman walks outside.  Woodchucks, rabbits, squirrels walk about her, unfazed, like she’s Snow White.  A hawk circles overhead, distant watchman.  Baby skunks teeter and shift.  Cardinals and bluebirds flit from branch to branch in budding maple trees, hitting piccolo notes.  It’s a scene of complete idyll, a flawless paint-by-numbers job depicting God’s majesty.

Then a sociopath enters the frame on her way to work in the kitchen and stomps at the skunks to frighten them into spraying another woman, an inmate who finds a rock bedded with the lillies donated by the chaplain’s mother last Easter and tries to bean one of the animals in the head with it. This is a prison, after all.

Even if you can avoid getting into a fight when you do time in Connecticut’s only women’s prison, Mother Nature will bitch slap you herself as you walk the line with fowl and fauna; the natural world is as settled in prison life as surveillance and bad food.

This prison [York Correctional Institution] is a stone’s throw from Rocky Neck State Park, a beach that has become such a destination that, from Memorial Day through September, beachgoers’ traffic tie-ups consume all roads that lead to correction in Niantic and make staffers late for work.  We’re so close to the beach that the scent of the tide wafts here during the day and the smell of smoke and embers from shoreline bonfires is so strong in the evening you might wonder if a convicted arsonist is at it again.

Fishermen on the other side of Bride Lake in Niantic, Connecticut.

The natural surroundings aren’t an accident. In 1918, the prison was founded as the “Connecticut State Farm and Prison for Women,” built on an agricultural model.  Really it was a home for what people called “wayward women,” meaning pregnant without a husband or prospects of one.  The only freshwater basin on the compound is called Bride Lake.  Mother Nature castigated women then, too, telling them:  “Clean up your act and get hitched.”  All the single ladies – at least the fun ones – came to the Farm to work in gardens, growing vegetables and flowers, in barns tending to chickens and pigs, cows and horses because they had sex when no one else wanted them to do so.  The State of Connecticut wielded the reformatory tool of honest manual labor over the daintiest and dirtiest mademoiselles.

Fenwick building, part of the original Farm.

“Ho’s with hoes,” as some old-timer staff members call that period in the prison’s history, worked when the crime plopping women onto this patch of beachfront property was limited to licentiousness.  When licentiousness spread out and picked up prostitution, public drunkenness and bad checks, things grew less pastoral and more penal, eventually causing the agricultural model to go out of style.

York Correctional Institution today.

When the hookers and the drunks and the bad checks nudged women into a lesson in feminism – recognizing that anything men can do women can do better – they learned their lesson by doing better – killing, assaulting, robbing, stealing big, the agricultural model went fully underground and the State of Connecticut split the prison in two around 1995:  the “East Side” which was where the “Farm” once operated and the “West Side” where the incorrigible creeps would be housed in cinderblock buildings with green steel roofs and kept away from gardening tools that can be used as weapons.  That’s where I’ve lived for most of my stay.

Because gardening is supposed to reduce recidivism, one remnant of the agricultural model resurrected itself on the West Side in 2009 – a garth just beyond a fence that sprouted up amid construction.  For awhile, no one could see through the chain link’s wire-bounded, diamond-shaped peekholes because vented black tarps hung on the fence like drapes to block view of the prison’s vegetable patch, “The Farm” redux. It’s like the warden didn’t want anyone to see the activity that’s supposed to motivate women from reoffending when they leave.

Orange-is-the-New-Black-Litchfield-Correctional-Facility-Rockland-Psychiatric-Center-Abandoned-Orangeburg-New-York-Film-Locations-019From my cell on the second floor of Zero South, I can see the garden.  Yesterday, a lieutenant – one known for his dalliances with inmates – pointed here – there – over there – to three nodding inmates who, I assume, are going to till it and seed it, stake tomato plants.

The garden’s bounty, at least in theory, is supposed to feed inmates fresh vegetables during the summer.  Twice the chow hall served us a tomato and cucumber salad with chunks of raw zucchini and yellow squash which was delicious.  The only thing that enters a prison fresh is the youthful offenders; every foodstuff is processed, packaged or frozen so the chlorophyll taste of verdant leaves hadn’t graced my mouth for months.

I would’ve expected the garden to produce more produce than appears on our trays; the summer months probably produce enough vegetables to provide more than two salads for each woman. but I need to remind myself why we don’t get everything we’re supposed to, especially when I watch that female C/O from third shift shake a little brown bag from her uniform pocket, walk into the garden and walk out with the sack lumpy from the tomatoes she just stole. This is a prison, after all.

She’s about to put that beet in her pocket. Trust me.

The guards aren’t the only problem. From my cell window, I can see the inmates steal so much that they interrupt farm-to-table; nature’s bounty can’t reach the stainless steel, six-seat tables in the dining hall.  The prisoners who work in the garden feel entitled to the fruits of their labor, especially if those fruits are vegetables they can’t buy from the commissary.

A prison garden – like the original “Farm” – isn’t about final product; it’s about the process of growth, the metamorphosis of roots into leaves, a germinating seed into a flower.  Just like the hawk above, it’s a metaphor lost on many prisoners because it’s almost too symbolic to be real.

It’s all fun and games in the garden until someone has to put her clothes on.

The symbolism found me. While things do grow inside, the garden has always been the site of sin. Why should prison be any different? It’s where mankind’s two lead fuck-ups were first required to wear uniforms after they ate the apple that was supposed to land on humanity’s chow hall table. The garden is where Eve, the original bride, may have had sex with Satan (appearing as a captain or a lieutenant, I assume). The garden and Nature brought out Human Nature which, judging by my natural surroundings, is depraved and corrupt. The combination of shame and plants has always spelled disaster yet we made it the seat of this place and expect it to reform women. We should have known it wouldn’t work when the women in here over the past 100 years went from bad to worse.

Hoe-iStock_000012343503XSmallI thought that the garden was headed towards its last harvest when accusations surfaced that an inmate had taken her manual labor too far and serviced a guard guarding the garden with a hand job in the tool shed (almost too cliché for me).  Personnel shifted to allow the garden to spring eternal just like the connection between wayward women and an allegedly purifying plot of land that started this place.  Ho’s with hoes.  Some things never change. This is a prison, after all.



Pretty sneaky, sis. Or bro.


President Obama met with musicians Alicia Keys, Nicki Minaj, Busta Rhymes, Common, Janelle Monae, Ludacris, Chance the Rapper, J. Cole, Wale and DJ Khaled at the White House on Friday to discuss ways to continue the administration’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative and spur criminal justice reform in the United States. The musicians who met with Obama have been working on efforts to help younger generations of blacks and other minorities stay on the right path. But thinking that only black celebs can help black youth out of trouble isn’t racist. No. Not at all.

Manson follower Leslie van Houten was approved for parole by the California State parole board after serving 46 years. van Houten’s victims’ families vowed to fight her release by asking Governor Jerry Brown to block it as he has done in the past with other Manson-ites who were granted parole. I have mixed feelings about the parole board’s decision but what is the point of vesting the board with the discretion to release prisoners if that discretion can be overruled by the governor, the very person whose power the board was supposed to counterbalance?

Huge corporations like Google, PepsiCo, American Airlines, Facebook, Uber, Starbucks, The Hershey Company and Coca-Cola agreed to hire more people with criminal records last Monday, which will likely mean that each business will hire one to two people with felony records. That’s all it takes to say that you’re felon-friendly. These companies join Target, Walmart, Home Depot, Koch Industries, Bed, Bath & Beyond who have all removed the question about criminal convictions from their initial job applications. And still hire very few people with records. Don’t believe the hype. (BTW, why wasn’t Flavor Flav invited to meet Obama at the White House?)



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11 April 2016

You Are What You Own

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It must be easy for women who end up in prison to forget their pasts. So many of them come here after an unexpected arrest and all of their family photos, important documents, letters from parents before they passed – all of their momentos – get chucked along with their cookware, clothing and furniture.

When they leave the facility and track back to the angry landlord who evicted them they find out that all the pieces of their lives have fallen victim to a court order and incineration. Lady Justice just vacuumed up the only trail left of their lives.

This, of course, applies to the women who owned these items in the first place. Many don’t. The only evidence of their existences is rap sheets, bad debt and victims, not christening gowns and photo Christmas cards.

The extent of prison property.

Prison’s like a dry run of You-Can’t-Take-It-With-You lesson because you can’t have anything from home. I’m reasonably attached to my possessions, as well as keeping track of them ever since my father threw out a twice-worn pair of Joan and David loafers when I was in high school. The reason? They were on the stairs and I wasn’t wearing them. He wasn’t punishing me for abandoning them on the passage between the floors of the house. He saw them and noticed that I wasn’t wearing them – two very good reasons to discard any useable article of clothing – so he tossed them. Unlike his eldest daughter, he is thoroughly unsentimental – as well as disorganized – and will bulldoze any living quarters to the local dump without hesitation, like landlords do to the other inmates.

Going to seg is a dry run of the dry run because other inmates pick at your things, taking what they like before anything reaches a property officer’s hands.  Then she culls out everything you’re not allowed to have, all your contraband. It’s like having someone pack up everything in your home while you’re away and, when you return, everything that remains fits in a shopping cart. Even when inmates leave the facility, departure distills years, even decades, into baggies. Sometimes all you own after eighteen years can fit into a purse, like a small Prada mock-croc that had better be in my closet when I get home.

Because I can’t see my life in possessions from here, I spot check over the phone.image

“Where are my yearbooks?”

“Is all of my field hockey stuff still there?”

“Did you take all the papers out of my car when you picked it up [from the parking lot behind the courthouse when I was sentenced surprise party-style]? DON’T FORGET THAT’S EVIDENCE!”

My parents always promise yes, but the proof of the pudding is in the actual inventorying. Which I won’t get to do for years.

Having all of one’s possessions swooshed away is standard for natural disaster victims, but for woman-made disasters, the guilt and the trauma that flow from telling your children that you have none of their school pictures – and all because your boyfriend was selling heroin out of your living room to an undercover cop – must be overwhelming and indelible.

No one saves mementos of dark times. The baby clothes, the wedding albums, the Christmas ornaments corroborate our memories, our knowledge that our lives were good once. And might even be good again one day.

“Where’d she go?” “Dunno. I think she got arrested.”

That’s why sentimentally-valued stuff probably means more to a prisoner than to others. We’ve grown accustomed to evidence against us. But those mementos are evidence for us, in our favor, proof of why we should start liking ourselves again. When someone tampers with that tangible witness of our worth, we can’t even make a case for ourselves to ourselves. Even less can we do it to others.

For me, it’s one of the worst scenarios to witness when an inmate comes in. The hiccuping sobs and wailing about all the tender belongings that can’t be saved. With some confidence I can assure a crying inmate, tears falling on denim pants so news they’re still waterproof, that her lawyer will call, that she has a chance at trial, that her kids will come to visit, that she’ll be home one day.

Welcome home.

But the holdings that make a home will be gone, I know. She knows, too. It’s futile to attempt to convince her that her landlord will save her property. He’ll sell what has real value and chuck whatever has emotional value. The support for the idea that a third party values your life enough to save your property is flimsy, especially here, in a place that, by its very purpose, devalues your life.

All I can do for these women is pat their backs and serve a generic “It will be alright.” An acid-like burn spreads in my chest when I have to say that because I know that I wouldn’t be able to handle the knowledge of that kind of loss. I also hate having to admit that I am lucky that my parents hold my stuff and allow me to call and ask questions like:

“All of my awards and my Princeton sweatshirts are still there, right?”

And they answer:

“Yes, Chandra. Where would they have gone?”




I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children…You are defending the people who kill the people whose lives you say matter. Tell the truth!” is what former President Bill Clinton yelled at Black Lives Matter protesters on Thursday in Philadelphia where he was campaigning for his wife. He #sorrynotsorry-ed the next day. I disagree with this whole Blame-the-Clintons attitude when it comes to the country’s incarceration problems. The former president’s 1994 crime bill could not have predicted trends in the black market of illegal drugs and how privatization would impact them. Sometimes even well-intended policies go wrong. The challenge is to correct those policies when the evidence of their impact appears.

President Obama has deported more illegal immigrants than any other president, usually because they have been convicted of aggravated felonies. But the deportation always comes after we spend thousands to incarcerate these people. Why don’t we deport them before we spend all of this money on housing and feeding them? This never made sense to me.

Does it make sense to raise the “felony theft threshold” – the amount that needs to be stolen for the crime to be considered felonious? As someone who bunked with several serial “boosters” (shoplifters) I don’t think the threshold matters. Unless rehabilitated properly (which no one, including me, knows how to do) they will continue to steal small items and get their sentences enhanced under persistent offender statutes. It won’t make difference if you ask someone who’s been inside.





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4 April 2016

Dollar Bin Divorces

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It costs a dollar.

The Inmate Legal Assistance Program – essentially Legal Aid for prisoners – charges $1.00 to file divorce papers for an inmate. These women may get away with murder and get their money for nothing, but they’ll never get their splits for free.

I never understood it because those ten dimes aren’t enough to cover costs in any meaningful way so why not just provide the free service? Everything else that Inmate Legal Assistance does is gratis. Why the dollar? Is it a low sticker price to induce buying?

It’s a steal, I guess, even though prison divorces lack the lengthy battle over finances – statistics say that 80% of inmates are indigent but I say it’s higher – or custody (because the mom certainly can’t have custody while she’s in here).

imageSince two-thirds of women in prison were, at some point, victims of domestic violence at the hands of a spouse, offering bargain-bin priced divorces might be a wise idea. The Department of Justice says that as many as three women are murdered every day by a spouse so it might be more than wise; divorce might be vital to a woman’s survival. Prison imposes a separation on couples that nudges an abused woman toward leaving an abusive husband, particularly if the price is right.

I sit in the visiting room and watch women check in for their professional visits with the legal aid team to jumpstart divorce proceedings. One’s nose is, without exaggeration, against her face. It’s not a recent injury; her husband broke it badly years ago and she didn’t want to go to the doctor for fear of jamming him up with police. I heard this story from other women in the kitchen who call her “Smash.”

I remember four years ago I lived in 3 South [the assessments unit] next door to a woman who spoke in an unusually gravelly voice. When someone made fun of it she said that her husband had tried to crush her windpipe. I moved – or more accurately, was moved – from 3 South but I saw her again when one of her hospice aids pushed a wheelchair that held her and her tracheal tube. I heard later that she died but I always wonder if she was killed before she got to prison.

imageI have mixed feelings about making it easy for a woman to divorce her husband while she’s incarcerated and unable to establish real independence in here. Tons of data has emerged about how marriage reduces crime, wipes up poverty’s spills and is an antidote to mass incarceration.  If that’s the case, then shouldn’t we avoid inducing divorce with the dollar menu price tag? Can none of these marriages or husbands be redeemed? If so, what does it say about the wives in here?

I don’t think that women should willingly subject themselves to violence or abuse. But society doesn’t need to willingly subject itself to her violence or abuse after its legal separation from her while she was in prison. Society divorces ex-offenders all the time when they hit the streets. When it comes to forgiveness, you get what you give.

If the Inmate Legal Assistance Program wants to help women locked up and locked into abusive marriages, they must do more than slashing prices. Cleaving a marriage in half when the wife is in prison requires a unique re-entry strategy that seems not to exist here.

imageI can’t opine on this much because I’ve never been married. But my parents have been married for decades.  Their conglomeration survived emotional and verbal abuse, alcoholism (both acknowledged and overlooked) and generally wishing that each had not married the other, at least at times. They knew they had to keep it together for their children and themselves. Besides, not only had they invested hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars into their history together and trillions of themselves, they made a commitment that they wouldn’t bail, even when the other one fucked up big time.

Had my parents divorced, then who would have picked up my father from Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution in June 2010? Without his wife to pick him up on an early summer morning, just days away from their 40th wedding anniversary, my father would have been on a bus to disaster like every woman who divorces an imperfect husband while she’s in here and goes home to nothing.

I hope the Dollar Divorce is probably just reflective of inmates’ view of matrimony. Most inmates have play-house views of marriage. They call men – and women – they’ve known for one month and slept with twice their ‘husbands’ or ‘wives.’  Their ease with the language of marriage causes mass confusion in legal proceedings that aren’t divorce-related.

“What’s your husband’s name” I asked one woman who asked me to help her apply for permission to write to her ‘husband’ in another prison.


“Same last name?” I asked her as I moved to the next question.

“Same’s what? His first?”

“No, same as yours. Did you take his name?” I asked.

“For what?”

“For your own.”

“My name ain’t Darnell.”

“I know,” I said, trying not to get totally exasperated. “Your name is Karen. What’s Darnell’s last name?”

“I dunno. McCallum, McCardle-um. Sumptin like that.”

I caught on late.

“How long have you known Darnell?”

“I dunno. Free, four months.”

“Did you ever go in front of a judge or a pastor with Darnell and get a marriage license?” I cut to the chase.

“I dunno.” She was being honest.

Obvi, they were never married but you can’t convince Karen of this. To her, she’s wed.

10719784-largeI doubt that the inmates understand the earnest and inescapable enmeshment required of a marital commitment. Marriage isn’t easy when the union is real but it can be when it isn’t real; fake marriages are easy to fall into and getting out of them requires next to no thought. Like the same mental investment you put into buying something from Target’s Dollar Bin at the front of the store; it’s as easy to let it stay in the cart as to pull it out and put on another shelf while you’re shopping.

Or maybe the reason for the bargain basement price is much more oppressive than even I understand. I bet no one will remove the dollar price tag from prison divorces because it reminds women in bad situations that they will never – even when someone helps them – be off the hook. They’ll always have to pay something , even if it’s close to nothing, to be free.



After reading Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are at his last White House Easter Egg Roll, President Obama let some wild things out and commuted the sentences of 61 federal prisoners this week. And he only has 9054 applications to go in the next 291 days (meaning he would have to decide 31 per calendar day to clear his backlog). I’ve said this before on HuffPo and no one listened: POTUS doesn’t have to commute sentences under the United States Sentencing Commission’s revised guidelines; federal courts can do this. We have one president and 2758 federal judges. Let them earn their keep.

The Richmond Experiment – the practice of paying high-risk individuals not to commit crime that was named after the California city that started it – received more coverage in article this week in the Washington Post as a solution to the problem of violent crime. The idea of essentially bribing someone not to break the law isn’t that new; it used to be called sustainable employment. Paying people a decent minimum wage ($15 per hour and up) ends up paying them to avoid crime, too. Isn’t the Richmond Experiment the best argument for simply paying people living wages? We will find out eventually, as California and New York (New York City) passed minimum wage-raising statutes this week.

A police officer in Florida used his body camera to record a conversation, a “hallway deposition” with a public defender, and now the attorney is arguing that it violated her privacy. This is what we want, people: a record of everything. I’ve said this here on Prison Diaries before: cameras clear as often as they convict. No one needs to be accused of lying anymore if we all took the precaution that this cop did. I’m on his side and not just because I hate public defenders.


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