Prison Diaries was honored on June 25, 2016 in Los Angeles, California with a first place finish in the organization’s 2016 Column Contest for Online, Blog or Multimedia sites with under 100,000 unique visitors.
Judy Clarke’s Dementia Isn’t Funny and Renee Davis Brame’s Pop Depravity were awarded second and third place honors, respectively. Prison Diaries and its writer are honored to be considered alongside these excellent serial essayists.
The most flattering part of receiving this award was the judge’s/judges’ comments which read:
“It’s a part of the columnist’s art, touching readers by isolating the smallest things in daily life and teasing out the universality, providing connections between one writer and many readers, and thus between one of us and all of us. How rare and useful to take the everyday details of life in prison and let the rest of us “in,” as it were. There’s no special pleading in these columns, just a reminder of our common humanity under conditions most of us will never have to face.”
This is exactly what Prison Diaries set out to do. Knowing the Diaries achieved their goal is humbling and inspiring at the same time.
“Guilt is never to be doubted,” in Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony, where sentences of confinement were too easy. In the colony, wardens carved prisoners’ punishments into their backs with needles over and over again until the carvings lacerated their bodies to the point of death. The executioner required onlookers to watch retribution’s visible demarcations, bloody invasions on human flesh. Beheading or poisoning the prisoner would’ve been more efficient, yet insufficient. It’s never enough that someone feels punishment; everyone has to watch the penalty as the perp wears it before she dies.
I wear it every day and I’m not entirely sure of it. Full length mirrors must have good lawyers because they never go to prison. Instead we have index-card sized mirrors, barely enough to see your face. When I look into one of these tiny rectangles, my face is usually splotched with red – not inflammation or acne – but crushed tomatoes; they’re in almost every recipe we make in Food Prep.
I saunter around all day with red globules in my eyelashes, on the crease of my lip, crimson paste smeared and flaky on my cheeks, matting the little hairs on my forehead. I know it’s there; I just don’t know exactly where it is on my face and I yet interact with the prison ‘public’ without so much as dry swipe of my elbow to clear anything off. The sleeve, too, is covered with food spills and I’ll transfer them to my visage. So I let it all stay where it lands. It’s like I’ve surrendered to tomato tyranny.
How a woman looks is so paramount in society that it shouldn’t have surprised me that personal care would be taken away from us alleged scofflaws. External manifestations of punishment are nothing new; we’ve never wanted people who’ve done bad to look good, or even acceptable. From Hester Prynne’s crimson vowel to the six-pointed yellow stars worn by Jews in Nazi Germany, few can deny the connection between reckoning and appearance. Your just deserts have to be spilled down the front of your shirt. Karma’s return must lay track marks. Even Jesus Christ, condemned to death and risen from the dead, couldn’t shake his stigmata. What could he have done? Cover them with his hands?
The physical destruction and shaming of women caught in criminal justice starts long before anyone lands behind bars. In too many cases involving female defendants, the perpwalk and court appearances are just a disheveling and disorienting red carpet. No detail is too meaningless for the public’s and the reporters’ focus. Someone who’s here with me was charged with assault and described as ‘paunchy’ at her sentencing even though that had nothing to do with the crime. Why did the reporter need to write that?
Another female defendant, this one in New York, charged with statutory rape, had her “pink-hooded sweatshirt, black pants and white sneakers with pink shoelaces” dissected by the press at her arraignment. Choice of shoelace color was included with how she allegedly had sex with a high school student because the media reports only what we need to know. If the shoelaces had been blue, that would’ve meant that she was innocent of sexual assault, but guilty of stalking him, never mind that she was never charged with that. Green shoelaces mean she co-conspired with Bernie Madoff. Pink means she’s very together, and therefore manipulative and guilty. The shoelaces had to be included in the story. It would have been reckless journalism to leave them out.
If you’re a woman in trouble, how you look eclipses what you’ve done. This phenomenon might be helpful if it introduced any doubt about your charges, but it doesn’t.
Even as my trial was covered in the New Haven Register, reporting inaccuracies and the names the press called me bothered me – but not enough; I was just glad that Connecticut courtrooms disallow cameras. Because of this rule, no reporters carried cameras with them to snap photos of me at the courthouse. Readers of the local press drew incorrect conclusions about my character and the evidence against me. My appearance, though, was still inconclusive to them and I was okay with that because, through taking care of my father post-stroke, I wasn’t ready for my close up after my cuff up. I didn’t look as bad then as I do now, but Joan and Melissa Rivers would have destroyed me.
I can’t blame beauty culture or the patriarchy or even the media for this. We do it to ourselves.
One inmate here, a woefully misplaced Manhattanite who subscribes to the New York Post, sometimes reads our writing class portions of her paper when it arrives, days late.
“Listen, Lindsay Lohan was wearing ‘a hot beige number by LA designer Raquel Allegra and a conspicuous gold necklace… crafted by New York City-based jewelry designer Judith Ripka,’ when she went to court,” she read aloud. “Must be nice [to be able to do that],” she huffed.
“What’s she charged with again?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” the subscriber said. “Lemme check here.”
Whether Lohan was charged with larceny or a mass shooting didn’t lead our discussion; her appearance was the top topic, even among women who’ve suffered bad hair’s speaking for them – even more than bad behavior – but both still talking trash.
Even though I don this tomato outfit every day and I’ve done so for years, the C/O’s are still bowled over with my appearance and the amount of tomatoes I wear when I walk down the sidewalk after work.
“Jesus, Bozelko, you here for murder?” they snort and laugh at their own jokes. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 200 times. The staff is on their way to cliché.
And it’s not as if they don’t know why I’m here; despite the rules prohibiting their Google-stalking me and invading my master file, they’ve done it. Keeping me an institutional target is very important to them.
But it doesn’t matter what I did or didn’t do, whether I harmed myself or someone else, whether I am guilty or not, as long as I look like shit and they can remind me of it.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM JUNE 20 – 26, 2016
Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer spent four months working as a corrections officer in a private prison in Louisiana. His report came out last week and is really shocking in its detail of violence, corruption and danger for anyone walking inside these private facilities. Title of first chapter? “Inmates Run this Bitch.” Read it. It’s long but…wow.
Gawker.com and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last week that Georgia Superior Court Judge Bryant Dunham, Jr. and defendant Denver Fenton Allen went head-to-head in a Rome, Georgia courtroom with the judge’s telling Allen he should masturbate in front of the bench and Allen’s telling the judge to “suck his dick.” This transcript is long, too, especially for the justice it achieves. Another wow.
A Mississippi prosecutor was charged with aiding and abetting criminal defendants by supplying them with strategy on how to beat the charges against them. It’s true he should have done this in a courtroom – by making sure charges were dropped – but it should never be a criminal act to try to achieve justice. The end game of criminal justice isn’t convictions; it’s fair play. And it seems like that was the prosecutor’s point in outlining strategy for defendants and giving them copies of evidence of improper communications between the judge and the other prosecutors. A sad wow.
Only someone who’s mentally ill wears two sets of thermal underwear, two sweatshirts on July 6th, I thought, like the homeless people you see wearing puffy parkas during heatwaves.
I looked down at my body, which was covered in two sets of thermal underwear and two sweatshirts on the day before July 7th. My court appearance had been continued so marshals brought me back to the central lock-up early and I was sitting, freezing, in the basement of the New Haven Police Department.
Marshals brought in a woman – 50’s I guess, not polished – who had been arraigned within the last hour wearing black T-shirt with “LAWLESS AMERICA” in that high-alert shade of yellow. Apparently there’s some movie about judicial corruption and the producer is touring the country, promoting the film and riling people up and he was in Connecticut on July 6th. One of his acolytes got arrested, when she was decorated with probably the worst apparel you can wear in front of a judge in a criminal case, something labeling you lawless in a court of law. She was being held on a lowball bond.
It’s a special, secret club of people who understand how corrupt and wrong the judges are and how little defense attorneys do for their clients. And the only admission to this exclusive league of people is being charged with or convicted of a crime. It’s a perfect set-up for sustainable corruption; the only people who know the truth have diminished credibility.
Only members of the club like me know that a $50 bond or other low amount is a judicial screw-job. Obviously, if a $50 bounty was appropriate, then the person isn’t dangerous or charged with something serious, otherwise it’d be higher. If a defendant is low-risk enough to justify a $50 bond, then it’s all the same to release her on a promise to appear. Most people know someone who can post $50 in bail for them but, once that bond is set, the defendant can’t call anyone until she reaches the prison. There’s no phone in lockup or the courthouse that she’s allowed to use. As low as it is, a $50 bond guarantees you’ll see the inside of a correctional facility at least for a few minutes and no one can accuse the judge of being unreasonable or abusing his discretion. It’s only $50.
Lady Lawless was becoming increasingly agitated at her predicament, almost to the point of inviting medical sedation. She thought that arguing the facts to the marshals – that the Judicial Review Council in Connecticut co-signs outrageous behavior by the state’s jurists, that they trample people’s rights all the time in favor of corporations or the state. She sounded paranoid, looked deranged. And I’ve made the same claims she did at one point or another, almost verbatim. I wonder what I looked like.
“I am an educated person. I should not be shackled!” she went on to the marshals who prepared her for transport back to York.
Trust me, not gonna work, I thought.
All of us knew that, if her antics escalated, the marshals would likely admit her to a local psych ward – where, incidentally, she could make a phone call to someone to post her bond – and their procedures would delay our trip back to prison. Our homecoming can be delayed as long as four hours when an inmate gets hospitalized from lockup. Instead of getting back to the prison at 9 PM, we’d get in around 1 AM, after being on the trip since 7:30 AM the day before. No one wanted that, but Lady Lawless persisted.
“You can’t shackle me! I’m the victim of a sexual assault! Don’t you understand? Can’t anyone help me?” she shrieked.
Index fingers of other inmates shot off in my direction.
“Can you help me?” she begged, sobbing so hard that help became a two-syllable word. The arms underneath her T-shirt were goose-bumped because she had dressed appropriately for a summer day.
“No,” I said. I wish I had more comforting words but I had nothing. I felt sympathy for her but it was like sympathy-lite. I am so worn down by these events where someone is in distress and no one is doing – can do – anything of any effect to help her.
She started to struggle against the marshals who were trying to shackle her while she was standing which is rare because it’s too easy for an inmate to boot them in their faces when they do that. It’s much easier for the inmate and safer for the staff if she sits in a chair and extends her legs, but Lady Lawless was protester, a stand-up lady, and wouldn’t sit down.
Sounded one 23 year-old inmate with a shock of pink hair:
“Let them put them irons on. We’re all victims of sexual assault so SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
Watching women behave inside the razor wire tells me that none of the statistics connecting childhood sexual abuse and crime are lying. Mass incarceration is just a round-up of victims of some type of abuse or neglect. When you see victims in the paradigm of powerlessness so many times, they start to annoy you.
Intellectually, I knew she was understandably scared like I was and that injustice was laced throughout whatever just happened to Lady Lawless somehow. It’s possible that the judge who arraigned her had little sympathy for anyone but more likely he/she didn’t like the fact that he/she was included in the system Lady was protesting. I don’t understand how a person who gets charged in protesting judicial corruption can get a fair hearing since no one can preside over it except the people she’s accusing of malfeasance. Her case is corruption incarnate.
Even knowing that, I was pissed at her that she had been victimized, either in the past or a few hours ago in a court of law. If she had just done something else different, I’m sure that she wouldn’t have been here, asking me for something I don’t have and can’t do. The way we blame victims – Well, hon, if things had been different, they wouldn’t be the same – that’s our real lawless America.
“Can’t you do something? I wanna get back,” Pink Hair asked me.
“What can I do?” I asked back, pointing down to my shackles and raising my wrists, criss-crossed in a belly chain.
“She wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t worn that shirt. Might have had a chance if she wore something else,” I lied to them. And to myself.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM FROM JUNE 13 – 19, 2016
The mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando filled crime-policy wonks’ inboxes with more unanswerable questions. They have to decide whether we should ban certain guns. They have to decide whether shooter Omar Mateen was mentally ill and what could have been done about it. They have to decide whether the FBI knows what the hell is going on. They have to decide what the death toll needs to be to trigger real discussion about how to prevent these tragedies. I’d be interested in knowing in how many people wouldn’t be locked up if we had banned guns altogether, years ago.
‘Tis the season. Three inmates escaped – one in Arkansas and two in Nebraska – to much less fanfare than the Dannemora escape and manhunt for David Sweat and Richard Matt that was ongoing at this time last year. Earlier this month, the New York Inspector General issued a report blaming New York correctional staff for the escape last year. Already prison staff is in the crosshairs in the Nebraska escape. And prison staff should be in a jam in Arkansas where a man convicted of murder and sentenced to 60 years was assigned to an off-prison grounds job. Usually, high security inmates aren’t assigned to these jobs because of the risk of escape. My take? Huge screw-ups by staff in all three states. That’s what prison breaks are: magnification of C/O mistakes.
Think tank In the Public Interest released a study on Thursday with statistics showing that recidivism among people who discharge from private prisons is higher than the rate for people who come home from government-run prisons. This is newsworthy because for a long time no one had any data that indicated that privatization can threaten public safety.
“They must get a rate on them,” I said to myself as I watched the warden saunter down the walkway. I rarely take breaks at work, but August in a kitchen with no air-conditioning pushes me outside for air with the inmates who are dodging responsibility, while they’re here in prison taking responsibility for something else.
He was wearing a salmon-colored shirt. In the almost three years that I’ve been here, every warden has had a spumoni-inspired wardrobe, dress shirts that would be laughed out of boardrooms. There’s no Brooks Brothers blue oxford cloth here, as far as I can tell. Instead: Pistachio. Pink. Turquoise. Goldenrod. Aubergine. Royal. Red. Outside of a Christmas party, what man wears a red shirt to work with a tie? I’ll even stretch it to Valentine’s Day, but only two occasions wouldn’t cause me to buy clothes just for them. No, I take that back. I would. But I’m a girl and I don’t oversee a paramilitary workplace.
And I’ve seen them wear long leather jackets over them like blazers. It’s so common that I’ve made myself the official sentinel to their fashion. No one except for me even cares but, believe me, a pattern has emerged with the solid-colored shirts, a pattern whose significance I can’t understand unless the shirts come free with the promotion to top correctional dog. Or they get a rate on them. Or the new position puts their taste buds in their assholes.
Becoming a warden is like reaching the pinnacle of a pile of shit. Except it’s not so much a climb as it is an endurance test. You start as a C/O, climb the ranks and, when no one else is left and your soul is calloused, someone from DOC headquarters tells you: “You’re on.”
There’s nothing glamorous about the job, no caché that gains you admission to exclusive events. You work in a filthy, feces-coated, menstrual blood-smeared location. You’re essentially on call in case of an emergency, which will necessarily be an act of violence or an instance of serious illness or danger. Or an escape. I peg the pay to be about 150K, which is good money but not enough to work in a museum of failed social policy and human heartache.
Sometimes I feel bad for the warden, whomever it happens to be at the time (this one is the third in three years) because they’re like the Rodney Dangerfields of justice. Society values lawyers and judges unnecessarily. Unions celebrate C/O’s and lieutenants like the globe can’t spin without them. The Commissioner is a political appointee who has the governor’s ear. The warden? The warden has the unfortunate privilege of overseeing a collection of people who are addicted to breaking the rules. And he oversees the inmates, too. And he gets no respect.
Sure, C/O’s and other staff’s spines grow ramrod straight when he’s around. They jump out of chairs and turn off the TV’s that descend from the ceiling when they seem him through the window, heading towards them on the sidewalk. For the most part, very few listen to him.
If the staff did respect him, then they would obey the rules all the time and not just when they think he might tour the compound. They think when they snicker at or tease an inmate and call her fat that the harm rolls only downhill. Sure, they’re disrespecting us. But they’re also openly revealing that they don’t respect the warden, even if he never finds out. If he never finds out and they pretend like they’ve never done this, then they’re lying to him. No respect. No respect.
If they held him in any esteem, they’d follow his rules, make him look like he’s convinced them that obedience shouldn’t be the road less traveled. Of course, many of the staffers here would make him proud. But a lot of them would embarrass him, do embarrass him.
My first tango with the current warden came when he was a deputy warden – same shirts! – and the dental office wouldn’t give me a teeth cleaning because I was sentenced to less than nine years. I made the mistake of having Tina [my lawyer] write to the warden and ask for a cleaning.
“Her teeth are perfect and beautiful and need to be cleaned,” she wrote to him. I’m sure the warden thought I had wailed to her over the phone: “My teeth are perfect and beautiful and they won’t clean them!” when what I really said was “Can I just have them not rot out of my head before I leave?” Tina did me a disservice with everything she said while representing me.
I had to meet with the current Warden, then deputy, and the administrative captain to explain that the dental hygienist wouldn’t give me a cleaning but the conversation veered over to my substance use history.
“You’ve never done drugs?”
“None at all?”
“None.” It was true.
“Not even drink?”
“Not really. Binge drank in college. Only occasionally now,” I answered.
“Like, when do you drink?”
“Weddings, I guess…maybe…what does this have to do with my teeth?” I asked.
“You can get a cleaning, Bozelko, but I had a scaling recently and it is no fun.”
“Thank you. I’ve had my teeth scaled before,” I explained.
“You must have if your lawyer says they’re perfect and beautiful,” he said, revealing that he had read the letter Tina sent to the warden. The fact that he made her unprofessional letter an issue in a non-humorous way made me lose respect for him then. That and the fact that he turned what should have been a simple approval for a medical procedure that didn’t require meeting with me across a huge conference table into a weak mini-inquisition. Come on, Deputy, if you’re going use the teeth cleaning to ask me questions you think will embarrass me, go big. And demonstrate that you have no respect for yourself or your boss. Still, I winced when he said it because it was an obnoxious request to keep my teeth white and I knew Tina’s words – and his perception of me – would color every day I would spend in this place.
And it has, now that he’s in charge.
Despite the fact heat would hit your face with such a force that you’d step back at the kitchen door, I stayed and worked a double that August weekday I watched the Warden swim by in a salmon shirt because we needed to get ready for Ramadan meals. One of the second shift supervisors went to the lieutenants’ office and came back with a piece of glossy cardstock. Clichéd clip art decorated the page. “Happy Birthday” and his name appeared in 24 point font above:
May your day be filled with sunshine and nice happenings.
“What is that? It’s your birthday today?”
“No, it’s not today. The Warden gives one to everyone who has a birthday this month,” he explained.
“It sounds like someone translated a birthday card into Chinese and then let the Chinese translate it back to English,” I observed. The ‘nice happenings’ made me think of the John Hughes movie Sixteen Candles and the character Long Duck Dong. What’s happenin’ hot stuff? Nice happenings, hot stuff.
He chuckled, shook his head. And dropped the card in the beige, nondescript, plastic pail that holds the garbage.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE/REFORM FROM JUNE 6 – 12, 2016
Before the Orlando nightclub shooting, the biggie of the week, obviously, was whether Brock Turner, the Stanford University swimmer who was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman behind a fraternity house dumpster, received sufficient punishment for his crime when he was sentenced a week earlier to six months in a county jail facility. There was only one article that identified who’s really responsible for this mess: the probation officer who made the recommendation that the Hon. Aaron Persky (incidentally a judge that other people have described as extremely deferential to indigent defendants before him) followed when he imposed sentence. Self-promotion alert: I wrote it.
A total of eight – five on Tuesday and three on Friday – Rikers guards were convicted of various crimes related to the 2012 beating of inmate Jamal Lightfoot in which Lightfoot broke his teeth, nose and eye sockets. Riders guards don’t like being called guards because they see themselves as correctional professionals, not mere guards. Instead, they prefer to be called “officers.” No one will ever call the convicted guards “guards” again…because they’ve been canned.
NORM! The day after the first round of the Rikers’ guards’ convictions, Norman Seabrook, the president of the New York Correction Officers Benevolent Association – i.e. the prison guards’ union – was picked up by FBI agents at his Bronx home for allegedly funneling union pension funds to a shady hedge fund in exchange for kickbacks. Seabrook has never been able to interact with the press without saying that inmates – every single one of them – are dangerous thugs. He once attempted to prove his point by showing up at City Hall in a coffin. Now he may get to live with those thugs. And reform might actually start at Rikers, according to the New York Times. Good luck, Norman.
Every once in a while, you can wax philosophical in prison and not about moral or ethical questions, but metaphysical ones. Like this question: if someone tells on another person for something she never did or reports an event that never occurred, is she really a snitch?
Snitches swarm in prisons as people expect. But most people don’t know that tattletales actually tell mostly tall tales. I thought to blab you had to report something that actually happened. Judging by my experience, snitches are just tattlers of fiction.
Inmate Linda Stone schooled me in snitch reality. Linda is a petite, bookish-looking black woman who received permission to wear a girlish, innocence-projecting kerchief on her head. The kerchief, when paired with Stone’s two side braids, made her look like a milkmaid, but Stone is really a vile beast. She heaped lies about her life on everyone: she worked as a District Manager for a well-known international shoe company, she served as an expert witness in credit card fraud cases, she had a PhD.
“She ain’t got no PhD. The only thing that bitch got is a B.H.,” another inmate told me.
“B.A., I think you mean,” I corrected her.
“No. B.H. Bald head. That’s why she needs that scarf,” she explained. Apparently Stone suffered from a severe case of alopecia that afforded her the cloth on her head. She originally claimed her it was her “cuteness” that caused the staff to allow her to wear it. I guess that was a bald-faced lie.
Stone worked as the “Common-area Worker,” an inmate janitor who cleans the lobby of each housing unit and inventories supplies. The milkmaid fell victim to an occupational hazard and developed an illness I call Co.W.S. – Common-area Worker Syndrome – a condition under which an inmate believes that she’s become a deputy warden. Inmates with Co.W.S. order the staff around, subjugate other prisoners and generally march around being officious pains in the ass.
Because of her case of Co.W.S., Stone required that all attention be focused on her, her fictitious PhD and her very real baldness. Stone had been assigned a partner, a co-worker named Denise, who’s actually pretty cool. This positive personality trait would make her a natural enemy of Stone. Denise said something that Stone didn’t like and, within minutes, Stone ran to a lieutenant and told him that Denise had threatened violence against a particular C/O. Even though Denise never uttered a discouraging word about staff, the goon squad would hear none of it as they spirited her off to seg.
Stone’s imperiousness forced the staff to let her to choose Denise’s successor as her new underling. At the time, I worked washing inmates’ uniforms on one of the tiers in Stone’s fiefdom and I much preferred the biohazard risk from tossing foul drawers into a rickety dryer than listening to Stone. But she drafted me anyway.
“You’re going to have to do it for at least one day until we figure out who’ll work with her,” a guard told me when I backed away from Stone’s province and shook my head at my new work assignment.
Reluctantly, I joined Stone in the supply closet where she was ripping clear plastic garbage bags into small pieces to use as wrappings for spoonfuls of powdered laundry detergent that awaited distribution to inmate workers. She pointed and ordered me “Do this,” – fill bottles of glass cleaner – and “Do that” – sweep the floor – until she allowed me to reconvene with her in the closet.
“You know C.O. Snell? Well, he came in here the other day and asked me “Hey Chocolate, wanna suck it?” Stone wasn’t relaying an instance of sexual harassment; to her, this falsehood was evidence of how much the staff desired her.
No one talks like that, I thought. Even the worst C/O’s.
“Really? He said that? Fess up, Stone. Do you live in a porno?” I asked because porn’s dialogue was more credible than the dreams Stone was selling.
“I gave him a back rub once.”
She thought this was an adequate justification for this flaming lie. When an inmate and a guard sneak away to engage in inappropriate physical contact – a collision that never occurred between Mr. Snell and Stone – no one has time for a backrub; the two have sex and separate to throw off the scent. Prison is a lot of drama, but it’s not a love story with massages and long talks.
“Stone…” I pointed to the door next to the supply closet, the counselor’s office. The counselor happened to be Mrs. Snell.
“What?” Stone asked.
“Keep it down,” I warned and pointed to the counselor’s door again.
“That door is locked… I mean… if it’s locked no one’s in there. No one’s in there. Is she in there?” Stone spilled panicky rationale all over the place as she tried to convince herself that no one ever existed behind a locked door, particularly in a prison.
“All I’m saying is… you know…” I said and put my hand out to say Slow down.
Within seconds, Stone announced: “We’re done in here,” and hustled me out of the closet.
I’d been back in my cell for about an hour when the unit manager summoned me to his office and detailed to me that an inmate worker – Stone – had provided a statement to him that I confided in her that Mr. Snell had made inappropriate advances towards me. The unit manager took Stone’s lead with this lie and allowed her to pre-empt her own problems by reporting me for her lie.
“I never made any statements like that whatsoever,” I defended myself. I knew it was futile to explain what had really happened. I would look like I was doing what Stone did to me.
“Nevertheless,” the unit manager continued, “Mrs. Snell doesn’t feel comfortable with you in the unit. You’ll be moved in twenty minutes. Grab some bags,” he told me, referring to the same bags Stone had ripped up; inmates use them as suitcases when they move because they’re clear and snitch – honestly – on any contraband toted inside of them.
I put up no fight, instead walked to my cell with a stack of garbage bags. I never blamed Mrs. Snell for taking offense. That was reasonable. She simply had the wrong offender. Almost immediately after I started to pack, the unit manager called me back into the office.
“And we also have reports that you made threats of violence against Officers Copper and Harvest. If we become aware of you threatening staff again, you’ll be disciplined. Understood?” he leveled his gaze at me.
I had no idea what to say as more philosophical questions arose. If I said I understood, did that mean that I wasn’t refuting Stone’s lie about me? If I said: “No, I don’t get it because I never said it,” I’d become Denise’s roommate in seg within seconds.
The whole scene was like asking for a pardon when you’re innocent; even seeking absolution or agreeing with your persecutor implies guilt. Did I understand anything about the situation at the moment? No. So I did what every confused inmate does; I nodded ever so slightly. Minimal assent greases a prisoner’s way out of tight situations.
As it turns out, I much preferred my new housing unit so the move hardly devastated me. But the whole event posited a serious philosophical question in my brain. Was Stone really a snitch? She really never told on me because I never made any of the comments she attributed to me; those words came out of her mouth. She reported a true incident but identified the wrong perp. Neither of us threatened violence against anyone, so Stone’s reports of threats wasn’t really tattle-tale-ing, it was spinning a yarn.
Ever since all of this happened in 2009, it’s like I have the scene on TiVo and I replay it every month. Women in prison with low self-esteem seek attention from guards; they’re the closest authority figures. Usually, no new gossip has developed to impart on the correction officers so, in the spirit of the saying that Wise people have something to say whereas fools have to say something, many inmates make up stories of what another prisoner allegedly did or said about the C/O.
Then when the snitchee finds out what the snitcher did to her, she runs to another guard and fabricates a another story about the original snitcher because they think that reversing the slander will bring about justice. The more novice C/O’s betray their emotions as panic spreads across their faces when they hear these stories and march in search of a lieutenant to receive their incident reports. Experienced staff know it’s all bullshit. Sometimes I hardly wonder why they hate all of us.
The snitch riddle is problematic because it confuses inmates about what a responsible person should report. Solid citizens report crime and situations where people can suffer harm but many inmates don’t understand this. The stigma on reporting malfeasance is a product of street culture, lawlessness, not clean living. Inmates think projecting an image of never reporting anything makes them cool and controlled and convince themselves that tolerating others’ transgressions makes them trustworthy. The fact that they then run to C/O with a false story about someone else doesn’t disabuse them of this belief, either.
It’s been an irreconcilable prison paradox to me since I got here and lived in the dorms and one of my cubemates, Terry, asked another inmate, Shelley, if she would call the police if she witnessed someone breaking into her neighbor’s home.
“Naw. I ain’t no snitch,” she objected. Terry and I discovered later that Shelley, the one who would allow a full-scale burglary to unfold in her neighbor’s home, had been the informant who set up and told on Terry’s sister, Misty, for some drug situation that both were responsible for. Now do you see why people hate us?
Inmates, though, aren’t that different than citizens at large. Every day brings new situations that require us to ponder what’s worth our (and the authorities’) attention and what we should ignore. Developing the virtue of prudence is a daily chore for everyone whether she bears an inmate number or not. To whistleblow or not to whistleblow? That is everyone’s question.
Whispering lies into Lady Justice’s ear won’t imbalance her scales for long. Immigration eventually came and scooped up Stone because another one of her lies was that she was a United States citizen. Someone else she screwed found out and did a dishonorable thing in an honorable way by calling I.C.E. and telling the truth so she’d get deported to her to her home country in the Caribbean Sea.
It wasn’t me who called that yellow belly out on her missing green card; I was convinced she was a citizen. But if I had known, I wouldn’t have turned her in – mostly because I couldn’t just pick up a receiver to drop an immigration dime on her. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t – or shouldn’t – have snitched her out if I had known and been able to call the police on her. But I can’t say that. I would’ve been extremely tempted to get some getback.
Even if I never told, I would have spent a long time thinking it over, considering the philosophical implications of revenge when I know full well to sidestep retributive ideas and move on. The fact that I spend so much time pondering these actions – how to jam someone up, what constitutes real snitching – but don’t actually do them ultimately doesn’t make me a better person than anyone else here.
A good person doesn’t even think about it.
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM MAY 30 – JUNE 5, 2016
Another reason why Banning-the-Box doesn’t work by itself to secure employment for people with criminal records: when employers don’t know an applicant’s criminal history because there is no initial disclosure – i.e. no “box” – they still discriminate, but they use race as a proxy for criminal pasts, a forthcoming study out of the Brookings Institution found.
A public defender in Georgia is trying to overturn a death sentence for his client, Rodney Young, claiming that the district attorney who prosecuted Young’s case is preternaturally bloodthirsty because she has a toy electric chair in her office that zaps a little toy defendant named ‘Marv.’ It is a little macabre, but when you consider the way Young killed his victim, the son of a woman who had broken up with him, by bludgeoning the son with a hammer, cutting his throat and beating him so badly that one of his eyeballs was hanging from his face when his body was found, the death sentence imposed on Young seems okay despite his prosecutor’s penchant for execution trinkets, even to people like me who oppose the death penalty. My take? Both the defendant-appellant and the district attorney are sick. And I’ll give the defense attorney an A for zeal and creativity, even though I still have a thing about public defenders.