26 September 2016

In Low Places

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Orange Is The New Black S4

The Parole-Officer-In-Residence was giving a speech to people who were supposed to be going in front of the parole board soon. I have no idea why I was included in the group. I missed work for it and everything.

“You can’t make friends in jail. Don’t make friends in here. Imma tell you a story. Once there was an inmate, a young man, and he left jail and he was doin’ good, doin’ real good, got a job, an apartment, and a car. His own car! One day he ran into another inmate who just got out and that inmate asked him for a ride around the corner.”

Insert a dramatic enough pause for anyone listening to know that the ride wasn’t just around the corner. She continued:

Unequal standing.

“So he decided ‘This guy was my friend inside, so I’ll help him out’ and he drove him. Do you wanna know that the man who just got out went and killed somebody and the boy who drove him went back for being an accomplice for murder. That’s why I tell people when they parole ‘Don’t make any friends in jail. Leave them here.'”

I decided to leave her there. I handed her the intro paper.

“Thank you for this, but I’m not going to parole.” I should have added:  “But don’t worry, I can’t make friends in here so I’ll be okay.

The difference between me and the others is palpable to almost everyone. Being different in some prisons can get you killed, but when you’re different because you know the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris the way the other inmates know the Department of Social Services, it gets you alone.

I don’t speak like the other inmates (aside from avoiding the N word, I use verbs; other inmates drop them to say things like “Michael Jackson dead,” “Brianna pregnant” or “the warden corny”). I don’t look like the other inmates; overtweezed brows sit in semicircle at the tops of faces with few teeth. Dentition separates me. The others get pissed when I point this out.

I don’t know anything about this, still. Never asked.

I know different things (that the word ‘supposedly’ doesn’t contain the letter ‘b’ and toxic shock syndrome doesn’t entail electricity). And I don’t know different things (Like what a 2.8 is – a weight of crack cocaine – and that there are ten bags of heroin in a bundle and ten bundles in a stack). I’ve never been in a fight and, quite frankly, had no clue what I’d do if and when violence opportuned itself. Best advice: “Karate chop to the neck, kick to the groin and then scratch her face.” I never knew.

To say that I’m better than the other inmates? That isn’t true. To say that I’m just like them? That’s a lie.

And most of them know it, too. The differences pop out in questions and fascination that turns me into an exhibit.

Friends and family plan in jail.

“You ever live in a motel?”


“You got a license for a car?”

“You mean to drive? Yes.”

“You ever been on Food Stamps? Your fridge always stocked up, I bet.”

“No… I guess.”

“What kinda car you drive?”


“Your family decorate their house all nice, Victorian and shit up in there?”


Still, I call them friends and they return the label. I get along with the other prisoners; I’d even say I have the least conflict with others of all the long-termers. I get one or two letters from departing buddies, but not more than that. And that’s why the term friend gets redefined for me in here. The only thing over which I can relate to other women over is this place and the fact that we’re both here at the same time.


I bond with them when I’m drowning and whirling in melodramatic victimization, thinking that my life is harder than other prisoners’ paths. I can connect with them only when I go to some low places, emotional nadirs. If friendship must be borne of equal standing, it’s the only way I can get there.

Sure, I wasn’t denied much of anything in my life but I know what it’s like to feel pressured to live up to impossible standards or be told that nothing I did was good enough. And I have been berated by an alcoholic father and a co-dependent mother. All of my dysfunction happened like it was in a snow globe: encased, unreachable, looking pretty and serene to people outside it when, really, someone shook up my world all the time. I’ve been through a lot of shit, too, you know! More than you! Only when I start thinking this way can I feel like I’m not unreachable in here.

But if I count my blessings and humble myself, I end up valuing my sociological singleness a little too much and my feelings for the other women draw a little too close to pity.  Sympathy brings distance. If it doesn’t, then it’s empathy. And if I empathize with them, then I have to admit that I’m like them. When I’m not. Except for the times that I am, like when I’m here.

Later that night, hours after the parole officer’s order to stop and drop your friends, we cleaned our cells, propping open our doors for sweeping and mopping.  I pulled down the book wedged in my doorway.


A library’s worth of literature has been destroyed in this prison because women cram books between the corners of the cell doors and the jambs to keep them open. It was a scholastic Webster’s, one with red linen covers that had been ripped off through years of cell cleaning, not overuse by injuring inmates. This is another thing that separates me from the others: I think books are for reading. That’s the last thing that so many of the others will do with them.

“You can’t use a dirty T-shirt or something else? You’re destroying and ripping the cover of …what is this?…The Secret Lives of Bees. You’re ruining the bees’ secret lives. You are killing the bees,”  I told the first cellmate who did it in front of me. She didn’t care about the bees, the book or bond that we could never have.

Orange Is The New Black S4

I might have looked up ‘amity’ or ‘unity’ but those letters had fallen away from the dictionary due to repetitive cell cleaning. I was lucky to find ‘F’ intact to look up ‘friendship.’ I won’t even say how bad my life must be that I had to look up this word at age 38 and get pissed off when I found: “the state of being friends.”

Up a few lines, ‘friend’ informed me that the women I called friends were people “whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection.” Basically, someone you know and like – and who likes you back – is your friend.

But that’s not true. Friendship is more than affection because, face it, that shit’s temporary, much like my time at York CI. Look at the parole officer’s story. The guy with the car – his own car! – had affection for the dude who went and killed someone, and the killer dude probably had affection for him, at least at one point, but I can’t say they were really friends because true friends don’t bring you to low places even if that’s the only place where you connect. Not just for their sake, but for yours, prison friends have to leave each other behind, leave each other here. Only the disconnect can save you both.



After police shootings in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Charlotte, North Carolina, one city stayed calm and the other exploded. The difference between the two cities? Accountability. A Tulsa sheriff who shot a someone when mistaking his firearm for his taser gun was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison this summer whereas the trial of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Randall Kerrik for shooting football player Jonathan Ferrell ended in a hung jury last year. Look at what this means if you follow the logic of the situation: an effective way of keeping the peace is prosecuting and incarcerating police who engage in brutality. An effective way of keeping the peace is putting more people in prison. I am not sure I like that.

The Supporting Youth Opportunity and Preventing Delinquency Act of 2016 passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 382-29 on Thursday. It’s a proposed retooling of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which was first passed in 1974. Florida Republican Representative Carlos Corbel’s bill promotes “trauma-informed” care for at-risk children and their families, which means it can actually work.

Fusion reported that Michael Leatherwood, an inmate at Lawton Correctional Facility in Oklahoma, a private facility, is successfully suing the prison for disproportionate pricing of commissary items in private prisons as opposed to the state’s public facilities. For instance, the much revered chili-flavored ramen soup is $0.26 in public prisons but a whopping $0.60 in private ones. The fact that any pro se inmate litigation can still proceed now that the Prison Litigation Reform Act is in effect is astounding, but Leatherwood pulled off a real coup; on May 12, 2016 he deposed his own warden in the prison’s visiting room about the price differences, which are approved by prison administration.  Prison strike supporters take note: this is how you effect change. Kudos to Inmate Leatherwood. The report can be found here.


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19 September 2016

See How They Run

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A. CODE PURPLE                                 ____ 0 M.P.H.  Always simulated. Thank God.

B. CODE BLUE                              ____ 8-12 M.P.H., panicking, hyperventilating, often
(INMATE FIGHT/ALTERCATION)              crying.

C. CODE GREEN                           ____ Never seen one. Stopped at ORANGE.

D. CODE YELLOW                         ____ “I don’t run no matter what color they are.”

E. CODE ORANGE                         ____ 8-11 M.P.H., unrelenting waves of guards 
(ASSAULT ON D.O.C.                             inundate the area, each additional one is
PERSONNEL)                                        useless, waiting to who gets dragged out.

F. CODE RED                                 ____ 2 M.P.H. Circles, back-forth-back, shrugging.

G. CODE WHITE                            ____ 5.5 M.P.H. One from every unit because
(MEDICAL EMERGENCY)                        someone needs to bring the camera.

H. CORRECTION OFFICER              ____ 3 M.P.H. Except for guard who sprints from  
(250 lbs.)                                             Disciplinary Board, beating everyone else.




The country’s largest prison strike has turned to riots and it was revealed on Friday that a correction officer at William C. Holman Correctional Center in Alabama was stabbed – before the strike – and died. Tell me again how prisoner insurrection is about solidarity. That’s like saying gang rape is good teamwork.

Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri released study results that demonstrate the total cost of incarceration for one year –  when we figure in social costs like lost wages ($70 billion), reduced earrings of formerly incarcerated persons ($230 billion), shortened life spans ($63 billion) increased crime ($285 billion) and other costs – is one trillion dollars.

Jay-Z released a video about the war on drugs. Nice effort, but the reports about how many people with drug convictions fill our prisons and jails are wrong. Read why here.










A. CODE PURPLE  (SUICIDE/ATTEMPTED SUICIDE) – 8-12 M.P.H., panicking, hyperventilating, often crying.

B. CODE BLUE (INMATE FIGHT/ALTERCATION)  – One from every building because someone needs to bring the camera.

C. CODE GREEN (ESCAPE/ATTEMPTED ESCAPE) – 2 M.P.H. Circle, back-forth-back, shrugging.

D. CODE YELLOW (HOSTAGE TAKING) – Never seen one. Always stopped at ORANGE.

E. CODE ORANGE (ASSAULT ON D.O.C. PERSONNEL) – 8-11 M.P.H. Unrelenting waves of guards inundate the area, each additional one is useless, waiting to who gets dragged out.

F. CODE RED (FIRE) – 0 M.P.H. Always simulated. Thank God.

G. CODE WHITE (MEDICAL EMERGENCY) – 3 M.P.H. Except for guard who sprints from Disciplinary Board, beating everyone else.

H. CORRECTION OFFICER (250 lbs.) – “I don’t run no matter what color they are.”



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12 September 2016

Omnia Vincit Riot

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Prison fights creep up on us general pop-pers. They’re actually kind of quiet, no cluster of shouts like you see on TV and in the movies. In fact, they’re so silent that you can usually hear that fist-to-cheekbone swap! that’s buffered by only a thin stretch of facial skin.

So when things lulled on the other side of the dining hall when I was waiting in line to grab a tray, my first suspicion was fisticuffs. I was right.

In my peripheral vision, I could see the entire train of prisoners waiting for their meals and no one in line stepped out of it. But there must have been an energy shift from turned heads, the line’s directing its attention at the dustup, that two lieutenants noticed because that realization of threat and its wide, unfocused tension came across their faces. Their knees bent and their hands stretched out in “Stop” position, palms at right angle to their arms. They were really scared. The word “shitless” came to mind.

“STAY BACK!…DON’T MOVE!…DON’T FUCKIN’ MOVE!…STAND BAAACK!….STAY BACK NOW!” they each shrieked to a collection of women who were stone still but not because they were following instructions. They were confused.

“Da fuck?” someone asked.

“Aint nobody goin’ nowhere,” another said in that tone that reminds staff members that they can’t really see what’s unfolding before them.

In being warned not to move, the other women assumed they meant not to exit the chow hall. But these weren’t direct orders, these were pleas for safety.  I saw that a vulnerability so foreign to them had intruded on these lieutenants, like an unwanted, unannounced finger in their rectums; it zoomed right inside them and no matter how hard they resisted or pressed back, the only way it would vacate was on its terms, not theirs. And no one was even doing anything to them.

I looked at the ragged zig-zag trail of grey fleece sweatshirts and tattered denim legs leading to the serving line. Counted the tables; six women a piece. Calculated.  Right now it would be 8 to 1 when I factored in all the C/O’s who were working before the goon squad zoomed in to break up the fight. And I realized, as I never had before, a potential that has persisted for centuries that inmates don’t even understand in themselves.

Holy shit. We can take this place.



STRIKE – A nationwide prisoner strike was planned for September 9, 2016, the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising. Mask Magazine (which I had never heard of before researching the strike, so I can’t vouch for its reliability) tried to update people here on what was happening but it looks, to me, like the strike was a flop, which I expected, because, for the most part, inmates like their jobs.

THREE – The Guardian and the Marshall Project teamed up for a three-part series on public defenders this week. The first report, found here, contains links to the next two. There are actually no new revelations in any of these reports.  They squawk to reporters ad infinitum, but stipulate to ineffective assistance of counsel on the record? Never. That might be effective.

YOU’RE OUT – Dallas, Texas District Attorney Susan Hawk stepped down on Tuesday, citing her need for treatment for her mental illness. This report by the Dallas Morning News shows how dysfunctional the DA’s office in Dallas really is. And no one is even mentioning whether certain decisions Hawk made while she was ill about who would be prosecuted and who wouldn’t should be examined to see if her illness contributed to someone else’s injustice.


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5 September 2016


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School started.  Wesleyan’s first female cohort – one southeast Asian, 7 white, 8 African-American, and 2 Latina – has already suffered attrition, but not your typical dwindling.

First, one inmate was forcibly withdrawn when her roommate accused her of anal rape after both of them ingested contraband painkillers that the roommate had smuggled into the facility in the same anus that was so inhospitable to  the Wesleyan student’s homemade dildo made of melted Jolly Ranchers.

Confession: I have never seen one, only heard about them and this picture is supposed to be a shank, not a sex toy…unless someone very inexperienced made it.

Then the state of New York whisked away another inmate for outstanding warrants. Two of the eighteen were gone before they finished reading the course syllabus.

The remaining sixteen attended class intermittently (despite Wesleyan’s mandate that NONE be skipped) and handed in their assignments on their own schedules even though there was little competition for their time as we’re all locked down at least 16 hours a day.

Then the third casualty registered: an inmate student had the home address of a staff member in her belongings. She was banned from the prison school, banished from education and enrichment.  She was eventually reinstated for future attendance but, until that happens, fifteen hold on with grips looser than Gary Busey’s hold on reality.

C/O’s suffer from a stereotype that betrays the extent of their education. Many have bachelor’s degrees, even master’s degrees, and they choose to guard prisoners because the wages and benefits are better than so many other jobs and they need to pay off their student loans. As far I know, none of them attended Wesleyan.

I can tell that they resent the Wesleyan students even though prison education should, at least in theory, make their occupational lives easier, make inmates less likely to return thus making them look more effective. It’s easy to see free education for a child as an advance on future returns of success, but the investment in education in an adult, one who has never studied and never applied herself and may have taken another person’s life, looks like an undeserved prize.

The real thing.

Especially when so many of them are academically unprepared for higher education. When women were applying to the program, one came to me and asked me to read her entrance essay.

The reasons why I would benefit from higher education. Where should I start? was the opener to the essay. That’s as far as my patience would let me read.

“Not there,” I told her and handed the cheap prison pulp she wrote it on back to her.

I should have been less of a bitch about it and sat down with her immediately to review the structure of the academic essay but I’ve done this before in other situations and it’s really hard. Too many students here aren’t primed for education. That doesn’t mean they’re dumb or undeserving; it means they’ve been cheated educationally and it shows.

I hate to admit it but I wonder if maybe the old, bigoted arguments against affirmative action – some people just aren’t capable of this kind of higher education – when applied to educational and socioeconomic deficits merit more consideration than liberal arts enthusiasts give them. The judges who decide cases on affirmative action in universities rarely see the realities of these deficits like I see them in prison; affirmative action decisions are made on purely theoretical grounds, especially in the Supreme Court of the United States.

Would Dr. Allan Bakke (the plaintiff in the seminal affirmative action case Bakke v. Regents of the University of California) have sacrificed his chance to attend UC Davis Medical School to perpetrate a sexual assault with a weapon made of melted Jolly Rancher candies? Of course not, because even as a rejected applicant, crime was never an option for him. He had recourse that these female inmates never will.

A real Wesleyan Prison Education music class in a York CI classroom. This is the closest you’ll get to seeing the inside of that place unless you’re a woman who does time in Connecticut.

Affirmative action has for so long been touted as the way redress historical wrongs in education that we forget that it cannot correct the compounding of past prejudices and current offenses in offenders. Maybe women in prison – 90% of them poor, 68% entering without a high school diploma – can’t absorb the enormity of the opportunity, nay the gift, of a free Wesleyan education because of their dysfunction-studded backgrounds.

As I sat with women and explained utilitarianism, I wondered if maybe Wesleyan was too late. Watching the students made me think of a children’s museum – a place where inexperienced minds grow curious about the world through interactions that are, essentially, simulated experience. Not real.

The analogy wasn’t totally misplaced; economists have long argued that investments in education after pre-school don’t nourish the souls of students as much as education at a very young age. Many of the women enrolled in Wesleyan’s program never had that advantage and we’re compensating for that now with papers on environmental ethics. How do we expect them to develop a full grip?

This always put me in a bad position when I’m correcting or reading their written work.  Like when they write “could of” instead of “could’ve.” I’ve given speeches to women in here about contractions and homonyms and they don’t listen. Every colored pencil correction I press into their papers gets ignored. When I remind them about the grammar, they recoil and stay away from me. I’m completely willing to accept all the blame and admit that I have no teaching skills, that how I am instructing them is all wrong. And I know that intersections of various types of oppression have induced so many of their choices in life. Correcting them – either in ways that were too harsh or they couldn’t understand – could cause another choice, to quit, to stop learning.

So I choose not to correct certain errors and misunderstandings with the hope that my green light will let them keep going even if it is in the wrong direction. I can read strings of “could of”s and hand the paper back and assure her “Great job!” I am such a liar.

I’m not alone. Many of them return to the housing units with grins above their inmate ID’s and an “A” at the bottom of their papers. The people grading the papers aren’t ‘teachers’, they’re established academics  and I think they had no idea how to teach basic sentence structure; their bailiwicks were theory and, until they came to the prison, every student with whom they interacted knew what persona non grata meant, not how it felt. Women at York know how it feels and that’s it. Ultimately I think both my and the professors’ permissive grading and comments might be a disservice to them, done in the name of educational quality. Prison is such a fucked up place that even your good deeds are harmful.


It’s really another form of oppression, I know. In being easy on them, I’m treating them like an inferior class, like they couldn’t ever reach a certain level of competence. Treating prisoners just like everyone else sometimes means you have to exact more out of them. Demanding that they meet certain standards necessarily implies that you think they are capable of it. I believe that they can become intellectually versed but I act like they never would when I hand back a paper and say: “Yeah, looks great,” when I know it isn’t. I often wonder how much I actually help the women with any of my tutoring.

And if I, someone who lived with them for years, someone who understands them somewhat and knows they need to have high standards impressed upon them for them to improve, can’t help them, then who the hell can or will? Particularly when the way they behave towards such charitable demands is bizarre, criminal, unworthy?

Nelson Mandela once said something about education’s being the most powerful weapon in changing the world. Maybe he said that because he never saw the damage that a Jolly Rancher dildo could wield against free college courses. On second thought, he spent 27 years in the joint. Of course he saw a Jolly Rancher dildo or its equivalent. He just saw past it.



People are going home…but to what?

One hundred and eleven more, making 673 total are going home – President Obama commuted another 111 sentences on Tuesday, 325 in the month of August 2016 alone. I’m taking bets on how many pardons and commutations he’ll grant before he goes home. Meanwhile, the United States Department of Justice released a report that slammed the Bureau of Prisons on its re-entry training and reported that 16.4 % of the inmates released in Fiscal Year 2013 were back in custody by 2015. The Office of the Inspector General said that many inmates don’t complete the reentry course. I wasn’t in a federal prison but I didn’t finish mine, either. Not preparing people to leave, it’s…it’s a thing in prisons.

Brock Turner is going home. He left the Santa Clara County Jail’s custody and I actually feel bad for him as I do for anyone who walks out of custody coated in society’s hate. What he did that night behind a dumpster to an unconscious woman is the stuff of stomach acid and heaves, for sure. But I know how lonely and scared that person who’s going through a criminal prosecution feels. I don’t wish it on anyone for anything. It’s probably a character flaw to feel that level of sympathy for certain people, but hey, what did you expect six years in prison to do to me?

Nationally known prosecutor Angela Corey is going home. She was defeated in her primary election in her bid for another term of State’s Attorney in Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit Court. Corey earned a reputation for her prosecutions of high-profile defendants such as Marissa Alexander, the abused wife for whom she asked for a 60-year prison term after Alexander shot in her husband’s direction (and only got 20 years, which was later reduced to three); George Zimmerman, who was tried for second-degree murder for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin and whose trial she lost; and 12 year old Cristian Fernandez, whom she tried as an adult for killing one half brother, sexually abusing another half brother and never being part of a whole, intact family.  Her replacement isn’t much better, but still… Bye, Angela.

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