28 November 2016

Tooth Wisdom

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bad-teeth

It sounded like a candy clattering on a counter. I was sitting at one of the six-man dining tables and a latina woman with a complexion that made her look Indian was laughing across from me. Embarrassment would have overtaken me in that situation and my cheeks would have been bleating and pink with blood flow. And maybe it was for her, too; I couldn’t tell if she was blushing. I’d seen her around before. She’s in and out of here. Crack-induced anorexia, beautiful, perfect black hair and rotted teeth.

rotting-teethThat’s what had fallen onto the tray. One of her teeth. They were so decayed that one was pushed loose when she was eating. Prison food is pretty soft – hard items can be used as weapons – so the tooth was barely inside her gums. Knocked out by liquid Shepard’s pie.

I’m obsessed with choppers in here. More than anything else, I’m worried that I’ll lose one of mine or get a cavity that requires a noticeable filling that I won’t be able to cover up. The toothpaste in here seems like it wasn’t good enough for the shelves of major retailers. My teeth feel fungal even after I brush.

I talk about dental problems in here all the time and those conversations are the times I’ve had the most conflict with other inmates. I’m sure there’s a better way for me to address it but I – the one here who knows biostatistics and p-values and public health – take the issue more seriously for them than anyone else has in their lives.

“Why do you always comment on how no one has any teeth?” Liz asked me in Wally’s class. She has all her teeth.

“I never said ‘no one has teeth.’ I said there’s a real problem here with dentition and the only way you can understand it is that I’m gossiping or putting someone down, but I’m not, okay? That’s how you talk – and think – about people,” I retorted.

But I do admit that I’ve never seen so many people in one place whose pearlies are so, well, gone. Many inmates in their thirties get fitted for dentures. If their parents were caring for them properly through the age of 18 and seeing that they brush, then all of their teeth rot out in about 12 years.

rotten-kids-teethAnd they’re the lucky ones. The rest of them have to walk around with what looks like the grey and brown sections of the paint chip samples at Home Depot between their rosy lips and become a target for the guards.

“Brush your tooth!” they yell when we lock up for the night, headed for bed.

That’s why teeth are have grabbed my focus in here so much. The condition of the mouth speaks so much about what we are doing in society, in medicine, in providing services to vulnerable populations.  So many women in here have children, which means they were once pregnant. I don’t know how an obstetrician could have spoke to them as patients and seen their mouths and not intervened, referred them for extensive dental work.  Called a fellow alum from medical school. The risk of infection is so high. Most sockets in here are festering still.

But the problem I’m staring in the mouth is that they didn’t get prenatal care. And their parents didn’t make sure they brushed. All social problems – inadequate health care, lack of education, poor parenting – culminate in women’s mouths.  Pow. Right in the kisser.

teeth3Not only is the mouth the center of a woman’s visage, it’s also how she communicates. Women with dental problems want to hide them for cosmetic reasons – understandably – so they keep their mouths closed. They say nothing, which means they don’t speak up, complain, offer opinions, laugh freely. This is how we silence women. To get to the root of the problem of female disempowerment among the masses, we have to stop extracting teeth – because we made sure they’re healthy and cared for like the mouth and face that house them.

At least that’s what occurred to me when I heard societal neglect clinker into a molded prison tray.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM NOVEMBER 21 – 27, 2016

In this photo provided by the Library of Congress, President Abraham Lincoln, seated and holding his spectacles and a pencil on Feb. 5, 1865. (AP Photo/Library of Congress/Alexander Gardner)

An additional 79 more prisoners granted clemency. Now it’s over 1000 people who’ve been freed by President Obama. I feel bad for people whose applications didn’t or won’t get acted upon in time. They may never leave prison because of a bureaucratic backlog.

The wrongfully convicted are entitled to tax relief but many of them don’t know it. President Obama signed a law last year making it clear that men and women who had been compensated for years of wrongful confinement could not be taxed on that money. But there’s a deadline for seeking a refund — December 19th — and a push to contact old exonerees who have no idea the law’s been changed in their favor. If you know someone who’s been exonerated, tell that person.

Hill might be off the hook. President-elect Trump said that investigating and prosecuting her would be very divisive for the country.  I don’t like seeing anyone get caught in criminal crosshairs,  but I can’t deny that having a woman who would’ve been Commander in Chief get jammed up with charges would prove just how far mass incarceration has grown. Some would support it and others oppose her being investigated, much less charged, but everyone would know that no one is safe from taking a collar.

 

 

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21 November 2016

Dry Up Your Drip

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drain

“Out!” Lieutenant Thrower shouted as he threw open the cell door. The doors swing in, so the universal symbol for “get out here” at York CI is a male staff member, spreading his legs wide to keep one foot on the door’s edge inside the cell while keeping his body outside the cell and within a camera lens’ striking range.

It was the night before Thanksgiving and I was already asleep. My cellmate Elsie was still awake, ripping up magazines to make a collage card for her girlfriend. That’s contraband because she’s ‘altering’ the magazines so I figured they wanted to wreck that for her. I got up and walked out of the cell in my pajamas.

“Get the fuck back inside! You know better than to come out here in pajamas. They’re fuckin’ white!” (i.e. not the jeans-and-burgundy-tee uniform).

“Are you ordering me to change?” I asked. He knew he couldn’t order me to change clothes in front of him and I was obeying the last order issued which is what I’m supposed to do.

water_dripI noticed a maintenance C/O in his grey uniform behind the lieutenant, glaring at directly at me. I get that sometimes so it wasn’t a big deal. But then he muttered under his breath:

“[Something] the likes of your fuckin’ crazy ass,” as he carried his toolbox into my cell.

“What did you put a work order in for?” Elsie asked me. She was pissed at me because her artwork was in danger of confiscation.

“Nothing. I can’t write a work order. I’m an inmate.

The maintenance man came out.

“This one’s not even fuckin’ leakin’,” he told Thrower.

And I knew.

“They published it, right?” I asked the lieutenant.

“Yes, they did.” He couldn’t stuff any more hatred, disgust into one sentence unless he cursed me out right there.

In One North, we had a Forrest Gump faucet. It ran ceaselessly across the terrain of our brains, yet without encouragement.  Neither my cellmate nor I could sleep. The metallic gurgle could have been generous and acted consistently, thereby making itself white noise. But no.

Instead, the rate of dripping, the weight of drops seemed to change up in an intentional effort to keep us vigilant. But vigilance comes at a cost: sleep. We were both bleary-eyed from the constant running.

4-8-11-1bWe tried paper towels on the drain which created a slap-splat noise, which I guess we could call splaps. We tried wedging a shampoo bottle between the drain and the torn mesh that should filter the water for us. It was too tall and the only way it would stand up was on an angle and, as soon as enough water filled it, it toppled, spilled and became an empty drum for droplets to beat upon.

We told the C.T.O. that our sink was broken.  She looked at it and told us:

“It’s only broken when water don’t come out.”

We tried every sock we had and finally one of mine, a singlet with a hole in the heel, was light and long enough to stay on the faucet and barely tickle the drain so the water just traced down the terrycloth and went down the pipes soundlessly.

And they moved me out of the cell that day.

But while I lived there in E4 in One North and couldn’t sleep, I stumbled into the library one day because I couldn’t focus on writing in a classroom down the hall.

“I’m really drifty because of all the noise abuse in my cell,” Francine told me.

“Snoring?” I queried.

“No. My sink keeps running.”

“Mine too,” I admitted as I sat down and put my cheek on the table.

Terry overheard us and came over.

water-bag“Listen, one night I couldn’t sleep so I stayed with a garbage bag and collected all the water that was leaking overnight. Know how much water was in it in the morning? We needed three people to drag the fuckin’ thing outta the room,” Terry pointed at me to make her point.

The sinks were leaking heavily everywhere on the compound.

“You know there’s an agreement between the town and the prison that the reservoir in town can’t be drained unnecessarily. That’s why they limit our showers in the summer when we need them the most. This violates the agreement,” Francine explained. She’s been here sixteen years and she’s from this shoreline area so I believed her.

“So let’s expose them,” I said in tone a bit too downward to rally them. I was too tired to be excited about the ideas of change and improvement.

“How? How the fuck do we do that?” Terry asked.

“Letter to the editor.”  I rubbed my eyes.

“Where the fuck do we send that?”

“To the editor of a newspaper.” I thought that was obvious.

“You’re a journalist, Chandra. You need to write it for us,” Francine told me, thinking flattery would get somewhere. Journalist? I’m an inmate. 

“Take a letter, Maria,” I told them. I fully expected them to take dictation while I put my head down for a few minutes.

Blank stares.

“The song? And send it to my wife. Say I won’t be coming home? Gonna start a new life?”

drip2“I didn’t know you were gay. You don’t seem…” Terry said and looked puzzled.

“I’m not. I have no wife. And no pen. Get me a pen,” I told her as I scratched my head all over. “Why does a lack of sleep make you itch?” I asked them – and no one – as if any of them would have an answer. And wrote the letter. It took 4 minutes. Francine insisted on typing it and mailing it out. Despite her lack of sleep, she had the energy. Of course she did. She doesn’t work.

The next news I had of the letter was when the lieutenant appeared at my door the night before Thanksgiving with a maintenance man who was being held for overtime before a major holiday so he – and colleagues – could check every single sink on the compound for leaks. And fix them. Because someone in town read the letter and made a call about all the water wasted on us inmates.

The next day presented me with gratitude from almost everyone. Apparently the maintenance men bitched about me by name at every stop. Imagine a Thanksgiving where everyone around you is grateful – and truly so – for your presence. I never would have experienced this at home. I was a hero walking down the walkway to our holiday feast.

“You fixed my sink,” a six-foot tall drug dealer acknowledged.

“Yes. Yes, I did.” I wasn’t lying.

“Go Winky! I couldn’t sleep until that motherfucker came in and wrenched something,” another yelled.

When I walked into the dining hall, each staff member turned to look at me. I wasn’t acting out and calling attention to myself. I don’t look good enough to get heads to turn like that.  Instead, I have power, maybe more than some of the people who work here. And I’m an inmate.

 

Author’s note: read the letter “Money Is Wasted by York’s Leaky Faucets” in The Day here.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM NOVEMBER 14 – 20, 2016

sessions

Republican Senator from Alabama Jeff Sessions was asked to be Attorney General and he said ‘yes’ to President-Elect Trump. Read what he can do to justice reform efforts here. Rudy Giuliani would have been better. Remember how his daughter Caroline took a collar in 2010 for boosting $150 worth of merchandise from Sephora? I’m not sticking her out – the story’s been out for six years – but it’s a reminder that ‘law and order’ has a few dents in its armor and maybe it needs to chill out sometimes.

The Associated Press published a reported piece on how defendants in criminal cases are encouraged to plead guilty. Of 157 people who were exonerated last year, 68 of them had pleaded guilty. Innocent people plead guilty all the time. Take that criminal conviction that someone discloses to you with a grain of salt.

The federal Bureau of Prisons does a lousy job of placing released inmates in residential reentry centers and home confinement said a report issued last week by the Office of the Inspector General. The upshot? We don’t use home confinement enough, most likely because only an electronic monitoring services company profits from that. Placement in a halfway house makes money for the workers who run it, the places that supply the house with food and other necessities, the company who manages it.  Everyone’s cashes in on incarceration, even when it’s decarceration and letting people out to halfway houses.

 

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14 November 2016

We Are Out of Sweet Rolls

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I would panic whenever this cartoon aired on “The Electric Company,” so much so that my parents would have to calm me down.

The waitress would tell this customer that they had no sweet rolls when he ordered one with a drink. When the waitress told him that they had no sweet rolls, he just kept asking with a new drink. Orange juice. Tea. Coffee. Milk. I remember milk.

“But why doesn’t the man understand?” I would ask my mother. I can’t even remember how old I was at the time. Five? Six years old? I keep wondering if its was prophetic about my tolerance not people who don’t understand me, whether I make sense or not. I just want to scream and jet. Except in here, I can’t leave. And I can’t scream either. All I can do is write request forms, with teeth gritted, and wait for some nonsense response that I can’t discern whether it’s stonewalling or stupidity.

REQUEST FORM

Me: I need my legal papers and notebooks…to use for my case(s). There are several things written in my notebooks that I need for court. Please arrange for me to get them back.

Response: The paperwork and notebooks were secured as evidence in the ongoing investigation. Once it is completed we can return to you after inv. related items are redacted.

Me: That is unacceptable for two reasons. First, I need them for court now. Second, what would you redact from my court documents? My habeas petitions concern themselves with my underlying convictions. Your response does not make sense.

REQUEST FORM

Me: I have addressed this issue with my legal mail before with you. Attached is a letter from the Appellate Clerk indicating that a letter I mailed on February 8, 2010 was received in Hartford on March 9, 2010. This is an excessive length of time for a letter to take to reach Hartford. Further, the letter indicates that a motion I mailed on October 6, 2009 was never received at all. This has occurred before. Why is this happening. Please advise.

Response: Mrs. Bozelko. I have checked with the mailroom and no reasoning has been discovered. (Author’s note: No shit). If such a case occurs again please let me know.

Me: You said that last time. I am letting you know it’s still happening.

REQUEST FORM

Me: May I have permission to buy another radio? I/M **** stole it in February 2009 and it was never recovered. I reported it at the time and apparently I/M ****’s room was searched but no radio was found. Thank you.

Response: Send a (sic) electronics form filled out to property.

Me: (sends order form)

Response: Denied. Denied. Denied. Denied.

Me: My radio (purchased 12/07) was stolen in December 2008 when my then-roommate **** “stole it” when she lent it to someone without my knowledge. I am now trying (and have been for a year) to purchase another radio but property officers have denied my request repeatedly. Can you approve me to purchase another radio? Thank you.

Response: Why are you addressing this issue over a year later?

And then, just for kicks, because they already think I’m nuts…

REQUEST FORM

Me: Are we out of sweet rolls?

Response: You are already assigned to the kitchen pool. Please use chain of command.

 

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM NOVEMBER 7 – 13, 2016

trump

ELECTION OVER. Private prison companies’ like Corrections Corporation of America (now CoreCivic) and GEO Group’s stock skyrocketed after Donald J. Trump became our 45th president.

ELECTION OVER. And justice reform may may not be so dead after all since so many incumbent, pro-incarceration prosecutors were voted out, including one in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the toughest districts in the country.

CAMPAIGN STARTING.  The race for Louisiana’s open United States Senate seat is still on because the state actually runs its primaries on the usual November election day and then votes on the primary winners the next month. Deciding issue in this race between Democrat Foster Campbell and Republican John Kennedy in the coming weeks, at least in my opinion? How to get Washington to fix indigent defense crisis in the state, the worst in the nation. Watch to see if I’m right in the coming weeks. Election is December 10, 2016.

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7 November 2016

Sips Tea

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bg-body-crates

“It’s a risky idea, but if we do it in here, I think we can get away with it,” I told Charity as everyone came in for our bi-weekly writing class.

“Okay, but you bring it up,” she said and raised her palms in the universal sign for “I am uninvolved.”

I was planning an insurrection, an overthrow of oppression that would take place in Wally [Lamb’s writing]’s class. Any form of organization, even passing around a petition, is an attempt to start a riot in prison, so the idea of a group byline on a published essay on prisoner voting rights, right before the election, could have landed me – and anyone who did it with me – in seg.

But even from seg, I could’ve read the tea leaves and seen the headlines: “Inmates Attract Attention of Tea Party, Restore Rights.” Using the power of the pen, I was about to make myself the Sam Adams of prisoner voting disenfranchisement.

Prisoners can’t vote, unless they’re not convicted yet.   Anyone who’s been a voter all their lives and is unsentenced on felony charges bonds out, believe me. She’s not here and can go to the polls. Also inmates convicted of only a misdemeanor and serving a long enough sentence to get an absentee ballot mailed to them and send it back in time can cast ballots, too, in theory.

Someone convicted of only a misdemeanor – and no prior felonies – in here?  What kind of chintzy mass incarceration do you think we have here in Connecticut? Felonies, disenfranchising felony convictions for everyone. No one in here votes.

But prisoners are taxed, even if they can’t vote. Those inmates whose income exceeds a certain amount receive W-2 wage and tax statements every winter and must file tax returns. My cellmate had to do it. Because they’re prisoners, federal tax regulations prohibit them from participating in the Earned Income Tax Credit program.  And Connecticut inmates are financially liable for the cost of their incarceration: over $41,000 per year.  Prisoners pay. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

boston-tea-party-16

Without the power to change the unjust tax laws of England, Samuel Adams dumped the cargo of several British tea ships into the Boston Harbor in 1773 and started the revolution that birthed this country. And it was a crime. Under today’s lock ‘em up laws, Sam would’ve been jailed and not for driving under the influence of his own beer. Would you deny Sam Adams his vote after what he did?

This isn’t to equate  Adams’ jetsam with boosting an ipod from Target or assaulting your cheating spouse’s lover, which are the types of crimes that have landed inmates behind bars. But the original Tea Party’s lesson was that the taxation and representation are the government versions of love and marriage – you can’t have one without the other.

Under this rule, prisoners shouldn’t be taxed if they remain without voting rights. Because prisoners contribute to government, the Tea Party should be at the forefront of any prisoner voting rights campaign if they want to play the game that goes with their name. At least that’s how I see it.

And I thought if we all said what I saw, we might get some traction on the issue.

“Can I say something before we start?” I asked at the beginning of class. “So, I thought we could all author like, an oped, or a letter to the editor about prisoners and people with records, you know, felons, being allowed to vote. As you know, the Tea Party is this conservative movement that wants to lower taxes and limit government…”

STARES.

“and I think that the fact that you – anyone – can be denied a chance to vote but still have to pay taxes is wrong. And since this Tea Party is invoking the whole ‘no taxation without representation’ idea from the Boston Tea Party, maybe this is the time to attract some attention to felon and inmate disenfranchisement. If anyone should support our voting it should be the Tea Party, right? And from the research I’ve done, it looks like this idea hasn’t…you know, hasn’t been raised by anyone, so maybe newspapers would want to hear it.”

STARES.

“I mean, if people aren’t allowed to vote then they shouldn’t have to pay taxes, right? At least according to history?”

STARES. BORED FIDGETS. I heard, but didn’t see, a yawn. Even Charity didn’t react.

“Chandra, just let me ask, are you promoting a conservative ideal?” Wally asked. He would have let me promote it but he’d have to understand it and my connecting Tea Partiers and prisoners was confusing him.

“No, I’m attacking hypocrisy.”

Wally nodded.

“The whole reason why we have elections is rooted in this idea that you can’t take my money and then deny me any say in how it’s used, but that’s exactly what happens when inmates can’t vote. Only unrestricted participation and equality give democracy its force. I want to go back to the original Pay-to-Play – anyone who pays taxes can vote.  And even ones who don’t pay can vote.  Who’s with me?” I stood up for dramatic effect. “Who wants to toss some tea for their rights? And if not your rights, then to keep some of money you make?”

“What’s the Boston Tea Party?” another student asked.

“I don’t pay taxes. Never did,” another said.

No one else even flinched.

I looked over at the teacher – she isn’t in charge of our class; she’s actually just a form of security for us while Wally and the volunteers are here, making sure we don’t do stuff like what I just did. She looked up briefly and then continued with her crossword puzzle, muttering: “You need to know what the Boston Tea Party is…”

No shit, I thought as I sat down.

“Or, you know, I can just draft it myself,” I told myself, out loud.

Sam said it himself; it’s a good thing it doesn’t take a majority to get anything done.

sam

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM OCTOBER 31 – NOVEMBER 7, 2016

rolling-stone

Seventy-two going home – “President Obama’s decision to grant 72 more commutations Friday shows how far he’s gone in his efforts to “reinvigorate” the pardon process.” Total granted to date: 944.

Two going down – “Two former aides to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie charged in a bizarre scheme of political retaliation against a mayor who refused to endorse the governor for re-election were found guilty by a jury on all counts in the long-running “Bridgegate” saga.”

One cleaning up – A federal court jury decided that a Rolling Stone journalist defamed former University of Virginia associate dean Nicole Eramo in a 2014 magazine article about sexual assault on campus that included a debunked account of a fraternity gang rape.

 

 

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