26 December 2016

Baby, You’re A Rich Man

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Bad human behavior is irrational. Even highly once;ontrived crimes like murder or Madoff-inspired systematic fraud. We like to think that crime is rational so we can continue to think that well-thought out strategies will combat it, but crime is emotional in its soul. Psychiatrist Thomas P. Malone said that he could sum up every abnormal human behavior: it’s someone screaming: “For God’s sake, someone love me!

We impose logic and numbers all over lawbreaking as if crime has some calculus hidden within it. We speak of crime in financial terms as is people are as predictable as market forces. We use phrases like “paying one’s debt to society” and “reparation” and “getting one’s due.” We rely on the mathematical certainty of talion – one eye equals one eye and one tooth exchanges for one tooth; correction is just reconciliation of existential accounts. But the solution to society’s problem of crime appears on no ledger; it’s no debit that can be counterbalanced with a policy-driven credit.

imageAn experiment by graduate students at Harvard and MIT called GiveDirectly gives cash transfers to the poor in Kenya without any qualification as to how the money can be used. Instead of squandering it, Kenyans used the money to repair their homes with durable, cost-saving materials and to invest in small businesses. A totally free gift with no expectations or conditions caused the Kenyans to behave more responsibly than if they had been yoked with more responsibility. Go figure.

GiveDirectly’s inspiration came across the border from Mexico, a country that has distributed cash transfers since the 1990’s to more than six million Mexican citizens. When cash transfers replaced food subsidies – Mexico’s version of ‘food stamps’ or Basic Needs – every economist looking on feared the worst: that the money would be used for legal vices like alcohol and tobacco and that domestic violence would spike as families fought over what to do with the cash. The economists had their charts and tables turned on them when no one fought or drank away the money. Studies proved that the children of families who received the cash transfers – and could have spent it on anything – were healthier and better educated than the kids from families who received food subsidies – and didn’t have a chance to squander it, it made no sense. Everyone expected that grants of cash would fall prey to the worst in human nature.

One explanation offered by GiveDirectly’s founders is that people know what they need. When they have the resources to meet those needs, they take care of themselves responsibly. When they don’t get what they need, they squander absolutely everything they get. Only when someone feels secure do they act secure.

Within this explanation is a final answer we don’t want to acknowledge about how to prevent crime. For God’s sake, just love us.

imageIf we just outrightly grant love – and forgiveness – to the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the least lovable, the least worthy of love among us, they will act responsibly with it. They will become trustworthy only when trusted, dependable only when depended upon, respectable only when respected, considerate only when considered, careful only when cared for, forgivable only after they’re forgiven, noticeable only after they’re noticed, valuable only after they’re prized. It makes no sense, t

 

 

 

 

t it’s empirically true.

Whatever it is, it’s not new. The chaplain always teaches the prisoners that: “…When you’re loved, you’re good…” meaning that people who feel loved behave well. Anyone can see this lesson in daily life: kids whose fathers take time off from work grow up to be more stable. Employees who feel valued don’t squander their time on Facebook.  Ladies who feel safe in their fiancé’s love don’t carp and complain about what happened at their betrothed’s bachelor parties. Someone who feels slighted gets rowdy. Someone who feels cheated on grows sneaky and clingy. But someone who’s loved? She’s good.

“But why should someone who broke the law get treated better than everyone else?” a Prison Diaries reader wrote to me before they canceled the column. I never got to reply to that woman directly.

If I had, I would have said that the simple answer is that they shouldn’t. They shouldn’t because everyone should be treated with respect, and lovingly, as galling as that is. We have to love the unloveable, treat discards like face cards out of pure self-interest because not giving, not loving, not trusting enough leaves everyone in torment. That’s all crime is, the unloved tormenting the rest.

imageBesides, that’s balance-sheet style thinking that doesn’t work to improve anything. It is totally unfair that people who never broke the law, never did much wrong, are the ones who must front the capital of love, trust and care to underwrite long lines of unsecured interpersonal credit to felons, societal deadbeats, who may have paid off some of the principal of their debts to society behind bars but who still wade in interest and penalties called untrustworthiness and being burdensome. Rationally, you might not lend money – or love – trust or concern – to someone who cannot repay you but emotionally you might have to and and it looks like being unwise might be how to solve problems of social justice.

imageMy sales pitch may sound strong but I don’t use my own product. I’m the worst spokesperson for this problem-solving of emotional problems. From being hurt, betrayed, cheated so many times I harbor such anger that it is inconceivable to me that I can, much less should, open myself or make myself more vulnerable. To me, it’s putting the other cheek even closer to the other person’s fist with the caveat: “Now don’t exert yourself when you hit me again.” But as I cling to the rationality of the pain response I remind myself that I risk being wrong if I open myself too much but I risk living in chaos, in torment, if I don’t open myself up enough. The anger I feel is the result, not the cause, of not opening myself up enough of not trusting people because I think they’re untrustworthy and forgetting, that, by trusting them, I can make them so.

I need to practice more irresponsible interpersonal accounting and reckless charity and write off all of the uncollectable debts I accumulate in my heart. If I become less an emotional moneychanger, then I can be a game changer and change the game in a responsible way.

Imagine: the $212 billion prison industrial complex and 2.3 million people in chains, completely erased by one Beatles song. It will never add up, yet somehow it works.

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THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM DECEMBER 18 – 25, 2016

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Everyone but me got something good:

President Obama commuted the sentences of 153 more nonviolent federal drug prisoners. He also issued 78 pardons to men and women who have served their sentences on December 19, 2016.

Florida Supreme Court invalidated hundreds of death sentences. The Sunshine state’s highest court found that death sentences decided by a judge, not a jury, were unconstitutional. More than 200 inmates are affected by the ruling, which only applies to sentences imposed since 2002. That means more than half of the people on death row will get re-sentenced. Read the decision here.

The Obama administration Tuesday unveiled a new regulation that allows incarcerated parents to reduce their child-support payments while they are in prison. Currently support payments pile up and, upon release, parents face accumulated debt and the temptation to return to crime. They’re off the hook for a little while, at least.

 

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19 December 2016

Getting Carded

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Every year, at least one inmate gives or sends me a card at Christmastime. Notably, very few of them have any reference to Christmas – most don’t even use Christmas colors. I don’t know if that’s because there’s no Christmas mood in here – or out there for that matter – but I’m always impressed that women take the time to make something for me or send a card into me. Below, a sample of inmate holiday wishes from each and every Christmas I spent at York CI.

I know they’re hard to see. Click on the card for a bigger, clearer picture.

2007

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I had been here about 2 weeks. My cellmate, a realtor who came in with me on December 7th and left on the 11th, made this card for me on her computer.  She did 4 days on a 14-day sentence. The stars and hearts over the faces are mine. To protect the innocent.

2008

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Another cellmate who left. I don’t know if she loved me or the year 2008 since it’s when she got sprung. Zetta learned to be pithy in prison. And then came back a couple of times. Given that her life is rule by poverty and drugs, the fact that she secured a card, addressed it and mailed it to me makes it one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received.

2009

2009

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Perhaps my favorite Christmas card from someone on the outside, this one promises me money, informs me that a working Boost phone has been purchased for me and that I’m going home in 2 months – February 2010.  The return address said “Anthony Hall” with an address on Park Street in Hartford. Maybe someone should deck him to make it a real Christmas card. To this day, I have no idea who I’m “Baby Momma” to. I feel like I should know that.

2010

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After serving a lot of time and reducing her risk level through good behavior, Mari moved to the east side of the compound and sent through this over inmate express to me on the maximum security west side at Christmas. Note that it’s a baby shower thank you card and she admits to allegedly having a contraband cell phone – in writing. When I finally ran into her in the medical building three months later, I asked her where she got the card and she admitted she stole it from a counselor’s office. Rehabilitation.

2011

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My former cellmate left in August but she mailed this ditty in as a Christmas greeting. I’m still shocked the mailroom let it through. They must have been in a holiday mood.

2012

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Referenced the actual holiday and put Hello Kitty in a Santa hat and ballet tutu.

“A Nutcracker Hello Kitty! That’s great!” I thanked her. I was impressed with the Christmas layers to the card.

“What that is?” she asked. Never heard of the Nutcracker Ballet.

2013

2013-card-copy

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I guess “I may have looked calm but in my mind I’ve killed them three times” and “Tell them all to take a flying leap!” and “What I know for sure: it’s ok to be a fruit loop in a world full of Cheerios” is York CI’s version of “God Bless us, everyone!” From the Tiny Tim of Zero South.

Merry Christmas.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM DECEMBER 12 – 18, 2016

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Dylann Roof was convicted of 33 charges for the shooting rampage in a Charleston, South Carolina church last year. He’s rejecting a mental health defense for the penalty phase of the trial and is, for now, back to representing himself.  Not for nothing, I don’t blame him. What would a psychiatric defense do at this point? The jurors would use it to decide between letting him die in prison…as opposed to killing him in prison. He’s going down either way and he’d rather go down as a racist than a nut. It’s his choice.

A consortium of California newspapers followed up on prisoners who were released under Proposition 47 – the policy that reduced drug possession felonies and most small thefts to misdemeanors voted into law by Californians at the polls in 2014 – and they’re not doing well at all. Homelessness, poverty, petty crime. Whether it’s intended that way or not, the article makes the case for better reentry planning and slower decarceration.

This Christmas will mark 20 years since the murder of mini-beauty pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsey in Boulder, Colorado. No one has ever been charged with the murder of the 6-year old. The Guardian has a good write-up of some facts I didn’t know. Did you know that a few months later a 9-year old girl was assaulted by someone who broke into her house in Boulder in the middle of the night? She went to the same dance studio as JonBenet Ramsey. I don’t believe in coincidences. The police screwed up this investigation and someone who killed a child has walked free for 20 years. Typical.

 

 

 

 

 

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12 December 2016

Broken Sorter

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hospital

I cringe when I hear post-Sandy Hook plans, plots and promises about mental health treatment: expanding access’ and ‘removing barriers’ and ‘stricter laws involuntary commitment.’ I shudder at the phrase ‘treatment-based approach.’ That’s the worst. That shit scares me.

My parents have committed me involuntarily to psychiatric hospitals on seven occasions. Each time I was admitted, I posed no danger to myself or others. My parents even concede this now even though they pushed for the admissions at the time. They were trying to wring out a mental health defense from my situation – one I never wanted.

On the one occasion I was a danger to myself – the despair of fighting the charges made me so despondent that I wanted to die – no one referred me for any treatment.

bfscorridorI didn’t really understand how broken the psychiatric sorter was until Selly moved into my room. She was serving an 18-year sentence for stabbing her boyfriend 38 times after being released from a psychiatric hospital – over her parents’ objections that she wasn’t safe to leave.

The requirement for someone to be hospitalized involuntarily is dangerousness – to oneself or to others – and clinicians’ ability to assess it is notoriously bad, as my and Selly’s experiences demonstrate. Even the Supreme Court of the United States has acknowledged shrinks’ inability to know who’s dangerous.  In 1983, in Barefoot v. Estelle, the Court wrote  that even the American Psychiatric Association hadn’t conceded  “that psychiatrists are always wrong with respect to future dangerousness, only most of the time.”

Hospitalization isn’t about medicine and care; it’s about power. How else can anyone explain a system where people who want treatment don’t get it and people who get it don’t want it?

psychiatric-hospitals-or-wards_230_160_100On those occasions that I sat in the Yale-New Haven Hospital’s emergency room as a vestibule to the locked hallway of the hospital, New Haven’s most esteemed psychiatrists unlocked the doors for others – usually men – who days later would appear on the news for some violent altercation, usually a robbery. From the hospital, I would recognize their mug shots, their necklines decorated with different collars and colors than the pale blue, patterned gowns we all wore after we were forced to fork over our clothes. I had to keep my gown, whereas others who traded their johnny-coats for sweatshirts and jeans left to hurt people who ended up in the same ER that had just certified their assailants as safe.

A bearded man whom I watched walk out of the psychiatric emergency room holding area ended up seated on the couch next to me, finally admitted as a danger to himself after he tried to slit his own throat. A choker of black, spiny sutures spanned his neck in an area that ER nurses had shaved to free the surgical field for doctors to save his life.

Until he actually hurts someone else, a patient’s propensity for violence relies mostly on self-report or someone else’s telling on them. People who report others for potential violence might have an agenda in seeking someone’s psychiatric admission. My parents ratcheted up my ‘symptoms’ with little to no regard to how these experienes would traumatize their daughter and invite scorn for the rest of her life.

Others fear stigma so much – Nancy Lanza might fall into this category – that they actually become reasonably wary of psychiatry. They minimize and downplay symptoms – I can just see what would have happened to me if I refused to leave my bedroom for weeks and asked for a gun for my birthday – and these people don’t see the inside of a psych ward…and then they go off and hurt someone else.

img_0689Besides, who’s going to believe someone who walks into a hospital and says he’s planning on mowing down some second graders? I’ve watched these clinicians. They would have sent Adam Lanza home with a diagnosis of histrionic personality disorder and attention seeking behavior. No one who’s going to do these dastardly deeds announces it beforehand. They con the nurses and the docs into buying their stories of stability so they open those sliding glass doors leading to the sidewalk and opportunities to explode.

Increasing the number of psychiatric admissions, either through passing new laws or striking fear in the hearts of psychiatrists will likely increase the number of people like me whose doctors hear amped up reports of illness and we will take up space in hospitals, edging out the entry or stay of patients whom doctors really need to keep against their will in order to prevent violence.

teenage-psych-ward_art-300x225We try to medicalize violence after these national tragedies as I have taken special notice since I’ve been here – the Tuczon Safeway supermarket shooting or the Aurora, Colorado movie theater massacre because gun laws’ loopholes circle, curl and coil around reality. The only thing that ‘expanding access’ will do is return to us the mirage of control, the illusion that these doctors who can’t sort the sick from the silly, the dangerous from the slightly damaged are going to keep us safe. They can’t even keep the right ones in the building.

Since December 14, 2012, I’ve wondered what the psychiatrists would have done if Adam Lanza appeared in the ER beside me. Would I have watched his back as he walked out, clad in the colors of death while I remained?

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THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM DECEMBER 5 – 11, 2016

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He’s back in their arms again: Dylann Roof decides he wants counsel for the guilt phase of his trial for shooting and killing which included the introduction of a videotape where he straight-out confessed to police. Probably could have handled this part himself.

I don’t know which is worse: the fact that it took 13 minutes to kill someone who coughed and heaved in what is supposed to be a fast and painless death or the fact that the state of Alabama allows its judges to overrule juries that decide on life in prison without parole. That’s what happened last week.

The New York Times ran a great piece inspired by a new report released Friday by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law on how decarceration efforts will never work unless they embrace people convicted of violent crimes  – ones who are rehabilitated, of course. The piece examines the sentences of four real crimes and has an interactive component where you can weigh in on how much time you think a particular defendant/prisoner should get and see how many respondents agreed with you. Try it here.

 

 

 

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5 December 2016

No Returns Without a Receipt

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receipts

Rehabilitation isn’t like baking or roasting because there’s nothing that pops, no external indicator to signal when a prisoner’s had enough heat and is ready to come out. If there were some test that could assess with certainty that correction has taken and an offender has learned what she did wrong and how to do right, then recidivism would be zero because judges, wardens and parole boards would never let out the ones who are underdone.

The typical assessment of rehabilitation is self-report by the inmate:

“No, ain’t never coming back here. I got me forty certificates [of completion of ineffectual self-help groups] and I got no tickets for six months. I know that boostin’/fightin’/robbin’/rippin’ and runnin’ [drug use as a career] ain’t worth it.”

revolveThat one always comes back in about two months, certificates in the wind. Some can’t stand the heat anywhere. They will say anything to a parole board or the warden for early release. In fact, parole means “promise” in French. It’s just words. No evidence or guarantees.

Many objective evaluations are just as unreliable. Staff members – whether they’re work supervisors, group leaders, guards or other administrators –  rarely see everything we do. Often they have us pegged all wrong.

“She’s such a nice girl,” an older female guard commented about a woman who was popping Valiums snuck in through the visiting center, drinking nips a guard smuggled into the facility for her (which she promptly booted into a Fluff container) and forgoing notes from one staff member to another to assure that she was the only worker in gym, alone with one of the C/O’s for something inappropriate. She continues her swallowing exercises at a halfway house now but she shall return because she needed more time on the rack.

Me? You can tell I’m done with the oven light off.

But there’s a definitive, acid test for rehabilitation, objective evidence of someone’s growth: her commissary receipts.  Just like a store employee checks your receipt at Costco or Best Buy before you walk under the red EXIT letters, someone needs to check receipts before they let inmates go out. That list of itemized purchases will tell you if she’s responsible or not.

ltra-brite_burned-2Frequent purchases of toothpaste, dental floss sticks and tartar rinse show she takes responsibility for preserving her health and preventing illness as much as she can in her current circumstance. The same goes for buying omega-3 fish oil capsules or vitamin C.

Purchasing envelopes, writing pads and pens means she maintains a network of people on the outside who can help her cool to room temp when she gets out. Even colored pencils yarn and art supplies prove that she fills her time with something creative and relatively productive.

Shelling out for a Nintendo DS system can go one way or the other. Either she wastes time on video games instead of working or attending school (not ready) or she found another way besides TV and music to drown out the chaos around her (this one’s done). Even excessive shampoo buying means she’s a clean freak, using the liquid soap to wash every surface around her. At least she’s doing something.

receipts2Receipts that come in devoid of any purchases of envelopes or Lever 2000 soap or pencils or Ultra Brite toothpaste mean that the inmate shifted responsibility for her basic needs onto her community. My cellmate, hailing from Bridgeport with another misdemeanor conviction for prostitution, just paid for pepperoni, chips, iced oatmeal cookies, sugar, cappuccino mix and ramen soups.  But she didn’t buy the bath soap, hairbrush, nail clipper or laundry detergent she needs so much that she just told me she needs them, as if the announcement of her lack was all that was required for me to supply it.

I have two choices now; tell her “sorry” and live in a closet with someone who doesn’t bathe or use deodorant or wash her clothes, or give in to her to make my life easier. Either way, she’s committing a new offense before she leaves: holding me hostage. Need keeps social programs mushrooming in the hopes that they will choke out crime but they never do. If we don’t supply them with food and necessities, we fear that economically oppressed people will victimize us. Their receipts for cigarettes tell us they’re going to do it anyway.

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Mostly junk food for Suge Knight. And he reoffended.

Of course, inmates who deserve assistance because they don’t have any money will have no receipts. They need soap like everyone else. I learned in here to take living with people who have next to nothing as a privilege because it keeps me humble and affords me the honor of doing what every decent person does: helping a neighbor. I am supposed to do that and I forget.

But a lack of receipts should pique the warden’s interest, too. Just like on the outside, the person with no discernable income still eats, bathes and clothes herself so the warden would be wise to ask these inmates:

“How’d you survive with no money?” If she hustles by making greeting cards and crocheting other peoples’ yarn into blankets for them, then she’s industrious, ready to come out. If she’s prostituting herself to other inmates, she needs a little more time. If she’s stealing, then she needs to stay in a lot more. An inmate’s accounting reveals her accountability better than anything else.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM NOVEMBER 28 – DECEMBER 4, 2016

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Charleston church shooter moved to represent himself in a death penalty trial and, as of Friday, wants the attorneys to handle the “evidence” part of the trial. In the United States, it’s either self-rep or covered by counsel. There’s no in between. Hybrid representation isn’t allowed…but it should be, if only for judicial economy.

A new Department of Homeland Security report made public Thursday recommends that immigration officials continue to use private prisons to house immigration detainees. The surprise: The recommendation then was rejected by a DHS advisory board. If that doesn’t scream… I don’t know…disorganization? waste of taxpayer dollars? Right hand talk to the left hand?  Decide on private prisons once and for all.

Feds announced major changes within Bureau of Prisons designed to ease re-entry for the men and women housed in federal penitentiaries. They’re building a “semi-autonomous” school district within the BOP to better educate prisoners, paying for state-issued identification cards for inmates, and requiring new standards for federal halfway houses to ensure better care once ex-offenders are released.  But the Trump administration and presumptive attorney-general nominee Jeff Sessions could scrap those plans.

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