I sat in court limbo, waiting for my attorney, in those clackety, chocolate-colored wooden chairs that weigh about 50 pounds each. The New Haven courthouse’s historic preservation prevented the installation of the sinners’ pews in more modern courthouses. Of course, the chairs, like their inhabitants, were flawed. Ecru lines, scrapes, and scratches ran up and down the legs, on the sides of seats, either because of the violence of a defendant or the carelessness of a marshal who had to align them each night for the morning, all facing a blank wall because the bench and the parties are off to the left in this dogleg room, an L-hole, that was never designed to accommodate growing ranks of the criminally accused.
By the time I got there the chairs were already screwed up. Tilt here. Moved to another row there. Nothing wild but defendants making sure to deposit some disorder before left the courthouse. It made my rectitude even harder in those high-backed chairs. I didn’t bother turning mine so I was slanted toward a public defender – one whose real-life friendship with Attorney Betty Anne Waters played out in matinees in the movie Conviction, the story of a woman who went to law school with the sole goal of freeing her innocent, wrongly incarcerated brother – urge her client to admit violating her probation.
Her client had failed to pay restitution, even though the defendant couldn’t afford to pay it as she subsisted only on Social Security disability checks. If this defendant had taken her public defender’s advice, all the money she had received and lived on would have been considered an ‘overpayment’ that she needed to pay back. From representing people in this situation myself, I knew how the Social Security Administration gets overpayments paid back: they let the beneficiary collect disability in legal status only; every check gets reversed to the government. On paper, you look like you’re receiving benefits – and become ineligible for other entitlements – but you’re not getting the actual benefits. You get no money from any source. You’re unable to live because your checks are held until you pay back all you owe.
This lawyer was setting her client up to be liable for restitution on two fronts when she hadn’t been able to keep up payments on one front. That’s why she was in the courtroom that day. The attorney, in defending a client who was unable to afford her restitution orders, essentially doubled what she owed. It made no sense. It was typical. Abandon all hope, ye who need counsel.
I can ask my gynecologist about an earache. She’ll refer me to an otolaryngologist eventually, but before I leave her office, she will tickle in the inside of my ear with one of those black cones to see how serious my problem is before she’s done with me to make sure I’m not a walking emergency. She can do this because the practice of medicine requires baseline competence. The practice of law doesn’t.
Public defenders don’t take the time to understand the administrative law that governs the collateral consequences of the convictions they shove their clients into. As criminal defense counsel, they think they’re specialists who deal with only one type of problem. What they don’t get is that specialists are just general practitioners with more training; doing criminal defense doesn’t excuse you from knowing about other policies, especially when working with an indigent population whose lives are affected by administrative law (health benefits, entitlements), civil law (lawsuits), family law (termination of parental rights) and probate law (mental competence).
Suddenly the court had to adjourn, probably because the courtroom marshals were needed in lockup for an emergency or something so the client didn’t get to admit to anything. I walked right up to the public defender as she headed for the courtroom exit, her arms loaded to her chin with folders of cases she had already handled that day.
“Listen. Don’t let her take that deal,” I said and pointed back to the bench she just stood before to double her client’s debt. “She’ll lose her disability to an overpayment. You know overpayments? She won’t get any cash for months. Even years. Are you not going to use Bearden v. Georgia [the Supreme Court case]? It says she can’t violate her probation or a restitution order if she didn’t have enough money to pay it,” I explained to the attorney.
“Who are you?” the attorney asked me, a reasonable question. She saw me come over from defendants’ purgatory and my situation markedly reduced my credibility so I didn’t know how to respond, how to justify why a criminal defendant could give sound advice to a licensed attorney.
I dont know how Dante Alighieri thought all of the levels of hell could be limited to 9. There’s at least one more depth, a special place for the prideful. People who insist on showing off all they know – people like me – endure there in the Tenth Circle. They’re filled with knowledge but the power to use it is stripped of them. They chase after people with almost no knowledge who have all the power. The educated people, because they’re powerless, can’t convince the people with power to do things differently, can’t teach them anything. The Tenth Circle is powerless omniscience running after ignorant omnipotence and it’s torture. This is the only time in my life I’ll be a 10 and stay one for good.
Souls in circles one through nine have all the fun pushing boulders back and forth, standing against gale-force winds and other punishing games. My penance is never seeing a public defender take into account the multi-faceted problems that their clients face. Not once. I’m in the last, forgotten circle of hell watching this unfold every time I go to court, knowing how much people lose when they’re supposed to be protected.
“I’m nobody. But I know what I’m talking about,” I explained to the lawyer. She nodded, backed into one of the wooden doors with her hip to open it and walked into the hallway, the Ninth Circle, icy lake of Treacherers, to locate another client who wouldn’t have a meddling wannabe like me monitoring her proceedings, achieving nothing.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM FROM FEBRUARY 20 – 26, 2017
As of Thursday, the federal government will start using private prisons again. Attorney General Jeff Sessions became the Wayne to former Assistant Attorney General Sally Yates’ Garth after she called “Car” and moved the private prison contest to the side of the beltway when the Department of Justice decided last year not to pursue any more contracts with private management companies. Game on. Party time…Excellent for these businesses on the NYSE.
Novelist Michael Patterson took an Alford Plea – meaning he maintained his innocence but conceded that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict him of killing his wife – to a charge of manslaughter in Durham, North Carolina on Friday. His murder conviction was overturned in 2011. Peterson said making an Alford plea in the death of his wife 16 years ago is one of the most difficult things he’s ever done because he gave up the fight. I know the feeling because I’ve done it myself. It’s the classic choice between being right or being effective. Why is that even a decision that has to be made when we’re talking about justice or someone’s untimely death? It shouldn’t be.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court sided 6-2 with Duane Buck , a Texas death row inmate whose own expert witness told jurors that Buck would be more dangerous in and out of prison because he was black. This constituted “ineffective assistance of counsel,” according Chief Justice Roberts in Buck v. Davis. “The law punishes people for what they do, not who they are,” he wrote. Justices Thomas and Alito dissented – shocker. In some ways, this is huge victory because courts almost never find that a defendant received ineffective assistance from an attorney. In other ways, it’s a tragedy. Duane Buck had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to get a court to say that you were harmed when your attorney hires and calls an expert witness who testifies why you should get the death penalty. It seems like a lower court should have said this earlier.
It’s the last set of alternative facts, Part Six of Six of “X”, a short story. It’s the tail end of the tale, so if you’re peeking into the diaries for the first time or haven’t been here in a while, you can start reading from the beginning here, or jump back to where you left off: Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, or last week’s Part Five.
“Look, do you wanna like, talk to like, a captain? Would that make you feel better? You know, maybe he can send you to mental health or…” Stamper asked, pretending like her torment wasn’t real. He knew it was; he manufactured it.
“I don’t need mental health. I need clean food.”
“You get clean food.”
“No, I don’t. GET THE FUCKING CAPTAIN!” Larkin shrieked.
“OK. Right. You got it,” he assured her and waved the captain down to the housing tier. Ralston looked annoyed but made extended strides to reach Stamper quickly.
“What’s the problem, Stamp?”
“Captain, Ms. Larkin here wants to speak to you. She claims were poisoning her food.”
“I didn’t say you were poisoning me. I said you were spitting in my food or fucking with it,” she replied to Stamper while looking directly at his supervisor.
“Either way, Captain,” he broke in, matter of factly, “She won’t eat.”
“What’s the story Larkin? Why won’t you eat?”
“Because they’re doing something to my food,” she explained, pulling her loose curls into a twisted bun unaided by the sock scrunchie.
“You saw this?” Ralston queried.
“No, but all my trays are marked.”
Ralston turned to Stamper and asked: “Marked?”
“Some come from the kitchen with an “X” and sometimes she gets one.”
“You fucking liar! You told me they were marked because they were mine!”
“Larkin, calm down!” Ralston raised his voice. “Did you see anyone tamper with your meals?”
“No. …Well, I saw… someone saw him eat part of mine and then throw it out. Look at your cameras!”
“This true, Stamp?” Dave nodded.
“And he gave you the food from the garbage?”
“No,” Stamper interrupted. “In a completely foggy brain I threw out a meal and then replaced it as soon as my mistake was brought to my attention by a fellow officer. That will be clear on the cameras.”
Ralston queried. “When was this?” to Stamper. “Did he bring you an extra, another meal?” to Larkin.
“Yes but what?”
“I know he’s messing with my food. He did this to me!” she screamed and pointed to the back of her hand, elongated grape blisters still registering topography on her hand.
“Captain,” Stamper said softy and subtly put his chin in one hand and tapped his forehead with a forefinger. Ralston watched, waited and asked the door, refusing to look in the inmate’s eyes:
“Ms. Larkin, are you on any type of medication?” Ralston asked.
“Would you like to speak with someone about getting some?”
“No, I would like to speak with someone about getting this asshole away from my food. Actually…no…I want to speak with someone who can get me out of the SHU.” She leaned toward the door and, looking at no one, said: “I know things,” an implicit promise of more information, an empty one since Ralston already doubted her credibility because she wasn’t giving him enough to bust Caples and wasn’t closing the case for him either by denying a sexual relationship. Ralston now doubled-down on that doubt after witnessing Larkin’s erratic behavior.
“Well, Larkin, that’s me and that’s not happening. You and me, we already discussed why.” She had already turned to the sink to get another cup of water. She’s smart, Stamper admitted to himself. Keeping hydrated without the food.
“Well then, fuck you too,” she exhaled after sucking down another eight ounces of the only thing besides oxygen that was sustaining her life. Ralston rolled his eyes and walked away.
The next day, after the same Why the X? routine happened again over a tray containing two sealed bags of cornflakes and an apple, Stamper returned to his desk and looked up the maintenance officers’ extension number.
“Maintenance. Buon- rmmph – figlio.”
Why can’t this fucker ever swallow his snack before he answers? Always eating on the phone, Stamper mused. “Bonny, my boy, what’s up?”
“Who is this?”
“How’s the wife?” Stamper tried to warm him.
“She died a year ago.”
“Oh. Sorry. Well. Listen, I’m over here at the SHU and we got a real wild one in Room One. She blocked up her drain and sat on the pressure faucet button to flood her cell and the whole housing floor.”
“I didn’t hear anything about that.”
“Well, we cleaned it up because we know how busy you guys are.”
“Oh,” Buonfiglio said, semi-surprised since staff summarily shunted even minor malfunctions to his office.
“Yeah, so… can you send someone to turn off her water?”
“Turn off the water to her cell?’
“Yeah, so the cock-sucking bitch can’t do it again.”
“But she needs water. Even the cocksucker bitch needs to take a shit.”
“Oh, the toilet, the toilet stays. I would never do that to her. Just the sink.”
“Doesn’t she need to wash her hands after she pisses?” Buonfiglio asked.
“Yeah, and I can let her do that if you really want me to page you to wet-vac the basement floor of the SHU when she does it again. I mean it’s up to you. I’m leaving early today so…”
“Oh, alright. Culpepper’s free right now, ain’t ya?” he called away from the phone. “Just finished his ham and egg on a bagel. He’ll be there as soon as he can unplug his George Foreman grill.”
Culpepper arrived, the outside of his fingers still glossy from grease from his breakfast sandwich. Apparently maintenance doesn’t need running water to wash their hands either, Stamper guessed to himself silently as he intercepted the handyman in the SHU’s lobby.
“Just Room One?” Culpepper asked.
“Just Room One.”
With that, Culpepper walked into what was essentially a passageway, a special door leading to the SHU’s electrical and plumbing guts. Culpepper emerged seconds later.
“Thanks dude. Owe you one.” Stamper held up his fist in solidarity and Culpepper contorted his face in confusion and left Dave Stamper to wait for the next meal delivery.
“Larkin, Lunch. Chicken pattie.” The satiny finish of the Styrofoam depressed where a lame yellow highlighter had been pressed hard as it crossed one diagonal on the tray lid and then another.
“Where’s my water?” Alana Larkin asked, one toe pointed and one arm akimbo.
“What water? Milk for breakfast and lunch and juice for dinner. You know that.”
“Fuunnny!” she yelled and pounded several times in the pressure faucet button. Metallic reverberations sounded through pipes but not a drop fell into the porcelain shell of the sink.
“Did you try the other one?”
“The other sink? Even funnier.”
“No, the other button, you fucking wise ass. You’re only pressing cold. Press hot.”
BOOM. One hand descended with a thousand pounds of pressure on the engraved H in a circle on the faucet but produced no water.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Larkin.”
“I’ll die without water. Is that your plan?”
“Now I’m trying to kill you? Larkin, for real, you need help. You’re fucking paranoid.”
“I’m not paranoid. You fuck with my food, probably poisoned it but I outsmarted you and never ate it and that made you mad. Now I have no water. What does that look like to you?”
“It looks like a psycho who forgets that she’s in jail where shit breaks all the time. You didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, you know. I’ll put in a work order.”
Larkin began to cry, not surprise’s sobs, the ones she hiccupped on her way into the SHU, but a dog whistle of tears, her despair so deep it was silent yet changed the energy of the room.
“Look, I’m calling mental health to get you a consult,” he told her in false assurance and compassion but she was crying too hard to hear him. He knew she knew this so he continued: “Actually, you tell me when you want to talk to someone. You’re having a hard time right now so I’ll wait for you to tell me,” speaking directly into the crack of the doorjamb, so close he could have been kissing it.
“X” marked the three daily meals for the ensuing five days; Stamper was so committed to his plan of torture that he agreed to work overtime just to make sure than no one else inadvertently fed Alana Larkin. He knew she caught a few gulps during her thrice-weekly showers but she would still scream that she had no water, no food. Guards on other shifts disregarded her as the head-case she was becoming.
After working nine days straight in the SHU, the novelty remained intact but Stamper was just tiring out. Once he forgot to write the “X” on the tray so he just ended up scratching it in with his thumbnail. Thinking as quickly as he could for an explanation for the inkless “X,” he appeared at her door and noticed one leg stretched out behind her and one knee bent up close to the bowl of her toilet; her head seemed to hang into it, lifeless. At first, Stamper wondered if she had suffered a stroke, burst a blood vessel while vomiting but soon remembered she had nothing to vomit up.
Letting her face fall into the toilet water to drown? he wondered. It would be a method most extreme since all of the essential suicide supplies were left in the cell with all SHU inmates: sheets and a stable metal beam that once served as the arm of a TV stand back when SHU inmates were allowed to keep their property with them. If she wanted to die, Alana Larkin had everything she needed. Usually, when SHU-mates acted a little squirrelly, they were taken out of their cells for exactly that reason.
But then a curl twitched and a head bent back, exposing a chin slippery and wet after dunking itself into the toilet water. With eyelids closed so tight that they shook wrinkly convulsions, the head lowered itself back almost autonomically and Stamper could hear faint ripples of water again porcelain… wiiip…wiiip…wiiip. Alana Larkin had turned her commode into a dog’s dish, finding her only sustenance on her weak knees on cold, industrial linoleum tile. Stamper laughed but had to, grudgingly, grant her some respect. Alana Larkin was a survivor, tougher than all the scarred gang-bangers and 350-pound lesbians in the joint.
“Did you lose your collar?’ Stamper hooted through the door’s crack. He opened the trap door and dropped the thumbnail-marked tray to the floor. A sharp thwap sounded because the tray was full. Stamper knew it would stay that way.
He bounded off Larkin’s floor to the one above and found the cell directly above hers, used his key and flung open the door telling the two occupants: “Get out.”
“Why?” asked one.
“Gladly,” said the other.
“Wait, give me a shirt.”
“Why?” came again.
“Because I said so. Where’s your other… here. I got one,” he said, checking the size tag on the oversized green scrub shirt, the uniform for true incorrigibles, the inmates slated to stay in the SHU for their entire sentences because of non-stop disciplinary infractions. The shirt was an “L” even though it looked like a “XX” large.
“This one looks like a Dos Equis to me,” he announced to no one and snickered, twisting the stiff cotton like he was making a noose. One of the inmates outside the cell’s door noticed the apparatus he was fashioning, went bug-eyed and stepped back.
“It’s not for you,” he assured her and pushed the shirt down into the toilet’s nether hole and pressed the recessed flush button above the toilet on the cell’s cinderblock wall. Inexperienced vandals would expect for water to rise and the shirt to lodge itself in the toilet’s chute leaving a balloony-end of the shirt waving around the swirling water but Stamper, versed in correctional reality, knew that all prison toilets had such superior suction that they would swallow even this tent of a shirt. The shirt slunk out of sight, down the shit sluice and a muffled thump sounded behind the concrete bricks of the wall, followed by the trickling hiss of the shirt and water crashing into a wet mass of feces and toilet paper.
“Excellent,” he said as he watched it work on the first try. Then he turned to the two women he had displaced, one of whom had just stared at him incredulously and the other was attempting an unauthorized phone call now that she had been loosed from her cell. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you two moved.”
“Andressen, move those two. Their shitter just shit the bed,” he told the rookie behind the panel and headed back to his inside control post, out of which his breathless laughter could be heard all over the SHU until dinnertime.
When the dinner cart arrived that afternoon, Stamper dipped into Captain Sasmogino’s office. “Do you have a pink marker?” he threw out nonchalantly.
“A pink marker?” Sasmogino asked and poked through her pen cup and came up with a lone Crayola marker, the white ones painted to look like a crayon with the squiggle decorations and handed it to him. Stamper stepped out of her office, cap in teeth again, and drew a big heart on the top of a tray containing that day’s last meal, turkey a la king, and re-capped the marker.
“No problem darlin.’ Just don’t tell me why you needed that.”
Stamper laughed a lightheaded, manic laugh. For a while he had forgotten Caples, the reason for this plan. He derived such pleasure from these games that he lost his goal, forgot his endgame. Before he even reached Alana Larkin’s cell, the putrid fecal scent hit him. Looking through her cell door’s window, he saw a mélange of stool – yellow, black and a Pantone-worthy collection of browns – all swimming in an orangey syrup on her toilet’s seat and around its base, a mess made by the excrement burp that emerged from her toilet when he flushed the green shirt into the pipes of the cell above hers.
“Now was it worth it to lie like that, Larkin? Really,” he castigated her and threw the tray, filled with gelatinous gravy across her floor, the tray’s leaving withered peas, red peppers hard like trapezoidal rubies and jagged-edged carrot cubes in a milky sauce where it slid. Stamper closed the door, surprised at how severely Larkin’s lips had chapped without water in such a short time. She had gone, what, only six hours without it?
But it was all she was living on. Small pieces of white vellum curled up in small triangles on her lips, her pallor was simultaneously yellow and gray and she sat with her back leaned against the wall next to her bunk, eyes no longer registering despair but succumbing to strength’s vacation. She tried to lick her lips but her mouth was so dry that her tongue’s only accomplishment was to tug at one corner of the feathery skin so that a small red slash of blood rose up on her lips, both she and Stamper knowing that she would think twice before using them to kiss – or tell – again.
Real prison life returns next Monday, February 27, 2017.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM FEBRUARY 13 – 19, 2017
Well, at least one felon has a high-paying job. Jeremy Meeks, the “Hot Felon” whose mug shot everyone oohed and aahed over in 2014 when he was arrested on gun charges, walked in the Philipp Plein show during New York Fashion Week for Fall 2017. It resurrected a debate of style over substance, the substance being the bad character assumed of anyone who’s “justice-involved.” Why should he get that opportunity just because he’s good looking? people have asked me, like anyone else besides good-looking people land modeling gigs. What the “Hot Felon” story shows is that the pool of qualified and talented people for any job will contain some members with criminal histories. Are we willing to ignore talent and qualification in the name of some Puritanical falsehood that no imperfect person should be able to earn a living? As far as I’m concerned, if you have what it takes to do a certain job, you should be allowed to do it without concern for your past.
The first “Dreamer” was arrested. I.C.E. arrested a 23-year-old Mexican immigrant in Seattle who was granted temporary permission to live and work in America under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (D.A.C.A.) program. I.C.E. says the man is gang-affiliated but he has no criminal record. I was suspected once of being gang-affiliated when I was in prison so I know how inaccurate these gang labels can be. I have been around the dangerous in society for some years now and I wonder if this guy is who we really need to round up. I am aware of some U.S. citizens here in Connecticut who would make better targets. Just sayin’.
Here’s an idea: “Make a commitment to real accountability for violence in a way that is more meaningful and more effective than incarceration.” That’s what Danielle Sered, director of Common Justice, an organization that operates an alternative-to-incarceration and victim service program for serious and violent felonies, wants to do. She wrote a report for the Vera Institute of Justice that came out last week that devised a way to honor the wishes of victims of violent crime while still looking for alternatives to incarceration for the perpetrators of those acts. The only problem? Common Justice doesn’t work with the crimes of murder or rape. The biggies have been left out of the conversation…and the solution.
You can’t handle the truth. So here’s some fiction.
To start from the beginning and read the “X” all the way through to this installment, click here. To read last week’s section, Part Four, click here.
“Stamp. I did,” now came the voice through the crack in the door from Cecelia Negron.
“What’s your prob?” he asked her.
“I’m hungry,” she whimpered, echoing a chronic complaint in the SHU where none of the inmates could bring their personal property, including ramen noodles and peanut butter, oatmeal crème pies and mackerel filets to supplement the high-calorie, low satiety prison menu. SHU prisoners often tried to cajole an extra apple from a guard or even ask for a piece or two of the Orville Redenbacher’s microwave popcorn they watched him toss into the countertop model in the kitchen area of the unit. In critical times, they requested another tray of the chow hall’s food, deigning to drag a spork through either the liquid lumps of the chicken stir fry that was neither stirred nor fried or the matte patina of the mucous-resembling gravy that accompanied the country fried steak, mashed potatoes and green beans. Only pregnant inmates and ones wasting with AIDS or end stage renal failure were approved for extra portions, so even the most desperate inmate was usually shit outta luck if she were hungry.
Years before, another SHU inmate, Mariangela Locobella, figured that she would empty her tray and then complain that she received an empty tray to new guard recruits who would worry that they would be grieved for not providing a meal to someone in close custody. Unlike other inmates, women who lived in the SHU could not just find a lieutenant or a captain on the compound to complain that one of the guards had given her just one chunk of her chicken salad and the like. Usually the new jacks ran to the chow hall and scurried back to the SHU with a new tray to stave off any problems until the reporting of empty trays grew into a phenomenon whereby these green officers needed to return with numbers of replacement trays that exceeded the SHU’s overall body count. Locabella had turned the inmate population on to a full-on scam that prompted captains to march around, bellowing to any officer in the SHU that they needed to inspect the contents of every tray before sliding the Styrofoam through the trap door. This new millisecond requirement invited a salivary backlash – guards’ spitting into the food once they had gone to the trouble of opening the tray’s lid. Even though several guards had been caught red-tongued doing this, no discipline ever came their way because, as one captain challenged to the air: “So what’s the complaint? They got extra.” Still, presumption favored the distribution of full trays and guards summarily dismissed complaints of empty or incomplete ones.
“Come on, Negron, it’s like the oldest one in the book,” he exhaled and threw his head back.
“ I can take a tray and a little more…” she retorted and pushed her tongue into the inside of her cheek, the universal sign language proffering oral sex, but Stamper wasn’t even interested, even flattered anymore. His emotions, his libido, were so flat he had practically become smooth.
“No fuckin’ way,” and he turned to leave the housing floor when he wished that Larkin had been the one to ask. It would be misconduct – Providing False Information – for any prisoner to say she received an empty tray when she received a full one, especially in such a bald manipulation to get more food, something to which she was not entitled. A warm flush, the one that rises after a half of a beer has sailed down your gullet, appeared in his neck and chin. It was the heat of new strategy, the antidote for stale thinking, a thaw for people frozen in ineffective patterns. e chucke
He chuckled at the prospect of gaslighting Alana Larkin with truly empty trays; no one would ever assume she was telling the truth. He laughed even harder and did not even care as the other guards looked at him askance, thinking he might be disturbed, especially at how he laughed so uncontrollably when the lunch cart arrived for his distribution.
“What’s for lunch today? I might have to partake myself,” Stamper announced out loud, opened the cart and popped open a tray. “Oh, these McRib things. NOT bad.” He pulled out the tray, placed the meat molded into the shape of ribs on some wheat bread and ate it with one hand as he emptied the rest of the trays onto a smaller cart he could wheel around the tiers of the SHU. “But baked beans and kraut are not my thing,” he said and dumped the remainder of the meal out of its white Styrofoam housing. This will be Larkin’s tray, he thought.
He watched it bounce with emptiness when he landed it on her open trap door. When she had only touched it, didn’t even pick it up yet, she knew it was empty already.
“Fucker! You threw out my food!” she screamed as Stamper closed the trap door.
“No, I didn’t. I ate it, you bitch,” he called back to her as he rounded the rest of the cells with his meal deliveries.
When he finished and returned to his control desk, Bruno D’Auria knocked on the doorjamb.
“Stamper? Uhh… we got a problem.”
“Why? What happened?”
“Well, Barando, in Room Three of F level? Well, um, she yelled down to Larkin that she saw you eat out of a tray and then give that one to her. I guess Barando heard Larkin screaming and then she got under the door and told her.”
“How could Barando even see that? That area is as tight a blind spot as they come.”
“Well, it’s not a blind spot to cell three down there,” D’Auria told him. “So… now…Larkin wants an LT to tell him that she didn’t get a meal.”
“So go get her another tray. I can’t. I’m in here.”
“Yeah, Stamp, I would if there wasn’t this new thing about the missing food and all the stealing.”
“You think they’ll bust you for one tray? Tell ‘em it spilled.”
“Alright, Brun. I’ll go. Cover me,” Stamper told his partner as he grabbed his DOC jacket from the back of his chair and headed for the door for the fifteen second walk to the prison kitchen.
When he arrived at the kitchen, Nicky Salvano, a cook whom one of the local casinos fired for sexually harassing the cocktail waitresses, was working. Stamper recalled another inmate downloading him on Salvano when he came to work at Hampshire. Stamper remembered overhearing one of the mental health counselors crowing about him on the prison walkway: “Any guy who actually gets canned these days for sexual harassment with all the receding shades of “hostile environments” really knows how to cross a line.” Nicky Salvano fit in immediately.
“Salvano, I spilled a tray. Need another one.”
“Take whatever you want,” Salvano said, nodding toward a stack of extra trays.
“With all these extras, what the fuck is the big deal about counting meals and all that bullshit?”
“Just another way to bust our balls. You already knew that, Stamp.”
“Tell me about it. I’ll take three if you don’t mind, save me a trip in case of a new admit to SHU.”
“Like I said, take what you wish.”
“Thanks,” Stamper said but turned to Salvano’s desk before he left. “You have a marker here?” he asked.
Salvano pulled out a fat black Sharpie from his breast pocket. With his hands full, Stamper stuck it in his mouth, the cap end between his teeth so he could pull the ink base away to draw an “X” on the top of one of the trays.
“Thanks Sal,” Stamper nodded toward him as the older man chuckled.
“I know what game you’re playing, Stamper.”
“What game?” Stamper laughed hard.
Stamper returned to the SHU and placed all three trays on the delivery cart designated for Larkin’s floor.
“You need a cart for three trays?” D’Auria asked and rolled his head Stevie Wonder style, body language for You’re ridiculous, so ridiculous that I’m turning away from you.
“I thought that you became a CO because you knew that state employment was the last place a lazy person could hide,” Stamper taunted him in return. He rolled the cart to Larkin’s door, opened the trap and lowered his head to its opening.
“The maitre’d tells me you were dissatisfied with your meal. Is there something more I can get you?”
“Leave me alone!” she screamed. “You’re fucking with me! Why do you keep fucking with me? You dumped my fuckin’ tray…”
“Listen. Chill out. Minor fuck up. Nobody dumped your food. You have a tray right here. You won’t starve, OK?”
With these words he picked up one of the trays and placed it on the trap door’s opening. Alana grabbed it and flipped open the tray’s lid.
“Wait! Larkin, I am so sorry. That’s actually not yours …” Stamper said reaching into the door’s opening.
“What’s not mine?”
“That tray. This one’s yours,” he said and held out the tray marked with the “X” through the door for her to take it.
“Why is that my tray?”
“Don’t know. It just is.”
“Why am I not getting the same as everyone else?”
“Uhhh… I think that…you are,” Stamper suggested tentatively even though he knew full well that the trays were identical. He reached his other hand down to open the tray’s lid, displaying the contents “Price Is Right” style.
Larkin opened her tray and examined it, looked back at the marked tray.
“What’s the difference?” she asked.
“The difference is…see, now you’re pissing me off…that there is no difference. They’re the same, OK? You just want to complain. First, the food’s not there. Now it’s not right. You want another tray, another tray. I mean, what the fuck?”
“I just don’t understand why there’s an “X” on it.”
“Who gives a fuck why it’s an “X”? You want a “Q”? A triple “X”? How about a bar code? Will that make you feel better? Either take it or don’t.”
“Alright,” she said and traded her unmarked tray for the Styrofoam decorated with its inky “X.”
As Stamper closed the trap door, he watched her raise the tray to her nose and crinkle her nostrils in a smell assessment. Before he left the door, she placed the tray on the counter at the back of the room and inspected it closely, bending her knees to level her eyes with the tray. Stamper could read her mind: Something must be wrong with this. What did they do?
And Stamper smiled to himself and sauntered back to his desk to wait for collection time, the occasion to beg Halloween-style for inmates’ trash. When the time arrived, he walked past the desk where D’Auria and Molski sat and grabbed a clear plastic trash bag.
“Time to make the ho-nuts” he told them to riotous laughter. He smirked back at them as he entered Alana Larkin’s floor.
“On the door with your trays!” he bellowed as he sashayed to each cell door to use his skeleton key to open the traps.
“Larkin, get up. You don’t want to keep a dirty tray in that room. They smell, even if you don’t have a bunkie,” he called to her.
Lying in her bed, she got up, grabbed the tray from the counter and made a heavy drop of it into Stamper’s garbage bag. Burnt sienna sauce of institutional baked beans swelled into the bag’s bottom seam.
“You didn’t even fucking eat? You made me get you another tray that you knew you weren’t going to touch?
“I’m not hungry.”
“Well, un-hungry people don’t make other people run all over hell and gone to get them more food. You might not be hungry but you’re a piece of shit. Don’t think I’m gonna be your fuckin’ maid,” he said and immediately harkened back to his deal with Caples – mutual maids. I may not be Larkin’s maid but I am someone’s…full time with shitty benefits.
“Stamper, LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE!”
“You’re on your own then,” he promised her as he threw up the little trap door and even surprised himself at how well – and how quickly – his plan had eased into routine.
When the cart with all the dinners arrived, Stamper sprang from his desk.
“All right, let’s pass these things out,” he announced as he withdrew a pen from his pants pocket and criss-crossed a ballpoint “X” on the top of one tray and raised his pen like Moses’ staff. “Let my people eat!” he boomed.
“I thought it was ‘Let my people go’ no?” asked Molski.
“It is. But we can’t do that here because it’s a prison. I gotta jet so I’m gonna get these out ASAP,” he shot over his shoulder, headed again for Alana Larkin’s tier where he beelined for her cell.
“Larkin. Dinner.” He dropped the minor entry to the cell and held out an unmarked tray. “Shit. Jesus. I gotta remember. These are for you,” he informed her as he switched the unmarked for the “X” tray.
“I don’t get this. What is the “X” for? I’m not diabetic,” she repeated as she looked down at the tray, arms crossed behind her back.
“I think they’re regular trays.”
“If they’re regular trays, then why do they have “X”s on them?”
“I have no idea. I’m custody staff, not food service.”
“Yeah, I know that. But the “X” has to mean something. I mean if they’re putting them on there. Is the kitchen putting them on there? Why don’t they just put my name on it?”
“I’m not on a special diet.”
“I never said you were.”
“So it doesn’t make sense that I get a certain kind of tray…does anyone else get a tray with an “X”?”
“Don’t know. Don’t think so.”
“It just…it doesn’t make sense,” she marveled to a closing trap door after the gingerly lifting the white foam geometry containing her meal. Again Stamper watched as she opened her tray and raised it on the palm of her hand to eye level to squint at her food, to scrutinize the Cajun sausage, mustard, mashed potatoes and cabbage’s surfaces. She slid in her sock-clad feet to the door and spoke to the window.
“What’s wrong with this cabbage? It’s kind of blue. Bluish.”
“Ahh. It does not look blue to me,” Stamper said, peering through the window at the tray. “Maybe the green of the cabbage mixed with the yellow of your mustard to make it look blue.”
“Yellow and green don’t make blue. Blue and yellow make green,” she sneered at him condescendingly.
“And why does this Cajun sausage have little black specks all in it?”
“Probably those little black specks are Cajun.”
“Yeah, but it looks like too much, you know? Like something is wrong with it.” She was searching for some agreement from him, confirmation that her suspicions were spot-on. As Stamper walked away, her face said she made no conclusions about food safety at all, and moreover, the “X” remained a big question mark.
For days, permutations of the same exchange played out at every meal. Larkin, this one’s yours/ Why do they keep putting an “”X on mine? / I’m not sure; I think they’re all the same/ Does this look weird to you? / Not at all / This whole thing with the “X”’s just seems weird. Because it was.
But David Stamper could see with each day her cheeks grew more diagonal, bones protruded a little more, collar bones rose higher and jaw’s contours more pronounced. Weight fell off her because of her paranoia-induced anorexia. After ten days, slate blue crescents ringed her eyes.
“Larkin, your tray.”
“Just keep the fucking thing. I know what you guys are doing to it.”
“Larkin,” he said to her, raising his right hand into the small window’s area. “Hand to God. No one’s doing anything to your tray.” It was the truth.
“Oh, like you would tell me?” Larkin’s delivered her last two words choppily while she downed an eight-ounce cup of water from her tap and filled another. “I know what you’re doing and it’s not working.”
“What are we doing that’s not working?” he asked, thinking Oh, but it is working. I don’t have to starve you. You’ll do it to yourself. “Look, I can’t really make you eat.”
“No, you can’t.”
“Is this some type of hunger strike, Larkin? ‘Cuz there’s a form I need to fill out for that if it is.”
“No, this is me not eating your saliva, your piss, your pus, your boogers, your shit, your cum. Whatever you’re putting on my food.”
“Look. I have no idea what you’re talking…” his continued avowal of pure food was interrupted by flashes of blue and gold in the SHU’s lobby. More gold than usual meant another lieutenant or a captain in the unit, their uniforms gold emblazoned navy. It was Rick Ralston in the SHU for a purpose other than Larkin.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM FEBRUARY 6 – 12, 2017
Donald J. Trump signed three executive orders this week on criminal justice. He wants to resurrect mandatory minimum sentences for people who harm law enforcement officers.
Recommended Buy: In his new book, “Locked In,” Fordham law professor John Pfaff tells us the real cause of mass incarceration: prosecutors.
This Bloomberg-Businessweek story is a great look at how police departments fail to take advantage of the information available on unsolved cases and to see potential connections across jurisdictional lines. For me, this problem is not just about leaving crimes unsolved. It’s about a refusal to accept that these myopic investigations put innocent people behind bars.
Sick of #alternativefacts yet? Good, here’s Part Four of the fictional “X.” Find out what comes before Part Four (One, Two and Three) by reading the sections of the story that lead up to this. Start at the beginning here. Part Two is here. If you missed last week’s installment, Part Three, click over here.
Squeak. Thud. Thudthudthuth.
“Here’s your French toast,” he said before the Styrofoam could whimper. “What’s going on? You look upset. Do I need to call crisis for you? I don’t wanna tour and find you swinging from a green sheet,” he told her, referencing the prison’s sherbet-colored linens.
“Get the fuck away from me you motherfucking rent-a-cop!” she shrieked. Still crying, she was heaving now. She had pulled the elastic cuff off of one of her socks and used it like a cheap ponytail scrunchie; thin white thread protruded off the elastic at wiry angles.
“Rent-a-cop” was an oft-used insult that inmates lobbed at guards that they laughed right off. “Mall security doesn’t get my pension, have their kids’ tuitions paid for or full comp when you respond to one of these whores’ fights,” his partner told Stamper years ago, when he was a new buck and still on probation, lacking the guards’ flimsy fabric badge.
“Oh, I see you got a slick mouth. C’mere. Give me that hair-tie thing you have, that thing that you think no one can tell you ripped off your sock.”
“Nooooooo! Fuck youuuuuuu!” she shrieked again.
“That’s destruction of state property right there.”
“Whaaat?” she sobbed.
“Those socks. They’re not yours. The state loans them to you while you’re here. Ripping them is like… like… ripping out someone’s mailbox.”
“Heeeerreee!” she cried at high pitch and pulled the socks off each foot, rather easily too because, the cheap shit they were, they ballooned around her feet. She threw the socks at the door with all of her strength as if that mattered when tossing a sock.
“Nah. Too late. State property’s already destroyed,” he said flipping her French toast tray onto the floor inside the cell door. “That’s a Class A ticket. Seven more days in here after your …ah… Uncle Rick finishes with you,” he said to her, testing her to see how much undue familiarity she would admit to. He closed the trap door and dragged the cart so as to avoid the squeak but still make noise loud enough to rattle and rouse inmates who had nothing else to do but sleep. He heard low tone from down the hall, a mouth close to the space under the door in its attempt to soothe Alana Larkin.
“Don’t worry baby girl, it ain’t no Class A ticket. They gonna know you ain’t got no case of socks. It’s Class B for the hair thing, no seg time. You all right. You gonna be fine.”
“Hey!” Stamper screamed. “I decide what the offense is, OK? Mind your business! Worrying about what someone else is doing is probably what got your dirty ass here in the first place!” he continued to no response. “I know how to do my job, thank you!” he screamed again as he marched up the stairs and into the in-house control room. His skin, fiery with anger, shone in the blue-gray light of the monitor screens. One hand brushed against the wheeling, curling cord of the phone in the bubble which made him think of how much the prison resisted wireless technology, almost like a punishment for the employees and the inmates alike. He didn’t care. Just the concept of wireless made him shiver, remembering that November night that the little Napoleonesque Murray Caples flipped out his smartphone. He grabbed the receiver and looked around for the extension list. He would call the warden’s office and find out what post Caples would be assigned and confront him at the door, in front of inmates and staff alike. He no longer cared.
“I’m the one being blackmailed?! You fuck with complete impunity – scrape between the legs of the most barrel-bottomed skanks. You’re sick to make me the slave of your sex! I fucking hate you. I hate these women. I hate myself so profoundly right now that my brain feels like pudding sloshing behind my eyes. My head…
But his eyes crossed visual path with the extension number of the property office. He dialed.
“Milano, you got an invoice there for a case of socks?”
“Why? Who needs it?”
“Why do you need an invoice for socks?”
“For a ticket.”
“Yeah, a ticket, a disciplinary report,” Stamper continued, stepping up the tone of his voice to professional guile. “I was here, ah, writing a DR for an inmate who stole a case of socks and I need to know what the box is worth, you know, to see if I’m looking at a Class A or not.”
“A whole fuckin’ case of socks? Musta had someone in A & D help them. Anyone search Spanzanno’s cell? She’ll lift anything. Nobody ever has the balls to stop her.”
“Tell me about it,” Stamper huffed to Milano, realizing now that Inmate Giulia Spanzanno was one of the inmates who had taught him by example that arrogance is the backbone of any misconduct, but bravado is its legs, sauntering past him with a bucket of peanut butter stolen from the kitchen. Some would walk down the prison walkway with eighty pounds of cubed chicken stolen from the kitchen without any attempt at hiding their spoils, look Stamper right in the face and say hello. He never stopped these women or asked what he was really thinking: What’s the deal with all the chicken you’re carrying? because their brazen nonchalance said any question he posed would meet with a legitimate-sounding answer that was a lie but would still make him look foolish. The ones who downcast their eyes, fidgeted and walked unadroitly because of the steel wool they stole from the supply truck? Those women Stamper pounced upon. If fortune ever favored the bold, then it was because no one confronted them.
“I think I have one. A gross is like… wait; it’s in here… ha! $102.58 after state and municipal discounts. Looks like we’re looking at a Class A, Stamp. Good job, brother.”
“Milano, I could kiss you,” Stamper laughed over the phone.
“You tried, remember? At Pocatello’s retirement,” she let him down.
“Oh. Yeah. Right,” he mumbled as he fumbled and felt over the files on the desk until he found one with typewritten-typed label “DICSINPLARY REPPORT S” and pulled out an empty form that would keep Alana Larkin for at least seven additional days in the SHU regardless of what the investigation revealed. He couldn’t even wait for the ticket to be processed. He hung up on Officer Milano without even saying goodbye. With more vigor in his step than he had employed in some time, Stamper stepped across the SHU’s main lobby with the kind of confident spring in his pace that usually comes from those terrycloth insoles on the inside of new running shoes. He bounded down the stairs to Alana Larkin’s floor found her cell and twisted the disciplinary report in the door’s small window.
“See, I can write the tickets I want to. You didn’t just rip the elastic off one sock. You stole a whole case. See? It says it right here.”
“I didn’t,” Larkin protested.
“Rule Number One of being an inmate is that nothing you say matters. If I say you killed Orenthal James’ wife, then you did.”
“If I killed or what someone’s wife?” Larkin asked, totally confounded. It was the mark of youth nowadays. No knowledge of the trial of the century, of Lance Ito and why guards laughed when they fought with their wives and joked ‘Go and get the Bronco out.’ OJ and his trial were so pivotal to criminal justice that it changed the lexicon and the perception of reasonable doubt for anyone born before 1981. For people born after that date or in the 90’s – Millenials, Stamper had heard them described on Dateline or Nightline, some nightly line of news – People v. Simpson was like the 1929 stock market crash for Gen X’ers; they had a fuzzy grasp of the historical facts but never applied the event’s lessons to their daily lives.
“OJ Simpson, you idiot bitch,” he glowered at her. “That means power stays with people who have it even when they don’t behave.”
“People like you, huh? I know Deja from home,” Larkin smugly referred to the living skeleton from Stamper’s closet with her arms crossed against her chest, head jutting from side to side in that inner-city indignation bob that says I know about your indiscretions and that gives me power.
“Who’s Deja?” He tried to feign ignorance but his anger flattened his intonation and he sounded guiltier for his half-assed attempt at evasion. Deja told someone?She wouldn’t tell. Could she tell? he wondered, panic fluttering inside him as he calculated the amount of time and money – that flurry of bills – he had divested from himself as part of his housekeeping duties for Murray Caples to keep a secret that had already slipped out the flip side. Deja Dyson had been out on parole for only about six weeks at that point and Larkin had been in for about a month, leaving only two weeks for Deja to tip out the tale of their liaison. Stamper might have expected her to tell someone years from now, only when Deja felt completely comfortable that the person in whom she invested this secret would protect it as much as it needed to be protected. The thought of ‘How well do these two know each other?’ converted itself into ‘What did she do?’ Tell fucking everybody?
“Some girls kiss and tell, some kiss and don’t tell but you, you don’t kiss but you still tell, huh? Wanna be a wise ass? I’ll bring you to the Unit Manager. We’ll see how wise you are in front of Sasmogino,” he threatened and ordered her to put her hands through the trap door, signaling that he was about to cuff her to take her out of her cell.
He grabbed her arm. The standing order to all guards about to move inmates in the SHU remained the same: cuff them through the trap door. Never, ever open the entire cell door. An open cell door was an open invitation for the confined to throw feces, punches, epithets punctuated with huge wads of spit. SHU inmates were of the ‘bad to the bone’ breed, even when they were powerless.
One cuff would and should close around the inmate’s wrist but the trick, should it be employed, was to angle the cuff and close it around the back of the hand, so that wine-colored blisters would rise immediately and the pinch would hurt, at least as far as Stamper could tell when he did it occasionally. He clicked blisters into the slightly sun-burnished skin on the back of Alana Larkin’s hand.
“OWWW! What the fuck are you doing? Get the fuck away from me!” she screamed.
“Don’t worry. I am,” he told her as he took the cuffs off just as quickly and roughly as he had put them on to let her know that the sole purpose of the exercise of cuffing her in the first place was to cause her pain, not to transport her out of her cell anywhere. Not that bringing her to Ria Sasmogino, the SHU’s ball-busting unit manager, would have mattered because he could tell that Alana Larkin knew that part of the deal in confessing someone else’s sins is putting one’s own on the table; it was probably the first time Stamper knew that an inmate was not going to press the issue and retort: “OK, yeah, let’s go talk to the Unit Manager!” He closed her trap door and headed to exit the floor only to hear the shout of his name muffled by prison acoustics.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM JANUARY 30 – FEBRUARY 5, 2017
They call it a “Code Yellow” in Connecticut – inmates’ taking a staff member hostage. We used to laugh about it because, unlike so many other offenses – hitting a C/O, starting a fire, getting into a fight, escaping from the facility – a Code Yellow was so outer-limit that it wasn’t even considered by the worst inmates. Who would even get away with that for 15 seconds? I would ask other inmates and we would laugh. Impossible!
Until Wednesday, February 1, 2017 that is, when Sergeant Steven Floyd, Sr. lost his life in a hostage-taking standoff at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna, Delaware.
I would never have expected that the prisoners in a state like Delaware – not rife with gangs, not on the Mexican border – could pull off a hostage situation…and then be so goddamned foolish as to take the life of a sergeant. I am disgusted at the actions of the inmates responsible for this tragedy – which, I should remind everyone is a very small group and most prisoners are just as upset about this as I am. If you know of someone who is incarcerated or formerly incarcerated who justifies this homicide by claiming that prison conditions are deplorable, then get the hell away from that person ASAP. They’re dangerous. No amount of shitty food, neglect or abuse excuses this.
I have three ideas that people need to consider seriously in the aftermath of this event:
To the justice-involved population: We need to support measures that pay corrections officers more. This idea is especially unpalatable with inmates and formerly incarcerated people but we must face the fact that attracting talented and honest men and women to work inside prisons is the only way to keep ourselves safe. Because the pay is so bad, Delaware saw such attrition in the ranks of its officers that the prison was understaffed. I believe the understaffing contributed to this disaster.
To the correctional staff population: When corrections officers are paid more, you must agree to higher accountability. The fact of this tragedy in Delaware does not justify inhumane treatment of any inmate anywhere. Sometimes the biggest opponents of a higher paycheck for corrections staff are the officers themselves with their folly and hate toward people who are in the worst living situation – having lost their freedom. You can’t expect a mere high school degree and leaving yourself on “bullying” mode every day to bring you a salary of hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet that’s what many of you are going for. You want big bucks? Cut the shit – the insults, the assaults, the denial of medical care, the teasing, the disdain. If it’s that important to you to abuse other people – so important that you work for less than $20.00 per hour – you shouldn’t be employed anywhere. Get it together or get out.
To both of these groups: The only people who can really reform prisons are the ones inside – staff and inmates. The constant bickering and violence between these warring factions is just plain fucking stupid, at least as I saw during my time at York Correctional Institution. Now that stupidity has turned deadly for at least two people, since whomever is charged with this officer’s death will face the death penalty. No one wins in these situations. Stop playing losing games.