26 June 2017

Fault in Our Stars

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astro1

“Excuse me. EXCUSE ME! This does not contain to you!”

I’m like a dog when I hear bad vocabulary or grammar. My ears perk, my neck cranes and I twist it around to look for the danger to my education and syntactical sensibilities. Peril was closing in on me as Deb, one of my cube-mates, was yelling at Savannah, another one of the seven other women I was squeezed in with. Deb was displaying her ignorance of “pertain” and “contain.” A third cube-mate placed her hand on Deb’s shoulder to tell her to quiet down.

“Nah, nah. I ain’t done,” Deb threw the hand away. The stakes were high; rightful ownership of Twizzlers and a honey bun was being contested.  

“Know what you are?” Deb leaned in close to Savannah’s bunk and then pulled her head back dramatically, like she’s Oprah in A Color Purple.

“She is a astrological liar!” Deb turned and announced as if to a crowd. We’re in a room that houses 56 women, so I guess she’s right. 

A couple of mm-hmm’s floated around. Either Savannah stiffed them too or they thought Deb was saying something sensible that they just didn’t understand.

I wonder if it’s possible that the messages about the necessity for education in one’s life are targeted to those who are already pursuing one. I’ve never gone a month without education’s importance pressed upon me, if not from a teacher, then from another professional, and if not from them, then from some ad on tv, even for one of those for-profit rip-off colleges.

Is this message not getting to impoverished areas? At first I thought that many women here didn’t complete high school because they didn’t have TV’s in their homes growing up. No TV then no education/drop-out PSA’s. I even asked one of my first cube-mates,Tania, about it. She got her GED here at the prison during a previous sentence.

“So, did you not have TV when you were growing up?”

“All I did was watch fuckin’ TV,” she snorted, insulted because, to her, my question implied that her family couldn’t afford a TV.

“And you never saw any of those ads that say you shouldn’t drop out, or you’d have a much harder time in life. I saw them all the time. Like…what was it…don’t be a fool…stay in school? Something like that. You never heard that?”

I still can’t get over this, how they thought dropping out wasn’t going to screw them.

“I don’t remember nothing like that.”

Only because my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, parents’  colleagues were educated, I was capable of absorbing a message that I actually never needed. As if I thought of dropping out of high school. Not only did I love it, about 30 people would have come at me with long knives. Because they’re floating in the cosmos of poverty, TV’s notwithstanding,the people who need the message can’t hear it.

Getting pissed at them because they’re undereducated is like getting mad that someone else has worse food on their plate than yours. Or that I flipped heads when the coin faced up tails for them. I was born under the right set of stars to guarantee me meaningful education when many women were born under academically cloudy skies. Where and to whom we were born is essentially chance and I can’t complain that I’m kind of winning at the game, even if I’m in prison, pissy over grammar. If I said that a psychic or an astrologer was an “astrological liar “for their senseless predictions, people would chuckle at how clever I was rather than react to my pedagogical pathology. That’s how unfair this world is; their gaffe would be my genius.

“I don’t think you got that right. That ain’t sound right. You tryin’ a sound like her,” Liz said to Deb and pointed behind her to me, where I sat on the lower bunk.

“Bunkie, is it right? A astrological liar?” Deb asked me. It was part exasperated plea for approval and part genuine curiosity. She really didn’t know. 

“An astrological liar. Yeah,” I assured her with a nod. “That’s a thing.”

 

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM JUNE 18 – 25, 2017

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A tale of two counties. Putnam County, Georgia prosecutors announced Wednesday that they’re seeking the death penalty against Donnie Russell Rowe and Ricky Dubose, the two inmates who escaped from a prison bus transporting them to a work assignment on June 13th and killed two correction officers with the officers’ own guns. Just the day before, Polk County sheriff’s office had announced that they were reducing the sentences of inmates who helped save the life of a correction officer at their worksite when he fell into heat-related distress. The escape story will last longer in the media and the collective crime consciousness than the savior story. Trust me.

A tale of two weapons. Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother of four, was gunned down by Seattle police in front of her children after calling to report a burglary and answering the door holding a knife. Transcripts of the encounter reveal one officer telling the other to tase her only to be informed that his partner didn’t have a taser on him. Pundits say Lyles was failed by the mental health system. I think she was failed – and we all are – by law enforcement agencies that don’t equip their employees with non-lethal distance weapons in addition to firearms.

A tale of two ditches. Being an informant is dangerous, according to a study by the federal judiciary, the very government branch that uses them the most. Nearly 700 people believed to have served as government witnesses have been threatened, injured, or killed over a recent three-year period. These “snitches” are often instrumental in criminal investigations and can get more than a third of their prison sentences cut in exchange for their cooperation. Sixty-one of the informants from the judiciary survey were murdered. Inmates are becoming more adept at unmasking the “snitches,” so judges are considering new rules for secrecy in the court system. That means that prosecutors will have even more power in an already imbalanced system.

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19 June 2017

Ain’t It a Shame? You Win Again

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tophearse

I remember the day I lost my first appeal, or at least they day I knew I lost it. It was February 17, 2010 and I was called into the Zero North counselor’s office. It’s one of the only times I’ve been able to speak with an attorney in here. And I didn’t even argue with her or complain about the loss. I just listened, said nothing.  That’s how I knew I was either rehabilitated or totally broken. On second thought, they’re the same thing.

“It’s really hard to win an appeal,” said the public defender who was forced on me, my juridical rapist. I got the message; with that shitshow of a trial, you lost before the game started, Bozelko.

hearseIf there’s any lesson about how difficult it is to win a criminal appeal, it’s the story of John Keoghan. The Catholic priest watched from above (or below) as his convictions for abusing children were vacated after he was killed in a Massachusetts prison while his appeals were still pending. He won. But he had to die to do it. Son of a bitch took the easy way out.

Imagine not having to deal with any more prison bullshit, throwing off the correctional coil but still being able to reach out from the grave and put your thumb in the prosecutor’s eye. The whole setup is appealing to me right now as I toss another post-conviction loss onto my stack of legal papers and wipe small puddles from under my lower lids. It’s hardly solace that I’m not alone in losing appeals so often.

Because there are so many disparate systems in the larger criminal justice system, it’s hard to get an overall success rate in criminal appeals so very few try. The last time the Bureau of Justice Statistics examined this issue was 12 years ago [2001]. Researchers narrowed and examined the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and found that the success rate for criminal appeals in federal courts in Connecticut and parts of New York was 3.87%.

Many circuits and jurisdictions don’t even keep official count of the number of times a defendant wins an appeal. I assume they think the number of winning appeals is so small that it’s pointless to survey it.

Most people assume that appellants like me lose because our arguments are meritless but the history of exonerations in the country proves otherwise.

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One car for every criminal appeal winner in the United States. That’s what, eleven people?

Indeed, the Innocence Project, the organization started by former OJ Simpson Dream Team lawyer Barry Scheck to address the issue of wrongful convictions, a group responsible for many exonerations, won’t even review a case until all appeals have been exhausted. And they can’t take my case because there’s no DNA involved. The people who are lucky enough to be wrongfully convicted of being the architect of a crime scene with some human drippings on it qualify for greater scrutiny by higher courts – and more assistance – than I ever will.

And those people prove that too many people lose their appeals undeservingly. A study of the first 250 people to clear their names through DNA testing found that 90% of them had lost all of their appeals. Two-hundred and sixty more were exonerated only after prosecutors and pardon boards intervened after they exhausted all of their post-conviction review. Courts are really bad at correcting their own mistakes. Someone else needs to do it. And I’m not even allowed to try.

The purpose of judicial review – the process of having a higher court examine a lower court’s decisions – is two-fold. It’s supposed to correct injustice but also serve as a disciplinary force on trial courts. Judges and prosecutors are supposed to fear being overturned so much that they exercise extreme caution with every decision they make.

If the chances of being overturned are so small it’s close to zero, then there’s no incentive for judges and prosecutors to work to assure a fair trial to defendants. In a system designed to deliver proper consequences for people’s behavior, there are virtually no consequence for judicial error or prosecutorial misconduct, two events that are the best predictors of wrongful conviction. Along with an attorney who tells the jury to convict you because there’s “no reasonable doubt.”

The body of Justice Antonin Scalia arrives at the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday, Feb. 19, 2016. Thousands of mourners will pay their respects Friday for Justice Antonin Scalia as his casket rests in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court, where he spent nearly three decades as one of its most influential members. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

And when that wrongful conviction appears in a reviewing court, an appellate system that favors finality over accuracy takes over and leaves me sitting in here, with a roommate who has no teeth yet uses up all of my toothpaste.

Of course, wholesale overturning of criminal convictions isn’t good either. One of the reasons why appellate courts are so stingy with reversals is that judges – and the public – fear freeing a guilty person on a technicality.

But very few people get off on a technicality because few people get off. Even so, it’s a margin of error that may be the price of keeping innocent people out of prison. Which is more unappealing, courts where guilty defendants walk free after catchy phrasing like “if it does not fit, you must acquit”?

Or courts that send innocent people to prison and won’t reverse unless you’re in a hearse?

hearse4 I swear…you’re gonna be sick of winning.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM JUNE 12 – 18, 2017

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This was a big week for crime.  The President is now supposedly under criminal investigation. Five Flint, Michigan administrators were arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter. And three (more like two-and a half) criminal verdicts came down between Friday and Saturday.

Verdict: Not Guilty. Jeronimo Yanez, the Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop last summer, was acquitted of second-degree manslaughter. People are outraged and I can’t say I’m not either. If Yanez had been charged with murder, I think that would have been overkill. But second degree manslaughter is low-hanging fruit for prosecutors. All they had to prove was that Yanez “created an unreasonable risk, and consciously [took] chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another.” I think pumping bullets into anyone by intentionally discharging a firearm counts as second-degree manslaughter in Minnesota. Plus, Yanez’ defense – he “did what he had to do” – is something I used to hear from inmates all the time when they did something indefensible.

Verdict: Guilty. Michelle Carter was convicted of first degree manslaughter for cheering on her boyfriend via text as he was taking his own life. Philosophical debates have sprung up about suicide, choice, personal autonomy but I don’t think this case is really about any of that. Carter’s main defense wasn’t that she didn’t send the texts, but that she was involuntarily intoxicated by the anti-depressants she was taking. This was a bench trial, not a jury trial, so it was a judge who rejected the idea  that psychotropic medication can cause crime. Rather than worrying about whether encouraging someone to take their own lives is a crime, we need to worry about the precedent established here that’s even more damaging:  the judge’s decision didn’t acknowledge the very real contribution that psych meds make to the number of names on criminal dockets.

Verdict: We don’t know what we’re doing. The jury hearing the case against former entertainer Bill Cosby in Norristown, Pennsylvania deadlocked a couple of times and the judge there wasn’t having it and sent them back to deliberate, all while refusing to let them review certain evidence. Near the end of deliberations, a note that asked “What is the definition of reasonable doubt?” was sent out by the jury.  If they had to ask (the definition of reasonable doubt is routinely included in jury instructions), then it was time to acquit or declare a hung jury. Only when the judge sent jurors back in for more deliberation on a Saturday, the day before Father’s Day, did the real verdict come out: Fuck you, judge. We’re not staying here another day. A judgment of mistrial was entered moments later.

 

 

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12 June 2017

Consigned

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hangers

“You excited to go home?” some woman who has only been on this tier for two days asked me at my cell door. It’s March 1st and the usual countdown – someone shouting “X days and a wakeup!” –  has started for me. It’s not next month anymore. It’s this month.

“You excited to wear your own clothes?” she asked. I think she wanted my t-shirts and that was a way to see if I would admit whether or not I have clothes waiting for me. It’s a common problem. Women get arrested, come here, stay for even a month, and the landlord wherever she was living throws out all her stuff. Ex-offenders aren’t selfish when they can’t give someone the shirt of their back; many times it’s the only one they have.

“Actually, not really,” I told her.

For 2275 days straight, I’ve worn the exact same thing every single day: burgundy T-shirt and jeans. If it was cold out, I added a gray crewneck sweatshirt.  Same thing. Every day. Except for when I broke my streak a couple of times, days stuck in solitary. In the hole I wore red scrubs but I don’t count those against my stretch because I wasn’t allowed to change my clothes every day then, only once a week.  And every single day I wore sneakers. With the jeans.

We had no uniforms when I went to primary school.  Instead, I studied and played from age 8 to 17 under the yoke of a dress code: no jeans, shirts with collars, no shorts. And no sneakers. Our main rival employed almost an identical code permitted its students to wear jeans. The students across town seemed edgier, more sophisticated.  My friends and I wanted to rewrite the dress code to include our Guess jeans and Adidas Samba turf shoes.

“Jeans go with everything!” we told my mother, a trustee of the school, in extended teenage whine. It never worked. Instead we wore khaki’s with our leg warmers and LL Bean bluchers instead of Tretorn tennis shoes.

Outwardly I fought for unfettered fashion freedom, but inside I longed for the security of uniform dressing; uniforms go with more than everything. I adored game days, when the field hockey and lacrosse players could wear our team uniforms to school, with sneakers. On game days, I suffered no morning angst picking an outfit.  If you can’t wear exactly what you want, then what’s the point of even trying at all? I adopted a dangerous dichotomy: if I couldn’t have total freedom, then I wanted none at all. Besides, our green plaid kilts and white polos obliterated opportunities to mock each another’s clothing choices. When Horace Mann said that education is the great equalizer, he must’ve been talking about a school with uniforms.

Seventeen years later, as systems and institutions pulled thread after thread from my freedom, the dress code was rewritten as if only for me. Here I got everything I wanted all along:  a uniform, and one that incorporated my symbols of freedom: jeans and sneakers.

The jeans and sneakers I always wanted to wear didn’t work as coercive fashion for me at first. As I served my time, I dreamed of Tod’s loafers and Lilly Pulitzer corduroys. Of Hogan flats and a Dolce and Gabanna cardigan. Even of navy crepe de chine suiting. The same type of ensembles I would have worn in high school. Behind all of the mix-and-match in my head was the allure of choice. The edification of self-care. The grandeur of grooming. Collars.

Clothes play a bigger role in criminology than we think. Getting arrested is “taking a collar” – it’s like Hamden Hall’s dress code set me up.  The divisions among offenders create themselves by what they’re wearing: the colors of their shirts. Pink collar crime is essentially embezzlement by females. Blue collar crime is crime committed by anyone who isn’t wealthy, even though they may not be from a working class.  Black collar crime is committed by priests. Green collar crime is offense against the environment. White shirts mean wealth; the phrase “white-collar crime” was coined in 1939 during an address to the American Sociological Society when someone defined the term as “crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation.” Apparently, clothes don’t just make the man, they also make the inmate. And they make the inmate pliable, quiet, used to having decisions made for them. 

Which might be the reason why the uniforms don’t bother me anymore. I have to admit that I’ve come to  love this unchallenging, monotony of wearing the same collarless thing every day. In prison, it was always someone else’s fault that I looked bad or dressed terribly. Because I’ve had no chance to look presentable, I’ve totally abdicated the duty to care about how I looked. Choice is going to be a burden because it will dangle off the hanger of responsibility. Life is easier when the Man rules with an iron fashion sense.

Like before, without total freedom, I might prefer none at all, even though I’ll be free of crime’s collar and can leave the leash behind. I don’t mind being constrained and tied up anymore now that I’m leaving in 18 days. That’s what they call institutionalized.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM JUNE 5 – 11, 2017

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Her name is Reality Winner and, for those of you who like allegory, have at it. Winner is a government contractor who remains in custody with no bail on federal charges that she released a classified report to reporters at the Intercept. The Justice Department announced her arrest Monday after The Intercept reported the contents of a classified report suggesting Russian hackers attacked a U.S. voting software supplier just before last year’s presidential election. A Gofundme page has been set up for her defense and it’s raised, as of this reporting, $36,100 of a $50,000 goal, including 1K from Rose O’Donnell, which I thought was very cheap of her, since she’s a millionaire and Winner is probably going to lose this fight, unless jury nullification is involved. Is this what Trump meant when he said we’d be sick of winning? Maybe he meant we’d be sick of winner. He messes up his words sometimes.

Former FBI Director James Comey (who I just learned lives only a few towns away from me) seems to have mastered the dry snitch if his testimony Thursday is any indication. Dry-Snitching is the act of telling on someone indirectly, either by speaking loudly and openly about someone else’s offense when some type of enforcement is nearby so they overhear what someone did, or not reporting exactly what happened saying enough so the enforcer knows an offense has taken place. Here is the DS from Thursday, testimony in an open setting: “[o]ur judgment, as I recall, was that [Attorney General Jeff Sessions] was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.” Nice. Comey.  Now Sessions has been called to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday about what Comey snitched him out for, yet never said anything.

Season 5 of Orange Is the New Black dropped on Friday and Heather Ann Thompson, Professor of History at the University of Michigan and author of  the book on the Attica riots Blood in the Water (which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize ), wrote commentary for about it for NBC News that, to me, is shocking. Aside from not knowing what the characters were really about, she also misspelled their names and said we’d be watching OITNB for the next 13 weeks because she didn’t know how a Netflix series works. She assumed it was one episode per week, in the way we used to watch Three’s Company on ABC.  A Pulitzer prize winner. Wrote about a season of a Netflix series. And she’s never watched any season at all. She’s the one talking about what happens to women in prison instead of us. Let that sink in. And then decide how much coverage of the criminal justice system you really trust.

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5 June 2017

Hello, Newman

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We call ourselves the incarceration nation because the United States accounts for 5% of the world’s population yet we house 25% of the world’s prisoners. We must also be the intoxication nation because 80% of painkillers in the world are prescribed and consumed here.

Every nineteen minutes someone dies of a drug overdose. We’re losing this war on opioids because we’re fighting it like we did in the original War on Drugs, taking out the cornerboys and the runners instead of the real kingpins.

war-on-drugs-nixonFor the past thirty years, justice reform advocates have agreed that supply-side strategy has been ineffective. Both supply and demand stayed high so there’s no point to dedicating resources to plans that don’t work, even if it might have been the right thing to do.

With all the criticism leveled at the War on Drugs, it’s surprising how few people know why it doesn’t work. They don’t even realized that it isn’t being fought according to plan.

William Fine, an owner of the former New York department store Bonwit Teller, had a son suffering from opiate addiction. At a dinner party, he was very open with the then-Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, about his son’s problem and mentioned that Japan had very low rates of addiction. Rockefeller told him to go to the Land of the Rising Sun and find out why its addiction rates were setting.

Fine found that Japan recognized that the vein of vicarious liability courses through the head of any crime organization. war-on-drugs-nancy-reaganThe country’s plan to attack the supply side of drugs was successful because the kingpins in Japan served mandatory life sentences. No deals. Japan’s low level of addiction at the time was attributed to the fact that fewer and fewer people made the career choice of dealing drugs because the consequence of getting caught as a kingpin outweighed the profit to be derived from it.    It was true deterrence in action.

Governor Rockefeller drafted his drug laws to imitate Japan’s penal code and the federal government copied them.

If the drug laws enacted in New York and the United States Congress wanted big dealers and suppliers to be held most responsible for any drug epidemic, not the corner boys or the users, then I live smack-dab in the evidence that this isn’t happening and probably never did.

seinfeld-cosmo-kramer-junk-mail-postmaster-general-wilford-brimleyThe right way to understand the failed War on Drugs is to look at the way Kramer tried to cancel the mail in the Seinfeld episode where he’s getting too many catalogs. Kramer didn’t go to corner-boy Newman for a definitive end to the flow. He tried at the counter of the local post office – a mid-level dealer – to cancel his mail but it didn’t work. Eventually Kramer ends up face to face with the Postmaster General (even though the General captures him), the Kingpin of Canceled Stamps. Kramer had the source of all of the ‘evil’ right before him and…like our criminal justice system, he didn’t do shit and instead buckled, as low-level distributor Newman gets led away for punishment, cuffed and with a pail on his head. The message in that episode is that you can’t stop the mail; the mail has to be motivated to decide to stop itself. Substitute ‘drugs’ for ‘mail’ and you see why supply-side policy worked in Japan but not here. You have find the chokepoint. And attack that, not someone else.

Carly, the talker down the hall, isn’t the millionaire mastermind behind Waterbury’s drug trade like she claims, much less all of Connecticut, but someone else is.  (Note to Carly: kingpins don’t splurge on rims like you did; they buy the whole luxury car). Kingpin’s probably not even suspected of any criminal activity, much less does he fear a life sentence for the dough he rakes in for peddling death through underlings. We punish and confine that guy’s minions rather than releasing them and following them to track back to the kingpins whom Japan didn’t fear and didn’t settle until they were caught. Carly’s no General in the war; she’s just a Newman.

war-on-drugs-bill-clinton-300x499But the Carly’s, the low-level street suppliers, end up being the victims the mandatory-minimums that were designed for their bosses. Prosecutors give them very little incentive to turn on an upper level suppliers: snitch and do some time or don’t snitch and do a little bit more time. With the way we’ve corrupted our war strategy, there’s little downside to being the CEO of an outfit that enables people to get high. Our country is happy to make less fortunate, less educated people take the rap for you. It’s not drugs that have intoxicated us, it’s inequality. We’re addicted to imbalances of power that have normalized these unjust and ineffective responses to a black market.

The War on Drugs failed in the United States because we let our country’s indelible inequity get in the way of the plan. Dealers walk while runners serve mandatory-minimum sentences. We’re too loyal to the American tradition of letting the powerful off the hook while making the 99% pay for their crimes. If attacking the supply side doesn’t work, then it’s because the United States hasn’t looked high enough on the supply chain. You have to take out the Generals, not the Newmans, to win a war.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM MAY 29 – JUNE 4, 2017

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Three California jail guards were found guilty of murder in a detainee death. I haven’t been able to confirm that this is the first murder conviction for the death of an inmate but it looks like it might be. Think about that: of all the inmates who die at the hands of prison staff, the first murder conviction happened in 2017. It’s hopeful and hope-dashing at once.

The New Yorker ran a piece that showed the ravages of the opioid epidemic in West Virginia that’s a worthy read. It also bears noting that West Virginia is a deep-red state and over performed for Trump in the 2016 election. The Feds have jurisdiction over every single drug crime (that’s the aforementioned ‘War on Drugs’) so all the addicted Trumpers have a greater chance of arrest and prosecution with the person they elected to run the country. And if they get saddled with a felony conviction, they won’t be able to vote for him or any Republican. Trump’s policies are a war on his base.

The Bureau of Prisons’ educational programming took a hit from an investigation by The Marshall Project which found that they’re teaching more crocheting than critical thinking skills.

 

 

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