25 December 2017

If the Skin Fits

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December 25, 2007 (incarcerated for 18 days)

A Christmas Carol is less about Christmas than it is about conversion. Scrooge indicted and reformed himself in a matter of minutes; he’s the single most efficient correction system in history.

Ebenezer didn’t embrace Tiny Tim’s plight by accident. Through the lessons of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, he spied his own demise, inevitable if he didn’t change. Scrooge took to a lesson that many of us resist: empathy isn’t some latent, oversensitive irrationality; it’s a  survival skill that takes some field training.

Unfortunately, you can only get empathy through a somewhat  exclusive club. Ask Inmate Dennis Kozlowski in New York. He got in before I did.

In 1995 in a Houston courtroom, at the sentencing of the former assistant controller of Tyco, a letter from the company’s CEO – the aforementioned Dennis Kozlowski – urged the judge to withhold mercy and sentence Girish Shah to “incarceration for a maximum term,” because, as Kozlowski informed the court, “wrongdoing of this nature against society is considered a grave matter.”

Ten years later, in a New York courtroom, that letter informed another sentencing court, the one that would impose penalty on Kozlowski himself for bilking Tyco of millions, more than Shah ever did.

You can call this whatever you want: karma, cosmic payback for Shah, or just the rule of law. I call it a new convert to the Order of Empathy. Dennis will never pull that shit again because now he knows how it feels.

It shouldn’t be that everyone has to go through the tribulation of a trial like I did to develop empathy, but that might be what it takes. Maybe there’s a point to arresting more and more people, locking them up, making the club more inclusive. Mass incarceration is an empathy diaspora. 

There are recipes for empathy and others have mastered them without a fall from grace. If you want to be more compassionate, you could, as Atticus Finch – a criminal defense attorney, by the way – advised in To Kill a Mockingbird, “climb into [another’s] skin and walk around in it.”

Sometimes I see someone’s plight and get so overwhelmed with sympathy for them that I can’t feel empathy. Maybe it scares me too much, maybe privilege prevents it, but I don’t think I could have been very empathetic before this ride. How could I have imagined what other women in here feel? However unjust this has been, it was totally necessary. This lesson would have evaded me for the rest of my life. 

It’s not just me. Few can imagine what another’s skin feels like. They think it’s too small for them. They are too big, too important, too moral, too smart, too cautious, too innocent, too rich, too white, for them to get inside it, much less take it for a walk.

But the skin will fit. And – Dennis and I will say the same thing – they won’t acquit.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE FROM DECEMBER 18 – 24, 2017

This is the last diary entry to be published in 2017. I will leave you with three year-end, wrap- up ideas. Read them and decide what you’re going to do next year. 

Here’s a quiz to see how much you’ve been paying attention to criminal justice this year. I got one wrong and I’m so ashamed. 

Here’s a list of criminal justice campaigns that can win in 2018.

Here’s one professor’s wish list for criminal justice in 2018. It’s woefully incomplete but it will show you what reformers are up against if a professor’s wish list is so short and simple.

Also, if you need to park your bucks somewhere before the first of the year for tax purposes, here are three worthy places to donate. Click on their names to get to their websites and contribute:

Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree Project – Purchases Christmas gifts for children of people in prison. Remember, the kids are innocent and suffer more than anyone else.

Prison Policy Initiative – By combining data and compassion, this organization produces the best research on criminal justice, by far.

Second Chance Educational Alliance, Inc. – Volunteer teachers head into correctional facilities and teach college courses to inmates. Prisoners getting college credit for these courses and can earn degrees from Connecticut community colleges.

 

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18 December 2017

Mainstay

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Maria walked up to me behind the [serving] line, arms spread across a cyan-colored rack bearing the usual red, yellow, blue and white bags that seal loaves of highly processed bread with a twist tie.

“What you want me to do with it?”

“Well, this stuff [than the bread we already had in the kitchen] is fresher, so we need to rotate out the older bread so we use that first.”

Then I looked at the rack closer.

BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO.

BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO. BIMBO.

“Wait, what the hell is this?” I asked.

“Bread,” she answered.

“Yeah, I see that, but…”

Then I asked the supervisor.

“Johnko, what is this, this?” and I pointed to the Bimbos.

“Bread.”

“Bimbo brand bread? In a women’s facility? Are you kidding me?”

“It’s Mexican. Beeembo. See? Says it on the label.”

The bag sported a Pillsbury dough boy knock-off, a white bear, pronouncing the brand name because someone, somewhere, knew this was bad marketing.

“It also says that it’s the bread that lasts forever. That’s a real claim to freshness. I know we get these dog brands and cast-offs and odd-lot foods, but really? Bimbo?”

“Beeembo. I told you. It’s Mexican.” Johnko shrugged, like that was sufficient to explain the world’s worst marketing plan, one, incidentally, that’s apparently effective on the people who surround me now.

“I seen these shits before,” Maria defended the Bimbos.

“These are sold here? I thought when he said it was Mexican it was some foreign food that we got for a low price.”

“Yeah, in bodegas. They got it in there,” Maria offered. She sort-of caught my pseudo-righteous feminism.

“Well, I, I don’t shop there and I’ve never seen this,” I huffed. I’m not so easily shocked that the Bimbos would bowl me over but the people selling this bread in the U.S. weren’t even trying to make it an attractive buy which, to me, means one of two things. Either the product was so good it was a guaranteed sale or it was the only product around so it was a guaranteed sale.

I had wandered again into a desert, and not the usual wiggly heat of confusion blocking my view as I looked for the oasis of freedom. I was witnessing the effects of a food desert, an area with low-income and minority residents that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. Being poor isn’t just not being able to afford stuff. It’s not being able to afford stuff that’s inferior quality because you can’t access the better, more affordable stuff that is produced and packaged by people with a wit of sense. Imagine Stop and Shop near me selling Bimbo bread that lasts forever. It would have to be so cheap that it was free. And even then, no one in my family would buy it. But other people have to. And they don’t have the luxury of taking offense at faulty branding like I do.

“Surely they hired a marketing expert who should’ve picked another name for the bread and another slogan. I mean, perpetual bread? That’s not even how they describe the fucking Eucharist.”

“I dunno,” Maria said and was moving on without me. “You still want me to rotate these racks?”

“Sure. I guess this prison’s lesson for me? That the staff of life is a bimbo?” I asked anyone and no one. I figured that was the last word on the topic but [another kitchen supervisor] Ms. Van Damme had walked in behind me to answer.

“Wait, what’re you saying about the staff?” she asked.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM DECEMBER 11 – 17, 2017

VERY IMPORTANT: Floridians for a Fair Democracy needs more signatures for its petition to add Voting Restoration Amendment to the 2018 ballot (restoring voting rights to people with criminal records after completion of their sentences). If you live in Florida, sign the petition here. If you don’t live in Florida, share the link with your friends and associates who do. And, if you’re a Republican and you think that restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies is handing votes to the opposition, read my op-ed in The Tampa Bay Times here. Keeping anyone from voting – in addition to being immoral and violating the principles on which this country was founded – will actually hurt Republicans in the long run. People need to sign the petition by December 31, 2017.

Most people missed this, but a poll conducted by Emerson College in advance of Tuesday’s election in Alabama to choose the senator who will replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions found that voters with felony records supported Roy Moore over eventual winner Doug Jones. It was a small sample, but go figure.

Rates of imprisonment amongst blacks are going down and they have been for a while. Read about it here, a joint venture between The Marshall Project and The Washington Post‘s Wonkette blog.

 

 

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11 December 2017

Yiddisher Kop

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“I’m gonna win my habeas. I got me a Jew lawyer. He got a beanie and everything,” Soledad announced she strutted down the hallway.

“Yeah, don’t…don’t say that.”

“What?” she asked.

“It’s not a beanie. It’s a yarmulke. When you say  ‘Jew lawyer’ it implies unkind things about Jewish people. ”

“Like what? That they be winnin’?” Soledad protested.

“I bet a number of people in here had attorneys who happened to be Jewish and…let’s just say, they ain’t winning,” I assured her.

Because they confront the greatest ignorance of all, I think the Jewish women have to be the loneliest group of inmates, if you can even call them a group. I’ve met a total of three while I’ve been incarcerated. Only two did a bid. Not only have they plunged into this utter dysfunction, other inmates reduce their spirituality and customs to the menorah and dreidel that popped up on the windows of their grade school classrooms in the spirit of equal time for “other” cultures.

Since then, because stereotypes operate most consistently and strenuously in populations that are stereotyped themselves, the only understanding of Judaism, of a religion whose story figures squarely into the narrative of oppression everyone in here is peddling, is that the only way the religion manifests itself is through alleged ruthless legal prowess. 

We make a big deal of the history of American slavery as it pertains to corrections, calling it “The New Jim Crow.” Imagine being Jewish and being thrown in prison and having to confront what millions of your ancestors went through as they were processed through Hitler’s explicit agenda of annihilation. At least here we speak of reentry, another chance, eventual release. They lived condemned, all of them. If there were more Jews in prison, we’d be calling this “The New Dachau” but their minority status prevents better comparisons between the modern penitentiary and the Holocaust. I think that this country might have a chance at rapid reform if there were more Jewish inmates. I don’t wish this on them, but if Jewish inmates reached critical mass in here, historical comparisons would put legislators’ pedals to the metal. Of course, if I’m right, it only shows how racist the system is, because historical comparisons seem not to be motivating anyone to do much to make these places better. Just saying. 

“What do you think of that?” I asked Cerise, an observant Jewish woman who also happened to be a lawyer.

“Jews are persecuted everywhere. Been that way throughout history. This is nothing to us,” she poo-pooed me.

Cerise explained that, in the Jewish faith, a Torah scroll – one that contains hundreds of thousands of letters –  is rendered not kosher and unusable if even one letter is missing or broken and the same concept carries over to the Jewish people. If even one individual is forgotten or left behind, then the entire community is lacking and considered unKosher.

This Jewish worldview is lower-c catholic and accessible to all, but it’s a secret in here because all that matters about a person is how criminally useful he can be. The “Jew Lawyer” has gangsta value. 

I had to deliver some milk to the control room and I spied Soledad in visits, coming out of one of the legal conference rooms with a man in a patka. In this environment of inverted diversity, my first thought was that it looked like a do-rag gone wrong.

Later I asked her:

“Soledad, who was that in visits with you?”

“My lawyer.”

“He’s a Sikh.”

“Sneak?” Soledad asked.

“Well, probably, because they [lawyers] all are,” I conceded. “But that’s a patka, not a yarmulke.  He’s a Sikh. It’s an Indian religion.”

“For real? Indians like the casinos?”

“No. Look, your lawyer’s not Jewish at all. For Christ’s sake, when I saw him there, I thought he was your shrink.”

“Why?  That’s what them people [Sikhs] do?”

* Title means “smart person” in Yiddish.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM DECEMBER 4 – 10, 2017

Remember Reality Winner, the NSA employee who leaked documents related to Russia’s attempts to feel out its ability to hack American voting machines? Her trial is shaping up to look like mine: a total zoo. The Intercept (click here for link) covered the pretrial proceedings. She’s basically being prevented from defending herself. 

Here’s (click for link) a good New York Times editorial on how the Governor of New York has to be careful – and has tremendous power to cull abuse from correctional facilities – in negotiating a new contract with the prison guards’ union.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a new study Thursday, Criminal Victimization in 2016 (click for link), employing a new methodology designed to more accurately reflect crime at its most local level. But the new model produced such erratic results — such high levels of crimes in certain counties, for examples — that officials quickly cautioned against actually using the data. Sounds like money well spent. 

 

 

 

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4 December 2017

A Letter to Lieutenant Real Frisky

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“They made him a lieutenant? What kinda shit is that?”

If I’ve heard it once, then I’ve heard it 200 times since you got your double-bars. Very few inmates expected you to snag a promotion. I certainly didn’t expect it when you walked into Food Prep that Friday morning with your name stitched in yellow thread instead of white, the sign of correctional ascension. After mulling it over for a long time, I’ve decided that your becoming a lieutenant is a good thing. No, it’s a very good thing.

I used to say: “I don’t think he would do that.”

Then it went to: “That doesn’t really sound like him.”

Then it was: “Okay, he probably did, but what do you want me to do about it?”

Finally, I would protest: “Just don’t tell me what he did” when other inmates would describe your wacky games and outrageous stunts. Supposedly denying someone a regular meal and giving her just a few chicken cubes for lunch. Calling women “fat pigs” and telling them they need fewer carbs. Screaming at them to “SHUT THE FUCK UP” as if you take your own advice.

I’ve been particularly offended the way you treated me. Do you think I don’t know that it was you and Booz who took my FBI file, the one I fought to get for my defense? I lost all respect for you. You act like a frat boy in here – and you’re at work, I might add, so that’s pathetic – except it’s pretty much agreed upon in here that no organization would accept you as a pledge given how you’ve behind recently. Except the DOC. That’s why you’re here.

You used to be kind, merciful, wise and calm to the inmates in South Dorm. I had been here less than six months and I knew how you guys kick around the newbies.  I was scared of some of them but I wasn’t scared of you. Until later.

Losing respect for someone is no fun for any rational person. I know that other inmates never hide their glee at another’s failures or misfortunes, but I try not to get that way. Seeing you denigrate women who you thought were weak, me included, made me furious and sad. Now that I see you with Lieutenant bars on your lapel I know why. It wasn’t so much the personal attacks or the rumors you spread about me or even sending your friends to harass me, it was the fact that you disappointed me. When you have respect for someone and how they do their job  – which I admit is thankless and unenviable – that I didn’t like the way disappointment felt because it meant I might be wrong, that the anthropologist’s eye I’ve cast on this place has a cataract.

No matter how bad my vision is, I can catch things from my vantage point that you can’t. I take field notes every day, including a list of my cellmates who come back. It’s getting long now, that list, because women love to return to abusers.  I watched you be very kind to two women. They weren’t cute. Weren’t flirting with you. Offered you nothing but their pain and fucked-up-ness and you handled it.

I’ve been here five years and neither has come back.

Sure, outstanding warrants may have chased them out of state or they might have died, or they might have been treated well enough by someone in this place that they felt the confidence to make different, better decisions. I doubt they said: Frisky was nice to me, so I’ll be good. But I choose to believe that how you treated them contributed to their doing right.

A myth of modern corrections is that the only way to cause an attitude shift is a shove. But it doesn’t. Sometime the shift turns on a nudge, a subtle prod or even an accidental tap. These nudges might just be your (old) way of doing business, but they also shaved a couple of points off the return rate. Like I said, I choose to believe that you are solely responsible for that benefit to society. You have it in you.

But that’s not the only reason I have decided that your promotion is a good thing. It’s no secret that allegations of misconduct, childish pranks, and generally prickish treatment have been lobbed at you. If all of them were true, they’d need a wheelbarrow to move your personnel file from all your reprimands. I know everything isn’t true. But I also know – and you know – that some of it is. But someone – and I have no idea who because I know nothing about the DOC promotion process – looked past all of that and spied some potential in you. Sure, other inmates can describe your advancement as symptomatic of the dysfunction of this place, but it can also be an example of reform and redemption. You’re a lieutenant and a lesson, as far as I am concerned.

I’d congratulate you if I knew that your friends wouldn’t sack me, crush my face against a craggy concrete wall, cuff me and chuck me into a dungeon like they usually do for you.

I think it’s stupid that I can’t tell you this directly, that the bullshit between us made a pile too high and too wide for either of us to get around. I should be able say “Peace” to you and end this, but the risk for misinterpretation is too high. I can’t say anything to you, even if it’s nice, not that I’ve been that motivated to do so these past years. I’ll accept some blame for this, but it’s a noose I’m not willing to loosen on you entirely. You need to admit to yourself that your behavior towards someone who has far less power is despicable. It’s also foolish because I’m not serving a life sentence. You’ve given me the story of a lifetime to tell when I leave here. And if I do, what will you say to me then?

I bet if anyone ever heard me say this, they’d be so shocked that their fight-or-flight responses were activated. Captains in Building 6 would clutch their chests with angina, maybe even stroke out. The warden would be feeling around his desk for a brown paper bag to help him stop heaving in hyperventilation.

But I am serious. Congratulations. I hope nothing but justified success awaits you. Rise. Become a captain. Become a warden. But most of all become good again, how you used to be. It’s on everyone’s agenda in here.

P.S. I think you need to call your union steward about this place getting you a new, clean dumpster to jump out of. Since your promotion, you shouldn’t have to climb into dirty dumpsters anymore. A filthy can for a lieutenant? That’s abuse.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM NOVEMBER 27 – DECEMBER 3, 2017

I don’t know if you heard, but President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, pleaded guilty on Friday to lying to the F.B.I. about conversations with the Russian ambassador last December.

Here are three ideas on why Michael Flynn was charged with and pleaded guilty to only one criminal charge.

First: It may be all that Mueller et al. have. Doubtful, but a possibility.

Second: It’s just a sweet deal because Flynn is ponying up so much evidence against other people.

Third: Deciding not to charge Flynn with more crimes avoids the double jeopardy trap for state charges in case President Trump pardons him. Lying to the FBI is s strictly federal charge, so if Trump pardons Flynn, no state can bring those charges regardless of a pardon; it’s not a loss to forfeit a chance at a prosecution that you never had. But if Flynn were charged with conspiracy under federal law and subsequently received a pardon, conspiracy charges could not be brought at the state level because they’d be precluded by the double jeopardy clause.

My guess is – and I could be totally wrong – that charging Flynn with conspiracy is going to be left to a possible state prosecution in the event that the case against Flynn somehow goes south, pardon or lack of cooperation.  Federal courts and many states have laws that allow co-conspirators to testify against each other without corroboration and as an exception to the Hearsay Rule; conspiracy cases are relatively easy to make with accomplice testimony. State prosecutions of conspiracy charges against Flynn would exceed Trump’s pardon reach.  It may need to come to that for Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s team to see their goal to fruition, even if it is though a state prosecutor’s office.

 

 

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