22 May 2017

No Chaser

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spicoli

No other inmate believes me when I tell her I’ve never smoked a cigarette or pot. They all accuse me of trying too hard to appear pure.

“I think the fact that I’m telling you this in a maximum-security prison makes a Snow White schtick a little difficult for me,” I defended myself. I use so many words that I sound like Mr. Hand talking to a Spicoli.

It’s not like the potheads here are badasses. In a Connecticut criminal courtroom, the word “marijuana” couldn’t be uttered without the phrase “low-level” accompanying it in the sentence so it’s been decriminalized. I haven’t, but weed has been freed.

I may be the only person who favors prison reform yet hates any type of permissive attitude towards pot.  I can’t deal with stoners. Talk to a daily smoker and tell me that they haven’t dumbed down. While it is true that there’s scant evidence of marijuana-induced violence, I live in a vat of anecdotal evidence that potheads are screw-ups and lumps.

To me,  even in their resting states, they’re as craven as heroin addicts but very few people will recognize that, especially since everyone in here treats pot like it’s Diet Coke, simply because it’s not crack. Many of them have sworn off harder drugs, at least in word if not in deed, but still fantasize about rolling a blunt the day they leave prison. They don’t dream of reuniting with their kids, reconciling with victims, or even walking down a street as a free person. Fatties are all they want.

When your top thought is how you can chemically alter your interface with reality, you’re an addict. Does it really matter that scientists say you can’t be physically addicted to pot? I see women who are psychologically addicted to getting high. Several of them have been inside for several years. Now with reform underway, they’ll emerge to a society that will make it easier for them to find this chemical release. In fact, the most common question I hear is “Can you help me get a medical marijuana card so I won’t violate probation when I get out?” Even if possessing it is legal now, smoking it can get them packed back into prison if they are under supervision that requires drug-testing.

I support what the Connecticut General Assembly just did to marijuana for one reason only: decriminalization will unclog the courts. Most people don’t realize that it’s not just lazy lawyers or pompous prosecutors or cuckoo cops; the size of our criminal justice system contributes to wrongful convictions. Any system manned by human beings has a margin of error. When that system grows larger, the percentage of errors may not necessarily increase but the number of errors does. The fewer criminal cases we have crowding our dockets, the less likely people are to be confined for something that they didn’t do. I don’t support legalization because I want everyone lighting up.

I’m the adult child of an alcoholic. As a kid, I never understood why my parents needed to alter their realities. A child can’t understand why temperaments change; they always blame themselves for what appears to be a parent’s unhappiness. When you’re the child of an alcoholic, booze can ruin your life even when you never touch a drop.

From watching my parents suffer from substances, I learned to like my dysphoria straight up. And I think everyone else should take it that way, too. At least if they want their lives to get better.

Almost every other woman I’ve encountered has a history of substance abuse so the mostly-discredited claim of  ‘marijuana’s a gateway drug’ actually works in here. So many of them are turnstiles already; they’ve used and been used in every way possible and their gateways are several thousand miles behind them. There’s no drug user in this prison who skipped an intoxicant grade. If they’ve used drugs – heroin to dust to an excess of Merlot –  then they’ve smoked pot.   All that anyone needs to know about disenfranchised women and drugs, legal or not, is that they’re a bad combination.

Don’t even attempt to convince me that potheads are generally content people who just relax with a toke. Anyone who gets high with anything is just trying to hide their unhappiness. No one who’s that happy needs to take the edge off their bliss.

No herb, no drink, no smoke can erase emptiness. Even if it’s legal, smoking pot won’t cure what ails them. After pot, it’s just a matter of time before they move to something else. They just won’t get arrested before that now. Only after.

Getting stoned will drain their ambition to rise out of the situations they live in and make it easier for inequality to chase them back into oppression. When poverty, a lack of education, and ever-present violence surround you, it’s just dumb to get high so you can be “mad chill.” No one who’s really on these women’s sides – like the decriminalization people claim to be – would want them stalled where they are with a dime bag, even if it’s outside of prison and can’t get them admission. When you chill, you stay where you are. That’s the last thing I want for the women here.

Of course, there are brilliant, ambitious people who use pot. Bill Maher, who I love, admits enjoying ganja and he’s not leaning on everyone else to get his work done. But for every Bill Maher, there are hundreds of stoned women around me who can’t Google what ailments would qualify them for a medical marijuana permit. They have to ask me, Mr. Hand, and can’t read my clear disdain for all of this.

I fully acknowledge that I would be a significantly duller pain in the ass if I were a bit more relaxed. I’ve wondered if pot would make me more socially-lubed and not the mass of high-strung seriousness I’ve been since the third grade. Just thinking about abandoning my self-imposed duties as monitor and arbiter of all things around me gives me flutters of panic. Who would do what I do? Just the thought of how out-of-control that scene would be scares the shit out of me. Pot’s dangerous if it threatens my imaginary presidence over daily life.

I know there’s evidence that marijuana has benefits for people’s health. I don’t doubt these scientific stats and I double my support for any effort to expand access to medical marijuana. If a remedy exists for someone’s physical illness and pain, we shouldn’t deny them what can make their lives both safe and livable. That’s as cruel and stupid as these life-without-parole sentences in federal courts for possessing a pound of the stuff. When it comes to the wacky-tabacky, we can act a little whacked. It’s better for you to get caught possessing a dead body, bloody fingers and a DNA match than a 20-pound brick of weed and a plan to sell it. If turning a hundred people into semi-responsive slackers is really worse than slaughtering someone, then everyone who teachers psychology would be doing life.

I think everyone’s lives should be safe, livable, and, quite frankly, at least a little bit happy, but not happy because their souls have been marinated or smoked or peppered with herb. I mean happy in the raw, and none of these stoners has ever been anything close to that. That’s why they’re here.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM MAY 15 – 21, 2017

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Rumors are that President Trump wants to name former Connecticut senator and Al Gore-running mate Joseph Lieberman to head the FBI, which is an unconventional choice for top G-Man to say the least. Lieberman, who would be 85 at the end of his term as director if he were appointed, currently works at a law firm that has represented the president for more than a ten years. He also has no experience in federal police work or criminal law. So he’s compromised and potentially incompetent. Sounds like a fit for law enforcement.

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, the supervisor of a jail where four inmates died within six months, including one man who dehydrated to death after guards shut off the water to his cell as well as a newborn baby, says he is joining the Department of Homeland Security although the department hasn’t confirmed that. Even though people perished on his watch, Clarke has remained silent on the matter. There are two ways to look at this: either abusing and neglecting inmates to the point that they died in his jail was okay with Clarke or it wasn’t. If it was, then I really don’t want him guarding anyone’s life. If he disapproved of how his employees behaved, then that’s just as bad because it shows they didn’t respect him enough to follow the policies and ethos he established. Either way, he’s unfit to lead.

For the first time ever, the murder of a transgender person was prosecuted as a federal hate crime. Joshua Vallum pleaded guilty to violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and was sentenced to 49 years in prison for the murder of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson, a transgender woman who was his ex-girlfriend. “Today’s sentencing reflects the importance of holding individuals accountable when they commit violent acts against transgender individuals,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions, like he cared that the victim was transgender. The New York Times, I think, made a bigger deal of this than it is. It’s not that killing trans people was legal before. It’s just that no federal court took jurisdiction and considered it an act of hate when a victim was transgender. I fail to see how this is a victory for criminal justice; it’s not as if someone will think twice about murder because the potential victim’s gender identity is not what’s expected. There’s no boon here for public safety or defendant’s rights.  It’s a victory for identity politics, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it won’t change courtrooms or police investigations all that much.

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1 May 2017

Throw Scissors

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Scales symbolize justice because interests compete; one consideration can outweigh others.

It’s a classic problem in here: pitting an offender convicted of a serious, violent crime who has completely rehabilitated herself and poses no risk versus a repeat offender convicted of non-violent crimes who clearly will never reform herself. It’s all good to spank the shoplifter and bury the one who opportunes the use of a body bag, except when the shoplifter leaves a trail of failed deterrence and she lands in lockup for the same thing again and again. Eventually over 100 times.

Who do we let out? The Career Girl, someone who guarantees her promise of more victims or the woman with a single Whopper crime who will never do so much as change lanes without the proper turn signal if she were released? On paper,  Career Girl seems to win. But on scales, Whopper weighs in strongly.

imageedit_1_2643827904I see it every day. Whoppers stand-by as recidivists sing “I’m on a count-down!” – nearing the last day of her sentence. Everyone on this compound – including herself – knows she will screw up again. She worked while incarcerated because she was required to, but she did nothing to edify herself  – college courses, trade certification, nothing. She attended an accountability class on victimization and emerged believing that ripping off big-box stores hurts no one because she “doesn’t steal from people.” In fact, she considers shoplifting not only victimless but noble.

“I steal from the rich and give to the poor,” she declares, proudly defending a ream of a rap sheet and her choice of fences.

“Who do you give the money to?” I asked her once.

“Myself.” She was indignant.

The guards agree with her; they know her from her numerous returns over the years.

stone_PNG13573“You’ve never hurt anyone,” they reassure her and come together into de facto defense teams, talking each other out of writing her tickets to accomplish her early release as early as possible.

And she leaves behind the Whopper, convicted of felony murder for a burglary in which the homeowner died. She took college classes, has become certified in safe food service, commercial cleaning, cosmetology, all of the prison school’s meager offerings. Whopper acknowledges her direct and collateral victims and admits:

“My crime is horrible. I would do anything to rewind my life to that day.”  Remorse and regret tug her face downward each of the fourteen thousand, six hundred days she’s serving. She’ll never be released even though her supporters and critics agree she’d never reoffend. Wouldn’t she be a better candidate to be cut loose?

Crumbled-Paper-Ball-psd102642We never anticipate a fall in perfect balance, like this, a total tie, like a flipped coin that lands and stands on its edge. The method we use to make decisions is looking, watching for the essential tip that indicates Lady Justice’s favor, the way things should be. When we don’t get a glimpse of it, when we do land in equilibrium, we’re supposed clear off both sides, let them both out. But we don’t do that in corrections.

We need to chuck the scales and come to understand justice is like Rock-Paper-Scissors. Punishment is the rock, deterrence the paper because – examples are made big and wide not in courtrooms but in newspapers – and rehabilitation the scissors that sever an offender from old ways. In the game, none of the three trumps both of the others; it’s the nature of the game that each one’s power matches its vulnerability. Punishment can thwart rehabilitation just like the rock breaks the scissors. Rehabilitation can reform someone, cut through the paper, to the point that she’s an example to follow, no longer a cautionary tale. And deterrence should be able to counteract punishment the way paper covers rock, but it doesn’t.

Scissors-PNG-FileIn real life, when paper covers rock, it just blows away in a few minutes. Rock always wins, definitely against scissors – that’s the plan – but also against paper. And in the game, you never know how other players’ fingers will gather. In real life, though, you know who’s shooting what and who will win. No matter how sharp – or, in the case of Career Girl, how dull –  your shears are, punishment overtakes the game. Rock busts the scissors, punches through the paper, and shatters the scales. Everything else in the system breaks but retribution never even gets chipped.

I see Whopper when Career Girl discharges and say:

“Rock always wins.”

I have no idea whether she understood what I mean. But she throws scissors:

“Oh, they got crack up in here? I don’t want no part of that shit. My dirty days are over,” she says, losing again.

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THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM APRIL 24 – 30, 2017

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President Trump attended a 100-day rally in Pennsylvania where his supporters chanted, again, LOCK HER UP! Since the election is over and Hillary isn’t going anywhere, let’s look at three cases from this past week for real-life examples of women who are about to get locked up.

In Louisiana, two teachers were arrested for bullying one of their own students – even telling her to take her own life – encouraging classmates to fight each other and threatening to fail other children who complained. For that, the two women are charged with “malfeasance in office, intimidation and interference in school operations.” I don’t know about you. but I didn’t even know that ‘interference with school operations’ was a crime. The statute that made it so was undoubtedly designed to be used to charge students who didn’t really commit a crime on school grounds but whom administrators wanted to expel, and a criminal charge could underpin that administrative action. These teachers might run into students who have flowed through the school-to-prison pipeline, aided by the same penal law that landed them in cuffs.

In North Carolina, an Army vet was arrested for shooting her dog, five times at close range, after tying her pet to a tree. The video was posted on Facebook. The dog was her emotional support animal, assigned to her for a diagnosis of PTSD and other mental health complications stemming from her service to her country. The State of North Carolina includes “Veteran’s Courts” in its judicial system. They’re designed to handle crimes committed by veterans who have been traumatized by military service.

A woman in Maryland was arrested for first and second degree assault after an argument broke out in front of her house and she went inside, retrieved a machete, and came out and allegedly threatened someone until the arguers dispersed. She didn’t touch anyone with the large knife. If she had come out with a gun, Second Amendment supporters would have been on her side. Is it acceptable to come out one’s home with another weapon to create one’s own peace?

If you were a prosecutor on these cases, how would you proceed? What if you were the judge? Those decisions you envision now happen in the hundreds every business day around the country.

 

 

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10 April 2017

Joovee

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Anyone who has ever shopped for children’s clothing knows that there are different sizing schemes. “T” denotes a toddler size.  “6X,” a size unheard of in adult clothing, is slightly bigger for the child growing out of size 6 and “juniors” departments offer sizes for adolescents. Without an exact fit, parents try to find the best fit for the meantime until their children outgrow their clothes and need new ones.

We respond more to children’s fitting rooms than their needs in courtrooms. We drape adult laws over juvenile offenders, always expecting a perfect fit that will last a lifetime. Now scientists and policymakers agree that juvenile sentences are like children’s clothes: one size doesn’t fit all.

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The “Second Look” legislation that just came out of the [Connecticut General Assembly’s] Judiciary Committee would change the sentence modification laws for juvenile offenders,  allowing them the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed without the approval of a prosecutor after they’ve served a certain amount of time. many times children as young as 14 receive sentences of fifty years or more. Second Look legislation provides the opportunity for tailoring our punishments once we realize that juvenile offenders’ sentences either never fit or don’t fit any more.

The way they treat juvenile and youthful offenders in here shows they’re different. The C/O’s escort girls under 18 years old wherever they go: school (mandated for young inmates), meals (they eat alone in the large dining hall and return to their unit before adult inmates are released for chow). Little girls aren’t treated like adults in the big house, but they are in the place that gets them here: the courthouse.

"Voices from Juvenile Detention: Kids in Prison" It sounds harmless: Òpre-trial detention.Ó But the reality is far different. In a squat block building in Laredo, TexasÑand in similar places around the nationÑchildren await trial or placement in concrete cells while the underlying issues that led to their behavior fester. Some are addicts who need treatment; others are kids battling mental illnesses. Many are angry and have been virtually abandoned by absentee or irresponsible parents. Some spend a few days, others months, but despite the efforts of a small corps of dedicated professionals, few actually receive treatment for the issues that brought them to Juvenile. /// The Youngest 10-year-old Alejandro is shown to a holding cell where he'll await booking at Webb County Juvenile Detention following his arrest for marijuanna posession. Every day the inmates get smaller, and more confused about what brought them here. Psychiatrists say children do not react to punishment in the same way as adults. They learn more about becoming criminals than they do about becoming citizens. And one night of loneliness can be enough to prove their suspicion that nobody cares.

But the Second Look legislation is cut too small; it helps only those offenders who were under the age of 18 at the time of their offense. The age limitation flies in the face of the most recent neuroscience on the subject, specifically the fact that the part of the brain that governs judgment and impulse does not fully mature until someone reaches the age of 25. In their arrest warrants, police investigating crimes committed by women under  25 – particularly serious and violent crimes by those women – usually tell the stories against backdrops of adolescently dysfunctional behavior:  a co-defendant loser boyfriend who seduced them and induced them into criminal behavior, a complete and total devotion to him during the prosecution of the case, even though her “Co-D” is foisting his responsibility on her.

Even though most of the frontal lobe research embraced by the American Psychological Association indicates that every offender under 25 merits the same consideration in sentencing because their brains are still not completely developed, all offenders between 18 and 25 are left out of it. The law ignores the totality of the science it depends on. Despite this data, using an arbitrary cut-off, a numeric construct, namely the age of 18, perpetuates the practice of fashioning one punishment for a population based only on their ages and not what’s appropriate for the individual offender.

"Voices from Juvenile Detention: Kids in Prison" It sounds harmless: “pre-trial detention.” But the reality is far different. In a squat block building in Laredo, Texas—and in similar places around the nation—children await trial or placement in concrete cells while the underlying issues that led to their behavior fester. Some are addicts who need treatment; others are kids battling mental illnesses. Many are angry and have been virtually abandoned by absentee or irresponsible parents. Some spend a few days, others months, but despite the efforts of a small corps of dedicated professionals, few actually receive treatment for the issues that brought them to Juvenile. /// The Youngest 10-year-old Alejandro has his mug shot taken at Webb County Juvenile Detention following his arrest for marijuanna posession. Every day the inmates get smaller, and more confused about what brought them here. Psychiatrists say children do not react to punishment in the same way as adults. They learn more about becoming criminals than they do about becoming citizens. And one night of loneliness can be enough to prove their suspicion that nobody cares.

Connecticut isn’t alone in being kind of wrong in doing the right thing for juvies. This new law would follow the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States who, in their 2010 opinion in Graham v. Florida, declared the death penalty unconstitutional for 15 and 16 year-olds because their adolescent brain development lessened their culpability. But for 17-25 year-olds, execution is fine, even though the research findings say it isn’t.

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Juvenile justice considerations are usually pretty theoretical to me because I came to the can an old biddy. Neither I nor anyone I associated with was in trouble when I was a teenager. No boyfriend of mine brought me to criminal behavior on a date. However, I ran with a different crowd than these women. My friends, the boys I met, were all from the upper-middle class and were fixated on their futures, even the iconoclast on a opposing debate team who called in a bomb threat to a local school; he’s supposedly a lawyer now. Redistricting ambition into the less affluent neighborhoods, the subsidized housing and the elusive culture that the inmates call “the streets” rarely happens. If I sprang from those circumstances, boys could have easily led me into bad business. Everyone credits her judgment for her clean history but, most of the time, it’s just luck and economics.

"Voices from Juvenile Detention: Kids Behind Bars" It sounds harmless: “pre-trial detention.” But the reality is far different. In a squat block building in Laredo, Texas—and in similar places around the nation—children await trial or placement in concrete cells while the underlying issues that led to their behavior fester. Some are addicts who need treatment; others are kids battling mental illnesses. Many are angry and have been virtually abandoned by absentee or irresponsible parents. Some spend a few days, others months, but despite the efforts of a small corps of dedicated professionals, few actually receive treatment for the issues that brought them to Juvenile. /// Inmates, ages 10-16, wait in line to march back to their cells in the exercise yard at the Webb County Juvenile Detention facility. This is the world of young felons, of kids gone astray, of children who cry for their mothers from behind bars. Some have skipped class too much, some have murdered in cold blood. At least half of the kids have been incarcerated before. And, if society's attempts at rehabilitation ultimately fail--or if the parent can't or simply won't do anything to turn around years of neglect and abuse--just a few more visits to juvenile detention will harden some of these kids into full-fledged adult criminals.

Adolescent stupidity plays out differently in different dioramas – one with government cheese instead of Chili’s quesadillas, one with a fire hydrant instead of a swimming pool, one with parents who wait in line for housing vouchers rather than stand on sidelines of field hockey fields – and will wreak different results. But even someone from the wealthiest, most stable family can make a sufficiently long list of stupid mistakes they made before age 25; an eighteenth birthday doesn’t cut the list off.

In fact, I did most of my dumbest, most barely legal shit in college  – when I was 18 through 21 – the exact ages that this law wouldn’t cover. Even if I had been arrested for any of my alcohol-fueled dalliances with the thought that I was edgy and cool for pulling reckless capers, my family would have reeled me out of this pit in the same way that legislators are trying to help the girls who are here now.

If I had suffered consequences for my stupidity and my family hadn’t had the resources to help me, I’d have been as fucked as the young women in this place are. The kids are goofy but these young ladies are extremely focused on appearance: making uniform jeans tighter, wearing elaborate cat-eye black on their lids, erecting mazes of hair on top of their heads with curls, yet they’re a little dour because, I think, they know that no one’s coming for them. At 19, they’re already too old to attract the right kind of attention.

Update: Photos here depict real juvenile offenders, the last four are pictures of 10 year-old boy who was arrested in Texas for marijuana possession, caught while copping for his mother who has a substance abuse problem and couldn’t post his bail. AN ACT CONCERNING LENGTHY SENTENCES FOR CRIMES COMMITTED BY A CHILD OR YOUTH AND THE SENTENCING OF A CHILD OR YOUTH CONVICTED OF CERTAIN FELONY OFFENSES was passed into law in Connecticut after I left prison, in 2015. It still left out offenders aged 18 to 25.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM APRIL 3 – 9, 2017

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It was another numbers game last week, with some shockers.

The Washington Post reported that ninety percent of criminal charges brought by the IRS were false, based on an overbroad definition of “structuring” – the practice of splitting deposits, supposedly in order to dodge reporting requirements. Many of the deposits were made for legitimate business purposes. Makes you wonder if Jersey Shore reality star Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino who was hit with more tax fraud charges this week, including splitting deposits, is one of those victims of the IRS.

Twenty-nine cops killed themselves during the first quarter of 2017. Over 100 took their own lives in 2016. If suicides are just the tip of the mental illness iceberg, then how many more are psychotically depressed, chronically depressed, anxious to the point of jumpiness or traumatized to the point that they’re dangerous to the rest of us, discharging their weapons when shooting isn’t justified? It might explain why they want only cops to serve on juries in trials of cops accusing of assaulting or killing people by shooting them.

One of the 8 men scheduled to be executed in an 11-day death penalty bonanza in Arkansas has been spared. One of the remaining seven wrote for Vice News and the Marshall Project what it’s like to wait for your execution date. Here’s a hint: your death row neighbors call dibs on your belongings and prison staff actually cares that the clothes you wear to get killed fit your properly. I think it’s a disgusting end to any life, even if it did end another’s, if you ask me.

 

 

 

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11 April 2016

You Are What You Own

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It must be easy for women who end up in prison to forget their pasts. So many of them come here after an unexpected arrest and all of their family photos, important documents, letters from parents before they passed – all of their momentos – get chucked along with their cookware, clothing and furniture.

When they leave the facility and track back to the angry landlord who evicted them they find out that all the pieces of their lives have fallen victim to a court order and incineration. Lady Justice just vacuumed up the only trail left of their lives.

This, of course, applies to the women who owned these items in the first place. Many don’t. The only evidence of their existences is rap sheets, bad debt and victims, not christening gowns and photo Christmas cards.

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The extent of prison property.

Prison’s like a dry run of You-Can’t-Take-It-With-You lesson because you can’t have anything from home. I’m reasonably attached to my possessions, as well as keeping track of them ever since my father threw out a twice-worn pair of Joan and David loafers when I was in high school. The reason? They were on the stairs and I wasn’t wearing them. He wasn’t punishing me for abandoning them on the passage between the floors of the house. He saw them and noticed that I wasn’t wearing them – two very good reasons to discard any useable article of clothing – so he tossed them. Unlike his eldest daughter, he is thoroughly unsentimental – as well as disorganized – and will bulldoze any living quarters to the local dump without hesitation, like landlords do to the other inmates.

Going to seg is a dry run of the dry run because other inmates pick at your things, taking what they like before anything reaches a property officer’s hands.  Then she culls out everything you’re not allowed to have, all your contraband. It’s like having someone pack up everything in your home while you’re away and, when you return, everything that remains fits in a shopping cart. Even when inmates leave the facility, departure distills years, even decades, into baggies. Sometimes all you own after eighteen years can fit into a purse, like a small Prada mock-croc that had better be in my closet when I get home.

Because I can’t see my life in possessions from here, I spot check over the phone.image

“Where are my yearbooks?”

“Is all of my field hockey stuff still there?”

“Did you take all the papers out of my car when you picked it up [from the parking lot behind the courthouse when I was sentenced surprise party-style]? DON’T FORGET THAT’S EVIDENCE!”

My parents always promise yes, but the proof of the pudding is in the actual inventorying. Which I won’t get to do for years.

Having all of one’s possessions swooshed away is standard for natural disaster victims, but for woman-made disasters, the guilt and the trauma that flow from telling your children that you have none of their school pictures – and all because your boyfriend was selling heroin out of your living room to an undercover cop – must be overwhelming and indelible.

No one saves mementos of dark times. The baby clothes, the wedding albums, the Christmas ornaments corroborate our memories, our knowledge that our lives were good once. And might even be good again one day.

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“Where’d she go?” “Dunno. I think she got arrested.”

That’s why sentimentally-valued stuff probably means more to a prisoner than to others. We’ve grown accustomed to evidence against us. But those mementos are evidence for us, in our favor, proof of why we should start liking ourselves again. When someone tampers with that tangible witness of our worth, we can’t even make a case for ourselves to ourselves. Even less can we do it to others.

For me, it’s one of the worst scenarios to witness when an inmate comes in. The hiccuping sobs and wailing about all the tender belongings that can’t be saved. With some confidence I can assure a crying inmate, tears falling on denim pants so news they’re still waterproof, that her lawyer will call, that she has a chance at trial, that her kids will come to visit, that she’ll be home one day.

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Welcome home.

But the holdings that make a home will be gone, I know. She knows, too. It’s futile to attempt to convince her that her landlord will save her property. He’ll sell what has real value and chuck whatever has emotional value. The support for the idea that a third party values your life enough to save your property is flimsy, especially here, in a place that, by its very purpose, devalues your life.

All I can do for these women is pat their backs and serve a generic “It will be alright.” An acid-like burn spreads in my chest when I have to say that because I know that I wouldn’t be able to handle the knowledge of that kind of loss. I also hate having to admit that I am lucky that my parents hold my stuff and allow me to call and ask questions like:

“All of my awards and my Princeton sweatshirts are still there, right?”

And they answer:

“Yes, Chandra. Where would they have gone?”

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THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM FROM APRIL 4  – 10, 2016

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I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children…You are defending the people who kill the people whose lives you say matter. Tell the truth!” is what former President Bill Clinton yelled at Black Lives Matter protesters on Thursday in Philadelphia where he was campaigning for his wife. He #sorrynotsorry-ed the next day. I disagree with this whole Blame-the-Clintons attitude when it comes to the country’s incarceration problems. The former president’s 1994 crime bill could not have predicted trends in the black market of illegal drugs and how privatization would impact them. Sometimes even well-intended policies go wrong. The challenge is to correct those policies when the evidence of their impact appears.

President Obama has deported more illegal immigrants than any other president, usually because they have been convicted of aggravated felonies. But the deportation always comes after we spend thousands to incarcerate these people. Why don’t we deport them before we spend all of this money on housing and feeding them? This never made sense to me.

Does it make sense to raise the “felony theft threshold” – the amount that needs to be stolen for the crime to be considered felonious? As someone who bunked with several serial “boosters” (shoplifters) I don’t think the threshold matters. Unless rehabilitated properly (which no one, including me, knows how to do) they will continue to steal small items and get their sentences enhanced under persistent offender statutes. It won’t make difference if you ask someone who’s been inside.

 

 

 

 

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4 January 2016

Lest Ye Be

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“Jesus. How long does she have?” I asked my cellmate as I nodded toward a woman with one arm at her side, lifeless, as if every nerve had been cut. She didn’t have a cast or a bandage. Whatever happened to her arm was permanent. She seemed like the hanging appendage wasn’t there  and walked like nothing was wrong.

“I dunno, six months?” TL guessed.

“So whatever she did wasn’t that serious,” I concluded out loud.

“Guess not. Why’s it matter?”

“The judge just absolutely had to send her to prison? A six-month sentence is like, for what, drugs, minor stealing? Someone could have sentenced her to probation so she didn’t have to come in here and be subjected to possible assaults, never mind how people taunt her for her disability. That’s all I’m saying.”

“She’ll be fine,”  TL assured me.

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Fisticuffs over one of these.

And she was fine. For the next few hours. Until her cellmate beat her up over a Goody hair elastic, ones that sell for 99¢ for 20 of them off the commissary.

“Jesus, is she okay?” I asked when TL informed me.

“Well, she’s in seg.”

“Why?” I was pissed.

“Well, she, ya know, fought back. You know them deadarms don’t feel no pain. She probably got a few good shots off,” TL explained.

“What have we become that one of us is beating the shit out of a handicapped girl for a hair tie?!” shouted LD as she overheard us. She used to be a correction officer before a drug addiction derailed her life.

“What have we become that we think ‘them deadarms’ are an advantage, a weapon?! Jesus.” It was all I could say.

When I see inmates walk around the compound with canes and severe limps, women who are missing eyes and legally blind, ladies with dwarfism or in wheelchairs, I think to myself: Wow, Lady Justice really doesn’t see any difference in defendants. What a cold-hearted bitch.

imageCrime really is equal opportunity so individuals with disabilities are allowed to break the law, too. Fairness dictates that people should be punished uniformly. But when I see an inmate, a Little Person, get cut down even further by guards who make fun of her size like she’s an exhibit, or a woman who’s paralyzed on one side because she was shot in the face and unable to carry her tray and no one helps her, I don’t think this is fair at all.

The only living person who can put someone in a correctional facility, at least in Connecticut, is a judge; police and prosecutors can’t do it alone. Accused persons can be held in police stations before arraignment but that’s considered “lock-up,” not prison. To get to a prison, a defendant must be officially remanded which means that a judge orders her into custody.

imageYou can argue that it’s someone’s behavior that sends her into correctional control. Even those completely bent on self-destruction cannot get here without a final push from someone in a black robe.

To me, judges are like mothers who drop their kids at a day-care center. They have the power to determine where another human being lives, even if it’s just for a number of hours. If a mother left her child at a day-care where that double-edged razor blades came with the juice boxes and the place was staffed with convicted sex-offenders, we would call her a bad mother, possibly kick her into prison for endangering her child. The mother’s not knowing what happens in the day-care doesn’t lessen her culpability; it was her decision and discretion that sent the child there. The kid has no choice and is powerless to collect all the blades safely and fend off dangerous adults.

Disabled inmates are a bit like those day-care kiddies. Harsh words and taunts from C/O’s slice up their self-esteem and they are, very often, unable to fight off violence from sociopathic prisoners.

The judges who place them in these positions should be ashamed of themselves, especially since sentencing alternatives and diversionary programs exist that can prevent exposing vulnerable people to peril.

imageSometimes the environment is so hostile that the danger it poses reaches constitutional violation levels. A judge in Nebraska caught flak when she thought that the defendant, convicted of sex offenses, was too short  and his obvious size disadvantage subjected him to potentially cruel and unusual punishment in the Dog-Beat-Dog culture of a men’s maximum-security prison. Apparently, critics of the judge thought that defendant Pip Squeak should suffer the death penalty at the hands of other violent offenders. That was a punishment they considered fair.

If judges really want to dispense justice tempered with mercy, they would familiarize themselves not only with prison conditions but prison culture. At the very least, the emotional and mental torment that a different-looking or different-walking inmate experiences in prison should factor into sentencing decisions. The physical risk put to many disabled inmates is, quite frankly, enough to justify putting them on house arrest and letting them stay home.

But judges will never comprehend prison safety problems because they never experience them first-hand. “That’s DOC. That’s not my territory,” is a common judicial punt whenever prison perils appear in the arguments before them.

imageBut it is the judges’ territory which is why every new jurist should have to spend one week in prison as an average inmate. The judges’ one-week stopover will be most defendants’ stays, so even one week won’t constitute a full meal of correction, only a mouthful.

But then judges will be able to put their money where their mouthfuls are if they willingly subject themselves to the confinement conditions they inflict on defendants who quake before their benches, terrified about what might happen to them when prison walls envelop them.

Only when a real Do-Unto-Others ethic appears in the decisions judges make will we have true fairness in our courtrooms and the only way to impart that context to judges is to send them to the slammer, only for a little while. I think we’d see that they’d call Lady Justice a bitch when she deadarms them. She, too, is in here now, sent by a judge for a misdemeanor even though she’s blind.

 THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM FROM DECEMBER 28, 2015 – JANUARY 3, 2016

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Hacktivist group Anonymous claims to have evidence that clears Steven Avery, the prisoner who is the subject of the hit Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer.”  Okay…we’re waiting…and a man you say is innocent is languishing in prison. A little less conversation and a little more hacktion, please.

The State of Washington’s Department of Correction’s computer glitch has been releasing people early in error. Now two people released early have been charged with homicides. These people probably would have re-offended anyway when they were released properly because rehabilitation is clearly not taking hold in Washington prisons.

Buzzfeed reports that Cleveland Judge Calls Prosecutor’s Approach in Tamir Rice Case “Unorthodox” after the prosecutor instructs a grand jury not to indict two policemen in the shooting death of a 12 year-old boy. Is what Judge Ronald B. Adine calls “unorthodox” really just standard operating procedure?

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19 October 2015

Stoners

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Written October 23, 2011

No one in Washington fears throwing the first stone, especially Senators. They accuse each other of crimes and cover-ups – usually requesting prosecution by the Justice Department – regardless of the Senate Ethics Committee’s investigative results.

imageWith the Senate chamber hanging off a rockledge of criminality, it’s most puzzling why the entire Senate didn’t back Senator James Webb’s (D-VA) National Criminal Justice Commission Act. After all, if each of the stones stuck, many senators would land in the criminal justice system themselves.

Ironically, the senators who stonewalled the bill the most are the ones most likely to end up in the slammer: Tom Coburn (R-OK) for violations of lobbying laws, John Ensign, (R-NV) for crimes committed in pursuing the wife of a staffer, one involved in Colburn’s woes, and Larry Craig (R-WY), who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for his toe-tapping toilet routine in a Minneapolis airport, are among the people who are against reform.

imageSenators have stalled Webb’s legislation for his entire term and without good reason. Comparatively speaking, the cost of the commission to be established by the law – $14 million – broke no beltway banks, so money was an unlikely barrier to support. The law’s goal – establishing a blue-ribbon panel of experts to conduct a complete, top-down scrutiny of the nation’s criminal justice system – shouldn’t have been too politically polarizing.

imageBy itself, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act did nothing to the prosecution of criminal defendants except seek to understand the present system since the last nationwide analysis occurred more than 45 years ago. The Commission Webb wanted to establish would have been a stepping-stone to reform, not the change itself. All that Webb’s law wanted to do was to know what to do. It wasn’t much more than a study bill.

Statistics on crime and punishment are just like those newsy health bulletins that confuse everyone. Caffeine good for you. Caffeine bad. Premedicate with antibiotics before dental visit. Or don’t. Up to you. Alcohol is bad but wine, which contains alcohol, is good for you. But only one glass. Maybe two. But a Big Gulp in Manhattan will kill you. That’s why we hear things like: Crime’s up. No, it’s down but prison populations are up, because they’re potheads. I mean, dope fiends.image

Public health researchers reconcile these competing claims with studies call meta-analyses; a meta-analysis is a study that studies other studies and attempts to synthesize conclusions into one universal truth. Or maybe a couple.

The National Criminal Justice Commission Act was poised to be the meta-analysis of the criminal world, synthesizing sentence durations, corrections data, foster care trends (for children of inmates), substance abuse research and re-entry strategies into one answer for reform. All we have now is a trend herd, out of which emerges a promising number here, a sluggish rate change there. We have no idea what to do.

imageWebb’s legislation rolled away from the Senate without gathering any moss, not because we couldn’t find answers, but because, once answers reveal themselves, the answers must lead us. No one knows what a criminal justice meta-analysis will unearth. Maybe longer sentences for certain crimes. Sentence reform advocates wouldn’t like that. What if the “treatment” everyone wants instead of jail works only on the fourth or fifth try, like so much research suggests? Do we make three or four futile attempts at taxpayer expense? What happens if it looks like the draconian Rockefeller drug laws might reduce crime and prison populations if we gave them a few more years to work? Every mass incarceration protester would have to drop his sign.

Revealed by meta-analysis, certain answers will devalue someone’s entire life’s work. Certain answers we just don’t want because theyimage end questions, stone-cold. If questions remain, so does uncertainty and uncertainty is the perfect way to justify doing nothing.

The reason why Webb’s bill failed is the same reason why our prison’s are filled: once you know the right thing to do, you’re obligated to do it. To avoid obligation, you simply ignore what you’re expected to do which is easier now that the Senate has erected a gravestone on Jim Webb’s legislation. R.I.P. – Reform Isn’t Probable.

 

 

READER POLL

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From the New York Times: Jim Webb Blames His Debate Demeanor on Being Ignored

Of all three losers of Tuesday's Democratic Presidential Debate on CNN, who won?

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10 August 2015

Probable Pause

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The “probable cause” standard for arresting someone dips lower and lower each year.  The legal standard used to be that it was as likely that a suspect committed a crime as it was that she was innocent, a 50-50 split on the cops chances of catching the right woman.  Now what you have on – or have on you – can collar you for prostitution without money or sex in the offing.

imageIn five-plus years of incarceration, I have encountered hundreds of women accused or convicted of prostitution.  Even though they all wear the same outfit as I do when I interact with them – “uniform of the day” of baggy blue jeans and a burgundy T-shirt – I always envision them wearing the same thing when they work:  a sequined miniskirt, thigh-high stiletto boots and a cropped jacket made of faux fur.  I have succumbed to the celluloid stereotype of the streetwalker myself, as broadminded as I pretend to be about depictions of prostitutes painted with a broad brush.

Ginia Bellafante’s April 7, 2013 “Big City” column in The New York Times reminded me just how much we rely on clichés to make decisions.  Bellafante reported the story of Yhatzine Lafontain, a man falsely arrested in Queens, New York for prostitution simply for wearing “a jacket, a short dress and heels,” attributing Lafontain’s false arrest to the stop-and-frisk vortex circling New York’s five boroughs.  It’s no slippery informant tipping off NYPD to make these prostitution arrests, but people’s clothing ensembles.

imageEveryone is guilty of depending on stereotypes whether we cop to it or not.  We expect terrorists to be swarthy, turban-wearing Middle Easterners.  We assume dorky-looking Asians to be brilliant.  Every spurned woman is a stalker and any poor soul afflicted with mental illness and messy hair is planning a rampage killing.  Anyone walking a New York City street in the middle of the night with heels, a mini and a furry windbreaker?  That’s a hooker in our minds.

The truth eventually wanders into our minds and aborts our pre-conceived notions, isolated examples like Mr. Lafontain that remind us that not only are these exceptions not the rule but sometimes the rule is not the rule either.  The thoughtful among us retain this information and prevent our stereotypes from taking action but police, those people discouraged from thinking and pushed toward profiling, march lockstep with careless classification when they make arrests for prostitution like Mr. Lafontain’s.

POL-ProbCause-2That 50/50 split that is probable cause is so easily influenced by our preconceptions and prejudices. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if an arrest wasn’t the kick-off it is to a years-long ordeal that includes arraignment, definitely pre-trial, possibly trial, probably conviction and unfortunately incarceration. Our country’s crisis of mass incarceration has been set off by our misperceptions. Millions of people lose their freedom and billions of dollars are spent because of mistakes.

The question of whether or not to arrest someone for prostitution based on what s/he wears does not blend well with debates about profiling for terror or rampage killings because, regardless of profiling’s efficacy, the events that police seek to prevent by profiling are deadly.  Collaring someone for prostitution doesn’t save lives like that; at best, it’s cock-blocking.  At worst, it is the most insidious mode of judgment, bumping the contents for the cover and it corrupts every constitutional protection belonging to a dude in heels.

Transsexuals in Brazil by Pep Bonet / NOORSome might say that preventing consummation of the deal between a prostitute and her customer can save lives because it prevents transmission of deadly sexually transmitted diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, but people in the sex trade don’t tote condoms like they used to, ever since police in large cities across the country used the number of rubbers someone carried with her as probable cause for a prostitution arrest.  Up to three prophylactics in your pocket when you’re trying to cross the street?  You’re just a slut.  Four or more?  You’re a paid whore.  It’s this ugly math that causes prostitutes – and everyone else – to leave the Trojans at home so they don’t end up in cuffs.  So no, prejudice and profiling in prostitution save no lives; they just imperils them, even if several large cities’ police forces have entered moratoriums on condom-counting as probable cause.

imageBesides, the streetwalker went inside years ago.  Prostitution transactions occur on the internet and then are consummated at truck stops, casinos or motels.  Or they happen in day spas that are really brothels with a steam room and a few manicurists.  See?  Stereotypes again.

Fifty years ago this year, two treatises on prejudice and stereotypes emerged as alarms about how we view gender and race:  Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  One essential message contained in both was that reality – and justice and fairness – was beneath the surface.  Confining people – in jails or in society’s imposed roles –based on appearances makes a mess and a mockery of every good thing we do.

These wake-up calls have sounded in our ears for half a century and, if Yhatzine Lafontain’s arrest for his clothing choice serves as any indication, we still slap the snooze button to silence these alarms every time we charge someone with prostitution for what they wear.

 READER POLL

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From feministing.com: Stay in Your Lane: We Don’t Need Rich White Actresses’ Comments on Sex Work

Advocates for LGBTQI sex workers basically told wealthier white women to shove it when they registered their opinion on Amnesty International’s recommendation that sex work should be completely decriminalized. The reasoning? Rich white women can’t really know the risks and realities of having to sell sex.

Do you agree that privileged people have no say in debates over social problems they have never experienced?

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3 August 2015

Get Your Learn On

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san quentin class of 99

If my alma mater admitted some of these women, I would blow.

Women here at York spent this weekend writing two page essays as part of their applications to Wesleyan University’s prison education program whereby the elite school offers liberal arts courses to prisoners that, over time, may allow them to earn a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan.

Wesleyan to offer Wesleyan courses and credits to 19 prisoners
Click here for more information on Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education

Few people understand what a revolution this is and how every citizen in Connecticut stands to benefit from Wesleyan’s bravery.  Studies have revealed repeatedly that inmates who take college classes are four times less likely to re-offend than those who do not; when offered to prisoners, college courses, not the Department of Correction’s hokey, unfocused Offender Accountability Plan programs, provide the best defense against recidivism.  Despite education’s promise in rehabilitating inmates, Connecticut prisons don’t universally offer higher education and in the past they made it almost impossible for local colleges and universities to send in professors to teach these classes behind bars.

But Wesleyan busted past this bullshit and is accepting a freshman class of seasoned female cons.

At the first level of admissions testing, a timed essay that evaluated reading comprehension and written expression, Wesleyan directed the wheat to line up in one place and the chaff to assemble in another.  Or so I thought; I didn’t take the exam but I read a copy of it in its aftermath as chaff blew everywhere like dandelion spores.

wesylan cardina;Two inmates cheated on the entrance exam, each partially writing the other’s answer.  Their constant chatter disturbed other aspiring Wesleyan Cardinals.  I witnessed none of this but I did overhear one of the disruptive duo ask someone if she thought that Wesleyan’s exam readers would mind that both her and her girlfriend’s essay were each written in “two different handwritings.” Both of the talking, cheating inmates passed to the second level of admissions testing; Wesleyan told almost forty other candidates that their essays left them at the front door, no further.  They will not get a chance to take classes.

The more-than-forty second-round candidates received instructions to write a two to three page take-home essay this weekend on one of three questions:  1) describe a time at which something unexpected happened; 2) describe a time when you used or rejected silence as communication and 3) describe an event, object, place or person that looks much different in close focus than it does from a distance.  Unfortunately, I viewed this second round of writing up close.

Inmates scribbled out first drafts and then strategized.  One woman – whom I know to be a very competent writer – farmed her essay out to another woman whom she will pay with oral sex and Coffee-Mate non-dairy creamer.

motherlode-essays-blog480Others solicited opinions, corrections, suggestions from anyone who would read their essays.  A Jewish inmate read a woman’s strident essay about the Jehovah Witnesses’ ethic of avoiding silence and speaking to elders in Kingdom Hall to quiet temptations to sin.  Her critique of the piece was: “Jehovah’s Witnesses are pushy doorbell ringers.  You will offend the admissions people sounding like a religious nut.”

And the fight was on.

Essays were passed around by applicants who feared their essays might be off-putting. Critiques fell on deaf ears and overly-sensitive nerves.  Women argued constantly, fearful they might be left out of this chance to live, if only for 90-minute intervals, like successful individuals.

“You’re saying I’m dumb because I don’t know the word you used!” exclaimed one woman, tearing up and locking herself in her cell.

“How would you like it if I told Wesleyan how much Winky [that’s me – long story] helped you? Maybe Winky even wrote your essay, huh?” taunted another inmate as I sat next to third, checking her spelling and grammar.

sing sing pennant“Didn’t write it, just checking it like I checked yours,” I said without looking up. The third inmate chose the silence question for her essay. It was what happened when the prosecutor in her murder trial asked her: “Well, if you didn’t do it, who did?” She didn’t have an answer. Now she’s here.

“This will definitely be a first for the Wesleyan admissions committee,” I conceded and wondered if there are panicked parents out there, so nervous that their child’s essay to elite schools doesn’t have a story like hers, an extreme and nutty hardship like doing a life sentence for murder, a perfect-for soul-searching-in 500-words topic that no other applicant would have.

One woman actually tried to set up a physical altercation between two of her competitors; she anticipated that the goon squad would drag them to seg and keep them from attending their admission interviews.

You know, it was all your typical freshman week activities.

prisonceton
Princeton actually does this. Click here to learn more about the Prison Teaching Initiative at Princeton University.

As a graduate of Princeton, I would be proud to know that my alma mater put its endowment where its mouth is and started an in-prison degree program.  Like most alums of Ivy League schools, Princeton and its values are inlaid in my daily life. Literally translated, “alma mater” means ‘soul mother’ in Latin which we have changed into “nurturing mother.”  Princeton birthed the way I think and the way I write and is responsible for any assistance I can provide to other inmates.  I wouldn’t be who I am today without Princeton which probably isn’t a good advertisement for the place given the fact that I write this from prison.  But, contrary to American literary legend – and a Princeton alum himself – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prediction that there are no second acts, I have a significant second act on layaway, one with more plot twists than the Tigers can handle.

But any pride in my alma mater’s potential sponsorship of a prison education program derives from my view of it long distance, like so many Wesleyan alums view this new program at York.  If I saw the York women’s antics up close and my school admitted them to a degree program, I would pitch such a bitch that I would probably catch another criminal charge and keep myself among the women I see as unfit for my alma mater’s consumption.  I think Wesleyan alums would do the same if they witnessed this bullshit up close.  No graduate of an elite school would allow these drips to water down their souls.  I am sure others see this as such but I don’t think its elitist to feel this way. I am allowed to value and protect what I have.

Many inmates have primed themselves to be worthy of a Wesleyan education.  Others will corrupt it.  Classes start in January.  I hope these inmates don’t blow it.

princeton tiger

 

READER POLL

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From newsweek.com: Obama Restores Some Prisoners’ Pell Grant Eligibility

Do you agree that prisoners should be eligible for Pell grants for college courses?

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8 June 2015

You Bet Your Ass I’m Tapped

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“That’s like buying half of a pair of shoes. You need both to get anywhere,” I told Jim Ruane, the lawyer I had forced upon me for my habeas corpus petition, after he subpoenaed only my outgoing calls and none of my incoming, like a telephone line was a street with only one-way foot traffic.

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Tyranny for you is freedom for me.

Telephone records figure prominently in all of my cases. I need my home telephone records to prove two separate claims. First, that I was not the party who called and ordered $40,000,000 diamond necklaces, and second, that I was on the phone with someone else when jurors received calls designed to disrupt my trial on the diamond necklace charge. Phone records can clear me on so many accusations flung at me that I might never have been here – or accused of being crazy – if I had the evidence. Every lawyer before Ruane – and also the police – told me that the records had split, that they expire and disappear one year after the call was made. “Too bad no one caught ‘em in time,” one small town cop guffawed after he supposedly served a warrant on the local telephone company. I know he knew those records would absolve me.

Despite these admonitions that telephone records slip from evidence to inference after one year, Ruane did try to get the phone records I needed to exculpate me. I explained that, on the night of October 4, 2007, I exchanged a volley of calls with the caretaker of a man I represented in front of Social Security at the time. But Ruane subpoenaed only half of my absolution – outgoing- and left my other half – incoming – to the court’s imagination and it pissed me off.image

“Maybe disabled people buy only one shoe?” he offered, an answer to my argumentative analogy.

“Actually, I think they buy both, but use only one. Besides, that’s my point – I’m incapacitated with only one side. I need both to get anywhere with this case,” I said with my lips clenched in frustration and was about to bang the table but I knew a guard might hear me and think I was starting a situation. So I just pumped both fists in the air. Evidence of crazy.

“What can I tell you?” he asked. “I don’t have them.”

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Yeah, I know. The warden already told me.

But someone else does. Most people don’t understand how much Edward Snowden revealed when he let loose the fact that the federal government has been collecting data on our phone calls, monitoring us like a pesky little sister, denying that they act like Big Brother.

Snowden’s big reveal is that the government, in leapfrogging the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unlawful searches to gather intelligence to prevent crime, collected a tidy, little cache of data that can exculpate defendants accused of crimes involving phone-related evidence. Like mine. I know mine are in there somewhere. And I want them.

Any many other people’s as well; these days, almost every criminal case involves telephone record evidence. Because of this, Snowden is no whistleblower; he’s a tipster. He’s pointing out evidence with the potential to solve crimes, just not in the way that government wants – in favor of a defendant or even a convicted felon like me.

The government violates citizens’ constitutional rights every day. Police search houses, cars, purses and our bodies without suspicion. They seek approval for wiretaps based on perjured affidavits. We can’t call constitutional violations instances anymore; they are patterns. Outrage erupts when someone someone like Snowden points out the hidden motif in the obvious picture. The uproar over NSA surveillance just encapsulates the American attitude towards any activity related to police investigations and criminal justice: It’s OK until it happens to me.

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…especially if what you were about to say exculpates someone.

The real problem with NSA’s phone surveillance is not how and why they get their data but what they do or don’t do with it. Much like the national registry CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), exculpatory evidence has settled in the bogs of some federal database and no one knew to look for it before Edward Snowden. Even after Snowden, they don’t ask for it if my cases are any indication.

Releasing some of the phone record data held by the NSA would not make their practices any less invasive but it might make their surveillance worth it and truly to the public’s benefit if it clears someone’s name in a criminal case. But the feds don’t want to do that. They would rather watch their citizens hobble around, clueless and shoeless, much like all of my defense attorneys. But we have Snowden-shoes now. If only someone who represents me would pull a pair on.

The phone data the NSA collected could clear someone’s name in a criminal case or even a mere investigation. One of the last women killed by the Long Island serial killer of prostitutes called 911 from a cell phone before she disappeared and died. Tracing outward from her cell phone records would create a web of communication data so wide and so warrantless it would have to produce some leads. But everyone wants the government to avoid violating people’s privacy so they will never use the evidence they have already collected to solve a murder. It doesn’t make sense.

I still don’t have the other half of my needed telephone records but my government does. Until citizens end up in a position like mine, they are loathe to concede any constitutional rights. But I, the one who needs constitutional protection more than others, have actually decided that there are rights I can live without, especially if my life remains as see-through as it is. What does it say about me now that I think that violation isn’t all bad?

(Entry written August 2013)

READER POLL

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From the New York Times: The World Says No to Surveillance, an oped by Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden says that, because the public is now informed and demanded protection of their constitutional rights, the NSA surveillance program established by the Patriot Act has been scrapped.

Do you believe that surveillance started under the Patriot Act has completely ceased?

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11 May 2015

Catch Me if You Care

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“Chandra, can I ask you something?” she asked me.

I had just completed 16 of the 18 hours that constitute a trip to court from prison. I was exhausted, filthy, baffled at how she knew my name and how to pronounce it. I wanted to say: “Not now” but it came out as “OK.”

I had seen this woman leaving the prison the day before on “T.S.”- transitional supervision, a type of short-term parole. As soon as she arrived home, an argument with her girlfriend erupted over a hair-dye kit and summoned the neighbors’ attention. The neighbors called the police who took the fresh freebird back into custody, dark roots and all.

“Does your family send you money?”

Not this shit again, I thought. She’s going to ask me to buy her something off the commissary because she gave away all of her property yesterday when she left…

“Someone told me they did,” she continued without letting me answer.

“OK, so…” Why did you ask? I thought but my mental question was broken off by her continuing script.

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Someone else’s kids.

“Do they know anyone who wants to buy pictures of kids?” she asked.

Why would my parents or anyone they know want to buy pictures of someone else’s kids? Images from Anne Geddes’ line of greeting cards popped into mind, the kind where she dresses up an overly-rouged but perfectly adorable infant like a head of cabbage or a rosebud. Then heat rose into my face and adrenaline started thumping in my ears as I realized: Holy Shit. She’s talking about kiddie porn.

I was thoroughly disgusted but somehow atingle, and not at the thought of the pics. I can take this bitch down! I assured myself silently and quickly scanned my mind for a response that wouldn’t scare her away from divulging more. The theme from Mission: Impossible played the entire time in my head.

“I can check into it. What kind of delivery time are we talking about?” I asked like I knew how to negotiate a kiddie porn sale.

“Remember Dippy? She worked in the property? She can get them – digital or prints – in like a week.”

I did remember Dippy; she was already on the streets, released months before.

“Ok, I’ll try,” I promised her.

“Thank you so much. This isn’t an easy hustle.”

I should hope not.

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Ineffectual. No wonder so many children are missing.

Even though I was totally sleep-deprived, I stayed up that night writing letters and Inmate Request Forms.  I wrote to the Inmate Legal Assistance to request the addresses of America’s Most Wanted (the show’s founder, John Walsh, hates sex offender creeps), The National Center for Missing Exploited Children in Alexandria, Virginia, the FBI, Connecticut State Police. I wrote to the administrative captain to report the incident. When I marshaled together all the addresses I needed, I sent each agency a letter requesting that the appropriate person contact me to commence an investigation. At 4AM one day, as I headed to my prison job, I dropped the stack of envelopes into the mailbox and expected – at least within the month- to hear “Bozelko, professional visit” from one of the guards, signaling that an attorney or detective came to the prison to see me.

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Dude, you never wrote me back.

No one ever came.

So I wrote a second round of letters. This cycle included the United States attorney for the District of Connecticut but brought the same number of inquiries, a nice round number called zero. The bus proposition happened in January 2010 and, to date, [June 2012] no one has formally documented it.

I hardly expected that law enforcement would arrest this woman on my word, especially now that I was overloaded with felony convictions. But I did expect someone to take a report, assign a case number and forge a paper trail. None of that ever happened. Having the report might make the difference between a no-knock warrant and a regular warrant that will let them slip away.

When people say that a picture is worth a thousand words, they must mean the thousands of words that prosecutors, police, politicians and private perverts spew about being anti-crime, about keeping the streets safe, about protecting our children, about sending a message, about zero tolerance for sexually-based offenses. One snapshot of a child in a sexual pose or being raped is worth all of those words but didn’t warrant the one thing that overspeaks those hollow phrases: action.

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Apparently, he doesn’t take reports from inmates.

But we’re not really talking about pictures when the subject of child pornography rises into conversation like sewer gas. We’re talking about people. And if victim’s advocates around the country truly care about preventing victimization and punishing it when prevention fails, they should push for a law that requires that an official report be taken whenever someone communicates an encounter with this system of sleaze. Investigation of every possible chance that someone is peddling this smut.

Now it’s more important than ever to prevent pornographic pictures of children from being taken then surfacing. Courtesy of the internet, everything vile now goes viral and the pictures get duplicated digitally thousands of times. You never hear of someone getting caught with six pieces of child pornography. Instead it’s always 1500, 5,000 pics; perverts aren’t half-steppers. Children who suffer a rape on film have legions of fans who call them porn stars. The National Center on Missing and Exploited Children, the same agency I wrote to request assistance, has a database of over 5000 child pornography victims. I wonder if any of those 5000 ever met the woman on the bus or whether children who do meet her will end up in the computer database, too.

I did something; I have tried for years to stir up some action on this woman and what she does to children. I will cringe if I ever find out about her continuing criminal enterprise but my conscience will be clear, clear in a system that doesn’t really care who’s doing children dirty.

P.S. If you’re wondering why this woman’s inquiry centered on me and my family like I did, please know that she didn’t focus on me alone. She asked every inmate who she thought had a cash flow – donations from family and friends deposited into an Inmate Trust Account – and might know other people who had positive cash flows. Apparently, a lot of perverts are rich. And a lot of inmates didn’t report her.

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READER POLL

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All right, lock up already.

 

From pennlive.com: Guards Carried Out ‘Fight Club’-Styled Abuses at York County Prison, Lawsuit Alleges

This is a switch; the York prison getting heat is not the one where I lived for six years. As many as 22 guards are alleged to have set up and bet on inmate fights, forcing inmates to eat ‘soups’ of spoiled food and cleaning chemicals or snort spices in a Pennsylvania prison. This allegedly happened for approximately five years. Three of the guards have already been charged with official oppression, a crime in Pennsylvania.

What is an appropriate sentence for the guards in Pennslyvania criminally charged with 'official oppression'?

  • Less than a year in prison, followed by 10,000 hours of community service with victims of violent crimes and developmentally challenged individuals. (50%, 1 Votes)
  • Ten years each. No parole. They were paid well and trusted to take care of a vulnerable population. How does it feel? (50%, 1 Votes)
  • Diversionary program. It's probably the first offense for each of them. Working as a prison guard is emotionally exhausting and they probably just 'lost it' temporarily. (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 2

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