24 April 2017

Pero…like

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imageedit_33_5342224210The real world’s advantages don’t exactly translate in here. Every aspiring college freshman and job applicant in the world brags that she’s bilingual, but it isn’t an advantage in here. They ask you about it a couple of times throughout your risk assessment period. It’s not that they’re looking for translators, like I thought when they asked me. I could’ve said:

“Well, I passed the Spanish civil service test in 1991…” but I acted almost like I didn’t understand the question because I didn’t want to be drafted into the interpreter corps.

But they wouldn’t have asked me to translate anyway. It’s not like York [Correctional Institution] or even other prisons care about accommodating inmates and breaking down language barriers.   Aside from a few paragraphs on old bulletins hanging in the plexiglass-covered announcement boards and the sign announcing the north and south sides of the numbered buildings – as if women couldn’t have figured out that the “S” in 1S meant “Sur,” especially after juxtaposing it against the “N” of North/Norte – there is almost no accommodation of strictly Spanish speaking-women here. I remember reading something about how inmates in a DC jail were complaining about an Eighth Amendment violation [alleging cruel and unusual punishment] because no one working in their medical unit spoke Spanish. I can see the same conditions exist here, where speech means security.

A prison asks you what language you speak because they need to know who to watch. Spanish – or any other language for that matter – is a secret code in an American prison because so few of the C/O’s speak it (or admit they speak it),  making me like a secret decoder ring…that, thankfully, no one knows to consult.

You would think that a group of prisoners who had a private communication system might use it to escape or reform the place. No. In here, the women with the keys to the kingdom use them to scratch someone’s car or pick out ear wax.

The inmates who can speak boldly in front of anyone without detection, instead gossip and slander other women in Spanglish crossed with Valley Girl, trailing sentences as they pulled off the coup of talking about people behind their backs and in front of their faces with  “pero, like….” which translates to  “but, like…”. “Pero…like” justifies baseless bullshit because they leave the end of this slanderous sludge open. It’s like they know that what they’re saying is so false that it needs to betray all languages they know, not just one.

“Sé qui ella dice que no es uno prostituta, pero…like…”

I know she says she’s not a prostitute, but…like…

And they use “but…like” to talk about my keister, my butt. Apparently, I have Butt Implants. And supposedly I stole money from an employer to pay for them. According to them, I’m fake and so is my ass. My ass landed me in here.

Normally, I would laugh at their bullshit but overhearing this hit me in the body part where it hurt most. I don’t even know what to call it. Falling shy of badonkadonk, it’s a bit of a bubble butt. Maybe half a teardrop or a hot tamale losing heat. At least it would have some utility if it were a shelf butt. Shelf or not, my ass is big, it protrudes and always served as convenient drop spot for an insult to me.

I felt like I would never match the physicality of so many of the uber-rich, perfected young adults who roamed the Princeton campus. I saw their limbs as so lengthy, WASPy, tanned in Oyster Bay. Although I hardly came from a poor background, my haunches seemed like vestiges of Slavic peasantry; they reminded me of an Eastern European weightlifter while the other students looked like Nordic ice dancers.

Feeling like a huge red arrow followed me, trained on my ass, made me compensate for those low feelings. Convinced I was attractive only for my brains, I assured myself that my mind outweighed any heavy butt. If it was all about the brains, no bubble, then any thought that entered my mind was right and should be voiced. Pissed over a date being late, I’d blast him. I reamed men for perceived slights or even joking with me like a friend and not a love interest.

When I wasn’t being an intolerable pain in the ass to boys I liked, I spent my remaining college years trying to minimize my gluteus, even consulting plastic surgeons. If they could correct my ass to perfection, I would attract men physically as well as intellectually and they would never leave.

“Can you get rid of this?” I asked each one and he – always a “he” since I subconsciously sought a message of correctability from men – would pull up on each buttock. Items in my rearview are actually smaller than they seem because my legs are so short. My femur compares to the length of an average woman’s forearm.

“I can take some off but you have a lot of muscle. It’s just the way you’re built.” Fundamentally defective yet again.

“¡Carajo! Huelo su coño desde aquí. Se lo chingó ala guardia. Por la mesa, I bet.”

Fuck! I can smell her pussy from here. She fucked that C/O. On his desk, I bet. 

Like the Butt Implant theory, both of these allegations were easily proved false if I cared to do so, but…like…I didn’t want my nether regions dominating all of their conversation.

“No digas ‘coño’. Se escucha vulgar,” I said.

Don’t say ‘pussy’. You sound trashy. 

“Whaaa? Puta. Fuck outta here! Why she never tell us?” shouted one of them, Flaca.

Whaaa? That bitch. Fuck outta here. Why didn’t she tell us she spoke Spanish? She betrayed us by not telling us information we wouldn’t have needed if we had any class.  Wherever women are speaking Spanish in a prison, there’s at least one Flaca within the group. It means skinny. Digo culo piqueño pero, like… I would say ‘small ass’ but, like…

“Yo hablo, pero…like…pueden besar mi culo in Inglés.”

I speak it, but…like…you can kiss my ass in English.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM APRIL 17 – 23, 2017

FILE - In this Tuesday, April 18, 2017 file photo, Ledell Lee appears in Pulaski County Circuit Court for a hearing in which lawyers argued to stop his execution which is scheduled for Thursday. Unless a court steps in, Lee and Stacey Johnson are set for execution Thursday night. Lee was sentenced to death after being convicted of killing Debra Reese with a tire iron in February 1993 in Jacksonville. (Benjamin Krain/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP, File)

Last week was about life and who gets to take it. Ask yourself what you would do/want done if you were any of these people:

Another aspect of the “CSI effect” – expecting that every shred of evidence in a criminal case is capable of forensic analysis – is expecting that every shred actually gets tested.  On Friday, the State of Arkansas executed Ledell Lee before DNA testing could be conducted to examine his claims of innocence. Think about that: because the expiration date on a drug was fast approaching, a state government decided it was acceptable to kill someone without double-checking his guilt. This was also Justice Neil Gorsuch’s first vote, he was the deciding factor in SCOTUS’ allowing people to put the needle in Lee’s arm, proving that, in the United States, homicide is acceptable, depending on who commits it.

Keep in mind that one man, Arkansasan Gov. Asa Hutchinson, could have saved eight lives – including Lee’s – in less than 10 seconds if he had the temerity that Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe had on Thursday when he commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz, convicted in the murder-for-hire of his ex-girlfriend. McAuliffe was convinced of Teleguz’ guilt but saw that his sentencing was unfair (the prosecutor casually suggested Teleguz was involved in another murder during the penalty phase of the trial) so he spared his life. If you had the chance to save a life, wouldn’t you do it, too?

No, it wasn’t a murder. Aaron Hernandez, former New England Patriots TE, ended his own life last Wednesday, a few days after his double acquittal for murder. Reports surfaced that, for the first time in court, Hernandez was speaking to other people, blowing kisses to his daughter and generally acting like a human being instead of a prisoner. A little over a year ago, another former NFL player, Lawrence Phillips, committed suicide after coming back from court where he also felt human, and acted, according to others, like “a kid on Christmas morning.” When you aren’t forced to endure mass prisoner transport, chained to other people in filthy buses and vans (which most assuredly neither of these men were) then I guess trips to court can be okay, even good, and better than your life behind bars, and your crash into correctional reality hurts so badly that you use all of the autonomy you have left.

 

 

 

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3 April 2017

I Hate Second Chances

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Jesus Preaching the Sermon on the Mount Gustave Dore

Studying the Gospel of Matthew in after-school catechism, I found the question:  How many times must I forgive my neighbor?

Seven times?

No.

Seven times seventy.

I remember thinking that Jesus was a little close-fisted about forgiveness. Seven times seventy is 490 and he wouldn’t even round up to the full five hundred. It also scared me because in my twelve-year old heart that was as ambitious about achievement as it was intimidated by my own fallibility – one I would never admit – that I would max out my limit before I could test for my driver’s license.

70 times 7
This is your limit.

The parable’s purpose is to teach the opposite, of course, that forgiveness has no cap. And since the sins I thought would damn me were talking back to my parents, occasionally cursing, being a banal, upper-middle class, white brat, I never predicted that my cup of depravity would runneth over as much as it did when picked up 13 felony convictions. I don’t like to brag, but I earned four misdemeanors, too. I am always an overachiever.

As someone in such extreme need of absolution, I should be heartened when I hear that someone got a SECOND CHANCE but I’m not.  Despite the fact that the phrase has become synonymous with formalized redemption, the banner over every criminal justice reform effort, I can do without a SECOND CHANCE.

Standalone, the phrase is loaded with meaning, more than just shorthand for ‘lay off the cons.’

It negatively frames your alleged crime. When someone gives you a SECOND CHANCE, they’re reminding you that you blew the first. Maybe it’s not the exact metes and bounds of my offense, but it puts my name on the mailbox and being given a SECOND CHANCE hurts me where I live, nestled nicely between the first shot and the third strike. When you’re given a SECOND CHANCE, the LAST CHANCE is next. The end is near. And remember: we don’t round up.

communism
Marx, Jesus. Same thing.

If forgiveness is finite, then it’s scarce, and if it’s scarce in the United States, then it’s controlled by an elite few.  To get this commodity, I have to plead for it, work for it or manipulate it out of them. It makes me lesser than they and assures me that I’ll never wrest full control of it but instead settle for small pieces that I must beg for. The phrase SECOND CHANCE is supposed to be robust, redemptive rhetoric but it’s become anemic, Dickensian if you really think about it. A bloodless phrase to describe someone getting a pint out of you. Mercy doesn’t work on a capitalist model. There shouldn’t be an economy in forgiveness. It’s the one place where I prefer communism: to each according to need, from each according to ability…and of course, everyone’s ability should match their needs; both are inexhaustible if we tell the truth about ourselves.

Paolo Friere, the Brazilian educator and author, found that the ‘banking model’ of education – the model where the teacher has more knowledge than the pupils, which she then bestows upon them – doesn’t work with oppressed populations. Students become passive receptacles for knowledge and can only receive what the teacher’s willing to give. This, Friere argues, is ultimately dehumanizing because all power of the student derives from the teacher, not from ability, from curiosity, from within. Someone has to grant permission to other people to develop as human beings.

banking model
Replace education with forgiveness. It works the same. Click twice for greater detail.

While I appreciate the people who haven’t been justice-involved when they make these pronouncements about SECOND CHANCES, it’s the same banking model used on an afflicted group of people. The fact that a SECOND CHANCE must be dispensed by others ordains them brokers of morality, a job for which no one can really pass the background check. Who am I – or anyone – to man some ethical abacus and tick over CHANCES and opportunities to someone, which I can slide away when they displease me? “I gave you a SECOND CHANCE, but….”

Even though I cringe at it, I don’t know what should replace the SECOND CHANCE? “Fair shot”? “Do-over” like Billy Crystal’s character Mitch calls it in the movie City Slickers? Maybe ANOTHER CHANCE would work because it implies what we all know – we’re all way past SECOND in our CHANCE tally and we will continue to need them, again and again.

Maybe it’s not SECOND that bothers me but CHANCE. Who wants to be chancy? It implies that it’s risky to trust you, that you’re fundamentally unreliable and dealing with you is gambling, staking something valuable for something else that may never materialize. If I get a CHANCE, I’m a permanent maybe. My future is a shrug.

In Germany, when someone finishes a sentence of incarceration, their record is automatically expunged. Debts cleared and credit restored – nobody runs a redemption tab like we do in the United States. Germans don’t waste time bandying about the phrase SECOND CHANCE because reentry is relatively seamless; when you discharge from prison and go home, you’re just moving, living out this ONLY CHANCE each of us get – life – in a new place.

Image ref 3492708. Copyright Rex Shutterstock No reproduction without permission. Please see www.rexfeatures.com for more information.

Part of the message of forgiveness is that it isn’t emotional, it’s rational, a decision, a strategic investment in interpersonal relations. It’s meant to nudge, even drag, people toward quashing their beefs when they’re still hot.  But this is misleading because mercy isn’t the presence of determination and decision but the absence of it. Wiping away someone’s failing doesn’t count if you replace it with a sign that says “This is where I excused you.” That’s what giving me a SECOND CHANCE does. I hate that shit.

The other women don’t analyze the linguistics and meaning of the phrase like I do because they’re not as thin-skinned as I am. They’ve strapped their SECOND CHANCES on as they busy themselves with sentence modification applications, bids for clemency and pardons that our Board of Pardons and Paroles – notoriously cheap with absolution – won’t ever grant them. I refuse to use the language and ask for one. These CHANCES I’m so snobbish about accepting will grow even more scant as time goes on. And what will I say then?  Will I have to go all Oliver Twist and beg: May I please have some more? to the sign that reads: “See teller at next window.”

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM MARCH 27 – APRIL 2, 2017

alg-aerial-rikers-island1-jpg

Rikers Island, the New York City jail that’s notorious for depraved violence, is closing, getting drained and demolished, just like its inhabitants. The Lippman Commission – named after the former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippman, who headed the investigation – came up with a report that lists several changes that will be made. For me, a very important part of their report is that the Commission acknowledged that court trips cause fans guilty pleas, something I’ve been saying for years but was unable to prove. But don’t invest in new security systems just yet. It’s going to take a decade and people will be held in other facilities that will be built around the five boroughs. Read the Lippman Commission’s report here.

Last week SCOTUS heard oral argument in Lee v. United States, wherein a South Korean national was advised by his attorney that pleading guilty to a felony wouldn’t cause him to be deported. Ask Trump whether that was good advice or not.  There’s no doubt that his attorney’s advice was deficient, yet courts have decided that, because they think he had no chance at acquittal at trial, it’s a no harm, no foul-type situation. Tim Lynch, Director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice, says this means our right to a jury trial is under attack. Read why here.

Combining last week’s storylines of ineffective assistance of counsel and Rikers, undocumented defendants are actually begging to be sent to Rikers to avoid deportation, the New York Post reported. I’m not sure about the ethics and competence of attorneys who are asking for raised bond for their clients so they get taken into custody. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will know exactly where these people are and can place detainers on them so they will leave Rikers into the welcoming arms of a removal agent. This tactic only delays and doesn’t stop deportation and the upside of this strategy is time in a dangerous human cesspool? No.

 

 

 

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13 March 2017

First and Last

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favoritism 2

It would make it easier she had some redeeming feature. She’s not nice (she’s here for overdosing a teenage boy, letting him die, and then attempting to show remorse by saying she was glad that it didn’t happen to her family). She’s not sane (see description under ‘nice’). Hard-working? Nah, she sits around all day taking other inmates’ pills because she’s prohibited from working outside the unit. Good-looking? Nyet. She looks like Quagmire from Family Guy with hips as broad as beam. Former stripper, my ass.

imageTo this day, she freely admits that she tried to kill another inmate by putting battery acid in her coffee because she was mad at her and didn’t want her around anymore. So she tenderly split open a Double-A (which takes strength and dedication) and drained the liquid out into a cup of instant coffee and non-dairy creamer, a combination probably more lethal than the acid, but it’s the thought that counts. Rumor has it that she tried again when the acid didn’t work, using bleach-based scouring powder.

And nothing happened to her, besides a seven-day stint in seg. No charges for attempted murder. No real punishment. No message sent, except maybe one: Adrienne* will get away with murder, especially if it’s only attempted.

No woman on this compound can explain why the staff allows Adrienne to break so many rules so whoppingly. Their permissiveness has gone from merely suspicious to out-and-out conspiratorial on some of the C/O’s parts. Other guards remain as baffled as the rest of us as to why she goes north or south of consequences when they should zoom right at her.

You can’t analogize prison life with real life. I can’t explain why wearing a white T-shirt outside my cell can set the place in a tailspin. All I can say is that some things in prison are forbidden and the reasons for it are unbidden.

Adrienne’s specialty is the forbidden, a fact never forgotten as she cruises her tier in a snow-colored Hanes and none of the staff members say a word.

I still doubt I’ll ever be able to convey to people on the outside the stronghold Adrienne has, except through examples that they wouldn’t really understand.

OITNBS3_31OCT14_WHILDEN_0825.NEF
It’s like this, except you’re cuffed. And there’s no going back.

For instance, in here, if you’re on your way to seg, consider yourself arrived. By that I mean that, when they cuff you and trail you with a camera, you’re going no matter what injustice or error started your trip. Once during a “chronic sweep” – a posse of guards that rove the compound now and again to pick up women with severe discipline records in the same way that tape collects lint – the posse picked up the wrong Inmate Columbo. There are two here: S. Columbo and M. Columbo, and they mistook S for M. Even though someone might have realized the error mid-transfer, trading S for M on the way to the restricted housing unit would be unheard of. S would sit in seg while the fine detail fact-checking took place and M was rounded up. No seg trip ever stops for any reason to let someone go. Unless it’s Adrienne.

As the legend goes, while C/O’s escorted Adrienne to seg once, one on each side gripping an arm, trailed by a lieutenant and someone with a camera, she somehow caught the attention of a deputy warden through the window of his office. He came out and ordered his men to let her go. Take her back. Two opposing orders but that wasn’t why the Deputy Warden’s command shocked everyone. The Let Her/Take Her awed everyone because no one ever short circuits a seg-walk. Never. This was the first time it would happen, as only Adrienne wields serious power in here, and the last straw for people who expect any fairness in this facility.

Everyone – inmates and staff alike – assume that Adrienne’s got the goods on some higher up. Different names get tossed into the theory and we’re all probably right.

favoritism3But Adrienne’s reign teaches a more important lesson than just that the brass has clay feet. She proves that the worst inmates get the best treatment. I have yet to figure out why this happens. I think it might be the same type of phenomenon where adults allow a bully to push around younger smaller tykes. They know what they’re witnessing is wrong and they undoubtedly have the power to stop it but they are either too scared of the bully themselves or they’re so secretly sick themselves that they like what they’re watching.

I think that’s what’s happening in here. Some of the C/O’s are scared of Adrienne – after all, her offenses aren’t making fun of someone’s hair or pushing someone off the jungle gym; Adrienne would kill someone without compunction. Other guards like the fact that she terrorizes the rest of general population because they hate us all.

I don’t begrudge anyone a little leniency. Mercy is good.  But it can veer into favoritism, preferential treatment, which is anathema in a well-run prison. What’s good for one is good for all – that’s how a good prison runs.

But this place isn’t a good prison if you watch who gets the partiality. For the most part, women here for the most heinous crimes are very well-behaved and remorseful, a fact that only compounds the tragedy of their actions since they clearly were out of character and precipitated by illness, trauma, rage. Regardless of how we comport ourselves, the guards make fun of us for what they think we did to get here, except for that extreme exemption for people who took others’ lives and couldn’t give a shit less about what they did.  These chicks run the joint. Once during a lockdown I saw a few women just wandering around on the walkway. They strolled into the garden. No one should have been outside the unit and these people were meandering. I know each of their convictions and counted them up: Felony Murder, Murder 2, Manslaughter, Capital Felony Murder, Capital Felony Murder.

When a C/O came to pass out the lunch trays since the rest of us couldn’t even leave our cells, much less the structure they sat in, I cocked my thumb toward my window and asked him:

“So, what exactly does someone have to do to get fresh air around here? Would a Criminally Negligent Homicide conviction free me a little?”

He ran to a bigger window in the rec area and saw the Kill Squad roaming around. Shook his head.

“I know, Bozelko. No one stops them.”

When they’re actually inside and among us lesser sinners, they issue commands to guards…who actually follow them. They ask for extra. They get it. They wear uniforms tailored in ways that would have lieutenants running after the rest of us, screaming “Those are altered!” But no one says anything to them.

When one of them (an inmate who killed a woman in a gang-inspired fight) tried to make her own psych records on the library computer to show her girlfriend how much she’d suffered in life, they brought her to a shrink (which was apropos because it was nuts that she thought medical records were written in dialogue like a screenplay), but anyone else would have been in the hole, with no U-turn. When it comes to privileges, murder means more. I don’t suggest that women with homicide convictions should be denied, but they shouldn’t be deified, either; none of us should be, especially if we’re misbehaving. Regardless of what they do in here, the incorrigible lifers pretty much get what they want.

pre-crime
Where are these people when you need ’em?

Except Adrienne isn’t a lifer. Yes, someone who killed a child and continues to try to whack people has only a 17-year sentence for manslaughter. And she gets special meals brought to her from the outside, gifts, declarations of love from C/O’s at her door (not even kidding – there’s something wrong with those guys).  And she’ll skate on post-prison consequences for her behavior. Unlike sex offenders who leave prison to civil commitment – a Minority Report-style Precrime confinement – because some turnkey decided that they’re constitutionally incapable of reform and rehabilitation and will reoffend, Adrienne gets cut loose a little before 2023.

Adrienne’s not going to reform herself. She pumps out daily a trove of evidence similar to that used to justify civil commitment of sex-offenders, namely proof that she will never change. Yet when her sentence ends, it will do just that: end, mostly because she killed a kid instead of screwing one. I don’t condone any crime against children, but it looks like the very worst among us get away with murder and are exempt from having to redeem themselves simply because they’re murderers.

I guess she has one redeeming quality: by herself, Adrienne shows how backwards this system is. She’s the alpha and omega of correctional corruption.

* Names have been changed to protect the innocent – as well as the author when “Adrienne” gets out.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM MARCH 6 – 12, 2017

exoneration

Clean slates come too late. At least 166 men and women were exonerated in 2016, six more than in 2015, which also was a record year, announced the National Registry of Exonerations on Wednesday. There were more exonerations than ever before in cases involving guilty pleas, or misconduct by government officials, or where no crimes occurred at all. And most of the defendants were black.

We have a two-tiered justice system. The Los Angeles Times and The Marshall Project teamed up in investigating the “pay-to-stay” jail system in Southern California. Wealthier inmates can pay for upgrades into cleaner facilities with more amenities, or, well, just amenities. The reporters found “more than 160 participants who had been convicted of serious crimes including assault, robbery, domestic violence, battery, sexual assault, sexual abuse of children and possession of child pornography” were in the VIP section of SoCal jails. The payers include “a hip-hop choreographer who had sex with an underage girl and described his stint in jail as “a retreat;” a former Los Angeles police officer who stalked and threatened his ex-wife; and a college student who stabbed a man in the abdomen during a street scuffle. The highest bill — $72,050 — belonged to a man responsible for a drunken freeway crash that killed one of his passengers and left another injured.”

Everything old is new again. A bipartisan coalition of senators introduced a bill to establish a National Criminal Justice Commission – a complete knock-off of one that former U.S. Senator/presidential candidate Jim Webb proposed twice, once eight years ago and once six years ago –  and two of the new bill’s sponsors [Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX)] voted on with a “Nay.” This just goes to show that the more you understand this system, the more you realize change is necessary. People come around over time.

Oh yeah, and “Gary from Chicago” got a “hisself” a publicist.

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7 November 2016

Sips Tea

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bg-body-crates

“It’s a risky idea, but if we do it in here, I think we can get away with it,” I told Charity as everyone came in for our bi-weekly writing class.

“Okay, but you bring it up,” she said and raised her palms in the universal sign for “I am uninvolved.”

I was planning an insurrection, an overthrow of oppression that would take place in Wally [Lamb’s writing]’s class. Any form of organization, even passing around a petition, is an attempt to start a riot in prison, so the idea of a group byline on a published essay on prisoner voting rights, right before the election, could have landed me – and anyone who did it with me – in seg.

But even from seg, I could’ve read the tea leaves and seen the headlines: “Inmates Attract Attention of Tea Party, Restore Rights.” Using the power of the pen, I was about to make myself the Sam Adams of prisoner voting disenfranchisement.

Prisoners can’t vote, unless they’re not convicted yet.   Anyone who’s been a voter all their lives and is unsentenced on felony charges bonds out, believe me. She’s not here and can go to the polls. Also inmates convicted of only a misdemeanor and serving a long enough sentence to get an absentee ballot mailed to them and send it back in time can cast ballots, too, in theory.

Someone convicted of only a misdemeanor – and no prior felonies – in here?  What kind of chintzy mass incarceration do you think we have here in Connecticut? Felonies, disenfranchising felony convictions for everyone. No one in here votes.

But prisoners are taxed, even if they can’t vote. Those inmates whose income exceeds a certain amount receive W-2 wage and tax statements every winter and must file tax returns. My cellmate had to do it. Because they’re prisoners, federal tax regulations prohibit them from participating in the Earned Income Tax Credit program.  And Connecticut inmates are financially liable for the cost of their incarceration: over $41,000 per year.  Prisoners pay. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

boston-tea-party-16

Without the power to change the unjust tax laws of England, Samuel Adams dumped the cargo of several British tea ships into the Boston Harbor in 1773 and started the revolution that birthed this country. And it was a crime. Under today’s lock ‘em up laws, Sam would’ve been jailed and not for driving under the influence of his own beer. Would you deny Sam Adams his vote after what he did?

This isn’t to equate  Adams’ jetsam with boosting an ipod from Target or assaulting your cheating spouse’s lover, which are the types of crimes that have landed inmates behind bars. But the original Tea Party’s lesson was that the taxation and representation are the government versions of love and marriage – you can’t have one without the other.

Under this rule, prisoners shouldn’t be taxed if they remain without voting rights. Because prisoners contribute to government, the Tea Party should be at the forefront of any prisoner voting rights campaign if they want to play the game that goes with their name. At least that’s how I see it.

And I thought if we all said what I saw, we might get some traction on the issue.

“Can I say something before we start?” I asked at the beginning of class. “So, I thought we could all author like, an oped, or a letter to the editor about prisoners and people with records, you know, felons, being allowed to vote. As you know, the Tea Party is this conservative movement that wants to lower taxes and limit government…”

STARES.

“and I think that the fact that you – anyone – can be denied a chance to vote but still have to pay taxes is wrong. And since this Tea Party is invoking the whole ‘no taxation without representation’ idea from the Boston Tea Party, maybe this is the time to attract some attention to felon and inmate disenfranchisement. If anyone should support our voting it should be the Tea Party, right? And from the research I’ve done, it looks like this idea hasn’t…you know, hasn’t been raised by anyone, so maybe newspapers would want to hear it.”

STARES.

“I mean, if people aren’t allowed to vote then they shouldn’t have to pay taxes, right? At least according to history?”

STARES. BORED FIDGETS. I heard, but didn’t see, a yawn. Even Charity didn’t react.

“Chandra, just let me ask, are you promoting a conservative ideal?” Wally asked. He would have let me promote it but he’d have to understand it and my connecting Tea Partiers and prisoners was confusing him.

“No, I’m attacking hypocrisy.”

Wally nodded.

“The whole reason why we have elections is rooted in this idea that you can’t take my money and then deny me any say in how it’s used, but that’s exactly what happens when inmates can’t vote. Only unrestricted participation and equality give democracy its force. I want to go back to the original Pay-to-Play – anyone who pays taxes can vote.  And even ones who don’t pay can vote.  Who’s with me?” I stood up for dramatic effect. “Who wants to toss some tea for their rights? And if not your rights, then to keep some of money you make?”

“What’s the Boston Tea Party?” another student asked.

“I don’t pay taxes. Never did,” another said.

No one else even flinched.

I looked over at the teacher – she isn’t in charge of our class; she’s actually just a form of security for us while Wally and the volunteers are here, making sure we don’t do stuff like what I just did. She looked up briefly and then continued with her crossword puzzle, muttering: “You need to know what the Boston Tea Party is…”

No shit, I thought as I sat down.

“Or, you know, I can just draft it myself,” I told myself, out loud.

Sam said it himself; it’s a good thing it doesn’t take a majority to get anything done.

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THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM OCTOBER 31 – NOVEMBER 7, 2016

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Seventy-two going home – “President Obama’s decision to grant 72 more commutations Friday shows how far he’s gone in his efforts to “reinvigorate” the pardon process.” Total granted to date: 944.

Two going down – “Two former aides to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie charged in a bizarre scheme of political retaliation against a mayor who refused to endorse the governor for re-election were found guilty by a jury on all counts in the long-running “Bridgegate” saga.”

One cleaning up – A federal court jury decided that a Rolling Stone journalist defamed former University of Virginia associate dean Nicole Eramo in a 2014 magazine article about sexual assault on campus that included a debunked account of a fraternity gang rape.

 

 

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26 September 2016

In Low Places

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Orange Is The New Black S4

The Parole-Officer-In-Residence was giving a speech to people who were supposed to be going in front of the parole board soon. I have no idea why I was included in the group. I missed work for it and everything.

“You can’t make friends in jail. Don’t make friends in here. Imma tell you a story. Once there was an inmate, a young man, and he left jail and he was doin’ good, doin’ real good, got a job, an apartment, and a car. His own car! One day he ran into another inmate who just got out and that inmate asked him for a ride around the corner.”

Insert a dramatic enough pause for anyone listening to know that the ride wasn’t just around the corner. She continued:

shawshank-redemption
Unequal standing.

“So he decided ‘This guy was my friend inside, so I’ll help him out’ and he drove him. Do you wanna know that the man who just got out went and killed somebody and the boy who drove him went back for being an accomplice for murder. That’s why I tell people when they parole ‘Don’t make any friends in jail. Leave them here.'”

I decided to leave her there. I handed her the intro paper.

“Thank you for this, but I’m not going to parole.” I should have added:  “But don’t worry, I can’t make friends in here so I’ll be okay.

The difference between me and the others is palpable to almost everyone. Being different in some prisons can get you killed, but when you’re different because you know the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris the way the other inmates know the Department of Social Services, it gets you alone.

I don’t speak like the other inmates (aside from avoiding the N word, I use verbs; other inmates drop them to say things like “Michael Jackson dead,” “Brianna pregnant” or “the warden corny”). I don’t look like the other inmates; overtweezed brows sit in semicircle at the tops of faces with few teeth. Dentition separates me. The others get pissed when I point this out.

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I don’t know anything about this, still. Never asked.

I know different things (that the word ‘supposedly’ doesn’t contain the letter ‘b’ and toxic shock syndrome doesn’t entail electricity). And I don’t know different things (Like what a 2.8 is – a weight of crack cocaine – and that there are ten bags of heroin in a bundle and ten bundles in a stack). I’ve never been in a fight and, quite frankly, had no clue what I’d do if and when violence opportuned itself. Best advice: “Karate chop to the neck, kick to the groin and then scratch her face.” I never knew.

To say that I’m better than the other inmates? That isn’t true. To say that I’m just like them? That’s a lie.

And most of them know it, too. The differences pop out in questions and fascination that turns me into an exhibit.

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Friends and family plan in jail.

“You ever live in a motel?”

“No.”

“You got a license for a car?”

“You mean to drive? Yes.”

“You ever been on Food Stamps? Your fridge always stocked up, I bet.”

“No… I guess.”

“What kinda car you drive?”

“Why?”

“Your family decorate their house all nice, Victorian and shit up in there?”

“Ummm…”

Still, I call them friends and they return the label. I get along with the other prisoners; I’d even say I have the least conflict with others of all the long-termers. I get one or two letters from departing buddies, but not more than that. And that’s why the term friend gets redefined for me in here. The only thing over which I can relate to other women over is this place and the fact that we’re both here at the same time.

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Connection.

I bond with them when I’m drowning and whirling in melodramatic victimization, thinking that my life is harder than other prisoners’ paths. I can connect with them only when I go to some low places, emotional nadirs. If friendship must be borne of equal standing, it’s the only way I can get there.

Sure, I wasn’t denied much of anything in my life but I know what it’s like to feel pressured to live up to impossible standards or be told that nothing I did was good enough. And I have been berated by an alcoholic father and a co-dependent mother. All of my dysfunction happened like it was in a snow globe: encased, unreachable, looking pretty and serene to people outside it when, really, someone shook up my world all the time. I’ve been through a lot of shit, too, you know! More than you! Only when I start thinking this way can I feel like I’m not unreachable in here.

But if I count my blessings and humble myself, I end up valuing my sociological singleness a little too much and my feelings for the other women draw a little too close to pity.  Sympathy brings distance. If it doesn’t, then it’s empathy. And if I empathize with them, then I have to admit that I’m like them. When I’m not. Except for the times that I am, like when I’m here.

Later that night, hours after the parole officer’s order to stop and drop your friends, we cleaned our cells, propping open our doors for sweeping and mopping.  I pulled down the book wedged in my doorway.

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Pals.

A library’s worth of literature has been destroyed in this prison because women cram books between the corners of the cell doors and the jambs to keep them open. It was a scholastic Webster’s, one with red linen covers that had been ripped off through years of cell cleaning, not overuse by injuring inmates. This is another thing that separates me from the others: I think books are for reading. That’s the last thing that so many of the others will do with them.

“You can’t use a dirty T-shirt or something else? You’re destroying and ripping the cover of …what is this?…The Secret Lives of Bees. You’re ruining the bees’ secret lives. You are killing the bees,”  I told the first cellmate who did it in front of me. She didn’t care about the bees, the book or bond that we could never have.

Orange Is The New Black S4

I might have looked up ‘amity’ or ‘unity’ but those letters had fallen away from the dictionary due to repetitive cell cleaning. I was lucky to find ‘F’ intact to look up ‘friendship.’ I won’t even say how bad my life must be that I had to look up this word at age 38 and get pissed off when I found: “the state of being friends.”

Up a few lines, ‘friend’ informed me that the women I called friends were people “whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection.” Basically, someone you know and like – and who likes you back – is your friend.

But that’s not true. Friendship is more than affection because, face it, that shit’s temporary, much like my time at York CI. Look at the parole officer’s story. The guy with the car – his own car! – had affection for the dude who went and killed someone, and the killer dude probably had affection for him, at least at one point, but I can’t say they were really friends because true friends don’t bring you to low places even if that’s the only place where you connect. Not just for their sake, but for yours, prison friends have to leave each other behind, leave each other here. Only the disconnect can save you both.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM SEPTEMBER 19 – 25, 2016

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After police shootings in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Charlotte, North Carolina, one city stayed calm and the other exploded. The difference between the two cities? Accountability. A Tulsa sheriff who shot a someone when mistaking his firearm for his taser gun was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison this summer whereas the trial of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Randall Kerrik for shooting football player Jonathan Ferrell ended in a hung jury last year. Look at what this means if you follow the logic of the situation: an effective way of keeping the peace is prosecuting and incarcerating police who engage in brutality. An effective way of keeping the peace is putting more people in prison. I am not sure I like that.

The Supporting Youth Opportunity and Preventing Delinquency Act of 2016 passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 382-29 on Thursday. It’s a proposed retooling of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which was first passed in 1974. Florida Republican Representative Carlos Corbel’s bill promotes “trauma-informed” care for at-risk children and their families, which means it can actually work.

Fusion reported that Michael Leatherwood, an inmate at Lawton Correctional Facility in Oklahoma, a private facility, is successfully suing the prison for disproportionate pricing of commissary items in private prisons as opposed to the state’s public facilities. For instance, the much revered chili-flavored ramen soup is $0.26 in public prisons but a whopping $0.60 in private ones. The fact that any pro se inmate litigation can still proceed now that the Prison Litigation Reform Act is in effect is astounding, but Leatherwood pulled off a real coup; on May 12, 2016 he deposed his own warden in the prison’s visiting room about the price differences, which are approved by prison administration.  Prison strike supporters take note: this is how you effect change. Kudos to Inmate Leatherwood. The report can be found here.

 

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22 August 2016

Nuts

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Kicked-in-ballsa

Walking into the first shift in a prison kitchen is the equivalent of scanning the first page of a daily newspaper.  When you walk into prison kitchen first thing in the morning, bulletins, news from all frontiers (in prison, a frontier is a housing unit) converge and fly at your face.

“You know Frisky got kicked in the balls, right? You heard?” Hope asked me.

“No. How would I know that? And why am I supposed to care about this?” I asked as I was putting on my hairnet to start opening boxes of chicken. Then I accelerated into panic. “Wait, is he saying I did it?”

Even though we’re technically not allowed to exchange words,  Officer Frisky and I have a contentious relationship. He says not so nice things about me and I return the favor. It’s been a multiyear volley. When you think about it, it’s all kind of petty. Sometimes I wonder if it keeps me going because it’s probably the most reliable thing in my life now.

“No, he was helping take this bitch to seg in Davis Building and she kicked him in the balls when she was on the floor.”

“Who did this?”

“J. M.,” Hope said matter-of-factly.

“I don’t think I know her,” I replied, searching my memory’s facebook.

“Yeah, you do. She worked in the warehouse. You glad?”

“That she’s going to seg? I…I mean…that’s guaranteed. But I don’t know her, so no, I’m not glad that she’s going there.”

“No, you gotta be glad that someone got him,” she said.

“Not really.”

“C’mon.”

“Noo. How does this vindicate my side our dispute? Who wants to see another person get hurt?” I posed to Hope who was now surrounded by other workers who wanted my expert editorial on this event that had nothing to do with me. If they had microphones, each one would have extended their arms for comment.

“I mean who gets happy at another person’s physical pain?”

“We do,” Hope said and lowered her eyes at me to tell me I shouldn’t have asked that question.

I suppose this could’ve been a set-up, that someone wanted to manipulate me into saying that I was glad Frisky took one below the belt and then run to tell him that I threatened violence against him.

But this went deeper than that sneaker went into Frisky’s crotch. They wanted me to react gleefully to the news that my nemesis got booted in the balls as proof that I’m just as base as they are. They demanded evidence that privilege provides no protection from becoming craven, nasty. That their upbringings, decades of having their figurative dicks kicked in the dirt – backstories where someone told them it was okay to delight in other people’s misfortune, actually better than okay, it was a covetable emotion – didn’t forge inferior morality on them. If I even so much as smiled, it would have confirmed that everyone everywhere is, at heart, a corrupted, angry shell, even Chandra with her accurate grammar and her straight teeth and her clumsy dap.

A supervisor noticed the crowd and bellowed:

“Everyone back to work!” and workers dispersed but he stayed in front of me.

“Just admit that you think it’s funny,” he said with that nudging tone.

“I don’t think it’s funny.”

“Not even a little?” He did that inch-wide thing with his fingers that’s universal sign language for teeny-weeny.

“No! Not even a little. Is this story even true? I don’t even know if it’s true.”

Now I was getting defensive over not celebrating another person’s victimization. I was getting as involved in this sack attack as if I were the perp. That’s what prison does to you. It enmeshes everyone so we share each other’s guilt. It’s not solidarity; it’s sickness. A mass mental illness.

“Deep down you’re glad it happened. I know,” he said and put his hands up to say “You don’t need to confirm what I said because I’m convinced of it.

I said nothing else because it’s futile to fight a false perception in here; the place is based on misapprehensions.    For years, I’ve lived in an environment where it’s inconceivable that you wouldn’t wish harm – or at least enjoy hearing about it – on another person with whom you have a disagreement.  Somehow I haven’t succumbed to it.

Some might say that’s because I’m strong, but maybe it’s because I don’t get what’s supposed to happen to me in here. Maybe there’s something wrong with me in that I’m the one who shudders at America’s Funniest Videos when I watch a guaranteed cervical injury and everyone else stomps and laughs riotously.  Maybe other people’s pain is a carnival and some pathology makes me scared to get on the rides. Maybe I’m behind the curve on this one and I should be yukking up these headlines of mild violence as evidence that the human condition affects everyone equally.

Who am I kidding? That’s nuts. This place is nuts.

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 THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM AUGUST 15 – 21, 2016

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The biggie: The Department of Justice announced Thursday, August 18th, that the federal government would not renew contracts with private prison management companies for a number of federal facilities.  It’s debatable how much impact this decision will have, but it’s also too bad that these companies blew the chance to give the government some competition. If private prisons had done this right, the conditions and treatment in public prisons would have bobbed on that rising tide and been good for all prisoners.

The announcement might reveal a crack in the Obama Administration because the Washington Post uncovered, just days before, the fact that the Obama Administration gave a $1 billion, no-bid contract to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the biggest private prison management company, to build a Central American asylum-seeker detention center.

A federal judge in Kansas ordered a special investigator after prisons there and in Missouri recorded conversations between inmates and their lawyers and turned the recordings over to prosecutors. As it turns out no audio was recorded, so defense attorneys are worried that body language and facial expressions deserve Fifth (right against self-incrimination) and Sixth  Amendment (effective assistance of counsel) protection. Mark my words: this case is going to have wide-ranging implications, and not just because CCA, is at the heart of it.

Notice a theme here?

 

 

 

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9 May 2016

Hay Fever

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image

Love Makes My World Go ‘Round.

When I learn the spiritual laws in life, magic is demonstrated in my life.

I chose to move beyond where I was when I got up this morning …and open myself up to something new.

I feel totally safe everywhere in this universe.

 If your dream shatters, pick up at least one piece.

 I deserve the best in life.

We Are All One.

Wait up, I thought when I read “We Are All One” on my cell wall; my roommate had ripped the page out of one of the many books by self-help guru Louise Hay that flood the compound. I am not one with these bitches. I refuse to fuse with them.

Stuart-SmalleyAs far as I can tell, Louise Hay is just Stuart Smalley with a uterus (that is, if Stuart Smalley isn’t Stuart Smalley with a uterus.)  Louise has made a cottage industry out of old saws, making them spiritual affirmations. Her company, Hay House Publishing, rakes in millions of dollars every year selling posters, self-help guides, books of aphorisms and “thought cards” – laminated cards with watercolor hearts, sunflowers, lily pads with soft, diffuse borders (sharp edges belong only on female personalities). With Louise Hay signs, the prison blunts inmates into docility with gift shop stock.

imageI learned early on to question pat, decorative encouragement. My seventh grade math teacher insisted that all of her students copy onto the tops of their tests the word on the poster on the wall– IALAC, an acronym for I Am Lovable And Capable – to remind us that we were more than performance, more than our grades.

Even as various adults tried to feed some permutation of IALAC to me since I was 12, I never really bought it. I thought I was capable only when I aced the tests. And lovable? Yeah, like I said, only when I aced the tests. The IALAC at the top of my paper or pretty posters cannot engrain self-worth in women; that must come from within. Usually it comes from within when one learns that she is lovable and capable by being loved or doing something successfully, even if that something is learning from failure.

imageThis isn’t to say that I’m against positive thinking. Hanging up posters of Grumpy Cat, particularly in a prison, with slogans like “A Friend is Just Someone Who Doesn’t Know You Hate Her” probably wouldn’t help women with low self-esteem, especially since bad messages seem so much more soluble in here than the Hay House-isms and the IALAC’s.

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What kind of a huckster successfully sells “inner dings”? I hope she has an inner dong in my size, too.

Whenever I receive affirmation from someone, I think: Yeah, but she had to say that because she’s my mother/she wants to sell me something/she feels guilty about what she did to me. Only rarely do I credit compliments for what they are worth.

But verbal abuse? I soak that up like ramen in hot water, meaning until I’m limp and flat and totally noxious. After an insult, I survey everyone I encounter if she or he thinks my abuser was right; my market research seems like I’m trying to disprove him to myself but I go so beyond the evidence needed to know I was insulted unnecessarily, that I end up  proving that my tormenter was right. I have no idea why I do this. Maybe the answer is in one of Louise Hay’s books but I’m pretty sure I’m not going to look for it there because I’ve moved beyond where I was this morning – in the Zero South housing unit – and all the books, affirmations and posters are there, not in my new building, One North where we kind of are One. North.

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Isn’t this obvious for every female prisoner?

I understand the value of tokens, of maintaining everpresence in someone’s environment to get her to change, so I see why Louise Hay is so popular. But women come to prison for crimes like swinging a baby by his feet, accidentally bashing the child’s head on the corner of a wall. Or helping her boyfriend rape and elderly woman during a home invasion of her house by holding a gun to the old lady’s head. Is “If your dream shatters, pick up at least one piece” really going to help them?

If someone’s dream shatters in here, she’ll pick up the piece and stab her girlfriend or cut rows of slashes on her forearm. We need some serious emotional delving in here and, unlike that sharp piece of dream we’re supposed to save, Louise Hay’s stuff won’t cut it.

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Especially in prison.

I estimate that DOC [Department of Corrections] spends thousands on Hay House products for social workers to use in the various “groups.” Women in prison need serious individual psychotherapy to understand patterns in their behavior, namely why they make bad decisions when good decisions are actually easier to make.  But one-on-one psychotherapy is a painstakingly long process and making even small steps requires big bucks; DOC refuses to pay for what works. Maybe the size of the check that DOC cuts to Hay House Publishing wouldn’t cover therapy for everyone, but it might pay for a few inmates so that they don’t repeat bad choices.

I think what bothers me the most about making Hay a hero is that the inmates believe that they’re edifying their emotional states or improving their lives when they slurp up Louise’s spiritual shtick; they don’t realize that DOC is just controlling their thoughts in kinder, gentler ways.

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I would love to see someone hang this in the medical unit of York CI to justify denying care to sick inmates.

I’m not the only one who questions the Louise Hay-isms everywhere. Womens’ studies scholars call this kind of social control technique “pastel fascism”; you don’t need Mussolini’s Black Shirts’ breaking shins and busting skulls to oppress someone. DOC wants all of us to be one, as in one undifferentiated population. But if Inmate X wants to get out and stay out of prison, then she needs not to be one with Inmates B, C and D, total zeros who are already planning which Dunkin’ Donuts they will knock over by keeping the cashier at knifepoint (I heard them).  Inmate X must differentiate herself – by working on herself – so she’s not one with anyone here at all. Then she’ll succeed.

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Pithy, pitchy slogans under colored-pencil sketches of seashells prove themselves to be particularly weedy, especially when you consider that Louise Hay’s story is one of a shrewd and go-getting woman who paved her own road, alone.  In 1984, she started Hay House because no publisher would touch her self-help manuscript, Heal Your Body, a book that ultimately became a worldwide bestseller. Hay House then published You Can Heal Your Life, another mega-hit, and Louise realized love really doesn’t make the big blue marble go ‘round – but mean green does.

And Louise’s mean green is way meaner than anything Grumpy Cat can say; she sold forty million copies of her first book alone.  I don’t know whether the inmates even know that Louise is making “A-rab money” hand over fist of solidarity while she ignores all of the advice in her own affirming posters.

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Yeah, Louise, we heard.

Essentially, Louise self-published and made herself rich and powerful because she wasn’t one with anyone, particularly anyone in the established literary community. In fact, she claims she didn’t take Heal Your Body to a “big-name publisher initially since she feared they wouldn’t let her say what she wanted.”  Apparently, Louise never felt totally safe absolutely everywhere in the universe; she must have felt stifled in HarperCollins’ or Simon and Schuster’s editorial offices. So she opened herself up to something new: her own business. Now, not only does she just deserve the best in life; she can afford it, too.

imageIt’s easy to open yourself up to something new when you’re a millionaire. Recently, Louise started Balboa Press, a company that offers “guided self-publishing,” meaning authors can pay an arm of Hay House to print their books. As part of her pitch to pull writers to Balboa Press, she tells them in an online video: “If you’re willing to change your thinking, you can change your life.”

On that one, she’s right. If female prisoners refrain from reading Louise Hay’s books, stop swallowing all of her bottle-fed spirituality and simply start learning from her example, then things will change in their lives. They’ll know that they’re lovable, capable, solvent and secure, just like her.

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Tell the inmates, Suze. Louise Hay already knows.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM MAY 2 – 8, 2016

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Although this doesn’t relate directly to justice reform, Trump-tive became presumptive this week, the last man standing to be the Republican presidential nominee. He has no position on criminal justice. None. And I’m not sure that this even matters.

2016 is the twentieth anniversary of the passage of three federal statutes: the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (also known as Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill), the Anti-Terorrism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), all of which contribute generously to our modern criminal justice problems.  Liliana Segura of the Intercept detailed why the AEDPA is so troublesome for wrongful convictions here and Meredith Booker of the Prison Policy Initiative explains why the PLRA blocks inmates from getting relief from abuse and should be repealed here. I’m grateful to writers and researchers for picking up on these problematic statutes since they were some of the biggest stumbling blocks to my appeals and other attempts at post-conviction review (I can’t blame everything on the staff at York CI).

The new book Coming of Age in the Other America has attracted a lot of attention, particularly last week, because it suggests a real solution for inner-city violence. Instead of fixing schools, throwing money into street-level policing, or blaming families, the number one way to keep young people from engaging in crime is to offer them “identity projects,” like keeping animals, making films, or starting a mini-business where they learn to view themselves as productive citizens, filled with potential and deserving of some IALAC’s. I see no reason not to try this, large-scale. And try it in prisons.

 

 

 

 

 

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4 April 2016

Dollar Bin Divorces

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one-dollar-bill-large

It costs a dollar.

The Inmate Legal Assistance Program – essentially Legal Aid for prisoners – charges $1.00 to file divorce papers for an inmate. These women may get away with murder and get their money for nothing, but they’ll never get their splits for free.

I never understood it because those ten dimes aren’t enough to cover costs in any meaningful way so why not just provide the free service? Everything else that Inmate Legal Assistance does is gratis. Why the dollar? Is it a low sticker price to induce buying?

It’s a steal, I guess, even though prison divorces lack the lengthy battle over finances – statistics say that 80% of inmates are indigent but I say it’s higher – or custody (because the mom certainly can’t have custody while she’s in here).

imageSince two-thirds of women in prison were, at some point, victims of domestic violence at the hands of a spouse, offering bargain-bin priced divorces might be a wise idea. The Department of Justice says that as many as three women are murdered every day by a spouse so it might be more than wise; divorce might be vital to a woman’s survival. Prison imposes a separation on couples that nudges an abused woman toward leaving an abusive husband, particularly if the price is right.

I sit in the visiting room and watch women check in for their professional visits with the legal aid team to jumpstart divorce proceedings. One’s nose is, without exaggeration, against her face. It’s not a recent injury; her husband broke it badly years ago and she didn’t want to go to the doctor for fear of jamming him up with police. I heard this story from other women in the kitchen who call her “Smash.”

I remember four years ago I lived in 3 South [the assessments unit] next door to a woman who spoke in an unusually gravelly voice. When someone made fun of it she said that her husband had tried to crush her windpipe. I moved – or more accurately, was moved – from 3 South but I saw her again when one of her hospice aids pushed a wheelchair that held her and her tracheal tube. I heard later that she died but I always wonder if she was killed before she got to prison.

imageI have mixed feelings about making it easy for a woman to divorce her husband while she’s incarcerated and unable to establish real independence in here. Tons of data has emerged about how marriage reduces crime, wipes up poverty’s spills and is an antidote to mass incarceration.  If that’s the case, then shouldn’t we avoid inducing divorce with the dollar menu price tag? Can none of these marriages or husbands be redeemed? If so, what does it say about the wives in here?

I don’t think that women should willingly subject themselves to violence or abuse. But society doesn’t need to willingly subject itself to her violence or abuse after its legal separation from her while she was in prison. Society divorces ex-offenders all the time when they hit the streets. When it comes to forgiveness, you get what you give.

If the Inmate Legal Assistance Program wants to help women locked up and locked into abusive marriages, they must do more than slashing prices. Cleaving a marriage in half when the wife is in prison requires a unique re-entry strategy that seems not to exist here.

imageI can’t opine on this much because I’ve never been married. But my parents have been married for decades.  Their conglomeration survived emotional and verbal abuse, alcoholism (both acknowledged and overlooked) and generally wishing that each had not married the other, at least at times. They knew they had to keep it together for their children and themselves. Besides, not only had they invested hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars into their history together and trillions of themselves, they made a commitment that they wouldn’t bail, even when the other one fucked up big time.

Had my parents divorced, then who would have picked up my father from Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution in June 2010? Without his wife to pick him up on an early summer morning, just days away from their 40th wedding anniversary, my father would have been on a bus to disaster like every woman who divorces an imperfect husband while she’s in here and goes home to nothing.

I hope the Dollar Divorce is probably just reflective of inmates’ view of matrimony. Most inmates have play-house views of marriage. They call men – and women – they’ve known for one month and slept with twice their ‘husbands’ or ‘wives.’  Their ease with the language of marriage causes mass confusion in legal proceedings that aren’t divorce-related.

“What’s your husband’s name” I asked one woman who asked me to help her apply for permission to write to her ‘husband’ in another prison.

image“Darnell.”

“Same last name?” I asked her as I moved to the next question.

“Same’s what? His first?”

“No, same as yours. Did you take his name?” I asked.

“For what?”

“For your own.”

“My name ain’t Darnell.”

“I know,” I said, trying not to get totally exasperated. “Your name is Karen. What’s Darnell’s last name?”

“I dunno. McCallum, McCardle-um. Sumptin like that.”

I caught on late.

“How long have you known Darnell?”

“I dunno. Free, four months.”

“Did you ever go in front of a judge or a pastor with Darnell and get a marriage license?” I cut to the chase.

“I dunno.” She was being honest.

Obvi, they were never married but you can’t convince Karen of this. To her, she’s wed.

10719784-largeI doubt that the inmates understand the earnest and inescapable enmeshment required of a marital commitment. Marriage isn’t easy when the union is real but it can be when it isn’t real; fake marriages are easy to fall into and getting out of them requires next to no thought. Like the same mental investment you put into buying something from Target’s Dollar Bin at the front of the store; it’s as easy to let it stay in the cart as to pull it out and put on another shelf while you’re shopping.

Or maybe the reason for the bargain basement price is much more oppressive than even I understand. I bet no one will remove the dollar price tag from prison divorces because it reminds women in bad situations that they will never – even when someone helps them – be off the hook. They’ll always have to pay something , even if it’s close to nothing, to be free.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM MARCH 28 – APRIL 3, 2016

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After reading Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are at his last White House Easter Egg Roll, President Obama let some wild things out and commuted the sentences of 61 federal prisoners this week. And he only has 9054 applications to go in the next 291 days (meaning he would have to decide 31 per calendar day to clear his backlog). I’ve said this before on HuffPo and no one listened: POTUS doesn’t have to commute sentences under the United States Sentencing Commission’s revised guidelines; federal courts can do this. We have one president and 2758 federal judges. Let them earn their keep.

The Richmond Experiment – the practice of paying high-risk individuals not to commit crime that was named after the California city that started it – received more coverage in article this week in the Washington Post as a solution to the problem of violent crime. The idea of essentially bribing someone not to break the law isn’t that new; it used to be called sustainable employment. Paying people a decent minimum wage ($15 per hour and up) ends up paying them to avoid crime, too. Isn’t the Richmond Experiment the best argument for simply paying people living wages? We will find out eventually, as California and New York (New York City) passed minimum wage-raising statutes this week.

A police officer in Florida used his body camera to record a conversation, a “hallway deposition” with a public defender, and now the attorney is arguing that it violated her privacy. This is what we want, people: a record of everything. I’ve said this here on Prison Diaries before: cameras clear as often as they convict. No one needs to be accused of lying anymore if we all took the precaution that this cop did. I’m on his side and not just because I hate public defenders.

 

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21 March 2016

Taste and See

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I see it when they return to the compound for a day from their halfway houses – usually in dilapidated neighborhoods – for medical appointments. They parade past a plate glass window in the small dining hall where food service workers eat their lunch, separated from the rest of general population because we smell of chicken bologna and crushed tomatoes.

I can tell that each day tripper from the halfway houses know this is her chance to impress the other inmates; any other time she stands among inmates oppressed by ugly uniforms, she wears one, too. But for this medical appointment, she’ll look different.

“She looks different. Don’t she look good?” women squeal when the parade passes as its members wave to us. I never say it out loud, but my answer is always “No.” It’s cinematic ghetto.

yA woman, about 60, mouth puckered from her dentures’ absence, wears a denim miniskirt and thigh-high, grey suede boots. A two hundred and fifty pound woman wears painted-on capri length jeans with a tee shirt that reads “I Got Your Crazy Right Here.” Another sparkles in a sequined dress and Timberland boots and not worn in that stylish and eclectic way, either.  Most others wear low-rise jeans that are so tight that it’s not a muffin top of a fat roll circling the waistband; for these women the muffin batter has spilled all over. If it isn’t substance abuse for them, then it’s style abuse.

Not only do I plead guilty to boring ensembles and understatement, I confess to being a snob and a bitch when it comes to others’ appearances. I know my own insecurities underpin this attitude which makes me a hypocrite in addition to being a viper. The truth is that, if I were to see this parade on the outside, my friends and I (if they were still my friends) would exchange silent, supercilious looks that ask What the fuck is that? I don’t defend myself on this behavior because I can’t.

Bad-Eyebrows-gold-teeth
Straight outta York CI.

Substandard uniforms and a lack of cosmetics make dressing your way very difficult in prison. When inmates take a stab at it – for a court appearance, a special visit, a graduation from an educational program or even their own weddings in the facility (one real one while I’ve been here and a ton of fake ‘ceremonies’ between ‘wives’ on the tiers) – 80’s-prom-reminiscent jewel toned pastel crayons – chartreuse, royal – detonate on their eyes. Fuchsia tracks their cheeks and a very dark brown concoction of petroleum jelly, instant coffee and sometimes browning syrup used for gravies in the kitchen turns their lips into slips of liver. An ill-advised perm coils some hair so tightly that it makes the woman look like the victim of a violent attack by crimping iron.

However much of an asshole I may be, the fact remains that some covers betray the contents of their books. I can tell immediately that the women in the parade grew up in the  impoverished inner-city. Even with no money, I wouldn’t dress like that because I didn’t grow up there. I don’t think this is elitist, racist or otherwise prejudiced. It’s simply the truth.

Sometimes I wonder if makeover’s wouldn’t break poverty’s intergenerational curse. I can’t tell if women really want to present themselves like this because they’re poor or they’re poor because they choose to present themselves like this. Is this how they’re dressing for job interviews? I wonder. If it is, there’s no wonder they’re underemployed. Do they know that those gold, bamboo-looking hoop earrings announce “My boyfriend is a drug-dealer” more loudly than anything else? I can’t say that some women’s taste is better than others but, from what I’ve witnessed up closed in here, conceptions of beauty  – or acceptable appearance – are determined by socioeconomic status.

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More my style.

The aesthetic alone alienates me from the other inmates. I’ll cop a plea to boring and no jury will acquit me of understatement for my look on the outside. Garish is beautiful to the underclass, apparently. In here, though, less can never be more because women come from so much less. They don’t know more because prison is poverty’s dumping ground. They think that if there’s a lot of something, then it can’t be bad.

The taste in here is limited, for sure, not only by the facility’s rules, but by the fact that more conservative, orthodox sensibilities are out of reach for them, not only financially but exposure-wise. Who are the people in your neighborhood? That’s who you’re gonna look like.  The only other inmate here who could peg what I look like on the outside was a woman who was a hairstylist at a salon in New Haven called Panache.

“You’re the beige and bob type,” she said when she assessed me, unsolicited. “You wear Essie “Mademoiselle” [nail polish] on your nails and you never grow your hair out real long.”

“Yeah, do I know you?” I asked.  She had sized me up like I do the other women that came from her neighborhood. She was exposed to my type at the salon and I was exposed to hers in here.

Just from being around the paraders and their nails and hair-did’s, even I’ve started thinking about zesting up my look when I get out. Maybe ombre highlights. Or even a pink streak in my hair. At least 50 inmates came here with fuchsia hair and I’ve decided it’s not always unflattering. Some of the geometric nail art looked okay to me today. But my ombre pinkness and yellow and blue triangles painted on with gel polish (I never had it before I got here so it’s all the rage to me) would stick me out in my regular people circuits and I’d end up changing to blend back in. Taste and personal style are like language; they’re taught by immersion. I’ve been immersed in a foreign land here in Niantic for so long that I’m almost fashion illiterate.

money-dollar-nail-design-mybeautypage-74009-300x224When they come back in from their halfway houses, the rainbow explosions of makeup, the ill-fitting clothes, the curling three-inch acrylic nails decorated with austere, male presidential faces from real dollar bills (bills that should stay put in their wallets or pockets) keep these women insiders to the wrong crowd and outsiders to the people who might be able to bring them out of poverty and rectify their lives.

Whether it’s right or wrong, people make snap judgments about appearance. Would people judge the paraders differently if they dressed more like me on the outside? Yes. It’s an offensive and oppressive thought that life would be easier for disadvantaged people if they looked like people who aren’t but it’s also reality. So much of the truth is distasteful.

 

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM FROM MARCH 14 – 20, 2016

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President Obama nominated the Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit Court, Merrick Garland, to fill the seat on the United States Supreme Court vacated by Antonin Scalia’s death. Garland’s record on Sixth Amendment rights – the right to effective assistance of counsel and all that it entails – isn’t great.  In United States v. Watson, he dissented from a decision to grant a new trial to a defendant whose prosecutor misrepresented the evidence in closing arguments, saying it was “inevitable that trial lawyers [would] suffer from innocent misrecollections.” Until Garland goes to jail for an innocent misrecollection, I don’t like him. Next.

Anders Brevik, convicted of the mass murder of 77 people in 2011, is in solitary confinement in Halden Prison in Norway with a three-room cell, complete with a computer, a television and a game console. But he’s still suing to get out of solitary, alleging human rights violations. It would be nice to see him win and get mixed into general population – and then see the look on his face when he realizes how good he really had it.

Luck o’ the Inmates: the rate caps that the Federal Communications Commission ordered for prison phone calls last fall went into effect on St. Patrick’s Day because, just one day before, the FCC wiggled out from a stay imposed by a federal appeals court earlier in the month. The phone companies think that prisons will erupt in violence because inmates won’t understand the new rates, which is a stretch even in the fictional Oz prison. Lower rates for calls will mean higher fees elsewhere. Trust me.

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7 March 2016

Into the Lives of Others

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“What’s it to you?” the captain asked Trina after she pleaded with him to help get her friend out of seg. Guards had boxed her pal during Chicken Sunday’s lunch for alleged flagrant disobedience – she refused to switch tables when ordered to do so. Trina had already appealed to the lieutenant who steered the entire procession to seg who told her:

“Look, I was nice. I let her finish her chicken before they took her.”

Now Trina was getting no further with the captain because her friend’s problem, as the captain plainly pointed out, was just that: the friend’s problem. Not hers. And Trina needed to focus on her own problems.

I agreed with the captain. I’d been devising a plan to pass five envelopes to Patty who forgot to buy them to send out the Christmas cards she made illegally on the library computer. Patty’s problem was hardly a calamity and it was hardly my problem yet I still felt some need to help Patty solve hers.

The only thing separating compassion from codependence in a prison is blurred lines. But I’m a good girl so I can’t see the lines at all. When the other inmates looking for envelopes or shampoo or some other boost find me, I let them bug me until I give in.

Analyzing how much or whether I should do favors or lend assistance to the other inmates takes up too much of my time. I never know how much assistance will set off  alarms that sound “ENABLING!” and how little assistance makes me heartless. I thought – and was taught – that if you’re able to do something to help another, then you should do it because even a minor contribution can make a major difference.

My thinking descended from from a very identifiable, tangible source: a lithograph that my parents and my aunt Nancy had commissioned around the time my youngest sister was born. Brown and orange, the print had a very primitive feeling with large eyes and angular faces in contrast to the Greco-Roman inspired décor in my parents’s salt-box colonial home. Inscribed within was verse from Edwin Markham:

There is a destiny that makes us brothers

None goes his way alone

All that we send into the lives of others

Comes back into our own

After reading Markham’s words every day for decades I developed a personal viewpoint that everyone should be helped at all times. In hindsight, I admit that it was probably the return on sending out, that prospect of inclusion, a destiny of connectedness that shaped my thinking more than the duty to send out.

But my sending out got lopsided. Sending out put me in. In trouble, in prison, in toxic relationships. It put me in the Disciplinary Office here for helping someone try to reduce her sentence. It has, at times, cost me my health, money, time, friends, respect, self-esteem and lists of opportunities. Trying to help someone, taking on their problems, is an addiction to me. I depend – pathologically – on the idea that if I don’t do what’s necessary to aid someone when presented with the opportunity, then my failure to help will cause irreparable damage.  In my mind, I can prevent the wreckage pending in someone else’s life with just slight effort – five envelopes, only five – and make all the difference in their lives. This But-If-I-Don’t delusion’s traced my thoughts so many times that it’s practically left grooves in my brain.

I don’t remember my first fix but the shackles were fixed on my mental slavery after my parents’ accident in Ireland, while they were vacationing.  Broken neck for mom, crushed pelvis for dad. When we finally delivered them back to the states (Ireland is third-world, medically speaking) neither one wanted to remain in the hospital even though they both needed surgery and more time to convalesce. So they signed themselves out against medical advice to heal at home. With me to care for them, of course. With his broken pelvis, my father slept on the couch each night, falling off to the white blare of CNN.

Because he had to twist his body to sleep comfortably, he usually fell asleep with one arm extended from the couch, clutching the remote control. And when he finally nodded off, he would drop the remote and the silver and black plastic would clatter and make a noise bigger than the fall. Sometimes the plastic tinkle of the battery cover’s landing would follow the crack. I could hear it from upstairs.

Each of the twenty-five times it would fall each night – for months – I would wake in my childhood bed and go downstairs to check on him. I convinced myself that the one time I heard the channel changer fall to the floor but didn’t pad down the stairs would be the one time that the remote fell, not because my father’s grip grew slack, but because he suffered a life-threatening heart attack, stroke or other CNN-induced cardiac event and, if I didn’t do my groggy stumble downstairs, whatever ailment struck him would kill my father because I wouldn’t be there to snatch him from death’s clutches.

So I trudged down, collected the parts and put them together before I handed the remote right back to him after I confirmed that I wouldn’t have to answer the dispatch operator’s question: What’s your emergency?

image

I had to make that call years later, when he actually did have a stroke. And then, too, my father discharged early from the hospital against his doctor’s advice. To accommodate him, my mother remodeled the house for handicapped access and rented a hospital bed for my father’s home office, the one whose beige fabric-covered walls still held the Edwin Markham lithograph that screwed up my head so much that I saw nothing wrong with slavish service, even to people who weren’t making sensible choices. My father would remain in the hospital bed until midnight when he had to move – had to, had to move – to the couch to watch CNN and drop the remote as he fell asleep.

I was even more frightened that if I failed to respond to every splintering plastic sound every twenty minutes, my father really would die because he had suffered the stroke I subconsciously expected of him for years.

As I helped him dress to go out to lunch with a friend one morning – he had a social life, not me – he asked me not to come downstairs so much during the night. It was disrupting his sleep.

I can file that under “Your Sleep?” or “Ungrateful Son of a Bitch” but where it belongs is under “Boomerang” – the excessive concern and codependence you send into the lives of others can bounce right back at you and fail to help anyone and even harm yourself.

After I loaded him into the car I stormed back inside, grabbed the remote and over grass made tensile from frost, treaded to the edge of my parents’ yard and hurled the remote so hard into our neighbors’ yard that I almost lost my balance. I put some good spin on it because the battery end was weighted; it twirled through the air, into an among branches, logs and chicken wire. I don’t know what the remote landed on because, as far as I can tell, that was the only time that fucking thing ever landed silently.

I sent it out of my life when what I really should have tossed was my neurotic obligation to do every little thing that might, in some imagined scenario, make a life-or-death difference. That obsession was the only thing that the prison let me keep when I got here.

In here, I run and slide into obligations and then I bristle when the job chafes too much. I should say no to inmates who want help with paperwork, like a woman here who tried to kill her husband three times. Sentenced to fifteen years – five years for each attempt on his life – she wants to reduce her sentence and she wants me to help her do it. I should say no upfront, that her sentence is fair and she has no chance of modifying it. Just like it’s not my duty to help her, it’s also not my job to educate her on her reality, nor is it my place to steal her hope. That hope might be all that propels her from one day to the next. It may be insane, but it’s not illegal, infectious or impolite so it can harm only her and no one else. I have no role to play in it.

But I’ll do what I always do which is send into her life a nice written motion that I convince myself is just a running start for her handling (accepting?) her own problems. But it will only create another need for help. And I’lll help again because I’ll figure that, if I’m in for a penny, I’m in for a pound even if it will make me broke and broken, tossing remote controls over property lines. I find myself in this position repeatedly because I think this motion, that envelope or that bounced television accessory will make some type of crucial difference in someone else’s life. It’s a really arrogant thought when you understand it because the only person who can send help into someone’s life is herself. Once people realize that, they usually can handle things themselves, like my father did.

s-l10001“Chan, have you seen the clicker?”

“No.” It wasn’t a lie. I hadn’t seen it since I lobbed it outside.

“I just had it here last night,” he said as he peered around the sofa.

“Dunno. I didn’t see it.”

He called the cable company and some little shit in a Cablevision van delivered him a new one to let fall every night. I didn’t get up for every drop, but I did get up for many even though I know my father is still alive and he doesn’t need me to continue to be. Addictions are hard to tame.

I doubt that it’s entirely fair for me to say that no one can make a difference. People have sent things into my life that have helped me and a majority of those people work in this prison. Sending something good into others’ lives is creating the conditions under which others can make a difference to and for themselves. If I’m concentrating on someone else’s problem when that remote sails back into my life, I won’t know when to duck.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM FEBRUARY 29 – MARCH 6, 2016

Rodney-King

Thursday, March 3rd marked the 25th anniversary of the beating of Rodney King, the event that sparked the Los Angeles riots and sent anti-police sentiment into the lives of jurors who eventually acquitted O.J. Simpson of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman approximately four years later.  The next day, March 4th, it was revealed that a knife that had been excavated from Simpson’s property and given to an off-duty L.A.P.D. cop who took the knife home with him for the next 15+ years. With a police department this clueless, is it any wonder that O.J. walked?

The CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) conference was held this past weekend in National Harbor, Maryland, despite the fact that Trump refused to attend. One attendee, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin Sheriff David Clarke says justice reform is based on three lies. Watch the video and note the part at 1:45 where he shoos away any countervailing evidence with the “lies, damned lies and statistics” line. And then wrongly attributes it to Benjamin Franklin when Mark Twain said it. Apparently, there are lies, damned lies, statistics… and stuff that comes out of this guy’s mouth.

A report from the Pew Center for the States issued on March 1st details the where’s and why’s of correctional officer shortages. The reason for the shortages? Prison populations are growing and aren’t expected to stop, contrary to reports that we’re decarcerating.

 

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