The only time I don’t feel left out of the rest of the world, when I felt like everyone was on the same page, is when we’re all on the first page of a calendar. January is the great equalizer. To hell with death and taxes.
Because New Year’s resolutions convict everyone who makes them of some sin, the self-assessment that people go through at the end of one year and the beginning of another is how prisoners feel all of the time. It’s the one time of the year when literally everyone’s looking to for ways to avoid recidivism.
And all of us feel bet against. Because the world expects ex-cons and resolution-makers to flop.
Eighty-eight percent of all resolutions end in failure. Criminal recidivism rates – which aren’t as bad but still range from 47% to 62.5% – aren’t measured in the binary of whether you succeeded or not, but in how long it took you to fail: one year, three years, five years.
For all of personal rehabilitation, failure’s not an if, it’s a when. For both people leaving prison and those making New Year’s resolutions, it’s assumed you’ll falter. Everyone just wants to see how long it takes for you to lose your grip and plunge down like a losing contestant on American Ninja Warrior.
The reason why so many resolutions fail is that they include the impossible plan to “be a completely different person” in the New Year, at least according to all the psychotherapists who’ve been quoted in sidebar sections of ‘holiday stress’ articles in the old women’s mags we have lying around here. Rather than changing a behavior, we gaze from afar on how our lives will be different in the future as a new person. Someone who we are not. At least not yet. Probably not ever.
Prisoners suffer from the same thinking. Courts, prosecutors, even the friends and family inmates say they miss so much at the holidays conflate our behavior and our identities. When the behavior is prosocial and good, the mixture yields pride.
When the behavior is bad, you find yourself coated in a grimy shame and your identity becomes like a used car; you just want to trade up.
The message that society sends to incarcerated people is that they’re inherently bad. When you’re told that you’re a bad person, implicit in that is that, to become a good person, you have to be another person altogether. A “new you” is the only acceptable version. To succeed, you have to reject who you are.
Becoming the person who goes to SoulCycle every day is very different from becoming the person who doesn’t boost a pair of jeans from Old Navy. Refining habits can’t be directly compared to deciding not to break the law.
But when we’re talking about a new you, we’re talking about a person who’s inauthentic. We want to believe that our idealized self is the authentic one, but that’s not true. Your true self is the sum of your humiliating fumbles and screw-ups. What other people call baggage – something that can be abandoned along the route to the new you – I call backstory and I can’t leave it behind. I won’t. That’s fraud. That’s the old me, according to everyone else.
This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with reinvention. A longitudinal study of women throughout their lives at the University of California at Berkeley – called the Mills study because it followed women who were recent graduates of Mills College into their old age – found that reinvention is not only possible but more likely when its approached gradually and not as a change into a new person but as a return to the person you were and always knew you should be.
Indeed, our country’s entire penal system is based – at least in principle, if not in practice – that time and a controlled environment can cause personal and moral revolutions in people. Yes, long terms of incarceration sometimes work.
When I leave here in 74 days – well after at least 36% of people dropped the resolutions they made last month – I’ll get a tabula rasa myself, not because I’ll be a different person but because I’ll emerge more myself than I’ve been for a long while, having erased my screwy sense of entitlement and the delusion that I am owed anything.
Part of my ability not to feel like a walking, talking crapshoot is that I got away from thinking that I am flawed when the defect is really in how I handled things. There’s no “new me” when 2014 comes, it’s the same me every January, just doing some things differently, managing those flaws rather than internalizing them to the point that I have to morph into someone else to keep them from interfering with a meaningful life.
And if you’re a C/O searching my stuff, looking for what I’m going to say about all of you when I leave this year, there’s nothing wrong with you, either. There’s something wrong with how you’re doing things. Find that and fix it.
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM DECEMBER 26 – JANUARY 1, 2017
The Bureau of Justice Statistics released its latest counts of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons and in local jails, and offered some good news. During 2015, the state and federal incarcerated populations declined by 2%, more than it has any year since the Bureau started tracking annual change in 1978. The bad news is that most of that decarceration came from President Obama’s one-off’s with clemency and early release. Probably won’t happen again any time soon.
Teen brawls broke out in malls across the country the day after Christmas. When I was in prison in 2013 and the Fox Series The Following aired, I used to wonder how it didn’t inspire more bizarre, flash mob-type crime. I guess I was just premature. It’s finally happening. The Following has come to life, juvy-style, without blades, thankfully.
Starting January 1, 2017, the vast majority of people arrested in New Jersey will be released without having to post bail. Those who are remanded because they can’t afford to pay a bond will be tried within six months. I really want this to work. If it does, it will push reforms in other states. If it fails, it will be hailed as the reason not to let anyone out of custody. This is why new ideas in reform can be dangerous; if they flop, then people blame the principles behind the plan, not its design.
Rehabilitation isn’t like baking or roasting because there’s nothing that pops, no external indicator to signal when a prisoner’s had enough heat and is ready to come out. If there were some test that could assess with certainty that correction has taken and an offender has learned what she did wrong and how to do right, then recidivism would be zero because judges, wardens and parole boards would never let out the ones who are underdone.
The typical assessment of rehabilitation is self-report by the inmate:
“No, ain’t never coming back here. I got me forty certificates [of completion of ineffectual self-help groups] and I got no tickets for six months. I know that boostin’/fightin’/robbin’/rippin’ and runnin’ [drug use as a career] ain’t worth it.”
That one always comes back in about two months, certificates in the wind. Some can’t stand the heat anywhere. They will say anything to a parole board or the warden for early release. In fact, parole means “promise” in French. It’s just words. No evidence or guarantees.
Many objective evaluations are just as unreliable. Staff members – whether they’re work supervisors, group leaders, guards or other administrators – rarely see everything we do. Often they have us pegged all wrong.
“She’s such a nice girl,” an older female guard commented about a woman who was popping Valiums snuck in through the visiting center, drinking nips a guard smuggled into the facility for her (which she promptly booted into a Fluff container) and forgoing notes from one staff member to another to assure that she was the only worker in gym, alone with one of the C/O’s for something inappropriate. She continues her swallowing exercises at a halfway house now but she shall return because she needed more time on the rack.
Me? You can tell I’m done with the oven light off.
But there’s a definitive, acid test for rehabilitation, objective evidence of someone’s growth: her commissary receipts. Just like a store employee checks your receipt at Costco or Best Buy before you walk under the red EXIT letters, someone needs to check receipts before they let inmates go out. That list of itemized purchases will tell you if she’s responsible or not.
Frequent purchases of toothpaste, dental floss sticks and tartar rinse show she takes responsibility for preserving her health and preventing illness as much as she can in her current circumstance. The same goes for buying omega-3 fish oil capsules or vitamin C.
Purchasing envelopes, writing pads and pens means she maintains a network of people on the outside who can help her cool to room temp when she gets out. Even colored pencils yarn and art supplies prove that she fills her time with something creative and relatively productive.
Shelling out for a Nintendo DS system can go one way or the other. Either she wastes time on video games instead of working or attending school (not ready) or she found another way besides TV and music to drown out the chaos around her (this one’s done). Even excessive shampoo buying means she’s a clean freak, using the liquid soap to wash every surface around her. At least she’s doing something.
Receipts that come in devoid of any purchases of envelopes or Lever 2000 soap or pencils or Ultra Brite toothpaste mean that the inmate shifted responsibility for her basic needs onto her community. My cellmate, hailing from Bridgeport with another misdemeanor conviction for prostitution, just paid for pepperoni, chips, iced oatmeal cookies, sugar, cappuccino mix and ramen soups. But she didn’t buy the bath soap, hairbrush, nail clipper or laundry detergent she needs so much that she just told me she needs them, as if the announcement of her lack was all that was required for me to supply it.
I have two choices now; tell her “sorry” and live in a closet with someone who doesn’t bathe or use deodorant or wash her clothes, or give in to her to make my life easier. Either way, she’s committing a new offense before she leaves: holding me hostage. Need keeps social programs mushrooming in the hopes that they will choke out crime but they never do. If we don’t supply them with food and necessities, we fear that economically oppressed people will victimize us. Their receipts for cigarettes tell us they’re going to do it anyway.
Of course, inmates who deserve assistance because they don’t have any money will have no receipts. They need soap like everyone else. I learned in here to take living with people who have next to nothing as a privilege because it keeps me humble and affords me the honor of doing what every decent person does: helping a neighbor. I am supposed to do that and I forget.
But a lack of receipts should pique the warden’s interest, too. Just like on the outside, the person with no discernable income still eats, bathes and clothes herself so the warden would be wise to ask these inmates:
“How’d you survive with no money?” If she hustles by making greeting cards and crocheting other peoples’ yarn into blankets for them, then she’s industrious, ready to come out. If she’s prostituting herself to other inmates, she needs a little more time. If she’s stealing, then she needs to stay in a lot more. An inmate’s accounting reveals her accountability better than anything else.
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM NOVEMBER 28 – DECEMBER 4, 2016
Charleston church shooter moved to represent himself in a death penalty trial and, as of Friday, wants the attorneys to handle the “evidence” part of the trial. In the United States, it’s either self-rep or covered by counsel. There’s no in between. Hybrid representation isn’t allowed…but it should be, if only for judicial economy.
A new Department of Homeland Security report made public Thursday recommends that immigration officials continue to use private prisons to house immigration detainees. The surprise: The recommendation then was rejected by a DHS advisory board. If that doesn’t scream… I don’t know…disorganization? waste of taxpayer dollars? Right hand talk to the left hand? Decide on private prisons once and for all.
Feds announced major changes within Bureau of Prisons designed to ease re-entry for the men and women housed in federal penitentiaries. They’re building a “semi-autonomous” school district within the BOP to better educate prisoners, paying for state-issued identification cards for inmates, and requiring new standards for federal halfway houses to ensure better care once ex-offenders are released. But the Trump administration and presumptive attorney-general nominee Jeff Sessions could scrap those plans.
“What’s up, Booster?” one kitchen supervisor asks an inmate who he knows to be a serial stealer of cereal. A lieutenant calls another established filcher “Thieva” because it rhymes with her first name. Virtually everyone employed in this prison thinks it’s funny that sticky-fingered inmates slurp away taxpayer dollars by stealing foodstuffs, other stuffs. It’s the new laissez-faire: I don’t give a fuck. It’s not my money.
The fact that inmates steal shouldn’t surprise many; hundreds of women here earned their new housing and two-inch mattress for exactly that. Inmates also steal because it’s expensive to be locked up, not just for the state. You can go broke going up the river.
Everyone expects that prison will cost a defendant her freedom, her reputation, her voting rights and a couple of other privileges. No incoming inmate expects that she’ll literally pay her way out of her debt to society by spending thousands of dollars patronizing the prison commissary.
Inmates work willingly for next to nothing because a prison job provides some exit from their housing units, fresh air, a short walk. Some inmates, though, have to work for nominal wages because no one from the outside supports them financially. Many of these prisoners live off of $7.50 every two weeks.
From that $7.50 biweekly wage, we have to pay $1.87 for shampoo, $1.59 for toothpaste, $0.80 for a toothbrush and holder, $1.02 for soap and a soap dish. If a woman writes home, one envelope, a pen and a writing pad set her back $1.81. Adding a comb for $0.62 puts the prisoner well over her $7.50 spending limit. If illness befalls the inmate and she needs Tylenol, cough syrup or hydrocortisone, she will go without. And inmates with dentures are totally screwed because the $6.00 denture glue plus the $7.00 for Efferdent cleaner busts most inmates’ banks.
Women with more expensive needs get by on the kindness of strangers – people like me who get asked “Why are you buying Fixodent?” at the commissary window – until they exploit the generosity to the point that the donor usually shouts “Leave me alone, you beggar bitch!” I’ve never said that, but I’d be lying if I claimed I never thought it when the requests came too often.
Then they turn to another inmate or develop an indigency-coping strategy: the hustle. Prisoners make handmade greeting cards or crocheted items and exchange them for necessities. Honest exchanges like this are completely prohibited, though.
When both pity and talent fail the poor prisoner, she learns a new hustle: stealing. Pilfering anything and everything around her, like contraband pens from the school, margarine and garlic powder from the kitchen, bleach and scouring powder from the janitorial supply closets. Larceny is a force inside a prison than it is pushing people in.
During my first two years here, I witnessed petty larcenies – rolls of masking tape, packets of sugar – but recently I’ve seen escalation into full-scale conspiracies with one inmate casually pushing a laundry bin past the kitchen as workers loaded 40-pound cases of cubed chicken and 30-pound cases of margarine into it. I overheard one of the C/O’s talking about it.
“It’s not boosting anymore. That was a heist,” he told one of the nurses.
It wasn’t totally implausible that an inmate took 65 ‘Chicken Sunday’ meals and the cart that held them as it headed toward the medical unit. When supervisors told me that the unit officer never got their meals, I went in to check.
“How are we missing 65 trays and a rolling closet?” I asked him. He shrugged and issued an order:
The vestibule of every housing unit is decorated with a prisoner-painted mural. In one unit I entered to find a hidden, hulking cart, I noted the expanse of paint had stenciled on it that saying about what happens when a butterfly flaps its wings here: a huge storm follows across the world. I’m sure every other inmate things it’s some interconnected, holistic horseshit. Karma. Someone out there loves me. I know better. That’s mathematics. That’s the centerpiece of chaos theory: small actions have strikingly great and unintended consequences. Every transgression has a human cost even if we never see or know it.
I found the cart with all meals intact but the maelstrom of stealing spins forward.
One worker in the food warehouse who had been busted repeatedly for tucking things like raisins or spices into her bra or socks decided to outwit the usual pat-search (bra strap and waist) by having another inmate circle around her with an industrial-sized roll of plastic wrap to seal slices of cheese, sausages, brown sugar and instant coffee to her thighs and calves. Her every step crunched as she headed to her housing unit after work that day, only to find the most notorious hawk of a guard working in the housing unit, an unusual post for her as the C/O was usually assigned to the walkway to do the pat searches that the inmate worked so hard to avoid. When the staff heard her scrunch into the housing unit she was busted and she never expected that to happen. That’s disordered thinking.
I’m probably one of five inmates who don’t fall into paroxysms of laughter when stories of stealing are told and retold. Even among some inmates who don’t steal, a sentiment exists that says we should deliver payback on the state for incarcerating us and paying us pennies to serve as the prison’s work engine every day. They think that stealing brings order and settles the score.
It settles nothing, of course, but most inmates believe that stealing’s acceptable because it’s a non-violent offense. They didn’t develop this attitude on their own; they learned it from policymakers who make the divide between violent and non-violent offenses into a canyon separating relative angels (thieves) from the scourge of society (women with convictions for violent crimes).
Of course, everyone would prefer that their grandmother’s wallet get lifted to her taking a bullet. But the lax attitude toward non-violent crimes, particularly larceny, cultivates a permissiveness that neutralizes any deterrent effect of incarceration. So when disciplinary officers barely swat the hands of inmates who steal constantly as part of their hustle, their leniency and corny jokes do more harm than good.
The guards’ examples ruin inmates even more. When two female guards took me to a local hospital’s emergency room, both of them swung open drawers and crammed Wite Out, Band-Aids, pharmaceutical company SWAG (post-it notes, pens, clips) and alcohol wipes in their jacket pockets, their jackets emblazoned with “Department of Correction” and the state seal.
People say prison’s a place where you learn to be a better criminal, as if there’s a seminar on gang initiations or they distribute instruction manuals on how to stay off camera when you’re robbing someone at an ATM. That couldn’t be more wrong. Prisoners keep their real hustles a secret. Allowing their more successful ventures to be replicated would assure that they’d be caught eventually.
Instead, prison introduces and trains you in a criminal relativism that lets you justify small offenses. If it’s non-violent and no one dies as a result of your actions, whatever you did was okay. It’s hard to get down on yourself for stealing other people’s stuff when your cellmate killed a pregnant woman out of jealousy, especially when both of you live identical consequences for what each of you did. No one becomes a better criminal in here; they just become bolder because they think certain crimes aren’t really moral transgressions, but just a part of a larger cycle.
I’ll cluck my tongue at women who steal those pens, but I’ll buy them off the thieves. I’m writing this in contraband green ink (supposedly only the warden can write in green, so I wonder where this pen really came from). According to the law, by receiving stolen property, I’m just as guilty as the person who pocketed the pen, but I have no ethical qualms as green scribble develops across this paper.
The only way to cease the stealing is to charge every inmate who gets caught thieving inside the prison with larceny. CVS would contact law enforcement and press charges against a woman who stole a roll of tape from one of their stores, but the prison doesn’t do that when she takes the same roll from the prison library. C/O’s cite all the paperwork to complete with Connecticut State Police as if it’s any larger or more complicated a paper commotion than completing these forms when the woman gets collared for stealing and her one-woman spree whirls back here.
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM AUGUST 8 – 14, 2016
The murder conviction that was to keep Brendan Dassey in prison for the rest of his life was overturned on Friday. The nephew of Steven Avery, considered the biggest victim of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin sheriffs in the Netflix series Making a Murderer, was ruled to have confessed involuntarily to detectives because of promises they made him. The decision, however, says that Len Kachinsky, the attorney appointed to represent Dassey and who conspired with the prosecution to obtain the unconstitutional confession, did not provide ineffective assistance of counsel in such a way as to warrant relief. I’m glad Dassey will see some justice but this decision is just another one in a long line of cases that allow attorneys to do anything to their clients in criminal cases. The District Court Judge William Duffin wrote a long decision in Dassey v. Dittman – 91 pages – but it’s worthwhile reading if you want to see what courts allow in terms of defense attorneys’ being disloyal to their clients. Sometimes, to make a murderer, all you need is the person who is supposed to protect him.
An educational note here: Dassey filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus claiming his incarceration was illegal. Habeas corpus cases are civil cases that challenge criminal convictions and/or sentences (sometimes even prison conditions). Many people ask me why the case caption in habeas corpus proceedings never includes “the State” or “the People” like criminal case captions do. It’s a good question. Habeas corpus cases (“habeases”) are civil actions against the person who is holding the prisoner in custody in his or her official capacity. Michael Dittman is the warden who’s holding Brendan Dassey in custody, so he is the named respondent, but the warden isn’t really being sued in the way most people understand litigation.
Our own Department of Justice issued a scathing report on Wednesday about policing in Baltimore City, Maryland, concluding that zero tolerance/broken windows-style policing doesn’t work and leads to abuse. As if the Freddie Gray and Korryn Gaines stories weren’t enough to convince you that Baltimore City is screwed up.
The Washington Post reported that 52% of victims of violent crime believe prison makes people more likely to commit crimes again, and would prefer to see lower sentences and an emphasis on treatment and diversion. A new answer to the question: “But what about the victims?”
I know that it’s more than just prison tautology, but a real understanding of the rule eludes me even after more than four years in prison. Initially, it seems to be the “Qué Será, Será” of prisoners, a philosophical shrug, the apex of acceptance and emotional evolution.
People respond to anything that perplexes the inmate soul by reciting the rule. “I was denied parole.” It is what it is. “My man’s cheating with my sister.” It is what it is. “My codefendant blamed everything on me and walked.” It is what it is.
Perhaps “it is what it is” answers the Serenity Prayer. Or maybe it’s accessible, acceptable Zen for the inmates, the majority of whom reject eastern religion as heresy, who fall on the floor during Protestant church services, allegedly speaking in tongues, confusing the onlooking guards who must decide if the woman is seizing or just exercising her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion.
I don’t know if “it is what it is” is acceptance; sometimes it’s very difficult to see the law that way. Through their actions, prisoners make the rule an abnegation, even a total rejection, of personal responsibility because they pull it out like a weapon – a shiv at the throat of interpersonal relationships – when confronted with wrongdoing or injustice.
“Did you dip your cellmate’s toothbrush in the toilet?” It is what it is. “Why did you steal ten pounds of margarine out of the kitchen in your underwear?” It is what it is. “You heard? Inmate X beat the shit outta Inmate Y! For real! It was dripping down the back of her leg!” It is what it is. In this sense, the rule is no longer Doris Day’s “Qué Será, Será” but McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.”
The whole time I’ve been here, I’ve seen things that students in an undergraduate constitutional interpretation course would know are wrong, like appointing the same public defender to two codefendants who never waived the conflict of interest. I can’t know about a situation like that and not tell that woman:
“C’mere. Let me tell you what you have to do.” So it can become what it is not.
Word of my nosiness has spread and I’ve earned the worst label that an inmate can bear: not snitch, or even child molester, but effective – not all the time but a lot of the time – in taking on the power structure. Paired with my convictions, two years of law school hardly make me an attorney but I became the jailhouse lawyer by rumor and default. Not one day has passed without an inmate requesting my help in crafting some written dispatch to get a new public defender, modify an order of visitation with her children, waive back taxes, apply to vacate protective orders or reduce her sentence.
For a while I kind of enjoyed it. I liked the fact that – if they had to choose a rule to break – they weren’t willing to follow “it is what it is” when it kept them in the status quo. When my cellmate – a woman who left two sons when she ran her SUV into a motorcycle carrying her ‘husband’ and a thirteen year old girl, killing her – found out that her state income tax refund was being held for unknown reasons and that her children couldn’t buy new shoes, I helped her write a request to release the funds. Her children shouldn’t be further punished, I figured. When she read the Department of Revenue Services’s reply that they had mailed the check to her son’s guardian, she nodded and muttered, smiling:
“This is what it is.” And it was. But learning about potential, possibility, what can be, is a powerful event. And with power comes assertion.
I used to walk to the dining hall for every meal (breakfast at 5:30, lunch at 10:30 in the morning and dinner at four in the afternoon) like most other inmates. While I went on these excursions for fresh air, the other inmates go to “chow” for the cake; it’s the new gruel. Every concern about a prison’s human rights record vanishes when outsiders hear that inmates stuff themselves with cake at least four times each week. The hoards that come out for it also come out to find me to learn how it doesn’t have to be what it is.
On every voyage to the chow hall, an inmate’s busted my beeline by tossing interrogatory hurdles in my path:
“Explain how I get my probation reinstated.”
“Tell me how the judge gonna lower my bond.”
“Robbery ain’t a violent crime when I run away from a mall cop when I was boostin’ (shoplifting), is it?”
If they didn’t catch me on the prison walkway, several took to interrupting me in the shower with “Just write me a letter,” while they forced a Bic through the curtain. As prison shower interruptions go, these were mild but they’ve accosted me so frequently that I’ve developed the routine of starting all of my sentences with “Listen…”, their drowning me out psychologically underpinning my new habit.
That the pen has power in the pen is a phenomenon that other prisoners haven’t witnessed before. They assumed that lawyers, magistrates and case workers ignored their letters of past because the people who sent them were lawbreakers. But when this lawbreaker wrote, things happened. It wasn’t what it was anymore.
In my experience, people who were cultivated in poverty can’t treat something beneficial in their lives properly. They will so overuse good things that they break or wear out and abandon them to the “It is what it is” thinking that prevents their dreams of better lives. Even though I very much want to help the other inmates, I don’t want to interact with them, at least not too much anymore. In short, I want my cake and to eat it too, just not with them, not all the time. From that letter that Saint Paul sent into the lives of the Romans, I know that I’m supposed to be humble and associate with the lowly but sometimes I need a break, permission to “Let it Be.”
It’s worn me out so much that I don’t really have much of a glad heart anymore when I assist them. Once I was awoken as if in an emergency, repeatedly poked in the foot by a squat inmate telling me:
“Miss, I dunno nothin’ to write to my lawyer.”
“Of course you don’t,” I snapped as I lowered myself from my top bunk. “With all of those public service ads about avoiding education. Wasn’t there a One to Grow On that said everyone should drop out of school at age 12 and knock over a liquor store? Oh, yeah, only after she shit out five kids!” I snarked at her.
Processing orders for help has turned me into a nasty, elitist bitch, more so than I ever was before; it’s been one hell of a rehabilitation.
I could see Martin Luther King’s ghost in the corner clucking his tongue at me as I slammed my property around to find a pen and paper, seething as I prepared to help her so that she could see what can be. I know that my comments and behavior were wrong, contrary to everything that I supposedly believe, but I still feel only 50% terrible about it, probably because she and her roommate conspired to steal my pajamas from my laundry bag the next day.
“Did you take them?” I asked, dangling my mesh sack from a raised arm to show that I knew they had victimized my sleepwear.
“Miss, it is what it is.”
“That’s what I thought.”
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM JULY 4 – 10, 2016
Within 24 hours of the shooting death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, a Falcon Heights, Minnesota officer shot and killed Philando Castille for reaching for his identification as ordered. An aerial ambush of Dallas police officers followed, killing five of them. Something needs to be done and everyone insists that guns aren’t the problem. I agree with Adam Gopnik who wrote this week in the New Yorker that “Guns allow the fringe to occupy the center.” We need to rid ourselves of the ways we empower people who want to do wrong. Guns top that list.
The Prison Policy Initiative scooped all news outlets in reporting that prison commissary giants are about to merge. This is more than some highfalutin anti-trust story. Prices for basic items like toothpaste and deodorant or even writing paper are about to go up. That means dirtier inmates. And dirtier inmates act dirty. I predict more fights, not an epidemic, but enough to make the prison profiteers culpable.
Every once in a while, you can wax philosophical in prison and not about moral or ethical questions, but metaphysical ones. Like this question: if someone tells on another person for something she never did or reports an event that never occurred, is she really a snitch?
Snitches swarm in prisons as people expect. But most people don’t know that tattletales actually tell mostly tall tales. I thought to blab you had to report something that actually happened. Judging by my experience, snitches are just tattlers of fiction.
Inmate Linda Stone schooled me in snitch reality. Linda is a petite, bookish-looking black woman who received permission to wear a girlish, innocence-projecting kerchief on her head. The kerchief, when paired with Stone’s two side braids, made her look like a milkmaid, but Stone is really a vile beast. She heaped lies about her life on everyone: she worked as a District Manager for a well-known international shoe company, she served as an expert witness in credit card fraud cases, she had a PhD.
“She ain’t got no PhD. The only thing that bitch got is a B.H.,” another inmate told me.
“B.A., I think you mean,” I corrected her.
“No. B.H. Bald head. That’s why she needs that scarf,” she explained. Apparently Stone suffered from a severe case of alopecia that afforded her the cloth on her head. She originally claimed her it was her “cuteness” that caused the staff to allow her to wear it. I guess that was a bald-faced lie.
Stone worked as the “Common-area Worker,” an inmate janitor who cleans the lobby of each housing unit and inventories supplies. The milkmaid fell victim to an occupational hazard and developed an illness I call Co.W.S. – Common-area Worker Syndrome – a condition under which an inmate believes that she’s become a deputy warden. Inmates with Co.W.S. order the staff around, subjugate other prisoners and generally march around being officious pains in the ass.
Because of her case of Co.W.S., Stone required that all attention be focused on her, her fictitious PhD and her very real baldness. Stone had been assigned a partner, a co-worker named Denise, who’s actually pretty cool. This positive personality trait would make her a natural enemy of Stone. Denise said something that Stone didn’t like and, within minutes, Stone ran to a lieutenant and told him that Denise had threatened violence against a particular C/O. Even though Denise never uttered a discouraging word about staff, the goon squad would hear none of it as they spirited her off to seg.
Stone’s imperiousness forced the staff to let her to choose Denise’s successor as her new underling. At the time, I worked washing inmates’ uniforms on one of the tiers in Stone’s fiefdom and I much preferred the biohazard risk from tossing foul drawers into a rickety dryer than listening to Stone. But she drafted me anyway.
“You’re going to have to do it for at least one day until we figure out who’ll work with her,” a guard told me when I backed away from Stone’s province and shook my head at my new work assignment.
Reluctantly, I joined Stone in the supply closet where she was ripping clear plastic garbage bags into small pieces to use as wrappings for spoonfuls of powdered laundry detergent that awaited distribution to inmate workers. She pointed and ordered me “Do this,” – fill bottles of glass cleaner – and “Do that” – sweep the floor – until she allowed me to reconvene with her in the closet.
“You know C.O. Snell? Well, he came in here the other day and asked me “Hey Chocolate, wanna suck it?” Stone wasn’t relaying an instance of sexual harassment; to her, this falsehood was evidence of how much the staff desired her.
No one talks like that, I thought. Even the worst C/O’s.
“Really? He said that? Fess up, Stone. Do you live in a porno?” I asked because porn’s dialogue was more credible than the dreams Stone was selling.
“I gave him a back rub once.”
She thought this was an adequate justification for this flaming lie. When an inmate and a guard sneak away to engage in inappropriate physical contact – a collision that never occurred between Mr. Snell and Stone – no one has time for a backrub; the two have sex and separate to throw off the scent. Prison is a lot of drama, but it’s not a love story with massages and long talks.
“Stone…” I pointed to the door next to the supply closet, the counselor’s office. The counselor happened to be Mrs. Snell.
“What?” Stone asked.
“Keep it down,” I warned and pointed to the counselor’s door again.
“That door is locked… I mean… if it’s locked no one’s in there. No one’s in there. Is she in there?” Stone spilled panicky rationale all over the place as she tried to convince herself that no one ever existed behind a locked door, particularly in a prison.
“All I’m saying is… you know…” I said and put my hand out to say Slow down.
Within seconds, Stone announced: “We’re done in here,” and hustled me out of the closet.
I’d been back in my cell for about an hour when the unit manager summoned me to his office and detailed to me that an inmate worker – Stone – had provided a statement to him that I confided in her that Mr. Snell had made inappropriate advances towards me. The unit manager took Stone’s lead with this lie and allowed her to pre-empt her own problems by reporting me for her lie.
“I never made any statements like that whatsoever,” I defended myself. I knew it was futile to explain what had really happened. I would look like I was doing what Stone did to me.
“Nevertheless,” the unit manager continued, “Mrs. Snell doesn’t feel comfortable with you in the unit. You’ll be moved in twenty minutes. Grab some bags,” he told me, referring to the same bags Stone had ripped up; inmates use them as suitcases when they move because they’re clear and snitch – honestly – on any contraband toted inside of them.
I put up no fight, instead walked to my cell with a stack of garbage bags. I never blamed Mrs. Snell for taking offense. That was reasonable. She simply had the wrong offender. Almost immediately after I started to pack, the unit manager called me back into the office.
“And we also have reports that you made threats of violence against Officers Copper and Harvest. If we become aware of you threatening staff again, you’ll be disciplined. Understood?” he leveled his gaze at me.
I had no idea what to say as more philosophical questions arose. If I said I understood, did that mean that I wasn’t refuting Stone’s lie about me? If I said: “No, I don’t get it because I never said it,” I’d become Denise’s roommate in seg within seconds.
The whole scene was like asking for a pardon when you’re innocent; even seeking absolution or agreeing with your persecutor implies guilt. Did I understand anything about the situation at the moment? No. So I did what every confused inmate does; I nodded ever so slightly. Minimal assent greases a prisoner’s way out of tight situations.
As it turns out, I much preferred my new housing unit so the move hardly devastated me. But the whole event posited a serious philosophical question in my brain. Was Stone really a snitch? She really never told on me because I never made any of the comments she attributed to me; those words came out of her mouth. She reported a true incident but identified the wrong perp. Neither of us threatened violence against anyone, so Stone’s reports of threats wasn’t really tattle-tale-ing, it was spinning a yarn.
Ever since all of this happened in 2009, it’s like I have the scene on TiVo and I replay it every month. Women in prison with low self-esteem seek attention from guards; they’re the closest authority figures. Usually, no new gossip has developed to impart on the correction officers so, in the spirit of the saying that Wise people have something to say whereas fools have to say something, many inmates make up stories of what another prisoner allegedly did or said about the C/O.
Then when the snitchee finds out what the snitcher did to her, she runs to another guard and fabricates a another story about the original snitcher because they think that reversing the slander will bring about justice. The more novice C/O’s betray their emotions as panic spreads across their faces when they hear these stories and march in search of a lieutenant to receive their incident reports. Experienced staff know it’s all bullshit. Sometimes I hardly wonder why they hate all of us.
The snitch riddle is problematic because it confuses inmates about what a responsible person should report. Solid citizens report crime and situations where people can suffer harm but many inmates don’t understand this. The stigma on reporting malfeasance is a product of street culture, lawlessness, not clean living. Inmates think projecting an image of never reporting anything makes them cool and controlled and convince themselves that tolerating others’ transgressions makes them trustworthy. The fact that they then run to C/O with a false story about someone else doesn’t disabuse them of this belief, either.
It’s been an irreconcilable prison paradox to me since I got here and lived in the dorms and one of my cubemates, Terry, asked another inmate, Shelley, if she would call the police if she witnessed someone breaking into her neighbor’s home.
“Naw. I ain’t no snitch,” she objected. Terry and I discovered later that Shelley, the one who would allow a full-scale burglary to unfold in her neighbor’s home, had been the informant who set up and told on Terry’s sister, Misty, for some drug situation that both were responsible for. Now do you see why people hate us?
Inmates, though, aren’t that different than citizens at large. Every day brings new situations that require us to ponder what’s worth our (and the authorities’) attention and what we should ignore. Developing the virtue of prudence is a daily chore for everyone whether she bears an inmate number or not. To whistleblow or not to whistleblow? That is everyone’s question.
Whispering lies into Lady Justice’s ear won’t imbalance her scales for long. Immigration eventually came and scooped up Stone because another one of her lies was that she was a United States citizen. Someone else she screwed found out and did a dishonorable thing in an honorable way by calling I.C.E. and telling the truth so she’d get deported to her to her home country in the Caribbean Sea.
It wasn’t me who called that yellow belly out on her missing green card; I was convinced she was a citizen. But if I had known, I wouldn’t have turned her in – mostly because I couldn’t just pick up a receiver to drop an immigration dime on her. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t – or shouldn’t – have snitched her out if I had known and been able to call the police on her. But I can’t say that. I would’ve been extremely tempted to get some getback.
Even if I never told, I would have spent a long time thinking it over, considering the philosophical implications of revenge when I know full well to sidestep retributive ideas and move on. The fact that I spend so much time pondering these actions – how to jam someone up, what constitutes real snitching – but don’t actually do them ultimately doesn’t make me a better person than anyone else here.
A good person doesn’t even think about it.
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM MAY 30 – JUNE 5, 2016
Another reason why Banning-the-Box doesn’t work by itself to secure employment for people with criminal records: when employers don’t know an applicant’s criminal history because there is no initial disclosure – i.e. no “box” – they still discriminate, but they use race as a proxy for criminal pasts, a forthcoming study out of the Brookings Institution found.
A public defender in Georgia is trying to overturn a death sentence for his client, Rodney Young, claiming that the district attorney who prosecuted Young’s case is preternaturally bloodthirsty because she has a toy electric chair in her office that zaps a little toy defendant named ‘Marv.’ It is a little macabre, but when you consider the way Young killed his victim, the son of a woman who had broken up with him, by bludgeoning the son with a hammer, cutting his throat and beating him so badly that one of his eyeballs was hanging from his face when his body was found, the death sentence imposed on Young seems okay despite his prosecutor’s penchant for execution trinkets, even to people like me who oppose the death penalty. My take? Both the defendant-appellant and the district attorney are sick. And I’ll give the defense attorney an A for zeal and creativity, even though I still have a thing about public defenders.
A woman walks outside. Woodchucks, rabbits, squirrels walk about her, unfazed, like she’s Snow White. A hawk circles overhead, distant watchman. Baby skunks teeter and shift. Cardinals and bluebirds flit from branch to branch in budding maple trees, hitting piccolo notes. It’s a scene of complete idyll, a flawless paint-by-numbers job depicting God’s majesty.
Then a sociopath enters the frame on her way to work in the kitchen and stomps at the skunks to frighten them into spraying another woman, an inmate who finds a rock bedded with the lillies donated by the chaplain’s mother last Easter and tries to bean one of the animals in the head with it. This is a prison, after all.
Even if you can avoid getting into a fight when you do time in Connecticut’s only women’s prison, Mother Nature will bitch slap you herself as you walk the line with fowl and fauna; the natural world is as settled in prison life as surveillance and bad food.
This prison [York Correctional Institution] is a stone’s throw from Rocky Neck State Park, a beach that has become such a destination that, from Memorial Day through September, beachgoers’ traffic tie-ups consume all roads that lead to correction in Niantic and make staffers late for work. We’re so close to the beach that the scent of the tide wafts here during the day and the smell of smoke and embers from shoreline bonfires is so strong in the evening you might wonder if a convicted arsonist is at it again.
The natural surroundings aren’t an accident. In 1918, the prison was founded as the “Connecticut State Farm and Prison for Women,” built on an agricultural model. Really it was a home for what people called “wayward women,” meaning pregnant without a husband or prospects of one. The only freshwater basin on the compound is called Bride Lake. Mother Nature castigated women then, too, telling them: “Clean up your act and get hitched.” All the single ladies – at least the fun ones – came to the Farm to work in gardens, growing vegetables and flowers, in barns tending to chickens and pigs, cows and horses because they had sex when no one else wanted them to do so. The State of Connecticut wielded the reformatory tool of honest manual labor over the daintiest and dirtiest mademoiselles.
“Ho’s with hoes,” as some old-timer staff members call that period in the prison’s history, worked when the crime plopping women onto this patch of beachfront property was limited to licentiousness. When licentiousness spread out and picked up prostitution, public drunkenness and bad checks, things grew less pastoral and more penal, eventually causing the agricultural model to go out of style.
When the hookers and the drunks and the bad checks nudged women into a lesson in feminism – recognizing that anything men can do women can do better – they learned their lesson by doing better – killing, assaulting, robbing, stealing big, the agricultural model went fully underground and the State of Connecticut split the prison in two around 1995: the “East Side” which was where the “Farm” once operated and the “West Side” where the incorrigible creeps would be housed in cinderblock buildings with green steel roofs and kept away from gardening tools that can be used as weapons. That’s where I’ve lived for most of my stay.
Because gardening is supposed to reduce recidivism, one remnant of the agricultural model resurrected itself on the West Side in 2009 – a garth just beyond a fence that sprouted up amid construction. For awhile, no one could see through the chain link’s wire-bounded, diamond-shaped peekholes because vented black tarps hung on the fence like drapes to block view of the prison’s vegetable patch, “The Farm” redux. It’s like the warden didn’t want anyone to see the activity that’s supposed to motivate women from reoffending when they leave.
From my cell on the second floor of Zero South, I can see the garden. Yesterday, a lieutenant – one known for his dalliances with inmates – pointed here – there – over there – to three nodding inmates who, I assume, are going to till it and seed it, stake tomato plants.
The garden’s bounty, at least in theory, is supposed to feed inmates fresh vegetables during the summer. Twice the chow hall served us a tomato and cucumber salad with chunks of raw zucchini and yellow squash which was delicious. The only thing that enters a prison fresh is the youthful offenders; every foodstuff is processed, packaged or frozen so the chlorophyll taste of verdant leaves hadn’t graced my mouth for months.
I would’ve expected the garden to produce more produce than appears on our trays; the summer months probably produce enough vegetables to provide more than two salads for each woman. but I need to remind myself why we don’t get everything we’re supposed to, especially when I watch that female C/O from third shift shake a little brown bag from her uniform pocket, walk into the garden and walk out with the sack lumpy from the tomatoes she just stole. This is a prison, after all.
The guards aren’t the only problem. From my cell window, I can see the inmates steal so much that they interrupt farm-to-table; nature’s bounty can’t reach the stainless steel, six-seat tables in the dining hall. The prisoners who work in the garden feel entitled to the fruits of their labor, especially if those fruits are vegetables they can’t buy from the commissary.
A prison garden – like the original “Farm” – isn’t about final product; it’s about the process of growth, the metamorphosis of roots into leaves, a germinating seed into a flower. Just like the hawk above, it’s a metaphor lost on many prisoners because it’s almost too symbolic to be real.
The symbolism found me. While things do grow inside, the garden has always been the site of sin. Why should prison be any different? It’s where mankind’s two lead fuck-ups were first required to wear uniforms after they ate the apple that was supposed to land on humanity’s chow hall table. The garden is where Eve, the original bride, may have had sex with Satan (appearing as a captain or a lieutenant, I assume). The garden and Nature brought out Human Nature which, judging by my natural surroundings, is depraved and corrupt. The combination of shame and plants has always spelled disaster yet we made it the seat of this place and expect it to reform women. We should have known it wouldn’t work when the women in here over the past 100 years went from bad to worse.
I thought that the garden was headed towards its last harvest when accusations surfaced that an inmate had taken her manual labor too far and serviced a guard guarding the garden with a hand job in the tool shed (almost too cliché for me). Personnel shifted to allow the garden to spring eternal just like the connection between wayward women and an allegedly purifying plot of land that started this place. Ho’s with hoes. Some things never change. This is a prison, after all.
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM APRIL 11 – 17, 2016
President Obama met with musicians Alicia Keys, Nicki Minaj, Busta Rhymes, Common, Janelle Monae, Ludacris, Chance the Rapper, J. Cole, Wale and DJ Khaled at the White House on Friday to discuss ways to continue the administration’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative and spur criminal justice reform in the United States. The musicians who met with Obama have been working on efforts to help younger generations of blacks and other minorities stay on the right path. But thinking that only black celebs can help black youth out of trouble isn’t racist. No. Not at all.
Manson follower Leslie van Houten was approved for parole by the California State parole board after serving 46 years. van Houten’s victims’ families vowed to fight her release by asking Governor Jerry Brown to block it as he has done in the past with other Manson-ites who were granted parole. I have mixed feelings about the parole board’s decision but what is the point of vesting the board with the discretion to release prisoners if that discretion can be overruled by the governor, the very person whose power the board was supposed to counterbalance?
Huge corporations like Google, PepsiCo, American Airlines, Facebook, Uber, Starbucks, The Hershey Company and Coca-Cola agreed to hire more people with criminal records last Monday, which will likely mean that each business will hire one to two people with felony records. That’s all it takes to say that you’re felon-friendly. These companies join Target, Walmart, Home Depot, Koch Industries, Bed, Bath & Beyond who have all removed the question about criminal convictions from their initial job applications. And still hire very few people with records. Don’t believe the hype. (BTW, why wasn’t Flavor Flav invited to meet Obama at the White House?)
Her mug bears yellow letters – her initials – ripped from construction paper; their edges track alternating black and white squares, drawn on with color pencils. The combination reminds you of a checkered cab, the intended impression because, from a small silky string, a molded-plastic taxi hangs, windows and wheels painted on. And she laughs about it.
Prisoners can be crafty little fuckers when we want to be, like if we want to decorate our cups with illegally imported supplies employing a taxicab motif. What makes the cup even more dangerous is that its holder has been sentenced to 50 years for stabbing a taxi driver to death in his cab. Remorse had better hitch a ride with someone else because this chick ain’t takin’ fares, decorating her cup like her crime is a joke.
A person’s character and her actions do not always collide: good people can do bad things. But what tows bad actions clear way from character is regret and repentance. And this cup, with the yellow and the checks, does not runneth over with either one of them.
Whenever an inmate describes prison life, she laces her tale with the themes “Not all prisoners are bad people” and “Everyone deserves a second chance.” I see how these ideas might make people sick at the sound of prisoners’ voices.
So I now upend the prison tradition of staking claim on second chances and admit it: we’re all scumbags. I include myself because when I watch her fill her cup with instant coffee, non-dairy creamer and plop all two hundred and thirty pounds of herself on a communal couch with a package of iced oatmeal cookies to criticize everyone caught in Inside Edition’s scrutiny and complain that she has gone without oral sex for months, I should say something to remind her of her victim, of the children he left behind. But I don’t.
I don’t say anything because I don’t want to translate from ebonics the profanity-laced, unjustified retort I would get back. This woman doesn’t speak, she shrieks. And I don’t want to hear it. She is callousness’ consummation: ignoble, ignorant, inconsiderate, immoral, impious. In her mind, everything starts with “I”.
But I’m not that much better. I always defend prisoners, regardless of the truth. I don’t think I even know what I’m talking about anymore.
“But you don’t know all the circumstances of her case,” I would remind people critical of offenders but I had not familiarized myself with the totalities of their situations, either.
“But you don’t know what was going on in her mind when she did that.” Nor did I.
“But look at her trauma history…” as if bringing to mind that abuse begets abuse makes anyone sanguine about bloodshed.
Now when the guards or other inmates get their digs in on some woman for her charges, I say:
“You’re right. She went above and beyond the call of degenerate.” The conversation ends there.
Restorative justice – as opposed to retributive justice – focuses on the harm done to the victim and the community, not just some pissy prosecutor. Restorative justice says crime is an offense against the dignity of persons – both the victim and the offender – not just against some penal code. Restorative justice urges offenders to take part in righting their wrongs, to the extent that doing so will not cause further harm. So what does restorative justice do with this asshole with the taxi mug?
An inmate’s behavior is the best measure of remorse and rehabilitation. But mass incarceration’s new world order has packed in so many offenders that outrageous conduct like making jokes about crime victims gets lost in the crowds. No one knows about the effrontery of decorating one’s mug with themes from a crime scene except for the other inmates who live with her. All aspiring parolees slap on squeaky-clean smiles for the parole board; the people who decide to release these offenders never see the dirt they continue to pile on their victim’s graves. And we either can’t or don’t say anything about it so we become co-conspirators in ongoing victimization.
I doubt that reporting the mug-hot shot’s antics would have any lasting benefit. A guard would search her cell, confiscate the cup, possibly issue a disciplinary report and register his disgust by clicking his tongue. She would claim she keeps it as a reminder of what she did, to keep her humble, a huge lie. She still wouldn’t recognize her behavior as a spill of evil into the world. Her only regret would be having to spend two dollars for another cup.
Every February 2, I poke my head out of my cell and look around to see if we’ll have six more weeks of recidivism. We always do.
Only people who live in prison’s underground hole know that recidivism is worse in winter. By choice, homeless women take on charges – usually for prostitution, a Class A misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of one year – so they will be housed and fed until spring. When the weather gets warm, the warden will release them to the streets again where they can live in tents or squat in abandoned buildings without having to steal hand and boot warmers from Walgreens.
Most times they stay out for Christmas, and then right after, in January, they approach a cop and proposition him so he’ll arrest them, set a bond and remand them to jail. Sometimes a rookie cop will try to be nice and set their bonds at zero, giving them a promise to appear for their court dates. They yell at him to train him in seasonal reoffending:
“It be cold out, motherfucker! Damn! You can’t set a fifty dollar bond or nothin’?” When the rookie follows their orders, they have a home for a while.
By the time they crawl through assessments and I see them, it’s February and they want snacks. They always do.
“You left out and came back? You got any juice?” each one always asks me.
“No, you left and came back. I’ve been here. No juice.”
“Well, when you goin’ home?” each one asks like she cares.
“I don’t know. When are you staying home?”
Each of these encounters makes me think that modern corrections is an internally inconsistent industry; if wardens and guards do their jobs by successfully rehabilitating women and setting up solid reentry plans for them, then the lack of returning inmates, the ones who scurry right back inside the hole like Punxsutawney Phil, will put them out of business. No one admits it but this entire system is built on the premise that no one can – and no one should – ever change or succeed. Ex-offenders pay their debts to society with the proceeds of new loans incurred by new offenses – deeds often done just to get out of the cold. Everyone serves a life sentence on an installment plan.
It’s the way the system wants it. The guards call the poorly behaved inmates “job security” because they know the women will return. Back in 2009 when a released inmate strung one bank robbery to another to fit six within one week, police flashed her mug across television screens. So many guards dropped a dime on her that the tip-line operator was saying: “Yeah, thanks for calling. We know its Holly Blue. You work at York?” Many released prisoners hang up the phone when freedom rings. Some have the line cut by a guard.
Of course, whenever an inmate boomerangs back inside either to protect herself from poverty and homelessness or because she’s just an asshole and the guards can ID her when her face is on the news, the procedure is always the same. She begs anyone she encounters: “I need soap, conditioner and something sweet.” “Can you buy me some white T-shirts so I got somethin’ to sleep in?” They hustle to collect whatever makes prison life more bearable. They think this is a Motel 6 and everyone left a light on for them – along with a snack on the check-in counter.
I am usually a generous person but I refuse to soften the blow of recidivism on re-offenders. Part of the sting of incarceration is being uncomfortable; discomfort makes someone think twice about what they did to invite it. Cushioning returning inmates with honey buns, cozy sweatpants and mascara makes it easier for them to reoffend, to want to come back inside. My stinginess puts me at odds with other inmates who are serving lengthy sentences.
“Tell me you are not sending K.M. porkrinds and toothpaste!” I scolded one of my roommates when K.M. got re-canned for shoplifting at Stop and Shop, fleeing the scene by plowing her car into another car that, in turn, struck another car carrying two small children. The news had broadcast her face in a plea for identification and one of the captains had called Crimestoppers on her.
“Shoplifting again. How about stoplifting? When is K.M. gonna cut the shit? Don’t give her anything!” I shouted.
“I have to. It’s the right thing to do,” M.S. defended herself, not knowing that softening K.M.’s fall from free space will affect her own release. Parole decisions base themselves on whether the inmate seems likely to re-offend and, if every woman who leaves the facility comes right back, the probability that another potential parolee will re-offend goes up. Three convenience store owners were murdered in Connecticut one summer during robberies committed by male ex-offenders who had been released on parole. When they landed back in prison, I’m sure everyone swung into action to deliver the Fluff, peanut butter and Twizzlers they requested, oblivious to the fact that the three murders had placed their freedom in jeopardy. I would have done nothing except tell them that they should have picked up snacks while they were in the 7-11’s they robbed. K.M. should have grabbed some pork rinds when she was fleeing Stop and Shop.
I have to laugh sometimes at the women in here who help the recidivists. They think the ‘right thing to do’ is to pack up an envoy with instant coffee and oatmeal creme pies to deliver to women who just came back to the prison. Inmates here lie, steal, assault each other. Many times murder and armed robbery landed them inside, not planned prostitution busts. And the moral analysis, discussion of the normative ethics of daily life, centers around sharing a brownie or hair gel with someone who either can’t or won’t do anything right.
Why waste time pondering why its right to find housing my soliciting a cop or whether long sentences actually have a deterrent effect? Why weigh all the policy options for combating poverty so women don’t have to set themselves up for prostitution charges? The right thing to do is to distribute Chex Mix to everyone who left the prison and came back with new charges. I guess it’s wrong to discuss whether if someone had helped them get the Chex Mix (figuratively, of course, through stronger reentry policies) on the outside they might have come out of this hole, seen their shadows against the light of hope, and not crawled back inside.
It sounded like a huge ice chunk clanging against metal. He said nothing but you could hear his blood pressure rise.
It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and one of the Food Prep Supervisors, Green Bay Packers, had prepared a pre-emptory holiday meal for the workers. Sausage stuffing made with cornbread that Green Bay had carefully culled from breakfast leftovers and frozen throughout the past year, broccoli and cheese casserole, buttered corn, pumpkin pie. It may sound like holiday de rigueur but, to us, this was like a spread on a ship-board cruise.
And not only was Green Bay treating his workers in Food Prep, he included laundry workers, workers from the prison school, from commissary, the property office, DataCon (the data entry site turned sweatshop), a total of about 100 people. If you’ve ever prepared Thanksgiving dinner for 25, then you know it’s a ton of work and an assload of food. For these one hundred women, Green Bay did four tons of work and had four assloads of food. He was ready to load a four-tier cart and roll the assloads out to the mini-dining hall where he would serve the assloads to us assholes.
But when Green Bay grabbed the cart to pull it in from the hallway, the ice chunk that fell was a broccoli brick, stashed by an inmate after she stole it from the freezer. The usual way a C/O busts a thief is by catching her with the booty on her body so inmates who steal from Food Prep think they employ super stealth when they swipe something and hide it in the hallway for future retrieval.
This asshole thief snatched one of the broccoli bricks from the case opened for the holiday meal and opted for a really shitty spot to hide it: between two carts that Green Bay or another supervisor could and would pull apart at any moment sending the broccoli brick to the floor, making it a crime scene.
If lieutenants just rewound the surveillance cameras with lenses directed at the hallway, we could spot the swindler, she’d be fired and Green Bay and his broccoli and cheese would cool down, but that is entirely too easy. Instead inmates like me have to get all CSI in the hallway, particularly with perishable food: If it’s still cold, no condensation? The heist went down less than twenty minutes before. Cool with condensation? During the current shift. Room temp and bone dry? At least one day, maybe more. Because I have worked there the longest, lead investigator status usually falls to me.
“Chandra, we found cubed chicken/cheese/margarine/roast beef out in one of the recycling bins!”
“Hold on. Don’t touch anything,” I say as I glove up and quickly examine the scene. Bending down I assess the evidence, holding my index and middle finger on it like I’m taking its pulse.
“OK. I’m gonna call it. Time of Theft within the last hour,” I strip off my gloves and announce to grim faces because that means the perp is probably still on the scene and the supervisors are about to disallow coffee, juice and the occasional muffin to us as punishment. No one is that concerned that the bandit remains among us. We’re in prison; the perp is always among us.
But I didn’t have to call the Time of Theft on the broccoli brick. The frost on it looked like matte fuzz and Green Bay knew the robber and the brick walked right past him as he put the finishing flair on the meal. Green Bay was understandably cheesed off.
“The only reason you’re getting to eat this is that I’ve already invited so many people,” he announced.
My parents were once extravagant entertainers during the holiday season and my mother eschewed caterers; she insisted on cooking everything herself. When pre-party anxiety crept up my parents spines and they squabbled, my mother would say the same thing. “I’m only finishing these crab cakes because we have people coming!” The holidays really are the same wherever you go.
“After tomorrow, nobody’s gettin’ nothin’!” Green Bay continued as he rolled his four assloads of food to us. We ate with the commissary and the laundry workers but the food in my mouth tasted metallic and faint. The perp among us had slammed our bosses’ generosity backward and sucked any heartfelt holiday spirit out of the dining hall and into the hallway.
Our supervisors Food Prep are real chefs, artists whom the state supplies with only the lowest quality components (us) and the food ingredients aren’t much better. But year after year they combine us low quality components with special holiday meals. They could be – and have been – executive chefs in upscale establishments but instead they choose to supervise pre-menstrual yet premenopausal, hysterical yet morose, angry yet frightened, unworldly yet manipulative women. They get punched, ripped off, insulted, cried upon, hit up for tampons every hour. It makes them look like gluttons for their own punishment when all they really try to do is relieve ours.
We stayed on punishment until mid-December. No extra coffee. No cheese with our eggs. Until the perp was identified. The lady assigned to the pot sink it was, but the supervisors couldn’t can her because they “lacked objective proof,” a phrase, when translated from correction, that means “no one with a badge saw her but almost every inmate told on her.” They couldn’t prove she took the broccoli brick but they spied her tasting a corner of the roast beef we were slicing for Christmas dinner and pounced on her for stealing that. To me, snacking on one of the meat ends was not a ticketable offense; I had done it many times, even that morning.
“Wait! In the interest of full disclosure, I think I need to tell you that I ate a piece of roast beef, too,” I confessed, hands up like I was caught in a searchlight, to the butchers’ supervisor, Bengals, as he completed Pot Sink’s disciplinary report.
“Yeah, so?” Bengals asked as he signed the ticket. They were looking for anything, a flinch of a fuck-up, barely a breath of transgression to excise Pot Sink from the culinary workforce. The ticket was handed off to lieutenants who would start the process of serving the paper to Pot Sink in her cell.
Right then I learned the single-most important lesson in corrections: even if you got away with something, you’ll never get away with it entirely; your sin will always find you. Even if they never connect your face with the perp on the news who knocked over a liquor store, you’ll get hanged for accidentally bouncing a check. Even if police never connect you with a homicide they’ll bust you for the drugs in your house when children’s services comes to investigate your upstairs neighbor. They busted Pot Sink for broccoli but the charges read “beef.” When successfully fleeing from felonies you will trip over multiple misdemeanors. The only way anyone gets away with anything is not to do it. On Thanksgiving, we should give thanks for our ability to think twice.
“OK. Everything’s back to normal!” Green Bay boomed as the ticket wound its way to the Lieutenants’ office. Coffee pots and sugar packets appeared on cue, like the Thanksgiving thievery never happened.
As the next November neared, Green Bay told the NY Giants:
“I’m cooking for our girls only this year. That’s it.”
“And DataCon,” added Giants.
“No, I’m not. Only our girls.”
“And laundry,” Giants went on.
“Better make sure all the roasting pans are back from the dining hall, ” mused New England Patriots because he, like everyone else, knows Green Bay will do it again.