8 August 2016

Sign Language

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golden hands

“Okay, here’s what I know,” I told them. “There’s over 900 cups of peanut butter and jelly but only 300 cups of cole slaw.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. Why would they have three times more peanut butter than cole slaw?” Charity asked. She was right; the prison always served peanut butter and jelly with cole slaw.

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It’s coming.

“What’s…what’s going on? Are we locked down or what?” my roommate Melissa interrupted. I repeated what I knew.

“Mmm. How many trays are there?” she inquired.

“Uh, I didnt see any uptick in the number of cases they took from the warehouse. About the same as always.”

“That’s not a reliable indicator,” Charity pointed out, “because they can brown bag those peanut butter and cole slaw cups.”

Melissa and I nodded in agreement. We were better informed about an impending lockdown than when we started the conversation.

A complete, five-day lockdown might not seem like much of a threat to women who are locked down 18 hours of every day, but it is. A 24-hour emergency lockdown means we can’t shower, call anyone, receive visitors or do our jobs.

47892abad5df3f50bcb6259d274595f9Inmates prefer to know what’s happening so we can bathe quickly or warn loved ones so that they don’t worry when the phone doesn’t ring or drive two hours up I-95 only to U-turn at the prison gate because visits are closed. And, because we’re not told anything specifically about these events – with some good reason since a necessary aspect of any lockdown is catching inmates by surprise with drugs or someone else’s radio, so no one ever announces the event ahead of time – inmates train themselves to look for signs.

Because no one walks into the dining hall during a lockdown, food is prophetic in a prison. Prefabbed portions and a glut of styrofoam trays – as opposed to the molded plastic trays that serve as plates – usually indicate that it will be delivery, nor DiGiorno, because no one’s going anywhere that day.

When easily distributed, non-perishable, fiber-filled cold cereal packets inundate the supply closet, that, too, implies you’ll be sitting in your cell for a while.

Since I’m often the only person in the long-term housing units who works in food service, I am the Chief Lockdown Prognosticator. When they ask what’s happening, I recount to the inmates the signs I’ve witnessed and how I interpret them. I am overly cautious and I warn people:

“Call your mother, just in case.”

My accuracy rate is about 75%.

Inmates look for signs of not only lockdowns but anything because the prison posts no signs, meaning they announce nothing in here. Knowledge is power even on society’s sidelines. Inmates, by design, should never have power, so they leave us ignorant.

1465024Inmates can exploit what they know to get what they want, so I get it that we need to be left in semi-darkness. In the poor light, we squint at the signs (C/O’s lugging biohazard boxes into the gym where we get strip-searched and deposit our maxi pads and other female daintiness, cases of urine specimen cups for drug testing) and we guess, improvise with the facts we have. You might give us credit for creativity, but the net result of all of this lack of information dissemination  is that we’re often making stuff up.

There’s a real downside to the keep-away game we play with info because it leaves undereducated inmates with no idea how to learn the lowdown legit. That is, they know nothing of how to use established resources to secure what they need to know. Instead of checking the Inmate Handbook (which I admit is an abject piece of shit that lacks answers to the most cursory questions and is rife with typos that cloud any creditable facts within e.g., “court trip” is spelled “court trio”) inmates rely on gossip channels for news other than scuttlebutt, like what the new parole statute means for them. There should be a reliable way to get real information that the women in here need but there isn’t.

lee-russell-moma-bulletin-boardcri_61685In lieu of a formal announcement system, misinformation flows around the compound on essential topics like deadlines to change one’s approved calling list or who’s not really infected with MRSA. Along this foul vine flowers frightening falsities like everyone on the max-security side is being transferred to Massachusetts or bizarre bulletins about how the guards stole a large donation of lobsters intended for inmate consumption. The inmate mind doesn’t riot against these blatantly false stories; the fact that nothing anyone reports makes any sense never slows the transmission of bullshit. No one in here ever knows what they’re talking about, yet word spreads fast.

Each floor of every housing units has a bulletin board, a stab at disseminating accurate information. The memos on these cork boards date back to 1996 and most are just updated lists of gangs  – “risk groups” – as if gang members don’t know they’re affiliated.

Instructions to write to the Correctional Ombudsman for help with facility problems continue to decorate our walls, descending from long, yellowing rectangles of Scotch tape even though the Ombudsman’s office closed in 2010; depending on these signs, counselors still refer people to the Ombudsman even though he was axed three years ago. Even they don’t know he’s gone.

On the occasion that someone staples an accurate, newsworthy posting to the board, the words drown in passive verbs and stilted and incorrect nouns and even I, with my interpretive power, have no idea what they say. The announcements trail off into lists of distribution, people who get the carbon copies including the recipient “File” reminding the person who hangs it up to keep a copy of the goddamned thing.

tutwiler-prison-inmatejpg-537fe903a6702fe9Sometimes File doesn’t get his copy and no one remembers what was in the once public pronouncement. Getting the real skinny on anything ends up a fat failure. Prison, the place that is supposed to be the answer to our and society’s problems, is all questions and no answers. Just misdirected inquiries and made-up stuff.

When I left Charity and Melissa to take my post-work shower, a muffled voice found me.

“Winky, how much does DataCon (the data entry office where inmates work processing spreadsheets and the like) pay?”

“I don’t know. I don’t work in DataCon, remember? I work in Food Prep. You asked me yesterday if I saw anything that would make me think we’re about to be locked down.”

“Sooo…who I ask about that?”

“Someone who works in DataCon,” I answered very plainly. There should be something posted about this, but naturally there’s not.

glassbulletinboard“Ooooohhhh…” she said. This was a revelation to her, that going to a legitimate source of information is the best way to learn the truth. “Okay. Thanks. Thanks a lot.”  No one’s smuggling grey matter into the black-and-white world of prison accuracy.

The next day I watched inmates pack into a freezer several cases – many more than usual – of frozen french toast. Amply adrenalized by the carbohydrate prophet before me, I rushed to my supervisor, Green Bay.

“Green Bay,” I said as I cocked a thumb toward the toast. “What’s happening? Are we about to be locked?”

“Relax, Nosy. No one’s getting locked down. The french toast is for everyday use now. We’re using it because we have to give a hot breakfast to every inmate that’s going out on a court trip.”

“Ahh, I think you mean court trio,” I pointed out. He’s never read our inmate handbook to see the typo that’s perturbed me for years, so he was puzzled.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Bozelko.”

“It’s okay. No one does.”

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM AUGUST 1 – 8, 2016

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President Obama granted clemency to another 214 federal prisoners, making the total for his reign 562, more than the last nine presidents combined. He told reporters at the White House: “[W]e are not done yet.”

The New York Times reported the results of a British study that says that mass incarceration might (nominally) reduce global warming because prisoners have smaller carbon footprints. You can’t always get what you want.

A young woman in Baltimore County, Korryn Gaines, was shot and killed by police after a five-hour standoff in which she was holding her shotgun and her five-year old son. A later revealed fact – that Gaines likely suffered from lead poisoning which may explain her aggression – changes the story entirely. I think the Gaines story has huge implications for justice reform in that we don’t know how many inmates also suffer from lead poisoning; no one has ever studied this. If defendants charged with/prisoners convicted of violent crimes were poisoned through no fault of their own, lead poisoning should be a more important and better-acknowledged reason for sentence mitigation.

 

 

 

 

 

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14 December 2015

Hair Didn’t

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”Just take your hair out of the ponytail,” my cellmate begged.  She longed to see “what [my] hair looked like.”

“I can’t,” I told her.  “I look like Jennifer Aniston circa 1995.”

“Circus who?”

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Not for me.

I don’t suggest that Ms. Aniston did not look good in 1995; she did.  But on me, in 2008, the look was not so good.

Since 2000, Kyle White highlighted, lowlighted and layered my hair at the Oscar Blandi Salon in Manhattan.  But now a prison cosmetology teacher just butchered my locks.

“As good as anything you can get in your fancy New York place, huh?” she asked as she flourished the protective beauty cape off me like a toreador.  “Do you want long layers?” she had asked me when she connected its velcro around my neck.  I thought we spoke the same language, the phrase “long layers” meaning “my hair, exactly how I envision it.”

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My haircut was like this except less glamorous. Yeah, that bad.

We lost something in translation because the short ones of all these long layers stopped right around my ears.  The long ones flipped out, off my shoulders.  I half-hoped Joey and Chandler would come in and read the outdated copies of Glamour Magazine, maybe even sing their theme song “I’ll Be There For You” because I needed someone to be there for me for this haircut.  This was bad.

Years ago, the question of who would  cut the prisoners’ hair repeated itself as if from a parrot.  The Department of Correction hit that bird plus the albatross around its neck – womens’ lack of vocational skills –  with one stone of a cosmetology school within the prison’s school.  Within this program, someone could use the scissors and prevent the population from getting too mangy and learn a trade for future employment.

Aside from being scissor scholars, students in the cosmetology program study a textbook and log 2,000 training hours to get a cosmetology license.  At least they used to, back when the course taught how to dye hair.  When someone stole the dye and used it for unimpressive prison tattoos, administrators feared gang symbols would decorate inmates’ limbs and incite violence or, even worse, relentless trash-talking.  So they banned the dye supplies.

imageDeparting dyes left only haircuts, perms, dreds service (which would have been better on me than what I had) and nail polish behind for our use.  A “haircut with style” costs $8.00 although that’s what I paid for a haircut without style.  By order of the warden, students paint only the standard white-tip/pink bed French manicure on our nails.  Again, gang warfare limits our looks because colors signify “security risk group” affiliation.

The result of all these limitations is that none of the students really know what they’re doing.  This lack of knowledge descends directly from the fact that they’re not allowed to learn anything.  If you couldn’t use the turn signal, the defroster or the emergency brake, you wouldn’t know what you were doing while driving, so it’s not entirely their fault.  However, no salon I patronize would hire any of these women; I saw that when I walked into the classroom in 2008.  Apprehensive about the students’ tousling my tassels, I insisted that the teacher cut my hair and still got a hack job.  A little trust might’ve brought better results, but I doubt it.

It’s true that a prison blocks beauty for us. But we block education for ourselves.

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Dye jobs not a specialty in prison salons, as you can see.

Everyone could blame the overly-anxious, underly-reasonable prison administrators for limiting the available lessons in the cosmetology school, but the inmates deserve the blame for this.  They steal the sample bottles containing OPI’s Cajun Shrimp color polish as guards scurry and search them out.  It’s not the color that the guards want to corral; the glass bottles may appear in housing units in the same way broken beer bottles turn up in bar fights.

One woman stole a flattening iron and had it in the mental health unit of all places.  Women in the mental health unit can use pencils to attempt suicide; I can only imagine what they would do with an electric cord and two metal plates hinged together, covering wires.  The metal hair clips walk out of the school and never even activate the dinger on the metal detector.

If no one stole the dyes and the nail polishes and hair clips, then supplies and equipment would have grown, and their skills along with it.  More than iron bars make a prison; we build walls with bad behavior and keep out things as niggling as nail polish and hair dye and as grand as cosmetic innovation and our own success.

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She looks thrilled, right?

Eventually, I had to let my hair down. Not only did I need to get more comfortable here because I’m obviously staying, my hair grew too heavy for the skimpy Goody elastics  from the commissary because I avoided haircuts for so long.  I needed to return to the scene of the cosmetic crime committed against me.

Deb, a talented, already-licensed- from-a-legit-school “hair technician” enrolled in the cosmetology course more to teach than to learn (some female guards who are her clients installed her there), deftly snipped five inches of overgrowth.  Mine is a haircut that I can sweep into a ponytail or not.

“Thank you so much.  I appreciate what you’ve done,” I told her.

“Nothing to it,” she said. Other inmates were waiting for a trim but she couldn’t get to them. They bitched.

“I can do one head at a time!”  she shouted in an un-salon way. Before she could move to the next ‘customer,’ she had to check in her shears to show that no one took them and stabbed someone.

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THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM FROM DECEMBER 7-13, 2015

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Is the only thing that separates a perp and a cop the decisions each one made in his past? From the Washington Post: Freddie Gray and William Porter: Two Sons of Baltimore Whose Lives Collided

The Prison Policy Initiative announced this week that we don’t really have 2.2. million people behind bars like news reports claim. We have 2.3 million people, 451,000 of whom haven’t been convicted.

What Kind of a Person Calls a Mass Shooting a Hoax? asked The Trace three years after the Sandy Hook shooting.

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3 August 2015

Get Your Learn On

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san quentin class of 99

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the fight was on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

princeton tiger

 

READER POLL

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

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

View Results

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6 April 2015

Resurrection

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imageI looked around the Discharge Planner’s office. A collection of your standard-issue, public health announcements about HIV/AIDS, suicide prevention, Department of Social Services hung on the walls. On the bulletin board behind the computer was a list of what I guess are re-entry programs. New Life Ministries. New Beginnings, New Start. Fresh Start. New Creations, New Horizons.  Everything new was new to me.

Take a good look, Red. You'll never see them again, even if you want to.
Take a good look, Red. You’ll never see them again, even if you want to.

“Bozelko, finally you’re about to go,” she said without diverting here eyes from her computer screen.

“Yeah. It’s the Easter of the my life, all this newness of going back to my old life.”

“Easter is after you get out,” she told me.

“Yeah, I know. It’s just all these ‘new ‘ programs,”

“Nah, they’ve been around for a while,” she said, as she pulled out a file drawer.

“No, I mean like…all these programs have ‘new’ in their names. Everyone leaves here older than they came in but they leave new.”

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Someone just went home.

“I guess that’s one way to look at it. You each have your own little resurrection,” she nodded. “Do I need to sign you up for food stamps?”

Even the inmates who leave are on death row because, ideally, every departing inmate dies to the institution and never returns. Her resurrection and afterlife keep her away from this place. I console other women about other inmates’ discharging all the time. “Don’t worry she’s in a better place,” I tell them like we’re seated before a casket.

It’s probably why so many people find God in prison. Faith and re-entry promise not only a resurrection but an afterlife if you’re good.

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Not something you want when you leave prison.

Just like earth after you die, his isn’t a place where you might stop in and see how everyone is doing after you leave. Sure, I can write to people but they might not write back. And I can’t call.  An inmate will have to call me. Regardless of what our contact is, I will never see many of these women again because they will never leave.  I can’t have contact with people who leave everyday like the C/O’s or anyone who works here. I can’t call them nor can they call me.  In fact, I was never really supposed to connect with anyone who works here at all. You can’t remain friends with someone who was never your friend in the first place. And your stuff? You can’t take it with you. You can but you won’t. Discharge is definitely death.

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Don’t forget.

I loved working for the prison kitchen supervisors every day for four-plus years. Through occupational osmosis, they know about my appeals and my habeas corpus trial. I know about one boss’ vacation to Italy. That another fought with his ex-wife for lightly slapping his son when he was out of control. That new guy’s was taking airbrush painting classes. The warden would spin in his ergonomic desk chair if he knew I reminded a supervisor to buy gummi cheeseburgers for his children’s stockings every Christmas. I wasn’t supposed to know he had children at all.

A few weeks ago, when the warden decided that inmates who had worked in the prison library for a long time might have developed undue familiarity with the librarian,  he axed them. None of it was a big deal. The workers knew that he had a dog. That he had seen a movie the night before. That he graduated from a small liberal arts college in New England. From just these few facts, a “Familiarity Overload” sign flashed in the warden’s mind. Instead of acknowledging that the superficial familiarity was effortless and inevitable for people who had worked together for eight years, the warden made sure that the library workers died to the library. They were resurrected at the gym and other work assignments.

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It’s fine with me as long as I get to go right back.

When I heard the fate of the library workers and feared that my unbroken attendance record might be cut into, my outlawed closeness with the supervisors severed, I ran to one of them.

“Fire me. Please.”

“And why would I do this?” he asked with one eyebrow raised.

“Then I won’t have continuous employment on paper. Just hire me back and my work assignment will start again. Officially, next week I will have worked here for only a week, not four years. On paper, I’ll be new,” I explained what happened in the library.

“Bozelko, you’re not going anywhere.”

“But they’re reassigning workers who worked in anywhere for more than two years,” I insisted.

“We know. We got this.  Don’t worry. You’re staying.”

I cried relief in my cell after work that day. Having to die to my prison job and my supervisors would have been the worst abuse I could have suffered. I can’t put my finger on how or why, but the supervisors were my salvation while I’ve been here. Stacey, one of the other workers in food prep, probably said it best when she said:

“When I’m here working for them, I feel human.”

imageThat’s basically it but there’s more to it for me. I died a million times before I got here. I am dead to so many friends, my schools, my plans. Then when I got here I died a million times more, losing appeals and other cases, swimming in a sea of women I never wanted to know, accepting my first million deaths. The only thing that kept me alive was working for these people. Maybe it was because I had value to them. Maybe it was because they were consistent and kind mentors to me. Or maybe the daily details that divulged themselves in close contact developed a certain intimacy in spite of state-mandated reserve. Human connection may be prohibited but it can never be prevented. Stacey was probably right.

And now, as I go home I am going to have to die to them, too. And they to me. I’m sure that if I blocked my number and snuck in a call, they would talk to me, maybe even secretly chuckle at the chance to catch up with me. But it would be awkward.  I just have to accept that we will be people we used to know.

My resurrection, the event I have fought for, waited for, prayed for and stayed for, is going to make me sad. I think everyone who gets resurrected is a little lonely without their old life nearby, regardless of what that life was.

READER POLL

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FROM NEWSWEEK: Recent Prisoner Escapes Have One Common Factor: Hospital Visits A majority of prison breaks occur when the inmate is already off the prison property.

Is there a good reason for inmates to leave the prison?

  • Yes. They need to go to hospitals and other places because the healthcare is so poor in there. If the escape risk bothers people so much, then prisons should provide more and better healthcare. (50%, 2 Votes)
  • Yes. Funerals and memorial services for deceased family members but that's it. (25%, 1 Votes)
  • No. Their punishment is staying in prison, not leaving it. No trips outside, period. If they need something, going without it is part of the punishment. Tough. (25%, 1 Votes)
  • No. There is no reason why all services cannot be provided behind prison walls, particularly with advanced technology. (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 4

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23 February 2015

Clear of a Black Planet

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“It serves you right, listening to all that Public Enemy during senior year,” a friend laughed at me when I told him about my first arrest.  On game days at my private high school, I used to wear a green plaid field hockey kilt carry a Gap bookbag while I held one of those boxy, yellow, waterproof Sony Sports Walkman’s with a cassette of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet inside to psych myself up.  I always thought that Flavor Flav’s line in the song Don’t Believe the Hype – “Yo, Chuck they must be on the pipe, right?” – referred to older people, the AARP crowd, misunderstanding the world because of their age, relaxing with professor-ly pipes filled with tobacco.

It was only when I entered the Capital-S System that I learned what the pipe was and that 911 was, indeed, a joke in my town. I also learned that the Systems we create show us who we really are.

imageI don’t know anyone who would admit that she is a racist – “I have black friends!” – but the way that skin color spreads out in criminal justice shows us that we are lying when we deny our racism. When 34% of women in prison are black but only 6.7% of the entire United States population is African-American – men and women combined – per a 2009 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, a few someone’s in the System are racist.

Many people try to explain the out-of-whackedness of minority over-representation in prisons by concluding that more women of color commit crimes than white women do. This might even be true.

imageIf it is true, then it might be because black women lead in convictions for what the Capital-S System calls Capital-S “Survival crimes” – check forgery, minor embezzlement, snatching purses from unmanned shopping carts – crimes that produce a few bucks to get their perps through the day. Eighty percent of black women in prison were the primary caretakers of their minor children.  They had to be: one of nine – over 10% – black men aged 24-35 is incarcerated.

imageA majority of people in a prison do not appear to be racist, though. Within any inmate population, ignorance always takes strong hold but overt displays of racism are rare, at least in my experience. When racial tension colors conversations, it’s usually spread by – I hate to stereotype here – upper middle-class white women who have not completed college. When I moved into a cell with one, Willow from West Hartford who had sent up a white flag at both Syracuse and UCONN, failing out at both, she glowed and hugged me.

“I’m sooo glad you’re not a B.B.B.” she gushed.

“What the hell is a B.B.B.?” I asked.

“Big Black Bunkie,” Willow whispered and laughed like we agreed.

“Nope, I’m small and white” I admitted …and hopefully moving out in ten minutes because you’re an A.A.A. – angry Anglo-Saxon asshole, I thought and wondered what would have happened if I were small B.B. moving into that cell. The sentiment against me would reveal itself only behind closed doors. Racism is back-of-the-bus stuff.

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Andy Warhol’s “Race Riot”

Maybe everyone here keeps their racism under wraps. Except for one who outrightly calls black inmates “illiterate N-words,” most of the guards are not blatantly racist, at least not in front of me. The racial spats I’ve witnessed usually make them bigot busters if anything.

In fact, when Willow was moved over to the minimum security side into one of the dorms, she almost incited a full-scale race riot by calling her black neighbors “porch monkeys.” A black lieutenant and several guards dragged Willow to restricted housing to punish her and to prevent her from being packed into a B.B.B.B. – Big Black Body Bag.  The African-American inmates all over the compound were irate at what she had done and how they were denied the chance to beat the brakes off her.

“Yo, yo, let that bitch come out here and I’ll show her ass a monkey!” one told a white guard who looked like a Jeff Foxworthy punchline.

“If I could, I would. That’s bullshit. Calling people niggers and shit,” he replied. Guards are not allowed to talk about one inmate with another but in the days following Willow’s race kerfuffle, I heard many staff members sympathize and empathize with the one third of the inmates who had one meaningless cosmetic feature determine the rest of their lives.

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Although we never saw, I bet Name Caller looked worse than this after Scrawny Waterbury finished with her.

I always sensed that the sympathy was real but I knew for sure when one white woman muttered the N-word under her breath at a scrawny, scarred black woman from Waterbury. Plucky, a white man, a good officer who would eventually be tossed and end up as a guard in a Southern state, overheard all of it as he toured the floor in a security check.  We knew he heard. He stopped and grabbed his radio.

“We’re gonna lock up now,” I told my sister through the receiver as I sat under the phone bank watching all of it, anticipating Plucky’s locking us up to prevent a fight.

Instead, Plucky walked to Scrawny Waterbury, cocked his head at Name Caller and went on his way. Scrawny Waterbury dragged Name Caller to the shower stall and pounded the shit out of her. Everyone knew it was happening, even the man charged with the duty of keeping us safe, but we all just let it happen. I wanted to make sure that Name Caller didn’t die and I felt morally remiss for not doing something. But, to be frank, I was scared that my human concern that Scrawny Waterbury not bang Name Caller’s brain against the shower tiles would be interpreted as sympathy for the racist. I had no idea how to teach  everyone that this fleeting instance of violence was wrong on a blackboard that listed the history of wrongs committed against the Scrawny Waterbury’s of the United States.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. taking a collar.

I was horrified at what happened to Name Caller but, like it has to so many other people, racism arrested my conscience into accepting what was happening. I just chalked the whole thing up to jail justice. The rules are different in here; everything – not just the facility’s facial composition – is off-kilter. The prison world is so jumbled that I have accepted violence as approved behavior. I have also accepted the paradox that a system may be racist but the individuals who run it (at least a majority) are not openly so. History and the process of institutionalization make the system as racist as it is.

 

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Malcolm X’s mug shot.

Every February I have been here at York (this is my sixth) I  walked by posters in the school commemorating Black History Month. The faces of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X appear, reminding us how they advanced the civil rights movement, how they exposed the racism inlaid in our daily lives, how they posed questions that forced us to confront why we see certain people the way we do. Maybe most memorably, each of these faces of black history was arrested and jailed at one point or another before they hung on the walls of York CI. We don’t know King from his letter from a Birmingham motel or Parks because someone just shot her a dirty look when she didn’t change seats. Black History Month celebrates an anniversary of one of our longest-lasting marriages: race and incarceration.

Even if we are not overtly hostile to black men and women, very few of us can divorce this race-prison pairing in our minds. This inability to separate race and crime is prejudice in and of itself and is what has allowed the System to skew so much toward racial inequality. Something very subtle and invidious causes the disproportionate number of African-American inmates, a phenomenon so cagey that no one inside or outside the system can trap it. It’s a true public enemy.

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From New York Daily News: Rudy Giuliani Continues to Question Obama’s Patriotism, saying Obama does not love the United States

 

Would Rudy Giuliani get away with saying a white president didn't love the United States?

  • No. From the Trump and the birth certificate issue to Sununu accusing Colin Powell of playing the race card in endorsing Obama, all of these personal attacks on Obama are permitted by race. (57%, 4 Votes)
  • Sure. Rudy will say anything the year before an election. (29%, 2 Votes)
  • I don't know. I don't listen to anything Giuliani says about anyone. (14%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 7

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29 December 2014

Resolution

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new year chalkboard“My New Year revolution is I ain’t eatin’ no more cake,” Soledad announced when she sat at the breakfast table. “This shit makin’ me fat.”

“Resolution,” I corrected her.

“Wha? That’s  the name of this shit?” she asked as she directed her spork at it.

“No, it’s New Year’s resolution. As in resolve, like make up your mind. Not revolution.”

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It’s just Gold Seal brand bran muffin mix in sheet pans, but York Correctional Institution calls it “cake.”

“I always said revolution.”

“Well, you were wrong,” I told her bluntly.

“Don’t matter. I just ain’t eatin’ no cake. After today,” she said with her mouth full of the brown stuff.

“Good luck with that,” I snorted. York CI serves cake with everything:  cake with farina, cake with bologna, cake with meatloaf. Sometimes cake is the entire meal itself. The prison serves so much cake that you’d think Marie Antoinette was the warden.

“What the difference between resolution and what you called it?”

“You called it revolution.”

“Yeah. What the difference?”

resolutions blank paperI had to stop and think because many inmates have never done the right thing in their lives. Resolving to do one thing better – or one thing differently – is a revolution for them. I debated whether I should even venture into this philosophical ‘hood.

“Well, it’s just that when you resolve to do something, you are in control. Revolution means change, but in a different way for New Year’s. Resolution means decision…” And before I realized it, it came out of  that place in my face that takes the cake. “… more than the actual changing.”

Except for Soledad’s ‘revolution’ I hadn’t witnessed one other inmate voice a New Year’s resolution. Maybe it’s because they have no intention of changing. Maybe they don’t know how to change. Most likely is that they don’t know that that they can.new years list

Anyone can decide to change at anytime, but we choose to change at New Year’s because of the fresh start that changing one or two digits on your paperwork provides. At the New Year, books close on old ways. On January 1st, we bow to calendars and expect that opening a new one means opening a new self.  I don’t see how anyone wrung by criminal justice could ever feel like she has clean slate on any day, especially New Year’s. You have to be on the Chaplain’s short list just to get a calendar in here. They run out quickly.

Any inmate lives in her mistakes. They may not be criminal errors. Perhaps all they are is bad judgment. Every mistake  surrounds you in the cement walls, the two inch mattresses, the crappy cake, the smell of  antiseptic dirt in every building, the guards who call us “job security” because they predict we well recidivate when we leave the facility, never changing. Everyone else gets to reset, reboot and reinvent themselves at the end of December. We never really get that chance.

Inmates promise to change all the time. They make at least an oral decision not to come back to jail, not to ‘pick up’ (start using drugs), to take care of their kids. But the resolution finds dilution when they need to do something.

The one thing they do is make change by throwing out their stuff.  They throw out everything they own in the prison: papers, toiletries, pictures, even t shirts and underwear, cleaning the slate like an employee being fired does to an abusive boss’ desk. Whoosh.

No matter how I protest: “Wait! You’ll need those receipts! Whoa, whoa, whoa…how are you going to change your underwear?” they proceed. At first I thought it was mania or anger but after watching them clean slate a few times I understood. It was the only way to start fresh.

new years coartoonOf course, clean slates that come about like this don’t stay that way. Chaos ensues when the slater begs everyone else for hair conditioner or cries to me that she needs to return something to commissary but doesn’t have proof that she bought it. It’s like erasing a whiteboard only to see the colored scribble lines you just wiped away still show but now they’re just white. You never get clean.

I’m too tied to the past. It’s amazing in that all that is written about me and my story, almost nothing is correct. I would settle for a correct slate over a clean one. I dedicate my every move to cleaning – correcting – slates that have already been tossed by other people. Appeals, civil actions,  all attempts at the clean slate every day of the year.  I don’t have time to look for a forward-slanted clean slate because my neck is craned backwards.

new years ballWithout any resolution, last night the New Year’s celebration amounted to certain women kicking their doors and walls at midnight when they watched the ball drop in Times Square. My first new years in the dorms, one room housing 56 women, inmates couldn’t compartmentalize the party so I watched the melee from my cube-mate’s upper bunk. Strip shows by chunky dancers doing the worm on the filthy floor, lap dances. Then women tore their inmate handbooks into confetti and tossed it around the dorm at midnight celebrating the fact that one year had passed and another one was coming. At 12:05 AM those same women sat on their bunks and cried that one year had passed and another year was coming.

Feeling the passage of time is essential to survival in prison. It’s also what kills you. When you are in prison you can’t have your cake and eat it too. In fact, since you made a mistake, you can’t have it at all, unless its served on a plastic prison tray.

new year fresh start

 

 

 

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