17 April 2017

Tell Ol’ Pharaoh

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license plate

“I ain’t gonna work for no white man for 75 cents a day,” an African-American inmate cried before she quit and, through her quitting, provided cause to be fired – an event I’ve witnessed so often that I’ve come to call it “quiring.”   While who dumped who might be in debate, what she said was 100% accurate. She didn’t work for the 75 cent daily wage she was paid while she worked here.

jim crowEspecially now that a copy of the Michelle Alexander book, The New Jim Crow, is getting passed around in here, almost every reference to our prison jobs includes the s-word: slavery. It’s a real testament to the power of messaging since I think only 6 of us actually read the book but everyone talks like they have.

It’s true that there are more African Americans under correctional control than were enslaved in 1850. And, given the fact that a high inmate wage is a dollar per hour, slavery would come to mind.

But witnessing the power of prison employment to reform people and to train them for a better life, I think calling it slavery negates all of the good that comes from it and sends a message that’s ultimately more dehumanizing than any uncompensated work could be.

Did this…

If anyone has the right to call it slavery, I do, but I detest that name for something that’s humanizing me. I feel reliable and capable again even though I’ve only been assigned some relatively menial work like scrubbing pots, stacking plastic trays and slicing bags of tomatoes. I’m not alone; when they’re working, other women feel like they have something to offer that isn’t sexual and they think they’ll be able to provide for their families when they leave. They don’t describe their jobs as some type of bondage. We like what we’re doing and I’ve never heard anyone say that slaves like being indentured. What everyone outside is calling slavery, the inmates who are actually working – and too busy to internalize an infantilizing “slave” mentality – call liberating.

Not only is calling prison labor slavery insulting to the inmates but it’s a total affront to the original slaves whose conversion from human to chattel wasn’t the result of any transgression but was instead a kidnapping from their homeland and a fencing into forced labor.

…become this?

We modern day slaves landed in our situations because of bad choices. I understand that much of shitty judgment is forced in a way: addiction, mental illness, poverty, lack of education, and racism collude to make the decision to commit a crime seem obvious, even attractive. Is someone who gets charged and convicted of beating a child because the tyke interrupted a TV show she was watching the same as someone else’s being plopped under a poop deck and transported to another country where they’ll never be free…after they’ve done nothing wrong?

More than just relying on a flawed comparison, when you call prison labor slavery, you take away the inmate’s agency, their right to negotiate their own lives, regardless of how reduced their choices are.

And when we erase the ability to choose, to be an agent in one’s own life, we also delete our capacity to reform ourselves. Change results from choice and where we say there are no choices, there can be no rehabilitation.  If everyone who’s working in prison is a slave, shackled to a poor decision in their past, then there isn’t much hope for them when they leave the facility, as 95% of us will eventually.

imageProfessor Alexander – a graduate of Stanford Law School who’s never walked my walk into prison – hasn’t provided answers for the questions that a slave like me would necessarily have with my intimate knowledge of prison labor. If what I do is slavery, then what’s community service, that sentence that everyone thinks is such a boon? Raking leaves for a week for nothing is okay but lifting bags of texturized vegetable protein for years isn’t?  Is contributing to our communities and ourselves through hard, honest toil always going to be an illegal exploitation? If a non-profit benefits instead of a state or a for-profit company, does that make the whole operation legal and defensible?

Where Alexander is right is her assertion that incarceration makes a 21st century caste system whereby people with criminal records are chained in poverty because they can’t get occupational licenses or jobs. That’s the problem with prison labor; not the pay, but the fact that we’re good enough to work in here, for next to nothing, but not good enough to work for people and companies when we’re outside. It’s the same work, from the same source, and it’s treated totally differently once we’re free. That makes no sense, yet the phenomenon had persisted for years in reentry. People are too busy trying to call prison labor slavery that they ignore the good argument about it: that it’s hypocrisy.

I’m white and I work for white chefs who happened to seek employment in a prison kitchen in Connecticut.  Maybe I’d assess this differently if I were black and faced a lifetime of racism that culminated in my being required to bang out license plates in a Texas prison for no pay at all. I don’t even know if I’m qualified to have an opinion on this. What we do in here is poorly-paid but I don’t think it’s slavery.



The focus this week? The vig you pay to maintain mass incarceration.

A sheriff in Alabama is petitioning a court to be allowed to keep – for herself – any money leftover after feeding the inmates in her care. It’s hard to tell what the most shocking part about this story from AL.com is. It could be the fact that this is even allowed in the first place. Or maybe the fact that Morgan County, Alabama is the only county left out of this statewide scheme because the last sheriff pocketed $200K  and fed the inmates only two corndogs a day for weeks. Or maybe the fact that the current sheriff, knowing that Morgan County was exempt from this, still withdrew $160,000 from the corrections food account and invested it in a corrupt, bankrupt used car dealership run by a convicted felon.

It was reported that bonuses for federal prison officials, ranging from $7,000 to $28,000, cost taxpayers $2 million over the last three years, while the Bureau of Prisons “was confronting persistent overcrowding, sub-par inmate medical care, chronic staffing shortages and a lurid sexual harassment lawsuit that engulfed its largest institution.” Read about it here.

Things are changing in Georgia, where you are placed on misdemeanor probation for traffic tickets and required to pay the fine plus fees so a private corporation can make millions. The biggest company has quit, because they’ve finally accepted that expecting record profits from a clientele that has always been and probably will always be poor is a shitty business model. Instead, Sentinel Offender Services tried to pass the cost to the taxpayer by requesting that the courts pay these exorbitant fees on the probationers’ behalf.

Who’s the slave now?

Oh, and don’t miss Lifetime’s movie this week, written and directed by my screenwriting teacher Stephen Tolkin: New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell. It’s about the famous 2015 escape and it’s about manipulation but it’s also about a prison workplace and what happens there. Decide for yourself if inmates who work are slaves. The film airs at 8 P.M. EST on April 23, 2017 on Lifetime but you can watch a trailer here.



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19 December 2016

Getting Carded

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Every year, at least one inmate gives or sends me a card at Christmastime. Notably, very few of them have any reference to Christmas – most don’t even use Christmas colors. I don’t know if that’s because there’s no Christmas mood in here – or out there for that matter – but I’m always impressed that women take the time to make something for me or send a card into me. Below, a sample of inmate holiday wishes from each and every Christmas I spent at York CI.

I know they’re hard to see. Click on the card for a bigger, clearer picture.



Click to enlarge and focus.

I had been here about 2 weeks. My cellmate, a realtor who came in with me on December 7th and left on the 11th, made this card for me on her computer.  She did 4 days on a 14-day sentence. The stars and hearts over the faces are mine. To protect the innocent.



Click to enlarge and focus.

Another cellmate who left. I don’t know if she loved me or the year 2008 since it’s when she got sprung. Zetta learned to be pithy in prison. And then came back a couple of times. Given that her life is rule by poverty and drugs, the fact that she secured a card, addressed it and mailed it to me makes it one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received.



Click to enlarge and focus.

Perhaps my favorite Christmas card from someone on the outside, this one promises me money, informs me that a working Boost phone has been purchased for me and that I’m going home in 2 months – February 2010.  The return address said “Anthony Hall” with an address on Park Street in Hartford. Maybe someone should deck him to make it a real Christmas card. To this day, I have no idea who I’m “Baby Momma” to. I feel like I should know that.



Click to enlarge and focus.

After serving a lot of time and reducing her risk level through good behavior, Mari moved to the east side of the compound and sent through this over inmate express to me on the maximum security west side at Christmas. Note that it’s a baby shower thank you card and she admits to allegedly having a contraband cell phone – in writing. When I finally ran into her in the medical building three months later, I asked her where she got the card and she admitted she stole it from a counselor’s office. Rehabilitation.



Click to enlarge and focus.

My former cellmate left in August but she mailed this ditty in as a Christmas greeting. I’m still shocked the mailroom let it through. They must have been in a holiday mood.



Click to enlarge and focus.

Referenced the actual holiday and put Hello Kitty in a Santa hat and ballet tutu.

“A Nutcracker Hello Kitty! That’s great!” I thanked her. I was impressed with the Christmas layers to the card.

“What that is?” she asked. Never heard of the Nutcracker Ballet.



Click to enlarge and focus.

I guess “I may have looked calm but in my mind I’ve killed them three times” and “Tell them all to take a flying leap!” and “What I know for sure: it’s ok to be a fruit loop in a world full of Cheerios” is York CI’s version of “God Bless us, everyone!” From the Tiny Tim of Zero South.

Merry Christmas.



Dylann Roof was convicted of 33 charges for the shooting rampage in a Charleston, South Carolina church last year. He’s rejecting a mental health defense for the penalty phase of the trial and is, for now, back to representing himself.  Not for nothing, I don’t blame him. What would a psychiatric defense do at this point? The jurors would use it to decide between letting him die in prison…as opposed to killing him in prison. He’s going down either way and he’d rather go down as a racist than a nut. It’s his choice.

A consortium of California newspapers followed up on prisoners who were released under Proposition 47 – the policy that reduced drug possession felonies and most small thefts to misdemeanors voted into law by Californians at the polls in 2014 – and they’re not doing well at all. Homelessness, poverty, petty crime. Whether it’s intended that way or not, the article makes the case for better reentry planning and slower decarceration.

This Christmas will mark 20 years since the murder of mini-beauty pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsey in Boulder, Colorado. No one has ever been charged with the murder of the 6-year old. The Guardian has a good write-up of some facts I didn’t know. Did you know that a few months later a 9-year old girl was assaulted by someone who broke into her house in Boulder in the middle of the night? She went to the same dance studio as JonBenet Ramsey. I don’t believe in coincidences. The police screwed up this investigation and someone who killed a child has walked free for 20 years. Typical.






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28 November 2016

Tooth Wisdom

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It sounded like a candy clattering on a counter. I was sitting at one of the six-man dining tables and a latina woman with a complexion that made her look Indian was laughing across from me. Embarrassment would have overtaken me in that situation and my cheeks would have been bleating and pink with blood flow. And maybe it was for her, too; I couldn’t tell if she was blushing. I’d seen her around before. She’s in and out of here. Crack-induced anorexia, beautiful, perfect black hair and rotted teeth.

rotting-teethThat’s what had fallen onto the tray. One of her teeth. They were so decayed that one was pushed loose when she was eating. Prison food is pretty soft – hard items can be used as weapons – so the tooth was barely inside her gums. Knocked out by liquid Shepard’s pie.

I’m obsessed with choppers in here. More than anything else, I’m worried that I’ll lose one of mine or get a cavity that requires a noticeable filling that I won’t be able to cover up. The toothpaste in here seems like it wasn’t good enough for the shelves of major retailers. My teeth feel fungal even after I brush.

I talk about dental problems in here all the time and those conversations are the times I’ve had the most conflict with other inmates. I’m sure there’s a better way for me to address it but I – the one here who knows biostatistics and p-values and public health – take the issue more seriously for them than anyone else has in their lives.

“Why do you always comment on how no one has any teeth?” Liz asked me in Wally’s class. She has all her teeth.

“I never said ‘no one has teeth.’ I said there’s a real problem here with dentition and the only way you can understand it is that I’m gossiping or putting someone down, but I’m not, okay? That’s how you talk – and think – about people,” I retorted.

But I do admit that I’ve never seen so many people in one place whose pearlies are so, well, gone. Many inmates in their thirties get fitted for dentures. If their parents were caring for them properly through the age of 18 and seeing that they brush, then all of their teeth rot out in about 12 years.

rotten-kids-teethAnd they’re the lucky ones. The rest of them have to walk around with what looks like the grey and brown sections of the paint chip samples at Home Depot between their rosy lips and become a target for the guards.

“Brush your tooth!” they yell when we lock up for the night, headed for bed.

That’s why teeth are have grabbed my focus in here so much. The condition of the mouth speaks so much about what we are doing in society, in medicine, in providing services to vulnerable populations.  So many women in here have children, which means they were once pregnant. I don’t know how an obstetrician could have spoke to them as patients and seen their mouths and not intervened, referred them for extensive dental work.  Called a fellow alum from medical school. The risk of infection is so high. Most sockets in here are festering still.

But the problem I’m staring in the mouth is that they didn’t get prenatal care. And their parents didn’t make sure they brushed. All social problems – inadequate health care, lack of education, poor parenting – culminate in women’s mouths.  Pow. Right in the kisser.

teeth3Not only is the mouth the center of a woman’s visage, it’s also how she communicates. Women with dental problems want to hide them for cosmetic reasons – understandably – so they keep their mouths closed. They say nothing, which means they don’t speak up, complain, offer opinions, laugh freely. This is how we silence women. To get to the root of the problem of female disempowerment among the masses, we have to stop extracting teeth – because we made sure they’re healthy and cared for like the mouth and face that house them.

At least that’s what occurred to me when I heard societal neglect clinker into a molded prison tray.


In this photo provided by the Library of Congress, President Abraham Lincoln, seated and holding his spectacles and a pencil on Feb. 5, 1865. (AP Photo/Library of Congress/Alexander Gardner)

An additional 79 more prisoners granted clemency. Now it’s over 1000 people who’ve been freed by President Obama. I feel bad for people whose applications didn’t or won’t get acted upon in time. They may never leave prison because of a bureaucratic backlog.

The wrongfully convicted are entitled to tax relief but many of them don’t know it. President Obama signed a law last year making it clear that men and women who had been compensated for years of wrongful confinement could not be taxed on that money. But there’s a deadline for seeking a refund — December 19th — and a push to contact old exonerees who have no idea the law’s been changed in their favor. If you know someone who’s been exonerated, tell that person.

Hill might be off the hook. President-elect Trump said that investigating and prosecuting her would be very divisive for the country.  I don’t like seeing anyone get caught in criminal crosshairs,  but I can’t deny that having a woman who would’ve been Commander in Chief get jammed up with charges would prove just how far mass incarceration has grown. Some would support it and others oppose her being investigated, much less charged, but everyone would know that no one is safe from taking a collar.



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17 October 2016

Ten Pounds in a Five-Pound Bag

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Prison is just society’s colostomy bag. People who’ve never been here, who live relatively successful lives, survive life’s peristalsis, moved along by the muscular contractions of education, work, marriage and offspring until they get pushed out life’s back end. Prisoners can’t even make it to the ass. Some authority siphons us away so that it can house all of the turds together.

Improvements to the bag don’t change its appeal. Any wearer wants to lose the bag, sew up his wounds and sit regally on the toilet like everyone else.

The United States Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Brown v. Plata that Yes, Governor Brown, you must empty your colostomy bag by at least 10,000 prisoners revealed something I never knew. In order for a prison to be considered officially, legally overcrowded, it has to be filled to 137.5% capacity. One-hundred and one percent, 110%, 125% – not overcrowded. You can’t fit ten pounds of shit into a 5-pound bag, but apparently you can squeeze in 6.875 pounds. Who knew?

This is a “boat” or “canoe,” as inmates call them. When a prison is overcrowded, these are placed on open floor space as beds. This one happens to be upside-down.

We get overcrowded here now and again. But maybe we don’t. The population is about 1000 women, so to be overcrowded we’d have to have approximately an extra 375 inmates. I don’t think we’ve had that many extra bodies, so I guess we’ve never been officially overcrowded. Maybe we’ve had 40 people in “boats” in the gym, perhaps 20 more in these makeshift beds in the medical unit. I know this only because I had to pack and deliver their meals from Main Dining and everyone called the people I was delivering to “overflow.”

I’ve never had to face our unofficial overcrowding myself as I’ve always had a dedicated bed. I really resent that I should be grateful for something that’s ruined my life: permanent, undeniable inclusion in a prison population.

No one wants a colostomy bag. Aside from the odor, the wearer has to watch his waste come out of him, a gruesome sight by itself but also a reminder that his body isn’t working. He’s sick. In the same way, the best prison is an empty prison, one that’s been drained by completed sentences and true rehabilitation. One that was never needed would’ve been better, but society’s sick.

This might just be a numbers game. York might have been designed to house 750 women and they just keep bumping up the capacity, buying bigger bags to show that we’re not too full. Maybe I’ve been living in overcrowded conditions since I got here – I came in when Governor Rell remanded all parolees after the Cheshire murders – and everything I see as unacceptable and just a part of ‘regular prison life’ – (stuff like bad medical care) – is just a part of ‘overcrowded prison life.’

Maybe conditions are different, livable, comprehensible when fewer women are here. Maybe we have less recidivism when the population is what it’s supposed to be and the colostomy bag doesn’t balloon and backup.

And that green thing has become someone’s living quarters. Welcome to my house.

What is the safest number of people in a certain area? Do we even know? A prison, by its nature, overcrowds itself. People were meant to live in community, but not so many people in a proscribed area. Even if the challenges of early civilization required people to gather closely to protect themselves and sustain the human race, I doubt they defecated two feet away from someone else’s head like we do in these cells. Maybe they did. Maybe they were into that.

But a modern society, one benefitting from social science research and PhD dissertations spread out across the land on the effects of overcrowding, that continues to pack human beings and their bodies into small spaces it gutless. Hence the bag and the presence in it that makes them waste, on display.

Whenever we have women sleeping in the canoes in the gym, rumors spread: “They need to get 200 people out by March” – “Warden has to approve 300 people for T.S. [transitional supervision or short-term parole] before November 1st” – “At least 150 have to be out by July or we get fined.”

“The state will fine itself? We’re not under any reduction order or anything. No one can do anything to York [CI] for not letting people out. Who’s going to fine us? ” I ask when they dump this crap on my lap.

And they always answer the same way, because they realize the rules governing their bodies are elastic and stretch to meet agendas that aren’t their own:




Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump unloaded a drug reform plan in New Hampshire on Saturday which kind of isn’t a plan. He will  stop drugs from coming into the United States by implementing his immigration plan, getting Mexico to gift us a southern border wall and closing shipping loopholes. He also promised to get the Food and Drug Administration to approve drugs that prevent abuse – like Vivitrol –  more quickly, ignoring the fact that we have these drugs now, they’re just too expensive for widespread use. He also said both candidates should be drug-tested. Donald, if Hillary is as crooked as you say, then she knows how to beat the piss-test. Do you?

An inmate in a federal facility in Beaumont, Texas has refused the clemency granted to him by President Obama because it required him to move into a residential drug treatment program before his release. Arnold Ray Jones figures he’ll be released 8 months later than Obama’s scheduled release date when he gets “good time” – time off for good behavior – applied to the end of his sentence.  The exact reason for rejecting the clemency is unknown – people speculate that it’s because he thinks drug treatment is a waste of time (I say it’s because he prefers his prison job to a bunch of group therapy situations). No matter what his reason is, this guy’s got guts. I think he’ll be okay, regardless of when he gets out.

Every 25 seconds someone is arrested for drug possession in the United States according to a report released on Wednesday by Human Rights Watch. Chew on that.



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28 March 2016

Search Party

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Strip searches aren’t just for scumbags anymore.  The United States Supreme Court made it official: for purposes of keeping weapons and drugs out of government-run facilities, peace officers can force everyone they take into custody to strip naked, lift their genitals and spread their buttocks.  To make matters even worse, no tipping is allowed.

They’ll search angels if they get a chance.

Before the Supreme Court decided Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders just months ago [March 2012], only convicted felons and/or persons charged with felonies were subject to suspicionless strip searches.  Now even the straighter arrows in crime’s quiver – deadbeat dads, misdemeanants, infraction-ers – can’t evade the Bend, Squat and Cough routine of bowing at the waist, spreading one’s cheeks and coughing to expel anything hidden inside.  No one escapes becoming a nude gymnast under the new law, proving that equality still thrives in the American justice system.

As the Court readily acknowledged, contraband’s usual means of transport is the ass:  girls in front, boys in back.  You may call it disgusting and incredible, but inmates call it “tucking” and it happens all the time.

For this reason, the nation’s highest tribunal held that such searches don’t violate the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition against warrantless searches because the Court (in a 5 to 4 decision) believes that strip searches will ferret out the knives, scissors, glass shards, drug/paraphernalia smuggled into prisons and jails that threaten the safety of people that they don’t want to know anything about.

53b98f3a-dd44-48cd-8794-2ba1bfab3a2eThe Court’s reason for permitting these searches might be legitimate if strip searches actually worked to contain the introduction of dangerous contraband into places like this.  Of course, the staff makes catches sometimes, like when Ramos, one of the property officers, was doing the outbound searches and yelled:

“Someone call a lieutenant…she’s got a torpedo up her crank!”

The inmate was bringing a pencil and paper to write down the male inmates’ contact information when she was in the courthouse lockup.

And staff caught this guy I read about in Francine’s Prison Legal News who entered a Vermont jail in 2010 – with $24.97, a cell phone and the charger nestled in his anus.  I’m glad this was publicized so his friends knew why their calls to him went straight to voicemail when they phoned to tell him to keep the change.

But, for the most part, my surroundings indicate that these searches don’t stop the importation of contraband; another inmate nods out while on the phone because she is high on heroin that was snuck into the prison in a prisoner’s birth canal.  Strip searches don’t catch what they are supposed to, maybe by design.

Strip searches – forcing people to get naked in front of strangers – are about humiliation, which, in turn, makes them about control.  Not the beneficial, well-oiled machine control, but the soul-squelching, right-stomping control.

You can resist all you want, the search party marches on with or without your cooperation.

Women here at York Correctional so loathe the two strip searches that bookend every trip to court that they accept longer sentences just so they won’t have to travel to court again and be searched in the process.  The strip searches drain inmates of the endurance they need to continue the negotiations between their defense attorneys and prosecutors that would lead to more advantageous dispositions of their cases.  In this way, strip searches control the justice system, not justice itself.

I was lucky enough to be diagnosed early on in my sentence with an unidentifiable rash that made shaving my legs and underarms impossible.  I now sport three-plus years of hair development and I noticed that, as my hair grew longer, the strip searches grew shorter and were sometimes performed minus the strip.  My searches became so cursory that I could move more drug weight in and out of this prison than a small Colombian cartel.  But I’ve never done that; my lips are sealed.

images-110My situation points out another vulnerability of the blanket strip search rule; a strip search policy’s success depends on consistent performance by searchers.  Of course every public profession has a few overly well-intended employees and strip searchers will be no exception.  Several of them are determined to find everything and anything like the guard here who once shouted “More pink!” to me during the spread segment.  I was shocked; she hadn’t offered to buy me a drink or even suggested I was cute. What kind of girl does she think I am? Does she think I’m like the other women in here?

But usually the practice of inspecting dirty genitals and anuses repulses the guards so much that they are glad to give people some slack during the Bend, Squat and Cough, allowing kilos and killing instruments inside.  The Supreme Court’s plans for safety likely won’t come to fruition.

Now I offer this advice to everyone, as all of us are potential suspicionless strip search victims now:  follow orders, move quickly but emphatically to show your bareness and barrenness and keep in mind that the guards have always seen worse than you, regardless of whether you missed a waxing appointment or have overzealous bacne that went beyond the border of your belt.  Above all else, though, don’t fall in love with your stripper because if you do, you’ll find out they don’t love you. All this strip search stuff is just a meaningless fling.




Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan (R-WI), wants redemption to be the centerpiece of our criminal justice system. Why couldn’t he just run for president and clean up this mess?

Harper’s ran an article, “Legalize It All,” by Dan Baum that claims John Ehrlichman, a policy advisor to President Nixon who landed in the joint himself, told him 22 years ago that the War on Drugs was the only way to control black people and activists, that racism and First Amendment violations were the drug policy’s only goals.  The reason why Baum waited 22 years to drop this bomb while the war played out is unclear. The Simple Justice blog explains why the delay is so problematic here.

After years of complaints about the social isolation of solitary confinement, everyone’s up in arms over the Marshall Project’s report on “double celling” – the practice of putting two inmates placed in restrictive housing in the same cell. Charles Pierce wrote a column for Esquire, “Two Prisoners Shouldn’t Be Forced to Defecate Literally Inches Apart,” and left out the fact that prisoners are required to do that anyway, whether they’re in solitary confinement or not. Hell, I had to sit on the toilet with my pant leg touching my cellmate’s as she threw up in the sink (neither one of us could hold it). This hysteria is just another example of people who don’t know correctional realities getting on the outrage train without the ticket of experience. I was double-celled with people for six years and, although I don’t like the practice, I’m not outraged by it.  And P.S. it’s not overcrowding that causes double-celling, it’s a shortage of staff, so complaining about the practice just bolsters the correction officers’ unions.

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11 January 2016

Normal: All F’d Up

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York C.I. has the lock on SNAFU’s.

Not twenty-four hours earlier, staff radios boomed with the announcement “[Return to] Normal Operations” after a five day lockdown courtesy of Hurricane Sandy; the power, including the backup generator, failed. Once all the housing units got their juice back, the lockdown ended.

OITNB’s storm slumber party is pure fantasy. When the power’s out in prison, you get locked in your cell, solitary-style.

Now we were locked down again, a breakfast of cold cereal and milk handed to us at our cell doors.

“Is it the power again?” someone asked.

My cellmate asked the guard who was handing out the bag breakfasts why we returned to lockdown status.

“Needle in a haystack,” the guard said. Because both my cellmate and I could tell stories of bizarre encounters with this woman, we paused. She once asked my roommate to “scratch my mosquito” and pointed to the zipper on her own jacket. To me, she had passed out this advice as I left for my prison job at 4 am: “Do nice things today. Rough and tumble.” Granted, English was the guard’s second language but she still rarely made sense.

Welcome to York C.I.

“She’s nuts,” I told my roommate. “It has to be the power’s out again.” We went back to sleep expecting electrical issues to be resolved when we awoke.

But three hours later, I flipped the light switch and electricity’s hum sounded from the fluorescent light. Wasn’t the power.

“Someone lost a syringe,” Charity said as she walked up to my cell door to collect inmates’ empty milk cartons. We weren’t going to be let out of our cells even to empty our trash cans because one of us could dump the missing item.

“What do you mean ‘lost a syringe’?” I demanded.

image“Yep,” came her reply because she knew that I knew what she meant. We both knew all too well what she meant: that a staff member lost a dangerous object again and the administration locked us down to “shake” us down, pawing through our property and strip-searching all of us. The guard had made sense; the syringe was the needle and we were the haystack.

In 2010, a staff member misplaced scissors that should have been chained to the desk in Admissions and Discharges. Shaken-down for that. In 2011, a knife went missing from the Food Preparation Unit (not my shift, mind you). Shakedown. Even though everyone was sure that the knife slid down a drain, they shook us and the garbage dumpsters down. Then a maintenance worker lost his entire toolbox. The whole thing, containing hammers, screwdrivers and other domestic weapons. Shakedown.

imageAnd a C/O lost his handcuffs. After searching for them himself, his hands came up cuff free and he reported his loss. Shakedown. At the end of that toss, someone found them in a location previously searched. To take the edge off the reality that the staff is totally negligent, everyone concluded that someone tried to set up the C/O by stealing his cuffs and putting them back where they should have been found. Situation normal: all set up.

2012 has been a banner year for SNAFU’s. In January, the metal part of a fetal heart-rate monitor disappeared. Shakedown. A discharging pregnant inmate later found the part dangling from her clothes; a nurse forgot to disconnect it.

Whatever is metal in this went missing.

Then in late January, a teacher’s car keys ran right out of her classroom. Shakedown. Keys never found, probably because an inmate stole them and flushed them down the toilet before she went home. In June, an officer dropped his cuffs and they ran away– different officer, different handcuffs. Shakedown. November brought the traditional autumn haystack, home of the lost needle. Shakedown.

These superfluous shakedowns supplement the three “normal,” annual institutional searches; those last a full five days and no missing item gives chase. The guards search for contraband and gather all the extras we have – blankets, uniforms, jackets – for redistribution to incoming inmates. It’s probably why they call them shakedowns – they’re not Mafia extortions – it’s like shaking out someone’s purse – all the garbage, lost trinkets and stuff that belongs somewhere else falls out.

Or it might be the fact that inmates shake and quake while staff searches their cells. The warden prohibits us from witnessing the guards toss our belongings around, so we walk, single-file, to the prison gymnasium and sit on the floor, in the same line formation, and stare at the wall until a female guard calls us for a strip search in one of the bathrooms.

None of the SNAFU scavenger hunts’ prizes – cuffs, screwdrivers, keys, knives, needles – have ever been found up an inmate’s ass, yet they never omit the bend-squat-cough routine; it’s just not a shakedown without it.

This is the result of terrorism in Gaza. Inmates will tell you it’s not much different than the results of a cell search.

Returning to our cells is like a warped Christmas morning. We race to open our cell doors to see what’s left inside. Usually, if they trashed the cell, the mess covers for the fact that their search was nominal. If the cell looks relatively intact, the guards likely stood over each pile of books, papers, clothing, toiletries or commissary and scoured them.

I uprighted everything in my room after they rummaged it in a sort-of search for the elusive syringe. They hadn’t looked that hard for an item that really couldn’t just be written off as lost.

Within two hours, the lockdown ended abruptly when all of our cell doors unlocked at once. Apparently, the syringe was never lost at all, just miscounted.

Now that’s what I call normal operations.



Mexican drug lord El Chapo was caught and USA Today attributes his capture to his meeting with actor Sean Penn; when he went to speak with producers and actors, the meeting set him up to be nabbed by Mexican marines. Then he was returned to the scene of his escape crime: the same prison he fled this past July. Maybe Mexican authorities need to watch the Netflix series “Making a Murderer” to see that lightning can strike twice.

Two correction officers are convicted – and one acquitted – for running what they called the “Retard Olympics” in a Pennsylvania women’s prison. Inmates fought each other, ate raw food and drank water spiked with pepper spray at the staff’s behest in order to get more food or coffee. These guys deserve it, but why do we call this progress? We’re adding two more to the nation’s canyon of criminal convictions. Maybe someone should have been doing his/her job supervising these guards so that none of this ever happened.

The new thing in getting inmates out of solitary confinement: “step-down” units that gradually let inmates out of extreme confinement. Everyone loves the idea, according to The Atlantic. Click here to see if you do, too.


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16 November 2015

To the Mattresses

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Can’t this wait until morning? I thought. Ever since I moved from 0 South to 1 North, women had been waking me up to ask me something. “Can you steal me some margarine from Food Prep?” No. “Do you have the free waiver forms so I can order my transcripts?” Yes. I’ll swing my 22-inch legs down this 5 ½ foot bunk bed to haul out my folders to get it for you even though I have to wake up in five hours and you can’t mail it out until Tuesday. “Do you have anything sweet to eat?” Yes, but these stubby limbs are not scaling this structure to get it for you.

Now, instead of speaking through the crack of my cell door, my neighbor was banging on the other side of the cinderblock that separating our cells. I ignored her, deciding I would plead “headphones on” if she asked in the morning why I refused to answer her.

Bang the ulnar on the wall to wake it up.

But she didn’t ask me that. She asked me:

“Why were you banging on my wall last night?”

“I wasn’t. You…” I was about to reverse the accusation on her but I realized this might be a trap, a way to squeeze out of me that I had heard her but paid as much attention to her as the Correctional Institute of America pays to us. I left it.

She did it again that night at 2AM. This vindictive little bitch. She’s gonna keep this shit up just because I didn’t answer her last night. She knows I go to work in two hours.

But the next day:

image“Chandra, if it isn’t you then tell your bunkie but whoever’s banging on the wall needs to fuckin’ quit it.”

“Stacey, no one banged on your wall but you or your roommate.”

“Nooo. We both took mad allergy tab[lets] last night and were asleep from like 9 o’clock. We weren’t even awake until you started pounding.”

So went the exchange for days until the banging stopped. Because it was replaced with shouting.

“Stop fuckin’ banging bitch!” Stacey shouted through her wall, through to me who was half asleep.

“I’m not banging Stacey. I’m sorry I didn’t answer you the other night but I was tired, OK? Let’s end this.”

“I didn’t call you the other night.”

“You were banging on the wall. You woke me up.”

“I didn’t.”

image“Then who the hell did, Stacey?” I shouted to my wall.

‘Who the hell was banging’ was me. And it was Stacey. Both of us were banging the wall – half asleep – when our arms and hands would fall fully asleep, pins and needles style, from laying for hours on two-inch, springless mattresses on unforgiving metal platforms. It turns out we do it all the time but are too groggy in the night and too deprived in the day to know that we were.

The first time my arms fell asleep because of substandard bedding, I happened to be balled up in sheets of self-pity over being in prison. My arms and hands were completely insensate. I scrunched up my fingers as much as I could. It just never ends. First I land in this pighole and now I have MS! I lamented silently.

Neither the pins nor the needles were MS but they were NS – non-stop – and kept me from REM sleep because each night they interrupted my rest so painfully that the only remedy was/is to thump the wall next to my bed until I scared my capillaries back on course. I am half-awake when I do it so I don’t remember rapping the cement with my fist. Neither did Stacey. We were both right and both wrong when we accused the other of beating down the walls that divide us. We were so shut out of any serious shut-eye that we didn’t even know what we were doing.

imageNone of the inmates are well-rested unless they lied to a psychiatrist about hearing voices and he ordered the pill equivalent of an I.V. Haldol drip in which case they don’t need to be rested because they never wake up. I estimate that I’ve achieved probably 1500 hours of REM sleep in the past six years. At six hours per night, I should have logged almost 2200.

My worldview dips and swells here in prison. Sometimes I have hope and sometimes I doze off into total cynicism. The difference between my insight one week and my sense the next is so wide sometimes, so different, that I actually started to wonder if I did have a mood disorder. I had fought a diagnosis of bipolar disorder for so long to unreceptive shrinks that the prospect that I was wrong when I stood against the diagnosis scared the shit out of me. The anxiety of a correct diagnosis made me so restless that even a Posturepedic topped with a featherbed wouldn’t have given me rest.

My turns of mind are not sharp enough for others to notice, mostly because I don’t share on one day how I think that all inmates (besides me, of course) are deviants who need to breathe every last breath behind bars or how, on the next day, I believe that all of them have a chance at success. Or how some days I feel that my life is over and others I can square with “God’s Plan” no matter what it is. Most days I’m even-keeled when others misbehave. But the other day I bitched out another woman at work for stealing the bran squares they serve us for breakfast.

image“What the fuck is wrong with you? You’re stealing this shit, putting it in a bag right in front of NY Giants?” My flare up shocked both of us.

“It’s just the stress of being here,” is what everyone says when you’re feeling wobbly. The stress of being here, though, is not that tasks stack up on us or that we don’t have enough time (who doesn’t have time in prison?). Overstimulated nervous systems and under-stimulated brains from lack of rest causes the stress, the breakdowns, the bad and inexplicable behavior.

“It’s only a mood disorder if it interferes with your life. You do what’s asked of you. You do what’s expected of you. You don’t engage disrespectfully with the staff. You’re OK,” a social worker consoled me when I explained my fears about my changing perceptions. “You just need some rest. You get up at 3:30 every morning. Try to take naps.”

Which I do. But when my head hits the plastic, inflated pillow on my bunk, the shouting and other releases of hot air commence outside my cell.

“What? You think I’m some kind of bum? I gave you like ten dollars worth of food…”

“Close the fucking door before they search the place. I got shit in there I need to protect.”

imageThey squabble, scream and screech at decibels I could never sustain for more than two seconds. I can’t sleep because of them and they can’t sleep because their mattresses are yoga mats. So they scream until the staff intervenes.

“You’re grown fuckin’ women! Stop it!” the unit manager bellowed down the hallway after he locked everyone down for noise. He’s right; this behavior is embarrassing for anyone over 14 years old. But I wonder if he really understands how sleep deprived we are and what it does to our brains. Guards shuttle off to the mental health unit any inmate whose behavior is off. Unless it induces a Shakespearean sleep, the script she snags from a doctor in the psych unit won’t work for long because laying steel of an elevated cot counteracts most drug-induced rest. They shift during the night and bang their hands on the walls to wake the cell death out of them and wake me up in the process. I unwittingly serve it all right back to them.

It’s amazing that all the psychological/psychiatric interventions, all the penal discipline and all the soothing cooing form social workers may never solve any behavioral problems. While our sleep stays so shitty, maybe all wardens need to do to rehabilitate us is to follow the example of the original gangster – the biggest cinematic criminal ever – and go to the mattresses.

And to replace the fucking things so we can sleep.





From Slate.com: Serving Time in Overcrowded Prisons Makes Ex-Cons More Likely to Reoffend

The subtext of any article on stuffing our prisons is that prisoners who live in overcrowded conditions usually face sleeping conditions that are more substandard than usual prison conditions, using’boats” – plastic canoe-like contraptions – for their beds instead of a bunk.

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2 November 2015

CB Phone Home

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I just got off the phone with my father. Even though it’s barely a toll call and would be imperceptible on a cell phone billing statement, each call costs about five dollars. A family of four could snag Dollar Menu items for each of them for about what I pay to call my father. My sisters and my parents pre-pay fees for these calls and, quite frankly, like any person with an inmate number, I abuse the generosity.

imageWhen people talk about prisoners’ paying their debts to society, they ain’t whistlin’ Dixie; getting canned is expensive. Families run up credit cards to pre-pay phone calls just so mommies can speak with their kids. First inmates pay their debt to society and then they pay off their debts from their debt to society.

From my calls alone, the State of Connecticut probably collected about four thousand dollars because what buoys the outrageous call pricing is the commission that the private phone companies kick back to the state, legal graft that the state never credits to our cost-of-incarceration tabs. And the biggest pisser is that about $1.25 of each call gets sucked up into these announcements:

This……call……originates……in……a……Connecticut……correctional……facility……and……may……be……monitored……or……recorded…….Chandra……is……on……the……phone. ……To ……connect……please……press……one……now……image

This……call……may……be……monitored……or……recorded. ……You……have……five……minutes……left……on……this……call. You……have……one……minute……left……on……this……call.

Because of a class action suit against Global Tel Link, the prison phone behemoth, my parents received a notice the other day listing all my calls between 2008 and 2012 and asked them to read the statement and see if any of the calls were fraudulent.

“Tell them they all are!” I commanded my father, referring to the legal kickback scheme. If all my calls for four- plus years were refunded, my parents would have received $9000.00. That’s how much they spent to talk to me or listen to me, depending on our moods.

Screw that. I’ll call home.

“That’s like what, a Kia? I could have a Kia if I never called home?” I asked everyone and no one as I explained the Global Tel Link situation to other people on the tier.

“So for like two years, I’d have like four grand?” Shannon asked me.

“Yeah, if you never called anyone and they put the money aside for you.”

“I’d have cigarettes delivered to me every day,” she dreamed right in front of me.

“I think you could find a better use for it. Besides, four grand wouldn’t last that long with the price of cigarettes.”

“I’d have Johnnie Cochran get me up outta this bitch!” Libby announced.

“Why does everyone always want him? He’s dead. For like, years,” I told Libby. She’s been here since for allegedly stabbing her father to death over a pork chop. It’s not in dispute that he died at her hands, only whether it was over the meat he was frying. “I mean, I know news doesn’t get in here easily but since I got here like twenty-five of you had plans to hire him! You can’t.”

“She don’t call nobody anyway. She ain’t got no refund coming,” Belinda said. She claims to be rich and from Stamford but she doesn’t call anyone either. Even if people she knew wanted to talk to her, I doubt they could afford it.

Dolla, dolla bills, y’all.

“I didn’t know Johnnie died because no one told me over the phone!” Libby explained to me.

Charity was scribbling notes under her elbow.

“Fourteen years would mean my family spent thirty thousand, right?”

“Close,” I agreed.

“What’s that equal to?”

“Like what costs thirty grand?” I asked.


image“I don’t know. A luxury car. Down payment on a house. Certain houses and luxury cars, I mean,” I made sure her phone fantasy didn’t go too far. It couldn’t wander much because her life sentence in phone calls would have set up every family member in a new home.

We sat for a few minutes, peering through the glass walls of the other tiers, calculating various prisoners’ time inside, how often we knew they called home. In the long-term housing unit, Zero South, we predicted that probably four million dollars had been spent on phone calls by our family members over our sentences. Fleets of cars were repossessed, homes foreclosed because we were important enough to talk to. And the state’s cut of all of this? Pensions for corrections officers, erection of buildings, all covered because we blabbed.

“What’s twenty years worth of calls?” Trixie asked. She’s been in prison longer than she was alive outside.

“I don’t know, forty-five thousand?” I guessed.

“What can you get for that?”

“A lot. Maybe a year’s tuition at Yale. Half or even all of the tuition for four years at another college. Or the big ticket item in the Neiman Marcus Christmas book. I mean, I think. I haven’t seen one in years.”

imageNo one knew what I was talking about. It didn’t matter. They were too quiet pondering everything their families had sacrificed – and what they wouldn’t have if they ever got home –  just so they could call home. All of their thoughts were monitored and recorded and it was one time when I saw remorse all the way around.

“Don’t feel bad.  It’s how it is. The house always wins. Just not the houses that have these phones we call.”


OJ, do you know how much it costs every time you call me?



From Time Magazine: Feds Make Prison Phone Calls Less Expensive

The Federal Communication Commission capped the cost of phone calls from federal prisons at $0.11 per minute.

Are prison phone call companies about to lose money?

  • No. (70%, 7 Votes)
  • We'll have to see what they do to the inmates in state prisons. They're still fair game. (30%, 3 Votes)
  • Yes. (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 10

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26 October 2015

Deaf Knell

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Nasal swallow, gurgle of flushing toilet.

“Man on the floor!”

Pulsating squeak of non-existent floorboards.

Plumbing’s buzz and boom of other cells’ plumbing.

“Yo, warden be with the bullshit!”

Hiss and flat taps of water on sink drain.

Reverberating metallic thunder of a kick to cell door.

Vent’s unsteady hiccup.

Steady click of second hand, passing plastic minutes and hours.

Steely clank of freed bolt in door.


Intermittent pongs, bumpy rumble of clothes dryer.

“Where my clothes at?”

Rasp and grind of washer, honking end of cycle.

Pitchy purr of hairdryers.

Shower rain.

“Who been pissin’ in this bitch again?”

Wobbly ping of the intercom.

Tinny announcement backed by sizzling static.

Miniature squeaks of screenplay tied umbilically to television.

Jangle-jig-jangle-clangle of keys on guard’s belt.

Yelp from laundry worker as dental floss stick catches between her teeth.

“On the door for chow!”

Sarcastic clap of cabinet doors as bathmats store away.

“Quiet around here since they took that chick to seg, the one… screaming, huh?” TL asked.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Quiet in here. Since they took her to seg.”

“Huh? I’m sorry. You know this place made me deaf.”


“Oh. Oh yeah. Definitely. Much quieter,” I agreed and nodded my tinnitus.






From CBS News: Judge Marvin Wiggins to Defendants: To Avoid Jail, Pay Court Fees or Give Blood

Perry County, Alabama Judge Marvin Wiggins is facing ethics charges this week for offering defendants summoned to his courtroom the chance to donate blood outside the courthouse in lieu of paying outstanding fines/court costs that would put them in jail if they remained unpaid. The Southern Poverty Law Center says he was forcing

Judge Wiggins offer of donating blood in exchange for a waiver of fees and costs was...

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29 June 2015

Clutching at Straws

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“You know, if they left a dog in a car with heat like this, they’d get arrested,” I say and slide down the concrete wall as I feel sweat slide between my boobs and then down below them. It  – the concrete – should hurt more than it does but I am just relieved to be outside on the walkway during a suffocating heat wave. I am, however, heated that our movement has been stopped for an emergency; even at walking speed, the breeze from movement cooled me a little, the wind beneath my things.

imageThe air-conditioning is broken and maximizing security necessarily entails permanently closed windows.  So we sit in heat more stifling than the outside, sweating, for at least 18 hours a day. Construction on the housing units has left potential spikes and other ersatz armaments around the building and we cannot go outside. So we bake.

I can’t tell if I slept last night. All I can remember is pressing contraband paper towels against my upper lip every time I felt the sweat buildup run sideward down my cheek. It’s not that the droplet would wet my sheets, they were already clammy from the humidity of two bodies living in a tiny, sealed cell with no ventilation.

I watch another inmate from my building call out to a corrections captain.

“Are you a lieutenant? We need help.”

Big Leaks fix big leaks.

“No,” he answers because his rank is above lieutenant and he does not want to help. Someone whispers to her that he’s a captain – two gold bars on his lapel.

“OK, then, captain,” she continues. “Can you get the A/C fixed in our building? It is sooo hot,” she complains because the summer’s first heat wave punched us straight in our faces at the end of May.

“I’ll tell you what,” he says. “When they fix it in my building, I’ll send them down to yours.”

“OK. When are they going to your building?” she asks.

“As soon as they fix and get rid of that.” He points to a large white PVC pipe extending from the ground with an ‘L’ joint intermittently wrapped with duct tape and unidentifiable mesh. It’s connected to a leak in some system underground that affects the A/C. I remember a lieutenant (one gold bar on his lapels) saying that the maintenance staff erected the giant straw because the elusive system leaked 20,000 of water every day. The number might be a mistake, an exaggeration, but one thing is for sure: the straw went up last year and hasn’t come down yet. The Department of Correction makes no haste to rehabilitate the inmates, much less inanimate objects. While the straw is here, we will suck it up with the heat.

The warden.

Wardens and prison administrators like control. They need it, too, over the inmates, for safety reasons. They also like control over the flow of information within and outside the prison. Ostensibly, this also is for safety reasons but, in fact, it’s more because they like keeping their facilities isolated microcosms, sealed away from the rest of the world so that no one sees that prisons are often hotbeds of physical, sexual, emotional, maintenance-related misconduct. Open windows let air in and status reports out. Wanting to cover up what happens in the prison provides all the more reason to fix the goddamned A/C.

Usually, prison officials take action only after someone tattles on them to an outside authority. Shaming them, exposing them, is the only way to accomplish anything. The only way to fix the big leak is another Big Leak.

Omdudsman: the only challenge to Warden Heat Miser

It wasn’t always this way. We once had an official problem-solver in residence – an ombudsman- who would field our complaints, sort the serious from the silly and get things done.

An ombudsman’s duties traditionally define themselves as investigating any government action that may infringe on people’s rights, but the Connecticut Correctional Ombudsman’s office was more troubleshooter than it was objector. The ombudsman never took sides and searched for reasonable and amicable solutions to inmates’ problems. It was still within the same system, moving along with the administrators’ hot air but sidelined enough to provide effective oversight. Problems like lack of A/C  would be solved, fixed when an ombudsman heard about them.  Wardens can’t tolerate problem solving so they fired all the ombudsmen in 2010. No one replaced them.

Look at these temps inside a Texas prison. I would bet we hit the same numbers here in the northeast, inside the prisons.

Now, without such a service, inmates cannot access constructive problem-solving methods and will likely resort to the destructive to get their point across if they haven’t died of heat exhaustion like the ten inmates who died in a 26-day period in the summer of 2011 in Texas.

I read about the deaths in 2012 in a damp and discarded edition of New York Times because, in the ombudsman’s absence, I scrounge newspaper articles and prison books for prisoners’ rights advocacy groups, someone, anyone, somewhere, anywhere, who might try to embarrass the warden by telling him that the heat secret has been leaked. Then he might learn the lesson that fixing the leak – the one with the straw – will fix the other leaks – the ones he dreads, the ones that let the truth escape.

Then and only then, the warden might suck it up, yank that humongo straw and fix the A/C so that everyone will know – or at least assume – that he does not treat bitches in prison like a pack of dogs in heat.




From Huffingtonpost: Texas Prisoners Still Face Deadly Heat: Report

Even though people have died from the heat, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice still refuses to install air conditioning.

Do you think that the State of Texas really cannot afford to install air-conditioning in its prisons?

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