3 October 2016

Power of One

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“Did you see that R.M. is back?” another inmate asked me.  R.M. was one of my roommates in 2008.

Then I remember why I started a list of all my cellmates/cube-mates back in 2008. The reason for the list mirrored my view of my departure. At first I just wanted to remember their names because I thought I was leaving any day in 2008; I would send them cards as they wasted in jail. They left before I did.

Then I thought I might need their names as witnesses when I thought I might sue this shithouse back in 2009.

Then I knew I would need their names for fact-checkers for a future memoir when Orange Is the New Black came out in 2010.

Then I grudgingly accepted that I needed their names to track their movement in and out of the facility if I was going to convince anyone that recidivism is out of control and we need reform. I realized that only someone in prison would understand the truth behind reported recidivism rates; they range from 50 to 66 percent around the country.  Those numbers emerge at the far end of Mark Twain’s spectrum of falsehood as lying statistics. I’ve lived with 114 cellmates so far.  Eleven remain here; they never left.  Seventy-one have cycled through.  That’s a real recidivism rate of 69%; 70% with R.M. on the scene.

Translucence is overtaking the paper from the moisture on my skin from the number of times I’ve handled it.

Then I told Ms. D, the counselor, about the study when we waited silently in her office for a fax.

“The recidivism rate is much higher here than is reported.” She would understand. She has master’s degrees in forensic something on her walls.”I’m conducting my own recidivism study, using my assigned cellmates as the study sample.”

“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?” She wasn’t angry, but incredulous.

“Well, it won’t be replicable and certainly won’t have any statistical significance, but I want to document what’s happening,” I conceded. She looked at me like I was the inmate who had just been digging in the carcass of a dead bird she found in the garden. Disgusted by the unfathomable.

Then a woman here told me to react to to abusive guards’  insults and humiliation with politeness. “Kill ’em with kindness,” she said in justification. I think this is bad advice. I’m sure someone here has a gun or a chainsaw at home she nicknamed “Kindness” and she’ll really do it.

Then I remembered prosecutor character, Jerry Kramer, in Tom Wolfe’s A Bonfire of the Vanities called crime’s eternal parade “The Chow,” the human flesh that grinds through the criminal justice system.

So I suggested an alternative.

“Deny them the target.  Starve the system. Just don’t come back.”

Then she looked at me like I’ve suggested the impossible and told me:

“J.P. just came back from a halfway house.”

71 percent on white

Then I watched that filthy, forlorn parade of tight skinny jeans and glitter T-shirts snake its way into the prison and recognize many faces from living with them and modern correction strikes me as internally inconsistent; if wardens and guards do their jobs and successfully rehabilitate women, then the lack of returning inmates – the recidivists, the ones who boomerang back inside after they leave to constitute the majority of the general population – will put them out of business.

“Did you see A.L.?  She’s here but she might bond out.”  A.L. split in April 2009.

72 percent on white

Then, as I await transport to court one morning, my soft parts static against a metal bench, I realize that rehabilitation is largely mortician’s work:  the job only begins after the stiffs land on your doorstep and then what do we expect to be done with them?  It would be much easier and more efficient to prevent crime in the first place but zero percent of people want to do that.

Then a voice came from below the bench, a woman, bent over, rolling up too-long pants.

Hey, weren’t you my roommate?”  It’s R.T.  Same cube in the dorms.

73 percent on white

Then she went to court with me and, when we returned, V.O., another of our roommates from South Dorm in 2008, sat in lockup. Came back to Niantic with us.

74 percent on white

Then I saw P.G. and C.J.’s names on the “move list” on the officers’ desk the day after my court trip.

76 percent on white

Then I decided that I am almost starting to enjoy this study, the fact that I’m documenting trends no one else has. I predict high eighties by the time I leave, even 90’s, which are numbers I’ve loved since high school. This endeavor tickles me a bit too much and I think it’s because I’m now seeing the other women as less than human. It was too much for me to see women rebounding from reentry so often and so quickly. The flow of failure tells me too much about my chances when I leave here; the commentary that recidivism provides on human potential is devastating. Prison is the real Hotel California. Check out. Never leave.

So I have conveniently reduced them to numbers to numb myself to the fact that prison for any amount of time is probably a life sentence.

Then S.D., my cellmate from 3 South, came back and moved onto the tier.  While she dragged garbage bags into cell E3, I asked her what she thought because she’s bright, a former nurse who’s decade-long downward spiral was started off by a drug addict husband who had her stealing narcotics from her work for him until the D.E.A. caught on. She agrees with me. The study makes my peers subjects rather than real people and this is how I’m getting though my sentence.

“Don’t ever think you don’t matter S.D.. You make difference in my life,” I told her and it sounded like I was thanking her for listening to my theory on how recidivism has calcified my soul, but then I realized I meant it in terms of percentages. She just bumped my study numbers up one notch. 77

 

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE FROM SEPTEMBER 26 – OCTOBER 2, 2016

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that “county governments have a constitutional responsibility to provide counsel to poor criminal defendants and ensure that their defense is adequately funded.”  Define adequate, people. To provide decent representation, you’re looking at 5 times the current cost. I wonder if Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court would have decided the case this way if they knew how much money was actually in play. This isn’t a situation where another ten million dollars will solve it. The truth is that we can’t afford to prosecute as many people as we do.

The Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General released a report this week on the Drug Enforcement Agency’s use of confidential informants. It’s  An example: one confidential informant was paid over $400,000 for information even after

Instead of taking a knee or standing up, Green Bay Packer Ha Ha Clinton-Dix took a seat…in class. He re-enrolled at the University of Alabama to complete a degree in criminal justice as his answer to the growing problem of police brutality. Refreshing.

 

 

 

 

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3 August 2015

Get Your Learn On

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san quentin class of 99

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the fight was on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

princeton tiger

 

READER POLL

alcatraz pennant

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

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

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15 September 2014

The Next Fire

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Lillian often drew pictures for the guards, the lieutenants. They were actually pretty gracious about accepting her colored-pencil renderings of houses, flowers and Willie the Wonder Pig because they knew she suffered from physical, mental and neurological disabilities.

I assumed that her constellation of conditions was the reason why they placed Lillian in a cell with me. Whatever animosity lingered between me and the staff did not matter; they knew that I would never exploit another inmate, particularly one with her abilities. When she moved in, she said she would be going to court soon – as she was still unsentenced – and hopefully go home that day, sentenced to time served, a total of one year.

“What exactly is your charge?” I inquired, typical intro cellmate crap.

“Arson One. I burned down a mill in Norwich,” she said, a little too brightly. She had lit aflame a historical landmark, an empty mill.

The Capeheart Mill as it burned
The Capeheart Mill as it burned

“Oh, okay,” I said. What else could I say?

On a Thursday morning she packed her property to go to court but left me a note and two of her drawings in case she never returned. One, a drawing of a correction officer dubbed “DIKHED,” was placed atop another with the cipherous title “My Next Fire,” which I can best describe as a contemporary landscape, an entire village being eaten by flames. The stick figure populace was doing various things: dying, falling out of windows of burning buildings, lying on the ground with broken necks, driving ambulances and hearses, digging graves, fleeing structures ready to collapse from fire.

“Oh, okay,” was all I could say about it. Until two days later when an overnight guard asked me about her as I left the building for breakfast.

“So ya miss your roommate, Bozelko?” He knew her from before York, when he worked security at a hospital where she was a patient.

I shrugged. Telling the truth would make me speak ill of other inmates to the correction officers which I don’t like to do because it fuels their fire.

“Can you believe that judge have her a year for the mill?” he huffed.

“Yes. Yeah, I can believe that.”

“What’s the bastard gonna say when she does it again?” he wondered out loud.

My Next Fire.

“B, can I show you something?” I asked him and read sudden anxiety on his face. I believe he thought when I asked to show him something it was some kind of sexual overture or, even worse, an attempt at friendship and camaraderie between two equals who were clearly not.

“No. Not like that,” I told him, swinging my hands in the universal You’re way off sign. “It’s something she left for me. I didn’t know if I should report it or not.”

“What the hell is it?”

“A picture of a fire.”

“Get it.”

I ran to my cell, grabbed the ‘DIKHED’ and ‘My Next Fire’ and ran downstairs. B scanned and paused. Picked up the phone receiver.

“I’m calling a lieutenant. Will you tell whoever comes over what happened?”

“Yeah, but…it’s all there. She went to court and left me the note and the drawings. That’s it.”

“OK. I’ll let you know if someone wants to talk to you.”

Apparently no one wanted to talk to me because I heard nothing until I saw B on the walkway a few weeks later.

“Whatever happened with that picture?”

“Fucking lieutenant. She wouldn’t do shit about it. She said because the picture wasn’t signed by her, by the “artist.” She even said ‘how do we know Bozelko didn’t draw it to set her up?’”

I laughed because that would be so like me, torching shit and then cartooning it.

“Yeah that’s what I said,” B agreed. “The handwriting and the people drawing match all the scribbles she hands out to staff but the LT wouldn’t do shit about it.” I knew the lieutenant he named. She’s a royal bitch and, if the next fire proved anything, a work-shy bitch, too.

“So she didn’t file a police report or anything?” I asked B who was muttering something about lazy cunts.

“No.”

“Then what’d she do with it?”

“Threw it away,” he announced.

“You’re kidding me.”

“Nope.”

“Oh, okay,” I told him. What else could I say?

I almost forgot about My Next Fire until my next encounter with B when his rotation schedule brought him back into my housing unit about six months later.

“Bozelko, you know your cellie’s back.”

“Of course she is,” I conceded. York’s recidivism rate close to 90%, so I hear that all the time. “Which one? Who exactly are we talking about?” He told me it was Lillian.

“My Next Fire?”

“Yep. Burned down the facility where she was living. It’s like a bunch of small buildings.”

A village.

“Was anyone hurt?” I asked, shocked, a little.

“No, but a bunch of the other residents living with her lost their housing. Almost a million in damages.” B informed me as he took the three o’clock headcount.

“And that lieutenant never told the police anything about the drawing, did she?” I asked, knowing the answer.

“No, but I did. I called a buddy of mine who’s a State Trooper and told him. They picked her up two days ago.”

Now Lillian sits here and will likely serve fifteen years. Like mine, her parents are elderly and they will probably pass before she leaves. People have little sympathy for her but feel for her parents. Their pain, like the fire, was totally preventable. If only the lieutenant made a report, maybe someone would have kept better watch on Lillian and she never would have found that lighter. Maybe Lillian would have been unable to force people into homelessness, would have been unable to burden arson investigators with more work, would have kept an insurance adjuster from cutting a big check. Maybe with a bit more supervision before her next fire -once the lieutenant had reported it – Lillian would be OK right now. Instead, she’s here. Again. And all of it could have been stopped because she telegraphed her next offense and everyone with the power to prevent was too unconcerned to do anything about it.

Again
Again

I rarely see Lillian but when I do, she has a drawing in hand, approaching a guard, thinking everything is going to be fine and she will be out soon. She won’t. I don’t know if anyone told her but she’s as destroyed as the village.

“Chandra! I wanna be your roommate again! I’m gonna talk to a lieutenant about it!” she shouted and waved to me as I passed her on the walkway returning from work.

“Oh, okay. We’ll see,” I assured her. I think I’ll be gone before the lieutenant can arrange it.

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