4 April 2016

Dollar Bin Divorces

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It costs a dollar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Same’s what? His first?”

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

“For what?”

“For your own.”

“My name ain’t Darnell.”

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

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

I caught on late.

“How long have you known Darnell?”

“I dunno. Free, four months.”

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

“I dunno.” She was being honest.

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

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

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



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

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

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


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Posted April 4, 2016 by chandra in category "Is It Just Me?


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