2 March 2015

High Holiday Horseshit

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A PETA ad.

 

Forget in-like-a-lion, out-like-a-lamb. In prison, every March comes in with fish fryin’ and goes out without ham.

It’s always Lent during March and the dietary restriction of “NO MEAT” on Ash Wednesday and Lent’s Fridays switches up the menu. During these forty days, Catholic inmates become meticulous about what enters their mouths even if they never monitor what comes out.

Before Ash Wednesday, each Catholic inmate completes a form to declare that she needs “common fare” meals on Ash Wednesday. “Common fare” is just vegetarian. I’ve asked about the origin of the phrase but no one knows what it is. The best guess is that “common fare” is fare for commoners; i.e. people who cannot afford meat, so no meat in common fare. On Ash Wednesday, chicken salad gets swapped out for egg salad if Catholic inmates fill out the form and send it back to Deacon Dolan.

imageDeacon Dolan is as pro-practicality as he is pro-prisoners’ rights, positions that often clatter against each other. He dutifully collects the slips and turns them over to Food Services but even the Catholic chaplain thinks this procedure is unnecessary and the replacement protein needless. “Look,” he says, “if there’s meat on your tray on Ash Wednesday, just don’t eat it.”

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Especially me.

Mixing food and religion in a prison is always a recipe for abuse. Years ago in a federal prison, inmates started the Church of New Song (abbreviated CONS) and tried to flex their First Amendment muscle to get their religious practices – a weekly steak and wine dinner – approved.  Women here declare that they’ve converted to Islam so they can get the bags of Frosted Flakes distributed to Muslim inmates before daybreak during Ramadan. The few Jewish inmates actually get wine, a contraband alcoholic beverage, in a small container to bring back to their cells during Passover because grape juice isn’t referenced in the Torah.

I stopped eating the chicken salad a long time ago so the food-religion mashup doesn’t really affect me but working in food service I have watched supervisors plan the Frosted Flakes distribution and the kosher meals weeks, even months, in advance because one fuck-up can be a constitutional violation. As inmates unpacked the special shipment of matzoh and butter (where is that in the Torah?) for Passover,  a high holiday I will miss because I’m out in a few weeks.

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Great for Muslims. Off limits for everyone else.

“You know, this is horseshit. I won’t be here another Passover so I’m saying something. I saw one of the Jewish inmates give her wine to a little Catholic lady who’s an alcoholic.”

“You snitchin’, B?” laughed Fowler.

“No. I’m just saying that this is not about religious practice, it’s about seeing what they can squeeze out of the system.”

“Stop, it’s their right,” Bengals warned me but I knew he agreed with me.

“It’s not their right to induce a relapse. The lady is convicted of murder.”

“Even the ones who murder, Chandra, get to celebrate Passover.”

“No. The little Catholic lady is here for murder.  A murder she committed when she was drunk in a relapse,” I announced with my arms wide to show how right I was.

“So what are you saying?” Bengals was laughing at me because he knew I was spot on.

“I’m saying that grape juice is fine for women who kill people when they’re drunk.”

“You’ve spent some time thinking about this, I see,” Bengals observed.

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I could defend the Ramadan breakfast if it were healthy.

“Of course I have,” I conceded. “And what’s the deal with the Frosted Flakes for Ramadan? What, Allah doesn’t like his children eating the plain cornflakes the rest of us eat so they get some with unhealthy sugar on them? Can’t face east to pray without a white confection in your stomach?”

“Bozelko, go load a kettle. You’re making me want to convert,” Green Bay waved me away.

“It’s horseshit, Green Bay,” I informed him.

“Who’re you tellin’? I’ve said that for 26 years,” he said. “Now load the goddamned kettle.”

imageOf course, litigation alleging First Amendment violations always follows food in prison. It was one of the reasons why Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) in 1996. Inmates were filing 250 lawsuits a day, many times about these food-based religious practices,  and they thought something had to be done, so they enacted a law that basically makes it impossible for an inmate even to file a federal civil rights claim. What are the chances of winning one of the suits if it can even get filed? Don’t make me laugh. I have cornflakes in my mouth.

I can name about 50 inmates who have written to outside agencies seeking assistance with a number of serious prison problems: lack of medical care, harassment, erroneous classification, and each received a form letter explaining that the agencies – ones allegedly devoted to helping prisoners – do not accept individual cases. I’ve seen it happen so many times that whenever an inmate says she will write to the ACLU, NOW, Amnesty International, I just tell her “Don’t even waste the envelope.”

The reason why they don’t take on inmate civil litigation is that it’s a losing game since the Prison Litigation Reform Act. If an inmate makes one mistake in exhausting his internal remedies (a requirement courtesy of the PLRA), then the case is as dead as the little Catholic lady’s victim. No lawyer will touch it no matter how much merit it has or how much the inmate needs assistance.

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Shhhh…don’t say anything. It’s very sensitive.

Over in one of the Connecticut’s men’s prisons, Corrigan-Radgowski, Inmate Howard Cosby can’t just not eat the meat. After sexually assaulting someone and receiving a nineteen-and-a-half year sentence for it, Cosby is now a practicing Buddhist committed to non-violence and cannot eat meat. When the kitchen services fish (lunch and dinner twice a week) Howard cannot eat it because fish have thoughts and feelings and are, therefore, meat.

And the real piss in this soup? An outside agency is representing Howard in his meatless quest.  PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is helping him sue the Department of Correction for a civil rights violation under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act to replace his fish with a meat-free alternative. He is receiving help with this ‘problem’ that no one else gets.

Even though all of these advocacy groups deny that they accept individual cases, Howard Cosby seems like an individual case to me. Like his fish’s, Howard’s thoughts and feelings seem to matter more than female inmate’s whose civil rights undergo daily butchering. Aside from my question of who has interviewed fish to discern that they have thoughts and feelings, I would like to ask “What makes Howard so special?”image

If Howard were a true Buddhist, a religion opposed to any conflict including litigation, he would already be practicing some humility, regardless of the menu’s offerings. But his insistence that his fish find replacement in something else gives off a strong aroma of arrogance. You’re not that special, Howard. Like Deacon Dolan said: just don’t eat the goddamned meat. Or fish. Or fish meat.

I am the head cook for most of the meals that are served statewide to prisoners. I wish they would call me as an expert witness in Cosby’s trial about what gets served to prisoners in Connecticut. My left hand on the bible, the book of roasted goats and bread on backs, I would attest to the fact that the fish in prison contains almost no fish, the fish patties contain barely a thought, maybe half a feeling; they are all crust, just like Howard Cosby.

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Veggie patties. Made ’em myself.

Furthermore, I would continue to say that the only viable replacement for the fish is a veggie patty, which Cosby eats a couple of times each week anyway. Somehow I know, if he wins this case and he’s served veggie patties six to seven times a week, that he will complain that his common fare is too common, too routine and he has a constitutional right – no, a human right – to a diet that is less re-run and more refined. And some asshole advocacy group will take his new case while other prisoners hobble in pain because they can’t get their ACL’s repaired or are denied parole because of a clerical error on DOC’s part and miss their son’s graduation and no one helps them. And when Cosby’s attorneys win that case, they will learn that the only way for Howard to feast on a varied diet is to start eating meat again, like the cheeseburgers the Kosher inmates scarf down.

imageSubstandard food is an essential ingredient to punishment. Undoubtedly prison diets should include more fresh vegetables and fruit, but they never will while the government devotes its resources to defending suits like CONS’ and Cosby’s. Prisoners try to re-write the recipe all the time, manipulating religion after sneering “I don’t eat that” at the meals, taking Deacon Dolan’s advice in the wrong amount. If they won’t eat it and they don’t eat it, then they shouldn’t eat.

imageIt’s always the inmates who cannot afford much commissary that “just can’t eat” the standard issue meals and find some type of God. One three hundred pound homeless woman who lives in a cardboard box across from the Green in New Haven refuses to eat prison meals each time she’s been incarcerated during the last twenty years. She must have left a tin foil tiara back in the box because her princess performance is so perfected it must have been honed in a place where she can eat whatever thoughts and feelings she wants. She harasses everyone to buy her essential foodstuffs like “Whole Shabang” flavor chips (salt and vinegar plus barbeque flavors, together) and taco meat in a little metal bag because she “just can’t handle the chow hall food.” To get better food, “What religion I need to be?” she asked me.

imageI do not suggest that disadvantaged people deserve swill or to have their religious rights abridged but I doubt that her cardboard box has a cardboard stable out back to house a high-horse. If it did, PETA would take her case because of the fucking horse.

No inmate is too good or too pious to eat prison-prepared meals. Not me. Not the princess from the high-rise air conditioner crate, not Howard. All they need is to do like I do: avoid the food or plug their noses, choke it back and pray to God it doesn’t come back up.  I did it at dinner tonight when they served a “veal patty.” Veal – in prison, no less -that not only contains no veal, but contains no meat. I guess the fish patty has more meat in it than the veal patty which is an absurd thought. Just hope I didn’t hurt the patty’s feelings.

READER POLL

From the Huffington Post: Death Row Inmate Steven Hayes Loses Fight For Kosher Food

Do you think Steven Hayes was trying to get better food or he was fighting for a precedent on kosher certificates for prison food?

  • Neither. He is either losing his mind or trying to piss off everyone. (43%, 3 Votes)
  • Better food. (29%, 2 Votes)
  • Precedent on kosher food in correctional facilities. (29%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 7

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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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16 February 2015

On Peckers and Prosecutors

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“I massage a pecker and they call police,” I massah a peckah n day caw poe-lisse Ming reported to all the lazy Food Prep workers who sat at the break table for the third time in two hours. Ming is a hard worker, assigned to the pot sink because her English isn’t great and dirty dishes are in everyone’s dialect.

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They were needling Ming about her charges. She is a good-looking Chinese girl, about 21, with innocent skin and an uninformed, pretty smile. She had no idea that they were ridiculing her. They harass anyone fresh-faced, debilitated or speaking a language other than English, so Ming had two strikes against her. They did it to me pretty fiercely when I got here and I had only one strike. I don’t know which one.

Usually I see this and walk over to the group to issue my usual: “Hey guys? NOT COOL,” pronouncement to get them to stop. But Ming came out with that answer and before I could intervene, laughter had me bent over.

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They very often are, at least in Connecticut.

Outside of Hawaii, very few Asian women do time. As much as black and Latina women overrrepresent their ethnic groups in prison, Asian women are statistically underrepresented, much to their credit. Asian women in the United States break the law far less frequently than the natives. In fact, so few Asian women enter the penal system that any research into how many crimes are committed by women of Asian descent usually dredges up numbers on rates of their victimization.

In the time I have spent in this prison, one that houses both pretrial and sentenced inmates, I have learned little about this racial disparity but what I know is reliable. When Asian women do break the law, they arrive here facing prostitution charges. In exchange for passage to and housing in the United States, women from China, Vietnam, Korea and other countries agree to work in “massage parlors” or “spas.”

image Essentially, it’s trafficking. But because these women cross U.S. borders in planes not the backs of un-airconditioned trucks like the one Ludacris opens in the movie Crash, we don’t see it that way. The massage man picks them up at baggage claim and drives them into a life where they service as many as forty men each day, a rate that Geneva Convention standards call torture. Women endure torture to experience the elevated American quality of life. They become slaves to find opportunity. We see immigrants pursuing the American Dream.

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I am sure more were coming out behind her.

Every time I see a Asian inmate, she is usually in a group of other Asian women. Police prostitution stings cast their nets wide and they bring in a bunch of women who worked at the bust site. Then, in a few days, the women depart en masse, just like they arrived, when someone cobbles enough cash together to post their bonds. In almost five years, I have never seen one return to serve a sentence.

I always hoped that the reason they never returned was that a judge dropped probation on all of them or made them pay fines and enroll in one of the state’s “Prostitution Classes,” courses that define abuse, instruct women on their legal rights, disseminate safe-sex strategies and drown them in pamphlets announcing various resources: hotlines, shelters, walk-in clinics. Many times, even if you walk the stroll you get chance to walk a line again quickly.

But I think that the reason they never return is that they never answer the charges; their traffic gets re-routed to another small city.

imageBecause they are in and out so quickly, their names are not in the system long enough to light up ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the new INS] computer screens to invite deportation. Besides, we don’t deport for mere misdemeanors.

And that was why Ming was unusual. Ming had already spent several months in custody, and in the high bond building no less. She, too, fled a foreign country to work in a massage parlor in a medium-sized Connecticut city and got ‘stung’ selling a hand job to an undercover cop.

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ICE preserves women in jail and takes them home.

“Why haven’t they come to get her?” I wondered aloud, the ‘they’ being the massage parlor owners. I didn’t understand how she wasn’t on the usual Asian pattern of bonding out after a few days, doing a “skid bid” – detention where prisoner leaves skid marks because she comes in and leaves so quickly. Ming has skidded past a skid bid months ago.

“Immigration hold,” another worker, Shawna, whispered.

“ICE is wasting it’s time putting a hold on this little girl for a misdemeanor hooker charge?” I challenged her.

Shawna shook her head.

“Not prostitution, conspiracy to commit prostitution,” Shawna said, subtly yet explicitly explaining why Ming’s case was different than the charges filed against other Asian women who had been at York for massaging peckers.

Connecticut is one of several states that thinks that two heads are not better than one when committing a crime with a pecker. We have a conspiracy statute that elevates any misdemeanor to a felony when it is allegedly committed in concert with another person.  The co-conspirator need not be charged at all for a conspiracy collar to stick.

imageProsecutors chose to charge Ming with conspiracy to commit prostitution because she negotiated the price for (and probably performed) a sex act in a building where other women were doing the same thing instead of becoming a sole proprietorship on a street corner. Now the Federal government can chuck her back whence she came because of the felony status of the charge if and when she is convicted. Prosecutors think they are disrupting the flow of human traffic by deporting Ming and doing nothing to her trafficker but they are just putting more vehicles on the road.

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This picture is not a joke. It is how this woman is sold.

Because she faced a conspiracy charge which meant someone else was at least involved with her crime, I approached the pot sink and asked her:

“Ming, where’s your boss, the person who runs the place where you worked?”

“He in Waterbury.” Watta-bay. There’s no correctional facility in Waterbury.

“What, he bonded out?” I asked. Ming didn’t understand.

“Did he get in trouble with police, too?” I broke it down for her. Then she was the one laughing.

“No. No. He a man. He not work with me,” she sniggered because she thinks only direct-sale sex workers broke the law and no one ever hired a male prostitute.  A man in trouble for anything related to prostitution, even if it is the international trade of human flesh?  That’s a joke to Ming.

imageShe wasn’t totally wrong. This is how we do it in the United States where the debate about what to do with illegal immigrants prolongs itself. Where we bust the janes and not the johns. Where prosecutors go after someone with less power much harder for no other reason than they have the ability to do so and can fool themselves that they are not caving to crime.

Meanwhile Ming walks a maze of detention warehouses until we return her like defective merchandise. The man who trafficked in Ming and enabled the crime that will toss her home will stay out of prison and stay here. If he doesn’t have it already, he may even pursue citizenship and become one of us.

READER POLL

From CBS.com:  Philadelphia cops use stings to bust prostitution customers and it seems to work; when johns get busted, they rarely re-offend. This is expected to curb prostitution in the City of Brotherly Love.

Is setting up stings and arresting only the johns the way to eliminate prostitution?

  • No. Prostitution should be legal and no one should be arrested. What's 'wrong' might be 'right' if we just leave it alone. (67%, 4 Votes)
  • Yes. We have arrested only the prostitutes for so long and their recidivism rates are usually high. Creating only one 'wrong' can make it right. (17%, 1 Votes)
  • No. We should still arrest both the prostitute and the patron when both commit the crime of selling/buying a sex act. What's wrong is wrong for everyone. (17%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 6

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Connecticut is one of several states that thinks that two heads are not better than one when… Click To Tweet Prostitutes service as many as forty men each day, a rate that Geneva Convention standards call… Click To Tweet Prosecutors think they are disrupting the flow of human traffic by deporting ...but they are just… Click To Tweet

 

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9 February 2015

Throwing Hands

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image“How many stabbings are there here every year?” a new inmate asked me.  She was an older woman who was clearly totally adrift.image

“Oh, none.  Who told you that?  None.  Wait, are you talking about the lady who took the plastic coated handle from the garbage cans and sharpened it to kill her girlfriend? That happened once – and she was obviously crazy,” I explained, wholeheartedly believing that I was allaying her concerns until I saw her facial muscles tighten in fear.  My consolation backfired big-time. But I was imparting pure correctional truth; prison is rarely as violent as people expect.

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Everyone thinks it’s like this…

Of course, arguments belch out and brawls burst forth from otherwise peaceful prison days but, for the most part, the risk of being assaulted is low.  In fact the jeopardy of prison is not found in attacks but rather being smothered and strangled with “I love you’s” and heart signs.  So many declarations of love dart around this prison it makes Woodstock look like a WWE Smackdown.

I confided in another two other inmates working in the kitchen with me that I had no idea how to fight; I’d never been in one.

“I wouldn’t even know what to do,” I confessed.

“That is sooo cute. I love you,” Tammy laughed and rubbed my shoulders.

“In a fight, there are no rules.  You do whatever you need to to win,” Snoop explained to me.

“But how do you know who wins?”

“The winner can walk away,” Snoop shrugged,  like a catfight is as crucial as a gladiator clash in ancient Rome.  But her explanation of fighting – no rules, win with total disregard to damage – revealed more about the “I love you’s” than it did about the brawls.

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…but it’s more like this.

Love is better than hate so the fact that many prison chats are like boxes of conversation hearts should hardly bother anyone but it does bother me.  The ILY’s and the blown kisses are fighting words of sorts, ways to be the one who walks away victorious.  Prison life downwardly redefines victory – scoring an envelope from someone, steering another inmate to take the fall for stealing something, wangling another prisoner to carry dangerous contraband through a metal detector, influencing another women to endure the humiliation of asking a chauvinist guard for a tampon – but an “I love you” bookends the winning strategy every time.

image“Here comes the nicest, downest white girl on the compound. Can you help me write a letter to the judge?” Kaishia asked.

“Sure,” I  agree even though I can’t stand these “letters” to judges. They’re just a continuation of the manipulation just used on me.

“I love you.  You’re the best. You’re such a nice girl,”

“Kaishia, I said I would do it,” I told her in a back-off tone.

“But you a saint the way you help all of us,” she whined.

“I’ll meet you in front of the TV at rec, OK?” I was trying to get into the shower to wash tomatoes off my skin from work and the grease from Kaishia’s crappy ego massage.

“OK, mama. You got paper, right? And an envelope for me? And maybe somethin’ sweet?”

“Of course I do. How else would I prove that you love me?”

Kaishia didn’t get it.

imageI understand that most of the women in prison suffered abuse their entire lives and the “I love you’s” they spew are proxies for the “I love you’s” no one left under the Christmas tree for them.  But that’s why I dislike their showering me with affection.  They use the deficits in their lives – things they were owed but never received – and transfer those obligations to new and unsuspecting victims like me.

I sound harsh and unfeeling, I know, and I make no defense for the people who left scar and callus on their hearts, but the “I love you’s” are nothing different than the weapons used in a stick-up; they use them to force deals that the other person never really sought.  If it has happened once, it happens ten times a month: a woman tells she she loves me, not necessarily for romantic or sexual reasons, but to or, worse, to get me to say it back.

image“It was good to see you. I miss you. I wish you were on the east side with me, OK? Love you!” she said and waited.

“Hang in there. You’ll be home soon,” I waved and turned away.

“Well, do you love me too?” Her words hassled me over my shoulder.

“Sure,” I assured her.

“Then say it,” she commanded.image

“Love you too.”

“Awww, you do?” she gushed.

“I gotta go.”

The day I said that “I love you” was the day I hated myself the most. I tried to convince myself it was a survival tactic but what would have been the worst thing to happen? That she wouldn’t love me anymore even though she didn’t and shouldn’t love me ever? Only in prison is weakness a survival skill, I thought.  Now, whenever “I love you” lands in my ears it is as menacing as a fist on my nose.

imageBesides, when a woman I met yesterday tells me “I love you” today, that I’m her best friend, we both know she’s lying.  So many prisoners grapple with reputations – some earned, some manufactured by others – as bullshitters.  Cooing “I love you” to everyone is a Super Bowl worthy advertisement that you’re a con artist and that every human interaction is a transaction for you.  The overwrought sentimentality tanks our credibility fast.

Sometimes I suspect that it would be better to have more fighters than lovers in a prison.  Fights scare me, make me hike up my shoulders as I anticipate another person’s injury, but at least they’re pure, unpolluted by manipulation and underhandedness.  Dust-ups are cleaner than the expert maneuvering of people’s emotions.  The woman who converted the garbage can handle into a shank, once her violent tendencies curb, is much less dangerous than the woman who just put her thumbs together and curved her forefingers to etch out a heart to tell me she loves me.

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Prison Diaries loves its readers. Really.

 

 

From slate.com: Why are so many Americans in prison? A provocative new theory. Click and read. It’s fascinating and enlightening about the effects that prosecuting attorneys have on criminal justice. Everything you assumed about criminal justice might be wrong.

A law professor at Fordham Law School says prison populations are so high because the prosecutors refuse to drop any cases. Do you agree?

  • Maybe. The whole criminal justice scene is so screwed up that I don't know who causes what anymore. (50%, 3 Votes)
  • No. If they start picking and choosing cases, they will make mistakes and dangerous people won't be prosecuted. (33%, 2 Votes)
  • Yes. The prosecutors are the only people who have the discretion in the system when it comes to charging people. (17%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 6

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2 February 2015

Same Time Next Year

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Every February 2, I poke my head out of my cell and look around to see if we’ll have six more weeks of recidivism. We always do.image

Only people who live in prison’s underground hole know that recidivism is worse in winter. By choice, homeless women take on charges – usually for prostitution, a Class A misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of one year – so they will be housed and fed until spring. When the weather gets warm, the warden will release them to the streets again where they can live in tents or squat in abandoned buildings without having to steal hand and boot warmers from Walgreens.

Most times they stay out for Christmas, and then right after, in January, they approach a cop and proposition him so he’ll arrest them, set a bond and remand them to jail. Sometimes a rookie cop will try to be nice and set their bonds at zero, giving them a promise to appear for their court dates. They yell at him to train him in seasonal reoffending:

“It be cold out, motherfucker! Damn! You can’t set a fifty dollar bond or nothin’?”  When the rookie follows their orders, they have a home for a while.

imageBy the time they crawl through assessments and I see them, it’s February and they want snacks. They always do.

“You left out and came back? You got any juice?” each one always asks me.

“No, you left and came back. I’ve been here. No juice.”

“Well, when you goin’ home?” each one asks like she cares.

“I don’t know.  When are you staying home?”

Each of these encounters makes me think that modern corrections is an internally inconsistent industry; if wardens and guards do their jobs by successfully rehabilitating women and setting up solid reentry plans for them, then the lack of returning inmates, the ones who scurry right back inside the hole like Punxsutawney Phil, will put them out of business. No one admits it but this entire system is built on the premise that no one can – and no one should – ever change or succeed.  Ex-offenders pay their debts to society with the proceeds of new loans incurred by new offenses – deeds often done just to get out of the cold. Everyone serves a life sentence on an installment plan.

It’s the way the system wants it. The guards call the poorly behaved inmates “job security” because they know the women will return. Back in 2009 when a released inmate strung one bank robbery to another to fit six within one week, police flashed her mug across television screens. So many guards dropped a dime on her that the tip-line operator was saying: “Yeah, thanks for calling. We know its Holly Blue. You work at York?” Many released prisoners hang up the phone when freedom rings. Some have the line cut by a guard.

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Of course, whenever an inmate boomerangs back inside either to protect herself from poverty and homelessness or because she’s just an asshole and the guards can ID her when her face is on the news, the procedure is always the same. She begs anyone she encounters: “I need soap, conditioner and something sweet.” “Can you buy me some white T-shirts so I got somethin’ to sleep in?” They hustle to collect whatever makes prison life more bearable. They think this is a Motel 6 and everyone left a light on for them – along with a snack on the check-in counter.

I am usually a generous person but I refuse to soften the blow of recidivism on re-offenders. Part of the sting of incarceration is being uncomfortable; discomfort makes someone think twice about what they did to invite it. Cushioning returning inmates with honey buns, cozy sweatpants and mascara makes it easier for them to reoffend, to want to come back inside. My stinginess puts me at odds with other inmates who are serving lengthy sentences.

image“Tell me you are not sending K.M. porkrinds and toothpaste!” I scolded one of my roommates when K.M. got re-canned for shoplifting at Stop and Shop, fleeing the scene by plowing her car into another car that, in turn, struck another car carrying two small children. The news had broadcast her face in a plea for identification and one of the captains had called Crimestoppers on her.

“Shoplifting again. How about stoplifting? When is K.M. gonna cut the shit? Don’t give her anything!” I shouted.

image“I have to. It’s the right thing to do,” M.S. defended herself, not knowing that softening K.M.’s fall from free space will affect her own release. Parole decisions base themselves on whether the inmate seems likely to re-offend and, if every woman who leaves the facility comes right back, the probability that another potential parolee will re-offend goes up. Three convenience store owners were murdered in Connecticut one summer during robberies committed by male ex-offenders who had been released on parole. When they landed back in prison, I’m sure everyone swung into action to deliver the Fluff, peanut butter and Twizzlers they requested, oblivious to the fact that the three murders had placed their freedom in jeopardy. I would have done nothing except tell them that they should have picked up snacks while they were in the 7-11’s they robbed. K.M. should have grabbed some pork rinds when she was fleeing Stop and Shop.

I have to laugh sometimes at the women in here who help the recidivists. They think the ‘right thing to do’ is to pack up an envoy with instant coffee and oatmeal creme pies to deliver to women who just came back to the prison. Inmates here lie, steal, assault each other. Many times murder and armed robbery landed them inside, not planned prostitution busts. And the moral analysis, discussion of the normative ethics of daily life, centers around sharing a brownie or hair gel with someone who either can’t or won’t do anything right.image

Why waste time pondering why its right to find housing my soliciting a cop or whether long sentences actually have a deterrent effect? Why weigh all the policy options for combating poverty so women don’t have to set themselves up for prostitution charges? The right thing to do is to distribute Chex Mix to everyone who left the prison and came back with new charges. I guess it’s wrong to discuss whether if someone had helped them get the Chex Mix (figuratively, of course, through stronger reentry policies) on the outside they might have come out of this hole, seen their shadows against the light of hope, and not crawled back inside.

READER POLL

From January 31, 2015 on SLATE.COM: Why Public Apathy Isn’t All Bad Is criminal justice reform making headway because no one cares about it anymore?

Is public apathy bad for criminal justice reform?

  • Yes. The only way to fashion good policy is if people care and voice their opinions and concerns, (75%, 3 Votes)
  • I don't know because I don't care. (25%, 1 Votes)
  • No. Protests and bold statements of public opinion encourage stalemates in legislatures. (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 4

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26 January 2015

Be Not Provoked

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“Did you hear?  Linda Stone got fucking deported.  Immigration picked her up yesterday,” my friend Ivy whispered, leaning in as she passed me.  Surprise overtook me so much that I almost dropped my tray of Salisbury steak.image

“Deported as in ‘out of the country’ and ‘can never come back’” I asked.  Ivy nodded.

“Stone,” as the guards called her, worked with me as a janitor in the Assessments building when the warden dumped me there because I had to go to trial every day for weeks.  I disliked Stone immensely because I witnessed her dispatch inmates who received more attention than she did from the guards by falsely reporting them for threatening to attack one of them. She did it to my friend Denise. She told a guard Denise threatened her behind her back. It wasn’t true.  So when a correction officer assigned me to work with Stone, queasiness crept into my stomach.  I had no choice but to obey the guard’s order.

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Stone landed in her home country of St. Lucia, which is not a bad deportation if you ask me.

One day, Stone chatted me up in an unusually friendly way as we completed chores, sharing her girly secrets like the supply closet was our sorority.  One secret she told me – a bold and malicious lie – was that a certain guard had propositioned her.  I doubted her story but it took my focus anyway because the guard’s wife worked at the prison in an office approximately five feet away from us.  I pointed to the wife’s closed office door as a warning to Stone to shut up.

“Stone. Come on.” And I nodded my head toward the wife’s office.

“That door’s locked.  No one’s in there,” she said with counterfeit confidence.  Pause.  “There can’t be anyone in there, can there be?  I thought it was locked.  She’s not in there.  Is she in there?”   panic flooded out of Stone’s mouth, alarm that the guard’s wife could and would confront her.  Knowing that she had screwed up, Stone abruptly ended our cleaning session and I retired to my cell, relieved to end my stoning for a while.

I wasn’t in my cell two minutes when the housing unit manager Captain Demers called me to his office.  Once I was inside, behind his closed door, the Demers told me that Stone had provided him with a written statement containing details of my alleged confession to her that a certain guard whose wife worked in the building had suggested an inappropriate liaison to me.  Stone pre-empted her own trouble by blaming me for what she said.

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You have to control your anger in prison: no yelling, outbursts, punching walls unless you want to go to seg. Some inmates do explode when they’re angry, some don’t. All of us, however, fail at hiding the anger on our faces.

Demers continued to tell me that he had informed the wife of what I had supposedly said about her husband and she insisted – understandably – that he boot me from the building.  Demers exiled me for Stone’s sins.

Being banished in this way made me so rageful that I turned red.  After I moved my belongings to another housing unit, I went to the dining hall for lunch.  At the serving line’s end waited Mr. Packer.  I didn’t work for him so recognizing each other and exchanging pleasantries was the extent of our relationship.  As I extended my tray to one of Mr. Packer’s workers for her to fill it with a chicken patty and a baked potato, Mr. Packer noticed my fiery demeanor.

“Are you OK?  You look angry,” Mr. Packer asked.

“I’m OK.  It’s just… I just…” I stammered as silvery crescents of tears appeared on my lower eyelids.  In his usual gentle manner, Mr. Packer took me out of the line and I told him what happened.  A man of complete faith in God, Mr. Packer never let anything ruffle him and I was embarrassed that I let cattiness and gossipy betrayal undo me so completely.

image“I just don’t know what I should do, if I should write to the warden or ask my parents to call up here.  I guess I could resort to the courts…” I went on.

“Can I make a suggestion?”

“Sure,” I sniffled.

“Do nothing.  Do absolutely nothing at all.  Let it work itself out,” he offered.  Even though Mr. Packer did not know me well at that point, he read my body language and my speech closely enough to know that I was a woman of action.  He could tell that I was the type that responded to crises, the type of lady to take the lead.  Everyone knew that I got things done.  What I once considered a strength in my personality was beginning to look like a liability if Mr. Packer’s advice was sound.image

“OK, Mr. Packer.  I’ll do nothing.  But only because you’re such a nice guy.” I meant what I said; I would never have heeded the advice had it not originated in such a kind and gentle man.

“Thank you.  And read Psalm 37,” he added.

I nodded and pointed at him, telling him again “Only because you’re such a nice guy.”

After lunch, I went back to my new cell and extracted my Bible from my property, belongings that my move had upset as much as it had discombobulated my spirit.  I found Psalm 37 which read, in part:

“Do not be provoked by evildoers;… Those who do evil… will be cut off from the land.”

That’s nice, I thought.  Mr. Packer is such a nice guy.  And then, as if nothing had happened, I did nothing about Stone.  Instead, I ignored her lies for the following months until the day I encountered Ivy and her news that Stone had been deported, had been cut off from the land just as Psalm 37 and Mr. Packer promised. It is possible to surrender and win.

imageAll of my life before that day I had been a doer; I prized my fighting spirit.  “Scrappy” is what people called me and I smiled.  “A firecracker,” others chuckled.  If I saw a problem anywhere, I dove into its midst to solve it.  My intentions were always good, but my results?  Not so much, since this revelation was happening  smack dab in the middle of a prison sentence.  I know firsthand that ‘doing’ may fail you.

The compulsion to take action, particularly to help another person, is laudable but it can also land someone in trouble.  Particularly for modern women who juggle children, spouses, careers, hobbies and community involvement, the need to do, do, do and to go, go, go overextends them and often they neglect themselves, eventually wearing thin, losing stamina.

I am unmarried and childless, but I still recognize how doing can undo a woman.  I was the caregiver to my father after he suffered a hemorrhagic stroke.  I remain grateful for the chance to help my father and thankful that he survived his illness, but I refused to allow anyone else to help me shoulder the load.  “I will drive him to the neurologist,” I told my mother.  “I will close his law firm now that he is retired,” I said to my sisters.  “I will buy the broccoli, whip the cream, scrub the toilet bowl.”  Everything that needs to be done will be done by me only, I thought.

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Elsa has it right.

It never occurred to me that not doing something – either by permitting another helper to fill in for me or choosing to do nothing – was an option.  For too long, my self-esteem depended on another person’s depending on me – and only me – for everything.  Psychologists call this need co-dependence, but at the end of the day, it’s just chaos-causing busy-ness.

Sitting in the dining hall, toying with my Salisbury mystery meat the day Ivy told me about Stone, the revelation that doing, saying nothing was acceptable, might even work out in my favor, forced me to examine what a fuck-up I was with friends.  I always reserved the last word for me.  Small slights that were probably unintentional always invited and deserved response, at least in my opinion; I rarely let anything go and some of my relationships suffered as a result.

imageMy relationships that suffered less were not much healthier.  Even if I held my tongue with certain people, I contracted to do more than my fair share of the work in the friendship, thinking that I needed to exert extra effort to keep the other person in my circle.  Like I said, I was a doer.

I kidded myself to think that a woman can never be a responsible citizen, a good friend, a dutiful daughter if she picked her battles.  But the news of Stone’s deportation taught me that a woman will become undone if she enters every fight. No woman is nothing if she cannot do everything. She just might be blessed with everything when she doesn’t do anything.

When I went to work for Mr. Packer in the kitchen a few months later, I told him how Stone was cut off from the land.  Mr. Packer is as true and thorough a believer as you can find, but his eyes still wide with wonder at my story of Stone, Packer and Psalm 37.

“Amazing,” he said.  “Look what can happen when you just let go.”

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It's time to let go...(it will be ok) Click To Tweet

Prison Diaries’ First Reader Poll

In the News:

CNN: Joseph Sledge, Wrongly Imprisoned for Decades, Now Free 

North Carolina, the only state in the country to have an "Innocence Inquiry Commission," has cleared three people of wrongful murder convictions in the past six months. Should every state have one?

  • Yes. The events in North Carolina make it obvious that too many people are convicted of crimes they didn't commit. (57%, 4 Votes)
  • Maybe. Depends on what it costs. The prosecution can't be wrong that often, can they? (43%, 3 Votes)
  • No. Every defendant has a criminal defense attorney. Let them do their jobs. (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 7

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19 January 2015

More Unique Content Every Week from Prison Diaries

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In addition to a new story every Monday, Prison Diaries always publishes unique content on other social media platforms. Click on the links below to get the new Prison Diaries’ story link delivered to you with original memes, thought-provoking quotes or a social satire in a cartoon. Click away to follow Prison Diaries on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Flickr and Pinterest today!

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19 January 2015

Letter from a Niantic Prison

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“So… where’d you get the envelope? No stamp on it.” Captain Soprano questioned me.image

Except for the one on Soprano’s desk, all prison envelopes bear the same stamp on the back: “This correspondence originated from an inmate at a Connecticut Correctional Facility,” a warning that the mailroom staff could easily shorten to: “IGNORE.” If Alabama’s Department of Correction imprinted this type of advisory on its inmate envelopes over fifty years ago when Martin Luther King, Jr. mailed his esteemed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” no one would have ever opened the fucking thing.

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A Letter from a Birmingham Jail: the most famous and important letter from an inmate. They let Martin Luther King, Jr. type his, but not me.

You would pass over prisoner mail too, if you received it, just like everyone else does. We understand our confinement neutralizes us. We cannot call you or even alight your doorstep to pitch a bitch fit or, even worse, go totally postal on you with an illegal firearm. What hurts more than being ignored by people on the outside is what the guards do to your letters inside the facility. Mail tampering is as central to the penal experience as a lock or a lousy mattress. I still wonder how King got his letter out to the clergymen at all.

Addressed to my father, the envelope that Soprano and his investigator plopped in front of me lacked the mark of the prison’s mailroom. The commissary makes mistakes sometimes and misses one envelope they sell. The mailroom would have mindlessly stamped the missive’s wrapper and freed it to the United States Postal Service if any other inmate’s name and inmate number appeared in the upper left corner, but mine? Mine beckoned a formal investigation.

“Commissary. I got it from commissary,” I confessed. In any prison, the commissary is the lone legit game in town. It was the only place I knew to buy an envelope. It was the only place any prisoner could buy an envelope.

“Well, we called them and they said they don’t sell stamped envelopes.” Soprano lowered his gaze at me as if he had trapped me.

“Aren’t you calling me in because this one doesn’t have a stamp on it?” I asked. Soprano and Co. said nothing. “Uh… stamped envelopes are the only kind of envelopes they sell… Aren’t you in charge of the mailroom?” I couldn’t believe I was explaining the innards of the mailroom to the corrections captain charged with running it.

“Well, if that’s the case, do you have receipts for them?” he challenged me.

“Yeah, actually, I do, back in my cell.”

imageSoprano looked surprised and sent me off to fetch.  As I pushed through the double-glass doors of the administration building I weighed which was worse: the reality that people slight inmates by not slitting open their letters or the fact that every piece of mail a prisoner either sends or receives will be tampered with. Inside, Big Brother does more than watch, listen and read; he also rips, steals, chucks, defaces, alters, meddles with and corrupts a prisoner’s correspondence which – in lieu of expensive collect calls or cattle-call personal visits – is often the only gate a prisoner can use legally, the only portal to the outside world.

Correctional mail tampering is so pervasive and so old that even the United States Supreme Court acknowledged it over twenty-five years ago in its decision in a case called Houston vs. Lack. Way back then, the highest court in the country found that prisoner mail was so unfailingly fooled with that they established what we call “the prisoner imagemailbox rule,” law that states that legal mail sent by an inmate to a court is deemed filed the day that the inmate drops the letter in the prisoner mail receptacle, rather than on the day the court receives it, because inmates correspondence was so rampantly and severely delayed by prison staff.

As I walked back to my unit, I counted the molestations that my personal or “social” mail had withstood: a guard opened another letter to my father and inserted two pornographic pics, my People magazine arrives with a crossword completed in pencil even though is easy enough to use ink, another guard labeled my mail “Not in this unit” and tossed it in the trash, I received one issue of a 26-week subscription to Sports Illustrated. There were so many that I couldn’t even sort the mail problems in my memory.

One wonders why someone would bother to note that I was not in that housing unit (Thompson Hall as noted by the TH inside a circle) when the guard was going to throw this out. I saw it in the trash when I went into the guards' office for a roll of toliet paper.
One wonders why someone would bother to note that I was not in that housing unit (Thompson Hall as noted by the TH inside a circle) when the guard was going to throw this out. I saw it in the trash when I went into the guards’ office for a roll of toilet paper.

The problems with my legal mail were much more serious. Like me, many inmates represent themselves either because they can’t afford a lawyer and do not want to burden their families financially or they have already experienced attorney assistance and it’s the reason they’re in the can. Sometimes courts appoint attorneys in habeas corpus petitions – proceedings to secure someone’s release from custody – but the inmate must timely file the initial petition herself before an lawyer takes the case. The reliability of the prison Pony Express is vital to the self-represented inmate; the mail is sometimes the only way to send yourself home.

When I experienced severe delays with my legal mail in 2009, early on in my sentence when I still believed that upper-level management positions in government were occupied by people who gave a shit, I filed a grievance and hoped that official channels would route my envelopes more accurately because a prison grievance is supposed to be like someone on the outside saying: “I want to speak with your supervisor”; it should be the death knell for bureaucratic bullshit. But, per usual, things work differently for prisoners; it’s not a death knell for bullshit but its baptism. The grievance coordinator rejected my complaint outright, replying that the prison had the right to review my mail.

I never disputed their licensed invasions of the mail; my beef was that the delay incurred by the review was unreasonable and unlawful. I wrote this on a request form and sent it to the grievance coordinator but never heard back even though the request form didn’t have the “This correspondence orginated…” stamp to tell her to trash it.

The next time I experienced a severe delay with my mail was when the clerk of Connecticut’s Appellate Court didn’t receive certain documents I mailed for over six months. So I filed another grievance.image

Within two days the grievance coordinator, Officer No Brains, appeared in my housing unit with her muscle, Officer Brawn from the prison’s alleged “Intelligence Unit,” three or four thugs wearing fabric badges and penchants for gossip, which they call ‘intelligence.”

“Bozelko, this is your official warning that if you file another complaint about the mail we’ll ban you permanently from the grievance system… for abuse.”

“How am I abusing the system?” I challenged them.

“Read your handbook. Repeat complaints about the same problem are abuse.” Officer Brawn informed me.

“But I grieved two separate incidents. It’s the same problem but different instances of it,” I explained to blank stares.

“They’re both about mail,” the No Brains told me, her eyes slitted with condescension.

Instructing people who have power over you is a dicey situation. You never want them to think that you think you know more than they do but, in prison, underlings usually know more than the brass.  So I tread with both persistence and caution to break this Brawn-and-No Brains stalemate.

“So one grievance about mail prevents another grievance about mail, even if one alleges that the mail policy is wrong and the other complains about mail tampering? They’re not the same thing,” I said.

Officer Brawn explained the entire situation, simply, in three words.

“We’ll ban you.”

“OK. Just ban me then.”

The Department of Correction Administrative Remedy system: government fraud at its finest.
The Department of Correction Administrative Remedy system: government fraud at its finest.

No Brains and Brawn looked at me incredulously. They weren’t  of their minds for doing so: I admit that my response was unusual. But Brawn et al.  failed to understand that it was also strategic. Unlike many inmates who do not take the time to familiarize themselves with the facility’s own rules and procedures, I actually read the Inmate Handbook distributed at admission. And from reading it I knew that any ban entailed an affirmative showing of abuse to the warden; they would have to show him my complaints. I figured that any foray into the alleged abuse for the big, bad ban would reveal the content of my complaint, thereby apprising the warden of my mail problem which he would then solve.

No Brains never sought to ban me but I still stopped grieving my continuing mail problems anyway. Now instead I just swear out affidavits attesting to the date I mailed the envelope and lean back on the Supreme Court and their mailbox rule, the only guideline that really protects all those envelopes stamped in block black capitals that they originate in a prison.

When I reached the unit, I grabbed a stack of commissary receipts – counteracting mail tampering is expensive in the joint – brought them back to the administrative building and handed them to Soprano in the hallway outside his office so he could examine them.

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A commissary receipt reflecting a “STAMPED ENVELOPES” purchase. York Correctional Institution has sold stamped envelopes for longer than Soprano has worked for the Department of Correction but he still hasn’t caught up to that fact.

“Huh… stamped envelopes,” Soprano read off the laser-printed page. He seemed legit stumped.

“That’s the only kind of envelope they sell. I told you.” I pointed to the proper lines on the receipt. This ‘investigation’ was one of two things: either it was proof that Captain Soprano was the most incompetent civil servant I had ever encountered – a tough contest to win, especially among Department of Correction personnel – or this was pure harassment because there was no way that Soprano didn’t know what kind of envelopes the prison used and that I got mine from commissary; those were the only two choices given the titanic idiocy of the whole scene.

“Can I take a copy of this and then close out the investigation?” Soprano asked me as if he needed prisoner permission to do anything. Soprano’s soldiers had tampered with and confiscated my paperwork for years, now the boss was asking me if he could take a copy of a document that was already in the prison’s database of what I had purchased from the commissary. The whole situation was simple-minded yet complex in its confusion: I had to prove that I bought a stamped envelope when mine wasn’t stamped. It seemed like a logical impossibility except I had just done it. I shook my head and shrugged.

“Sure, go ahead. Seal it up.”

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12 January 2015

The Grass Is Always Meaner

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Sperry the supervisor was chatting as he spread the Sun Butter – the new peanut butter perfidy that the prison foisted upon us- on his wheat bread. Instead of peanuts, Sun Butter manufacturers use sunflower seeds into a baby-diarrhea consistency spread. The supervisor bit the sandwich and almost choked.

“What the hell is this?” he shouted.

“Sun Butter,” Bengals told him.

“It’s made with sunflower seeds,” Green Bay informed him.

“It replaced the peanut butter,” NY Giants said.

This is Sun Butter.
This is Sun Butter.

“What… some flower child out in California thought this would be better than peanut butter? Well… fuck you asshole!” Sperry shouted to the theoretical flower child on the opposite coast and chucked his sandwich into a trash can. It’s always interesting to see a jailer get jailed himself, even if he’s only bound by the taste of Sun Butter in his mouth.

Not that the taste of Sun Butter is the worst confinement that the corrections staff can face. The administration has tossed more than a few (but still not enough) male guards to the lions of criminal prosecution for sexual contact with inmates, creating another one of those situations like when God became man or Zeus made himself mortal. People in power find out how much the powerless world sucks.

The supervisor had yet to lose the taint of sunflower seeds in his mouth when word spread like butter that a local police department arrested one of the guards, one who had worked here for several years, for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend very severely. The judge set high bond.

imageI do not know for sure but I think the guard eventually bonded out of custody. Until that point, his own employer penned him in. This guard knew what the people watching him thought of him – as a corrections employee he was probably a higher profile inmate than his cohorts – because he thinks those same thoughts about us. Being new in confinement, he wore his uniform, a different one still issued by DOC,  24/7; anyone admitted to a Connecticut prison  has no pajamas at first. No one can sleep in their underwear because they might flash a guard. He ate question-mark cutlets that pass for protein just like we do. To post his bond, he wrote a request form to a correctional counselor who probably worked for the department for far fewer years than he to schedule a call to a bondsman. Then he sporked over a retainer to a lawyer who met him at court, a place twenty-five miles away that takes eighteen hours to go to and fro. He likely saw guards he already knew from working with them before they transferred out of York, apparitions from posts gone past whose awkward greeting (if he was greeted at all) shrinky-dinked his self-esteem.

I’m not feeling 50 shades of shadenfreude. I am not happy that Sperry disgorged his Sun Butter or that the C/O took a collar. I like Sperry and the C/O never gave me a problem. But still, in my penal processing, staff have tampered with my food and my mail, vandalized my property, taunted me with names, invaded my privacy and even assaulted me. They played “jokes” on me, providing false information/orders that I would follow. Every revenge fantasy entailed some scenario where they were rendered just as powerless as I am. I dreamed of nothing violent, just instances where I controlled all toilet paper in the state, duly authorized not to spare a square to any of them. Or that DOC would hire me as a staffing consultant and I would decide who among the guards stays and who blows. You’re fired!images (10)

In abusive or oppressive situations, role reversal is the ultimate reprisal because the payback is rarely out of proportion with the original offense. Role reversal is like LASIK surgery performed on an eye for an eye. Everyone’s vision improves as their eyes well with tears in their new, bad, circumstances.

It’s no secret that my parents would forcibly hospitalize me in psych wards early on in my tenure as public enemy number 330445. I mass-produced angry tears during each of these events in 2001 and 2005. For those who have never experienced it, involuntary hospitalization feels like a kidnapping and the place that holds you for ransom is the Bizzaro World in Superman. Someone – for me it was my parents – calls the police who shanghai you in an ambulance even though no one is hurt. EMT’s physically force you onto the rig (if you resist you can be charged criminally with assaulting a law enforcement officer) that transports you on a stretcher, even though you can walk or sit upright, to an emergency department where a physician determines whether you are a danger to yourself or others. Then the good doctor decided whether you can meet your basic needs – food, clothing and shelter. If you’re homicidal or suicidal, you stay. If you are neither homicidal or suicidal but are so addled that you cannot scale even the first step of Maslov’s hierarchy of needs, you stay, too.

Every single time they called, I stayed.

images (6)No physician ever actually interviewed me as I shivered in a paper gown in an exam room. Instead, the medical establishment collected clinical data on a patient in their midst from people who weren’t even there, my parents. Despite calling 911 and referring their daughter for emergency treatment and intervention, my parents never came to the ER. As I stayed, they stayed. At home. Grilling steaks or watching Masterchef. Once they ventured out after calling 911 – to a restaurant. Another time they were to a charity auction as I sat emergent, dangerous, half-naked at the hospital.

Each time I stayed, some ER doc shunted me to the psych ward where an RN with a frying pan face would greet me.

“Hi Chandra. I’m June, your primary nurse. Do you remember me?”

Of course I do, you bitch.

image
A picture of the kind of Luella bag that shockingly went missing during my stay. I think June is a thief and a liar.

No one else ever had a primary nurse and I do not know why June insisted on being mine. I suspect that it was because she loved itemizing my property and clothing as I stood by, now clad in scrubs.

“I’m such a clothes horse. I like these shoes. Cheap and Chic by Moschino. Did you get these at the outlets?”

“No.”

“And this bag! I love this green. Do you remember the pink Prada one you had last time?”

“Well, I own it so, yes, I do remember it.”

“I’ve never heard of this designer Luella,” June gushed.

“And yet, somehow, she still exists.”

“And Blugirl. Blugirl. What’s Blugirl?”

“It’s Blumarine, their younger, more affordable line.”

“They have it at Forever 21?” she inquired.

“Never.”

“Boy, Chandra, you sure can dress,” she conceded as she sealed everything that came in with me in a plastic bag like the ones cops use for evidence.

“So I guess I can’t feed or house myself then, if I can clearly dress, right?” I asked June, referring to the standard for involuntary admission: inability to feed, clothe or shelter oneself.

Nervous laugh.

imageThese hospitalizations never lasted very long, mostly because I always filed for a hearing with the local probate court. Eventually the probate judge would amble in with a tape recorder – the record – and ask doctors if I should have been held against my will. I was naïve and inexperienced enough at first to expect that employees of the hospital would testify that a colleague, also employed by the hospital, had no grounds to hold me. But because the truth would have exposed the hospital to litigation and complaints – as well as lent me some sway – it never showed up. June, my primary nurse, was handmaiden to the fraud, raising a manicured hand up near her botched highlights to swear her oath. Then she lied.

“Ms. Bozelko has multiple scars on her forearms from past suicide attempts. It’s highly likely that-”

“No I don’t!” I interrupted. “Look,” I offered the inside and outside of my arms to the probate judge. At the time, I could barely believe that the hospital attorney would allow perjury like that. Now I’m shocked when they don’t do it.

images (8)Any probate court hearing held within a psychiatric setting is such a kangaroo court that I don’t understand why veterinarians don’t sit in on them alongside the shrinks, the lawyer and June, my primary nurse. The judge always ruled that it was within the doctor’s discretion to hold me involuntarily. Somehow I was always released hours after these sham hearings. I suspected that the judge knew I was right but was too much of a power player to ratify my rightness officially. After all, just like the criminal defendant, the psychiatric patient can never be right. Never. Once you get a Dx (diagnosis)  that requires Tx (treatment) with an Rx (prescription), you will be hallucinating, mistaken, lying or just plain wrong for the rest of your life. I had no idea that after that first hospitalization, I would never be right again.

Now, years later, I borrowed another prisoner’s copy of the Connecticut Law Tribune and read an article about Attorney Ira Grudberg and how he had obtained a relatively large settlement for a client who was hit by a bus. His client sued the bus company because her injuries prevented her from working. His client was June, my primary nurse.

According to the article, poor June, my primary nurse, could no longer subdue psychiatric patients because her injuries were so severe. Not working, June, my primary nurse, became clinically depressed, got a Dx that needed Tx with an Rx. When I get out, I might go to the courtroom look up June, my primary nurse’s case and find the name of the driver who hit her so I can send him or her an Edible Arrangement in congratulations and gratitude.

imageHow a person handles a reversal of fortune tells almost everything anyone needs to know about him. A real jerk will still shit on the little people, not realizing that he’s one of them. A good guy will realize that, when you have a little bit of power, the grass is really meaner on the other side and he will stop being mean himself. Sun Butter has yet to dawn again on any of our trays since the Sperry ordered the Sun Butter thrown out to make way for real peanut butter again. The guard has yet to report back to work – at least not with inmate contact – since his arrest so no one can tell how he landscapes the grass on this other side. Like the guard, June, my primary nurse, has not returned to work. She probably does not realize that she’s on the other side now because she put way some green from that settlement. It has not been forced on her yet that the grass is always meaner where she is now. Roll up your sleeves, June. Let me check your arms.

I don’t want to rub anyone’s face in his/her misfortune; I know what it’s like to lose. But I do want to ask Sperry, the guard and June, my primary nurse, without any trace of ridicule, revenge or rancor:

   How did it feel?

 

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