1 May 2017

Throw Scissors

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Scales symbolize justice because interests compete; one consideration can outweigh others.

It’s a classic problem in here: pitting an offender convicted of a serious, violent crime who has completely rehabilitated herself and poses no risk versus a repeat offender convicted of non-violent crimes who clearly will never reform herself. It’s all good to spank the shoplifter and bury the one who opportunes the use of a body bag, except when the shoplifter leaves a trail of failed deterrence and she lands in lockup for the same thing again and again. Eventually over 100 times.

Who do we let out? The Career Girl, someone who guarantees her promise of more victims or the woman with a single Whopper crime who will never do so much as change lanes without the proper turn signal if she were released? On paper,  Career Girl seems to win. But on scales, Whopper weighs in strongly.

imageedit_1_2643827904I see it every day. Whoppers stand-by as recidivists sing “I’m on a count-down!” – nearing the last day of her sentence. Everyone on this compound – including herself – knows she will screw up again. She worked while incarcerated because she was required to, but she did nothing to edify herself  – college courses, trade certification, nothing. She attended an accountability class on victimization and emerged believing that ripping off big-box stores hurts no one because she “doesn’t steal from people.” In fact, she considers shoplifting not only victimless but noble.

“I steal from the rich and give to the poor,” she declares, proudly defending a ream of a rap sheet and her choice of fences.

“Who do you give the money to?” I asked her once.

“Myself.” She was indignant.

The guards agree with her; they know her from her numerous returns over the years.

stone_PNG13573“You’ve never hurt anyone,” they reassure her and come together into de facto defense teams, talking each other out of writing her tickets to accomplish her early release as early as possible.

And she leaves behind the Whopper, convicted of felony murder for a burglary in which the homeowner died. She took college classes, has become certified in safe food service, commercial cleaning, cosmetology, all of the prison school’s meager offerings. Whopper acknowledges her direct and collateral victims and admits:

“My crime is horrible. I would do anything to rewind my life to that day.”  Remorse and regret tug her face downward each of the fourteen thousand, six hundred days she’s serving. She’ll never be released even though her supporters and critics agree she’d never reoffend. Wouldn’t she be a better candidate to be cut loose?

Crumbled-Paper-Ball-psd102642We never anticipate a fall in perfect balance, like this, a total tie, like a flipped coin that lands and stands on its edge. The method we use to make decisions is looking, watching for the essential tip that indicates Lady Justice’s favor, the way things should be. When we don’t get a glimpse of it, when we do land in equilibrium, we’re supposed clear off both sides, let them both out. But we don’t do that in corrections.

We need to chuck the scales and come to understand justice is like Rock-Paper-Scissors. Punishment is the rock, deterrence the paper because – examples are made big and wide not in courtrooms but in newspapers – and rehabilitation the scissors that sever an offender from old ways. In the game, none of the three trumps both of the others; it’s the nature of the game that each one’s power matches its vulnerability. Punishment can thwart rehabilitation just like the rock breaks the scissors. Rehabilitation can reform someone, cut through the paper, to the point that she’s an example to follow, no longer a cautionary tale. And deterrence should be able to counteract punishment the way paper covers rock, but it doesn’t.

Scissors-PNG-FileIn real life, when paper covers rock, it just blows away in a few minutes. Rock always wins, definitely against scissors – that’s the plan – but also against paper. And in the game, you never know how other players’ fingers will gather. In real life, though, you know who’s shooting what and who will win. No matter how sharp – or, in the case of Career Girl, how dull –  your shears are, punishment overtakes the game. Rock busts the scissors, punches through the paper, and shatters the scales. Everything else in the system breaks but retribution never even gets chipped.

I see Whopper when Career Girl discharges and say:

“Rock always wins.”

I have no idea whether she understood what I mean. But she throws scissors:

“Oh, they got crack up in here? I don’t want no part of that shit. My dirty days are over,” she says, losing again.

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THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM APRIL 24 – 30, 2017

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President Trump attended a 100-day rally in Pennsylvania where his supporters chanted, again, LOCK HER UP! Since the election is over and Hillary isn’t going anywhere, let’s look at three cases from this past week for real-life examples of women who are about to get locked up.

In Louisiana, two teachers were arrested for bullying one of their own students – even telling her to take her own life – encouraging classmates to fight each other and threatening to fail other children who complained. For that, the two women are charged with “malfeasance in office, intimidation and interference in school operations.” I don’t know about you. but I didn’t even know that ‘interference with school operations’ was a crime. The statute that made it so was undoubtedly designed to be used to charge students who didn’t really commit a crime on school grounds but whom administrators wanted to expel, and a criminal charge could underpin that administrative action. These teachers might run into students who have flowed through the school-to-prison pipeline, aided by the same penal law that landed them in cuffs.

In North Carolina, an Army vet was arrested for shooting her dog, five times at close range, after tying her pet to a tree. The video was posted on Facebook. The dog was her emotional support animal, assigned to her for a diagnosis of PTSD and other mental health complications stemming from her service to her country. The State of North Carolina includes “Veteran’s Courts” in its judicial system. They’re designed to handle crimes committed by veterans who have been traumatized by military service.

A woman in Maryland was arrested for first and second degree assault after an argument broke out in front of her house and she went inside, retrieved a machete, and came out and allegedly threatened someone until the arguers dispersed. She didn’t touch anyone with the large knife. If she had come out with a gun, Second Amendment supporters would have been on her side. Is it acceptable to come out one’s home with another weapon to create one’s own peace?

If you were a prosecutor on these cases, how would you proceed? What if you were the judge? Those decisions you envision now happen in the hundreds every business day around the country.

 

 

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24 April 2017

Pero…like

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imageedit_33_5342224210The real world’s advantages don’t exactly translate in here. Every aspiring college freshman and job applicant in the world brags that she’s bilingual, but it isn’t an advantage in here. They ask you about it a couple of times throughout your risk assessment period. It’s not that they’re looking for translators, like I thought when they asked me. I could’ve said:

“Well, I passed the Spanish civil service test in 1991…” but I acted almost like I didn’t understand the question because I didn’t want to be drafted into the interpreter corps.

But they wouldn’t have asked me to translate anyway. It’s not like York [Correctional Institution] or even other prisons care about accommodating inmates and breaking down language barriers.   Aside from a few paragraphs on old bulletins hanging in the plexiglass-covered announcement boards and the sign announcing the north and south sides of the numbered buildings – as if women couldn’t have figured out that the “S” in 1S meant “Sur,” especially after juxtaposing it against the “N” of North/Norte – there is almost no accommodation of strictly Spanish speaking-women here. I remember reading something about how inmates in a DC jail were complaining about an Eighth Amendment violation [alleging cruel and unusual punishment] because no one working in their medical unit spoke Spanish. I can see the same conditions exist here, where speech means security.

A prison asks you what language you speak because they need to know who to watch. Spanish – or any other language for that matter – is a secret code in an American prison because so few of the C/O’s speak it (or admit they speak it),  making me like a secret decoder ring…that, thankfully, no one knows to consult.

You would think that a group of prisoners who had a private communication system might use it to escape or reform the place. No. In here, the women with the keys to the kingdom use them to scratch someone’s car or pick out ear wax.

The inmates who can speak boldly in front of anyone without detection, instead gossip and slander other women in Spanglish crossed with Valley Girl, trailing sentences as they pulled off the coup of talking about people behind their backs and in front of their faces with  “pero, like….” which translates to  “but, like…”. “Pero…like” justifies baseless bullshit because they leave the end of this slanderous sludge open. It’s like they know that what they’re saying is so false that it needs to betray all languages they know, not just one.

“Sé qui ella dice que no es uno prostituta, pero…like…”

I know she says she’s not a prostitute, but…like…

And they use “but…like” to talk about my keister, my butt. Apparently, I have Butt Implants. And supposedly I stole money from an employer to pay for them. According to them, I’m fake and so is my ass. My ass landed me in here.

Normally, I would laugh at their bullshit but overhearing this hit me in the body part where it hurt most. I don’t even know what to call it. Falling shy of badonkadonk, it’s a bit of a bubble butt. Maybe half a teardrop or a hot tamale losing heat. At least it would have some utility if it were a shelf butt. Shelf or not, my ass is big, it protrudes and always served as convenient drop spot for an insult to me.

I felt like I would never match the physicality of so many of the uber-rich, perfected young adults who roamed the Princeton campus. I saw their limbs as so lengthy, WASPy, tanned in Oyster Bay. Although I hardly came from a poor background, my haunches seemed like vestiges of Slavic peasantry; they reminded me of an Eastern European weightlifter while the other students looked like Nordic ice dancers.

Feeling like a huge red arrow followed me, trained on my ass, made me compensate for those low feelings. Convinced I was attractive only for my brains, I assured myself that my mind outweighed any heavy butt. If it was all about the brains, no bubble, then any thought that entered my mind was right and should be voiced. Pissed over a date being late, I’d blast him. I reamed men for perceived slights or even joking with me like a friend and not a love interest.

When I wasn’t being an intolerable pain in the ass to boys I liked, I spent my remaining college years trying to minimize my gluteus, even consulting plastic surgeons. If they could correct my ass to perfection, I would attract men physically as well as intellectually and they would never leave.

“Can you get rid of this?” I asked each one and he – always a “he” since I subconsciously sought a message of correctability from men – would pull up on each buttock. Items in my rearview are actually smaller than they seem because my legs are so short. My femur compares to the length of an average woman’s forearm.

“I can take some off but you have a lot of muscle. It’s just the way you’re built.” Fundamentally defective yet again.

“¡Carajo! Huelo su coño desde aquí. Se lo chingó ala guardia. Por la mesa, I bet.”

Fuck! I can smell her pussy from here. She fucked that C/O. On his desk, I bet. 

Like the Butt Implant theory, both of these allegations were easily proved false if I cared to do so, but…like…I didn’t want my nether regions dominating all of their conversation.

“No digas ‘coño’. Se escucha vulgar,” I said.

Don’t say ‘pussy’. You sound trashy. 

“Whaaa? Puta. Fuck outta here! Why she never tell us?” shouted one of them, Flaca.

Whaaa? That bitch. Fuck outta here. Why didn’t she tell us she spoke Spanish? She betrayed us by not telling us information we wouldn’t have needed if we had any class.  Wherever women are speaking Spanish in a prison, there’s at least one Flaca within the group. It means skinny. Digo culo piqueño pero, like… I would say ‘small ass’ but, like…

“Yo hablo, pero…like…pueden besar mi culo in Inglés.”

I speak it, but…like…you can kiss my ass in English.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM APRIL 17 – 23, 2017

FILE - In this Tuesday, April 18, 2017 file photo, Ledell Lee appears in Pulaski County Circuit Court for a hearing in which lawyers argued to stop his execution which is scheduled for Thursday. Unless a court steps in, Lee and Stacey Johnson are set for execution Thursday night. Lee was sentenced to death after being convicted of killing Debra Reese with a tire iron in February 1993 in Jacksonville. (Benjamin Krain/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP, File)

Last week was about life and who gets to take it. Ask yourself what you would do/want done if you were any of these people:

Another aspect of the “CSI effect” – expecting that every shred of evidence in a criminal case is capable of forensic analysis – is expecting that every shred actually gets tested.  On Friday, the State of Arkansas executed Ledell Lee before DNA testing could be conducted to examine his claims of innocence. Think about that: because the expiration date on a drug was fast approaching, a state government decided it was acceptable to kill someone without double-checking his guilt. This was also Justice Neil Gorsuch’s first vote, he was the deciding factor in SCOTUS’ allowing people to put the needle in Lee’s arm, proving that, in the United States, homicide is acceptable, depending on who commits it.

Keep in mind that one man, Arkansasan Gov. Asa Hutchinson, could have saved eight lives – including Lee’s – in less than 10 seconds if he had the temerity that Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe had on Thursday when he commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz, convicted in the murder-for-hire of his ex-girlfriend. McAuliffe was convinced of Teleguz’ guilt but saw that his sentencing was unfair (the prosecutor casually suggested Teleguz was involved in another murder during the penalty phase of the trial) so he spared his life. If you had the chance to save a life, wouldn’t you do it, too?

No, it wasn’t a murder. Aaron Hernandez, former New England Patriots TE, ended his own life last Wednesday, a few days after his double acquittal for murder. Reports surfaced that, for the first time in court, Hernandez was speaking to other people, blowing kisses to his daughter and generally acting like a human being instead of a prisoner. A little over a year ago, another former NFL player, Lawrence Phillips, committed suicide after coming back from court where he also felt human, and acted, according to others, like “a kid on Christmas morning.” When you aren’t forced to endure mass prisoner transport, chained to other people in filthy buses and vans (which most assuredly neither of these men were) then I guess trips to court can be okay, even good, and better than your life behind bars, and your crash into correctional reality hurts so badly that you use all of the autonomy you have left.

 

 

 

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17 April 2017

Tell Ol’ Pharaoh

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

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

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

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

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Did this…

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

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

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…become this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM APRIL 10 – 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

Who’s the slave now?

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

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10 April 2017

Joovee

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Anyone who has ever shopped for children’s clothing knows that there are different sizing schemes. “T” denotes a toddler size.  “6X,” a size unheard of in adult clothing, is slightly bigger for the child growing out of size 6 and “juniors” departments offer sizes for adolescents. Without an exact fit, parents try to find the best fit for the meantime until their children outgrow their clothes and need new ones.

We respond more to children’s fitting rooms than their needs in courtrooms. We drape adult laws over juvenile offenders, always expecting a perfect fit that will last a lifetime. Now scientists and policymakers agree that juvenile sentences are like children’s clothes: one size doesn’t fit all.

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The “Second Look” legislation that just came out of the [Connecticut General Assembly’s] Judiciary Committee would change the sentence modification laws for juvenile offenders,  allowing them the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed without the approval of a prosecutor after they’ve served a certain amount of time. many times children as young as 14 receive sentences of fifty years or more. Second Look legislation provides the opportunity for tailoring our punishments once we realize that juvenile offenders’ sentences either never fit or don’t fit any more.

The way they treat juvenile and youthful offenders in here shows they’re different. The C/O’s escort girls under 18 years old wherever they go: school (mandated for young inmates), meals (they eat alone in the large dining hall and return to their unit before adult inmates are released for chow). Little girls aren’t treated like adults in the big house, but they are in the place that gets them here: the courthouse.

"Voices from Juvenile Detention: Kids in Prison" It sounds harmless: Òpre-trial detention.Ó But the reality is far different. In a squat block building in Laredo, TexasÑand in similar places around the nationÑchildren await trial or placement in concrete cells while the underlying issues that led to their behavior fester. Some are addicts who need treatment; others are kids battling mental illnesses. Many are angry and have been virtually abandoned by absentee or irresponsible parents. Some spend a few days, others months, but despite the efforts of a small corps of dedicated professionals, few actually receive treatment for the issues that brought them to Juvenile. /// The Youngest 10-year-old Alejandro is shown to a holding cell where he'll await booking at Webb County Juvenile Detention following his arrest for marijuanna posession. Every day the inmates get smaller, and more confused about what brought them here. Psychiatrists say children do not react to punishment in the same way as adults. They learn more about becoming criminals than they do about becoming citizens. And one night of loneliness can be enough to prove their suspicion that nobody cares.

But the Second Look legislation is cut too small; it helps only those offenders who were under the age of 18 at the time of their offense. The age limitation flies in the face of the most recent neuroscience on the subject, specifically the fact that the part of the brain that governs judgment and impulse does not fully mature until someone reaches the age of 25. In their arrest warrants, police investigating crimes committed by women under  25 – particularly serious and violent crimes by those women – usually tell the stories against backdrops of adolescently dysfunctional behavior:  a co-defendant loser boyfriend who seduced them and induced them into criminal behavior, a complete and total devotion to him during the prosecution of the case, even though her “Co-D” is foisting his responsibility on her.

Even though most of the frontal lobe research embraced by the American Psychological Association indicates that every offender under 25 merits the same consideration in sentencing because their brains are still not completely developed, all offenders between 18 and 25 are left out of it. The law ignores the totality of the science it depends on. Despite this data, using an arbitrary cut-off, a numeric construct, namely the age of 18, perpetuates the practice of fashioning one punishment for a population based only on their ages and not what’s appropriate for the individual offender.

"Voices from Juvenile Detention: Kids in Prison" It sounds harmless: “pre-trial detention.” But the reality is far different. In a squat block building in Laredo, Texas—and in similar places around the nation—children await trial or placement in concrete cells while the underlying issues that led to their behavior fester. Some are addicts who need treatment; others are kids battling mental illnesses. Many are angry and have been virtually abandoned by absentee or irresponsible parents. Some spend a few days, others months, but despite the efforts of a small corps of dedicated professionals, few actually receive treatment for the issues that brought them to Juvenile. /// The Youngest 10-year-old Alejandro has his mug shot taken at Webb County Juvenile Detention following his arrest for marijuanna posession. Every day the inmates get smaller, and more confused about what brought them here. Psychiatrists say children do not react to punishment in the same way as adults. They learn more about becoming criminals than they do about becoming citizens. And one night of loneliness can be enough to prove their suspicion that nobody cares.

Connecticut isn’t alone in being kind of wrong in doing the right thing for juvies. This new law would follow the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States who, in their 2010 opinion in Graham v. Florida, declared the death penalty unconstitutional for 15 and 16 year-olds because their adolescent brain development lessened their culpability. But for 17-25 year-olds, execution is fine, even though the research findings say it isn’t.

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Juvenile justice considerations are usually pretty theoretical to me because I came to the can an old biddy. Neither I nor anyone I associated with was in trouble when I was a teenager. No boyfriend of mine brought me to criminal behavior on a date. However, I ran with a different crowd than these women. My friends, the boys I met, were all from the upper-middle class and were fixated on their futures, even the iconoclast on an opposing debate team who called in a bomb threat to a local school; he’s supposedly a lawyer now. Redistricting ambition into the less affluent neighborhoods, the subsidized housing and the elusive culture that the inmates call “the streets” rarely happens. If I sprang from those circumstances, boys could have easily led me into bad business. Everyone credits her judgment for her clean history but, most of the time, it’s just luck and economics.

"Voices from Juvenile Detention: Kids Behind Bars" It sounds harmless: “pre-trial detention.” But the reality is far different. In a squat block building in Laredo, Texas—and in similar places around the nation—children await trial or placement in concrete cells while the underlying issues that led to their behavior fester. Some are addicts who need treatment; others are kids battling mental illnesses. Many are angry and have been virtually abandoned by absentee or irresponsible parents. Some spend a few days, others months, but despite the efforts of a small corps of dedicated professionals, few actually receive treatment for the issues that brought them to Juvenile. /// Inmates, ages 10-16, wait in line to march back to their cells in the exercise yard at the Webb County Juvenile Detention facility. This is the world of young felons, of kids gone astray, of children who cry for their mothers from behind bars. Some have skipped class too much, some have murdered in cold blood. At least half of the kids have been incarcerated before. And, if society's attempts at rehabilitation ultimately fail--or if the parent can't or simply won't do anything to turn around years of neglect and abuse--just a few more visits to juvenile detention will harden some of these kids into full-fledged adult criminals.

Adolescent stupidity plays out differently in different dioramas – one with government cheese instead of Chili’s quesadillas, one with a fire hydrant instead of a swimming pool, one with parents who wait in line for housing vouchers rather than stand on sidelines of field hockey fields – and will wreak different results. But even someone from the wealthiest, most stable family can make a sufficiently long list of stupid mistakes they made before age 25; an eighteenth birthday doesn’t cut the list off.

In fact, I did most of my dumbest, most barely legal shit in college  – when I was 18 through 21 – the exact ages that this law wouldn’t cover. Even if I had been arrested for any of my alcohol-fueled dalliances with the thought that I was edgy and cool for pulling reckless capers, my family would have reeled me out of this pit in the same way that legislators are trying to help the girls who are here now.

If I had suffered consequences for my stupidity and my family hadn’t had the resources to help me, I’d have been as fucked as the young women in this place are. The kids are goofy but these young ladies are extremely focused on appearance: making uniform jeans tighter, wearing elaborate cat-eye black on their lids, erecting mazes of hair on top of their heads with curls, yet they’re a little dour because, I think, they know that no one’s coming for them. At 19, they’re already too old to attract the right kind of attention.

Update: Photos here depict real juvenile offenders, the last four are pictures of 10 year-old boy who was arrested in Texas for marijuana possession, caught while copping for his mother who has a substance abuse problem and couldn’t post his bail. AN ACT CONCERNING LENGTHY SENTENCES FOR CRIMES COMMITTED BY A CHILD OR YOUTH AND THE SENTENCING OF A CHILD OR YOUTH CONVICTED OF CERTAIN FELONY OFFENSES was passed into law in Connecticut after I left prison, in 2015. It still left out offenders aged 18 to 25.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM APRIL 3 – 9, 2017

jersey-shore-mike-the-situation-sorrentino-tax-fraud-trial

It was another numbers game last week, with some shockers.

The Washington Post reported that ninety percent of criminal charges brought by the IRS were false, based on an overbroad definition of “structuring” – the practice of splitting deposits, supposedly in order to dodge reporting requirements. Many of the deposits were made for legitimate business purposes. Makes you wonder if Jersey Shore reality star Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino who was hit with more tax fraud charges this week, including splitting deposits, is one of those victims of the IRS.

Twenty-nine cops killed themselves during the first quarter of 2017. Over 100 took their own lives in 2016. If suicides are just the tip of the mental illness iceberg, then how many more are psychotically depressed, chronically depressed, anxious to the point of jumpiness or traumatized to the point that they’re dangerous to the rest of us, discharging their weapons when shooting isn’t justified? It might explain why they want only cops to serve on juries in trials of cops accusing of assaulting or killing people by shooting them.

One of the 8 men scheduled to be executed in an 11-day death penalty bonanza in Arkansas has been spared. One of the remaining seven wrote for Vice News and the Marshall Project what it’s like to wait for your execution date. Here’s a hint: your death row neighbors call dibs on your belongings and prison staff actually cares that the clothes you wear to get killed fit your properly. I think it’s a disgusting end to any life, even if it did end another’s, if you ask me.

 

 

 

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4 April 2017

Repeat Offender

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Prison Diaries came back.

The site was honored by the Webby Awards for the second year in a row in the “Weird” category.

That’s recidivism at its best.

Visit the Webby Awards site to see the other nominees and honorees here.

There’s some amazing, quirky work out there that you won’t discover unless you look.

Yellow_Honoree

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3 April 2017

I Hate Second Chances

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Jesus Preaching the Sermon on the Mount Gustave Dore

Studying the Gospel of Matthew in after-school catechism, I found the question:  How many times must I forgive my neighbor?

Seven times?

No.

Seven times seventy.

I remember thinking that Jesus was a little close-fisted about forgiveness. Seven times seventy is 490 and he wouldn’t even round up to the full five hundred. It also scared me because in my twelve-year old heart that was as ambitious about achievement as it was intimidated by my own fallibility – one I would never admit – that I would max out my limit before I could test for my driver’s license.

70 times 7
This is your limit.

The parable’s purpose is to teach the opposite, of course, that forgiveness has no cap. And since the sins I thought would damn me were talking back to my parents, occasionally cursing, being a banal, upper-middle class, white brat, I never predicted that my cup of depravity would runneth over as much as it did when picked up 13 felony convictions. I don’t like to brag, but I earned four misdemeanors, too. I am always an overachiever.

As someone in such extreme need of absolution, I should be heartened when I hear that someone got a SECOND CHANCE but I’m not.  Despite the fact that the phrase has become synonymous with formalized redemption, the banner over every criminal justice reform effort, I can do without a SECOND CHANCE.

Standalone, the phrase is loaded with meaning, more than just shorthand for ‘lay off the cons.’

It negatively frames your alleged crime. When someone gives you a SECOND CHANCE, they’re reminding you that you blew the first. Maybe it’s not the exact metes and bounds of my offense, but it puts my name on the mailbox and being given a SECOND CHANCE hurts me where I live, nestled nicely between the first shot and the third strike. When you’re given a SECOND CHANCE, the LAST CHANCE is next. The end is near. And remember: we don’t round up.

communism
Marx, Jesus. Same thing.

If forgiveness is finite, then it’s scarce, and if it’s scarce in the United States, then it’s controlled by an elite few.  To get this commodity, I have to plead for it, work for it or manipulate it out of them. It makes me lesser than they and assures me that I’ll never wrest full control of it but instead settle for small pieces that I must beg for. The phrase SECOND CHANCE is supposed to be robust, redemptive rhetoric but it’s become anemic, Dickensian if you really think about it. A bloodless phrase to describe someone getting a pint out of you. Mercy doesn’t work on a capitalist model. There shouldn’t be an economy in forgiveness. It’s the one place where I prefer communism: to each according to need, from each according to ability…and of course, everyone’s ability should match their needs; both are inexhaustible if we tell the truth about ourselves.

Paolo Friere, the Brazilian educator and author, found that the ‘banking model’ of education – the model where the teacher has more knowledge than the pupils, which she then bestows upon them – doesn’t work with oppressed populations. Students become passive receptacles for knowledge and can only receive what the teacher’s willing to give. This, Friere argues, is ultimately dehumanizing because all power of the student derives from the teacher, not from ability, from curiosity, from within. Someone has to grant permission to other people to develop as human beings.

banking model
Replace education with forgiveness. It works the same. Click twice for greater detail.

While I appreciate the people who haven’t been justice-involved when they make these pronouncements about SECOND CHANCES, it’s the same banking model used on an afflicted group of people. The fact that a SECOND CHANCE must be dispensed by others ordains them brokers of morality, a job for which no one can really pass the background check. Who am I – or anyone – to man some ethical abacus and tick over CHANCES and opportunities to someone, which I can slide away when they displease me? “I gave you a SECOND CHANCE, but….”

Even though I cringe at it, I don’t know what should replace the SECOND CHANCE? “Fair shot”? “Do-over” like Billy Crystal’s character Mitch calls it in the movie City Slickers? Maybe ANOTHER CHANCE would work because it implies what we all know – we’re all way past SECOND in our CHANCE tally and we will continue to need them, again and again.

Maybe it’s not SECOND that bothers me but CHANCE. Who wants to be chancy? It implies that it’s risky to trust you, that you’re fundamentally unreliable and dealing with you is gambling, staking something valuable for something else that may never materialize. If I get a CHANCE, I’m a permanent maybe. My future is a shrug.

In Germany, when someone finishes a sentence of incarceration, their record is automatically expunged. Debts cleared and credit restored – nobody runs a redemption tab like we do in the United States. Germans don’t waste time bandying about the phrase SECOND CHANCE because reentry is relatively seamless; when you discharge from prison and go home, you’re just moving, living out this ONLY CHANCE each of us get – life – in a new place.

Image ref 3492708. Copyright Rex Shutterstock No reproduction without permission. Please see www.rexfeatures.com for more information.

Part of the message of forgiveness is that it isn’t emotional, it’s rational, a decision, a strategic investment in interpersonal relations. It’s meant to nudge, even drag, people toward quashing their beefs when they’re still hot.  But this is misleading because mercy isn’t the presence of determination and decision but the absence of it. Wiping away someone’s failing doesn’t count if you replace it with a sign that says “This is where I excused you.” That’s what giving me a SECOND CHANCE does. I hate that shit.

The other women don’t analyze the linguistics and meaning of the phrase like I do because they’re not as thin-skinned as I am. They’ve strapped their SECOND CHANCES on as they busy themselves with sentence modification applications, bids for clemency and pardons that our Board of Pardons and Paroles – notoriously cheap with absolution – won’t ever grant them. I refuse to use the language and ask for one. These CHANCES I’m so snobbish about accepting will grow even more scant as time goes on. And what will I say then?  Will I have to go all Oliver Twist and beg: May I please have some more? to the sign that reads: “See teller at next window.”

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM MARCH 27 – APRIL 2, 2017

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Rikers Island, the New York City jail that’s notorious for depraved violence, is closing, getting drained and demolished, just like its inhabitants. The Lippman Commission – named after the former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippman, who headed the investigation – came up with a report that lists several changes that will be made. For me, a very important part of their report is that the Commission acknowledged that court trips cause fans guilty pleas, something I’ve been saying for years but was unable to prove. But don’t invest in new security systems just yet. It’s going to take a decade and people will be held in other facilities that will be built around the five boroughs. Read the Lippman Commission’s report here.

Last week SCOTUS heard oral argument in Lee v. United States, wherein a South Korean national was advised by his attorney that pleading guilty to a felony wouldn’t cause him to be deported. Ask Trump whether that was good advice or not.  There’s no doubt that his attorney’s advice was deficient, yet courts have decided that, because they think he had no chance at acquittal at trial, it’s a no harm, no foul-type situation. Tim Lynch, Director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice, says this means our right to a jury trial is under attack. Read why here.

Combining last week’s storylines of ineffective assistance of counsel and Rikers, undocumented defendants are actually begging to be sent to Rikers to avoid deportation, the New York Post reported. I’m not sure about the ethics and competence of attorneys who are asking for raised bond for their clients so they get taken into custody. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will know exactly where these people are and can place detainers on them so they will leave Rikers into the welcoming arms of a removal agent. This tactic only delays and doesn’t stop deportation and the upside of this strategy is time in a dangerous human cesspool? No.

 

 

 

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27 March 2017

Suit Up

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imageedit_1_5552177160It must have seemed like a riot of sorts.

At the time, inmates were filing federal lawsuits at a rate thirty-five times higher than the general population – 25 per 1000 prisoners, according to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. Now that 2.2 million people inhabit United States prisons and jails, 550,000 federal lawsuits would be filed every year if prisoners had maintained that pace.  Assuming a 250-day work year and a seven-hour workday, that amounts to 2200 prisoner claims filed every day, 314 every business hour, if that rate continued today.

blkbudgetBut the year was 1996 and their two-year old “Contract with America” obligated Republicans in Washington to produce a big change, especially since a budget impasse had caused a federal government shutdown.  Congress sought to seal up the outpouring of prisoner-initiated civil actions. The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), part of the Omnibus Consolidated Rescissions and Appropriations Act of 1996, the law that broke open the budget bottleneck, was passed in April of that year. Unsurprisingly, every year since then, the rate of inmate litigation has declined.

The PLRA’s purpose was litigation reduction, a not so ignoble goal. One rule of criminal justice, and of prison life, is that stupid, selfish sociopaths will endanger any benefit bestowed on a general population, even if it causes authorities to yank that support for them, too.   That is what the PLRA did; it basically eliminated an inmate’s ability to file civil claims unfettered after courts heard such cases as the suit seeking money damages for cruel and unusual punishment when an inmate ordered two jars of creamy peanut butter from the commissary but received one creamy and one chunky. When Congress needed to display austerity in the most ostentatious way, their scissors flashed across these gross examples of frivolity.  This isn’t brilliant analysis on my part; the Supreme Court of the United States admitted as much in their decision in Porter v. Nussle.

Federal litigation is usually the only way for someone who’s incarcerated to sue at all. You can’t really sue the state for tortious conduct because of the various types of immunity. They don’t have immunity in federal court when you claim that the state’s violated your civil rights. So they only forum where an inmate has an inkling of a chance is the one that’s almost impossible for him to reach.

clintoncnn
The PLRA is their fault. Really.

Complaints from prisoners – whether they’re lawsuits, those essential grievances that have to be exhausted before someone can file a lawsuit, or just general gripes issued through gritted teeth –  are the thermometer of a facility; the docket is the best way to see what’s really happening in there without going inside, even if half the allegations aren’t fully evidenced. If you have a number of suits alleging a guard is being abusive, then either he is shitting on the inmates or he’s been made a soft target and a rumor has circulated that someone can get money from litigation; either way, it warrants an investigation.

Inmates who are serious enough about their beefs to get paperwork together and mail it to a proper federal clerk are probably telling the truth. Discouraging them means by making it harder for a prisoner to complain  you don’t care to know what’s happening inside. The PLRA basically told every inmate: “We don’t give a fuck what they do to you.”

And they do to us. A Texas inmate lost his leg in a grain reaper when a guard failed to supervise him properly in his work assignment. Undoubtedly, this prisoner has a meritorious claim, but it’s almost impossible for him to file it. After the surgery to sew up the wound on his severed limb, he lived in such extreme heat that it’s killed eleven prisoners. It’s going to be hard for them to get relief through the courts, so no one will know the figurative or the actual temperature in there. People will continue to be maimed and killed. The PLRA is one of the most effective – and cold-hearted – silencings there will ever be.

If we can change the way our complaints are viewed, having others views them as input rather than as requests for output, someone might see the sociological and epidemiological value of litigation, even papers smeared with peanut butter-type foolishness, to see what’s happening in prisons. The PLRA only reinforces this antiquated thinking of the criminal justice system – the idea that every complaint is a declaration of war, where one party is wrong, another right, and one must be punished and the other walk away the victor.

Debt-Lawsuit
You are cordially invited…to clean up this mess you made.

The complaint against a defendant in a criminal case isn’t called that. It’s called an “information” because that’s what it provides to everyone involved in the case: data so they can do something about what happened.  In theory, prosecutors, victims, perps, defense attorneys and judges are supposed to come up with the best, least restrictive solution to the problem of one person’s lawbreaking. But because criminal court dockets are flooded with too many cases – a riot of sorts – we just default to prison at every opportunity for solutions.

Viewed properly, complaints – even lawsuits – are just openers for dialogue, invitations for exchange. If we viewed them that way, like the old AA adage goes, as “descriptions, not indictments” we’d have even fewer prisoner lawsuits, because we would have less cause for them.  Isn’t that the best court policy we could have? It would be like effecting tort reform because fewer people were harmed, got in fewer accidents, fell less often. Isn’t that what we want? Sometimes it seems like we prefer that people keep suffering so we can keep our courthouses open. And shut out prisoners in a new and different way.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM MARCH 20 – 26, 2017

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Inmates say they’re getting beaten and harassed in the aftermath of the uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware on February 1st, when Sergeant Steven Floyd was killed. I’m sure many of the inmates who are being victimized had nothing to do with the commotion but this is becoming unfortunately familiar coda to preventable prison riots. A few bad apples cause a stir and everyone in the facility gets pummeled for it. It’s almost as if the National Guard or another military force should take these prisons over after these incidents so that the staff who’s been harmed/embarrassed/caught doesn’t have access to inmates while they’re still hot under their badges.

The state of Arkansas is in a rush to execute eight men on death row (pictured above) by the end of April, when one of the ingredients of the state’s fatal execution cocktail will expire.  They are recruiting (drafting?) witnesses to the execution from places as odd as Rotary Clubs because they have a statutory requirement: six to twelve people have to witness every execution for it to go down legally. Not sure how to think of this, asking people to be like acting like notary publics for killings. It’s distasteful but it might effect a policy shift ,seeing that there aren’t too many takers, even though the state of Arkansas is supposedly pro-death penalty. Almost no one wants to act as a witness to what they supposedly support.

And if you like Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s SCOTUS nominee who sat through days of confirmation hearing testimony last week, because you think he might be okay on criminal justice issues because he’s been a little bit fair with his Fourth Amendment (right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure) decisions, read what Stanford Law Review says about his stance on my favorite amendment, the Big Sixth, the right to effective assistance of counsel. The article is a little wonky (written by law students who are unaccustomed to explaining legal concepts in lay terms.  Here’s one that explains more but is a little older  Gorusch ain’t good.

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20 March 2017

A Working Theory

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pregnant orange

It’s mid-shift in the food prep unit. HOPE is standing at the large window in the food service workers’ empty dining hall. She watches as another inmate walks past the plate glass and stops to speak with a C/O. Flirtation and cutesy interactions ensue between the two of them.

HOPE:

(speaking to no one in particular)

How the fuck does she get away with this shit? Aren’t we locked down until…whenever because some judge is here, walking around and they don’t want any of these bitches talking to her and telling her what’s really goin’ on up in this place? I mean…if I was just wandering around I’d be cuffed and stuffed.

CHANDRA walks up and observes. Her expression says what she’s witnessing is common.

CHANDRA:

 My working theory is pregnancy.

HOPE:

Who’s pregnant?

CHANDRA:

Now? No one. But Adrienne was, I bet.

(Wondering who Adrienne is? Click here.)

HOPE:

(mulling it over)

Adrienne was preggo. Mmmm…

CHANDRA:

Well, I’m not 100% on it. But it’s my only theory now. I mean, if I were in court, I would be careful and say that it is my personal opinion, given what I’ve observed, that she was probably pregnant but I have no direct knowledge of her condition. You get me?

HOPE:

I still think she witnessed something real bad. Serious. Like criminal. Like a C/O beating someone.

CHANDRA:

Can’t be that. It’s not enough of a threat. If she reported something she saw, they’d just call her a liar, crazy.  The usual delusional.

HOPE:

Maybe she witnessed something and can tell the cops exactly where to look for it on the cameras. That’s evidence. Or maybe she has some paperwork.

CHANDRA:

Nah. They’ve searched her shit so many times, someone would have confiscated it. The guilty party or his friends…

HOPE:

Maybe it’s paperwork she sent out. I mean, just playing devil’s advocate here.

CHANDRA:

No one to send it to. Her husband’s doing time and her family doesn’t speak to her after what she did.

HOPE:

Maybe a lawyer?

CHANDRA:

They open legal mail. They’re not supposed to but…

(CHANDRA gives HOPE a knowing look.)

Would’ve confiscated it that way, too.

HOPE:

Maybe it’s not papers. Maybe she smuggled it out like the chick who smuggled out her toothbrush after she gave the guy [a C/O] a blow job?

CHANDRA.

(shaking head)

I’ve done my due diligence on this. She doesn’t get visitors so she can’t pass anything out. And if they open legal mail, they’ll definitely open an envelope that looks like it has a toothbrush, especially after last time.  It’s evidence she alone can control.

HOPE:

Like something inside her, like a baby.

CHANDRA:

Like something that’s guarded by HIPAA [Health Information Portability and Accountability Act]. Remember medical is UCONN, not DOC. They should have no access to her medical records.

HOPE:

So the evidence is in her chart. Okay, that works.

CHANDRA:
Except it’s not in her medical chart here. They’d break the law and Watergate the hell out of the medical records room to save their asses.

HOPE:

So, wait. It’s not in her file?

CHANDRA:

Here. Not in her file here.

HOPE:

I don’t. I don’t get it.

CHANDRA:

Abortions go to the local Planned Parenthood and their doctors don’t calculate the fact that she might have been in custody at the time of conception. They only care about the beginning of pregnancy to make sure they’re in the right trimester to do it. As long as they’re less than – what’s it 20, 24 weeks? – in, they don’t care about the beginning of pregnancy. They’re all about the end. And they might’ve fudged her DOC entry date when they took her over there.

HOPE:

That’s not in her chart here?

CHANDRA:

Nope. Because no one asked for it to be sent over. The OB here knows the deal and she’s mandated to report. Can’t report what you don’t know about.

HOPE:

Why don’t they just try to destroy the records or delete them there [at Planned Parenthood]?

CHANDRA:

Do you know how many pro-life nuts harass these people at Planned Parenthood? People shoot abortion providers and women who get the procedure. Planned Parenthood’s security is better than it is here. No one’s hacking their system or raiding their offices at night. Believe me.

HOPE:

But why would they bring her to a place where they have no control?

CHANDRA:

The best option. At least no one else can access it there either. No third parties gaining access to it. It’s in a vault with one key: her word. So they kiss her ass, let her get away with outrageous shit.

HOPE:

No, here’s the problem. She has no money. There’s no reason for her not to sue them. I mean, having sex with an inmate, getting her preggo, is rape. She’d clean up.

CHANDRA:
She has, like, 20 years to serve. Anything she’d win – and she’s not a sympathetic victim – would get eaten up by the cost of her incarceration. She’d end up with no money and nothing to hold over their heads. This way, she still has no money…but she gets whatever she wants. Still keeps the knife at their necks.

HOPE:

You really think a C/O got her pregnant?

CHANDRA:

C/O. Lieutenant. Captain. Warden. A fucking male nurse. Someone. We’re talking about is objective evidence, off prison grounds, and Adrienne is the only person who can pull the ripcord on it. And whatever it is, it’s serious, as in lose-your-job, lose-your-freedom, register-as-a-sex-offender serious.

HOPE:

I dunno.

CHANDRA:

Think about it. Only Adrienne has power over it. Off grounds. Undeniable evidence. Serious crime. Someone knocked her up in here. I’m telling you it’s pregnancy. At least, like I said, it’s my working theory.

HOPE:

Think it’s mine now, too.

CHANDRA

I’m telling you. That’s what it is.

Supervisor GREEN BAY walks into the dining hall and raises his hands in an open question after he sees his two employees watching essentially nothing very intently.

GREEN BAY:

Bozelko! Brooks! We’re pumping! Let’s go! Is this a parade or work?

CHANDRA:

Sorry, Green Bay. I was explaining my working theory for extreme favoritism in this place.

GREEN BAY:

Well, let’s try this on for a working theory: just work.

image

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM MARCH 13 – 19, 2017

abortion

As if the reporter read Prison Diaries’ game plan, this week Vice News reported how hard it is for a woman to terminate a pregnancy while she’s incarcerated. There are no formal procedures as to how this gets accomplished in at least 20 states. Read the report here.

On Pi day, 3.14, the Prison Policy Initiative released its yearly “Whole Pie” graph of incarceration in the United States. “The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 76 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories,” the report said. They also found that 641,000 people leave prison every year. If they all stayed out…we’d solve this prison crisis quickly.

How much is a year of your life worth? If you’re wrongly incarcerated in Texas, you get $80,000 in compensation for every year you spent in prison. In Wisconsin? $5,000 per year. Michigan pays $50 K for every 365 days on the inside.

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13 March 2017

First and Last

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favoritism 2

It would make it easier she had some redeeming feature. She’s not nice (she’s here for overdosing a teenage boy, letting him die, and then attempting to show remorse by saying she was glad that it didn’t happen to her family). She’s not sane (see description under ‘nice’). Hard-working? Nah, she sits around all day taking other inmates’ pills because she’s prohibited from working outside the unit. Good-looking? Nyet. She looks like Quagmire from Family Guy with hips as broad as beam. Former stripper, my ass.

imageTo this day, she freely admits that she tried to kill another inmate by putting battery acid in her coffee because she was mad at her and didn’t want her around anymore. So she tenderly split open a Double-A (which takes strength and dedication) and drained the liquid out into a cup of instant coffee and non-dairy creamer, a combination probably more lethal than the acid, but it’s the thought that counts. Rumor has it that she tried again when the acid didn’t work, using bleach-based scouring powder.

And nothing happened to her, besides a seven-day stint in seg. No charges for attempted murder. No real punishment. No message sent, except maybe one: Adrienne* will get away with murder, especially if it’s only attempted.

No woman on this compound can explain why the staff allows Adrienne to break so many rules so whoppingly. Their permissiveness has gone from merely suspicious to out-and-out conspiratorial on some of the C/O’s parts. Other guards remain as baffled as the rest of us as to why she goes north or south of consequences when they should zoom right at her.

You can’t analogize prison life with real life. I can’t explain why wearing a white T-shirt outside my cell can set the place in a tailspin. All I can say is that some things in prison are forbidden and the reasons for it are unbidden.

Adrienne’s specialty is the forbidden, a fact never forgotten as she cruises her tier in a snow-colored Hanes and none of the staff members say a word.

I still doubt I’ll ever be able to convey to people on the outside the stronghold Adrienne has, except through examples that they wouldn’t really understand.

OITNBS3_31OCT14_WHILDEN_0825.NEF
It’s like this, except you’re cuffed. And there’s no going back.

For instance, in here, if you’re on your way to seg, consider yourself arrived. By that I mean that, when they cuff you and trail you with a camera, you’re going no matter what injustice or error started your trip. Once during a “chronic sweep” – a posse of guards that rove the compound now and again to pick up women with severe discipline records in the same way that tape collects lint – the posse picked up the wrong Inmate Columbo. There are two here: S. Columbo and M. Columbo, and they mistook S for M. Even though someone might have realized the error mid-transfer, trading S for M on the way to the restricted housing unit would be unheard of. S would sit in seg while the fine detail fact-checking took place and M was rounded up. No seg trip ever stops for any reason to let someone go. Unless it’s Adrienne.

As the legend goes, while C/O’s escorted Adrienne to seg once, one on each side gripping an arm, trailed by a lieutenant and someone with a camera, she somehow caught the attention of a deputy warden through the window of his office. He came out and ordered his men to let her go. Take her back. Two opposing orders but that wasn’t why the Deputy Warden’s command shocked everyone. The Let Her/Take Her awed everyone because no one ever short circuits a seg-walk. Never. This was the first time it would happen, as only Adrienne wields serious power in here, and the last straw for people who expect any fairness in this facility.

Everyone – inmates and staff alike – assume that Adrienne’s got the goods on some higher up. Different names get tossed into the theory and we’re all probably right.

favoritism3But Adrienne’s reign teaches a more important lesson than just that the brass has clay feet. She proves that the worst inmates get the best treatment. I have yet to figure out why this happens. I think it might be the same type of phenomenon where adults allow a bully to push around younger smaller tykes. They know what they’re witnessing is wrong and they undoubtedly have the power to stop it but they are either too scared of the bully themselves or they’re so secretly sick themselves that they like what they’re watching.

I think that’s what’s happening in here. Some of the C/O’s are scared of Adrienne – after all, her offenses aren’t making fun of someone’s hair or pushing someone off the jungle gym; Adrienne would kill someone without compunction. Other guards like the fact that she terrorizes the rest of general population because they hate us all.

I don’t begrudge anyone a little leniency. Mercy is good.  But it can veer into favoritism, preferential treatment, which is anathema in a well-run prison. What’s good for one is good for all – that’s how a good prison runs.

But this place isn’t a good prison if you watch who gets the partiality. For the most part, women here for the most heinous crimes are very well-behaved and remorseful, a fact that only compounds the tragedy of their actions since they clearly were out of character and precipitated by illness, trauma, rage. Regardless of how we comport ourselves, the guards make fun of us for what they think we did to get here, except for that extreme exemption for people who took others’ lives and couldn’t give a shit less about what they did.  These chicks run the joint. Once during a lockdown I saw a few women just wandering around on the walkway. They strolled into the garden. No one should have been outside the unit and these people were meandering. I know each of their convictions and counted them up: Felony Murder, Murder 2, Manslaughter, Capital Felony Murder, Capital Felony Murder.

When a C/O came to pass out the lunch trays since the rest of us couldn’t even leave our cells, much less the structure they sat in, I cocked my thumb toward my window and asked him:

“So, what exactly does someone have to do to get fresh air around here? Would a Criminally Negligent Homicide conviction free me a little?”

He ran to a bigger window in the rec area and saw the Kill Squad roaming around. Shook his head.

“I know, Bozelko. No one stops them.”

When they’re actually inside and among us lesser sinners, they issue commands to guards…who actually follow them. They ask for extra. They get it. They wear uniforms tailored in ways that would have lieutenants running after the rest of us, screaming “Those are altered!” But no one says anything to them.

When one of them (an inmate who killed a woman in a gang-inspired fight) tried to make her own psych records on the library computer to show her girlfriend how much she’d suffered in life, they brought her to a shrink (which was apropos because it was nuts that she thought medical records were written in dialogue like a screenplay), but anyone else would have been in the hole, with no U-turn. When it comes to privileges, murder means more. I don’t suggest that women with homicide convictions should be denied, but they shouldn’t be deified, either; none of us should be, especially if we’re misbehaving. Regardless of what they do in here, the incorrigible lifers pretty much get what they want.

pre-crime
Where are these people when you need ’em?

Except Adrienne isn’t a lifer. Yes, someone who killed a child and continues to try to whack people has only a 17-year sentence for manslaughter. And she gets special meals brought to her from the outside, gifts, declarations of love from C/O’s at her door (not even kidding – there’s something wrong with those guys).  And she’ll skate on post-prison consequences for her behavior. Unlike sex offenders who leave prison to civil commitment – a Minority Report-style Precrime confinement – because some turnkey decided that they’re constitutionally incapable of reform and rehabilitation and will reoffend, Adrienne gets cut loose a little before 2023.

Adrienne’s not going to reform herself. She pumps out daily a trove of evidence similar to that used to justify civil commitment of sex-offenders, namely proof that she will never change. Yet when her sentence ends, it will do just that: end, mostly because she killed a kid instead of screwing one. I don’t condone any crime against children, but it looks like the very worst among us get away with murder and are exempt from having to redeem themselves simply because they’re murderers.

I guess she has one redeeming quality: by herself, Adrienne shows how backwards this system is. She’s the alpha and omega of correctional corruption.

* Names have been changed to protect the innocent – as well as the author when “Adrienne” gets out.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM MARCH 6 – 12, 2017

exoneration

Clean slates come too late. At least 166 men and women were exonerated in 2016, six more than in 2015, which also was a record year, announced the National Registry of Exonerations on Wednesday. There were more exonerations than ever before in cases involving guilty pleas, or misconduct by government officials, or where no crimes occurred at all. And most of the defendants were black.

We have a two-tiered justice system. The Los Angeles Times and The Marshall Project teamed up in investigating the “pay-to-stay” jail system in Southern California. Wealthier inmates can pay for upgrades into cleaner facilities with more amenities, or, well, just amenities. The reporters found “more than 160 participants who had been convicted of serious crimes including assault, robbery, domestic violence, battery, sexual assault, sexual abuse of children and possession of child pornography” were in the VIP section of SoCal jails. The payers include “a hip-hop choreographer who had sex with an underage girl and described his stint in jail as “a retreat;” a former Los Angeles police officer who stalked and threatened his ex-wife; and a college student who stabbed a man in the abdomen during a street scuffle. The highest bill — $72,050 — belonged to a man responsible for a drunken freeway crash that killed one of his passengers and left another injured.”

Everything old is new again. A bipartisan coalition of senators introduced a bill to establish a National Criminal Justice Commission – a complete knock-off of one that former U.S. Senator/presidential candidate Jim Webb proposed twice, once eight years ago and once six years ago –  and two of the new bill’s sponsors [Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX)] voted on with a “Nay.” This just goes to show that the more you understand this system, the more you realize change is necessary. People come around over time.

Oh yeah, and “Gary from Chicago” got a “hisself” a publicist.

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6 March 2017

Correspondingly

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image

“Are ‘large’ and ‘hard’ sa…sin…synonyms?” one of the students asked me when I was typing in the back of her classroom.

“According to men they are, but not really,” I answered. She didn’t get the joke. Maybe she was too young.

“What are they?” she asked.

“They’re adjectives, you know, descriptors,” I tried to explain. I always go into a mode when I’m asked about adult basic education. I try to be as complete as possible.

“No, syn…synonyms.”

“They’re words that are different but have the same meaning. You understand what I mean? Like ‘auto’ and ‘car’ are different words but they mean the same thing. They’re synonyms.”

She shrugged and turned back to a math ditto. She’s taking the GED test soon.

A lot of prison students make Welcome Back Kotter’s “Sweathogs” look like Rhodes Scholars.  Despite teachers’ best efforts, students in the GED program here [at York Correctional Institution] think that Nelson Mandela took the first steps on the moon.  They think Maryland is in California. They think Christopher Columbus drove a car: a Pinto. The Nina and the Santa Maria don’t sound like motor vehicles so they’re off the hook.

kotter
All large and hard.

And many of them earned still their GED’s because scoring a total of 225 out of 500 on the five-part test, with no score less than 40 on any individual part, is all it takes. Unlike passing grade standards in traditional high schools, GED students must score only 40% to pass.  Unsurprisingly, 70% of inmates remain in the lowest two of the five levels of literacy, even after receiving their GED’s, according to a 2007 study by the Department of Education’s National Center of Education Statistics.  With these results, the GED barely earns status as a rubber stamp.  In many ways, taking college courses in prison may be the only way for an inmate to achieve a high school education even – especially – if she earns her GED in here.

York doesn’t offer any more courses that will cure their knowledge deficits. Once you’ve scored 41% on your GED, you’re allowed to go into vocational programs like culinary arts, commercial cleaning, computer/data entry skills, and hospitality training for the hotel and restaurant industry so you can get a job where you can barely afford a Pinto.

And if there isn’t a huge offering of college classes – ones that will contain people who don’t know what synonyms are – the only option for learning is correspondence courses.

mademoiselleThese schools used to advertise in the back of Glamour and Mademoiselle when I was in high school, offering master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s. I think  one of the names had “Pacific” in it or it was on the west coast. I can’t remember. Over 90% of distance education is available only online now and we don’t have internet access. Who else but an inmate would take a paper-bound correspondence course these days? If anyone who isn’t incarcerated is enrolled in one of these paper and envelope courses, I want to meet him or her. I want to see how a person can be that outside of society’s flow and not bear an inmate number.

The only way we would even know about these courses is that Wally [Lamb] bought a book about them  -“Prisoners’ Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the United States and Canada” – and he donated it to the library. The handbook contains, like, 10 programs which matches the fact that it was published, like, 10 years ago and it costs over 100 bucks. And these degree programs cost $185 per credit; bachelor’s degrees require 120 credits. So an entire degree costs about $22,000 cash when you go through a correspondence school. A community college in Connecticut charges about five thousand for full time enrollment. An associates degree would cost about 10K. Continuing on to a bachelors would probably cost about the same as a correspondence course degree.

But inmates don’t get a campus, teachers, school atmosphere, camaraderie, intellectual discussion, a gym, a student center, academic support or anything else a normal student would get for the same amount of money. And forget student loans and scholarships; those Pell Grants have been gone for almost 2o years. What are the chances of someone who can’t afford a lawyer being able to afford this education? Prisoners’ only saving grace is just another commodity where traders exploit our isolation to make money. These correspondence schools are probably lobbying to keep internet access out of prisons to stop inmates from floating to Coursera or iTunes University and getting their learn on for free.

imageDown from the 350 programs that operated in forty-five states in 1982, the all-time high, currently only twelve in-prison college education programs operate in four states. Distance learning continues to be a prisoner’s most viable educational opportunity, so the need for internet connection is even more pronounced for inmates, 85% percent of them so poor they can’t afford sneakers, much less tuition in a profit-motivated school.  As long as we remain unconnected, the electronic wave hitting higher education washes over prisons and recedes, leaving them desolate oases of ignorance. It’s no wonder no one says “Welcome back” when we get out. We’re not much better or smarter, at least not as long as this place stays educationally unplugged.

I keep wondering where the holes are in these GED curricula. What else don’t they know as they brag about a graduation? I doubt many women here could calculate how badly I date myself by readily referencing Welcome Back Kotter, dittoes and Mademoiselle magazine which hasn’t been in published in years even if I told them the years when those things were common to our culture. Can you tell I’ve been offline for years?

Even with a GED program, the knowledge deficits in a prison are large. If someone just wired this place, eliminating them wouldn’t be that hard. At least I hope not.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM FEBRUARY 27 – MARCH 5, 2017

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 26: Host Jimmy Kimmel (L) surprises tourist with an entrance tothe 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

If you’re like me, you’re sick of the Sessions/immigration news. We forget that things unfold outside the Beltway, too.

Gary Coe or “Gary from Chicago,” one of the surprised tourists whom Jimmy Kimmel paraded through the Dolby Theatre during the Oscars last Sunday, was discovered to have a pretty severe criminal record, including a conviction for attempted rape. Gary’s is actually a pretty amazing story. He was sentenced to life under California’s “three strikes” law and had his sentence modified recently. The only reason why he was able to leave Corcoran, a men’s prison, last Friday was that California’s Proposition 36, passed in 2012,  allowed him to show a court how much he had rehabilitated himself in prison. Despite this reform, Coe has already faced discrimination. The Chicago Sun Times was the only paper to report that Jimmy Kimmel Live! canceled Gary’s appearance because of his criminal record. For shame, Kimmel.

The second deadly prison riot in two years popped off in Nebraska, at the same facility, Tecumseh State Prison. Two inmates were killed on Thursday and at least one of them was convicted of a sexual offense. The two inmates killed in May 2015 were also convicted of sexual assault. These aren’t prison riots, they’re highly choreographed executions of certain offenders. Let’s not make this about prison conditions.

There are only about 2200 prisoners in Vermont and the state wants to build a $140 million prison, which amounts to spending $63,636 per inmate on a new building. I will never understand Vermont.

 

 

 

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