29 August 2016

All Things Being

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MakeQuickDecisionstoKeepPaperPilesUnderControl

When the notices went up in such decisive words, they scared us.  “Inmate Property Audit” they read.  Guards and counselors usually mumble announcements in the housing units.  We muttered to ourselves as we read the signs with ceremonial language like “excessive” and “cubic.”  This was not a search, nor a simple inventory nor  a form-filling exercise; this was an audit.  It involved numbers, measurements and calculations.  In a world that depends on the qualitative to have an effect, we were about to get quantitative, and know about it ahead of time rather than get traumatized when the event was sprung on us. It was a switch.

imageBecause one inmate so exceeded the property limits  – like instead of 10 CD’s she had 60, instead of four books, she had 26 – the sum total of each inmate’s property was to be reduced, distilled, condensed and purified into six cubic feet of a contraband-free space.  That meant that a prisoner’s pillow, hairdryer, work uniforms, regular uniforms, socks, underwear, shoes, toiletries, towels, pajamas, books, magazines, radios, CD’s and CD players, stationery supplies and legal paperwork had to fit into a space slightly larger than the size of that area in your trunk that houses the spare tire.  Anything that didn’t fit would be tossed.

“How can this be fair?  It is not fair to make us live out of six cubic feet!”  This became a mantra on my tier, because women who have lived here for a long time and expect to live here for a long time more want to make themselves as comfortable as possible.

propboxShorter-term prisoners struggle through their six month sentences without these amenities. Because they own barely one cubic feet of property so they would fall safely within the audit’s parameters.  But most women in my unit had much more property than could be packed into six. They buy all of the commissary’s electronic equipment like CD players and CD’s; magazines subscriptions pile up in our rooms and we buy a lot – a lot – of undergarments to stave off feeling totally funky during a long lockdown when we might be denied showers.

The age-old philosophical debate about justice – whether we achieve it through fairness or equality – comes alive every day in here.  The rule in prison is equality, that each inmate receives the same.  Guards cloak prisoners in equality when they issue uniforms; we all wear the same one – a burgundy T-shirt and a pair of jeans – unless we pose an escape risk and then we wear DayGlo yellow scrubs.  We receive the same sheets, shoes, and socks.  We are equal in all things.  Or at least we are supposed to look that way.

IMG_0455-300x225If we ask for something that no one else can have – like an extra piece of cake when only twelve pieces remain in a room containing seventeen inmates or one lone sweatshirt containing pockets discarded by a discharging inmate – staff members tell us:  “Sorry.  I can’t give it to you if I can’t give it to everyone else.  Everyone gets the same.”

On a Tuesday morning, like it was some kind of emergency, my supervisors ordered me to leave work to submit to the property audit which took place in a housing unit so tightly locked that no one could squeeze out her contraband with the hopes of re-squeezing it back into their six cubic’s after the audit.

Two nosy, yet emotionally detached female guards stood at the door of my cell and barked:

“Do you have a radio?”

“Panties!  How many?”

“White T-shirts!  How many?”

“How many is too many for us who work in the kitchen?” I asked.  Because beef broth, baked beans and brown gravy cover every stitch of clothing we wear, kitchen workers receive (gasp) special treatment because some prison crisis (like a non-functioning clothes dryer or a lockdown forcing us to return to work after we changed out of one kitchen uniform) might force us to don another set of clothes.  Besides, we stink from the food we prepare; everyone around us wants us to change our clothes multiple times a day.  Limiting kitchen workers to the same number of T-shirts as inmates who don’t work in the kitchen makes wearing clean clothes impossible for us so the administration usually allows us to keep extra clothes; that’s only fair.

strong_style_color_b82220_prison_strong_metal_strong_style_color_b82220_bunk_strong_bed_001_heavy_duty“Same as everyone else!” squawked one of the inventory buzzards.  I live in cell A-1, the first cell searched.  I wondered if she was going to be better or worse to the subsequent search-ees or would she treat them equal bitchery.  I handed one guard the three excess white shirts I’d just purchased only to see all three go into the garbage, equally.

When we came to inventory my legal papers, I had already filled my six cubic feet.

“They need to be sent out,” said one woman, a wizened guard notorious for her Google-stalking of inmates’ charges and criminal cases. Everyone thinks she’s nice. I don’t.

“I can’t send them out.  I need them for court proceedings,” I told her.

“I said send them out as in store them!” she screamed.  I was about to tell her she should have said “They need to be stored” but I remembered that I am not her equal and bagged up the papers for her to cart them to the property office.

imageNow, whenever I need to do legal research, I must write to the property office and pick up a few envelopes of documents.  Then I exchange that set of documents for another pile of – you guessed it – equal size.  Usually, any legal work in prison takes ten times longer to do than it would take outside the facility. I’ve been defaulted more times than I even know about because of the delays in getting documents in and out of here. But with this new equal property arrangement, equal has become excessive and it takes ten times longer than before, even with the property officers’ consistent cooperation and kindness. I don’t see how I can compete anymore in court, much less win, with all things being equal.

Limited to the equal-across-the-board property rules, my six cubic feet without my papers make me equal to other inmates.  But other inmates – 99.5% – don’t represent themselves like I do and therefore don’t do their own legal work. To people in a minority, equal isn’t fair.  Quite a lesson for the privileged, little white lady who’s outnumbered.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM AUGUST 22 – 28, 2016

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Ramen is the new dough, according to a study released at this week’s American Sociological Association’s annual conference. It’s replaced cigarettes as currency in prisons and jails because of correctional tobacco bans. I’ve eaten a few ramen, but never smoked a cigarette. Cigarettes might have been healthier. Everyone thinks this news is, well, news. Anyone who’s done time knows that anything can become currency behind bars.

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed more than twelve justice reform bills on Monday, including one that helps released prisoners get the occupational licenses they need for certain types of employment, the first law of its kind in the United States.

And on Thursday, Judge Aaron Persky, adjudicator and sentencer of the infamous Brock Turner has decided to stop hearing criminal cases because the Brock-Backlash has affected his ability to appear impartial – and go on vacation in peace. In many ways, this is a sad turn of events because defense attorneys swear that Persky was one of the judges who was most fair toward indigent defendants.

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22 August 2016

Nuts

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Kicked-in-ballsa

Walking into the first shift in a prison kitchen is the equivalent of scanning the first page of a daily newspaper.  When you walk into prison kitchen first thing in the morning, bulletins, news from all frontiers (in prison, a frontier is a housing unit) converge and fly at your face.

“You know Frisky got kicked in the balls, right? You heard?” Hope asked me.

“No. How would I know that? And why am I supposed to care about this?” I asked as I was putting on my hairnet to start opening boxes of chicken. Then I accelerated into panic. “Wait, is he saying I did it?”

Even though we’re technically not allowed to exchange words,  Officer Frisky and I have a contentious relationship. He says not so nice things about me and I return the favor. It’s been a multiyear volley. When you think about it, it’s all kind of petty. Sometimes I wonder if it keeps me going because it’s probably the most reliable thing in my life now.

“No, he was helping take this bitch to seg in Davis Building and she kicked him in the balls when she was on the floor.”

“Who did this?”

“J. M.,” Hope said matter-of-factly.

“I don’t think I know her,” I replied, searching my memory’s facebook.

“Yeah, you do. She worked in the warehouse. You glad?”

“That she’s going to seg? I…I mean…that’s guaranteed. But I don’t know her, so no, I’m not glad that she’s going there.”

“No, you gotta be glad that someone got him,” she said.

“Not really.”

“C’mon.”

“Noo. How does this vindicate my side our dispute? Who wants to see another person get hurt?” I posed to Hope who was now surrounded by other workers who wanted my expert editorial on this event that had nothing to do with me. If they had microphones, each one would have extended their arms for comment.

“I mean who gets happy at another person’s physical pain?”

“We do,” Hope said and lowered her eyes at me to tell me I shouldn’t have asked that question.

I suppose this could’ve been a set-up, that someone wanted to manipulate me into saying that I was glad Frisky took one below the belt and then run to tell him that I threatened violence against him.

But this went deeper than that sneaker went into Frisky’s crotch. They wanted me to react gleefully to the news that my nemesis got booted in the balls as proof that I’m just as base as they are. They demanded evidence that privilege provides no protection from becoming craven, nasty. That their upbringings, decades of having their figurative dicks kicked in the dirt – backstories where someone told them it was okay to delight in other people’s misfortune, actually better than okay, it was a covetable emotion – didn’t forge inferior morality on them. If I even so much as smiled, it would have confirmed that everyone everywhere is, at heart, a corrupted, angry shell, even Chandra with her accurate grammar and her straight teeth and her clumsy dap.

A supervisor noticed the crowd and bellowed:

“Everyone back to work!” and workers dispersed but he stayed in front of me.

“Just admit that you think it’s funny,” he said with that nudging tone.

“I don’t think it’s funny.”

“Not even a little?” He did that inch-wide thing with his fingers that’s universal sign language for teeny-weeny.

“No! Not even a little. Is this story even true? I don’t even know if it’s true.”

Now I was getting defensive over not celebrating another person’s victimization. I was getting as involved in this sack attack as if I were the perp. That’s what prison does to you. It enmeshes everyone so we share each other’s guilt. It’s not solidarity; it’s sickness. A mass mental illness.

“Deep down you’re glad it happened. I know,” he said and put his hands up to say “You don’t need to confirm what I said because I’m convinced of it.

I said nothing else because it’s futile to fight a false perception in here; the place is based on misapprehensions.    For years, I’ve lived in an environment where it’s inconceivable that you wouldn’t wish harm – or at least enjoy hearing about it – on another person with whom you have a disagreement.  Somehow I haven’t succumbed to it.

Some might say that’s because I’m strong, but maybe it’s because I don’t get what’s supposed to happen to me in here. Maybe there’s something wrong with me in that I’m the one who shudders at America’s Funniest Videos when I watch a guaranteed cervical injury and everyone else stomps and laughs riotously.  Maybe other people’s pain is a carnival and some pathology makes me scared to get on the rides. Maybe I’m behind the curve on this one and I should be yukking up these headlines of mild violence as evidence that the human condition affects everyone equally.

Who am I kidding? That’s nuts. This place is nuts.

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 THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM AUGUST 15 – 21, 2016

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The biggie: The Department of Justice announced Thursday, August 18th, that the federal government would not renew contracts with private prison management companies for a number of federal facilities.  It’s debatable how much impact this decision will have, but it’s also too bad that these companies blew the chance to give the government some competition. If private prisons had done this right, the conditions and treatment in public prisons would have bobbed on that rising tide and been good for all prisoners.

The announcement might reveal a crack in the Obama Administration because the Washington Post uncovered, just days before, the fact that the Obama Administration gave a $1 billion, no-bid contract to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the biggest private prison management company, to build a Central American asylum-seeker detention center.

A federal judge in Kansas ordered a special investigator after prisons there and in Missouri recorded conversations between inmates and their lawyers and turned the recordings over to prosecutors. As it turns out no audio was recorded, so defense attorneys are worried that body language and facial expressions deserve Fifth (right against self-incrimination) and Sixth  Amendment (effective assistance of counsel) protection. Mark my words: this case is going to have wide-ranging implications, and not just because CCA, is at the heart of it.

Notice a theme here?

 

 

 

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15 August 2016

Stealy Nerves

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image

“What’s up, Booster?” one kitchen supervisor asks an inmate who he knows to be a serial stealer of cereal.  A lieutenant calls another established filcher “Thieva” because it rhymes with her first name.  Virtually everyone employed in this prison thinks it’s funny that sticky-fingered inmates slurp away taxpayer dollars by stealing foodstuffs, other stuffs.  It’s the new laissez-faire:  I don’t give a fuck.  It’s not my money.

The fact that inmates steal shouldn’t surprise many; hundreds of women here earned their new housing and two-inch mattress for exactly that.  Inmates also steal because it’s expensive to be locked up, not just for the state.  You can go broke going up the river.

Everyone expects that prison will cost a defendant her freedom, her reputation, her voting rights and a couple of other privileges.  No incoming inmate expects that she’ll literally pay her way out of her debt to society by spending thousands of dollars patronizing the prison commissary.

Inmates work willingly for next to nothing because a prison job provides some exit from their housing units, fresh air, a short walk.  Some inmates, though, have to work for nominal wages because no one from the outside supports them financially.  Many of these prisoners live off of $7.50 every two weeks.

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You’re rich.

From that $7.50 biweekly wage, we have to pay $1.87 for shampoo, $1.59 for toothpaste, $0.80 for a toothbrush and holder, $1.02 for soap and a soap dish.  If a woman writes home, one envelope, a pen and a writing pad set her back $1.81.  Adding a comb for $0.62 puts the prisoner well over her $7.50 spending limit.  If illness befalls the inmate and she needs Tylenol, cough syrup or hydrocortisone, she will go without.  And inmates with dentures are totally screwed because the $6.00 denture glue plus the $7.00 for Efferdent cleaner busts most inmates’ banks.

Women with more expensive needs get by on the kindness of strangers  – people like me who get asked “Why are you buying Fixodent?” at the commissary window – until they exploit the generosity to the point that the donor usually shouts “Leave me alone, you beggar bitch!”  I’ve never said that, but I’d be lying if I claimed I never thought it when the requests came too often.

Then they turn to another inmate or develop an indigency-coping strategy:  the hustle.  Prisoners make handmade greeting cards or crocheted items and exchange them for necessities. Honest exchanges like this are completely prohibited, though.

When both pity and talent fail the poor prisoner, she learns a new hustle:  stealing.  Pilfering anything and everything around her, like contraband pens from the school, margarine and garlic powder from the kitchen, bleach and scouring powder from the janitorial supply closets.  Larceny is a force inside a prison than it is pushing people in.

Corrections MDS1411T60191 Granite GrayDuring my first two years here, I witnessed petty larcenies – rolls of masking tape, packets of sugar – but recently I’ve seen escalation into full-scale conspiracies with one inmate casually pushing a laundry bin past the kitchen as workers loaded 40-pound cases of cubed chicken and 30-pound cases of margarine into it. I overheard one of the C/O’s talking about it.

“It’s not boosting anymore. That was a heist,” he told one of the nurses.

It wasn’t totally implausible that an inmate took 65 ‘Chicken Sunday’ meals and the cart that held them as it headed toward the medical unit.  When supervisors told me that the unit officer never got their meals, I went in to check.

“How are we missing 65 trays and a rolling closet?” I asked him. He shrugged and issued an order:

“Find it.”

image
Not a butterfly. A representation of chaos theory.

The vestibule of every housing unit is decorated with a prisoner-painted mural. In one unit I entered to find a hidden, hulking cart, I noted the expanse of paint had stenciled on it that saying about what happens when a butterfly flaps its wings here: a huge storm follows across the world. I’m sure every other inmate things it’s some interconnected, holistic horseshit. Karma. Someone out there loves me. I know better. That’s mathematics. That’s the centerpiece of chaos theory: small actions have strikingly great and unintended consequences. Every transgression has a human cost even if we never see or know it.

I found the cart with all meals intact but the maelstrom of stealing spins forward.

One worker in the food warehouse who had been busted repeatedly for tucking things like raisins or spices into her bra or socks decided to outwit the usual pat-search (bra strap and waist) by having another inmate circle around her with an industrial-sized roll of plastic wrap to seal slices of cheese, sausages, brown sugar and instant coffee to her thighs and calves.  Her every step crunched as she headed to her housing unit after work that day, only to find the most notorious hawk of a guard working in the housing unit, an unusual post for her as the C/O was usually assigned to the walkway to do the pat searches that the inmate worked so hard to avoid. When the staff heard her scrunch into the housing unit she was busted and she never expected that to happen. That’s disordered thinking.

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These women are in Kenya and they stole meat that would never be found in a prison, but this is what she did. And expected to get away with it.

I’m probably one of five inmates who don’t fall into paroxysms of laughter when stories of stealing are told and retold.  Even among some inmates who don’t steal, a sentiment exists that says we should deliver payback on the state for incarcerating us and paying us pennies to serve as the prison’s work engine every day.  They think that stealing brings order and settles the score.

It settles nothing, of course, but most inmates believe that stealing’s acceptable because it’s a non-violent offense.  They didn’t develop this attitude on their own; they learned it from policymakers who make the divide between violent and non-violent offenses into a canyon separating relative angels (thieves) from the scourge of society (women with convictions for violent crimes).

Of course, everyone would prefer that their grandmother’s wallet get lifted to her taking a bullet.  But the lax attitude toward non-violent crimes, particularly larceny, cultivates a permissiveness that neutralizes any deterrent effect of incarceration.  So when disciplinary officers barely swat the hands of inmates who steal constantly as part of their hustle, their leniency and corny jokes do more harm than good.

The guards’ examples ruin inmates even more.  When two female guards took me to a local hospital’s emergency room, both of them swung open drawers and crammed Wite Out, Band-Aids, pharmaceutical company SWAG (post-it notes, pens, clips) and alcohol wipes in their jacket pockets, their jackets emblazoned with “Department of Correction” and the state seal.

People say prison’s a place where you learn to be a better criminal, as if there’s a seminar on gang initiations or they distribute instruction manuals on how to stay off camera when you’re robbing someone at an ATM. That couldn’t be more wrong. Prisoners keep their real hustles a secret. Allowing their more successful ventures to be replicated would assure that they’d be caught eventually.

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The message gets clouded.

Instead, prison introduces and trains you in a criminal relativism that lets you justify small offenses. If it’s non-violent and no one dies as a result of your actions, whatever you did was okay. It’s hard to get down on yourself for stealing other people’s stuff when your cellmate killed a pregnant woman out of jealousy, especially when both of you live identical consequences for what each of you did. No one becomes a better criminal in here; they just become bolder because they think certain crimes aren’t really moral transgressions, but just a part of a larger cycle.

I’ll cluck my tongue at women who steal those pens, but I’ll buy them off the thieves. I’m writing this in contraband green ink (supposedly only the warden can write in green, so I wonder where this pen really came from). According to the law, by receiving stolen property, I’m just as guilty as the person who pocketed the pen, but I have no ethical qualms as green scribble develops across this paper.

The only way to cease the stealing is to charge every inmate who gets caught thieving inside the prison with larceny.  CVS would contact law enforcement and press charges against a woman who stole a roll of tape from one of their stores, but the prison doesn’t do that when she takes the same roll from the prison library.  C/O’s cite all the paperwork to complete with Connecticut State Police as if it’s any larger or more complicated a paper commotion than completing these forms when the woman gets collared for stealing and her one-woman spree whirls back here.

 THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM AUGUST 8 – 14, 2016

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The murder conviction that was to keep Brendan Dassey in prison for the rest of his life was overturned on Friday. The nephew of Steven Avery, considered the biggest victim of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin sheriffs in the Netflix series Making a Murderer, was ruled to have confessed involuntarily to detectives because of promises they made him. The decision, however, says that Len Kachinsky, the attorney appointed to represent Dassey and who conspired with the prosecution to obtain the unconstitutional confession, did not provide ineffective assistance of counsel in such a way as to warrant relief. I’m glad Dassey will see some justice but this decision is just another one in a long line of cases that allow attorneys to do anything to their clients in criminal cases.  The District Court Judge William Duffin wrote a long decision in Dassey v. Dittman – 91 pages – but it’s worthwhile reading if you want to see what courts allow in terms of defense attorneys’ being disloyal to their clients. Sometimes, to make a murderer, all you need is the person who is supposed to protect him.

An educational note here: Dassey filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus claiming his incarceration was illegal. Habeas corpus cases are civil cases that challenge criminal convictions and/or sentences (sometimes even prison conditions). Many people ask me why the case caption in habeas corpus proceedings never includes “the State” or “the People” like criminal case captions do. It’s a good question. Habeas corpus cases (“habeases”) are civil actions against the person who is holding the prisoner in custody in his or her official capacity. Michael Dittman is the warden who’s holding Brendan Dassey in custody, so he is the named respondent, but the warden isn’t really being sued in the way most people understand litigation.

Our own Department of Justice issued a scathing report on Wednesday about policing in Baltimore City, Maryland, concluding that zero tolerance/broken windows-style policing doesn’t work and leads to abuse. As if the Freddie Gray and Korryn Gaines stories weren’t enough to convince you that Baltimore City is screwed up.

The Washington Post reported that 52% of victims of violent crime believe prison makes people more likely to commit crimes again, and would prefer to see lower sentences and an emphasis on treatment and diversion. A new answer to the question: “But what about the victims?”

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8 August 2016

Sign Language

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golden hands

“Okay, here’s what I know,” I told them. “There’s over 900 cups of peanut butter and jelly but only 300 cups of cole slaw.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. Why would they have three times more peanut butter than cole slaw?” Charity asked. She was right; the prison always served peanut butter and jelly with cole slaw.

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It’s coming.

“What’s…what’s going on? Are we locked down or what?” my roommate Melissa interrupted. I repeated what I knew.

“Mmm. How many trays are there?” she inquired.

“Uh, I didnt see any uptick in the number of cases they took from the warehouse. About the same as always.”

“That’s not a reliable indicator,” Charity pointed out, “because they can brown bag those peanut butter and cole slaw cups.”

Melissa and I nodded in agreement. We were better informed about an impending lockdown than when we started the conversation.

A complete, five-day lockdown might not seem like much of a threat to women who are locked down 18 hours of every day, but it is. A 24-hour emergency lockdown means we can’t shower, call anyone, receive visitors or do our jobs.

47892abad5df3f50bcb6259d274595f9Inmates prefer to know what’s happening so we can bathe quickly or warn loved ones so that they don’t worry when the phone doesn’t ring or drive two hours up I-95 only to U-turn at the prison gate because visits are closed. And, because we’re not told anything specifically about these events – with some good reason since a necessary aspect of any lockdown is catching inmates by surprise with drugs or someone else’s radio, so no one ever announces the event ahead of time – inmates train themselves to look for signs.

Because no one walks into the dining hall during a lockdown, food is prophetic in a prison. Prefabbed portions and a glut of styrofoam trays – as opposed to the molded plastic trays that serve as plates – usually indicate that it will be delivery, nor DiGiorno, because no one’s going anywhere that day.

When easily distributed, non-perishable, fiber-filled cold cereal packets inundate the supply closet, that, too, implies you’ll be sitting in your cell for a while.

Since I’m often the only person in the long-term housing units who works in food service, I am the Chief Lockdown Prognosticator. When they ask what’s happening, I recount to the inmates the signs I’ve witnessed and how I interpret them. I am overly cautious and I warn people:

“Call your mother, just in case.”

My accuracy rate is about 75%.

Inmates look for signs of not only lockdowns but anything because the prison posts no signs, meaning they announce nothing in here. Knowledge is power even on society’s sidelines. Inmates, by design, should never have power, so they leave us ignorant.

1465024Inmates can exploit what they know to get what they want, so I get it that we need to be left in semi-darkness. In the poor light, we squint at the signs (C/O’s lugging biohazard boxes into the gym where we get strip-searched and deposit our maxi pads and other female daintiness, cases of urine specimen cups for drug testing) and we guess, improvise with the facts we have. You might give us credit for creativity, but the net result of all of this lack of information dissemination  is that we’re often making stuff up.

There’s a real downside to the keep-away game we play with info because it leaves undereducated inmates with no idea how to learn the lowdown legit. That is, they know nothing of how to use established resources to secure what they need to know. Instead of checking the Inmate Handbook (which I admit is an abject piece of shit that lacks answers to the most cursory questions and is rife with typos that cloud any creditable facts within e.g., “court trip” is spelled “court trio”) inmates rely on gossip channels for news other than scuttlebutt, like what the new parole statute means for them. There should be a reliable way to get real information that the women in here need but there isn’t.

lee-russell-moma-bulletin-boardcri_61685In lieu of a formal announcement system, misinformation flows around the compound on essential topics like deadlines to change one’s approved calling list or who’s not really infected with MRSA. Along this foul vine flowers frightening falsities like everyone on the max-security side is being transferred to Massachusetts or bizarre bulletins about how the guards stole a large donation of lobsters intended for inmate consumption. The inmate mind doesn’t riot against these blatantly false stories; the fact that nothing anyone reports makes any sense never slows the transmission of bullshit. No one in here ever knows what they’re talking about, yet word spreads fast.

Each floor of every housing units has a bulletin board, a stab at disseminating accurate information. The memos on these cork boards date back to 1996 and most are just updated lists of gangs  – “risk groups” – as if gang members don’t know they’re affiliated.

Instructions to write to the Correctional Ombudsman for help with facility problems continue to decorate our walls, descending from long, yellowing rectangles of Scotch tape even though the Ombudsman’s office closed in 2010; depending on these signs, counselors still refer people to the Ombudsman even though he was axed three years ago. Even they don’t know he’s gone.

On the occasion that someone staples an accurate, newsworthy posting to the board, the words drown in passive verbs and stilted and incorrect nouns and even I, with my interpretive power, have no idea what they say. The announcements trail off into lists of distribution, people who get the carbon copies including the recipient “File” reminding the person who hangs it up to keep a copy of the goddamned thing.

tutwiler-prison-inmatejpg-537fe903a6702fe9Sometimes File doesn’t get his copy and no one remembers what was in the once public pronouncement. Getting the real skinny on anything ends up a fat failure. Prison, the place that is supposed to be the answer to our and society’s problems, is all questions and no answers. Just misdirected inquiries and made-up stuff.

When I left Charity and Melissa to take my post-work shower, a muffled voice found me.

“Winky, how much does DataCon (the data entry office where inmates work processing spreadsheets and the like) pay?”

“I don’t know. I don’t work in DataCon, remember? I work in Food Prep. You asked me yesterday if I saw anything that would make me think we’re about to be locked down.”

“Sooo…who I ask about that?”

“Someone who works in DataCon,” I answered very plainly. There should be something posted about this, but naturally there’s not.

glassbulletinboard“Ooooohhhh…” she said. This was a revelation to her, that going to a legitimate source of information is the best way to learn the truth. “Okay. Thanks. Thanks a lot.”  No one’s smuggling grey matter into the black-and-white world of prison accuracy.

The next day I watched inmates pack into a freezer several cases – many more than usual – of frozen french toast. Amply adrenalized by the carbohydrate prophet before me, I rushed to my supervisor, Green Bay.

“Green Bay,” I said as I cocked a thumb toward the toast. “What’s happening? Are we about to be locked?”

“Relax, Nosy. No one’s getting locked down. The french toast is for everyday use now. We’re using it because we have to give a hot breakfast to every inmate that’s going out on a court trip.”

“Ahh, I think you mean court trio,” I pointed out. He’s never read our inmate handbook to see the typo that’s perturbed me for years, so he was puzzled.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Bozelko.”

“It’s okay. No one does.”

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM AUGUST 1 – 8, 2016

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President Obama granted clemency to another 214 federal prisoners, making the total for his reign 562, more than the last nine presidents combined. He told reporters at the White House: “[W]e are not done yet.”

The New York Times reported the results of a British study that says that mass incarceration might (nominally) reduce global warming because prisoners have smaller carbon footprints. You can’t always get what you want.

A young woman in Baltimore County, Korryn Gaines, was shot and killed by police after a five-hour standoff in which she was holding her shotgun and her five-year old son. A later revealed fact – that Gaines likely suffered from lead poisoning which may explain her aggression – changes the story entirely. I think the Gaines story has huge implications for justice reform in that we don’t know how many inmates also suffer from lead poisoning; no one has ever studied this. If defendants charged with/prisoners convicted of violent crimes were poisoned through no fault of their own, lead poisoning should be a more important and better-acknowledged reason for sentence mitigation.

 

 

 

 

 

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1 August 2016

T.I.E. One On

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Your legal problems follow you everywhere. When I vacated One South and moved back to Zero South I had six garbage bags of my legal problems, wrinkled, white, 8.5 x 11 rectangles of legal problems. C/O Shelman called me and told me to come down [to the common area] to get the bags so I could empty the building of myself; he was pissed that I needed six of them instead of the two that are supposed to suffice to carry everything an inmate is allowed to own.

“What the fuck do you have that you need five bags?” he sneered at me. I had originally underestimated my haul.

55-60-gallon-high-density-garbage-bags-200-case-clear-commerical-garbage-bags-trash-bags“What do I own? Convictions. I have legal papers,” I explained.

“Oh yeah, you’re one of those who thinks she’s gonna fight her way out of here.” He started laughing.

When I had to come back to him for the last bag, he started cackling at me.

“You got a lotta legal papers, Bozelko. Yeah, you’re definitely gonna beat your case.” He pshawed at me when he handed me the last bag.

I used to go as monosyllabic as possible as often as possible when one of the guards was being an asshole. But even a meek little “Yes” was too much. And just shutting up wasn’t enough. I had to find something in-between and I did: the T.I.E. –  the Totally Inscrutable Expression.

It takes a lot of strength and concentration to go totally blank on your face.  It requires perfect posture so your body language can’t speak for your mug.  You can’t look like you’re stifling a laugh. No upturned corners of your mouth to make you look smug. No browing down – could be interpreted as anger. You can’t look confused because they’ll interpret that as straightforward or condescending sarcasm. Looking nervous only greenlights the abuse. You have to vacate yourself and move all the garbage bags from your mind.

If you’re doing it right, the T.I.E. absorbs you so much that you don’t even notice the taunting in front of you. I think the T.I.E. might be Zen but I don’t really know because I was never into hippy-dippy stuff.

The best analogy I have to explain it is that the T.I.E. is like going slack when you’re being arrested. Ironically, it’s harder to arrest someone who’s limp as lettuce; actively resisting makes it easier to contain you. And physical laxity ends up draining manpower because one cop can’t take someone who’s all loose into custody by himself. He needs at least one other person to help him because the lack of resistance is like a tourniquet on his power.

“Probably exceeds the space for your property.”

I saw where this was going. He wants to give me a ticket.54e4a97d1060b_353693b

T.I.E.

“Maybe I should read them before you move.”

T.I.E.

“You know I can read them, right?”

He can search them for contraband but he’s not allowed to read them. I wouldn’t care if he did read them, but…

T.I.E.

“Do you really think you can beat your case by yourself?”

He’s not supposed to ask me anything about my case.

T.I.E.

“I can grab up all this shit and dump in in the motherfuckin’ trash.”

He’s waiting for a “Please, no!” or a “No, you can’t!” Instead, I T.I.E.’d him up.

“I can go through all this shit and rip it up!” he yelled as he opened one of the bags.

T.I.E.

“Lucky for you, I don’t have time for that. I have a life you know!” he menaced. He was in my face.

Capture6T.I.E.

How the conversation went from my legal papers to his quality of life I will never know.  Rumors about his being kicked out of his house by his wife for gambling too much at the local casinos were being passed among the inmates. I don’t know how any of the women here would know, but they were saying he’s been living a non-life out of his car. You can never tell if these twitterings are true but I did see him washing his hair in one of the kitchenette sinks in the unit with that neon pink, almond-scented hand soap, so maybe it is. Do I care?

T.I.E.

“Now get the fuck out and go down to the Green Mile where you can spend the rest of your life.”

I could’ve grabbed everything and took off. Instead, I stayed loose.

T.I.E.

“Officer, may I leave now? I think the walkway C/O is waiting to escort me.” I asked if I could leave after he kicked me out which meant one of only two things: I have a traumatic brain injury that prevents comprehension or I intentionally didn’t absorb one word he said because he was being a dick. And, for one second, I felt special; his escalation was totally devoted to me.

And as I relocated and dragged all six bags of my stuff – I’m guessing 125 pounds – I wished he had confiscated them on that humid inauguration of June. Maybe I should speak up more and leave my legal problems behind me like my parents say I should.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM FROM JULY 25 – 31, 2016

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HER NAME IS MY NAME, TOO: I’ve always followed the Chandra Ann Levy missing person/murder case for the obvious reason: Chandra’s are rare and Chandra Ann’s (Ann is my middle name) are even more scarce. The case against her accused killer, Ingmar Guandique, was pretty strong, circumstantially. Then prosecutors had to assure that they would convict him – a second time, mind you –  by employing a jailhouse informant who blew up in their faces.  If they had a solid case the first time like they were supposed to have done, they wouldn’t have needed the snitch. This event reveals the hypocrisy of prosecutors: they think all inmates are liars when they report abuse or defend themselves…until they can help the government with something, then prisoners are pure. It looks like justice for Chandra Ann may prove elusive. And things don’t look good for the case about missing intern who turned up dead in Rock Creek Park, either.

WHENEVER WE GO OUT: The prosecutorial tour of Freddie Gray’s alleged rough ride has come to an end because State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby refused to pursue the charges against the remaining officers; others have already been acquitted. Criminal justice reform advocates are angry because they feel like there’s no justice for Gray, but they forget that there’s a victory here. This is what prosecutors are supposed to do when they know they can’t make a case and too often they plow ahead in weak cases because of the natural inclination of juries to think that a defendant is guilty. It’s hasn’t been decided whether the case couldn’t be made because there isn’t enough evidence (debatable) or because Baltimore City prosecutors are so used to plea deals that they can’t handle actual mano-a-mano courtroom combat anymore (likely).

THE PEOPLE ALWAYS SHOUT: Not one returning citizen spoke at the Democratic National Convention, an event filled with first-person accounts from children of illegal immigrants, first responders, 9/11 victims, mothers of mean and women killed by police and other downtrodden persons. Yet not one person who used to be in jail spoke which makes me question the Dem’s commitment to reform. Read criminal-justice news organization The Marshall Project‘s post-mortem on the DNC here. They did one last week for the Republicans, too.

 

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25 July 2016

Karma Is a Motherfucker (The Third and Last Rule of Prison Life)

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imageIts meaning clear, the last rule and final rule of prison life is “Karma is a motherfucker.” Outsiders should note a very important caveat of the rule:  karma’s motherfucking is always directed toward another party, not toward the woman who’s announcing the rule.  If you call on karma in corrections, it’s like immunity.

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Prison karma is toxic recycling.

At least the inmates think it is. They cite the rule to warn each other off doing something evil like reporting another inmate for borrowing someone else’s sneakers (in prison, footwear that you didn’t purchase yourself is contraband and subject to confiscation). When the woman who threatens “Karma is a motherfucker” engages in malfeasance herself – like falsely reporting an inmate for inappropriate sexual contact with a guard, an accusation that can land her victim in solitary for more than a month pending the outcome of any investigation – she expects karma to be kind to her.

There’s a saying that karma never loses an address, as far as you go in life, it can find you.  This is the one place on earth where karma delivers somewhat quickly and proportionately because everyone stays at the same address for a while and it’s a closed system like a pinball machine. Bad energy is going to hit a few people and land somewhere inside.

Genetic-PrisonHeather, my cellmate, carved her daughter’s initial into her palm to pay homage to a child (whom she abandoned in North Carolina) through a homemade prison tattoo. The “T” was bloody, jagged and framed with edges of dead snow-colored skin around Bic black ink. Heather can’t wait to show it to her daughter – one she’s not allowed to see – because Heather is demented. She’s also from West Hartford and knows that no one will ever think it’s a gang mark.

Because she’s demented, Heather decided to make up a story about Velma who works in the kitchen with me. Who knows what she said. Stealing? Sexing up the staff? Lieutenants came and talked to Velma.  Whatever Heather said, it didn’t stick even though it was as mean-spirited as possible.

Heather came through the line at lunch and extended her tray on Chicken Sunday and, of course, accidentally flashed her prison tat to Velma.  I was backing up the serving line and I could see it as Velma placed the crispy leg on Heather’s tray. Heather is demented and dumb.

“Break,” Velma turned and told me. She wanted off the serving line immediately and I pulled a dishwasher to cover for her and she walked into the back like no one knew what she was doing. I grabbed an empty pan that the recently-drafted dishwasher would have been lugging back to the pot sinks if Velma hadn’t taken an unjustified break to tell on Heather and headed to the back myself.

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This actually could have been the “T” tattoo. It was that bad.

“People in line to get dotted up by that bitch,” Velma was telling a lieutenant who was actually taking notes like he couldn’t remember these details later. She wasn’t just telling on Heather for her palm “T”  – a self-mutilation charge that lands you in seg for seven days – she was accusing her of running a shop with a tattoo gun made of an electric razor and and bent staple. The gun – if it even existed – would invite multiple tickets and longer seg time.

“Karma is a motherfucker,” she announced to me before she said she was ready to get back on the line.

Surely, as I got back to the unit to shower after work, Heather was gone, goon-squaded off to be examined for the ink. And word of her predicament had spread.

“Your cellie’s claiming she came in[to the facility] with that tat. They’re pouring rubbing alcohol on it in A and D right now,” the C/O said as he erased something off a clipboard.

“That’s what you get,” I replied.

As I gathered my stuff for my shower, a female C/O, Valentino, appeared at my door. She’s a nice one; wants to transfer because she doesn’t like how we are treated in here. Valentino challenges the norms of scorn and helps us out.

tumblr_m8tatsze4m1qdolwqo1_500“Bozelko, I gotta search you and your cell for, uhh, tattoo equipment.”

“I think you mean Heather, but okay, go ahead.”

“No, I gotta search you.”

I looked puzzled.

“She’s saying you gave her the tat and you’ve got a couple of your own. Between your toes. Gotta do a strip search.”

Heather assumed that I had dropped the ink dime on her and was trying to force her own morally wonky GPS on karma. She forgot that turnabout finds its own way.

So I stood there naked, on one foot with my toes splayed. Twice.

“Thanks for not giving me a hard time about this.” Sincerity flowed from her mouth as she snapped off her gloves.

“Welcome. It’s your job,” I told her. It was the truth. Plus she was always nice to me and everyone else. Why shit on that by asserting rights that I don’t have?

imageI’m not too worried about karma’s sidling up to me when I least expect it. I do as close to nothing as possible to screw other people or break the rules. ‘Close to nothing’ because when it’s Screw-or-be-Screwed, I screw. That’s a Heather story for another time.

Still, I’m in a maximum-security prison, having taken up residence at rock bottom with an iron-clad, long-term lease, snuggled in with thirteen felony convictions, so karma doesn’t have much room left to screw me. I should be safe from karma for a while. The staff? That’s a whole different scene of retribution.

Karma can read my thoughts, though, and I’m slightly concerned about being motherfucked again for not being pure of heart. I was thrilled once I learned that Heather wasn’t coming back to my cell. She is, by all accounts, an asshole. And I’d be alone for at least one night until she was replaced.

iStock_HeartHands
Heather should have had this instead of the craggy “T”.

The belief that anyone’s bad behavior will be  – and deserves to be – revisited on them plus extra is a little misplaced here. The ‘Karma Is a Motherfucker’ rule defines justice as retribution, as long as it isn’t delivered by your hands. I don’t see how they don’t get that karma has obviously motherfucked us all. We’re in prison. This is a rule that we don’t need because of what we’ve sent around. It’s coming back through now and will for a while. For our own sakes, we must forfeit karma for grace. For forgiveness.

And for Velma. I just got called back to work for cover for her because she got fired for trying to plant stolen spices in another worker’s sweatshirt to jam her up.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM JULY 18 – 24, 2016

make america safe

The Republican National Convention held in was big “screw you” to anyone who’s trying to make the criminal justice system more fair. Donald Trump’s official opening bid to “Make America Safe Again” was completely full of shit, statistically speaking. The Marshall Project did a great autopsy on the Republican presidential candidate’s speech.

The issue of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and its influence on people who kill law enforcement officers is being resurrected. Once everyone realizes that PTSD is the fuel of this justice machine, we might actually get somewhere in terms of reform, even after Cleveland.

The Atlantic ran a terrific piece about the origin of modern policing, the ethic of protecting the officer at all costs, including innocent civilian casualties. Did it start in California 46 years ago? Read it here.

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18 July 2016

Don’t Ask Questions in Jail (The Second Rule of Prison Life)

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No prison laws are unusually laden with legalese and they lack the subparts of the modern statute, making them more like commandments.  Instead of being drawn on stone tablets, these commandments are imprinted on inmate dialogue.

“Are you Chandra?  Somebody sent this to you,” she stuffed a baggie crammed with unidentifiable objects in a two-inch opening in the cell door that the guard had allowed as a favor to her. Otherwise, the cell doors in the medical assessment unit – the prison’s vestibule – were not to open for twenty-three and a half hours every day, supermax style.

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Don’t ask.

“Who?  What is it? Am I allowed to have it?” I asked, my grip on the bag slack from fear of what might be held within.  Was it drugs?  A weapon?  “Who sent me this?” I asked again.

“Don’t ask questions in jail,” her reply slipped through the reducing width between the door and the jamb as the guard pulled the two together.

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Don’t ask.

The contents revealed themselves to be innocuous and kind.  A set of thermal underwear, ponytail elastics, a bar of spring green soap in a plastic soap dish and some peppermint rounds that restaurants pile into glass dishes at their exits.  The sender was sincere in her attempt to acclimate me to prison; a man whom I had represented in front of the Social Security Administration had a sister whose girlfriend, Lisa, had been at York since 1993 for felony murder when a gang fight spun out of control.  The sister learned from the Saturday edition of the New Haven Register that I got canned and told her prison wife to look out for me.

No one ever explicitly explains Don’t ask questions in jail’s meaning to new arrivals; they let the law unload itself on the learning inmate with each question she asks.

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Don’t ask.

When a new inmate seeks to understand the vagaries of a correctional existence, like why guards allow certain inmates walk around freely with contraband – clear plastic coffee mugs occluded with prison collage (tape over pictures and magazine cutouts) when every inmate possession  – from the TV’s and radios to the shampoo bottles – must be transparent so as not to hide weapons, drugs, etc., she asks: Why are they allowed to do that?

Or if she wants to know how some women dodge disciplinary reports for obvious infractions like “jacking up” another inmate (grabbing her and pushing her against a wall as a possible precursor to a fight), she asks too.  Why did they let her do that?

Or when she wants to know why Lisa, convicted of murder and dangerousness, was allowed to send an envoy with commissary items to another housing unit and expect that a C/O would violate the rules for her remotely.

Other inmates tell her: “Don’t ask questions in jail” so that she doesn’t expose the truth of American prisons, namely that they are insecure, corrupt and political just like their inhabitants; the can itself is as crooked as its contents.

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Don’t ask.

But there are more reasons for DAQIJ than protecting the guilty. Looking back to that night when Lisa sent me the goodie bag, by asking Who? What? Why? I wasn’t just asking questions, I was nosing around for details that were either in front of me – the baggie’s contents – or irrelevant – the contents’ sender. If I didn’t know who sent it to me, I should’ve just refused it outright.  Asking those questions was just my feeling around to see why I should be allowed to break the rules.  Prisoners who don’t ask questions in jail deal only with what’s before them and turn away from chancy behaviors.

The answers are something no one really ever wants in prison, not only because we already have them, but because they reveal how our lives are used in an unauthorized or prohibited manner.  Prison’s reality can be contraband. In prison, no matter what you want to know, truth can cause you trouble. Ignorance isn’t bliss in here; it’s survival.

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Don’t ask.

The staff doesn’t usually force us into formation when we walk down the walkway but sometimes they insist that we travel two by two. Because I got paired with Lisa a few days ago – and because I will be new here until the moment I leave and still haven’t mastered the rules of prison life – I ask questions all the time. I’m too accustomed to it since higher education encourages that inquisitiveness, that “Question Everything” mentality since colleges and universities are places free of any oppression. My thesis advisor used to tell me:

“Challenge me. Prove me wrong.”

He probably only issued the dare because he knew I couldn’t do it but, if I had done it, he wouldn’t have done anything except cite me in his next academic paper. If I pull that shit in here, I’m in trouble.

“Lisa, I’m just curious. Remember when you sent me that care package when I first got here?”

Lisa nodded.

“How’d you get it to Jade and know that whoever was working in medical would let her give it to me?”

“I take it you got something you need to get to someone.” See how she didn’t ask me a question? Never asked “what do you want me to do?” She’s been here 19 years and she knows the rules.

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Don’t ask.

“No, I just wondered how you pulled that off. Can you see me asking staff to let me send something to someone in a different unit? Please. I get searched three times on the walkway when I walk home from work. I mean, who let you do that?”

“You know better than to ask me that shit,” she said and she stopped, causing the twosome behind us to arch up on their toes to avoid bumping into us. Lisa was attracting attention to us. It was a threat. Not to fight me but to use against me the power I knew she already had.

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Don’t ask.

After all, Lisa was the woman I saw running around with a cup of coffee with pics of her girlfriend taped all over it that made me question why she was allowed to carry it. She was the one I watched jack up another inmate in the hallway outside food prep without consequence. She was the person who was nice to me and sent me that care package and the only way she pulled that off is that she was: 1) providing information on inmates; 2) screwing a C/O; 3) covering up for the misbehavior of someone wearing a badge; 4) all of the above. When I asked the question in jail,  I just wanted verification that she was dirty, something I had already gathered, to make me feel better about myself.   You shouldn’t ask questions in jail because you know what’s right, what’s wrong and, for the most part, what’s really going on and that you should stay out of it.

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Don’t ask. You already know.

Just because I ask and ask in jail doesn’t mean that I don’t lay down the law for others. When I worked a double every day for a week and was near the school hallway even after classes ended, an inmate who always works second shift queried me.

“Why does that C/O always go down into the school when no one’s there but the workers?” she inquired when she caught on to the undeniable pattern of contact. He’s slipping one of the inmate janitors into the bathroom for sex. Classy guy.

“Don’t even ask,” I told her. But she knows. She just doesn’t know she knows, so she’s asking when she shouldn’t.

 

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM JULY 11 – 17, 2016

hot girl meme

President Barack Obama gathered police, Black Lives Matter activists and relatives of victims for an emotional meeting on race and policing. The session frequently focused on larger societal questions that the president acknowledged he has neither the time left nor the power to resolve. So it was basically pageantry paid for by payers of taxes.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch told House lawmakers Tuesday that federal officials will investigate private prisoner transport services. Prisoner transport abuses wards whether it’s done for profit or not. I’ve been shouting this for years, submitting pieces about transportation to every newspaper around. Four have actually listened to me: The New Haven Independent, The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian and The Baltimore Sun. Read to see what happens when there’s no profit motive involved. It’s still dangerous.

In Detroit Free Press v. United States Department of Justice, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that people have a privacy interest in their mug shots which means that those websites where you can search and buy people’s booking photos might be shut down (if SCOTUS doesn’t pick up the case and it might) and something will happen to the hot girl in the orange jumpsuit meme that appears everywhere. She must be pissed by now.

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11 July 2016

It Is What It Is (The First Rule of Prison Life)

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It’s the first rule of prison life.

“It is what it is.”

I know that it’s more than just prison tautology, but a real understanding of the rule eludes me even after more than four years in prison.  Initially, it seems to be the “Qué Será, Será” of prisoners, a philosophical shrug, the apex of acceptance and emotional evolution.

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Not really.

People respond to anything that perplexes the inmate soul by reciting the rule. “I was denied parole.” It is what it is.  “My man’s cheating with my sister.” It is what it is. “My codefendant blamed everything on me and walked.” It is what it is.

Perhaps “it is what it is” answers the Serenity Prayer.   Or maybe it’s accessible, acceptable Zen for the inmates, the majority of whom reject eastern religion as heresy, who fall on the floor during Protestant church services, allegedly speaking in tongues, confusing the onlooking guards who must decide if the woman is seizing or just exercising her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion.

I don’t know if “it is what it is” is acceptance; sometimes it’s very difficult to see the law that way.  Through their actions, prisoners make the rule an abnegation, even a total rejection, of personal responsibility because they pull it out like a weapon – a shiv at the throat of interpersonal relationships – when confronted with wrongdoing or injustice.

Doris-Day-Que-Sera-Sera
Wait ’till you meet your cellie, Doris.

“Did you dip your cellmate’s toothbrush in the toilet?” It is what it is.  “Why did you steal ten pounds of margarine out of the kitchen in your underwear?” It is what it is.  “You heard? Inmate X beat the shit outta Inmate Y! For real! It was dripping down the back of her leg!” It is what it is.  In this sense, the rule is no longer Doris Day’s “Qué Será, Será” but McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.”

The whole time I’ve been here, I’ve seen things that students in an undergraduate constitutional interpretation course would know are wrong, like appointing the same public defender to two codefendants who never waived the conflict of interest. I can’t know about a situation like that and not tell that woman:

“C’mere. Let me tell you what you have to do.” So it can become what it is not.

Word of my nosiness has spread and I’ve earned the worst label that an inmate can bear: not snitch, or even child molester, but effective – not all the time but a lot of the time – in taking on the power structure.  Paired with my convictions, two years of law school hardly make me an attorney but I became the jailhouse lawyer by rumor and default. Not one day has passed without an inmate requesting my help in crafting some written dispatch to get a new public defender, modify an order of visitation with her children, waive back taxes, apply to vacate protective orders or reduce her sentence.

For a while I kind of enjoyed it. I liked the fact that – if they had to choose a rule to break –  they weren’t willing to follow “it is what it is” when it kept them in the status quo. When my cellmate – a woman who left two sons when she ran her SUV into a motorcycle carrying her ‘husband’ and a thirteen year old girl, killing her – found out that her state income tax refund was being held for unknown reasons and that her children couldn’t buy new shoes, I helped her write a request to release the funds. Her children shouldn’t be further punished, I figured. When she read the Department of Revenue Services’s reply that they had mailed the check to her son’s guardian, she nodded and muttered, smiling:

This is what it is.” And it was. But learning about potential, possibility, what can be,  is a powerful event. And with power comes assertion.

I used to walk to the dining hall for every meal (breakfast at 5:30, lunch at 10:30 in the morning and dinner at four in the afternoon) like most other inmates. While I went on these excursions for fresh air, the other inmates go to “chow” for the cake; it’s the new gruel. Every concern about a prison’s human rights record vanishes when outsiders hear that inmates stuff themselves with cake at least four times each week.  The hoards that come out for it also come out to find me to learn how it doesn’t have to be what it is.

44c885a9f8ee7bf41ac489c2c2c0b0d5On every voyage to the chow hall, an inmate’s busted my beeline by tossing interrogatory hurdles in my path:

“Explain how I get my probation reinstated.”

“Tell me how the judge gonna lower my bond.”

“Robbery ain’t a violent crime when I run away from a mall cop when I was boostin’ (shoplifting), is it?”

If they didn’t catch me on the prison walkway, several took to interrupting me in the shower with “Just write me a letter,” while they forced a Bic through the curtain.  As prison shower interruptions go, these were mild but they’ve accosted me so frequently that I’ve developed the routine of starting all of my sentences with “Listen…”, their drowning me out psychologically underpinning my new habit.

power-of-the-pen-220x219That the pen has power in the pen is a phenomenon that other prisoners haven’t witnessed before.  They assumed that lawyers, magistrates and case workers ignored their letters of past because the people who sent them were lawbreakers. But when this lawbreaker wrote, things happened. It wasn’t what it was anymore.

In my experience, people who were cultivated in poverty can’t treat something beneficial in their lives properly. They will so overuse good things that they break or wear out and abandon them to the “It is what it is” thinking that prevents their dreams of better lives.  Even though I very much want to help the other inmates, I don’t want to interact with them, at least not too much anymore. In short, I want my cake and to eat it too, just not with them, not all the time. From that letter that Saint Paul sent into the lives of the Romans,  I know that I’m supposed to be humble and associate with the lowly but sometimes I need a break, permission to “Let it Be.”

It’s worn me out so much that I don’t really have much of a glad heart anymore when I assist them.  Once I was awoken as if in an emergency, repeatedly poked in the foot by a squat inmate telling me:

“Miss, I dunno nothin’ to write to my lawyer.”

one to grow on“Of course you don’t,” I snapped as I lowered myself from my top bunk. “With all of those public service ads about avoiding education. Wasn’t there a One to Grow On that said everyone should drop out of school at age 12 and knock over a liquor store? Oh, yeah, only after she shit out five kids!” I snarked at her.

Processing orders for help has turned me into a nasty, elitist bitch, more so than I ever was before; it’s been one hell of a rehabilitation.

martim
C’mon, B. Cut it out.

I could see Martin Luther King’s ghost in the corner clucking his tongue at me as I slammed my property around to find a pen and paper, seething as I prepared to help her so that she could see what can be. I know that my comments and behavior were wrong, contrary to everything that I supposedly believe, but I still feel only 50% terrible about it, probably because she and her roommate conspired to steal my pajamas from my laundry bag the next day.

“Did you take them?” I asked, dangling my mesh sack from a raised arm to show that I knew they had victimized my sleepwear.

“Miss, it is what it is.”

“That’s what I thought.”

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM JULY 4 – 10, 2016

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Within 24 hours of the shooting death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, a Falcon Heights, Minnesota officer shot and killed Philando Castille for reaching for his identification as ordered. An aerial ambush of Dallas police officers followed, killing five of them. Something needs to be done and everyone insists that guns aren’t the problem. I agree with Adam Gopnik who wrote this week in the New Yorker that “Guns allow the fringe to occupy the center.” We need to rid ourselves of the ways we empower people who want to do wrong. Guns top that list.

Hillary won’t be taking a collar for her “extremely careless” handling of classified information when she was Secretary of State.  FBI Director James Comey said that no reasonable prosecutor would bring a case against Clinton using the 1917 federal statute that criminalizes gross negligence when handling classified information, one of the craziest statements ever made. There are no reasonable prosecutors.

The Prison Policy Initiative scooped all news outlets in reporting that prison commissary giants are about to merge. This is more than some highfalutin anti-trust story. Prices for basic items like toothpaste and deodorant or even writing paper are about to go up. That means dirtier inmates. And dirtier inmates act dirty. I predict more fights, not an epidemic, but enough to make the prison profiteers culpable.

 

 

 

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4 July 2016

Go Shorty

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pjimageHow was dinner? Sometimes the C/O’s ask when you stroll back to your housing unit after a meal, a little incredulous that anyone actually ate what was served.

I shrugged.

“Okay. I always want chili in 90 degree heat. I only went because tomorrow’s my birthday and the meals are worse.”

image“Tomorrow’s your birthday, Bozelko? Doin’ anything fun? Havin’ a party?” she joked. That’s always a knee-slapper to them.

I always wanted to throw a blowout for my fortieth birthday, even though I never thought I would actually turn forty. I figured I would be due for something.

I gave up a Sweet Sixteen soiree when I was a kid  – didn’t even want it -because I was going to be at a summer program in Ann Arbor and I didn’t see how it was necessary.

“Are you sure you don’t want a party? I think your friends would like a party. We can do it at the Graduate Club or the Quinnipiac Club and it will be nice…decorations? We can get a DJ…”

I shrugged.

“I don’t think I need one,” I demurred. All I wanted to do for my sixteenth birthday was go to “debate camp” – the Michigan National Debate Institute. I wasn’t the consummate nerd when I was fifteen, but I was close. I just liked what I liked back then and wasn’t vulnerable to peer pressure at all.  Looking back, I’m a little surprised at how adult I was about the party. So mature that it scared my mother a little. I overheard her asking my father:

“What teenager doesn’t want a party?” Translated: Why doesn’t my brat want what all brats are supposed to want?image

“Kath, what’re we gonna do? Argue with her when she doesn’t want to spend thousands on a party? Let her go to Michigan. I hope she feels this way when you plan her wedding,” my father told her.

Except there’s never been a wedding. Flagged that one, too. I still don’t know if I ever actually wanted one.

I just always figured I would have a fortieth bash because I didn’t have the other two.  Now, because of my stupid decisions, rage and denial, I would be 0 for 3 on parties: no Sweet Sixteen, no wedding, no Over-the-Hill shindig for my fortieth. Even if I planned one, I couldn’t even invite myself because I’m stuck here.

I climbed up on my bunk and lay, frozen still, so that the 5-watt fan could chill the sweat all over me; rooms without air conditioning and open windows aren’t fun in 90-degree weather.  For a woman to turn forty in prison is about as pathetic as it gets but, always, an overachiever, not only was I reaching my fifth decade in the clink but I was going to debut wilted and from the weather and motionless.

image“Winks, I need to ask you a question,” Cherry asked me at my door. Cherry is the Common Area Worker with a severe case of Co.W.S. – Common Area Worker Syndrome (the afflicted forget that they’re inmates). She wasn’t even supposed to be out of her room because it was count time.

“What?” I didn’t even turn from the wall to her.

“I need to talk to you about a modification.”

“Cherry, it’s Saturday night, it’s beastly hot and I really don’t feel well.”

“I need your help now.”

“You know the court isn’t even open until Monday morning, right? Nothing is happening now.”

I wanted to add: and you’re here for murder, so no one’s reducing your 45-year sentence, but the way I was sweltering took away all my fight. Cherry’s life story has always been sad to me. I’m sworn to secrecy about it but I’m pretty sure that poverty, abuse, addiction and mentally ill parents conspired to make sure that Cherry knew York CI intimately before she met her maker.

All of this undeserved loss in her life has made Cherry an officious pain in the ass, commandeering very cleaning supply in the unit, because suffering people will do anything for a little bit of power.

image“I need to have it in the mail on Monday because Wednesday’s a holiday and no mail is gonna be delivered,” she pleaded. This, of course, was complete horseshit because Cherry knew, after 18 years here, that nothing she mailed was going to wind its way out for a week nor was it going to be granted.

My cellmate Olga, an Original Gangster if there ever was one, has a normal body and hands the size of clipboards from fighting. Olga doesn’t tolerate Cherry.

“Can you just go help her because I don’t want her at the door all night and you know she won’t let this go,” she asked. “It’s too hot for me to listen to her shit. Blood pressure goes up and I can’t cool down.”

In the interest of domestic relations, I lowered myself from my bunk and put on another shirt so I could leave my cell properly dressed. As I walked downstairs to Cherry’s lair – which is a broom closet – I could hear the whirr of probably ten different hairdryers in other cells.

image“Who the fuck is cooking and running their hairdryers in this heat?” I asked.

“I dunno, but all I need you to do is – here, come in here,”  she motioned me fully into the closet. “I need you to explain why 45 years is expressive because of, what’s that word you use?”

“You mean excessive?”

“Yeah, excessive because of miritation, irrigation, something like that. That word you use.”

“Mitigation?”

“We’ve already been through this… ” I started to say but I could see Olga’s huge hands at the end of her 63-year old arms, swinging into Cherry’s face. I thought I would just write a cursory letter for Cherry to keep her away from our door to appease her and shut her up, so I agreed, accepted her copy of the form (which she got from me anyway) and walked back up to my cell to write it, hand it back to her and age for the rest of the night in my box.

Olga saw me come into the cell with the form.

image
C/O and Inmate Cupcakes.

“She roped you in again? Here, I’m gonna cover the window so no one bothers you while you do that. Finish it and send that bitch packin’ so I don’t have to deal with her,” Olga said as she attached paper towels to the door with a sticker from a deodorant.

“We can go seg for that…” I warned Olga but she had already set up the drape and went out to watch TV.

I sat down to make stuff up for Cherry and sweat trickled down the inside of my arm.

Olga poked her head into our own cell.

“Chan, other people have questions for you, too, so come out when you can,” she said.

Olga’s off the beam. She’s mad that Cherry is at the door begging for help but she’s arranging new requests out there, I thought.

I swung open the door with my speech all ready:

DO NOT tell me you need help with letters to judges so you can go see your kids. DO NOT tell me the gun wasn’t loaded or you didn’t know you were stabbing someone, okay? I am unable to overturn righteous convictions for stupid stuff you did. I am tired. I am hot. I am forty. LEAVE ME ALONE.

imageBut I never got to deliver it because I walked out to the rec[reation] area and found a party, a huge, unexpected one.  A banner made from 20 pieces of contraband copy paper. Women on the tier had made personal pizzas for everyone – 24 in total –  by smashing sour cream and onion chips with cheese and hot water and spreading the mix between two tortillas to make a crust. Rice and beans. Ramen noodles made into spaghetti. Chicken salad wraps. Tuna casserole. Individual cakes made of honey buns mushed up with brownies and cappuccino to make a bread pudding, frosted with Fluff.

My mother would have fallen into a wilted heap herself if this had ever been served at the parties she wanted to have for me, but these dishes were prison’s go-all-out gourmet. Trixie even made a game of prison Truth or Dare, which proved later to be downright dangerous.

If the man-hours, respect and gratitude invested into the prep for this party were converted to cash, I could have afforded to fête myself and 100 people to top-shelf booze, a raw bar and a three-course dinner. They had to start days ago and not one person wasn’t involved with the planning. All for me for my fortieth.

image“You did this for me?” I was still taking it in.

“You do a lot for us,” Soledad said as she mixed Nestea for everyone.

I looked through the glass wall of the tier, down at Cherry in the common-area. She waved at me to let me know she was in on it, too. If she weren’t such a pain in the ass normally, I never would’ve bought her performance. I hated myself for being annoyed by her… ever.

I couldn’t even react, mostly because the heat deflated me, but also because I was so touched by getting a surprise party for my fortieth. I may not like the way my wishes are delivered, but even through all of these trials, I still get what I want.

All pictures are of real cakes that someone thought would be appropriate for the party theme of mass incarceration.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM JUNE 27 – JULY 3, 2016

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Pick a constitutional amendment, any amendment…

SIXTH AMENDMENT: Adnan Syed gets another trial on murder charges. The focus of the Serial podcast had his conviction vacated on the grounds that he received ineffective assistance of counsel when his defense attorney failed to cross-examine a cell phone tower expert witness presented by the State of Maryland. Everyone’s celebrating this but me, and not because I don’t want a new trial for Syed. Read the decision here: the court held that an attorney’s failing to contact an alibi witness (in this case, Asia McClain – whose story is credible and would provide an absolute alibi for Syed) would be “unreasonable” but not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel. I went through this myself in a habeas corpus proceeding. Think about what it means: if you’re charged with a crime and you have a witness who can provide an alibi for you, it’s okay if your attorney NEVER contacts that person, never mind produce testimony from him. That’s constitutionally adequate representation to some courts. That’s nuts.

FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT: A divided Iowa Supreme Court upheld the state’s law banning ex-offenders from voting last Thursday. All felonies are “infamous crimes” under the state constitution, the majority ruled. Justice reform advocates are up in arms that people with felony records won’t get to vote. But consider this: at least 80,000 people in Iowa have criminal records. Only 98 of them have completed applications to have their voting rights restored in the last five years and 92 of those applications were granted. I doubt it matters if they have the right to vote or not. People with records who’ve lost the right to vote in Iowa don’t care about their place in democracy.

EIGHTH AMENDMENT: Dog the Bounty Hunter’s wife, Beth Chapman, was elected this winter to serve as the president of the lobbying organization called Professional Bail Agents of the United States. She’s preparing for their annual conference next month and is likely to give bail reform efforts in coming legislative sessions a real challenge, as if they didn’t have enough already. But doesn’t her family’s own reality show prove that cash bond doesn’t assure that people come to court? She and her brood chase people who posted bail with her company and then skipped. I don’t get it.

 

 

 

 

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27 June 2016

Prison Diaries Takes First Place at National Society of Newspaper Columnists Awards Ceremony

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Prison Diaries was honored on June 25, 2016 in Los Angeles, California with a first place finish in the organization’s 2016 Column Contest for Online, Blog or Multimedia sites with under 100,000 unique visitors.

Judy Clarke’s Dementia Isn’t Funny and Renee Davis Brame’s Pop Depravity were awarded second and third place honors, respectively. Prison Diaries and its writer are honored to be considered alongside these excellent serial essayists.

The most flattering part of receiving this award was the judge’s/judges’ comments which read:

“It’s a part of the columnist’s art, touching readers by isolating the smallest things in daily life and teasing out the universality, providing connections between one writer and many readers, and thus between one of us and all of us. How rare and useful to take the everyday details of life in prison and let the rest of us “in,” as it were. There’s no special pleading in these columns, just a reminder of our common humanity under conditions most of us will never have to face.”

This is exactly what Prison Diaries set out to do. Knowing the Diaries achieved their goal is humbling and inspiring at the same time.

 

 

 

 

 

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