10 October 2016

P-Word

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vagina-flower-photo_burned-2The word “bitch” has lost all its sting in a prison.   Even “cunt” doesn’t cut it anymore. The verbal gauntlet for me?  The P-word:  “pussy.”

I’ve always hated the word “pu**y” – along with its wrapper, the word “panties.” They always sounded like something an aging, perverted chiropractor would say to a female patient as he convinced her to don a paper gown for an adjustment that could be done through her cable-knit J. Crew sweater. I doubt many chiropractors used the word to patients since it isn’t the target of treatment, but the image endures. To me, the words “pu**y” and “panties” are used only by people who shouldn’t be allowed inside either one.

In here there’s no other word for vagina except “pu**y.” Even when the C/O’s taunt an inmate that her “man” is probably cheating on her, they don’t say he’s getting laid, they say he’s getting pu**y. I think everyone in here’s been convinced that it’s a clinical term.

In the hallway of the medical building, Dr. Fetal Pig was instructing someone who works in Food Prep with me to avoid using commissary soap to wash her private parts – HIPAA and any common law respect for medical privacy be damned – when I walked past.

“It’s a self-cleaning oven,” the physician advised. “You don’t need more than water.”

“If you think that, then your pu**y must really stink,” the inmate said, thinking she was a polite patient.

“Can you not use that word?” I asked her when we got back to Food Prep.

“What word?”

“The P-word. You know…” I looked around. “Pu**y.”

“What’s wrong with pu**y?” She looked at me like I asked her not to say “is.”

“It’s, you know, derogatory.” Ever heard of another P-word? Propriety?

“What the fuck is that?” she asked.

“Never mind.”  I let it go.

I can run any number of theories on why inmates talk about their genitals so much and use the word “pu**y” to do it. They’re undereducated so they don’t know the difference between slang and acceptable language. High school science programs are on the wane so they’ve never heard biological terms. They like sounding irreverent.

They use “pu**y” because they’ve internalized the misogyny around them along with the most common word they’ve heard to reference their genitals. They become obsessed with what’s between their legs from living in here where a shower is never guaranteed.  When you haven’t washed and you start to waft, the essence of your femininity becomes your problem, not what you did or what was done to you. Your hole becomes your Achilles heel.

Of course, that’s how it is for many women, whether they bear an inmate number or not. But women on the outside aren’t psychotic about washing away their scent. Anyone who thinks cats dislike and avoid water should head in here, where someone’s constantly dunking one and trying to drown it.

Women on the inside go to great lengths to make sure they have no smell at all, which is impossible. They pour empty Fluff containers filled with soapy water on themselves on the toilet to wash after they’ve showered. Rub solid deodorant on between their legs. It isn’t primping. It’s pathology, in response to feeling dirty, being called dirty, being dirtied by men in the past.

I like to be clean, too and I have never smelled as bad or as often as I have in here. But I also like to exist. Sometimes the only way I’m sure I still do is my filth.

“I hate being a woman!” my roommate shouted from the toilet. She actually asked one of the inmate janitors for contraband bleach to use on her vagina. I motioned to the janitor from behind her to ignore the request.

“You know your scent is how you attract men. It’s called pheromones,” I tell her. Another P-word. Explain to her how Napoleon wrote to Josephine to tell her to stop bathing before he got home.

“Who’s Josephine? She on this tier?” she asks in all seriousness, furiously scouring her crotch. “I wish I could wash away my pu**y!” She almost has.

“You’re wasting your time washing away what makes you human, a woman,” I advise her. “This place will do a bang up job on that without your help.” Another P-word: punishment.

Pussy. Panties. Perverted. Pig. Privacy. Polite. Patient. Propriety. Problem. Psychotic. Primping. Pathology. Pheromones. Place. Punishment.

PRISON.

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THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM OCTOBER 3 – 9, 2016

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HUGE BUST: Eighty people took a collar – including 18 guards and 35 inmates – in a corruption probe into a Maryland prison that found C/O’s were arranging to smuggle contraband like opiate-substitute Suboxone and cell phones from outside. The C/O’s then tried to get inmates to stab other inmates who reported the ring. I am floored.  – Only 80 people?

HUGE LIST: 102 more sentence commutations by President Barack Obama. It fits. First black president frees the second largest number of people in history, after Abraham Lincoln.

HUGE HIT: Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” premiered to the public on Friday on Netflix. Two things I learned from the film: 1) the Ku Klux Klan never used burning crosses until the movie “Birth of a Nation” used one as a cinematic device; and 2) getting arrested at civil rights rallies was never a by-product or accident of the protest. It was the purpose, black people’s meeting their worst fear: being arrested by white people. It’s a worthy watch. I thought I knew most of the history of incarceration but I don’t. Also, the juxtaposition of clips of Trump supporters beating black protesters with clips from years ago of mobs beating up black men says too much about this election.

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3 October 2016

Power of One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I suggested an alternative.

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

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

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

71 percent on white

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

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

72 percent on white

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

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

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

73 percent on white

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

74 percent on white

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

76 percent on white

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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26 September 2016

In Low Places

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Orange Is The New Black S4

The Parole-Officer-In-Residence was giving a speech to people who were supposed to be going in front of the parole board soon. I have no idea why I was included in the group. I missed work for it and everything.

“You can’t make friends in jail. Don’t make friends in here. Imma tell you a story. Once there was an inmate, a young man, and he left jail and he was doin’ good, doin’ real good, got a job, an apartment, and a car. His own car! One day he ran into another inmate who just got out and that inmate asked him for a ride around the corner.”

Insert a dramatic enough pause for anyone listening to know that the ride wasn’t just around the corner. She continued:

shawshank-redemption
Unequal standing.

“So he decided ‘This guy was my friend inside, so I’ll help him out’ and he drove him. Do you wanna know that the man who just got out went and killed somebody and the boy who drove him went back for being an accomplice for murder. That’s why I tell people when they parole ‘Don’t make any friends in jail. Leave them here.'”

I decided to leave her there. I handed her the intro paper.

“Thank you for this, but I’m not going to parole.” I should have added:  “But don’t worry, I can’t make friends in here so I’ll be okay.

The difference between me and the others is palpable to almost everyone. Being different in some prisons can get you killed, but when you’re different because you know the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris the way the other inmates know the Department of Social Services, it gets you alone.

I don’t speak like the other inmates (aside from avoiding the N word, I use verbs; other inmates drop them to say things like “Michael Jackson dead,” “Brianna pregnant” or “the warden corny”). I don’t look like the other inmates; overtweezed brows sit in semicircle at the tops of faces with few teeth. Dentition separates me. The others get pissed when I point this out.

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I don’t know anything about this, still. Never asked.

I know different things (that the word ‘supposedly’ doesn’t contain the letter ‘b’ and toxic shock syndrome doesn’t entail electricity). And I don’t know different things (Like what a 2.8 is – a weight of crack cocaine – and that there are ten bags of heroin in a bundle and ten bundles in a stack). I’ve never been in a fight and, quite frankly, had no clue what I’d do if and when violence opportuned itself. Best advice: “Karate chop to the neck, kick to the groin and then scratch her face.” I never knew.

To say that I’m better than the other inmates? That isn’t true. To say that I’m just like them? That’s a lie.

And most of them know it, too. The differences pop out in questions and fascination that turns me into an exhibit.

goodfellas-hero-4
Friends and family plan in jail.

“You ever live in a motel?”

“No.”

“You got a license for a car?”

“You mean to drive? Yes.”

“You ever been on Food Stamps? Your fridge always stocked up, I bet.”

“No… I guess.”

“What kinda car you drive?”

“Why?”

“Your family decorate their house all nice, Victorian and shit up in there?”

“Ummm…”

Still, I call them friends and they return the label. I get along with the other prisoners; I’d even say I have the least conflict with others of all the long-termers. I get one or two letters from departing buddies, but not more than that. And that’s why the term friend gets redefined for me in here. The only thing over which I can relate to other women over is this place and the fact that we’re both here at the same time.

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Connection.

I bond with them when I’m drowning and whirling in melodramatic victimization, thinking that my life is harder than other prisoners’ paths. I can connect with them only when I go to some low places, emotional nadirs. If friendship must be borne of equal standing, it’s the only way I can get there.

Sure, I wasn’t denied much of anything in my life but I know what it’s like to feel pressured to live up to impossible standards or be told that nothing I did was good enough. And I have been berated by an alcoholic father and a co-dependent mother. All of my dysfunction happened like it was in a snow globe: encased, unreachable, looking pretty and serene to people outside it when, really, someone shook up my world all the time. I’ve been through a lot of shit, too, you know! More than you! Only when I start thinking this way can I feel like I’m not unreachable in here.

But if I count my blessings and humble myself, I end up valuing my sociological singleness a little too much and my feelings for the other women draw a little too close to pity.  Sympathy brings distance. If it doesn’t, then it’s empathy. And if I empathize with them, then I have to admit that I’m like them. When I’m not. Except for the times that I am, like when I’m here.

Later that night, hours after the parole officer’s order to stop and drop your friends, we cleaned our cells, propping open our doors for sweeping and mopping.  I pulled down the book wedged in my doorway.

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Pals.

A library’s worth of literature has been destroyed in this prison because women cram books between the corners of the cell doors and the jambs to keep them open. It was a scholastic Webster’s, one with red linen covers that had been ripped off through years of cell cleaning, not overuse by injuring inmates. This is another thing that separates me from the others: I think books are for reading. That’s the last thing that so many of the others will do with them.

“You can’t use a dirty T-shirt or something else? You’re destroying and ripping the cover of …what is this?…The Secret Lives of Bees. You’re ruining the bees’ secret lives. You are killing the bees,”  I told the first cellmate who did it in front of me. She didn’t care about the bees, the book or bond that we could never have.

Orange Is The New Black S4

I might have looked up ‘amity’ or ‘unity’ but those letters had fallen away from the dictionary due to repetitive cell cleaning. I was lucky to find ‘F’ intact to look up ‘friendship.’ I won’t even say how bad my life must be that I had to look up this word at age 38 and get pissed off when I found: “the state of being friends.”

Up a few lines, ‘friend’ informed me that the women I called friends were people “whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection.” Basically, someone you know and like – and who likes you back – is your friend.

But that’s not true. Friendship is more than affection because, face it, that shit’s temporary, much like my time at York CI. Look at the parole officer’s story. The guy with the car – his own car! – had affection for the dude who went and killed someone, and the killer dude probably had affection for him, at least at one point, but I can’t say they were really friends because true friends don’t bring you to low places even if that’s the only place where you connect. Not just for their sake, but for yours, prison friends have to leave each other behind, leave each other here. Only the disconnect can save you both.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM SEPTEMBER 19 – 25, 2016

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After police shootings in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Charlotte, North Carolina, one city stayed calm and the other exploded. The difference between the two cities? Accountability. A Tulsa sheriff who shot a someone when mistaking his firearm for his taser gun was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison this summer whereas the trial of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Randall Kerrik for shooting football player Jonathan Ferrell ended in a hung jury last year. Look at what this means if you follow the logic of the situation: an effective way of keeping the peace is prosecuting and incarcerating police who engage in brutality. An effective way of keeping the peace is putting more people in prison. I am not sure I like that.

The Supporting Youth Opportunity and Preventing Delinquency Act of 2016 passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 382-29 on Thursday. It’s a proposed retooling of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which was first passed in 1974. Florida Republican Representative Carlos Corbel’s bill promotes “trauma-informed” care for at-risk children and their families, which means it can actually work.

Fusion reported that Michael Leatherwood, an inmate at Lawton Correctional Facility in Oklahoma, a private facility, is successfully suing the prison for disproportionate pricing of commissary items in private prisons as opposed to the state’s public facilities. For instance, the much revered chili-flavored ramen soup is $0.26 in public prisons but a whopping $0.60 in private ones. The fact that any pro se inmate litigation can still proceed now that the Prison Litigation Reform Act is in effect is astounding, but Leatherwood pulled off a real coup; on May 12, 2016 he deposed his own warden in the prison’s visiting room about the price differences, which are approved by prison administration.  Prison strike supporters take note: this is how you effect change. Kudos to Inmate Leatherwood. The report can be found here.

 

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19 September 2016

See How They Run

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transparent-radio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A. CODE PURPLE                                 ____ 0 M.P.H.  Always simulated. Thank God.
(SUICIDE/ATTEMPTED SUICIDE)

B. CODE BLUE                              ____ 8-12 M.P.H., panicking, hyperventilating, often
(INMATE FIGHT/ALTERCATION)              crying.

C. CODE GREEN                           ____ Never seen one. Stopped at ORANGE.
(ESCAPE/ATTEMPTED ESCAPE)

D. CODE YELLOW                         ____ “I don’t run no matter what color they are.”
(HOSTAGE TAKING)

E. CODE ORANGE                         ____ 8-11 M.P.H., unrelenting waves of guards 
(ASSAULT ON D.O.C.                             inundate the area, each additional one is
PERSONNEL)                                        useless, waiting to who gets dragged out.

F. CODE RED                                 ____ 2 M.P.H. Circles, back-forth-back, shrugging.
(FIRE)

G. CODE WHITE                            ____ 5.5 M.P.H. One from every unit because
(MEDICAL EMERGENCY)                        someone needs to bring the camera.

H. CORRECTION OFFICER              ____ 3 M.P.H. Except for guard who sprints from  
(250 lbs.)                                             Disciplinary Board, beating everyone else.

ANSWERS AT BOTTOM

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM SEPTEMBER 12 – 18, 2016

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The country’s largest prison strike has turned to riots and it was revealed on Friday that a correction officer at William C. Holman Correctional Center in Alabama was stabbed – before the strike – and died. Tell me again how prisoner insurrection is about solidarity. That’s like saying gang rape is good teamwork.

Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri released study results that demonstrate the total cost of incarceration for one year –  when we figure in social costs like lost wages ($70 billion), reduced earrings of formerly incarcerated persons ($230 billion), shortened life spans ($63 billion) increased crime ($285 billion) and other costs – is one trillion dollars.

Jay-Z released a video about the war on drugs. Nice effort, but the reports about how many people with drug convictions fill our prisons and jails are wrong. Read why here.

 

ANSWERS

F

A

D

H

C

B

G

A. CODE PURPLE  (SUICIDE/ATTEMPTED SUICIDE) – 8-12 M.P.H., panicking, hyperventilating, often crying.

B. CODE BLUE (INMATE FIGHT/ALTERCATION)  – One from every building because someone needs to bring the camera.

C. CODE GREEN (ESCAPE/ATTEMPTED ESCAPE) – 2 M.P.H. Circle, back-forth-back, shrugging.

D. CODE YELLOW (HOSTAGE TAKING) – Never seen one. Always stopped at ORANGE.

E. CODE ORANGE (ASSAULT ON D.O.C. PERSONNEL) – 8-11 M.P.H. Unrelenting waves of guards inundate the area, each additional one is useless, waiting to who gets dragged out.

F. CODE RED (FIRE) – 0 M.P.H. Always simulated. Thank God.

G. CODE WHITE (MEDICAL EMERGENCY) – 3 M.P.H. Except for guard who sprints from Disciplinary Board, beating everyone else.

H. CORRECTION OFFICER (250 lbs.) – “I don’t run no matter what color they are.”

 

 

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12 September 2016

Omnia Vincit Riot

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riot1

Prison fights creep up on us general pop-pers. They’re actually kind of quiet, no cluster of shouts like you see on TV and in the movies. In fact, they’re so silent that you can usually hear that fist-to-cheekbone swap! that’s buffered by only a thin stretch of facial skin.

So when things lulled on the other side of the dining hall when I was waiting in line to grab a tray, my first suspicion was fisticuffs. I was right.

In my peripheral vision, I could see the entire train of prisoners waiting for their meals and no one in line stepped out of it. But there must have been an energy shift from turned heads, the line’s directing its attention at the dustup, that two lieutenants noticed because that realization of threat and its wide, unfocused tension came across their faces. Their knees bent and their hands stretched out in “Stop” position, palms at right angle to their arms. They were really scared. The word “shitless” came to mind.

“STAY BACK!…DON’T MOVE!…DON’T FUCKIN’ MOVE!…STAND BAAACK!….STAY BACK NOW!” they each shrieked to a collection of women who were stone still but not because they were following instructions. They were confused.

“Da fuck?” someone asked.

“Aint nobody goin’ nowhere,” another said in that tone that reminds staff members that they can’t really see what’s unfolding before them.

In being warned not to move, the other women assumed they meant not to exit the chow hall. But these weren’t direct orders, these were pleas for safety.  I saw that a vulnerability so foreign to them had intruded on these lieutenants, like an unwanted, unannounced finger in their rectums; it zoomed right inside them and no matter how hard they resisted or pressed back, the only way it would vacate was on its terms, not theirs. And no one was even doing anything to them.

I looked at the ragged zig-zag trail of grey fleece sweatshirts and tattered denim legs leading to the serving line. Counted the tables; six women a piece. Calculated.  Right now it would be 8 to 1 when I factored in all the C/O’s who were working before the goon squad zoomed in to break up the fight. And I realized, as I never had before, a potential that has persisted for centuries that inmates don’t even understand in themselves.

Holy shit. We can take this place.

THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM SEPTEMBER 4 – 11, 2016

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STRIKE – A nationwide prisoner strike was planned for September 9, 2016, the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising. Mask Magazine (which I had never heard of before researching the strike, so I can’t vouch for its reliability) tried to update people here on what was happening but it looks, to me, like the strike was a flop, which I expected, because, for the most part, inmates like their jobs.

THREE – The Guardian and the Marshall Project teamed up for a three-part series on public defenders this week. The first report, found here, contains links to the next two. There are actually no new revelations in any of these reports.  They squawk to reporters ad infinitum, but stipulate to ineffective assistance of counsel on the record? Never. That might be effective.

YOU’RE OUT – Dallas, Texas District Attorney Susan Hawk stepped down on Tuesday, citing her need for treatment for her mental illness. This report by the Dallas Morning News shows how dysfunctional the DA’s office in Dallas really is. And no one is even mentioning whether certain decisions Hawk made while she was ill about who would be prosecuted and who wouldn’t should be examined to see if her illness contributed to someone else’s injustice.

 

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5 September 2016

Doctissima

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School started.  Wesleyan’s first female cohort – one southeast Asian, 7 white, 8 African-American, and 2 Latina – has already suffered attrition, but not your typical dwindling.

First, one inmate was forcibly withdrawn when her roommate accused her of anal rape after both of them ingested contraband painkillers that the roommate had smuggled into the facility in the same anus that was so inhospitable to  the Wesleyan student’s homemade dildo made of melted Jolly Ranchers.

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Confession: I have never seen one, only heard about them and this picture is supposed to be a shank, not a sex toy…unless someone very inexperienced made it.

Then the state of New York whisked away another inmate for outstanding warrants. Two of the eighteen were gone before they finished reading the course syllabus.

The remaining sixteen attended class intermittently (despite Wesleyan’s mandate that NONE be skipped) and handed in their assignments on their own schedules even though there was little competition for their time as we’re all locked down at least 16 hours a day.

Then the third casualty registered: an inmate student had the home address of a staff member in her belongings. She was banned from the prison school, banished from education and enrichment.  She was eventually reinstated for future attendance but, until that happens, fifteen hold on with grips looser than Gary Busey’s hold on reality.

C/O’s suffer from a stereotype that betrays the extent of their education. Many have bachelor’s degrees, even master’s degrees, and they choose to guard prisoners because the wages and benefits are better than so many other jobs and they need to pay off their student loans. As far I know, none of them attended Wesleyan.

I can tell that they resent the Wesleyan students even though prison education should, at least in theory, make their occupational lives easier, make inmates less likely to return thus making them look more effective. It’s easy to see free education for a child as an advance on future returns of success, but the investment in education in an adult, one who has never studied and never applied herself and may have taken another person’s life, looks like an undeserved prize.

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The real thing.

Especially when so many of them are academically unprepared for higher education. When women were applying to the program, one came to me and asked me to read her entrance essay.

The reasons why I would benefit from higher education. Where should I start? was the opener to the essay. That’s as far as my patience would let me read.

“Not there,” I told her and handed the cheap prison pulp she wrote it on back to her.

I should have been less of a bitch about it and sat down with her immediately to review the structure of the academic essay but I’ve done this before in other situations and it’s really hard. Too many students here aren’t primed for education. That doesn’t mean they’re dumb or undeserving; it means they’ve been cheated educationally and it shows.

I hate to admit it but I wonder if maybe the old, bigoted arguments against affirmative action – some people just aren’t capable of this kind of higher education – when applied to educational and socioeconomic deficits merit more consideration than liberal arts enthusiasts give them. The judges who decide cases on affirmative action in universities rarely see the realities of these deficits like I see them in prison; affirmative action decisions are made on purely theoretical grounds, especially in the Supreme Court of the United States.

Would Dr. Allan Bakke (the plaintiff in the seminal affirmative action case Bakke v. Regents of the University of California) have sacrificed his chance to attend UC Davis Medical School to perpetrate a sexual assault with a weapon made of melted Jolly Rancher candies? Of course not, because even as a rejected applicant, crime was never an option for him. He had recourse that these female inmates never will.

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A real Wesleyan Prison Education music class in a York CI classroom. This is the closest you’ll get to seeing the inside of that place unless you’re a woman who does time in Connecticut.

Affirmative action has for so long been touted as the way redress historical wrongs in education that we forget that it cannot correct the compounding of past prejudices and current offenses in offenders. Maybe women in prison – 90% of them poor, 68% entering without a high school diploma – can’t absorb the enormity of the opportunity, nay the gift, of a free Wesleyan education because of their dysfunction-studded backgrounds.

As I sat with women and explained utilitarianism, I wondered if maybe Wesleyan was too late. Watching the students made me think of a children’s museum – a place where inexperienced minds grow curious about the world through interactions that are, essentially, simulated experience. Not real.

The analogy wasn’t totally misplaced; economists have long argued that investments in education after pre-school don’t nourish the souls of students as much as education at a very young age. Many of the women enrolled in Wesleyan’s program never had that advantage and we’re compensating for that now with papers on environmental ethics. How do we expect them to develop a full grip?

This always put me in a bad position when I’m correcting or reading their written work.  Like when they write “could of” instead of “could’ve.” I’ve given speeches to women in here about contractions and homonyms and they don’t listen. Every colored pencil correction I press into their papers gets ignored. When I remind them about the grammar, they recoil and stay away from me. I’m completely willing to accept all the blame and admit that I have no teaching skills, that how I am instructing them is all wrong. And I know that intersections of various types of oppression have induced so many of their choices in life. Correcting them – either in ways that were too harsh or they couldn’t understand – could cause another choice, to quit, to stop learning.

So I choose not to correct certain errors and misunderstandings with the hope that my green light will let them keep going even if it is in the wrong direction. I can read strings of “could of”s and hand the paper back and assure her “Great job!” I am such a liar.

I’m not alone. Many of them return to the housing units with grins above their inmate ID’s and an “A” at the bottom of their papers. The people grading the papers aren’t ‘teachers’, they’re established academics  and I think they had no idea how to teach basic sentence structure; their bailiwicks were theory and, until they came to the prison, every student with whom they interacted knew what persona non grata meant, not how it felt. Women at York know how it feels and that’s it. Ultimately I think both my and the professors’ permissive grading and comments might be a disservice to them, done in the name of educational quality. Prison is such a fucked up place that even your good deeds are harmful.

 

It’s really another form of oppression, I know. In being easy on them, I’m treating them like an inferior class, like they couldn’t ever reach a certain level of competence. Treating prisoners just like everyone else sometimes means you have to exact more out of them. Demanding that they meet certain standards necessarily implies that you think they are capable of it. I believe that they can become intellectually versed but I act like they never would when I hand back a paper and say: “Yeah, looks great,” when I know it isn’t. I often wonder how much I actually help the women with any of my tutoring.

And if I, someone who lived with them for years, someone who understands them somewhat and knows they need to have high standards impressed upon them for them to improve, can’t help them, then who the hell can or will? Particularly when the way they behave towards such charitable demands is bizarre, criminal, unworthy?

Nelson Mandela once said something about education’s being the most powerful weapon in changing the world. Maybe he said that because he never saw the damage that a Jolly Rancher dildo could wield against free college courses. On second thought, he spent 27 years in the joint. Of course he saw a Jolly Rancher dildo or its equivalent. He just saw past it.

THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM AUGUST 29 – SEPTEMBER 4, 2016

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People are going home…but to what?

One hundred and eleven more, making 673 total are going home – President Obama commuted another 111 sentences on Tuesday, 325 in the month of August 2016 alone. I’m taking bets on how many pardons and commutations he’ll grant before he goes home. Meanwhile, the United States Department of Justice released a report that slammed the Bureau of Prisons on its re-entry training and reported that 16.4 % of the inmates released in Fiscal Year 2013 were back in custody by 2015. The Office of the Inspector General said that many inmates don’t complete the reentry course. I wasn’t in a federal prison but I didn’t finish mine, either. Not preparing people to leave, it’s…it’s a thing in prisons.

Brock Turner is going home. He left the Santa Clara County Jail’s custody and I actually feel bad for him as I do for anyone who walks out of custody coated in society’s hate. What he did that night behind a dumpster to an unconscious woman is the stuff of stomach acid and heaves, for sure. But I know how lonely and scared that person who’s going through a criminal prosecution feels. I don’t wish it on anyone for anything. It’s probably a character flaw to feel that level of sympathy for certain people, but hey, what did you expect six years in prison to do to me?

Nationally known prosecutor Angela Corey is going home. She was defeated in her primary election in her bid for another term of State’s Attorney in Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit Court. Corey earned a reputation for her prosecutions of high-profile defendants such as Marissa Alexander, the abused wife for whom she asked for a 60-year prison term after Alexander shot in her husband’s direction (and only got 20 years, which was later reduced to three); George Zimmerman, who was tried for second-degree murder for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin and whose trial she lost; and 12 year old Cristian Fernandez, whom she tried as an adult for killing one half brother, sexually abusing another half brother and never being part of a whole, intact family.  Her replacement isn’t much better, but still… Bye, Angela.

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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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“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.”

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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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