“I ain’t gonna work for no white man for 75 cents a day,” an African-American inmate cried before she quit and, through her quitting, provided cause to be fired – an event I’ve witnessed so often that I’ve come to call it “quiring.” While who dumped who might be in debate, what she said was 100% accurate. She didn’t work for the 75 cent daily wage she was paid while she worked here.
Especially now that a copy of the Michelle Alexander book, The New Jim Crow, is getting passed around in here, almost every reference to our prison jobs includes the s-word: slavery. It’s a real testament to the power of messaging since I think only 6 of us actually read the book but everyone talks like they have.
It’s true that there are more African Americans under correctional control than were enslaved in 1850. And, given the fact that a high inmate wage is a dollar per hour, slavery would come to mind.
But witnessing the power of prison employment to reform people and to train them for a better life, I think calling it slavery negates all of the good that comes from it and sends a message that’s ultimately more dehumanizing than any uncompensated work could be.
If anyone has the right to call it slavery, I do, but I detest that name for something that’s humanizing me. I feel reliable and capable again even though I’ve only been assigned some relatively menial work like scrubbing pots, stacking plastic trays and slicing bags of tomatoes. I’m not alone; when they’re working, other women feel like they have something to offer that isn’t sexual and they think they’ll be able to provide for their families when they leave. They don’t describe their jobs as some type of bondage. We like what we’re doing and I’ve never heard anyone say that slaves like being indentured. What everyone outside is calling slavery, the inmates who are actually working – and too busy to internalize an infantilizing “slave” mentality – call liberating.
Not only is calling prison labor slavery insulting to the inmates but it’s a total affront to the original slaves whose conversion from human to chattel wasn’t the result of any transgression but was instead a kidnapping from their homeland and a fencing into forced labor.
We modern day slaves landed in our situations because of bad choices. I understand that much of shitty judgment is forced in a way: addiction, mental illness, poverty, lack of education, and racism collude to make the decision to commit a crime seem obvious, even attractive. Is someone who gets charged and convicted of beating a child because the tyke interrupted a TV show she was watching the same as someone else’s being plopped under a poop deck and transported to another country where they’ll never be free…after they’ve done nothing wrong?
More than just relying on a flawed comparison, when you call prison labor slavery, you take away the inmate’s agency, their right to negotiate their own lives, regardless of how reduced their choices are.
And when we erase the ability to choose, to be an agent in one’s own life, we also delete our capacity to reform ourselves. Change results from choice and where we say there are no choices, there can be no rehabilitation. If everyone who’s working in prison is a slave, shackled to a poor decision in their past, then there isn’t much hope for them when they leave the facility, as 95% of us will eventually.
Professor Alexander – a graduate of Stanford Law School who’s never walked my walk into prison – hasn’t provided answers for the questions that a slave like me would necessarily have with my intimate knowledge of prison labor. If what I do is slavery, then what’s community service, that sentence that everyone thinks is such a boon? Raking leaves for a week for nothing is okay but lifting bags of texturized vegetable protein for years isn’t? Is contributing to our communities and ourselves through hard, honest toil always going to be an illegal exploitation? If a non-profit benefits instead of a state or a for-profit company, does that make the whole operation legal and defensible?
Where Alexander is right is her assertion that incarceration makes a 21st century caste system whereby people with criminal records are chained in poverty because they can’t get occupational licenses or jobs. That’s the problem with prison labor; not the pay, but the fact that we’re good enough to work in here, for next to nothing, but not good enough to work for people and companies when we’re outside. It’s the same work, from the same source, and it’s treated totally differently once we’re free. That makes no sense, yet the phenomenon had persisted for years in reentry. People are too busy trying to call prison labor slavery that they ignore the good argument about it: that it’s hypocrisy.
I’m white and I work for white chefs who happened to seek employment in a prison kitchen in Connecticut. Maybe I’d assess this differently if I were black and faced a lifetime of racism that culminated in my being required to bang out license plates in a Texas prison for no pay at all. I don’t even know if I’m qualified to have an opinion on this. What we do in here is poorly-paid but I don’t think it’s slavery.
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM APRIL 10 – 16, 2017
The focus this week? The vig you pay to maintain mass incarceration.
A sheriff in Alabama is petitioning a court to be allowed to keep – for herself – any money leftover after feeding the inmates in her care. It’s hard to tell what the most shocking part about this story from AL.com is. It could be the fact that this is even allowed in the first place. Or maybe the fact that Morgan County, Alabama is the only county left out of this statewide scheme because the last sheriff pocketed $200K and fed the inmates only two corndogs a day for weeks. Or maybe the fact that the current sheriff, knowing that Morgan County was exempt from this, still withdrew $160,000 from the corrections food account and invested it in a corrupt, bankrupt used car dealership run by a convicted felon.
It was reported that bonuses for federal prison officials, ranging from $7,000 to $28,000, cost taxpayers $2 million over the last three years, while the Bureau of Prisons “was confronting persistent overcrowding, sub-par inmate medical care, chronic staffing shortages and a lurid sexual harassment lawsuit that engulfed its largest institution.” Read about it here.
Things are changing in Georgia, where you are placed on misdemeanor probation for traffic tickets and required to pay the fine plus fees so a private corporation can make millions. The biggest company has quit, because they’ve finally accepted that expecting record profits from a clientele that has always been and probably will always be poor is a shitty business model. Instead, Sentinel Offender Services tried to pass the cost to the taxpayer by requesting that the courts pay these exorbitant fees on the probationers’ behalf.
Who’s the slave now?
Oh, and don’t miss Lifetime’s movie this week, written and directed by my screenwriting teacher Stephen Tolkin: New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell. It’s about the famous 2015 escape and it’s about manipulation but it’s also about a prison workplace and what happens there. Decide for yourself if inmates who work are slaves. The film airs at 8 P.M. EST on April 23, 2017 on Lifetime but you can watch a trailer here.
Anyone who has ever shopped for children’s clothing knows that there are different sizing schemes. “T” denotes a toddler size. “6X,” a size unheard of in adult clothing, is slightly bigger for the child growing out of size 6 and “juniors” departments offer sizes for adolescents. Without an exact fit, parents try to find the best fit for the meantime until their children outgrow their clothes and need new ones.
We respond more to children’s fitting rooms than their needs in courtrooms. We drape adult laws over juvenile offenders, always expecting a perfect fit that will last a lifetime. Now scientists and policymakers agree that juvenile sentences are like children’s clothes: one size doesn’t fit all.
The “Second Look” legislation that just came out of the [Connecticut General Assembly’s] Judiciary Committee would change the sentence modification laws for juvenile offenders, allowing them the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed without the approval of a prosecutor after they’ve served a certain amount of time. many times children as young as 14 receive sentences of fifty years or more. Second Look legislation provides the opportunity for tailoring our punishments once we realize that juvenile offenders’ sentences either never fit or don’t fit any more.
The way they treat juvenile and youthful offenders in here shows they’re different. The C/O’s escort girls under 18 years old wherever they go: school (mandated for young inmates), meals (they eat alone in the large dining hall and return to their unit before adult inmates are released for chow). Little girls aren’t treated like adults in the big house, but they are in the place that gets them here: the courthouse.
But the Second Look legislation is cut too small; it helps only those offenders who were under the age of 18 at the time of their offense. The age limitation flies in the face of the most recent neuroscience on the subject, specifically the fact that the part of the brain that governs judgment and impulse does not fully mature until someone reaches the age of 25. In their arrest warrants, police investigating crimes committed by women under 25 – particularly serious and violent crimes by those women – usually tell the stories against backdrops of adolescently dysfunctional behavior: a co-defendant loser boyfriend who seduced them and induced them into criminal behavior, a complete and total devotion to him during the prosecution of the case, even though her “Co-D” is foisting his responsibility on her.
Even though most of the frontal lobe research embraced by the American Psychological Association indicates that every offender under 25 merits the same consideration in sentencing because their brains are still not completely developed, all offenders between 18 and 25 are left out of it. The law ignores the totality of the science it depends on. Despite this data, using an arbitrary cut-off, a numeric construct, namely the age of 18, perpetuates the practice of fashioning one punishment for a population based only on their ages and not what’s appropriate for the individual offender.
Connecticut isn’t alone in being kind of wrong in doing the right thing for juvies. This new law would follow the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States who, in their 2010 opinion in Graham v. Florida, declared the death penalty unconstitutional for 15 and 16 year-olds because their adolescent brain development lessened their culpability. But for 17-25 year-olds, execution is fine, even though the research findings say it isn’t.
Juvenile justice considerations are usually pretty theoretical to me because I came to the can an old biddy. Neither I nor anyone I associated with was in trouble when I was a teenager. No boyfriend of mine brought me to criminal behavior on a date. However, I ran with a different crowd than these women. My friends, the boys I met, were all from the upper-middle class and were fixated on their futures, even the iconoclast on an opposing debate team who called in a bomb threat to a local school; he’s supposedly a lawyer now. Redistricting ambition into the less affluent neighborhoods, the subsidized housing and the elusive culture that the inmates call “the streets” rarely happens. If I sprang from those circumstances, boys could have easily led me into bad business. Everyone credits her judgment for her clean history but, most of the time, it’s just luck and economics.
Adolescent stupidity plays out differently in different dioramas – one with government cheese instead of Chili’s quesadillas, one with a fire hydrant instead of a swimming pool, one with parents who wait in line for housing vouchers rather than stand on sidelines of field hockey fields – and will wreak different results. But even someone from the wealthiest, most stable family can make a sufficiently long list of stupid mistakes they made before age 25; an eighteenth birthday doesn’t cut the list off.
In fact, I did most of my dumbest, most barely legal shit in college – when I was 18 through 21 – the exact ages that this law wouldn’t cover. Even if I had been arrested for any of my alcohol-fueled dalliances with the thought that I was edgy and cool for pulling reckless capers, my family would have reeled me out of this pit in the same way that legislators are trying to help the girls who are here now.
If I had suffered consequences for my stupidity and my family hadn’t had the resources to help me, I’d have been as fucked as the young women in this place are. The kids are goofy but these young ladies are extremely focused on appearance: making uniform jeans tighter, wearing elaborate cat-eye black on their lids, erecting mazes of hair on top of their heads with curls, yet they’re a little dour because, I think, they know that no one’s coming for them. At 19, they’re already too old to attract the right kind of attention.
Update: Photos here depict real juvenile offenders, the last four are pictures of 10 year-old boy who was arrested in Texas for marijuana possession, caught while copping for his mother who has a substance abuse problem and couldn’t post his bail. AN ACT CONCERNING LENGTHY SENTENCES FOR CRIMES COMMITTED BY A CHILD OR YOUTH AND THE SENTENCING OF A CHILD OR YOUTH CONVICTED OF CERTAIN FELONY OFFENSES was passed into law in Connecticut after I left prison, in 2015. It still left out offenders aged 18 to 25.
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM APRIL 3 – 9, 2017
It was another numbers game last week, with some shockers.
The Washington Post reported that ninety percent of criminal charges brought by the IRS were false, based on an overbroad definition of “structuring” – the practice of splitting deposits, supposedly in order to dodge reporting requirements. Many of the deposits were made for legitimate business purposes. Makes you wonder if Jersey Shore reality star Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino who was hit with more tax fraud charges this week, including splitting deposits, is one of those victims of the IRS.
Twenty-nine cops killed themselves during the first quarter of 2017. Over 100 took their own lives in 2016. If suicides are just the tip of the mental illness iceberg, then how many more are psychotically depressed, chronically depressed, anxious to the point of jumpiness or traumatized to the point that they’re dangerous to the rest of us, discharging their weapons when shooting isn’t justified? It might explain why they want only cops to serve on juries in trials of cops accusing of assaulting or killing people by shooting them.
One of the 8 men scheduled to be executed in an 11-day death penalty bonanza in Arkansas has been spared. One of the remaining seven wrote for Vice News and the Marshall Project what it’s like to wait for your execution date. Here’s a hint: your death row neighbors call dibs on your belongings and prison staff actually cares that the clothes you wear to get killed fit your properly. I think it’s a disgusting end to any life, even if it did end another’s, if you ask me.
Studying the Gospel of Matthew in after-school catechism, I found the question: How many times must I forgive my neighbor?
Seven times seventy.
I remember thinking that Jesus was a little close-fisted about forgiveness. Seven times seventy is 490 and he wouldn’t even round up to the full five hundred. It also scared me because in my twelve-year old heart that was as ambitious about achievement as it was intimidated by my own fallibility – one I would never admit – that I would max out my limit before I could test for my driver’s license.
The parable’s purpose is to teach the opposite, of course, that forgiveness has no cap. And since the sins I thought would damn me were talking back to my parents, occasionally cursing, being a banal, upper-middle class, white brat, I never predicted that my cup of depravity would runneth over as much as it did when picked up 13 felony convictions. I don’t like to brag, but I earned four misdemeanors, too. I am always an overachiever.
As someone in such extreme need of absolution, I should be heartened when I hear that someone got a SECOND CHANCE but I’m not. Despite the fact that the phrase has become synonymous with formalized redemption, the banner over every criminal justice reform effort, I can do without a SECOND CHANCE.
Standalone, the phrase is loaded with meaning, more than just shorthand for ‘lay off the cons.’
It negatively frames your alleged crime. When someone gives you a SECOND CHANCE, they’re reminding you that you blew the first. Maybe it’s not the exact metes and bounds of my offense, but it puts my name on the mailbox and being given a SECOND CHANCE hurts me where I live, nestled nicely between the first shot and the third strike. When you’re given a SECOND CHANCE, the LAST CHANCE is next. The end is near. And remember: we don’t round up.
If forgiveness is finite, then it’s scarce, and if it’s scarce in the United States, then it’s controlled by an elite few. To get this commodity, I have to plead for it, work for it or manipulate it out of them. It makes me lesser than they and assures me that I’ll never wrest full control of it but instead settle for small pieces that I must beg for. The phrase SECOND CHANCE is supposed to be robust, redemptive rhetoric but it’s become anemic, Dickensian if you really think about it. A bloodless phrase to describe someone getting a pint out of you. Mercy doesn’t work on a capitalist model. There shouldn’t be an economy in forgiveness. It’s the one place where I prefer communism: to each according to need, from each according to ability…and of course, everyone’s ability should match their needs; both are inexhaustible if we tell the truth about ourselves.
Paolo Friere, the Brazilian educator and author, found that the ‘banking model’ of education – the model where the teacher has more knowledge than the pupils, which she then bestows upon them – doesn’t work with oppressed populations. Students become passive receptacles for knowledge and can only receive what the teacher’s willing to give. This, Friere argues, is ultimately dehumanizing because all power of the student derives from the teacher, not from ability, from curiosity, from within. Someone has to grant permission to other people to develop as human beings.
While I appreciate the people who haven’t been justice-involved when they make these pronouncements about SECOND CHANCES, it’s the same banking model used on an afflicted group of people. The fact that a SECOND CHANCE must be dispensed by others ordains them brokers of morality, a job for which no one can really pass the background check. Who am I – or anyone – to man some ethical abacus and tick over CHANCES and opportunities to someone, which I can slide away when they displease me? “I gave you a SECOND CHANCE, but….”
Even though I cringe at it, I don’t know what should replace the SECOND CHANCE? “Fair shot”? “Do-over” like Billy Crystal’s character Mitch calls it in the movie City Slickers? Maybe ANOTHER CHANCE would work because it implies what we all know – we’re all way past SECOND in our CHANCE tally and we will continue to need them, again and again.
Maybe it’s not SECOND that bothers me but CHANCE. Who wants to be chancy? It implies that it’s risky to trust you, that you’re fundamentally unreliable and dealing with you is gambling, staking something valuable for something else that may never materialize. If I get a CHANCE, I’m a permanent maybe. My future is a shrug.
In Germany, when someone finishes a sentence of incarceration, their record is automatically expunged. Debts cleared and credit restored – nobody runs a redemption tab like we do in the United States. Germans don’t waste time bandying about the phrase SECOND CHANCE because reentry is relatively seamless; when you discharge from prison and go home, you’re just moving, living out this ONLY CHANCE each of us get – life – in a new place.
Part of the message of forgiveness is that it isn’t emotional, it’s rational, a decision, a strategic investment in interpersonal relations. It’s meant to nudge, even drag, people toward quashing their beefs when they’re still hot. But this is misleading because mercy isn’t the presence of determination and decision but the absence of it. Wiping away someone’s failing doesn’t count if you replace it with a sign that says “This is where I excused you.” That’s what giving me a SECOND CHANCE does. I hate that shit.
The other women don’t analyze the linguistics and meaning of the phrase like I do because they’re not as thin-skinned as I am. They’ve strapped their SECOND CHANCES on as they busy themselves with sentence modification applications, bids for clemency and pardons that our Board of Pardons and Paroles – notoriously cheap with absolution – won’t ever grant them. I refuse to use the language and ask for one. These CHANCES I’m so snobbish about accepting will grow even more scant as time goes on. And what will I say then? Will I have to go all Oliver Twist and beg: May I please have some more? to the sign that reads: “See teller at next window.”
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM MARCH 27 – APRIL 2, 2017
Rikers Island, the New York City jail that’s notorious for depraved violence, is closing, getting drained and demolished, just like its inhabitants. The Lippman Commission – named after the former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippman, who headed the investigation – came up with a report that lists several changes that will be made. For me, a very important part of their report is that the Commission acknowledged that court trips cause fans guilty pleas, something I’ve been saying for years but was unable to prove. But don’t invest in new security systems just yet. It’s going to take a decade and people will be held in other facilities that will be built around the five boroughs. Read the Lippman Commission’s report here.
Last week SCOTUS heard oral argument in Lee v. United States, wherein a South Korean national was advised by his attorney that pleading guilty to a felony wouldn’t cause him to be deported. Ask Trump whether that was good advice or not. There’s no doubt that his attorney’s advice was deficient, yet courts have decided that, because they think he had no chance at acquittal at trial, it’s a no harm, no foul-type situation. Tim Lynch, Director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice, says this means our right to a jury trial is under attack. Read why here.
Combining last week’s storylines of ineffective assistance of counsel and Rikers, undocumented defendants are actually begging to be sent to Rikers to avoid deportation, the New York Post reported. I’m not sure about the ethics and competence of attorneys who are asking for raised bond for their clients so they get taken into custody. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will know exactly where these people are and can place detainers on them so they will leave Rikers into the welcoming arms of a removal agent. This tactic only delays and doesn’t stop deportation and the upside of this strategy is time in a dangerous human cesspool? No.
At the time, inmates were filing federal lawsuits at a rate thirty-five times higher than the general population – 25 per 1000 prisoners, according to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. Now that 2.2 million people inhabit United States prisons and jails, 550,000 federal lawsuits would be filed every year if prisoners had maintained that pace. Assuming a 250-day work year and a seven-hour workday, that amounts to 2200 prisoner claims filed every day, 314 every business hour, if that rate continued today.
But the year was 1996 and their two-year old “Contract with America” obligated Republicans in Washington to produce a big change, especially since a budget impasse had caused a federal government shutdown. Congress sought to seal up the outpouring of prisoner-initiated civil actions. The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), part of the Omnibus Consolidated Rescissions and Appropriations Act of 1996, the law that broke open the budget bottleneck, was passed in April of that year. Unsurprisingly, every year since then, the rate of inmate litigation has declined.
The PLRA’s purpose was litigation reduction, a not so ignoble goal. One rule of criminal justice, and of prison life, is that stupid, selfish sociopaths will endanger any benefit bestowed on a general population, even if it causes authorities to yank that support for them, too. That is what the PLRA did; it basically eliminated an inmate’s ability to file civil claims unfettered after courts heard such cases as the suit seeking money damages for cruel and unusual punishment when an inmate ordered two jars of creamy peanut butter from the commissary but received one creamy and one chunky. When Congress needed to display austerity in the most ostentatious way, their scissors flashed across these gross examples of frivolity. This isn’t brilliant analysis on my part; the Supreme Court of the United States admitted as much in their decision in Porter v. Nussle.
Federal litigation is usually the only way for someone who’s incarcerated to sue at all. You can’t really sue the state for tortious conduct because of the various types of immunity. They don’t have immunity in federal court when you claim that the state’s violated your civil rights. So they only forum where an inmate has an inkling of a chance is the one that’s almost impossible for him to reach.
Complaints from prisoners – whether they’re lawsuits, those essential grievances that have to be exhausted before someone can file a lawsuit, or just general gripes issued through gritted teeth – are the thermometer of a facility; the docket is the best way to see what’s really happening in there without going inside, even if half the allegations aren’t fully evidenced. If you have a number of suits alleging a guard is being abusive, then either he is shitting on the inmates or he’s been made a soft target and a rumor has circulated that someone can get money from litigation; either way, it warrants an investigation.
Inmates who are serious enough about their beefs to get paperwork together and mail it to a proper federal clerk are probably telling the truth. Discouraging them means by making it harder for a prisoner to complain you don’t care to know what’s happening inside. The PLRA basically told every inmate: “We don’t give a fuck what they do to you.”
And they do to us. A Texas inmate lost his leg in a grain reaper when a guard failed to supervise him properly in his work assignment. Undoubtedly, this prisoner has a meritorious claim, but it’s almost impossible for him to file it. After the surgery to sew up the wound on his severed limb, he lived in such extreme heat that it’s killed eleven prisoners. It’s going to be hard for them to get relief through the courts, so no one will know the figurative or the actual temperature in there. People will continue to be maimed and killed. The PLRA is one of the most effective – and cold-hearted – silencings there will ever be.
If we can change the way our complaints are viewed, having others views them as input rather than as requests for output, someone might see the sociological and epidemiological value of litigation, even papers smeared with peanut butter-type foolishness, to see what’s happening in prisons. The PLRA only reinforces this antiquated thinking of the criminal justice system – the idea that every complaint is a declaration of war, where one party is wrong, another right, and one must be punished and the other walk away the victor.
The complaint against a defendant in a criminal case isn’t called that. It’s called an “information” because that’s what it provides to everyone involved in the case: data so they can do something about what happened. In theory, prosecutors, victims, perps, defense attorneys and judges are supposed to come up with the best, least restrictive solution to the problem of one person’s lawbreaking. But because criminal court dockets are flooded with too many cases – a riot of sorts – we just default to prison at every opportunity for solutions.
Viewed properly, complaints – even lawsuits – are just openers for dialogue, invitations for exchange. If we viewed them that way, like the old AA adage goes, as “descriptions, not indictments” we’d have even fewer prisoner lawsuits, because we would have less cause for them. Isn’t that the best court policy we could have? It would be like effecting tort reform because fewer people were harmed, got in fewer accidents, fell less often. Isn’t that what we want? Sometimes it seems like we prefer that people keep suffering so we can keep our courthouses open. And shut out prisoners in a new and different way.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM MARCH 20 – 26, 2017
Inmates say they’re getting beaten and harassed in the aftermath of the uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware on February 1st, when Sergeant Steven Floyd was killed. I’m sure many of the inmates who are being victimized had nothing to do with the commotion but this is becoming unfortunately familiar coda to preventable prison riots. A few bad apples cause a stir and everyone in the facility gets pummeled for it. It’s almost as if the National Guard or another military force should take these prisons over after these incidents so that the staff who’s been harmed/embarrassed/caught doesn’t have access to inmates while they’re still hot under their badges.
The state of Arkansas is in a rush to execute eight men on death row (pictured above) by the end of April, when one of the ingredients of the state’s fatal execution cocktail will expire. They are recruiting (drafting?) witnesses to the execution from places as odd as Rotary Clubs because they have a statutory requirement: six to twelve people have to witness every execution for it to go down legally. Not sure how to think of this, asking people to be like acting like notary publics for killings. It’s distasteful but it might effect a policy shift ,seeing that there aren’t too many takers, even though the state of Arkansas is supposedly pro-death penalty. Almost no one wants to act as a witness to what they supposedly support.
And if you like Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s SCOTUS nominee who sat through days of confirmation hearing testimony last week, because you think he might be okay on criminal justice issues because he’s been a little bit fair with his Fourth Amendment (right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure) decisions, read what Stanford Law Review says about his stance on my favorite amendment, the Big Sixth, the right to effective assistance of counsel. The article is a little wonky (written by law students who are unaccustomed to explaining legal concepts in lay terms. Here’s one that explains more but is a little older Gorusch ain’t good.
It’s mid-shift in the food prep unit. HOPE is standing at the large window in the food service workers’ empty dining hall. She watches as another inmate walks past the plate glass and stops to speak with a C/O. Flirtation and cutesy interactions ensue between the two of them.
(speaking to no one in particular)
How the fuck does she get away with this shit? Aren’t we locked down until…whenever because some judge is here, walking around and they don’t want any of these bitches talking to her and telling her what’s really goin’ on up in this place? I mean…if I was just wandering around I’d be cuffed and stuffed.
CHANDRA walks up and observes. Her expression says what she’s witnessing is common.
Well, I’m not 100% on it. But it’s my only theory now. I mean, if I were in court, I would be careful and say that it is my personal opinion, given what I’ve observed, that she was probably pregnant but I have no direct knowledge of her condition. You get me?
I still think she witnessed something real bad. Serious. Like criminal. Like a C/O beating someone.
Can’t be that. It’s not enough of a threat. If she reported something she saw, they’d just call her a liar, crazy. The usual delusional.
Maybe she witnessed something and can tell the cops exactly where to look for it on the cameras. That’s evidence. Or maybe she has some paperwork.
Nah. They’ve searched her shit so many times, someone would have confiscated it. The guilty party or his friends…
Maybe it’s paperwork she sent out. I mean, just playing devil’s advocate here.
No one to send it to. Her husband’s doing time and her family doesn’t speak to her after what she did.
Maybe a lawyer?
They open legal mail. They’re not supposed to but…
(CHANDRA gives HOPE a knowing look.)
Would’ve confiscated it that way, too.
Maybe it’s not papers. Maybe she smuggled it out like the chick who smuggled out her toothbrush after she gave the guy [a C/O] a blow job?
I’ve done my due diligence on this. She doesn’t get visitors so she can’t pass anything out. And if they open legal mail, they’ll definitely open an envelope that looks like it has a toothbrush, especially after last time. It’s evidence she alone can control.
Like something inside her, like a baby.
Like something that’s guarded by HIPAA [Health Information Portability and Accountability Act]. Remember medical is UCONN, not DOC. They should have no access to her medical records.
So the evidence is in her chart. Okay, that works.
Except it’s not in her medical chart here. They’d break the law and Watergate the hell out of the medical records room to save their asses.
So, wait. It’s not in her file?
Here. Not in her file here.
I don’t. I don’t get it.
Abortions go to the local Planned Parenthood and their doctors don’t calculate the fact that she might have been in custody at the time of conception. They only care about the beginning of pregnancy to make sure they’re in the right trimester to do it. As long as they’re less than – what’s it 20, 24 weeks? – in, they don’t care about the beginning of pregnancy. They’re all about the end. And they might’ve fudged her DOC entry date when they took her over there.
That’s not in her chart here?
Nope. Because no one asked for it to be sent over. The OB here knows the deal and she’s mandated to report. Can’t report what you don’t know about.
Why don’t they just try to destroy the records or delete them there [at Planned Parenthood]?
Do you know how many pro-life nuts harass these people at Planned Parenthood? People shoot abortion providers and women who get the procedure. Planned Parenthood’s security is better than it is here. No one’s hacking their system or raiding their offices at night. Believe me.
But why would they bring her to a place where they have no control?
The best option. At least no one else can access it there either. No third parties gaining access to it. It’s in a vault with one key: her word. So they kiss her ass, let her get away with outrageous shit.
No, here’s the problem. She has no money. There’s no reason for her not to sue them. I mean, having sex with an inmate, getting her preggo, is rape. She’d clean up.
She has, like, 20 years to serve. Anything she’d win – and she’s not a sympathetic victim – would get eaten up by the cost of her incarceration. She’d end up with no money and nothing to hold over their heads. This way, she still has no money…but she gets whatever she wants. Still keeps the knife at their necks.
You really think a C/O got her pregnant?
C/O. Lieutenant. Captain. Warden. A fucking male nurse. Someone. We’re talking about is objective evidence, off prison grounds, and Adrienne is the only person who can pull the ripcord on it. And whatever it is, it’s serious, as in lose-your-job, lose-your-freedom, register-as-a-sex-offender serious.
Think about it. Only Adrienne has power over it. Off grounds. Undeniable evidence. Serious crime. Someone knocked her up in here. I’m telling you it’s pregnancy. At least, like I said, it’s my working theory.
Think it’s mine now, too.
I’m telling you. That’s what it is.
Supervisor GREEN BAY walks into the dining hall and raises his hands in an open question after he sees his two employees watching essentially nothing very intently.
Bozelko! Brooks! We’re pumping! Let’s go! Is this a parade or work?
Sorry, Green Bay. I was explaining my working theory for extreme favoritism in this place.
Well, let’s try this on for a working theory: just work.
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM MARCH 13 – 19, 2017
As if the reporter read Prison Diaries’ game plan, this week Vice News reported how hard it is for a woman to terminate a pregnancy while she’s incarcerated. There are no formal procedures as to how this gets accomplished in at least 20 states. Read the report here.
On Pi day, 3.14, the Prison Policy Initiative released its yearly “Whole Pie” graph of incarceration in the United States. “The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 76 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories,” the report said. They also found that 641,000 people leave prison every year. If they all stayed out…we’d solve this prison crisis quickly.
How much is a year of your life worth? If you’re wrongly incarcerated in Texas, you get $80,000 in compensation for every year you spent in prison. In Wisconsin? $5,000 per year. Michigan pays $50 K for every 365 days on the inside.
It would make it easier she had some redeeming feature. She’s not nice (she’s here for overdosing a teenage boy, letting him die, and then attempting to show remorse by saying she was glad that it didn’t happen to her family). She’s not sane (see description under ‘nice’). Hard-working? Nah, she sits around all day taking other inmates’ pills because she’s prohibited from working outside the unit. Good-looking? Nyet. She looks like Quagmire from Family Guy with hips as broad as beam. Former stripper, my ass.
To this day, she freely admits that she tried to kill another inmate by putting battery acid in her coffee because she was mad at her and didn’t want her around anymore. So she tenderly split open a Double-A (which takes strength and dedication) and drained the liquid out into a cup of instant coffee and non-dairy creamer, a combination probably more lethal than the acid, but it’s the thought that counts. Rumor has it that she tried again when the acid didn’t work, using bleach-based scouring powder.
And nothing happened to her, besides a seven-day stint in seg. No charges for attempted murder. No real punishment. No message sent, except maybe one: Adrienne* will get away with murder, especially if it’s only attempted.
No woman on this compound can explain why the staff allows Adrienne to break so many rules so whoppingly. Their permissiveness has gone from merely suspicious to out-and-out conspiratorial on some of the C/O’s parts. Other guards remain as baffled as the rest of us as to why she goes north or south of consequences when they should zoom right at her.
You can’t analogize prison life with real life. I can’t explain why wearing a white T-shirt outside my cell can set the place in a tailspin. All I can say is that some things in prison are forbidden and the reasons for it are unbidden.
Adrienne’s specialty is the forbidden, a fact never forgotten as she cruises her tier in a snow-colored Hanes and none of the staff members say a word.
I still doubt I’ll ever be able to convey to people on the outside the stronghold Adrienne has, except through examples that they wouldn’t really understand.
For instance, in here, if you’re on your way to seg, consider yourself arrived. By that I mean that, when they cuff you and trail you with a camera, you’re going no matter what injustice or error started your trip. Once during a “chronic sweep” – a posse of guards that rove the compound now and again to pick up women with severe discipline records in the same way that tape collects lint – the posse picked up the wrong Inmate Columbo. There are two here: S. Columbo and M. Columbo, and they mistook S for M. Even though someone might have realized the error mid-transfer, trading S for M on the way to the restricted housing unit would be unheard of. S would sit in seg while the fine detail fact-checking took place and M was rounded up. No seg trip ever stops for any reason to let someone go. Unless it’s Adrienne.
As the legend goes, while C/O’s escorted Adrienne to seg once, one on each side gripping an arm, trailed by a lieutenant and someone with a camera, she somehow caught the attention of a deputy warden through the window of his office. He came out and ordered his men to let her go. Take her back. Two opposing orders but that wasn’t why the Deputy Warden’s command shocked everyone. The Let Her/Take Her awed everyone because no one ever short circuits a seg-walk. Never. This was the first time it would happen, as only Adrienne wields serious power in here, and the last straw for people who expect any fairness in this facility.
Everyone – inmates and staff alike – assume that Adrienne’s got the goods on some higher up. Different names get tossed into the theory and we’re all probably right.
But Adrienne’s reign teaches a more important lesson than just that the brass has clay feet. She proves that the worst inmates get the best treatment. I have yet to figure out why this happens. I think it might be the same type of phenomenon where adults allow a bully to push around younger smaller tykes. They know what they’re witnessing is wrong and they undoubtedly have the power to stop it but they are either too scared of the bully themselves or they’re so secretly sick themselves that they like what they’re watching.
I think that’s what’s happening in here. Some of the C/O’s are scared of Adrienne – after all, her offenses aren’t making fun of someone’s hair or pushing someone off the jungle gym; Adrienne would kill someone without compunction. Other guards like the fact that she terrorizes the rest of general population because they hate us all.
I don’t begrudge anyone a little leniency. Mercy is good. But it can veer into favoritism, preferential treatment, which is anathema in a well-run prison. What’s good for one is good for all – that’s how a good prison runs.
But this place isn’t a good prison if you watch who gets the partiality. For the most part, women here for the most heinous crimes are very well-behaved and remorseful, a fact that only compounds the tragedy of their actions since they clearly were out of character and precipitated by illness, trauma, rage. Regardless of how we comport ourselves, the guards make fun of us for what they think we did to get here, except for that extreme exemption for people who took others’ lives and couldn’t give a shit less about what they did. These chicks run the joint. Once during a lockdown I saw a few women just wandering around on the walkway. They strolled into the garden. No one should have been outside the unit and these people were meandering. I know each of their convictions and counted them up: Felony Murder, Murder 2, Manslaughter, Capital Felony Murder, Capital Felony Murder.
When a C/O came to pass out the lunch trays since the rest of us couldn’t even leave our cells, much less the structure they sat in, I cocked my thumb toward my window and asked him:
“So, what exactly does someone have to do to get fresh air around here? Would a Criminally Negligent Homicide conviction free me a little?”
He ran to a bigger window in the rec area and saw the Kill Squad roaming around. Shook his head.
“I know, Bozelko. No one stops them.”
When they’re actually inside and among us lesser sinners, they issue commands to guards…who actually follow them. They ask for extra. They get it. They wear uniforms tailored in ways that would have lieutenants running after the rest of us, screaming “Those are altered!” But no one says anything to them.
When one of them (an inmate who killed a woman in a gang-inspired fight) tried to make her own psych records on the library computer to show her girlfriend how much she’d suffered in life, they brought her to a shrink (which was apropos because it was nuts that she thought medical records were written in dialogue like a screenplay), but anyone else would have been in the hole, with no U-turn. When it comes to privileges, murder means more. I don’t suggest that women with homicide convictions should be denied, but they shouldn’t be deified, either; none of us should be, especially if we’re misbehaving. Regardless of what they do in here, the incorrigible lifers pretty much get what they want.
Except Adrienne isn’t a lifer. Yes, someone who killed a child and continues to try to whack people has only a 17-year sentence for manslaughter. And she gets special meals brought to her from the outside, gifts, declarations of love from C/O’s at her door (not even kidding – there’s something wrong with those guys). And she’ll skate on post-prison consequences for her behavior. Unlike sex offenders who leave prison to civil commitment – a Minority Report-style Precrime confinement – because some turnkey decided that they’re constitutionally incapable of reform and rehabilitation and will reoffend, Adrienne gets cut loose a little before 2023.
Adrienne’s not going to reform herself. She pumps out daily a trove of evidence similar to that used to justify civil commitment of sex-offenders, namely proof that she will never change. Yet when her sentence ends, it will do just that: end, mostly because she killed a kid instead of screwing one. I don’t condone any crime against children, but it looks like the very worst among us get away with murder and are exempt from having to redeem themselves simply because they’re murderers.
I guess she has one redeeming quality: by herself, Adrienne shows how backwards this system is. She’s the alpha and omega of correctional corruption.
* Names have been changed to protect the innocent – as well as the author when “Adrienne” gets out.
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM MARCH 6 – 12, 2017
Clean slates come too late. At least 166 men and women were exonerated in 2016, six more than in 2015, which also was a record year, announced the National Registry of Exonerations on Wednesday. There were more exonerations than ever before in cases involving guilty pleas, or misconduct by government officials, or where no crimes occurred at all. And most of the defendants were black.
We have a two-tiered justice system. The Los Angeles Times and The Marshall Project teamed up in investigating the “pay-to-stay” jail system in Southern California. Wealthier inmates can pay for upgrades into cleaner facilities with more amenities, or, well, just amenities. The reporters found “more than 160 participants who had been convicted of serious crimes including assault, robbery, domestic violence, battery, sexual assault, sexual abuse of children and possession of child pornography” were in the VIP section of SoCal jails. The payers include “a hip-hop choreographer who had sex with an underage girl and described his stint in jail as “a retreat;” a former Los Angeles police officer who stalked and threatened his ex-wife; and a college student who stabbed a man in the abdomen during a street scuffle. The highest bill — $72,050 — belonged to a man responsible for a drunken freeway crash that killed one of his passengers and left another injured.”
Everything old is new again. A bipartisan coalition of senators introduced a bill to establish a National Criminal Justice Commission – a complete knock-off of one that former U.S. Senator/presidential candidate Jim Webb proposed twice, once eight years ago and once six years ago – and two of the new bill’s sponsors [Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX)] voted on with a “Nay.” This just goes to show that the more you understand this system, the more you realize change is necessary. People come around over time.
Oh yeah, and “Gary from Chicago” got a “hisself” a publicist.
“Are ‘large’ and ‘hard’ sa…sin…synonyms?” one of the students asked me when I was typing in the back of her classroom.
“According to men they are, but not really,” I answered. She didn’t get the joke. Maybe she was too young.
“What are they?” she asked.
“They’re adjectives, you know, descriptors,” I tried to explain. I always go into a mode when I’m asked about adult basic education. I try to be as complete as possible.
“They’re words that are different but have the same meaning. You understand what I mean? Like ‘auto’ and ‘car’ are different words but they mean the same thing. They’re synonyms.”
She shrugged and turned back to a math ditto. She’s taking the GED test soon.
A lot of prison students make Welcome Back Kotter’s “Sweathogs” look like Rhodes Scholars. Despite teachers’ best efforts, students in the GED program here [at York Correctional Institution] think that Nelson Mandela took the first steps on the moon. They think Maryland is in California. They think Christopher Columbus drove a car: a Pinto. The Nina and the Santa Maria don’t sound like motor vehicles so they’re off the hook.
And many of them earned still their GED’s because scoring a total of 225 out of 500 on the five-part test, with no score less than 40 on any individual part, is all it takes. Unlike passing grade standards in traditional high schools, GED students must score only 40% to pass. Unsurprisingly, 70% of inmates remain in the lowest two of the five levels of literacy, even after receiving their GED’s, according to a 2007 study by the Department of Education’s National Center of Education Statistics. With these results, the GED barely earns status as a rubber stamp. In many ways, taking college courses in prison may be the only way for an inmate to achieve a high school education even – especially – if she earns her GED in here.
York doesn’t offer any more courses that will cure their knowledge deficits. Once you’ve scored 41% on your GED, you’re allowed to go into vocational programs like culinary arts, commercial cleaning, computer/data entry skills, and hospitality training for the hotel and restaurant industry so you can get a job where you can barely afford a Pinto.
And if there isn’t a huge offering of college classes – ones that will contain people who don’t know what synonyms are – the only option for learning is correspondence courses.
These schools used to advertise in the back of Glamour and Mademoiselle when I was in high school, offering master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s. I think one of the names had “Pacific” in it or it was on the west coast. I can’t remember. Over 90% of distance education is available only online now and we don’t have internet access. Who else but an inmate would take a paper-bound correspondence course these days? If anyone who isn’t incarcerated is enrolled in one of these paper and envelope courses, I want to meet him or her. I want to see how a person can be that outside of society’s flow and not bear an inmate number.
The only way we would even know about these courses is that Wally [Lamb] bought a book about them -“Prisoners’ Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the United States and Canada” – and he donated it to the library. The handbook contains, like, 10 programs which matches the fact that it was published, like, 10 years ago and it costs over 100 bucks. And these degree programs cost $185 per credit; bachelor’s degrees require 120 credits. So an entire degree costs about $22,000 cash when you go through a correspondence school. A community college in Connecticut charges about five thousand for full time enrollment. An associates degree would cost about 10K. Continuing on to a bachelors would probably cost about the same as a correspondence course degree.
But inmates don’t get a campus, teachers, school atmosphere, camaraderie, intellectual discussion, a gym, a student center, academic support or anything else a normal student would get for the same amount of money. And forget student loans and scholarships; those Pell Grants have been gone for almost 2o years. What are the chances of someone who can’t afford a lawyer being able to afford this education? Prisoners’ only saving grace is just another commodity where traders exploit our isolation to make money. These correspondence schools are probably lobbying to keep internet access out of prisons to stop inmates from floating to Coursera or iTunes University and getting their learn on for free.
Down from the 350 programs that operated in forty-five states in 1982, the all-time high, currently only twelve in-prison college education programs operate in four states. Distance learning continues to be a prisoner’s most viable educational opportunity, so the need for internet connection is even more pronounced for inmates, 85% percent of them so poor they can’t afford sneakers, much less tuition in a profit-motivated school. As long as we remain unconnected, the electronic wave hitting higher education washes over prisons and recedes, leaving them desolate oases of ignorance. It’s no wonder no one says “Welcome back” when we get out. We’re not much better or smarter, at least not as long as this place stays educationally unplugged.
I keep wondering where the holes are in these GED curricula. What else don’t they know as they brag about a graduation? I doubt many women here could calculate how badly I date myself by readily referencing Welcome Back Kotter, dittoes and Mademoiselle magazine which hasn’t been in published in years even if I told them the years when those things were common to our culture. Can you tell I’ve been offline for years?
Even with a GED program, the knowledge deficits in a prison are large. If someone just wired this place, eliminating them wouldn’t be that hard. At least I hope not.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM FEBRUARY 27 – MARCH 5, 2017
If you’re like me, you’re sick of the Sessions/immigration news. We forget that things unfold outside the Beltway, too.
Gary Coe or “Gary from Chicago,” one of the surprised tourists whom Jimmy Kimmel paraded through the Dolby Theatre during the Oscars last Sunday, was discovered to have a pretty severe criminal record, including a conviction for attempted rape. Gary’s is actually a pretty amazing story. He was sentenced to life under California’s “three strikes” law and had his sentence modified recently. The only reason why he was able to leave Corcoran, a men’s prison, last Friday was that California’s Proposition 36, passed in 2012, allowed him to show a court how much he had rehabilitated himself in prison. Despite this reform, Coe has already faced discrimination. The Chicago Sun Times was the only paper to report that Jimmy Kimmel Live! canceled Gary’s appearance because of his criminal record. For shame, Kimmel.
The second deadly prison riot in two years popped off in Nebraska, at the same facility, Tecumseh State Prison. Two inmates were killed on Thursday and at least one of them was convicted of a sexual offense. The two inmates killed in May 2015 were also convicted of sexual assault. These aren’t prison riots, they’re highly choreographed executions of certain offenders. Let’s not make this about prison conditions.
There are only about 2200 prisoners in Vermont and the state wants to build a $140 million prison, which amounts to spending $63,636 per inmate on a new building. I will never understand Vermont.
I sat in court limbo, waiting for my attorney, in those clackety, chocolate-colored wooden chairs that weigh about 50 pounds each. The New Haven courthouse’s historic preservation prevented the installation of the sinners’ pews in more modern courthouses. Of course, the chairs, like their inhabitants, were flawed. Ecru lines, scrapes, and scratches ran up and down the legs, on the sides of seats, either because of the violence of a defendant or the carelessness of a marshal who had to align them each night for the morning, all facing a blank wall because the bench and the parties are off to the left in this dogleg room, an L-hole, that was never designed to accommodate growing ranks of the criminally accused.
By the time I got there the chairs were already screwed up. Tilt here. Moved to another row there. Nothing wild but defendants making sure to deposit some disorder before left the courthouse. It made my rectitude even harder in those high-backed chairs. I didn’t bother turning mine so I was slanted toward a public defender – one whose real-life friendship with Attorney Betty Anne Waters played out in matinees in the movie Conviction, the story of a woman who went to law school with the sole goal of freeing her innocent, wrongly incarcerated brother – urge her client to admit violating her probation.
Her client had failed to pay restitution, even though the defendant couldn’t afford to pay it as she subsisted only on Social Security disability checks. If this defendant had taken her public defender’s advice, all the money she had received and lived on would have been considered an ‘overpayment’ that she needed to pay back. From representing people in this situation myself, I knew how the Social Security Administration gets overpayments paid back: they let the beneficiary collect disability in legal status only; every check gets reversed to the government. On paper, you look like you’re receiving benefits – and become ineligible for other entitlements – but you’re not getting the actual benefits. You get no money from any source. You’re unable to live because your checks are held until you pay back all you owe.
This lawyer was setting her client up to be liable for restitution on two fronts when she hadn’t been able to keep up payments on one front. That’s why she was in the courtroom that day. The attorney, in defending a client who was unable to afford her restitution orders, essentially doubled what she owed. It made no sense. It was typical. Abandon all hope, ye who need counsel.
I can ask my gynecologist about an earache. She’ll refer me to an otolaryngologist eventually, but before I leave her office, she will tickle in the inside of my ear with one of those black cones to see how serious my problem is before she’s done with me to make sure I’m not a walking emergency. She can do this because the practice of medicine requires baseline competence. The practice of law doesn’t.
Public defenders don’t take the time to understand the administrative law that governs the collateral consequences of the convictions they shove their clients into. As criminal defense counsel, they think they’re specialists who deal with only one type of problem. What they don’t get is that specialists are just general practitioners with more training; doing criminal defense doesn’t excuse you from knowing about other policies, especially when working with an indigent population whose lives are affected by administrative law (health benefits, entitlements), civil law (lawsuits), family law (termination of parental rights) and probate law (mental competence).
Suddenly the court had to adjourn, probably because the courtroom marshals were needed in lockup for an emergency or something so the client didn’t get to admit to anything. I walked right up to the public defender as she headed for the courtroom exit, her arms loaded to her chin with folders of cases she had already handled that day.
“Listen. Don’t let her take that deal,” I said and pointed back to the bench she just stood before to double her client’s debt. “She’ll lose her disability to an overpayment. You know overpayments? She won’t get any cash for months. Even years. Are you not going to use Bearden v. Georgia [the Supreme Court case]? It says she can’t violate her probation or a restitution order if she didn’t have enough money to pay it,” I explained to the attorney.
“Who are you?” the attorney asked me, a reasonable question. She saw me come over from defendants’ purgatory and my situation markedly reduced my credibility so I didn’t know how to respond, how to justify why a criminal defendant could give sound advice to a licensed attorney.
I dont know how Dante Alighieri thought all of the levels of hell could be limited to 9. There’s at least one more depth, a special place for the prideful. People who insist on showing off all they know – people like me – endure there in the Tenth Circle. They’re filled with knowledge but the power to use it is stripped of them. They chase after people with almost no knowledge who have all the power. The educated people, because they’re powerless, can’t convince the people with power to do things differently, can’t teach them anything. The Tenth Circle is powerless omniscience running after ignorant omnipotence and it’s torture. This is the only time in my life I’ll be a 10 and stay one for good.
Souls in circles one through nine have all the fun pushing boulders back and forth, standing against gale-force winds and other punishing games. My penance is never seeing a public defender take into account the multi-faceted problems that their clients face. Not once. I’m in the last, forgotten circle of hell watching this unfold every time I go to court, knowing how much people lose when they’re supposed to be protected.
“I’m nobody. But I know what I’m talking about,” I explained to the lawyer. She nodded, backed into one of the wooden doors with her hip to open it and walked into the hallway, the Ninth Circle, icy lake of Treacherers, to locate another client who wouldn’t have a meddling wannabe like me monitoring her proceedings, achieving nothing.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM FROM FEBRUARY 20 – 26, 2017
As of Thursday, the federal government will start using private prisons again. Attorney General Jeff Sessions became the Wayne to former Assistant Attorney General Sally Yates’ Garth after she called “Car” and moved the private prison contest to the side of the beltway when the Department of Justice decided last year not to pursue any more contracts with private management companies. Game on. Party time…Excellent for these businesses on the NYSE.
Novelist Michael Patterson took an Alford Plea – meaning he maintained his innocence but conceded that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict him of killing his wife – to a charge of manslaughter in Durham, North Carolina on Friday. His murder conviction was overturned in 2011. Peterson said making an Alford plea in the death of his wife 16 years ago is one of the most difficult things he’s ever done because he gave up the fight. I know the feeling because I’ve done it myself. It’s the classic choice between being right or being effective. Why is that even a decision that has to be made when we’re talking about justice or someone’s untimely death? It shouldn’t be.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court sided 6-2 with Duane Buck , a Texas death row inmate whose own expert witness told jurors that Buck would be more dangerous in and out of prison because he was black. This constituted “ineffective assistance of counsel,” according Chief Justice Roberts in Buck v. Davis. “The law punishes people for what they do, not who they are,” he wrote. Justices Thomas and Alito dissented – shocker. In some ways, this is huge victory because courts almost never find that a defendant received ineffective assistance from an attorney. In other ways, it’s a tragedy. Duane Buck had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to get a court to say that you were harmed when your attorney hires and calls an expert witness who testifies why you should get the death penalty. It seems like a lower court should have said this earlier.
It’s the last set of alternative facts, Part Six of Six of “X”, a short story. It’s the tail end of the tale, so if you’re peeking into the diaries for the first time or haven’t been here in a while, you can start reading from the beginning here, or jump back to where you left off: Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, or last week’s Part Five.
“Look, do you wanna like, talk to like, a captain? Would that make you feel better? You know, maybe he can send you to mental health or…” Stamper asked, pretending like her torment wasn’t real. He knew it was; he manufactured it.
“I don’t need mental health. I need clean food.”
“You get clean food.”
“No, I don’t. GET THE FUCKING CAPTAIN!” Larkin shrieked.
“OK. Right. You got it,” he assured her and waved the captain down to the housing tier. Ralston looked annoyed but made extended strides to reach Stamper quickly.
“What’s the problem, Stamp?”
“Captain, Ms. Larkin here wants to speak to you. She claims were poisoning her food.”
“I didn’t say you were poisoning me. I said you were spitting in my food or fucking with it,” she replied to Stamper while looking directly at his supervisor.
“Either way, Captain,” he broke in, matter of factly, “She won’t eat.”
“What’s the story Larkin? Why won’t you eat?”
“Because they’re doing something to my food,” she explained, pulling her loose curls into a twisted bun unaided by the sock scrunchie.
“You saw this?” Ralston queried.
“No, but all my trays are marked.”
Ralston turned to Stamper and asked: “Marked?”
“Some come from the kitchen with an “X” and sometimes she gets one.”
“You fucking liar! You told me they were marked because they were mine!”
“Larkin, calm down!” Ralston raised his voice. “Did you see anyone tamper with your meals?”
“No. …Well, I saw… someone saw him eat part of mine and then throw it out. Look at your cameras!”
“This true, Stamp?” Dave nodded.
“And he gave you the food from the garbage?”
“No,” Stamper interrupted. “In a completely foggy brain I threw out a meal and then replaced it as soon as my mistake was brought to my attention by a fellow officer. That will be clear on the cameras.”
Ralston queried. “When was this?” to Stamper. “Did he bring you an extra, another meal?” to Larkin.
“Yes but what?”
“I know he’s messing with my food. He did this to me!” she screamed and pointed to the back of her hand, elongated grape blisters still registering topography on her hand.
“Captain,” Stamper said softy and subtly put his chin in one hand and tapped his forehead with a forefinger. Ralston watched, waited and asked the door, refusing to look in the inmate’s eyes:
“Ms. Larkin, are you on any type of medication?” Ralston asked.
“Would you like to speak with someone about getting some?”
“No, I would like to speak with someone about getting this asshole away from my food. Actually…no…I want to speak with someone who can get me out of the SHU.” She leaned toward the door and, looking at no one, said: “I know things,” an implicit promise of more information, an empty one since Ralston already doubted her credibility because she wasn’t giving him enough to bust Caples and wasn’t closing the case for him either by denying a sexual relationship. Ralston now doubled-down on that doubt after witnessing Larkin’s erratic behavior.
“Well, Larkin, that’s me and that’s not happening. You and me, we already discussed why.” She had already turned to the sink to get another cup of water. She’s smart, Stamper admitted to himself. Keeping hydrated without the food.
“Well then, fuck you too,” she exhaled after sucking down another eight ounces of the only thing besides oxygen that was sustaining her life. Ralston rolled his eyes and walked away.
The next day, after the same Why the X? routine happened again over a tray containing two sealed bags of cornflakes and an apple, Stamper returned to his desk and looked up the maintenance officers’ extension number.
“Maintenance. Buon- rmmph – figlio.”
Why can’t this fucker ever swallow his snack before he answers? Always eating on the phone, Stamper mused. “Bonny, my boy, what’s up?”
“Who is this?”
“How’s the wife?” Stamper tried to warm him.
“She died a year ago.”
“Oh. Sorry. Well. Listen, I’m over here at the SHU and we got a real wild one in Room One. She blocked up her drain and sat on the pressure faucet button to flood her cell and the whole housing floor.”
“I didn’t hear anything about that.”
“Well, we cleaned it up because we know how busy you guys are.”
“Oh,” Buonfiglio said, semi-surprised since staff summarily shunted even minor malfunctions to his office.
“Yeah, so… can you send someone to turn off her water?”
“Turn off the water to her cell?’
“Yeah, so the cock-sucking bitch can’t do it again.”
“But she needs water. Even the cocksucker bitch needs to take a shit.”
“Oh, the toilet, the toilet stays. I would never do that to her. Just the sink.”
“Doesn’t she need to wash her hands after she pisses?” Buonfiglio asked.
“Yeah, and I can let her do that if you really want me to page you to wet-vac the basement floor of the SHU when she does it again. I mean it’s up to you. I’m leaving early today so…”
“Oh, alright. Culpepper’s free right now, ain’t ya?” he called away from the phone. “Just finished his ham and egg on a bagel. He’ll be there as soon as he can unplug his George Foreman grill.”
Culpepper arrived, the outside of his fingers still glossy from grease from his breakfast sandwich. Apparently maintenance doesn’t need running water to wash their hands either, Stamper guessed to himself silently as he intercepted the handyman in the SHU’s lobby.
“Just Room One?” Culpepper asked.
“Just Room One.”
With that, Culpepper walked into what was essentially a passageway, a special door leading to the SHU’s electrical and plumbing guts. Culpepper emerged seconds later.
“Thanks dude. Owe you one.” Stamper held up his fist in solidarity and Culpepper contorted his face in confusion and left Dave Stamper to wait for the next meal delivery.
“Larkin, Lunch. Chicken pattie.” The satiny finish of the Styrofoam depressed where a lame yellow highlighter had been pressed hard as it crossed one diagonal on the tray lid and then another.
“Where’s my water?” Alana Larkin asked, one toe pointed and one arm akimbo.
“What water? Milk for breakfast and lunch and juice for dinner. You know that.”
“Fuunnny!” she yelled and pounded several times in the pressure faucet button. Metallic reverberations sounded through pipes but not a drop fell into the porcelain shell of the sink.
“Did you try the other one?”
“The other sink? Even funnier.”
“No, the other button, you fucking wise ass. You’re only pressing cold. Press hot.”
BOOM. One hand descended with a thousand pounds of pressure on the engraved H in a circle on the faucet but produced no water.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Larkin.”
“I’ll die without water. Is that your plan?”
“Now I’m trying to kill you? Larkin, for real, you need help. You’re fucking paranoid.”
“I’m not paranoid. You fuck with my food, probably poisoned it but I outsmarted you and never ate it and that made you mad. Now I have no water. What does that look like to you?”
“It looks like a psycho who forgets that she’s in jail where shit breaks all the time. You didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, you know. I’ll put in a work order.”
Larkin began to cry, not surprise’s sobs, the ones she hiccupped on her way into the SHU, but a dog whistle of tears, her despair so deep it was silent yet changed the energy of the room.
“Look, I’m calling mental health to get you a consult,” he told her in false assurance and compassion but she was crying too hard to hear him. He knew she knew this so he continued: “Actually, you tell me when you want to talk to someone. You’re having a hard time right now so I’ll wait for you to tell me,” speaking directly into the crack of the doorjamb, so close he could have been kissing it.
“X” marked the three daily meals for the ensuing five days; Stamper was so committed to his plan of torture that he agreed to work overtime just to make sure than no one else inadvertently fed Alana Larkin. He knew she caught a few gulps during her thrice-weekly showers but she would still scream that she had no water, no food. Guards on other shifts disregarded her as the head-case she was becoming.
After working nine days straight in the SHU, the novelty remained intact but Stamper was just tiring out. Once he forgot to write the “X” on the tray so he just ended up scratching it in with his thumbnail. Thinking as quickly as he could for an explanation for the inkless “X,” he appeared at her door and noticed one leg stretched out behind her and one knee bent up close to the bowl of her toilet; her head seemed to hang into it, lifeless. At first, Stamper wondered if she had suffered a stroke, burst a blood vessel while vomiting but soon remembered she had nothing to vomit up.
Letting her face fall into the toilet water to drown? he wondered. It would be a method most extreme since all of the essential suicide supplies were left in the cell with all SHU inmates: sheets and a stable metal beam that once served as the arm of a TV stand back when SHU inmates were allowed to keep their property with them. If she wanted to die, Alana Larkin had everything she needed. Usually, when SHU-mates acted a little squirrelly, they were taken out of their cells for exactly that reason.
But then a curl twitched and a head bent back, exposing a chin slippery and wet after dunking itself into the toilet water. With eyelids closed so tight that they shook wrinkly convulsions, the head lowered itself back almost autonomically and Stamper could hear faint ripples of water again porcelain… wiiip…wiiip…wiiip. Alana Larkin had turned her commode into a dog’s dish, finding her only sustenance on her weak knees on cold, industrial linoleum tile. Stamper laughed but had to, grudgingly, grant her some respect. Alana Larkin was a survivor, tougher than all the scarred gang-bangers and 350-pound lesbians in the joint.
“Did you lose your collar?’ Stamper hooted through the door’s crack. He opened the trap door and dropped the thumbnail-marked tray to the floor. A sharp thwap sounded because the tray was full. Stamper knew it would stay that way.
He bounded off Larkin’s floor to the one above and found the cell directly above hers, used his key and flung open the door telling the two occupants: “Get out.”
“Why?” asked one.
“Gladly,” said the other.
“Wait, give me a shirt.”
“Why?” came again.
“Because I said so. Where’s your other… here. I got one,” he said, checking the size tag on the oversized green scrub shirt, the uniform for true incorrigibles, the inmates slated to stay in the SHU for their entire sentences because of non-stop disciplinary infractions. The shirt was an “L” even though it looked like a “XX” large.
“This one looks like a Dos Equis to me,” he announced to no one and snickered, twisting the stiff cotton like he was making a noose. One of the inmates outside the cell’s door noticed the apparatus he was fashioning, went bug-eyed and stepped back.
“It’s not for you,” he assured her and pushed the shirt down into the toilet’s nether hole and pressed the recessed flush button above the toilet on the cell’s cinderblock wall. Inexperienced vandals would expect for water to rise and the shirt to lodge itself in the toilet’s chute leaving a balloony-end of the shirt waving around the swirling water but Stamper, versed in correctional reality, knew that all prison toilets had such superior suction that they would swallow even this tent of a shirt. The shirt slunk out of sight, down the shit sluice and a muffled thump sounded behind the concrete bricks of the wall, followed by the trickling hiss of the shirt and water crashing into a wet mass of feces and toilet paper.
“Excellent,” he said as he watched it work on the first try. Then he turned to the two women he had displaced, one of whom had just stared at him incredulously and the other was attempting an unauthorized phone call now that she had been loosed from her cell. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you two moved.”
“Andressen, move those two. Their shitter just shit the bed,” he told the rookie behind the panel and headed back to his inside control post, out of which his breathless laughter could be heard all over the SHU until dinnertime.
When the dinner cart arrived that afternoon, Stamper dipped into Captain Sasmogino’s office. “Do you have a pink marker?” he threw out nonchalantly.
“A pink marker?” Sasmogino asked and poked through her pen cup and came up with a lone Crayola marker, the white ones painted to look like a crayon with the squiggle decorations and handed it to him. Stamper stepped out of her office, cap in teeth again, and drew a big heart on the top of a tray containing that day’s last meal, turkey a la king, and re-capped the marker.
“No problem darlin.’ Just don’t tell me why you needed that.”
Stamper laughed a lightheaded, manic laugh. For a while he had forgotten Caples, the reason for this plan. He derived such pleasure from these games that he lost his goal, forgot his endgame. Before he even reached Alana Larkin’s cell, the putrid fecal scent hit him. Looking through her cell door’s window, he saw a mélange of stool – yellow, black and a Pantone-worthy collection of browns – all swimming in an orangey syrup on her toilet’s seat and around its base, a mess made by the excrement burp that emerged from her toilet when he flushed the green shirt into the pipes of the cell above hers.
“Now was it worth it to lie like that, Larkin? Really,” he castigated her and threw the tray, filled with gelatinous gravy across her floor, the tray’s leaving withered peas, red peppers hard like trapezoidal rubies and jagged-edged carrot cubes in a milky sauce where it slid. Stamper closed the door, surprised at how severely Larkin’s lips had chapped without water in such a short time. She had gone, what, only six hours without it?
But it was all she was living on. Small pieces of white vellum curled up in small triangles on her lips, her pallor was simultaneously yellow and gray and she sat with her back leaned against the wall next to her bunk, eyes no longer registering despair but succumbing to strength’s vacation. She tried to lick her lips but her mouth was so dry that her tongue’s only accomplishment was to tug at one corner of the feathery skin so that a small red slash of blood rose up on her lips, both she and Stamper knowing that she would think twice before using them to kiss – or tell – again.
Real prison life returns next Monday, February 27, 2017.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM FEBRUARY 13 – 19, 2017
Well, at least one felon has a high-paying job. Jeremy Meeks, the “Hot Felon” whose mug shot everyone oohed and aahed over in 2014 when he was arrested on gun charges, walked in the Philipp Plein show during New York Fashion Week for Fall 2017. It resurrected a debate of style over substance, the substance being the bad character assumed of anyone who’s “justice-involved.” Why should he get that opportunity just because he’s good looking? people have asked me, like anyone else besides good-looking people land modeling gigs. What the “Hot Felon” story shows is that the pool of qualified and talented people for any job will contain some members with criminal histories. Are we willing to ignore talent and qualification in the name of some Puritanical falsehood that no imperfect person should be able to earn a living? As far as I’m concerned, if you have what it takes to do a certain job, you should be allowed to do it without concern for your past.
The first “Dreamer” was arrested. I.C.E. arrested a 23-year-old Mexican immigrant in Seattle who was granted temporary permission to live and work in America under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (D.A.C.A.) program. I.C.E. says the man is gang-affiliated but he has no criminal record. I was suspected once of being gang-affiliated when I was in prison so I know how inaccurate these gang labels can be. I have been around the dangerous in society for some years now and I wonder if this guy is who we really need to round up. I am aware of some U.S. citizens here in Connecticut who would make better targets. Just sayin’.
Here’s an idea: “Make a commitment to real accountability for violence in a way that is more meaningful and more effective than incarceration.” That’s what Danielle Sered, director of Common Justice, an organization that operates an alternative-to-incarceration and victim service program for serious and violent felonies, wants to do. She wrote a report for the Vera Institute of Justice that came out last week that devised a way to honor the wishes of victims of violent crime while still looking for alternatives to incarceration for the perpetrators of those acts. The only problem? Common Justice doesn’t work with the crimes of murder or rape. The biggies have been left out of the conversation…and the solution.