CTO Walters’ dedication to public service led him to make another announcement over the intercom before he headed out for the Halloween weekend. I was sitting in my cell and heard it on the overhead speakers.
“I will come in on Monday and check the tapes and see if anyone was parading around in costumes and if I see one of you with anything on ya’ll’s heads, you will all go to seg for 30 days. No stopping on the Boardwalk or Madison Avenue, you’re all going to seg[regation],” he warned in his Southern twang.
“I think that was a Monopoly reference,” I said out loud, to myself, alone in the cell, and heard from the rec area:
“Princeton, you gotta help us.”
Three women were panting at my door at the news, their frenzied speech buffered by the cell door. For some reason, it’s impossible to hear someone when they’re right outside your cell door, but they’re crystal clear when they’re down the hall. Walk into any housing unit and you’ll find at least one woman who’s practically kissing a doorjamb. Another woman’s inside doing the same thing, just like I was.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Didn’t you just hear that? Motherfucker says he gonna put all us in the box if we dress up on Saturday. We got the party and all.”
“What that got to do with me?” I’ve found that, sometimes, I can communicate better in here when I speak in song lyrics.
“He can’t do that, put people in seg when they didn’t do nothin’?
“You’ve been here longer than I have and multiple times. You ever gone to seg for nothing?” I asked.
“Yeah, um, I was on the walkway, see and…”
“No, I don’t need to hear what happened. Costumes violate the rules but, even if they didn’t, they can do whatever they want. And they do. And you know that.”
“So I can’t tell you whether he will check the video and put you in seg. Seems extreme, but who knows? If he does he can get you for hiding your identity or a flagrant [disobedience].”
“But I made cat ears and Regina crocheted a leprechaun hat,”Allie wined through the steel frame of my exit and bounced like a disgruntled child. “What’s wrong with a costume?”
“Well, we’re in prison.” It’s the catch-all explanation for everything here, mostly because it must be. Women think that every legal thing they did on the outside flies inside. It doesn’t. It can’t.
“Weigh it out. Is it worth going to seg for you to wear these yarn ears? If so, go for it. If not, abstain,” I advised to the crack of the door.
“What’s that mean?” I paused for a moment to consider this moment, one I definitely won’t forget. Self-restraint is foreign in here. No one has ever taught many women in here the concept that they can forego something risky, even downright dangerous, as a form of future self-preservation. Even less likely is the prospect that has someone recommended this type of decision-making.
It comes across as entitlement – I can break rules and avoid consequences – but it’s really just a lack of knowledge, of training. I don’t know if it would be futile to start explaining those concepts now or whether they’re here exactly to get that lesson. And if they are, I don’t know that I’m the one to dispense it. After all, I am wise about this because I don’t give a shit about this little Halloween soiree. Maybe if I had something I cared about on the line, I’d get a little daring myself. I’m pretty sure I’ve done it in the past.
“Listen, we’ve all worn masks our whole lives and a costume since we got here. It won’t kill you not to be extra extra for just one day,” I told them. Final answer.
They ain’t tryin’ to hear that.
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM OCTOBER 23 – 29, 2017
Hopefully, by the time you’re reading this, we will know who’s about to take a collar in Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation. And so it begins.
Two Bronx public defenders wrote original commentary for The Marshall Project highlighting a new study that I hadn’t seen when it came out. Racial disparities in plea-bargaining outcomes are greater in cases involving misdemeanors and low-level crimes; being accused of major crimes evened out plea bargain outcomes. Also, white defendants with no criminal history usually received reduced sentences (all except me) but black and white defendants with criminal records were treated similarly.
Here’s where criminal justice reform makes no sense. The main gripe with mandatory minimum sentencing laws is that they strip judges of discretion in sentencing. Then reformers push risk assessment tools that also strip judges of discretion. It seems to me like any inroads made into eradicating mandatory minimum sentences get erased with these computer programs. Read this oped in The New York Times by a former Facebook engineer/Harvard Law student to understand why these tools can be dangerous.