Showing posts with label life in prison. Show all posts
Showing posts with label life in prison. Show all posts

07 May 2020

One Bite at a Time

Before COVID-19 I was a regular volunteer at the local penitentiary, what with AVP (Alternatives to Violence Project - Sioux Falls, of which I'm president) and the Lifer's Group (of which myself and my husband are the official volunteer supervisors).  This meant I was down there pretty much every week, and sometimes more than once.  Well, that came to an abrupt end.  No visitors, no volunteers allowed, for the foreseeable future.

Yes, I miss them.  And I've been trying to maintain contact.  I have permission to write to them, as long as the letters are non-personal and revolve around AVP or the Lifer's Group, and I do not put my personal address as the return.  And since I can't get in to get any responses they send to the in-prison chapel mailbox, it's a one-way communication.  Kind of frustrating.  But I keep doing it.

I know many people today feel - and say - that social distancing, and COVID-19 lockdowns are like being in jail.  To which, my simple answer is, no, it isn't.  Not at all.

A typical cell at SCI Phoenix, with room for two inmates. Mr. Cosby has not been given a cellmate yet because of security concerns.Not unless you're spending your social distancing in a 6' x 8' concrete room with one wall that's nothing but bars, and inside the bars is a toilet, and against another wall are bunk beds, and you share this space with another inmate.  Who you may or may not like, but you probably have to live with, because if you refuse to share, that's a violation, and could land you in the SHU, which is an even smaller room, with even less stuff in it.  Not only that, there are guards who make sure you stay there up to 23/7, and enforce a wide variety of rules on behavior and speech that have to be read to be believed.

So, no. Staying at home is not at all like being in jail.

But we can learn a lot from inmates. And the first thing is how to do time.  It seems that to a lot of people, six weeks is way too long to have to be stuck indoors.  What if you had to do a year?  (There's a good chance there will be no effective vaccine for at least that long.)  What if you had to do more than that?  How does a person do a long stretch of time?  Well, one of our best inside facilitators, lifer Mighty Mark, said, "Well, it's like eating an elephant.  You take one bite at a time."

Every inmate has to learn - even if they're in for a short sentence - to NOT think too far ahead.  To NOT focus everything on their exit day (if any).  To NOT fume and fret and demand more than they can have.  To accept, in other words, what their situation is.  And then live, as much as humanly possible (and we are all human and frail) in the moment.  Right now.  This bite.  Chew.  Swallow.  Bite.  Repeat.

The big mistake most people do when they find themselves in confinement is to focus all their attention on:
(1) how horrible their situation is.
(2) how unfair the lawyer / judge / sentencing system is.
(3) how are they going to survive the next ____ months / years?
(4) how much the next ____ months / years is wasted time, time they'll never get back, no matter what, and it's just unbearable.
(5) how everyone has abandoned them.
(6) how alone they are.
(7) how useless / hopeless / tasteless everything is.
And on down the a long, long, long negative list of emotions, facts, realities, that are indeed unmistakable and undeniable.

A lot of them - especially the young men - lash out, towards themselves (there's a lot of cuttings, self-harm, and attempted / successful suicides in prison), towards other inmates (a lot of aggressive posturing, attacks, fighting), and even towards the COs (which never ends well for the inmate).  Some of it - even sometimes the self-harm - is showing off, to themselves and others that they've still got what it takes.  That they're the man, and no one better mess with them.  Rising in the pack, hopefully, to Alpha male.  The angriest - and ironically the most wounded - spend the most time in the SHU (solitary confinement), because not only is isolation the punishment for violence, but it's also where they put the suicidal.  (And those who are contagious.)

But, as the young inmates age, many of them come to realize that it doesn't work.  That sinking into violence or despair, aggression or depression, does nothing but make the time go longer and longer and longer...  And they realize (especially the lifers) that they have to make a life, a whole life, where they are.
Including friends.
Including hobbies.
Including goals.
Including education, perhaps even a career.
Including happiness.
BTW, a rip-roarer of book is Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo.  Meet Edmund Dantes, sailor, who is falsely accused of treason and imprisoned for life - in solitary confinement - in the Château d'If (which still exists - see photo on the right).  After 8 years of solitary, he's suicidal, but then the Abbé Faria - digging his way out, a poor sense of direction - ends up at Edmund's cell.  Over the next 8 years, Faria teaches Edmund everything - language, culture, mathematics, chemistry, medicine, and science - so well that, after Faria dies and Edmund escapes (read how yourself), Edmund can pass easily as a Count, welcomed everywhere and anywhere.  This is one of the great swashbuckler thrillers, especially as the Count ruthlessly, tirelessly pursues his revenge - but the opening chapters are also a master class in how to survive doing serious time.  And how important education can be.

Another master class is Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, an account of his years in the camps and how people survive horror beyond imagination.  He was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the  Holocaust - barely.  (See the Wikipedia summary HERE or, better yet, read it yourself.  I've read it more than once, and gained something new every time.)
"The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not."
Remember, this is from a man who survived four - yes FOUR - concentration camps.

And there's a story about Viktor Frankl in another book called The Monks of New Skete:  In the Spirit of Happiness.
We had a friend who was in a Nazi concentration camp in the Second World War, a dog breeder, and he was digging in the trenches with the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, and Victor Frankl told him:  "This is where you've got to find your happiness - right here in this trench, in this camp." ...  For this is where we're supposed to find our happiness - where we are now, wherever that might happen to be, in all that we do, in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.  To experience happiness is to experience freedom.  No matter what may happen in life, nothing will be able to touch true happiness. ...  So we have come to understand that happiness is not only in our power to attain, it is our duty to attain.  - The Monks of New Skete, pp. 312-313
A handy list to help:

And a wonderful video of how they do it in prison, Path of Freedom, with Fleet Maull, a former inmate:

    One bite at a time.
    One beat at a time.
    One breath at a time.
    And repeat…

    And now for some blatant self promotion:  My latest story "Brother's Keeper", set in Laskin, is in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  I share space with many of my fellow SleuthSayers - Robert Lopresti, Elizabeth Zelvin, Michael Bracken, Mark Thielman, Janice Law, and many other fine writers.


    12 March 2020

    Welcome to The Zo

    by Eve Fisher

    I'm involved in a variety of things at the penitentiary these days.  There's the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), that I've been doing for 10 years.  We're doing a training for facilitators (T4F) workshop in April for that, getting more inmates trained as inside facilitators.  AVP is going strong.  Our main problem is that we always need more outside volunteers.  In case you haven't noticed, volunteerism has gone down over the last few years.  Most of the service organizations I know of (Kiwanis, Elks, Lions, etc.) are seeing a dramatic drop in membership.  And the people who are interested in helping aren't that interested in doing a weekend-long workshop inside a prison, even though it's probably the most interesting, educational, entertaining, and safest place you can be.

    Allan and I are also supervising the Lifer's Group, for the third fiscal year, and the achievements are beginning to really show.  There's Toastmasters, which the Lifer's Group hosted for almost 2 years, and now is a full-fledged group of its own at the pen.  There's the suicide watches, which the Lifer's Group has taken on (with, of course, permission and approval from prison mental health and prison administration).  We just hosted our 2nd Talent Show, and it was great.  Music, jokes, poetry, and a production of yours truly's "The Scottish Play", a five-minute rendering of Macbeth, complete with cheerleading weird women.  (Great laughter and applause.)  We have a few other on-going projects, and a lot of ideas.

    Over the years, I've gotten sort of used to prison ways, and idiosyncrasies, because working with the inmates is worth it.  But I can go home.  Every night, I get to go home.  What about those who don't?  What is life really like for them?  Well, I'm presenting for your information and (?) entertainment, a series of videos (each runs about 5 minutes) called "Welcome to The Zo" presented on the website The Marshall Project.

    And for the last episode, "Retaliation", see here:

    Life in prison.  

    Meanwhile, let's talk - for a brief moment - about disease.  The coronavirus may never reach the South Dakota prison system, but colds and influenza go around swiftly and frequently and it often seems that everybody in the unit catches it.  They isolate prisoners - with their cellie (whether the cellie has it or not at the time) - in their cells, which is a 6 x 8 space with a window that does not have a view or access to fresh air but does have a toilet right in the front, at the door.  Toilet paper (which must also serve as tissues) is rationed.  Hand sanitizer is considered contraband (alcohol content).  There's a lot of bleach, and a lot of cleaning, but I've seen an awful lot of prisoners hacking and sneezing while cleaning.  See this article in the Marshall Project for more info:  (Marshall Project)

    As I said, at least I get to go home.  And I always keep hand sanitizer in my car.  

    Meanwhile, South Dakota - as of today - has 5 coronavirus cases, and 1 death.  As Daniel Defoe would say, not a high weekly bill of mortality, but has turned our eyes to the potentialities.  

    24 October 2019

    Update from the Pen - The Lifer's Group

    by Eve Fisher

    Up at the pen, everyone's eyeing the upcoming legislative session with great interest.  The hot new issue right now is South Dakota's "possession by ingestion" law, which makes ingestion of any illegal drug - from marijuana to meth to heroin - a felony:
    What that means is, whether you smoked marijuana or ingested something else into your system in state or out of state, if you get pulled over and you have a controlled substance in your blood stream, that is considered possession. You could also be charged with a felony depending how much is in your system.  (KOTATV)  
    NOTE:  South Dakota is the only state in America in which first offense of possession by ingestion is a felony; in all other states it's a misdemeanor.

    There's a legislative committee studying it, which is good.  Of course, we have the split between those who see lowering from a felony to a misdemeanor is just "watering down the drug laws".
    Minnehaha County State's Attorney Aaron McGowan agreed that an ingestion misdemeanor would be disastrous. The nature of addiction is "so volatile" that his office typically sees an escalation to more serious crimes, including theft and homicide, he said.   (Argus)
    Considering that South Dakota is bordered by states (MN, IA, ND, MT, NE) that have either medical marijuana and/or decriminalized marijuana, I doubt that everyone who caught a buzz in another state is coming home to kill someone.  Granted, meth is a different story - but shouldn't marijuana at least be taken off the list?

    The other problem raised by legislators is, as always, cost.  Who's going to pay for treatment for all these addicts if we just "let them go" (although the idea is supervised treatment, folks!), and where is the money going to come from?

    Imagine if everyone arrested for their first DUI was charged with a felony with mandatory sentencing in prison? We'd have to build a lot more prisons.  And speaking of prison cells, when legislators talk about the expense of drug and alcohol treatment, and where the money's going to come from - why don't they ever ask where the money's going to come from to pay for the $30,000-$61,000 per year it costs to house one inmate?

    South Dakota Pen 2.jpg
    South Dakota State Penitentiary - the Hill
    Will keep you posted.

    I keep tabs on a lot of issues like this, because Allan and I are entering our third year of being the pink tags (outside volunteer supervisors) for the Lifer's Group at the pen.  And yes, we're still working with the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP).

    When we tell a lot of people this, their reaction is one of fear, like we're always walking into Con Air or some Mad Max movie.  The truth is, lifers are a pretty nonviolent bunch.  Very few people want to spend the rest of their lives in constant chaos and violence, especially in prison, and so lifers work hard to create as safe a lifestyle as possible for themselves.  And that's the goal of the Lifer's Group.  To improve their lives, their homes - because (once they've moved past denial and anger to acceptance) the prison is their home, and will be for a very, very, very long time.

    So the Lifer's Group has committees - legislative, compassionate outreach, daily life.

    Legislatively, there's a number of issues that the Lifer's Group is working on, because some of South Dakota's laws are very unique:
    (1) Possession by ingestion as a felony.  (see above)
    (2) South Dakota and Maine are the only states in America in which a life sentence is always life without parole.
    (3) South Dakota and Oklahoma are the only states in America in which you can get a life sentence for manslaughter.  Since manslaughter - read the definition here - means that you did not intend to kill the person, this is pretty outrageous to me.  How can "without any design to cause death" get the same sentence as premeditated murder?

    On the other fronts, the Lifer's Group has been:
    (1) Doing suicide watches.  (Yes, they're supervised by staff.)  They tag-team this, because they get called out at all hours of the day and night.  They also sit with the dying (usually another lifer) in the hospice room.  Both of these are very important to them.
    NOTE:  We also brought in people from Hospice to talk about how to help dying inmates.

    (2) Giving orientation talks to the A&Os (Admission and Orientation inmates, i.e., newcomers) to tell people brand-new to prison where things are, what the rules are, what the unwritten rules are, that they don't have to join gangs, and many other things that newbies can't / won't ask the administration about.  (Yes, they're supervised by staff.)

    (3) Everyone would really, really, really like to get Restorative Justice (RJ) started.  This is "a system of criminal justice which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large."  But it needs trained mediators.  We're still working on having this happen.

    (4) Working on getting better stuff from commissary, from better food to better underwear.  (Let's just say that, without commissary, all an inmate gets is the absolute basics.)

    (5) We hosted a Religious Enlightenment Conference that got a huge crowd that sat, respectful and attentive, to hear representatives within and outside of the prison talk about their religious customs, traditions, and practices.  Included were Christianity (representatives from both Catholicism and Protestantism), Asateru, Buddhism, Islam, and Native American traditions.  We're going to do it again in late December.

    (6) We hosted a Talent Show which was a ton of fun.  Ear-splitting guitar, magic act, comedians (mostly clean), karaoke, and an audience that ranged from inmates, the COs on duty, to a surprising number of staff and COs who were off duty and just stuck around to watch the show.  Good times were had by all.  I knew that we had a good gig going when one guy put on "Old Town Road", and everyone in the room started singing:

    Yeah, I'm gonna take my horse to the old town road
    I'm gonna ride 'til I can't no more
    I'm gonna take my horse to the old town road
    I'm gonna ride 'til I can't no more (Kio, Kio)

    We hope to do it again, in the dead of winter, when everyone needs something to sing along to.