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

11 October 2018

Quick Decisions

by Eve Fisher

I've talked before about my volunteer work with the Alternatives to Violence Project (Link here).  Here in South Dakota, we continue to do at least one workshop every month at the Sioux Falls penitentiary (both units) and they are always fascinating, revealing, illuminating, exhausting, rewarding, etc.  Not to mention fun, timely, and very, very, very needed.  For all of us.

One set of exercises we do almost every time is called "Quick Decisions".  We break our participants into small groups of 4, give them a scenario, and then have them come up with a group solution - preferably a non-violent solution - within 2 or 3 minutes.

Over time, I've noticed the difference between old and young inmates re using violence.  The old timers know there just isn't that much worth getting bunged up for (fights don't always work one way) or going to the SHU for.  The young ones are still very concerned about their reputations, and will provide all sorts of rationalizations as to why - this time - they have to go to the mat.

The other thing I've noticed is that, with scenarios that occur outside prison walls, it never occurs to any of the inmates to call the cops.  No matter what.  Someone robbing you, someone raping your sister, someone attacking, someone stealing - you don't call the cops.  You figure out another way of dealing with it.  It's understandable.  A lot of them are Native American, and have seen stuff on the reservation that would make you never want law enforcement near you again.  Racism is real.  Sexism is real.  And sometimes they combine in unpleasant ways.

So, here are some examples, and some common answers.  What do you think?

(1) You're standing in the mess hall line with your friend.  Someone walks up and cuts right in front of him.  Your friend tells him to move.  At first, the other guy just ignores him.  This makes your friend hot and soon he's yelling and cursing the guy out.  The guy turns around and asks what the hell's your problem?  What do you do?
Most common answer:  Tell the friend to chill out.  The food's not that good.  It's not worth going to the SHU for.  (I totally agree.) 
(2) You're walking alone along the street when you see three teenage boys grab another and shove him up against a building.  He and their actions are blocked by their bodies.  There's no policeman in sight.  What do you do?
Most common answer:  Keep on walking.  "You just don't know what he's done to bring it on."  But, change it to three teenage boys grab a teenage girl, and they'd come to her rescue, which is nice to know.  (And more than some people in politics would ever do...)
(3) You're on parole.  You and a group of friends enter a small local store to buy something, and while you're there the police come in to make a raid.  Turns out that the store is selling drugs out the back.  What does your group do?
Most common answer from the young ones:  Run like hell.
Most common answer from the lifers:  Stay put and explain, with everything you've got, that you knew nothing about it.  (I'm with the lifers)
(4) You're at a party standing at the bar area.  The sister of your best friend is there with a guy.  He comes to where you're standing, and gets 2 drinks.  Just as he leaves, he puts something into one of the glasses.  You watch as he crosses the room and offers that glass to her.  What do you do?
Most common answer:  Variations on the theme of stop him now.  Some would make him drink the drugged drink himself.  Some would shove him out of the bar, and "explain" things to him outside.  (We try for nonviolence, we don't always succeed.  And sometimes you can understand why.  And, again, it's nice to know they'd have her back, which is more than some people would...)  
(5) Your group is made up of parolees gathered together in an apartment.  Suddenly, the apartment owner's parole officer comes to the door to make a surprise visit.  The apartment has no back door and is ten stories up.  What does your group do?  NOTE:  for those of you who don't know, it's illegal for parolees to gather together socially.
Most common answer:  Panic heavily, and see what lie might stick.
Best answer:  Start holding an AA meeting.  Or a prayer meeting.  "Always keep a Big Book and a Bible wherever you live.  You never know when they'll come in handy."  (I thought I would die laughing at this one.)
(6) You're talking with your wife/girlfriend/baby mamma in the visit room.  Another inmate in the visit room starts flirting with her.  What do you do?
Most common answer:  Tell your woman that you'll won't see her for a while, because as soon as you get out of the visit room, you're going to take the guy down, and you'll be in the SHU for a while.  (SHU - Segregated Housing Unit, a/k/a "the hole", a/k/a solitary.)
On the last one, after all the groups were done explaining how they hated to do it, but if they didn't beat the guy up they'd lose all cred and credibility, and that's just the way it is, I raised my hand and asked, "Did it ever occur to you to let your lady handle it?  I mean, the obvious thing to me, if I'm visiting my husband and someone else is coming on to me is to go 'Ewww!  What are you thinking?  Get out of here!'"  Everyone laughed their head off.  And agreed that laughing at Flirt Guy would be far more effective at shriveling him than even beating him up.  I also pointed out that if she flirted back with the guy, they were with the wrong woman.  That got them thinking a bit, too.  
There are pages more of these, and they always bring up some great discussion.  And you just never know what the answers will be, which means it's never boring.

So, what were your answers?  Got any questions?

23 November 2017

I'm Not In Prison... A Thanksgiving Meditation

by Eve Fisher

Image result for alternatives to violence projectI spent last weekend at the pen, doing another Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop.  This time we were training inside facilitators, which we do every two years or so.  These are inmates who have done basic and advanced workshops, and have shown themselves to be really good at walking the walk as well as talking the talk.  These are guys who have gone a long time without being written up or put in the SHU, who know how to and do defuse situations on the ground, and want to be a part of spreading the word to others.  Without them, we couldn't do AVP.  (NOTE:  Check us out on Facebook!)  We outside facilitators need their help in all sorts of ways, and I can't say enough good stuff about them or give enough thanks for their help.

Meanwhile, I'm so glad I'm not in prison.  It's one of the things for which I am truly thankful.  And I don't take it for granted.  There's a long, long, long list of things which will send you to prison and I know very few people who have done none of them.  And it can happen so fast...  I've seen guys in the pen who are absolutely shell-shocked because suddenly they are there, and they almost don't know what's happened.  (Some, who are mentally disabled, really don't know what's happened.)


Image result for prison v. nursing homeMeanwhile, this meme - the one on the right - has been going around the internet for a long, long time, comparing prison (favorably) to nursing homes.  And I've refuted it every time I see it, and will continue to do so.  One version of it starts "Let's put Grandma in prison", to which I always respond, you must really hate your Grandma.  And then I explain why this meme is absolutely, one hundred percent false.  Not to mention pretty damn hateful...

So, let's compare apples to oranges, prisons to nursing homes:

Yes, prisoners get a shower every day - it's to prevent lice, mites, and scabies.  It's a health measure, not for their pleasure.  Believe me, a lot of prisoners would just as soon not take showers, because they don't want to be in a large group of naked men, some of whom are hostile, and - what with steam, slippery tile, soap, etc. - it's a place where rape and other assaults can happen.  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?
(NOTE:  In a nursing home, they do get a bath or shower every day, but in private.)

Image result for prison cell usa toilet in front
Prison cell
Yes, there is 24/7 video surveillance.  That's for security.  Yes, the lights don't go off at 7 PM in the pen - they don't go off at all.  That's for security.  The average prison cell is 6 x 8 feet, and (except for lifers) it's shared by two inmates, and the toilet is open, right in the front, by the door, so that literally everyone can see them doing their business.  That's for security, too.  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?
(NOTE:  The average nursing home room is at least six times that size, and the toilet is in a private bathroom with a door.  And no, the lights are NOT turned off in a nursing home at 7:00 PM.)

Yes, there are three meals a day.  They're awful.  I know, I've eaten a lot of them.  (We don't go out for meals during a weekend workshop.)  They get no fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, or red meat.  (The exceptions:  once a day they get canned corn or canned green beans or lettuce or raw carrots.)  There are a lot of carbs, which is why, even if you don't have diabetes before you go into the pen, there's a good chance you'll develop it before you go.  (Nationally, 21% of inmates have diabetes.)  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?
(NOTE:  I've eaten many a meal in assisted living centers, while visiting my parents, God rest their souls, and they weren't cold, except the salads, and they were pretty good.)

Yes, prisoners are allowed to have a TV - if they can afford it.  (No, they're not free.)  This is also a security measure, believe it or not.  Unless they have a job (and as many as half the prisoners don't), they're locked down, in their 6x8 cell 23/24.  Lately, they're also being given tablets (provided for free by private corporations, and not on the taxpayers' dime), which allow them to make telephone calls from their cells (using earbuds), listen to music, and access the digital law library.
(NOTE:  The digital law library has caused some prisons to quit having a paralegal on staff to explain the law to the inmates, which is sort of like providing a medical library and firing the doctors.)  Working or not, inmates are only allowed 1 hour for recreation (rec).  Depending on staffing levels, or climate, even rec is cancelled.  Inside rec is in the gym, which does come equipped with basketball hoops and weight equipment.  (Personally, I want them to burn off their energy somewhere....)

Prison tiers, SDSP
When the weather is nice and staffing levels are good, rec is outside, where inmates can play baseball and walk / jog around the track.  But, as soon as the temperature goes below 50, all rec is indoors, because the inmates - for security reasons - aren't given coats unless they have a specific job outside.  So, here in South Dakota, that generally means that for six months out of the year, inmates don't get to go outside, at all.  And because of the configuration of cell blocks, most cells don't have windows; and where there are windows, they're covered with iron mesh, which means that inmates don't even get to see the sun for six months out of the year.  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?

Now let's talk about medication.  Most prisoners are now given Vitamin B and D supplements, because of the lack of sunlight, the food, and the constant fluorescent lighting.  Yes, there's generally a paramedic and a nurse on duty 24/7 at a prison.  Yes, there is free prescription medication, and if you really want people with bi-polar, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses to go without medication in an over-crowded environment of people who are stuck there for years for criminal behavior, well...  that one's beyond me...

But notice I said prescribed medication.  You have to get that prescription, and getting it can take a while.  First you have to get an appointment to see the doctor, which takes a while.  Diagnosis takes a while.  And the medications are given out on the prison time schedule, not the prisoners.  Diabetics don't get to check their blood sugar and medicate accordingly.  They get their insulin at the scheduled time.  Period.  Inmates on chemo get to ride out the side effects in their 6x8 cell, without any special diet or help.  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?

Image result for elderly in prisonA lot of prisoners are elderly.  You get 20, 30, 40, 50 years or life, you're going to grow old in prison.  Eventually, elderly and disabled prisoners are allowed knee braces, walkers, and eventually even wheelchairs.  Those who are in wheelchairs are often assigned a pusher, which in this case is an inmate who will push them to where they want to go.  But they're not given any special help in and out of bed, on and off the toilet, up and down the stairs, to and from the chow hall, the medication line, etc., until they're actually at the hospice stage.  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?

All I can say, is that if your elderly loved ones are in a nursing home that does what the meme says, you have put them in the wrong nursing home.  (That or you really do hate them.)  Get them out.  Immediately.  Here are the official Nursing Home Care Standards:  find some place that follows them!

Meanwhile, I hope that reading this has made us all truly thankful for the things we have:  a home, with a private bathroom, a soft bed with comforters and pillows, weather-appropriate clothing, the ability to go outside whenever we want, do what we want, eat whatever we want.  The simple fact that I can actually turn the lights on and off is wonderful.  The fact that I can have a Thanksgiving Dinner with friends, loaded with good food...  it's fantastic.  I am truly, truly, truly, thankful.






01 September 2017

The Lock-Up: Prison Fiction and Reality

by Thomas Pluck
About 11 million men and women cycle through U.S. jails and prisons each year, according to a September report by the online media outlet AlterNet. The report, which cited data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, the U.S.--with 5% of the world's population--is responsible for a quarter of the world's prison population. At any given moment, more than 2.3 million people are housed in "1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails, as well as military prisons, immigration detention centers and prisons in the U.S. territories," and in some parts of the country, more people are in jail than in college.
--John Corley, "Prisonomics," The Angolite, Dec. 2016 issue
That was written by John Corley, a lifer at Louisiana State Penitentiary, and editor of The Angolite magazine, the prison's newspaper. Better known as "The Farm" or Angola, the former plantation houses the most life-sentenced prisoners in the U.S., if not the world. The peace is kept through occupational programs that give the inmates opportunity to stave off boredom and better themselves, to spend quality time with family on park-like benches rather than plastic orange chairs, sports, and faith-based groups.

You would think, with 2.3 million in jail or prison, that we would have more prison stories. There's Orange is the New Black, which is an entertaining fairy tale, but we have had few prison novels of note in the past few decades, as the population has soared. The time is ripe for accurate stories that depict the school-to-prison pipeline, the vicious circle of probation fees and jail, recidivism and parole, and lifers dying in hospice. All too often our stories begin at the prison gates--like my own novel, Bad Boy Boogie--and pay little attention to what happened before. We let the imagination do the job, but our imaginations are thirty or fifty years out of date, if we're still thinking like The Birdman of Alcatraz and The Shawshank Redemption or even American Me.


Inmate Damien Costly on suicide watch. from Mother Jones

Our genre has many tropes about prison, and they come from our cultural beliefs, which come from stories, so it is a vicious circle. Many of our beliefs about incarceration are outdated. For one, no one says "shiv" anymore. That went out with "cordite." There is violence in prison, but it is usually not how it is depicted in fiction. The majority of reported sexual assaults against prisoners is committed by faculty. Rape does occur, but there are plenty of inmates who will willingly trade sex. There's no need to get an assault or murder on your jacket. When rapes occur it is often paid for as revenge, or to make the victim seek protection within a gang. I wrote about this with the Heimdall Brotherhood (a fictional white supremacist gang based on several real ones) in Bad Boy Boogie, as well as what causes some prison riots. Racial lines used to be uncrossable, but things have changed. A friend of mine who is not Latino joined the Latin Kings during his time, to have protection, for example.

The biggest fantasy is that chimo's (child molesters, in prison parlance) will be punished by the population. This seems to be the greatest wish of half the internet commenters whenever a sex offender is charged, but it rarely happens. Most will seek Protective Custody (aka "punk city") which is similar to Administrative Segregation; you're in your cell 23 hours a day, but without the punitive rules regarding visitors and reading material, etc. Incarcerated former police often opt for this as well, putting to rest the "killed by the people they put away" myth. Anyone who can be victimized probably will be, but threats and long con games are more likely than getting shanked to death. When you're dead you can't pay for protection.

The classic prison novels like On the Yard by Malcolm Braley and The Animal Factory by Edward Bunker are still good reads, but they served time in the '50s. Better is Just Like That by Les Edgerton, which involves convicts after release, but gives a great view into the criminal mindset and how well (or not) prison works as a deterrent to the outlaw kind. Les served time in the '70s and stayed current. For an outsider's view, the book Games Criminals Play is a must-read, especially if you plan on writing to prisoners, or working with prison literary or education programs. It explains the long con games some use to get favors and coerce you into illegal behavior. If you have read about psychopathic behavior or how emotional abusers "gaslight" and coerce, the methods will be familiar, and they work outside of prison as well, when a criminal wants to infiltrate a business, or blackmail a government or law enforcement worker.

They start small, asking for the tiniest of favors. Can I bum a cigarette? What time is it? This is also how con artists find victims: Hey, can you help me with something? If you say yes, you are malleable. It depends. What happened? is a better answer, if you don't want to just keep on walking, which is usually the best option. Giving an inmate a cigarette is a violation. So now when they ask you for something bigger, they can use that against you. C'mon, you gave me a smoke. You're not like the others. And when you get adamant: You have a pretty good job here, but John saw you give me the smoke, and he's a rat, he needs to look good, but I can stop him from ratting, if you help me out...

If you give in a second time, they have more to use against you, and eventually this can lead to cases like the officer in Jersey City, New Jersey accused of tipping off gangs. Or the ubiquitous stories of Corrections Officers caught smuggling in contraband. It doesn't help that they are often underpaid; New Jersey has a strong CO's union, but most states don't. And with the private prison industry, things have gotten much worse. Low pay, and corporate-style accountability; it's only a problem if you get caught. Investigative journalist Shane Bauer infiltrated a Louisiana private prison and worked as a guard, and his story is illuminating not only to show how prisoners are treated and mistreated in such facilities, but how the corrections officers are. And what leads them to taking the job. It's a long read, but worth it: My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard, by Shane Bauer.

Another good read is the Phoenix New Times's reporting on Sheriff Joe Arpaio. They have collected it all here: Phoenix New Times Arpaio columns.

Inmate at Angola prison in Louisiana dries his eyes before
the Traveling Vietnam War Memorial Wall. From The Angolite.
Now this is not to say everyone in prison is good or bad. If you follow the Innocence Project, DNA has exonerated hundreds of inmates who served decades in prison. Some fall into a spiral and can't dig their way out. After cuts to mental illness care, law enforcement and prison often take the place of treatment. And then there are the ones who really deserve to be there, our favorite subjects. Just ask Norman Mailer, who worked to get Jack Abbott out of prison, only for him to stab a waiter who angered him. In the Belly of the Beast is still worth reading, for its outlaw insight. Dated as they are, You Can't Win by Jack Black and Killer: a Journal of Murder by Carl Panzram are also helpful in seeing two very different sides of criminal thinking, one the low-grade hobo scammer, the other a seasoned and heartless serial rapist and murderer, frank in his feelings toward humans, and how he was made into what he was.

 America's ignominious position as the leader in incarceration is unlikely to change any time soon, so if you want to write about prison, make sure you are informed. There are many stories to tell, and they are not all the same. The Kafkaesque circle of parole and probation, fees they must pay, losing your driver's license for a drug/etc conviction, not being able to find or hold a job because you can't drive a car and public transportation isn't available, and going to jail for not paying your fines, is horrible to watch. I've seen it up close, and all it does is shift the monetary burden to the family. Who then burden the addict or convict with guilt, which pressures them to use or violate probation again, which...

Well, maybe I should write a story about it, instead.

Here are some more sources on prison and parole:

Games Criminals Play, by Bud Allen & Diane Bosta
Subscribe to The Angolite, the magazine of Louisiana State Penitentiary, by sending a check/m.o. to The Angolite, c/o Cashier's Office, Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola LA 70712
Watch "Life on Parole," online at Frontline PBS.





06 July 2017

Hybristophilia, or How Erik Menendez Got A Girl in Prison

by Eve Fisher

A while back, I was sitting in the chow hall at the pen, talking with a young (early 20s) prisoner who was having relationship problems.  You see, he'd gotten involved with a woman through the mail.  A literal pen-pal.  Nice woman.  Little older than him, but still hot.  And she really liked him.  A month after their first face-to-face visit, she moved to the area so she could see him every week.  Two months later, and she wanted to get married.  Like in a couple of weeks.  He was really flattered, but he was also really kind of freaked out, because things were happening so fast, and what did I think?  I told him "DON'T DO IT!"  Then I brought in another of our outside volunteers, a father-figure to the guys, who heard the story and also said, "DON'T DO IT!"

Hybristophilia is defined as a sexual fixation on "a partner known to have committed an outrage, cheating, lying, known infidelities or crime, such as rape, murder, or armed robbery." All right, Wikipedia says its a sexual perversion, but you tell that to the people who are into it.  Plus, there's not a lot of actual sex involved.

(Maximum-security prisons don't allow conjugal visits.  Nor do federal prisons of any level.  And only four states - California, Connecticut, New York, and Washington allow conjugal visits in lesser-security prisons.)

And God knows there's not a lot of money involved, either.  If anything, money is generally going to flow from the outsider to the prisoner.  Money to help pay for the prisoner's phone time, stamps, commissary, odds and ends...  In fact, and forgive me for bursting anyone's bubble out there, but one of the main reasons that a lot of prisoners write to outsiders in a friendly to ever-increasing romantic vein is specifically to get money.  And they're often very successful.
BTW, prisoners also write attorneys, of course, to get help, and they send judges either bogus lawsuits or outright threats.  I remember at the courthouse, whenever something from the pen arrived for the judge, we'd all gather around - judge, court reporter, myself (circuit administrator), state's attorney, bailiff, etc. - and read the latest idiocy.  My favorite was a lawsuit demanding that the sheriff depose each and every officer of the court for high crimes and misdemeanors, listing everyone by name.  Except the judge. Finally, at the very end, there was a little handwritten note saying, "____, sorry I forgot you, asshole!"  You've got to be fairly stupid to send out stuff like that, not to mention "I'm going to take a shotgun to your head" to a judge, when your full name, prisoner number, and cell number is on the envelope...  
So, no sex, no money - why would someone get involved with a prisoner?  Why would someone write love letters to a total stranger?  Want to date them, through a glass/mesh screen?  Want to marry them in the visitors' room?  ???

Well, in some cases, there's the fame factor.  For those who write/wrote to Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, the Menendez brothers, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, part of the charm, apparently, is getting in on the modern obsession with celebrity.  No, it doesn't matter how horrendous the person is, or how heinous their acts, by God if they're famous, they're a celebrity, and by becoming their girlfriend/boyfriend, you become a celebrity, too!  You might get in on the media spotlight, get a book deal, a movie deal, or the body!

CharlesManson2014.jpg
Charles Manson in 2014
  • NOTE:  Not kidding about the body.  Did you know that, in 2015, at 80 years old, Charles Manson cancelled his upcoming penitentiary wedding to 27-year old Afton Elaine Burton, now known as Star, because he found out she was hoping that, after he died, she'd get his corpse, put it on display in a glass case in LA, and charge people to see it?  (Charles Manson has always been a little smarter and saner than he looks.)
  • DOUBLE NOTE:  With regard to my last blog-post, Bullying 101, where I talked about Rush Limbaugh (and others) objecting to Michelle Carter being convicted of manslaughter for texting her boyfriend to suicide, saying that it's a violation of the First Amendment to "start penalizing people for things they say or things that they think, but don’t actually do":  Let's all remember that Charles Manson got life in prison without parole, for exactly what he said, and nothing that he did.  He was nowhere near either of the murder scenes.  So far, I haven't heard anyone objecting to his sentencing...

Anyway, back to reasons why people want to write to, date, have sex (or not) with, and/or marry prisoners.  According to Katherine Ramsland, professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University,
  • "Some believe they can change a man as cruel and powerful as a serial killer."
  • "Others 'see' the little boy that the killer once was and seek to nurture him."
  • "Then there's the notion of the 'perfect boyfriend'. She knows where he is at all times and she knows he's thinking about her. While she can claim that someone loves her, she does not have to endure the day-to-day issues involved in most relationships. There’s no laundry to do, no cooking for him, and no accountability to him. She can keep the fantasy charged up for a long time."   (Wikipedia)
Image result for goldfinger novelBTW, men also write to female prisoners.  I think many of them are also looking for the perfect girlfriend, who requires nothing (but a little money).  I also think that some of them are looking for a future drug mule or sex slave, and a female prison is a good place to recruit:  many female prisoners have already been so abandoned, abused, in every sense of the word, and so many of them have father issues, self-image issues, etc., that they are willing to do just about anything for anyone who seems to care for them.

Of course, there's also the occasional female serial killer, like Aileen Wuornos, who would be perfect for the man who wanted to tell himself that he can nurture the little girl she once was, and/or wants to see if he can change the serial killer the way James Bond changed Pussy Galore on the last page of "Goldfinger". (Even at twelve years old, I knew that was nothing but Ian Fleming's fantasy...)

Meanwhile, I talk to guys up here in South Dakota who are in their 20s and already have anywhere from two to nine children by two or three or four different women, and now have a girlfriend they met while in the pen.  They don't even begin to grasp how much trouble they're in even before they get out.  I understand why they keep having sex whenever they can - it's fun, free, and so far isn't illegal - but why won't they use condoms?  How are they going to support all those children?  How are they going to pay child support, make court-ordered restitution, and pay bills when they'll be lucky to get a minimum-wage job?  Sigh...

Not that our hybristophiliacs necessarily have any idea of the prior commitments their new prison romance has.  After all, it's the rare prisoner who's going to cough up things like ex-wives, current wives, children, and any other financial obligations or debts.  Or their personality flaws.  Or the truth about their crime(s)...   Hybristophilia is somewhere between kinky romance and lion-taming.  Either way, it's dangerous.  Either way, it's unreal.  (You don't really know someone until you've actually lived with them, and even then it helps if you've been together through a bad vacation complete with rain, food poisoning, broken-down car, and a fleabag motel with no heat.)  Yes, there are exceptions, where two people genuinely connect through letters and visits; where the prisoner eventually gets out, and they do marry/live together and it all works out.  Two points:  (1) These are very rare.  (2) None of these have been with serial killers.

But the fantasy lives on.



24 November 2016

Messages in a Bottle, or Notes from the Pen

For the next several days, our band of authors will be writing about writing— for magazines, especially non-mystery magazines. We’ll have a couple of surprises and a lot of expertize. Thanks to Eve for kicking off the program with non-traditional penmanship. You'll see.
—Velma
by Eve Fisher

I just got back from a weekend workshop at the local penitentiary, which (as always) was full of interesting moments, hard work, and definite characters.  If nothing else, the weekend confirmed (even if I do say so myself) that I really nailed the young meth-head who's the centerpiece of my latest story, "Iron Chef", in the November, 2016 issue of AHMM.  ("He thinks he's a lady's man because he wants to get laid," and more here...)

I did not tell the guys that.  Actually, I don't tell them much about my writing, because (1) That's not why I'm there (I'm there to facilitate an Alternatives to Violence Project Workshop, not talk about myself all the time) and (2) most of them don't really want to hear it.  Including the writers.
(Sometimes especially the writers.  Recent dialog between myself and an inmate:
Me: "There's a place on-line that lists publishers and -"
Inmate (interrupting): "I HAVE an agent. Or I will soon."
Me: "Okay."
Inmate: "Yeah.")
And there are a lot of writers (and artists) at the pen.  Interestingly, I haven't met one yet that writes mystery or crime stories.  I'm not sure if that's because it doesn't interest them, or they don't know how to do it, or if they're afraid if they put anything in writing, it might be held against them in a court of law.  Like a confession or a plan for future criminal activity...  Anyway, most are poets and/or songwriters.  Some write sci-fi and/or supernatural/horror. And a few write autobiographies.

Getting prison writing published is easier than you might think, thanks to the internet.  Here are just a few of the on-line resources for magazines, newsletters, anthologies and e-zines dedicated to prisoners' writing:

From South Dakota, The Prisoners for Prevention blog.
The Prisoner Poetry Page.
The on-line Prison Poetry Workshop podcasts.
The Prisoner Express which publishes poetry, journals, essays, etc.

One of the main problems, of course, for prisoners is that these days so many places only accept on-line submissions, and access to the internet is hard to get in the pen.  And sending out ms. in hard-copy is expensive when you only make 25 cents an hour.  (Not to mention that getting access to a typewriter is hard to come by, too.)  And almost all of the markets specifically set up to publish prisoners' work are non-paying.

In the search for paying markets, Writers' Digest is invaluable to prisoners:  I'd bet there's a (more or less) old, battered copy in every prison library.  I know inmates who've sent stories to Glimmer Train, Analog, Asimov's Science Fiction, and Playboy.  (No, I don't know any who've been accepted yet, but at least they're trying!)  I've read a couple of the stories, and even given a critique here and there. When I am specifically asked.  Again, not every inmate wants to hear any opinion other than that it's a great poem/story/song.  For that matter, not every writer OUT of the pen wants to hear anything else...

Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing from the Pen ProgramAnother place where inmates writers can get published is with the PEN Prison Writing Contest. Prizes and publication in an anthology make this very prestigious.
And, for all of us, let's not forget sites like Angie's Desk and My Little Corner, both of which list anthologies and markets of all genres (although primarily mystery and science-fiction/fantasy).  Thank you, ladies!  Your hard work has opened up markets for us all!

Most of the work the inmates finally do get published is and has been edited by someone outside for content.  What gets passed around in the tier, chow hall, and our sharing circle is unedited, raw, and cannot be reprinted on this family blog.  Besides the poems of suicidal despair (since this is NOT the Gingerbread House of Corrections)

http://rhymeswithorange.com/comics/november-20-2016/
gangsta rap is HUUUUUGE.  Personally, I get bored with gangsta rap, because they all say pretty much the same thing:  ultra-explicit rap symphonies in F Major on drugs, bling, fights, arrests, killings, and sex.
(It's like the prison tattoos:  the first few times you go in the pen, you see these guys who are absolutely COVERED in tattoos, and it's hard to look away.  But after a while, you realize that they're mostly skulls, naked women, snakes, names, etc., in endless repetition, and the only reason you study them is to figure out what gang they're in.)
But there are those stories that show real creativity and thinking, and poems that take your breath away, like the following from PrisonerExpress.org/?mode=poetry

The thirteenth amendment, Amended

by Name Withheld by Request
A coffle of state slaves shuffles
Slowly into the radiant rays
Of dawn's early light.
Spartacus nowhere in sight.
Flight scarred all, and bone
Weary from strife and stress,
Destined to toil under the sun til
Twilight's last gleaming brings rest.

The tools are issued:
One hoe per man, each
Dull the blade, each
Seven pounds of sweat-stained misery,
Each, in proper hands,
Seven pounds of peril.

Let there be no peril today, we pray:
No quick and vicious fights, where, sweat stinging,
Fists flying, we cull living from dying:
No riots fought for fast forgot reasons__
Swinging steel scintillating in sunlight,
Blood gouting from the too slow heads__
Brown, black, white___
Our blood ruby red and thick with life,
No respecter of color or creed.

Let there be no peril today, we pray;
No dry crackling reports of leaden soldiers,
Chasing wisps of smoke from forge fashioned barrels,
Speaking the ancient tongue of Authority;
Guns guardgripped fast by bossfists,
In confederate gray cloths,
Their fire felling friends, freeing foes.

Let there be no peril today, we pray:
Today only__hard work, for no pay.

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except
as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall
have been duly convicted, shall exist within the
United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

So let it be rewritten.
So let it, at last, be done.


04 September 2016

Dystopia Revisited

by Leigh Lundin

By definition, prisons stay out of view of the public eye, and, as Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo taught us, citizens are all too happy to ignore the abuses carried on behind locked bars. Fast forward a century or so where sci-fi acts as a literary bellwether: The golden age of science fiction introduced the concept of corporations taking over a number of government functions often beginning with prison systems. Back then, company prisons were considered too fantastical to appear outside dark imaginations.

Until commercialized incarceration arrived with a vengeance.

Corporation Glossary
BOP • Federal Bureau of Prisons
CCA • Corrections Corporation of America
GEO • formerly Wackenhut formerly G4S
MTC • Management and Training Corp
CCS • Correct Care Solutions (medical)
Bad Tidings

As both Eve and I have written, corporations have found numerous ways to profit from prisoners and take every opportunity to capitalize upon the misery of others. Practices include charging extravagant court and jailhouse fees, usurious interest rates, and for food and ‘accommodations’ in state and federal prisons. These fees make it impossible for many prisoners to ever get out of debt. Although the US has banned debtors’ prisons, courts in the pockets of prison corporations continue to incarcerate those who cannot pay. Indeed, it’s possible for a poor person to be adjudged not guilty and still end up imprisoned for failure to pay jail costs and legal fees. Lobbyists see to it that more and more citizens receive ever longer sentences. It’s good for business and best of all, nobody cares.

It’s come to light that corporate prisons have been ignoring constitutional rights. True, county jails and state prisons have abused prisoners and even served rotting food, but corporations made the assumption they’re not responsible for upholding Amendments to the Constitution. Companies have been caught recording attorney-client sessions… then sharing them. Prison apologists say private enterprise shouldn’t be forced to obey BoP rules because it reduces profits.

But there’s worse. Corporations have implemented a form of slavery right here in the US. If a man or boy refuses to work, he can be punished severely, tasered, thrown in solitary confinement, and even killed. In recent years, Florida’s corporate prisons have become so unsafe, that an inmate per day dies, often murdered by guards or other prisoners. In case you question the term ‘murder’, read the reports. Guards even steamed one prisoner alive, reportedly leaving pieces of his body in the shower.

Within the special federal immigrant contract prisons, the numbers are also appalling regarding so-called ‘medical care’, occasionally provided by CCS. In cases where records were available, medical and mortality reviews determined the quality of medical service was inadequate and in more than a third of cases, directly contributed to prisoners’ deaths. Private companies understaff with LPNs/LVNs, which require no more than a year of study beyond a GED, and permit them to diagnose and prescribe. Rather than sending out lab work, evidence suggest LPNs tended to ‘eyeball’ samples and and simply (and wrongly) guess.

Sad Tidings

Corrections Corporation of America
 
Geo Group
 
Management and Training Corporation
 
Correct Care Solutions
I very much believe in free enterprise, an almost magical engine that works automatically… under the right circumstances. When it comes to economics, I’m also a pragmatician if not a pragmatist. If an industry isn’t regulated, i.e, policed, it will devolve into exploitation and even criminality. We’ve learned time and again that industries cannot police themselves.

By definition, free enterprise also implies that a percentage of people will be unemployed at any given time. If you want 100% employment, turn to socialism, but don’t expect dynamics or efficiency in managed production and consumption. An economy sails best that steers itself.

But economics can resemble religion: capitalists versus communists, free trade versus tariffs. Religionists are convinced they’re right and everyone else is wrong. Both extremes don’t take into account human factors and that’s what prisons are about… assuming you’re among the percentage who still believe the incarcerated are human too. Esquire Magazine used the term ‘faceless bureaucratic indifference to human suffering’ in a different context, but it definitely applies here.

Then we learned the much touted cost-savings to taxpayers turned out moot.

Glad Tidings

As safety, rehabilitation programs, food quality and medical care plummeted, mayhem, injuries and deaths shot up. Protests and property damage increased as well. Our own Eve Fisher touched on mental health and prison terror here and here and here and here.

Mother Jones journalist Shane Bauer went undercover as a prison guard and is being sued by CCA for his trouble. CCA would very much like their policy to remain “What happens here, stays here.” You know, where the bodies are buried.

But the news is promising. Despite furious lobbying and campaign donations, the Justice Department has ordered private contracts with prison corporations not be renewed, concluding corporate administration is less effective and safe. This decision does not apply to the appalling immigration prisons mentioned above nor to the far larger population in state prisons.

Our beloved Florida governor has been the states’ own best lobbyist for corporate prisons with disastrous results. It remains to be seen whether situations will change at the state level. But at least we can give thanks that for federal relief and corporate karma.

12 May 2016

"I Hope You Get the Help You Need"

by Eve Fisher

Ripped from the headlines of South Dakota:

State Receives $300,000 for Mental Health Task Force.

Investigation continues into 50 year old woman's death (35 year old boyfriend claims he woke up and there she was, dead... Yes, there were a few drugs lying around...).

Man accused of killing state trooper wants case separated (he's planning on blaming the other defendants for everything).

https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7678578
Fourth of July State Park Camping Reservations open soon (we have some GREAT camping sites; really GREAT).

Report shows an elderly woman found in a freezer died of natural causes  (now why her son brought her to South Dakota in a freezer, that may not be so natural, but he died in February, so we may never have an answer to THAT mystery).

Officials tackling gopher problem at state fairgrounds (no joke, folks).

Entertainment Lineup  announced for RibFest 2016 (June 2-5th, W. H. Lyons Fairground)  .

And a story about someone sentenced to prison for various appalling acts committed under the influence of meth and God only knows what other substances he had in his system.  At his sentencing, someone said, "we hope you will get the help you need while in prison and can turn your life around once you [eventually] get out."

This last story connects with the first one, about the mental health task force:

"A grant of about $300,000 will bolster the work of a task force proposed by the state Supreme Court's chief justice to study issues surrounding mentally ill people entering the criminal justice system.  Officials on Wednesday announced the grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to the state Department of Health.  The state is providing more than $100,000 through in-kind contributions to support the work.

Homer Simpson

"Gov. Dennis Daugaard says the group is set to analyze why and how individuals with mental illness become involved with the justice system.  SD Chief Justice David Gilbertson says the criminal justice system often isn't the most appropriate and cost-effective response."  Mental Health Task Force

To which my answer is "d'oh".  

I've talked before about how our society has criminalized addiction, mental illness, and mental disability.  Some of it was purely political:  
"One of Richard Nixon's top advisers and a key figure in the Watergate scandal said the war on drugs was created as a political tool to fight blacks and hippies, according to a 22-year-old interview recently published in Harper's Magazine. 
"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people," former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper's writer Dan Baum for the April cover story published Tuesday. 
"You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities," Ehrlichman said. "We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."  John Ehrlichman interview, CNN

Other reasons were the natural fallout resulting from the scandal of "snake-pit" mental hospitals about the same time that people figured out that mental health institutions were expensive.  In other words, the search for social reform AND economic reform:
Snakepit1948 62862n.jpg
"Perhaps what is most interesting about the change in policies of involuntary commitment is the coalition that helped bring it about: a combination of "law and order" conservatives, economic conservatives, and liberal groups that sought reform in the provision of mental health services. But the policy shift had hardly anything at all to do with the mentally ill or the practitioners who treated them. It was designed to lower taxes and shift responsibility away from the federal government. Ironically then, the need for reform perceived by those involved and concerned with the mentally ill (practitioners and families) was co-opted by the interests of capital."  Reagan and the Commitment of the Mentally Ill

In any case the result is that today, instead of going to hospitals, most of the mentally ill, mentally disabled, and the chronically addicted go to jail. (Explains why we have the largest prison population in the world, doesn't it?) According to NIH, "prisons have effectively become the new mental illness asylums". NIH Report on Prisoners and Mental Illness

And, according to the Atlantic: "55 percent of male inmates in state prisons are mentally ill, but 73 percent of female inmates are. Meanwhile, the think-tank writes, "only one in three state prisoners and one in six jail inmates who suffer from mental-health problems report having received mental-health treatment since admission." The Atlantic.

So when someone says "I hope s/he finally gets the help s/he needs" the simple answer is no, most of the time, s/he won't. They will be warehoused. They may or may not be put on psychotropic drugs which may or may not be suitable for their mental illness. If they are mentally disabled, they may be put on tranquilizers, just to calm them down. [This turns them into zombies.]  If they are addicted, they may go through a six week addiction program. Or not. Depends on if there's any money. And, when they've done their time - and most prisoners will eventually do their time - they will come out, in pretty much the same shape they went in, if not worse.

You can't fix people for free.  You can't put mentally ill people into the less-than-nurturing environment of prison and expect them to come out magically all better.  But at least there's a start. I'll take any mental health task force I can get.  Anything is better than nothing, and nothing has been the rule for a very long time.

Okay, now, a little question for all the mystery writers, the woman in the freezer - why do YOU think her son brought her to South Dakota?



30 July 2015

Of Mice and Men, Again

by Eve Fisher

A few weeks ago I did another weekend-long Alternatives to Violence (AVP) workshop at the pen.  As always, I came back dragging.  Three days is a long time, and it's a hard time, but then again, I wouldn't miss it for the world.  There are infinitely worse ways of spending my time.  (I know; I've done it.)

The workshop was crowded:  21 of us jammed into a 10 x 12 room.  All ages, races, religions, crimes.  Quite a mix.  There are always those who drive you crazy, those who give you hope, those who you want to never see again, and those who break your heart.  I'll never forget the very young man who said that maybe meth wasn't all bad:  at least when he did meth with his dad, his dad talked to him...

This time the heartbreaker was a mentally handicapped young man, whom I will call Lennie.  He had a great time at the workshop.  As I said later on, "AVP is one of the few places where adults will play nicely with him."  And where he won't get made fun of, or insulted, or shoved around, or robbed, or beaten up, or raped, or killed.  We generally have a Lennie in every workshop:  They might not understand AVP, but they know it's safe.  And there aren't that many safe places in prison for the weak, the elderly, the physically or mentally ill, the physically or mentally handicapped.

First, some statistics:  according to Kaiser Health News, 73% of women and 55% of men in state prisons have at least one mental health problem; it's 61% of women and 44% of men in federal prisons; and 75% of women and 63% of men in local jails.
http://kaiserhealthnews.org/news/by-the-numbers-mental-illness-jail/

Those are pretty horrendous statistics. And when we come to addiction:  well, 65% of all inmates meet the criteria for addiction, and alcohol and other drugs are "significant factors in all crimes, including 78 percent of violent crimes, 83 percent of property crimes and 77 percent of public order, immigration or weapons offenses as well as probation and parole violations." http://thenationshealth.aphapublications.org/content/40/3/E11.full

As Alex Briscoe, the health director for Alameda County in northern California, said “We’ve, frankly, criminalized the mentally ill, and used local jails as de facto mental health institutions."

"Prison crowded" by California Department of Corrections - http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/News/background_info.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prison_crowded.jpg#/media/File:Prison_crowded.jpg
Briscoe's right.  We've criminalized the mentally ill.  Even worse, we've criminalized the mentally handicapped, lumping them in with the mentally ill, which they're not.  For one thing, there is no pill or therapy that will ever "cure" or "treat" the mentally handicapped or make them "normal".  Look at Lennie.  About 10 years old, mentally.  Laughing his head off at every joke that he could understand, and most that he couldn't.  Having the time of his life whenever we did a Light & Lively exercise (silly games, but one of the ways we loosen people up and get the blood flowing; plus - hint! - laughing people learn more than bored people).  Lennie was constantly trying to be helpful, from handing out pencils, to reminding me to turn on the coffeepot, to picking up the trash, and so happy when you thanked him.

Yes, Lennie's been convicted of a crime, but he swore he didn't do it.  He might be right.  He might have made an easy scapegoat for someone else.  (It's been known to happen.)  He also might not have understood what he did, or what he was actually convicted of.  I've run into that before, too.  I've also met Lennies who had no idea at all why they were there - just that something bad had happened, and they were locked up.

I don't know which of these is worse.  What I do know is that putting a Lennie in prison doesn't do any kind of good, unless the idea really is for them to be repeatedly assaulted, robbed, humiliated, raped, and/or killed.  Again, there are no medications that will make Lennie more than 10 years old. He will never get "better".  He will never "learn his lesson," "pay his debt to society" or "grow up" because he can't, and there isn't a damn thing that can ever be done to make that happen.

OfMiceAndMen.jpgSo what do you do with Lennie?  In my perfect world, Lennie would be in a group home, where he can be given care in a safe, structured, respectful environment where adults will let him play games.  But putting Lennie in prison is as cruel as taking your 10 year old child, or grandchild - no matter what they did - and putting that child in prison and saying, "Well, that's the way the justice system works".  Or, "Yes, a group home would be better, but we just don't have the resources for it."  If that's our justice system, it sucks so much swamp water, we've got alligators. And if we don't have the resources - i.e., money - for such things, again I ask, what is money for?

To be honest, if this is the best we can do, and if there isn't going to be any change...   What is right?  What is just?  What is cruel and unusual?  What do you do when the situation is hopeless?

All I can think of is the ending in Of Mice and Men:
The crash of the shot rolled up the hills and rolled down again...  Slim came directly to George and sat down beside him, sat very close to him.  "Never you mind," said Slim. "A guy got to sometimes."   - John Steinbeck, "Of Mice and Men."



02 July 2015

What We Do for Love...

by Eve Fisher


Here are a few tips regarding those who wish to remain among the unincarcerated:

(1) Don't pick up work-release prisoners and give them a ride anywhere but directly to the pen.
(2) Don't pick up work-release prisoners and take them over to your house for a cup of coffee, much less a six-pack of beer.
(3) Don't pick up work-release prisoners and take them over to your house for sex.
(4) Don't have sex with inmates, even if it's in your car, and you're sure there are no cameras around.
(5) Don't take anything from an inmate, even if it's just a little picture that they want to give you because you're so nice.
(6) Don't give anything to an inmate, even if it's just a picture of you so that they'll always have a memento.
(7) Don't agree to bring anything in to an inmate, even if it will make them so happy and you're their only friend.
(8) Don't agree to give/buy/sell anything to/from an inmate's relative, friend, significant other, etc., even if their grandmother is dying.
(9) Don't have sex with an inmate's relative, friend, significant other, etc., even if they really, really, really find you attractive and always have.
(10) Don't have sex with an inmate, even if the supply closet/classroom/staff bathroom is open and unoccupied and no one's in the pod watching and/or another inmate will keep an eye out for anyone coming.
(11) Don't have sex with an inmate.

Sadly, it happens all the time.  Every year at volunteer/guard training, we hear the stories:  this guard picked up a prisoner on their way home from work-release, took them for a ride, took them home, took them here, took them there...  Had a little coffee/soda/beer/drugs/sex with them.  That guard brought in cell phones/chew/drugs for a prisoner, who paid them with sex and/or cold hard cash. Another person had an affair with a prisoner, and when another prisoner found out about it, the person got blackmailed into having sex with that prisoner, too.  And when yet another inmate found out about that, suddenly the person had to start smuggling contraband...  And then there was the case of a person who got caught having sex with a prisoner, and the prisoner turned around and sued the person for sexual harassment and rape under PREA.  And won.

In each case, beginning the long march to losing job, family, and freedom.

Prison inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat are seen in enhanced pictures released by the New York State police

I'm sure you've all been following the story of convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat, who escaped from the Clinton Correctional facility in upstate New York with the help of two prison employees, Officer Gene Palmer (a prison guard) and Joyce Mitchell (who supervised inmates working in the prison's tailor shop).  I know I have.  (Just as I was finishing this up, Mr. Matt was killed, and Mr. Sweat was wounded and  back in custody.)  Now, I wasn't surprised at all that the prisoners tried to escape, and not that surprised that they succeeded - it happens.  After all, they have all the time in their sentence to sit and think up more or less inventive ways of getting out.  And every once in a while, they come up with a doozy.  One that actually works.  I'm just glad that this time no one was killed in the escape.

But what did surprise me, what always surprises me, is that some employees helped them.  To put it in the simplest English, "WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY THINKING?"
Danged if I know.

Gene Palmer: 5 Things to Know About Second Prison Worker Arrested in Escape Plot
Gene Palmer, in custody, looking shell-shocked

I do know that many inmates are really good at manipulating people.  If it wasn't their way of making a living out on outside, it sure is now.  Here's a great article which outlines a basic prison con:
http://www.correctionsone.com/corrections/articles/6349020-Downing-a-duck-How-inmates-manipulate/

First, they groom a person. This usually takes the form of either flattery or comfort.  Inmates pay very close attention to staff and volunteers, what they say, how they look, how they act.  (And, no, they literally don't have anything better to do.)  And so they might pay that staff member a compliment, or talk about what a difference the volunteer has made, or how good they are at something.  Given enough time (and believe me, the prisoners  have plenty of time), warm fuzzies abound...

Secondly, they talk, talk, talk, and get the staff/volunteer to talk, talk, talk.  Friendship blossoms. Confidences are made.  Perhaps about something that is slightly... illicit.  That's called instant blackmail.  And suddenly the staff member agrees to look the other way when the rules are bent a little.  And then that little indiscretion is used to hook the person into overlooking rules being really bent, broken, and thrown out in the trash.  And then the prisoners own the staff/volunteer, and anything is possible.  As we've seen.

Personally, I almost feel sorry for Joyce Mitchell (51), who was obviously led to believe that David Sweat (35) was in love with her.  I'll have to hand it to him, he took his time in landing her.  And, even though she still denies having sex with the man (while other inmates are heavily ratting them out and saying yes, they did, over and over again), I kind of hope she got something out of it besides the sickening knowledge that she was used, used, used, because she's going to prison herself, and it would be awful to trade away your entire life for absolutely nothing.


Joyce Mitchell is accused of helping two killers escape an upstate New York prison David Sweat remains at large

But I do not understand, at all, Officer Palmer trading his career and his freedom away for paintings. (At least the cell phone smugglers got money.)  I heard that he's claimed he was getting intelligence on illegal behavior in prison - but everything he did was (1) illegal according to the rules and (2) completely backfired because he ended up giving them at least some of the tools they needed to escape.  He appears to be one of those workers who came to sympathize more with the prisoners than with the institution.  Not that uncommon.  Prison is not a pleasant place to be in, no matter which side of the bars you're on.  But at some point, you've got to be aware of what you're trading when you become the duck.  You're trading your career, perhaps your family and friends, and all of your freedom in order to be a sucker.  A big fat waddling duck.

Prison Gangs
It's really simple:  don't violate the rules and don't trust the prisoners.  Be courteous, professional, even friendly (as in business friendly).  Do your job.  Be present.  Listen.  Care.  But don't trust them with your stuff, your mind, your body, your family, your freedom.  The con games never stop, and you are the obvious target, because you can get them something they want, something they need, and who knows?  You might even get them out of prison.  And put yourself IN.







03 August 2014

Debtors' Prison

Little Dorrit
by Leigh Lundin

Mal du siècle

Ever read Charles DickensLittle Dorrit? It's not a light read but please do. Written from the heart, Dickens’ own father was incarcerated when he couldn’t pay his family’s debts. A century and a half after his novel revolutionized society’s notions about debtors’ prison, it’s become relevant again.

To refresh, imprisonment for debts is the novel’s central theme. Edward Dorrit had been a gentleman of means and manner before a business reversal sent him to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. As his daughter Amy (Little Dorrit) works toward paying the two-decade-old debt, an investigation by Arthur Clennam brings to light that Dorrit is an heir to a sizable fortune. Against a background of banking and brokerage schemes and financial collapse, Clennam, through his own honesty, finds himself in prison after the loss of his own fortune.

The Magic of Economics and Politics

The rise of debtors’ prisons is again plaguing our society with ever new and clever machinations. Chances are your legislature, like mine, brags how much money it saves in taxes. Oddly, they haven't cut back spending, certainly not legislators’ salaries, but they claim to have cut taxes. Now closely watch the handkerchief in this hand…

Consider a typical example in Florida. Perhaps you get sick and you lose your job. You can’t pay your automobile insurance. Because you’re a good citizen but naïve about the statutes, you don’t drive your car but, hoping for a little money any day now, you don’t turn in your car’s license plate (called a ‘tag’ in Florida). Even if you never drive during that period, the state of Florida will charge you $150 up to $500 for ‘financial irresponsibility’ and revoke your driver’s license. That’s right: You couldn’t afford insurance but as you’re trying to recover financially, you’re forced to fork over as much as $500 in escalating fines plus fees. It’s difficult to argue this isn’t punishing the poor for being poor.

Machinations

States constantly authorize new categories of fines and fees while criminalizing once civil violations to supplement their shrinking tax base. These are called LFOs, ‘legal financial obligations.’ For example, some states are shifting minor infractions such as parking violations to criminal jurisprudence. Truancy is now a crime but the opposite is also a crime– schooling your child in a district you don’t live in.

And guess who the fines are aimed at? Certainly not those wealthy enough to lobby against paying taxes. That’s not me saying that… it’s the conclusion of a fifteen-state study by my alma mater’s law school, New York University. It’s also the conclusion of an Ohio study that found up to 20% of county jail bookings were the results of inabilities to pay and, to the surprise of some, more women were jailed than men, mainly minority and especially Hispanic women.

Manipulation

Under Pennsylvania law, truancy is now a parental crime. A father or mother can be jailed five days for each truancy violation by their children and on top of that be charged for unpaid fines and fees. As Eve Fisher mentioned, Eileen DiNino, a mother in jail for truancy debts, died recently after being denied medical care after complaining about pain and inability to breathe. In a county where 1600 parents have been locked up, a mother needlessly died after being jailed for unpaid fines.

The Ohio Supreme Court has instructed judges to stop sending the indigent to jail, yet Ohio has authorized non-judicial ‘mayor’s courts’ that aren’t courts in any recognizable sense. Running a sort of collection agency, the magistrate doesn’t have to have a law degree and the so-called ‘courts’ have little or no public accountability or oversight.

Maltreatment

At the same time government has cut back services for the poorest among us, a rash of laws have taken aim at the less fortunate. Thus we’ve defunded child care and cut back food programs. On the verge of the banking debacle, President Bush signed the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2005, increasing bank profits while making bankruptcy more difficult and costly for consumers and impossible for student loans. The theory was that even if a citizen was dead broke, when sufficiently threatened, he or she could somehow come up with money to pay, even if they had to forego food and shelter.

The war against poverty has become a war against the poor. Among the services cut back has been mental health. Our prisons now hold ten times the number of mentally ill than do our state hospitals. If you’re homeless, some places make it illegal to sleep or even lie down to rest. Other places ban sleeping in cars. The city of Orlando will attempt to arrest you if you publicly feed the homeless– it’s not good for that touristy promotional image.

Individual managers at Walt Disney World, quiet heroes who know less fortunate cast members are sleeping in cars and vans, do what they can to help them with showers and food.
WalMarts often turn a blind eye to families who virtually camp in the distant corners of their parking lots. Such practices certainly aren't official company policies, but they deserve mention.

Personal Profit Centers


Since imprisoning the poor because of debts is technically illegal in most states, prosecutors and bond holders rely on legal subterfuges to jail the indigent, and often the accused are not apprised of their rights. For example, a respondent doesn’t have the money to pay a $10 debt that grows to $100 in interest, fees, and fines. A DA or bond-holder files a motion of contempt and argues failure to pay the fine is contempt of court. Judges don’t like contempt of court and may well agree. They can move a civil case into the criminal realm. Most states reserve the right to charge citizens for their own prosecution.

Thereafter, of course, the fees and interest continue to climb. A $30 or $40 debt can easily reach three figures or more made worse by state-authorized collection agencies. If you’re arrested, expect to pay double or more for commissary cigarettes and candy, and be charged ten times the going rate for phone calls. Don’t be surprised to be billed for the recording of visits with your family.

States of Despair

In part of Washington state where average felony fines and fees of $2500 increase at 12% interest, inmates can be charged for laboring on the county work crew. An Alabama private probation firm charged $2100 in fees and extra fines for a $200 misdemeanor. An Illinois woman was sent to jail for a $280 medical bill she didn't owe. An indigent Michigan father caught a bass out of season that started a cascade of fines, fees, jail, and a huge bill for room and board while incarcerated. Also in Michigan, a man forged a pain medication prescription and was billed a thousand dollars in court cost… part of which included the cost of the county employees' fitness center.

Complicit judges have contended that in American society, there’s no excuse for poverty, that the poor simply don’t want to work: “They’re poor because they want to be,” goes the thinking. And yet nearly two thirds of inmates in jail have never been charged with anything; they’re there because they can’t afford bail or even a bond.

Out-of-touch judiciary have expressed incredulity that the impoverished don’t have credit cards. According to one judge, the poor could pick up cans beside the road to pay fines and fees. This same judge went on to sentence a man who’d just started work and was due his first paycheck to three weeks in jail, knowing his employer might terminate him– and then made employment a condition for the man’s parole. A Colorado man lost his employment because of a work injury, then, the day before he was to start a new job, an indifferent judge jailed him for failure to pay a traffic ticket for an illegal turn.

Profit in the Poor

The situation has worsened with privatized prisons and private probation companies. These businesses argue they have a right to be paid for room, board, and supervision, even if the “guest’s” stay is involuntary and even if he’s innocent. It’s in the interest of these profit-driven companies to seek the most lucrative penalties possible and their contracts with states mandate quotas to keep for-profit prisons full. Corrections Corporation of America told its shareholders “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by … leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices.” Indeed, private companies have argued and won the right to extend the original sentence term if a parolee cannot complete his payments. You read that right: A non-judicial, for-profit business can supersede and extend a court’s sentencing.
Miranda Warning
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense.

But that’s not all. Say you’re tried for a crime you didn’t commit but you can’t afford to hire an attorney. The federal government says one must be provided for you. But counties in Florida (led by the head of a public defender’s office who campaigned on cutting services to those who needed legal representation) and 42 other states now bill the accused. In at least one state, a defendant can be billed for a jury trial.

What if you’re innocent? You can be adjudged not guilty and yet be sent to jail: Even though you are constitutionally entitled to an attorney, you face the possibility of imprisonment if you can’t afford to pay one.

The Garden State

One state thinks these harsh judges and judgments are wrong and counterproductive. New Jersey believes people want to do the right thing. Last year’s Safe Surrender brought more than 4500 financial fugitives in to settle fines and fees at a significant reduction.

NPR highlighted a war veteran living in his car who lost his driver’s license and was hit with vehicle fines, fees, and interest topping $10,000. Without a license he couldn’t take advantage of assistance programs or take a job that required driving. The Safe Surrender program reduced the $10k to a more reasonable $200… and in a bout of irony, the once homeless vet now works for the local government handing out parking tickets.

I haven’t seen the published results, but while other states find that jailing and billing the impoverished costs more than it brings in, New Jersey may be showing us that compassion can cost less.

Deep Pockets

The world is watching. These issues have arisen on NPR, in the New York Times, and even the pages of London’s highly regarded magazine, The Economist.

If counties and states are clearly violating the civil liberties of the poor, why hasn’t the Supreme Court weighed in? Issues take a while to make their way through the lower courts and fighting them takes money, which by definition the poor don’t have. It also takes awareness and the poor are often beneath the consciousness of the rest of us. But in fact, the Supreme Court ruled forty and again thirty years ago that it wasn’t lawful to jail those who can’t pay. But… the Supreme Court also hasn’t objected to counties forcing indigent defendants to pay for public defenders where application fees alone can amount to $400. States have exploded in arrests of the indigent.

Then there’s the flip side. Staying out of jail may depend upon the amount you owe. If it’s millions or billions, if you’re a major banker or Wall Street broker, a scheming insurer or flim-flam mortgagee, America forgives you. Officially, that is, our government. Me, not so much.