Showing posts with label prisoners. Show all posts
Showing posts with label prisoners. Show all posts

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.





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.


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.







22 May 2014

The Darwin Awards

by Eve Fisher

I just got back from another weekend at the pen, and you know, sometimes you just don't know what the boys are thinking.   There's always some guy who's saying, "I always know I'm the smartest guy in the room."  And it's not always the same guy.  And none of them recognize the irony of saying that in prison...   There are the guys who persist in expressing their dissatisfaction with prison life by insulting, yelling, cursing, or spitting on guards.  "I showed them!"  Yeah, you showed them that you need a few days in the hole to think it over.  And the ones who are furious at the system for locking them up just because they walked away from a work release program ("I just went to pick up my meds!"  "My girlfriend was having a breakdown!"  "I needed some time to think..."), or because (I kid you not) they posted photos of themselves doing various illegal activities on social media...

There are times I think I'm in a room full of Darwin Award winners.  Speaking of Darwin Awards, in case you didn't catch them, here are the 2013 winner and his runner-ups:



1. When his .38 caliber revolver failed to fire at his intended victim during a hold-up in Long Beach, California would-be robber James Elliot peered down the barrel and tried the trigger again. This time it worked.

2. The chef at a hotel in Switzerland lost a finger in a meat cutting machine and after a little shopping around, submitted a claim to his insurance company. The company, expecting negligence if not outright fraud, sent out one of its men to have a look for himself. He tried the machine and he also lost a finger. The chef’s claim was approved.

3. A man who shoveled snow for an hour to clear a space for his car during a blizzard in Chicago returned with his vehicle to find a woman had taken the space. He shot her.

4. After stopping for drinks at an illegal bar, a Zimbabwean bus driver found that the 20 mental patients he was supposed to be transporting from Harare to Bulawayo had escaped. Not wanting to admit his incompetence, the driver went to a nearby bus stop and offered everyone waiting there a free ride. He then delivered the passengers to the mental hospital, telling the staff that the patients were very excitable and prone to bizarre fantasies. The deception wasn’t discovered for 3 days.  

5. An American teenager was in the hospital recovering from serious head wounds received from an oncoming train. When asked how he received the injuries, the lad told police that he was simply trying to see how close he could get his head to a moving train before he was hit.

6.. A man walked into a Louisiana Circle-K, put a $20 bill on the counter, and asked for change. When the clerk opened the cash drawer, the man pulled a gun and asked for all the cash in the register, which the clerk promptly provided. The man took the cash from the clerk and fled, leaving the $20 bill on the counter. The total amount of cash he got from the drawer… $15.

7. Seems an Arkansas guy wanted some beer pretty badly. He decided that he’d just throw a cinder block through a liquor store window, grab some booze, and run. So he lifted the cinder block and heaved it over his head at the window. The cinder block bounced back and hit the would-be thief on the head, knocking him unconscious. The liquor store window was made of Plexiglas. The whole event was caught on videotape.

8. As a female shopper exited a New York convenience store, a man grabbed her purse and ran. The clerk called 911 immediately, and the woman was able to give them a detailed description of the snatcher. Within minutes, the police apprehended the snatcher. They put him in the car and drove back to the store. The thief was then taken out of the car and told to stand there for a positive ID. To which he replied, “Yes, officer, that’s her. That’s the lady I stole the purse from.”

9. The Ann Arbor News crime column reported that a man walked into a Burger King in Ypsilanti, Michigan at 5 A.M., flashed a gun, and demanded cash. The clerk turned him down because he said he couldn’t open the cash register without a food order. When the man ordered onion rings, the clerk said they weren’t available for breakfast… The frustrated gunman walked away. 

10. When a man attempted to siphon gasoline from a motor home parked on a Seattle street by sucking on a hose, he got much more than he bargained for. Police arrived at the scene to find a very sick man curled up next to a motor home near spilled sewage. A police spokesman said that the man admitted to trying to steal gasoline, but he plugged his siphon hose into the motor home’s sewage tank by mistake. The owner of the vehicle declined to press charges saying that it was the best laugh he’d ever had and the perp had been punished enough!

Those are the official ones.  I'd like to add one from an idiot I knew, 40 years ago in L.A., who'd always wanted to steal a cop car.  Well, one day he saw one with (for some unaccountable reason) an open back door:  so he got in and pointed a gun at the cop sitting in the front.  The cop's partner showed up...  The guy's probably still in jail.


16 January 2014

Peace, the Elusive

by Eve Fisher

I swear to God, I wrote most of this before I heard the story of the Florida theater shooter who is claiming that he had a right to stand his ground and shoot to death a man who threatened him by...  throwing popcorn at him.  So...

As you regular readers know, I do Alternatives to Violence Project workshops that at the state penitentiary.  Most people think I do them in order to help the prisoners - which I do - but what most people can't grasp is that I've learned an awful lot about violence and non-violence from these workshops:  violence and non-violence in my world, my state, my town, my self.  And as I say to the guys, each and every workshop, I need all the help I can get.


There's a lot of talk about peace - in the Middle East, in Africa, on our streets, and during the recent holidays the whole "peace on earth, good will to men" thing was, as usual, trotted out regularly and OH, how I wish there was more hope of its coming.  Every time I hear about another shooting, massacre, war, double-homicide, mass shooting, etc., all I can say is "How long, O Lord?  How long?"  To which the Lord might very well reply, "How long, O people?  How long will you keep beating your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears?"  Because we could stop.  We could try to stop.

Why don't we?

That's why I do AVP.  Because I'm wrestling with why we do not stop.  Why I don't stop.  Don't get me wrong.  I don't own any guns, and it's been years since I punched anyone.  But I can rage, inwardly, with the best of them, with the worst of them, and that troubles me deeply.  Why can't I stop?

Now back when I was a child, in the late 50's, early 60's, there were significant differences in how boys and girls were raised, especially about emotions, especially about anger.  We little girls were rigidly trained to NOT express anger.  We didn't have the right to yell and scream, throw temper tantrums or hit people - it wasn't nice, or feminine, or ladylike, and if we did, we'd get punished for it, usually by being yelled and screamed at and being hit.  Whereas the guys - well, they were brought up to "prove they were a man", by standing up for themselves, which often meant everything from verbal sparring to fighting to assault to killing.

Now you get a bunch of guys sitting in prison, they usually know they messed up somewhere, because they're there.  If nothing else, they got caught.  But if their crime was violence - say, beating someone to death or shooting someone who pissed them off - it takes a very long time for a lot of them to realize that killing that person was actually wrong.  That they didn't have the right to do that.  After all, they were just expressing their anger and/or standing up for themselves and/or defending themselves and/or their loved ones and/or the guy had it coming.  It takes a long, long, long time for some of them to grasp the concept that just because you are experiencing anger does not mean you have the right to take it out - verbally or physically - on someone else.  And your anger definitely does NOT mean you have the right to, say, kill the person who pisses you off.  (Yes, that includes people who text inappropriately and/or throw popcorn at you.)

That's why I enjoy doing AVP workshops:  because at least we discuss these issues and other issues of fear, jealousy, violence, pride, manhood, control, and what to do about it.  And I mean a real discussion.  Political and religious platitudes, slogans, etc., break down very quickly.  Instead we walk the guys through it:
For example.  I am angry.  At that person over there.  I have the RIGHT to make him/her aware of my anger, and change what they're doing to piss me off.  What do you mean, I don't?  What do you mean, I don't have the right to tell them to obey me, and if not to yell at them, cuss them out, hit them or kill them?  Why not?  What are the options?  What can I do?  I can't just sit here, feeling all this anger and fear and crap, I've got to DO something about it, right?  I'm a man, a man's supposed to DO something.  What do you mean, walk away?  Suck it up?  Think about it?  Work through what I can actually change and what I can't?  I'm a man.  Men don't do that.  Yeah, I'm sick of getting jumped, shoved, pushed, decked, punched...  I'm even scared of it.  But what the hell else am I supposed to DO?

Walk away.  Turn away.  Move on.  Suck it up.  Do something different.  Lead with your mind, instead of your emotions, at least until you have more emotions on tap than fear and anger.

The very idea that there is such a thing as a non-violent alternative is alien to almost everyone in the pen (unless they've been to our workshops), and it is, apparently, alien to a whole lot of people who have not yet reached incarceration.  We revere Gandhi and Mandela and King - but you know, our society reveres them the way you would admire saints in a niche.  Nobody studies them.  Nobody takes a look and analyzes how they managed to choose an alternative to violence.  We don't teach our children how to practice non-violence.  We don't teach our children self-control, or meditation, or how to recognize the emotions and thoughts that are running through their minds and how to deal with them.  

AVP has lots of exercises, from role-playing to community building to meditation.  In one exercise, we're divided up into pairs, A and B, and for two whole minutes, A tells B the things they like about themselves.  B has to listen, no comments.  Then they switch and repeat the exercise, with A listening to B.  99.9% of the time, what they say they like about themselves is what they do.  "I like to hunt, to fish, to play sports, to draw, to play music, to read, to watch TV, to hang out with friends, to work on cars, to..."  It's all about doing.  Almost never do you hear anyone say, "I like that I'm a loyal person, that I'm brave, loving, kind, hopeful, a dreamer, a hard worker..."  And never yet have I heard something like, "I like that I am a human being.  A child of God.  A man.  A woman.  Alive."

I think this holds true for all of us, not just people in prison.  We do not believe in being, we believe in doing. And yet, that's the most important part, isn't it?  Why is it so hard to talk about who we are?  And how can we change ourselves if we don't know who we are?  If we are running away from the reality of ourselves all the time?  How can we have peace if we do not understand the roots and ribbons and cables of violence that run through not just the world but ourselves?  Our own minds and hearts?

I do AVP workshops because I am working on all of this, and it suits my personality better than meditation or Freudian therapy.  Sometimes I see amazing breakthroughs.  (I'm still waiting for one of those for myself...)  Sometimes I don't.  But at least there the conversation is real.