Archive for the ‘Incarceration Nation’ Category
I know life in a prison classroom, and the learning environment you may or may not find once you’ve taken a seat.
A brief click-through of “5 Projects to Watch in 2016” from Correctional News leaves me wondering how much prison officials really know about the obstacles inmates face just getting through a detention facility’s classroom door. What does it matter, you ask? Well, in an era where words like “reform,” “rehabilitation,” and “recidivism” are on everyone’s lips, it’s important to know when a component as critical as education is simply being given lip service.
Correctional News covers prison operations, design, and construction. It celebrates grand openings and groundbreakings because imminent completion dates tend to matter to rubber mattress merchants, vendors of detection products, and shower flooring suppliers.
Currently showcased are the East County Detention Center near Palm Springs, for example, which is set to open in 2017, the Kern County justice facility in Bakersfield, and the new Utah State Prison, among others. California being where I paid my debt to society, I tend to monitor its prison system more closely than I do others. But all of these entries have something in common, and that’s my point: they feature anemic descriptions of the education facilities also under construction. Rehabilitation-as-footnote here, will eventually make corrections administrators and state officials look as though they’re simply hanging wreaths of rehabilitation on freshly painted classroom doors and leaving it at that. (more…)
Welcome to Apocalypse Hoosegow 10, the Lotto jackpot of potential prison escape movies (and the impossibly straight faces of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department).
Man, this story has got it all – and it ends in the parking lot of novelty grocery store, Whole Foods.
Killer convicts chipping their way through steel and concrete – check! Laughably low estimates of escaped prisoner capabilities – check! Brutal cellblock battle to distract guards – check! Cougar-teacher helping misunderstood love interest – check! Tied together bed sheets and socks and stuff – check! Months in the making, mistake-free master plan – check! Violent terror-inmates on the loose in conservative county – check! FBI dudes elbowing local badge bumblers outta the way – check! Adam-12-era hoosegow gettin’ last laugh on OC budget dorks – check! Incredibly straight-faced cop brass asking for public help in catching penis-severing Muslim blowtorch monster – check! check! check!
Ooh, and don’t forget: District Attorney’s office infighting – check! Unauthorized D.A. office statements made public – check! Open criticism – check! Gorilla-goons scratching their heads at escape hole – check! Magic gnats flying out of inmates mouths like in The Green Mile – ok, not that, but Range Rover-driving, Islamophobic blondes blessed with new hero – checkity check! (more…)
Some see de-institutionalization as prison reform’s black hole. We neither think about nor understand it much, until we see how much it can swallow.
Yet redirecting, rather than just recycling, offenders begins and ends with the most common form of second chance behavioral therapy of all: showing individuals the potential in themselves they can’t yet see. I’m certainly a product of it, and there are countless other second chance cases even more deserving of the right mentor than I was.
In such an inexcusably crowded prison system as California’s, wringing Yard life from offenders can devour solar systems of resources, and profoundly institutionalized individuals are difficult people to be around on a good day. So for both plucky and grizzled corrections professionals working with offenders and parolees, resolve and past re-entry successes are crucial. So, too, are faith and funding – or at least the delivery of funds previously promised. (more…)
Never mind that President Obama’s prison visit was a public relations handshake event on par with a disaster relief stop by:
I’ll take it.
The man did, after all, pull off a first-ever presidential prison tour without a GOP push-back accusing him of somehow assisting Mexican druglord ‘El Chapo’ Guzman’s recent escape. With adversaries like Obama’s, it’s a downright miracle he hasn’t been vilified for cozying up to his convict martyr buddies. (more…)
Upselling Prison: accessories, upgrades, add-ons, telecoms, and salespersons of the detention supply industry.
According to the Pew Public Safety Performance Project and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1 in 35 adult residents of the US are currently either incarcerated or under correctional supervision (parole or probation). In 1990, that number was 1 in 77. Nationally, America spends billions on corrections, and the money being made by detention profiteers is astronomical. One particularly golden calf has been inmate telecommunications, especially now that the corrections industry is undergoing a “technological renaissance.”
(Prison Voice Biometrics anyone?)
Much has been written about the contempt the prison telecom industry routinely demonstrates for families of the incarcerated by charging crushingly inflated rates for collect calls home. Still, in California, for example, the Public Utilities Commission lacks oversight of jail and prison phone contracts and nationwide the FCC is only now taking notice of high rates charged for calls originating in state and federal facilities. According to Prison Phone Justice.org, inmate phone contracts in all but 9 states are still based on a “commission” model where the service provider pays a portion of its profits to the contracting facility as a kickback for accepting their bid (this chart shows some of the worst offenders). I don’t even want to think about private and corporate-owned detention centers, where the profits extracted from those in need of human contact is obscene. (more…)
If we don’t resist the manner in which we’ve been trained to recognize incarceration and the incarcerated, offenders will only continue to be recycled through the system rather than redirected.
Americans need to unlearn prison and relearn life behind bars, but not because prison reform is a growing national dialogue: bandwagons produce hot exhaust already. We need to be reeducated because our understanding of the poor coping skills, pressure, and PTSD faced by those emerging from detention has been the stuff of movie jokes for as long as any of us can remember. Mutated by Hollywood and put off by unpleasantness, most Americans can’t get past convict caricatures to see key subtleties that must become part of our awareness. And I do mean ours: taxpayers, you, me, and Law-abiding Larry — not just the social workers we usually leave to resolve issues of recycling vs. redirecting.
Following my own successful parole, I never expected to become a prison commentator or a conveyor belt of questions about confinement, but I can never seem to escape the little strings in life that lead back to my experiences behind bars. Each one returns me to lessons learned “inside” that now take civilian form on a daily basis. In fact, those lessons accompany me so doggedly, I’m constantly comparing in-custody versions to civilian values and principles. Witnessing inmates upholding the same rules they utterly failed to live by “outside” was and remains fascinating. At the same time, it makes sense that a closed culture like the one behind bars would enforce a rapid and uncompromising assimilation process. (more…)
“Two men enter – one man leaves!”
It’s all you need to know, right?
Okay technically, sometimes, sure.
My cellmate wanted to order a copy of Put ‘Em Down, Take ‘Em Out! Knife Fighting Techniques From Folsom Prison, but I was able to talk him out of it. Good thing, too, because the publisher’s catalog through which the order would’ve been placed belonged to me, and it was high contraband. Back then I was in possession of several such catalogs, which offered titles on everything from document falsification to improvised explosives; from contingency cannibalism (my favorite) to how to dispose of a dead body. I got the sense I’d exceeded the natural encyclopedia of criminal knowledge around me as a result, and that was nothing short of cross-eyed fabulous.
Each catalog entry was accompanied by a book-jacket photo and lengthy summary. Where Excuses Go to Die’s chapter, “High Weirdness by Mail,” describes how reading snippets of these out loud to certain trusted inmates caused laughter so physically enfeebling that only a death rattle was left in the human body’s big bag of tricks.
It seems crazy to recall being rendered sightless by tears of joy in the company of murderers, shot-callers, and stonehearted life-termers. But these “moments of genuine whimsy,” as I refer to ‘em in Where Excuses Go to Die, were what my own prison survival was made of. Sure, I’d read the titles and descriptions in a funny voice, but I allowed the absurdity of it all to do the heavy lifting. We didn’t actually need to possess the instructions for do-it-yourself blowguns; picturing blowgun wars in the chow hall was priceless enough. We’d really lose it when some badass piped up to correct, clarify, or corroborate. Such sessions turned tall tales into skyscrapers.
Upselling Prison: accessories, upgrades, add-ons, and salespersons of the detention supply industry.
Norix Inc. claims it doesn’t just make prison mattresses: it makes “Comfort Shield® Remedy Mattresses.” And if cost equalled quality, Comfort Shields would clearly be a cut above. But ask anyone on the inside, and a prison mattress is a prison mattress is a prison mattress. They’re subject to the worst an infected wound has to offer; and they get clutched, twisted, and chewed on like nobody’s business. For something that has more prayers whispered into it than Israel’s Western Wall and all of Islam’s worry beads, nothing has less to show for it than a prison mattress.
It’s kind of tough to wrap your head around trading a pair of shoes (or several meals) to obtain a less “raped” one, but it’s what you do. Otherwise, as we once heard an intake sergeant say to a complainer, “it’s mind over mattress.”
Fortunately, distinguishing bloodstains from even less pleasant discolorations gets easier after, say, month three. But the marks inmates leave behind aren’t limited to bodily fluids or semi-solids: prisoners love writing gang names, anti-Semitic messages, zip codes, and their sweetheart’s initials on the very bedding into which your tears will be absorbed.
Naturally, these handwritten hieroglyphics can be more indelibly printed onto older cotton mattress covers than the newfangled, vinyl laminate “wipe ‘n cleans,” so these days one needs to make sure his ink has dried before drifting off to dreamland. While most ink dries quickly, sweat can often reactivate it, and entering a chow hall wearing gang signs on your face that are only decipherable by the fellas planning a hit on “those fools” after breakfast is really something to avoid. And trust me, you’ll want to take the time to check for swastikas drawn in magic marker by the guy before you. The rule is: read your mattress first and watch where you put your face.
For the record, endlessly violated (and absorbent) cotton mattress covers are actually preferable to the newer sealed plastic pads – unless you enjoy marinating in your own sweat at 3:30 in the morning. Besides, wipe ‘n cleans get weird blisters that make you wonder how your body heat could have caused mystery chemicals to churn and gurgle beneath the vinyl.
Eligibility for a second chance begins with being taken seriously.
• adjective: lacking in discrimination and sensibility, blundering, asinine
Okay, here it is: the mentally ill in California prisons are far more likely to be subjected to harsher treatment and longer sentencing than other inmates. That’s a criminal lack of discrimination and sensibility. Of all the inmates who occupy facilities up and down the state, roughly 30% are mentally ill, making the California Department of Corrections a de facto mental health treatment provider. Now there’s your blundering and asinine.
According to the Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project, “The average sentence imposed on defendants suffering from mental illness is longer than the average sentence imposed on defendants who do not have mental health diagnosis but who committed the same crime.”
Shane Bauer of Mother Jones claims there are ten times more mentally ill people behind bars than in state hospitals, and many of those inmates have severe illnesses like schizophrenia. Furthermore, solitary confinement can make it harder or even impossible for the untreated mentally ill to re-enter society. Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the ACLU National Prison Project says “it’s a risk that can’t be condoned. They come out such ruined human beings. It has essentially harmed them in such a substantial way they can’t ever return to the community or society.”
The passage of California’s Prop 47 was important to me personally because of the smiley Nicaraguan we called “Hey,” to whom my book, Where Excuses Go to Die, is dedicated. Hey’s chapter is one I read a lot at book signings and other events, because even without shocking statistics it powerfully demonstrates how narrowly the public has been trained to recognize what prison and prisoners look like. Where Excuses Go to Die exists to defy that recognition. (more…)