March 27, 2014

Only in America.

The United States is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles — individuals younger than 18 years old — to life in prison without parole. On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute argued in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that children convicted of serious crimes don’t deserve such a severe sentence.

“You need to have sentences that are intended to rehabilitate a child,” Deborah LaBelle, an attorney with the ACLU, told The Huffington Post. “You need to incarcerate them for the least amount of time to achieve that goal.”

Among the cases being highlighted by the groups is that of Juwan Wickware, who was 16 when he participated in a robbery that resulted in the death of a Flint, Mich., pizza delivery man.

Prosecutors said that on April 7, 2010, Wickware and another teen, Donqua Williams, shot at Michael Nettles — Williams with a .40-caliber pistol and Wickware with a .22-caliber rifle, according to Michigan Live.

A .40-caliber bullet was found in Nettles and .22-caliber bullet casings were found at the scene. “It is absolutely clear Juwan didn’t shoot him,” said LaBelle.

LaBelle explained to HuffPost that to be convicted of felony murder in Michigan, one need not be directly responsible for killing someone, but merely complicit in a felony crime that results in another person’s death.

“If you’re in concert, or you’re engaged in a plan, and a murder results, they find that you’re involved in a felony murder,” LaBelle said. “Even if you’re not the person who committed the homicide, you get the same sentence.”

Wickware, who had no previous convictions, was found guilty of felony murder.

In 2012, shortly before Wickware was sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders constituted cruel and unusual punishment. But the court did find that judges could use discretion in imposing the sentence.

In August 2012, when Genesee Circuit Judge Archie Hayman sentenced Wickware to life without parole (as heard in the video above), Hayman said he was “convinced that it is the right thing to do in this particular situation.”

A jury found Williams, Wickware’s accomplice, to be not guilty, after a woman who was in the deliveryman’s Jeep on the night of the slaying said she thought a third man killed Nettles.

Today in the U.S., more than 2,600 people are currently serving sentences of life without parole because of crimes they committed as children, LaBelle said.

The ACLU believes the sentence should be banned outright for juvenile offenders, and Labelle cited the United Nations Commission Against Torture’s determination that the sentence was tantamount to torture in such circumstances. The Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination also found that the application of the sentence is tinged with racial inequities.

But proponents of the practice contend that sometimes the punishment isn’t about rehabilitation.

“The one thing that we don’t know is what the potential of the life would be that was snuffed out in the crime,” Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel told NPR in 2012. “The hypothetical of who might be rehabilitated in prison is a hard one to analyze, but there have to be some circumstances under which these persons can serve life without parole.”

Former Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman agreed.

“As a moral matter, it is okay for a government to say, ‘Even if there is a possibility that someone will rehabilitate themselves, if a person commits a sufficiently egregious crime, then they just deserve a very severe sentence,’” Neiman told NPR.

But to LaBelle, the issue is not just about ending an overly cruel, unproductive and misguided sentence — she said the practice also hurts America’s international reputation.

“It undermines the country’s human rights record and position in the world,” LaBelle said. “It deprives them of moral authority when they’re willing to throw children in prison until they die.”

March 18, 2014

Meditation in prison.

When a person is released from prison the chance they’ll be rearrested within the next three years hovers between 62% and 78% depending on a number of variables. It’s no wonder, when you consider that, instead of offering enough programs that prepare an individual to re-acclimate to life on the outside, they foster an environment of tension and hostility. That’s no fault of prison officials, who struggle with low budgets and the problem of dealing with homicidal psychopaths on a daily basis, but the issue has forced many of them to find creative solutions that actually help inmates examine their own behavior.

Enter meditation. So-called corrections centers across the country have begun adopting different kinds of meditation in an attempt to help convicts shift their focus from taking a shiv in the mess hall to just chilling out.

Amanda Abrams, whose spent years practicing and studying mindful meditation, wrote in the Washington Post that she volunteered at a Washington DC area jail intending to help inmates notice “thoughts, emotions and sensations that arise without judging them — a deceptively difficult practice. In recent years, scientists have shown that meditation switches on genes linked to immune functioning, increases gray matter in the brain, rewires neural pathways — not to mention boosts happiness, lowers stress, improves concentration and leads to increased compassion.”

She describes working with instructor Craig Ehrlich, who asks an intimidating inmate known as King to tell the newer inmates what they can expect from the class.

King — a.k.a. Cappuccino, a.k.a. Harvey Washington — is, with several months in the group, its longest-standing member.

“Meditation is about learning to observe yourself,” King explains. “You focus on your breathing, or on something else like your body or the sounds around you, and you get out of the cycle of being caught up in your thoughts. It helps you see things more clearly — you get to know yourself better.”

Only a fraction of the more than 2 million incarcerated Americans participate in these classes, either because of their own behavior, there isn’t enough room, or prison administrators won’t allow it. The William E. Donaldson Correction Facility has proven to be an exception to that rule. The prison located outside Birmingham has the reputation of being the toughest in Alabama, although a growing number of inmates have used meditation to harness their impulses.

From a 2011 article by the Associated Press:

Warden Gary Hetzel doesn’t fully understand how the program called Vipassana (which is pronounced vuh-’POSH-uh-nuh) can transform violent inmates into calm men using contemplative Buddhist practices.

But Hetzel knows one thing.

“It works. We see a difference in the men and in the prison. It’s calmer,” he said of the course that about 10 percent of the prison’s inmates have completed.

The word Vipassana means “to see things as they really are,” which is also the goal of the intense 10-day program using the meditative technique that dates back 2,500 years.

The courses begin with three days of breathing exercises – the prisoners learn to focus on bodily sensations so intently they feel the exhalations on their upper lip. Students are required to not speak to each other.

On Day 4, students are told to begin letting their deepest thoughts percolate up through their consciousness so they can sense the effects on the body, like tension or anger. The ultimate goal is to learn not to react to those sensations.

Students are forced to grapple with their innermost selves. Some men are brought to tears; a few have thrown up. It’s not unusual for half of the students or more to quit or be sent back to the prison population for disobeying the rules.

There seems to be evidence that the various kinds of meditation are helping convicts. The question is a frustrating one for volunteers though in part because there is still so little understanding. Amanda Abrams was able to speak with Fleet Maull, the founder of the Prison Mindfulness Institute, which provides resources to nearly 200 groups that teach meditation to inmates.

“There are more and more people on the outside who are getting interested in taking meditation programs into prisons and jails,” Maull says. Out of the 2.4 million people incarcerated, he estimates the number of offenders taking meditation at 50,000. Getting an exact figure is difficult; many of the organizations that lead courses are small and don’t keep robust records, he says.

The answer to whether the courses have long-term effects is tricky. Research has shown a decrease in substance abuse and negative emotions among offenders, and a concomitant increase in self-esteem and well-being. But the most important information doesn’t exist.

“Recidivism data” — that is, numbers showing how many offenders return to jail within three years — “is obviously the gold standard, because that’s the goal,” Maull says. “But it takes time: You have to work with people who are getting out soon, and you have to follow them.” His group is applying for funding to make a long-term study of offenders after they leave prison.

There’s no doubt in Maull’s mind that meditation has the capacity to turn people around. “We have huge amounts of anecdotal evidence,” he says. “We’ve seen people move from lives that are in chaos and out of control to ones where they have a sense of agency; they’re able to be skillful in their relationships and to move forward in their lives.”

One powerful ally they’ve found is director David Lynch. Lynch is probably as well known for his dedication to transcendental meditation (TM) as he is for freak show movies like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. His foundation, which has the support of Paul McCartney, George Stephanopolous, and others, has campaigned to bring TM to schools, the military, and now prisons.

March 7, 2014

The Archipelago of Pain

MARCH 6, 2014

We don’t flog people in our prison system, or put them in thumbscrews or stretch them on the rack. We do, however, lock prisoners away in social isolation for 23 hours a day, often for months, years or decades at a time.

We prohibit the former and permit the latter because we make a distinction between physical and social pain. But, at the level of the brain where pain really resides, this is a distinction without a difference. Matthew Lieberman of the University of California, Los Angeles, compared the brain activities of people suffering physical pain with people suffering from social pain. As he writes in his book, “Social,” “Looking at the screens side by side … you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.”

The brain processes both kinds of pain in similar ways. Moreover, at the level of human experience, social pain is, if anything, more traumatic, more destabilizing and inflicts more cruel and long-lasting effects than physical pain. What we’re doing to prisoners in extreme isolation, in other words, is arguably more inhumane than flogging.

Yet inflicting extreme social pain is more or less standard procedure in America’s prisons. Something like 80,000 prisoners are put in solitary confinement every year. Prisoners isolated in supermaximum facilities are often locked away in a 6-by-9-foot or 8-by-10-foot barren room. They may be completely isolated in that room for two days a week. For the remaining five, they may be locked away for 23 hours a day and permitted an hour of solitary exercise in a fenced-in area.

If there is communication with the prison staff, it might take place through an intercom. Communication with the world beyond is minimal. If there are visitors, conversation may be conducted through a video screen. Prisoners may go years without affectionately touching another human being. Their only physical contact will be brushing up against a guard as he puts on shackles for trips to the exercise yard.

The justification cited for prolonged periods of isolation is that the inmate, for whatever reason, poses a significant threat to others… . I’d focus on making sure that every isolation decision could be defended rationally.

In general, mammals do not do well in isolation. In the 1950s, Harry Harlow studied monkeys who had been isolated. The ones who were isolated for longer periods went into emotional shock, rocking back and forth. One in six refused to eat after being reintegrated and died within five days. Most of the rest were permanently withdrawn.

Studies on birds, rats and mice consistently show that isolated animals suffer from impoverished neural growth compared with socially engaged animals, especially in areas where short-term memory and threat perception are processed. Studies on Yugoslav prisoners of war in 1992 found that those who had suffered blunt blows to the head and those who had been socially isolated suffered the greatest damage to brain functioning.

Some prisoners who’ve been in solitary confinement are scarcely affected by it. But this is not typical. The majority of prisoners in solitary suffer severely — from headaches, an oversensitivity to stimuli, digestion problems, loss of appetite, self-mutilation, chronic dizziness, loss of the ability to concentrate, hallucinations, illusions or paranoid ideas.

March 5, 2014

Marissa Alexander retrial or not?

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — A Florida woman could end up in prison for 60 years when she’s retried for firing a shot in the direction of her estranged husband and two of his children.

Marissa Alexander, 33, was convicted in 2012 on three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to 20 years — three counts served concurrently. An appeals court tossed the conviction, saying Circuit Judge James Daniel made a mistake in shifting the burden to Alexander to prove she acted in self-defense.

During jury instructions, the judge said Alexander must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that her husband was abusive toward her.

The case drew national attention after Alexander was denied immunity under Florida’s “stand your ground” law.

Alexander’s supporters are angry that the state is seeking triple the original sentence.

“It’s unimaginable that a woman acting in self-defense, who injured no one, can be given what amounts to a life sentence,” Free Marissa Now spokeswoman Helen Gilbert said. “This must send chills down the spine of every woman and everyone who cares about women and every woman in an abusive relationship.”

Assistant State Attorney Richard Mantei told the Florida Times-Union ( ) the state is simply following sentencing laws in seeking 60 years.

The same court that ordered Alexander’s retrial ruled that when a defendant is convicted of multiple counts from the same crime, judges must make the sentences consecutive, not concurrent.

“Absent a plea agreement, if convicted as charged, the law of the State of Florida fixes the sentence,” Mantei said. “At this time, Ms. Alexander has rejected all efforts by the State to resolve the case short of trial.”

Attorney Bruce Zimet said it would be a miscarriage of justice to put his client in prison for what likely amounts to a life sentence.

Alexander’s case has inspired the so-called “warning shot” bill that will be considered once the state Legislature convenes in Tallahassee on Tuesday.

Alexander said she fired the warning shot a few days after giving birth. Her estranged husband, Rico Gray, accused her of having an affair and questioned whether the baby was his. She says she locked herself in the bathroom until he broke through the door and shoved her to the floor. She ran into the garage, found a gun in a car and fired a “warning shot” after he said he would kill her.

Prosecutors say the shot hit the wall, not the ceiling, and could have hit Gray or his children. At one point they offered Alexander a plea deal of three years in prison. She turned that down and chose to go to trial.

February 17, 2014

Donation Site.

February 17, 2014

California Prisons

Why Can’t California Get Prison Healthcare Right?
By Jonathan SimonShare on facebook

J. Clark Kelso, the federally court-appointed receiver, outside of Folsom State Prison. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
J. Clark Kelso, the federally court-appointed receiver, outside of Folsom State Prison. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
To considerable embarrassment, no doubt, in the Brown-Beard administration, admissions to California’s newest prison near Stockton California were halted February 5 by the court-appointed healthcare receiver, law professor Clark Kelso.
The prison, the first new facility in a decade, is the lynch-pin of the administration’s frequent claim to have gotten on top of California’s decades old prison health care crisis. The prison is the first of its kind to be purposely built to house and care for many of the state’s seriously ill prisoners, whose suffering in the grip of the state’s chronic overcrowding led the Supreme Court to describe the state’s system as unfit for a civilized society (see Brown v. Plata, 2011).
Under pressure to show that it can make progress in reducing that overcrowding, the administration is no doubt frustrated to have to halt adding inmates to the facility intended to hold nearly ,1800 prisoners at full capacity.
But Receiver Kelso’s order, and the report that accompanied it, raises more basic questions as to whether the State has yet drawn any lessons, from its decades of human-rights abuse, about what it takes to operate prisons that respect human dignity as required by the Constitution (as well international human rights conventions to which the state is answerable through the courts of the United States).
So what went wrong in this brand new prison designed from the ground up to deliver health care? Problems with the radiation-treatment equipment for cancer patients? Problems staffing the dialysis center? Actually the problems were a bit more basic. As reported in the Sacramento Bee):
A shortage of towels forced prisoners to dry off with dirty socks; a shortage of soap halted showers for some inmates, and incontinent men were put into diapers and received catheters that did not fit, causing them to soil their clothes and beds, according to the inspection report and a separate finding by Kelso.
The report also said there were so few guards that a single officer watched 48 cells at a time and could not step away to use the bathroom.
Kelso said the problems at the facility call into question California’s ability to take responsibility for prison health care statewide. He accused corrections officials of treating the mounting health care problems as a second-class priority, the newspaper said.

Spokes persons for the administration described the situation as a normal glitch associated with the rolling out of a new facility. Perhaps. But it also looks like business as usual in a system where medical neglect of chronically ill prisoners went on for decades under the deliberate indifference of prison administrators and governors.
Rather than apologize to the citizens of this state and seek to make amends to the prisoners, former prisoners, and correctional workers forced to experience and participate in those degrading conditions, the administration has continued with smugness to defend the status quo, with an attitude that borders on contempt to the courts.
Is it surprising that actors never held to account for their human-rights violations cannot create conditions that respect human rights? Good healthcare takes medical professionals and modern infrastructure, which appear to be still lacking to a significant degree even in this brand new purpose built “Health Care Facility.”
jonathan simonBut healthcare also takes humanity.
A prison system that can’t get that right, can ‘t run its healthcare system and shouldn’t be allowed to continue to operate prisons on which the good name of the people of California is stamped.
Jonathan Simon
The Berkeley Blog
Published by the LA Progressive on February 10, 2014

February 9, 2014

Jails are not mental hospitals.

Inside a Mental Hospital Called Jail

FEB. 8, 2014 New York Times

CHICAGO — THE largest mental health center in America is a huge compound here in Chicago, with thousands of people suffering from manias, psychoses and other disorders, all surrounded by high fences and barbed wire.

Just one thing: It’s a jail. The only way to get treatment is to be arrested.

Psychiatric disorders are the only kind of sickness that we as a society regularly respond to not with sympathy but with handcuffs and incarceration. And as more humane and cost-effective ways of treating mental illness have been cut back, we increasingly resort to the law-enforcement toolbox: jails and prisons.

More than half of prisoners in the United States have a mental health problem, according to a 2006 Justice Department study. Among female inmates, almost three-quarters have a mental disorder.

In the jail here, some prisoners sit on their beds all day long, lost in their delusions, oblivious to their surroundings, hearing voices, sometimes talking back to them. The first person to say that this system is barbaric is their jailer.

“It’s criminalizing mental illness,” the Cook County sheriff, Thomas Dart, told me as he showed me the jail, on a day when 60 percent of the jail’s intake reported that they had been diagnosed with mental illness. Dart says the system is abhorrent and senseless, as well as an astronomically expensive way to treat mental illness — but that he has no choice but to accept schizophrenic, bipolar, depressive and psychotic prisoners delivered by local police forces.
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The Cook County sheriff, Thomas Dart, center, talks with inmates Russell, right, and Compton. Russell, 46, has been diagnosed with severe depression. John Gress for The New York Times

People are not officially incarcerated because of psychiatric ailments, but that’s the unintended effect. Sheriff Dart says that although some mentally ill people commit serious crimes, the great majority are brought in for offenses that flow from mental illness.

One 47-year-old man I spoke to, George, (I’m not permitted to use last names for legal reasons) is bipolar, hears voices and abuses drugs and alcohol. He said he had been arrested five times since October for petty offenses. The current offense is criminal trespass for refusing to leave a Laundromat.

The sheriff says such examples are common and asks: “How will we be viewed, 20, 30, 50 years from now? We’ll be looked on as the ones who locked up all the mentally ill people.

“It really is one of those things so rich with irony: The same society that abhorred the idea that we lock people up in mental hospitals, now we lock people up in jails.”

A few data snapshots:

• Nationwide in America, more than three times as many mentally ill people are housed in prisons and jails as in hospitals, according to a 2010 study by the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center.

• Mentally ill inmates are often preyed upon while incarcerated, or disciplined because of trouble following rules. They are much more likely than other prisoners, for example, to be injured in a fight in jail, the Justice Department says.
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The Cook County Jail has become a de facto mental health hospital, the county’s sheriff says. John Gress for The New York Times

• Some 40 percent of people with serious mental illnesses have been arrested at some point in their lives.

In the 1800s, Dorothea Dix led a campaign against the imprisonment of the mentally ill, leading to far-reaching reforms and the establishment of mental hospitals. Now we as a society have, in effect, returned to the 1800s.

Among those jailed here is Russell, 46, who is being held for burglarizing a garage. He has been diagnosed with severe depression and said that he self-medicates with alcohol and drugs. Most of his adult life has been spent behind bars for one offense after another, and he said he became aware of his mental health problems when he was being clubbed by a thug with a baseball bat and realized that he was enjoying it.

“I just want to be normal,” he said as we spoke in a large dormitory room for inmates with psychiatric problems. “I want to have a job. I’ve never had a job. I want to be able to say hi to a co-worker.” He stopped, and there were tears in his eyes.

In 1955, there was one bed in a psychiatric ward for every 300 Americans; now there is one for every 3,000 Americans, the 2010 study said. So while more effective pharmacological treatments are theoretically available, they are often very difficult to access for people who are only borderline functional.

“Some people come here to get medication,” says Ardell Hall, a superintendent of a women’s unit at the jail. “They commit a crime to get in.”

India, a 42-year-old woman, suffers from manic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She said she tried at various times to get psychiatric care but found it almost impossible, so she self-medicates when on the outside with heroin — and has spent almost all of her adult life in jails and prisons on a succession of nonviolent offenses relating to drugs and shoplifting.
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India, 42, suffers from manic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She has spent almost all of her adult life in jails and prisons. John Gress for The New York Times

TAXPAYERS spend as much as $300 or $400 a day supporting patients with psychiatric disorders while they are in jail, partly because the mentally ill require medication and extra supervision and care.

“Fiscally, this is the stupidest thing I’ve seen government do,” Dart says. It would be far cheaper, he adds, to manage the mentally ill with a case worker on the outside than to spend such sums incarcerating them.

Cook County has implemented an exemplary system for mental health support for inmates. While in jail, they often stabilize. Then they are released, go off their medications and the cycle repeats.

One woman in the jail, Kristen, said she had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders. On the outside, her prescription medication cost $100 a month, so she skipped it.

“When I’m not on my medicine on a regular basis, I don’t make decisions well,” she said, explaining her long arrest record for theft and narcotics offenses. I asked her if access to medicine would keep her out of jail, and she said: “I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, to be totally honest. But it would help.”

As Sheriff Dart puts it: “We’ve systematically shut down all the mental health facilities, so the mentally ill have nowhere else to go. We’ve become the de facto mental health hospital.”

Do we really want to go back two centuries? Doesn’t that seem not only inhumane but also deluded — on our part?

January 31, 2014

Fundraising site.

January 31, 2014

Larry Strauss on Huffpo

No, this isn’t another call for legislation restricting the sale of fire arms or ammunition. No, right, I understand. Guns don’t kill; people do. People with guns kill faster and more effectively than people without guns — but people with guns also stop other people with guns from killing other people. If we got rid of all the guns we would be safer, but that is impossible — and anyway it would be unconstitutional, right? — so the next safest thing is for everyone to have a gun, right? No, not really, because most of us can easily think of a dozen people we wouldn’t want walking around with a loaded firearm.

Forgive me for growing weary of this debate but while the rhetoric flies, my guys are getting shot. Disputes are being settled with barbarism. Hunting is a sport in the inner-city and the prey is young men. Sensitive young men — same inside as my son and his friends and your sons and their friends. Some of the shooters are too. Just boys with guns.

Gun control. Self-control. Lack of parental control. There is a lot to say about senseless killing — and there is very little other kind of killing on the streets of South Los Angeles and many other communities. And I’m sick of it — me and a lot of other people who live with it and lose from it.

I’m sick of people who devalue human life. Who just don’t care — whether those people run corporations or manage factories or occupy seats in congress or sell drugs or pimp children or shoot at young men they don’t know because of some problem they’ve got with some other young men they barely know.

And I’m sick of people who act like crime and violence in this city and other cities has been solved because it is no longer happening where they live. It is still happening. It is happening a lot. It is happening to children — and I’m sick of it.

I’m sick of consoling young men who almost got shot over the weekend and who had to stay home all day Sunday because of the bullets going back and forth on their street. I’m tired of visiting guys in the hospital and being glad they didn’t die. I’m tired of teaching young men in wheelchairs.

I’m tired of people who think that violence will end when everyone has a gun. I’m tired of people who think we can make all the guns disappear.

I’m tired of video games that celebrate violence.

I’m tired of all the digital violence and all the fun that people are having with it. I’m sorry. I know that people need to enjoy themselves in whatever way they want to as long as they aren’t hurting anyone and I know that a lot of people find amusement in digital violence of various kinds — including the young men I visit in the hospital and hear telling me that they were pinned down in their apartments because of real shootings, including the young man who was a very talented dancer who was shot in his legs while he was trying to wash his car (he’s recovered now and through hard-work and perseverance he’s dancing in a show on Broadway and I wish his inspiring accomplishment meant there would be less gun violence in the future but it doesn’t).

I once told my son that I thought any time a video game player killed someone in a video game that the game should make his character attend that dead character’s funeral and see his wife and children crying their digital tears in the game. My son said that was really stupid. I knew he would say that — and I suppose he’s right, but it frustrates me that we can now so easily indulge our aggression through these artificial means. I think we’re better off having to resist those impulses altogether. I’m not suggesting that video games be banned or people should stop playing them (I haven’t even made my own son stop playing them). Just that I’ve lost my sense of humor or irony about it.

I certainly don’t think that digital violence has become a positive outlet for aggression. It has probably just encouraged it. The ease of the mayhem, the killing without consequence and, of course, the ability to die and come back to life.

I see that aggression played out in the lives of young man I have taught and coached for over twenty years. They are immersed in a world of powerlessness turned to anger and madness. I see the combustibility of poverty and materialism and too many children alone in the world and I’m tired of it.

I listen to these young men when they tell me what is on their minds and in their hearts. These are young men hardened by the inner-city street culture and what is really going on inside of them is this: though vaguely hopeful — or trying to be hopeful — about the future, they are mostly sad. Sad and angry and afraid.

I tell them to cling to their hope and cheer up and I try to give them a perspective that might make something constructive out of their anger, turn it into passion and ambition. It’s what most of us do — those of us with the honor of teaching these young men — and that’s why it makes us so sick when one of them gets disfigured or paralyzed or killed by a bullet on the street.

Almost twenty years ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association used the word “epidemic” to describe gang violence in Los Angeles. More than ten years ago, the Center for Disease Control declared “youth violence” in the United States a “public health issue.” The doctors and public health officials who made these statements wanted to raise awareness about what they believed was far more than a law-enforcement problem.

They were right. Children getting shot in school or on the way to and from school — or anywhere else — is shameful. A shame that belongs to all of us whether our children are the perpetrators, the victims, the near-victims, or whether we’ve had the good fortune to shield our children from it altogether.

I’m ashamed of it and I hope you are too.

January 23, 2014

Visiting prison as a twelve year old.

Pretty Sparkly Things: A Black Girl’s Encounter with the Prison Industrial Complex
January 23, 2014
By Tanisha C. Ford

Ford-Pretty Sparkly Things

I love clothes. I always have. As a black girl coming of age in the early 1990s, I was up on all the adornment trends: from asymmetrical haircuts and Cross Colours jeans to neckties and button down shirts (a la Boyz II Men). As any person who went to a predominantly black school knows, you had to come to school CLEAN! Even as twelve-year-old kids, style was our form of self-expression. It was our way of envisioning possibilities for our futures that could propel us beyond the de facto boundaries of our hyper-segregated neighborhoods. Dressing stylishly enabled us to imagine what it would be like to be doctors, ball players, lawyers, millionaire businesspersons, or entertainers. Because of our self-fashioned “fly code,” I was always looking for the next dope outfit to wear to school.

One day, my stylish Mother came home with a white denim short set that she’d bought for me. The shorts and matching top had these multicolored, beaded tassels—“pretty sparkly things”—dangling from them. I paired the outfit with a hot pink hat (like the ones Mayum Bialik used to wear on the T.V. show “Blossom”). I borrowed my mother’s hot glue gun (this was pre-Bedazzlers), and I glued rhinestones on a pair of my ballet flats. That next week, I strutted through my junior high school’s halls in my new fashion ensemble. I was the Hip Hop Coco Chanel, and this outfit was my masterpiece! It quickly became my signature look that I reserved for special occasions.

So naturally, when my Father told me we were going to visit my older brother who was serving time in prison, I knew exactly what I was going to wear: my outfit with the pretty sparkly things! I wanted my big brother, who was eight years my senior, to be proud of the young woman I was becoming while he was away. And, to me, this outfit symbolized not only my sartorial innovation but also my maturity and professional promise.

I had never been to a prison before. I was terrified. But, I put aside my fears so I could visit my hero. After riding in the car for what seemed like forever, we pulled into the prison’s visitor parking area. My heart began to pound; I could feel moisture forming on my palms. I wondered: “Would my brother recognize me? What was his life like in prison? Was it like the film South Central? Was my Brother like O.G. Bobby Johnson? If I go in, will they force me to stay…forever?!” All of these thoughts whizzed through my twelve-year-old brain as we approached the facility. The one thought that did not occur to me was that I might not be able to get into the prison because of what I chose to wear that day.

Another visitor informed my Father that the guards might not let me in because my pretty sparkly things violated the visitors’ dress code. I was crushed. The very outfit that I’d picked out to impress my big Brother with might be the very thing that kept me from even seeing him. My outfit was an affront to the prison industrial complex. And, the prison system responded by attempting to stifle and confine my creativity—reflected in the pretty sparkly things on my garment—the same way it had those of the millions of men and women held captive behind its bars. Tears welled in my eyes. I felt guilty that after driving nearly two hours to the prison, my Dad would not even get to see his son. I felt like I had wasted his gas and his time simply because I had to wear this outfit.

My father and the other adults began brainstorming as to what could be done about my clothes: perhaps they could give me someone else’s t-shirt to wear so that only the pretty sparkly things on my shorts would show. Maybe someone could wait in the car with me while my Father went inside…“So much fuss over a few pretty. sparkly. things.” I thought. Finally, the prison authorities decided I could go in. I could keep on my outfit, and I could go into the prison. We got to see my Brother, who put on a happy face for us despite the fact that he was likely ashamed that we had to visit him under such circumstances. I hugged him, and beamed with pride (though a little less brightly) as I showed off my outfit. I left the prison knowing that something in me had changed; I had lost a bit of my innocence that day. I had been exposed to a type of cruelty that I could not articulate at the time. I never visited my brother again. And, once he was released, we never discussed his stint in prison.

I recently shared my story with activist Lois Ahrens, who runs the Real Cost of Prisons Project, based in Northampton, Massachusetts, and she helped me put my personal experience into a broader context. I asked her, “Why did this happen? Why are guards so worried about what people wear?” Ahrens said:

Guards have power and prisoners and visitors have none. Everything a guard does reminds a prisoner or visitor of that dynamic… We are all presumed guilty because we are visiting someone who has been found guilty… Every visitor is suspect therefore whatever a visitor does or wears is suspect.

She then gave me a list of clothing and adornment items that have been banned from Massachusetts’ prisons:

Tassels Cargo pants

Open-toed shoes Bobby pins

Barrettes Earrings

Sleeveless shirts Underwire bras

Zip-front shirts Shorts

Baggy or tight clothing Clothing w/ many pockets

Hoodies Revealing or sheer clothing

Bodysuits of any type Wrap around shirts

This list represents the literal policing of people’s dressed bodies. The guards have the sole discretion to enforce these dress codes, and the list of banned garments varies from state to state. If you challenge a guard’s decision about your clothing, you could lose your visitation privileges for a year or more. These adornment regulations are part of a larger, problematic set of visitor body politics. Loved ones are subject to intrusive body searches, which can include: scanning; wanding; removing shoes, outer shirts, and belts; looking under your collar; examining your hair and mouth; and having search dogs sniff you. This process is only slightly less invasive than the full-body searches the prisoners are subjected to before they enter the visiting area.

The reality is that most people, like my family, do not know the rules regarding “proper” attire while visiting prisons. Nor are most people trying to sneak contraband to prisoners in their garments. Ironically, it is often the guards who operate smuggling rings (see here and here). Most people are simply trying to visit their loved ones, trying to make their family members feel their love through the prison’s Plexiglass windows. During our conversation, Ahrens noted the paradox between prisons’ treatment of loved ones and their stated views about the importance of family visits. She told me, “Every state claims it values ‘family reunification,’ yet every state makes visiting as degrading as can be imagined.” Ahrens is currently engaged in a battle with the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC), pushing the DOC to change its policy regarding using search dogs during the visitor screening process.
Ford-Pretty Sparkly Things

Families often have to visit with their incarcerated loved ones through a Plexiglass window

But, what the fight for the humane treatment of prison visitors needs most is people willing to share their stories. Ahrens states, “Visiting a prison or a jail is traumatizing for everyone, which is why it is so important to do it and good to talk about it since there is so much stigma and shame with having a loved one in prison…which helps keep [the structure of power] in place.”

I’d pushed my traumatic visit to the prison into the recesses of my memory, until I started organizing this mass incarceration forum. At twelve years old, I did not have the language with which to articulate my trauma or to push back against the system. But, now I understand the power in speaking out about these issues. Incarcerated folks—regardless of whether they are innocent or guilty of the charges for which they have been convicted—belong to someone. They are loved. And, their loved ones deserve to be treated humanely when they visit. This essay was very difficult to write because this experience was so personal, and family dynamics can be hard to discuss in an open forum. But, it is important to illuminate how mass incarceration affects families. We are invisible victims of the prison system. I hope my story compels others to share their experiences and join in the fight against the prison industrial complex.

*This piece is written in loving memory of my big Brother who died tragically on December 16, 2012.


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