Archive for the ‘Criminal Justice’ Category

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Suggest that the way to end recidivism is to reform the prison system, and you might be accused of caring more about criminals than the crimes they commit. It’s happened to me. Often when I write or give a talk about my work with minors in adult prison, I describe the deplorable conditions in which inmates live, and advocate for reform of those conditions. Inevitably someone comments (and not always politely) that I’m “soft on crime,” that I don’t care about victims. But this is how I see it.

Given our present prison system with its emphasis on punishment and retribution, everybody suffers. Inmates, correctional officers, victims, the average citizen and taxpayer.
Prisons are violent, toxic places. They are often overcrowded and smelly with the soup of open toilets, the effluence of crammed together bodies under stress with little or no physical or personal space. The noise is deafening. TVs blare (in English and Spanish); metal gates clang; the overused PA system squawks, and inmates and correctional staff shout over it all trying to be heard.

There’s no trust in a prison, no safety, just the constant threat of violence, intimidation, the need to never let your guard down, to “give as good as you get.” If an inmate wants to survive in prison that’s the way he or she must act. If they can’t, they find themselves in protective custody which translates as months of numbing isolation in solitary confinement.

When you look at these conditions honestly, without the filter of righteousness—“that’s what they get for breaking the law”—how could you not see that the present system (the very thing people insist will deter crime) only breeds anger and resentment, hostility and hopelessness in offenders, and finally leads to more crime?

And more crime means that victims are not only not served by the system but are further threatened by it, and that their suffering reverberates into their families and communities. More crime means that other citizens become victims until nobody feels safe, and the whole cycle starts all over again. A simple statistic: Kids handled in the adult system are 34 percent more likely to reoffend and their behavior to more quickly escalate into violence than those young people who remain in the juvenile system.

But there are other “victims” of the prison system and its harsh, dangerous, and degrading environment. Correctional officers operate under the same conditions as those locked up, many times for up to 16 hours a day as they choose or are pressed into working overtime. That point came home to me at the end of one school year. As temperatures soared, the heat in the hallways and cell blocks of the older buildings of the prison where I taught (luckily with an air conditioner supplied by the school program) was insufferable. Huge floor fans only moved the suffocating air around, offering no relief, and only adding to the noise. That’s when it first hit me that the COs I interacted with every day were as trapped in the same punishing conditions as the young offenders I worked with.

But it goes beyond the everyday level of physical discomfort for COs. The need to be hyper-vigilant, the defensive stance engendered by the institutionalized hostility of the prison power structure—“us” and “them”; the keepers and the kept—takes its toll not only on COs, but also on their families. Studies have shown that 31% of correctional officers meet “the criteria for full PTSD” (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder); that the average life expectancy is 58 years old, and that correctional officers have a 39% higher suicide rate than any other occupation.

Even those of us who are not personally caught in the web of incarceration are affected by the prison system. Our tax money is spent building and maintaining these institutions and supporting what goes on inside them. In many states these funds are diverted from basic, essential services such as education. For example California spends on average $47,421 per inmate a year while the average spent per student a year is only $11,420. (A telling tweet is going around Twitter that sums it up for many states, “The people of CA are tired of Cadillac prisons & jalopy schools.”)

So when I find myself labeled as “soft on crime” I have an old jail comeback: “Don’t take my kindness for softness.” Restructuring a broken prison system so that it protects and respects all citizens while holding offenders accountable is not “soft” but commonsense. We need to create prison conditions, both physical and psychological, that encourage cooperation on all sides and that supports change as opposed to conflict and calcification of negative behavior. Programs must be developed that challenge offenders to change their counterproductive behavior. Training in real employable occupations is essential. And support services must be established that help ex-offenders meet the demands of “going straight.”

Of course, the economic watchdogs will howl. But the human costs—to inmates, correctional officers, victims and society in general—are too high to be ignored. Reforming is better than warehousing people in prison for years, leaving them to await the next dead-end. You can call it soft. I call it the only way.

Originally appeared in Gandhi’s Be Magazine

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Numbers are tricky. Studies are done. Reports are written. Statistics released. And then people take the numbers and run with them, waving them like protest placards claiming how the numbers prove or disprove some long held “truth.” The Right does it. The Left does it. We all do it. Maybe there’s a tiny toggle in the human genome that manipulates us to manipulate the numbers. That’s why I’ve never liked numbers, never trusted them.

I saw this all play out in a recent Boston Globe OpEd piece about the high rates of recidivism in US prisons. Using the most recent data from the Bureau of Statistics, the numbers roll out: Within six months of being freed 28% of former prisoners were arrested for a new crime; three years, 68%; five years, 77%. 29% of the returnees had been arrested for violent offenses; 38% for property crimes; 39% for drug offenses; 58% for public order crimes. I think everyone would agree that the numbers paint a pretty bleak picture.

But this is where the numbers get tricky. The article insists that these statistics prove that efforts at prison reform and rehabilitation don’t work. Criminal justice experts have been searching for the “holy grail of rehabilitation” for years—40 according to one expert quoted—and nothing has worked. The article then goes on to suggest that since this holy grail is so elusive, since so many criminals leave prison “only too ready to offend again,” we have no option but to continue our present practice of mass incarceration, thus maintaining the US’s global position of locking up 25% of the world’s prison population while being only 5% of its general population.

This is why I don’t trust numbers. In these studies and reports people are treated as mere chits in the final count. No one notices that each one of those hatch marks is an individual, a real person—prisoner, inmate, offender, criminal, con, whatever you want to call them—living a life behind bars that few of us can imagine. That is the real story behind those numbers: a man or a woman, young or old, trying to survive in a prison culture that is designed—in the name of justice—not to nurture change but to demean; a system that punishes by deprivation: lack of proper nutrition; of adequate medical and mental health care; of physical, sexual and psychological safety; of meaningful work and education.

So where’s the mystery to recidivism? It is obvious—basic Social Science 101, basic parenting or human interaction. How you treat people is how they will act. Living under present day prison conditions, day after day, for years, can only foster more bitterness, anger, and despair; can only result in more crime fueled by vengeful feelings upon release.

And that “release” is another crushing blow to the ex-offender’s chances of making it. Many find themselves barred from public housing, food stamps, certain jobs and the right to vote. In some cases Federal education loans are denied for certain crimes. None of these punitive restrictions are an incentive to becoming a productive member of society.

There’s not much forgiveness in American culture. It seems that ex-offenders can’t suffer enough or repent enough for our Puritan tastes. The shackles of restrictions and prejudices that they as “free” men and women drag around may be silent compared to the ones they wore in prison, but those chains still rattle loudly not only in their own ears but in the ears of the communities that continue to shun them.

The roots of recidivism are not that elusive and never have been. Things won’t change until we are willing to define our penal system not as a social solution but as a social problem, one that we tackle with the same determination and vigor as we do other social problems such as addiction, sexual and physical abuse, and inadequate education. What’s our choice: the sacrifice, cost and efforts of true prison reform or the continued warehousing of human beings and the waste of their potential? Look at the numbers.

Originally appeared on Huffington Post

 

The following piece originally appeared on Beacon Broadside. Author and advocate Deborah Jiang Stein, through her own personal experience, brings to light a world so few of us know exists. Although the media–for better or worse–will focus on men in prison we hear very little about women serving time. It is a fast growing population, an invisible population, that is neglected not only in our public discourse about incarceration but in the prison world itself. Women in jail are horribly under-served, and that’s saying a lot since male inmates are equally under-served in terms of health care, mental health treatment, education and rehabilitative programs. And now Stein calls our attention to an even more invisible world, that of children born and raised in prison.

prison baby

In her memoir Prison Baby, now available from Beacon Press, author Deborah Jiang Stein describes the pain and confusion she experiences upon finding out at the age of twelve that she was not only adopted, but had in fact been born in prison to a heroin addict, spending the first year of her life there. The shock, Stein writes, “sends me into a deep dive, an emotional lockdown behind a wall that imprisons me for nearly twenty years.” The rest of the book details Stein’s harrowing descent into depression, violence, drugs, and crime, and her torturous climb back out of that emotional “imprisonment” to a place of eventual redemption.

To help herself heal from the stigma of being born a heroin-addicted “prison baby,” Stein founded the unPrison Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to “empower, inspire, and cultivate critical thinking, life skills, self-reflection, and peer mentoring for women and girls in prison” while calling attention to the needs of women and children in prison.

Sadly, the needs are many. The fact sheet below outlines just a few unfortunate statistics about the skyrocketing population of women prisoners in the US, and the children that are too often caught in the middle.

13 Facts about Women in Prisons and the Children Left Behind

  1. Women are the fastest growing prison population, increasing 800%+ in the last ten years.
  2. The United States has the largest prison population in the world: with 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s prisoners.
  3. 2.3 million minor children, or 3% of all children in the US, have a parent in prison; most under age 10. This is larger than the city of San Francisco, than the population of Philadelphia, larger than the state of Delaware. Whereas ten years ago, 60,000 children has a parent in prison.
  4. 85% of women in prisons are mothers.
  5. The majority of incarcerated women are sentenced for nonviolent drug related crimes.
  6. The majority incarcerated women have a diagnosable mental health issue like depression and suicidal tendencies.
  7. Nearly all women in prisons have experienced abuse of one kind or another: physical, sexual, psychological, or emotional.
  8. 4-7% of women entering prison are pregnant.
  9. 85% of incarcerated women have had problems with substance abuse, alcoholism, or other addictions.
  10. The cost to incarcerate averages $24,000 – $47,000 per inmate per year, compared to the cost of a high-end treatment center which averages $6,400 for an intensive outpatient program, and $33,000 for inpatient drug and alcohol treatment.
  11. According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, about one baby born each hour is addicted to opiate drugs in the US.
  12. Infections related to a mother’s drug addiction, like HIV and hepatitis, can be transmitted to the fetus.
  13. 60-80% of heroin-exposed infants experience withdrawal symptoms, with a high mortality if the syndrome is severe and untreated.

If you are interested in helping, you can contact the unPrison Project herePrison Baby is now available wherever books and ebooks are sold.

Deborah Jiang Stein, author of Prison Baby, is a national speaker, writer, and founder of the unPrison Project, a nonprofit that serves to build public awareness about women and girls in prison and offers mentoring and life-skills programs for inmates. She lives in Minneapolis.

 

 

 

 

It’s never easy being locked up in  prison but at holiday time it’s even harder. Being separated from family and friends, from the  larger community of town, neighborhood, church, the world at large becomes more pronounced. In this piece by guest contributor Gayle Saks-Rodriguez you can feel the anguish of a young mother locked away from her children at Christmas. But as often happens with Gayle’s pieces things take a different turn and suddenly a lament becomes a realization of gratitude. You can read more of Gayle’s writing at her site My Life int the Middle Ages where this piece originally appeared and here at “Kids in the System.”

Christmas on the “Inside”: Another Face of Criminal Justice

for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

– Maya Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird”

This morning in my prison writing workshop, a young woman awaiting sentencing broke down in tears as she shared that she had recently been falsely accused of assault. There is no doubt in my mind that she was telling the truth. The circumstances were more guilt by association and she had the strong feeling that she was judged solely on the color of her skin.

“I’ve never laid my hands on ANYBODY,” she said emphatically and convinced me more than anything I have ever been convinced of in my life.

Usually, when a woman in the class ends up in tears, and it has happened in every class I’ve led, the other women keep quiet for a moment, let her cry and then comfort her. Today was a very different scenario, the women dishing out more tough love than compassion. Even her cellmate, who had grown very fond of her, described it as a “lesson,” one that should remind her to start hanging out with a different crowd. Another said to make sure that any car she gets into has working head and brake lights, that there are no “works” in the car, and other necessary precautions to keep her from being an obvious target. She continued to cry and said “All I want is to be home with my babies for Christmas, and instead I’m here.” It was devastating and I pray that the judge believes her and that all she gets is a slap on the wrist and gets to go home to spend the holidays with her “babies.”

After the class there was a Christmas program, an “inspirational concert” performed by 9 female inmates led by one of the incredible social workers who work in the program. The concert was combined with a “graduation” from the 2-week orientation program and a celebration of a few women who had completed their GED. It took one woman 6 years, but she did it, and when she stood up to accept her certificate, the pride on her face was immeasurable.

Before the concert I wondered what could possibly inspire these women to sing, especially at this time of year. They were in prison, at Christmas, many withdrawing from drugs, most having had their children taken away, but they still wanted to sing. The first of three spirituals that they sang is called “Precious Lamb of God,” and the message—and the answer to my question—couldn’t be clearer:

When I always didn’t do right
I went left, He told me to go right
But I’m standing right here
in the midst of my tears, Lord
I claim You to be the Lamb of God

Even when I broke Your heart
my sins tore us apart
But I’m standing right here
in the midst of my tears
I claim You to be the Lamb of God

New life can begin
for You washed away, washed away every one of my sins
Whom the Son sets free, is truly free indeed
claim You to be the Lamb of God.

At the end of the ceremony, the female sheriff gently acknowledged that yes, the holidays were coming, and yes, they were not in an ideal setting. When the woman said to the crowd, “It’s GOOD you’re here, it could be worse,” and the inmates nodded their heads and said “You’re right,” I understood what she was saying. They could be dead, they could be stumbling through traffic high on meth, they could be jerking off some stranger for $5.00 so they could buy a pack of cigarettes. Clearly, this time of year is spun as a time of gratitude but for so many people, there seems to be little to be grateful for. However, if all it takes is to sing to make us feel inspired I’ve learned yet one more thing from these incredibly strong women.

We often hear about someone getting “life without parole” for some particularly heinous crime. It is a harsh sentence, one that precludes a person’s ability to change, to make amends, and then move on. But one may say, “a harsh punishment for a harsh act.”

But what about people who are serving live without parole for minor offenses such as stealing garden tools or taking a wallet? The ACLU has posted a powerful graphic entitled “A Living Death: Sentenced to Die Behind Bars for What?” that shows the extent of this sentencing injustice. As the New York Times noted, “If this were happening in any other country, Americans would be aghast…” but this is happening here in our courtrooms and in our prisons. This is just another example of a criminal justice system that is broken, favoring privileged white people.

Alternet had a very moving piece on the abuse of solitary confinement in US jails entitled “Why is the US the World Leader in the Utterly Inhumane Practice of Solitary Confinement.”  The video is worth watching and says so much about what is wrong with our criminal justice/prison system.

 

Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at davidchura2@gmail.com.

Continuing this series Gayle Saks-Rodriguez writes about her experiences teaching incarcerated women and men of all ages. I first came across Gayle’s writings on OpenSalon.com, an interactive platform established by Salon.com, as well as on her own blog, “My Life in the Middle Ages.” Her pieces are honest, insightful, warm and gently humorous, and she’s not afraid to take on difficult topics as you’ll see from “Hide and Seek.” Too often teachers are portrayed as “money-grubbers,” interested only in maintaining their “cushy jobs” under the protection of tenure. Gayle belies that myth: In order to become a teacher—and a teacher in a very difficult and demanding environment—she gave up a comfortable, well paid career because, as she writes, “I know now that this is the work I was meant to do.” Gayle has embraced her work as a teacher of society’s throwaways with such enthusiasm and caring that I asked her to share some of her experiences helping students regain their footing in a world that seems to have little room for them.

Hide and Seek: When Locked up Students Misplace Their Inner Child

Two years ago I fell into what I call my “happy place”—a volunteer teacher position working with newly incarcerated women in a Northeast prison.  The experience has made me abandon an 18-year succession of nicely compensated jobs in non-profit fundraising.  I know now that this is the work I was meant to do.

When I first started working with the women in a weekly workshop, I devised a curriculum that I called “sensory memoir writing.”  As part of the course I asked my students about their dreams. After all, we all have a dream, the ultimate end-point, our “eyes on the prize” of something.  It should go without saying that at no point in a person’s life is prison the “pot at the end of the rainbow.”  Yet that wasn’t the case with these women. In trying to get them to uncover the dreams they once had, I led them through an exercise that I hoped would “uncrush” their spirit in the process.

One student remembered her love of figure skating and how becoming an instructor of kids was something she always wanted to do.  She was able to re-live the freedom of spinning around on the ice and how freeing that was for her.  A beautiful 20-year old Latina talked about becoming a professional guitar player, a skill she picked up as a teenager as a way to bring her closer to a checked-out father.  While another woman, white, in her 40s, hardened by years of heavy drug abuse, said she lost her dreams at 10 when her mother shot her up with heroin for the first time.

Then three months ago I scored a part-time job with a community based non-profit teaching life and transitional skills to males at various stages of reentry after serving prison stints from 2 years to 26 years. Their ages range from 15-65+.  I customize my curriculum to the skills my student’s need, everything from basic hygiene for a very low-functioning small group of youth offenders to parenting and anger management for a pretty hard core group of felons who feel they have learned everything they need to know. I teach interviewing skills and resume writing to a group of older students who find themselves in the worst Catch-22 of their lives, desperately WANTING to turn their lives around but finding that no one will hire them with the types of offenses that are easily uncovered.

The youngest group is made up of those in the juvenile justice system. They are too young to be committed as adults, but have a history of crimes under their belts that often doesn’t bode well for a better future.  I rarely know the details of what they’ve done, but they often volunteer little snippets of their learned behaviors.  These young men speak, sometimes sadly, sometimes with indifference, of their incarcerated parents and siblings, the very adults who were supposed to be their “teachers” but who left them behind, because they were driven by their own addictions and demons.

As I do with the women, I use a similar ice-breaking exercise with each of these groups, asking questions that encourage self-reflection.  My students have to think about and answer prompts such as “I am happiest when___________” or “When I am alone I_______________”. The last prompt on a list of 25 is “My child within is________”

I have compared the answers of all the groups I teach—female and male—to this last prompt.  They have said things like, “My child within is playing video games,” “is at Six Flags,” “is happy,” “curious.”  Every once in a while there will be women who have grown up together and one will help the other to remember their common upbringing, hanging out at the other’s home after school, backing up the other’s assertion  of how cool her mother was.

The older men have said things like, “still there,” “strong,” “determined.” While the youngest group, the under 21-year olds, often describe their “child within” as happy.  They seem to have some support on the outside, still grin ear-to-ear when they talk about “my moms,” their “baby mamas,” or their grandparents.   They have often discussed their happiest childhood memories, most involving family trips that include a stay in a hotel, room service and swimming pools.  Oftentimes, the implication is that those memories will remain firmly planted in the past, one-offs, not to be repeated any time soon.

After a recent class I read the answers to the questionnaire of a seemingly detached Latino young man whose head had been on the desk the entire time, not participating or sharing his answers with the small group.   When I read the answer to the last question my heart seized a bit: “My child within is gone.”

So many of these men and women—young and old—have had their dreams stomped on.  Last week I asked a 17-yr old what his dream is.  He answered without hesitation, “My dream is to have a dream.”  Time and time again I’ve heard from students that they firmly believe that dreams never come true, even when what they had visualized themselves becoming in the past is as simple as being a dog walker or hair stylist.  Their paths have been road-blocked by bad choices and absentee role models.   If we—teachers, families, neighbors—can’t show them the way, show them the steps that CAN be taken to help them get to a realistic end-point, then we all have failed.