Posts Tagged ‘Criminal Justice’

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.

Annie Sapucaia, a book reviewer for New Books Network with a particular interest in sociology, interviewed me recently. Her questions were pretty insightful and once again left me with the feeling that there are caring people in the world who want to “do the right thing” by all people. Here’s her introduction to the interview.

“It is easy to dismiss juveniles in prison as “bad seeds”, as people with which we have nothing in common, and of which we want only distance.  David Chura, however, did not maintain his distance, and has been working with at-risk kids for other 40 years.  His new book, I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup (Beacon Press, 2010), is a collection of stories from the time he taught kids in a New York County jail.  These narratives paint a picture of children who have been abused, neglected, and chronically disappointed by those in their lives and in the justice and foster system.  Chura exposes a number of issues in the justice system and in society at large  which contribute greatly to the outcome of these kids’ lives, and seeks to inform us that far from simply being “bad”, the gulf between these children and ours are mainly due to circumstances, not to personality or inborn traits.   Chura shares stories that we rarely hear, of a world we barely know, in order to give a voice to those who are often silenced. Take a listen at New Books Network.”

I recently wrote about the “cruel and unusual” punishment of putting young offenders in solitary confinement, forcing them to live in an environment of complete isolation in some cases for months at a time. The reasons for their isolation are myriad: to maintain what corrections calls “safety and security;” to separate the mentally ill  especially if they appear to be disruptive to general population; to “teach them a lesson” (adolescents especially in prison can be oppositional and rebellious); to separate “troublemakers” who  raise issues that perhaps challenge the prison culture.  Whatever the reason, the effects are negative and far-reaching.

Solitary Watch a wonderful and tenacious watchdog of the murky world of solitary confinement, recently posted an article that shows the devastating damage that solitary isolation has on young minds. What consistently comes to my mind is that the damage we do to the young will only come back to hurt society since a damaged young offender will inevitably grow up to be an even more damaged and potentially dangerous adult.

I urge you to check out the article.

The International Centre for Prison Studies recently published a list of countries and their prison populations. The US is number one. Our prominence on the list is embarrassing for those Americans and the rest of the world who see the United States as a humane and progressive country. But the numbers give one pause. Why do we spend more money on prisons than on schools, for a starter? Clearly our model of criminal justice is one of retribution and not rehabilitation. Study after study has shown that changing behavior is much more cost effective than locking people up for decades, living, as it were, on the state. Check out the numbers.

“You don’t care about the victims. All you care about are those kids.”

It was a comment I’ve heard in one form or another at book events, at juvenile justice talks I’ve given, or in response to pieces I’d written about our national policy of retribution towards troubled kids. I have to admit, though, this guy was a bit more, shall I say, challenging, as he stood up after my reading and made his comment.

I’d read several advice articles for authors on giving readings which suggested that you have “pat answers” ready for the Q & A. It keeps things moving. It may be good advice, but I’ve found that it doesn’t work for me. Juvenile justice is too potent a topic be “pat answered” away. Besides, I wrote I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup about the young offenders I taught for ten years in the adult county prison to get people thinking about this much neglected issue. So I do my best to address each concern sincerely.

Fielding the man’s rather angry question, I talked about my belief that kids should indeed be held accountable for their actions; that they should learn that what they did affected not only their victims and their families and communities but also the young offenders themselves and their families and communities. What I couldn’t support was the punitive quality of that accountability as it is now practiced in our prison system.

I could tell that evening’s questioner was pretty disgusted. I was one more bleeding heart, one more knee jerk liberal, one more sucker taken in by “those kids.” He was gracious about it. He didn’t say any of that out loud. He didn’t have to. I’d heard it all before.

But his comment stayed with me long after the event: What did I feel about the victims?

I talk a lot about victims in my book. But the victims in this case are the locked up high school students I worked with for those ten years. In telling their stories—stories of childhood neglect and abandonment; of sexual abuse; of violence in the home and on the streets; of parental addiction and disease—I wanted readers to at least be aware of the fertile ground of mistreatment in which these children grew up. From my challenger’s point of view I’m sure I do go on too much about “those kids” and not about the people who suffered because of their crimes. (It’s important to note, however, that many of the teens I came across in jail—and this holds true for prisons nationally—were serving time for victimless, nonviolent offenses.) I was beginning to wonder if maybe the guy was right. Maybe I didn’t care about crime victims?

Like all good questions, this one stayed with me well afterwards. Yet despite the doubts he raised for me I knew that I did care deeply about the people hurt by crime; that, in an odd twist on the title of my book, “I don’t wish nobody” to have their lives damaged by the irresponsible acts of others, young or old. I turned the question over and over until finally I understood more clearly where I stood: the only way to truly protect society from youthful offenders and to prevent more crime was to protect the offenders themselves.

Study after study has shown that the harsh treatment of young people locked up in our nation’s jails has not only failed to reduce recidivism but has also created angrier, more bitter, more violent juvenile offenders. Lock a 14 or 15 year old up in an adult prison with its toxic environment of noise and dirt; of abuse, intimidation and paranoia; of violence and aggression, and that kid will not leave jail with a heightened sense of responsibility towards society, ready to re-examine and change his or her behavior.

I know that my reasoning wouldn’t convince those who feel that any punishment for criminal actions is not harsh enough to give victims the justice they seek. But the more I think about it the more convinced I am of the wisdom—and commonsense, which wisdom often is—behind it: if we truly care about victims, if we want to shield people from the hurt of crime we must look at and change the way we bring juvenile offenders—all offenders, really—to true justice. During my tenure as a jailhouse teacher and while I was writing my book  I always thought of the kids I taught as children of disappointment, children let down time and time again by the world of adults—parents, teachers, clergy, neighbors. Prison breeds disappointment, and as I did my own ten year jail bid I watched many of my students come in as children of disappointment and leave young adults of disappointment.

That’s a transformation that no one truly wants and that protects no one.

Originally posted on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

It’s good to see that juvenile and family court judges have spoken out about the “Scared Straight” approach to juvenile justice. They raise the same issue that so many of us have expressed: are kids really deterred from crime by the controlled, choreographed exposure to jail culture? Check out the judges’ statement.

Despite all the research, the data gathering, the studies, news reports, the impassioned pleas of professionals, clergy, and even the occasional politician; despite all the talk about America being “post black,” the incarceration of African Americans,  young black men in particular, continues, and nobody seems to care.

In Today’s News New Jersey an excellent and powerful indictment of America’s racist justice, “Unforgivable Racism: Black Men, Criminal Justice”, is worth reading.

At the beginning of my ten years teaching teenagers in a county lockup, years I chronicle in I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup (Beacon Press), I was always surprised, and yes, disappointed, when one of my students got rearrested.

Jail’s a sobering place no matter how tough you want to think you are. The deprivation, brutality, and oppression gets your attention especially if you’re 15 years old. So once locked up, many of the kids I taught saw my jailhouse classroom as an opportunity to do something productive. Along with education, some got counseling to deal with their addiction and anger problems; others reconnected with family and church. When they were released, they talked about changing their lives for the better. They were sincere and determined, and I was hopeful that they would do just that.

Over time, though, my attitude changed. More and more I was surprised when a student didn’t return. Despite society’s puzzlement as to why jail is a revolving door for so many teens, the reasons became obvious to me: The kids I taught might have made significant changes while locked up, but the world they were sent back into—poor, violent, defined by racism—had not. I’ve seen teens walk out the prison gates alone, carrying nothing but a plastic bag with their clothes, a token for the bus, and the county’s other freebie—the wise words, “Don’t come back.” That’s all. No planning, or guidance, or support to make the mega-changes needed to turn their lives around, changes that when you’re a kid with no resources feel insurmountable.

One major stumbling block for any former inmate is jobs. Ex-offenders don’t get hired. Teenage ex-offenders get hired even less. When I asked guys, “What are you doing back here?”,  they would talk about not being able to get jobs they knew they were qualified for because they had a record. It’s hard to “do the right thing” when the streets and their hustles—drugs, auto theft, guns, robbery—are the only employers eager to hire you back.

States have made it easy for employers not to hire someone with a record by formalizing that refusal in their CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) laws. The biggest roadblock to getting a job is a pretty simple one: the yes/no box on an application that asks, “Have you ever been charged or convicted of a crime?” That box has buried a lot of young men and women trying to start a new life. Check “yes” and the application gets dumped without anyone talking with you, hearing your story, or evaluating you in person. Check “no” and you’re back in the world you’re trying to put behind you, a world of deceit, dishonesty, and manipulation.

Josh is a good example of the power of that box. After serving time, he cleaned himself up at 17. He signed into drug rehab and earned his GED. Then he got lucky. He was accepted into the French Culinary Institute, completed the program, and was ready to fulfill his dream of being a chef. Giant steps for a young man who had been homeless and addicted. But his luck stopped there. No restaurant would hire him because of his record.

 

Originally CORI laws were designed to help employers make responsible, informed decisions when hiring, and thus to protect citizens from harm and abuse. But these laws have actually turned out to be an impediment to that very protection. If, after individuals do jail time, they are still pushed to the margins of society, unable to legally support themselves and their families, they will only go back doing the things we want to protect society from.

Some states are beginning to understand this vicious cycle and are considering changes to their CORI regulations. Massachusetts is one of the first states to make that sensible and humane reform. One of the most significant changes the state has made is to remove “the box” from applications. An employer can still ask about a prior criminal record, but now at least an ex-offender will have the opportunity to explain his or her past and present themselves as they are now. It may be an awkward and painful conversation for an ex-offender to have fresh out of jail, but it’s a lot more dignified than the deadening silence of the wastepaper basket.

As a teacher I am always pushing my students to “think outside the box.” It’s time that more states do the same and examine closely the laws that limit the possibilities of success and mobility of people who, if we really believe in our own system of justice, have served their time and want to take their place in society.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside

 

Sex and power — forces rampant in our prison system, thwarted and twisted by the jail culture. Lock up large numbers of the same gender and the frustrated sexual energy is palpable. Likewise, in jail everyone — wardens, correctional officers, inmates — wants power, fights for it, manipulates for it, in a place where everyone is made to feel impotent. The locked up teenagers I taught over a ten year period in an adult county facility and about whom I write in I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, had a great image for that lack of power: crabs in a bucket, stepping over each other, pulling down the ones closest to the top, so nobody wins.

Sex and power, as everyone knows, are the ingredients of rape. Consequently, the prison rape numbers are high. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 88,500 incarcerated adults were sexually abused — by correctional staff or other inmates — in 2009. This number doesn’t include the kids who have been sexually victimized while locked up, an even higher percentage.

Disturbing numbers made even more disturbing by the fact that seven years ago the George W. Bush congress (surprisingly) passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

It’s a good bill that raised the alarm regarding widespread prison sexual assaults. It also established the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission to investigate and make recommendations on how best to stop prisoner sexual abuse. In June 2009 the Commission finally released its report setting out certain reforms. However, the Obama administration has yet to adopt those findings.

The recommendations are thorough, straightforward and sensible. Among them, instituting zero tolerance policies of all sexual abuse. Training staff to identify potential sexual assault situations. Teaching inmates their right to report sexual harassment without reprisals. Screening new inmates for their risk of being sexually abused or abusive.

When I read what the Commission suggested I wondered why prisons haven’t already been taking these commonsensical, low cost measures which would have spared thousands of men and women pain and suffering. And I wondered what this failure said about our criminal justice system’s attitude — and our society’s attitude — towards prison rape, and prisoners in general?

But if we really want to get at the causes of prison sexual assaults we have to dig deeper than a commissioned report.

The system is the problem. Our jails are run on a culture of violence. Walk into a jail and you’ll know that violence. Every day I worked in the county jail I was hit by it. The smells of men packed into overcrowded dorms; of exposed toilets; of rancid food. The constant din of the PA system; of the blaring television; of officers and inmates shouting over it all. The sight of a handcuffed inmate being dragged down the hall to the Special Housing Unit by the black-clad emergency response team. Just another day in the county lockup.

A more subtle message of this culture of violence is the dehumanization of the body. Sounds pretty philosophical, but in jail it translates real easy: Your body isn’t yours. You dress, undress, shower, shit under somebody’s eye, electronic or otherwise. You can be stripped down and exposed to cameras; you can be prodded and explored — “cavity searched” — all at corrections’ command. My jailhouse students knew this. During one of corrections’ clampdowns on jailhouse tattoos, one of the kids, a tattoo artist, commented, “The way police see it, when we do our shit, we’re defacing county property.” When human beings are treated as commodities, sexual assault becomes inevitable; and this inevitability fits the publics’ perception: Prison rape happens. (Yet, can you imagine the outbreak if these attacks took place in any other public care institution?)

Prison rape can only be diminished when we change the culture of violence within our jails. It’s not impossible. It is being done in some prisons across the country where administrators such as Sunny Schwartz in the San Francisco county jails have had the courage and vision to implement programs in restorative justice and violence reduction programs, for example. These approaches, when supported by administrators and uniformed staff, have reduced sexual violence by demanding full accountability from inmates and correctional staff alike while ensuring that each person is valued and respected.

In March, Attorney General Holder told a congressional committee that addressing prison rape “…is something that I think needs to be done, not tomorrow, but yesterday.” Today is “yesterday.” The victims of prison rape can’t wait for another “yesterday.”

Originally posted on Huffington Post

It costs a lot to lock people up (by some estimates $32 billion annually.) You have to house them, feed them, give them basic medical care.

It costs a lot, even if you cut corners. Overpack a dorm or double-bunk (as dangerous as that practice is.) Serve cheap food—unrecognizable, processed meats; overripe, almost rotted fruit; white bread that wads up to the touch. Save on health care by not giving any. In the county jail where I taught high school for ten years I’d seen young guys with cheeks ballooned out from abscessed molars told to wait two weeks for the next dentist visit; or students go without their essential medications because they supposedly filled out the wrong forms which would eventually get “lost” anyway in the great paper-shedder of jailhouse bureaucracy. One male warden on the women’s unit even decided to save money by rationing toilet paper and tampons.

Today, some states such as Virginia, Utah, Missouri, Arizona, New York, New Jersey and Iowa have a new, more direct approach: charge locked up men and women fees for room and board.

At first it sounds like just one more plank in the “get tough on crime” platform. But as many professional and advocacy groups have pointed out, it’s not the prisoners who pay those fees but their families, families who for the most part are poor and disenfranchised themselves, already shouldering the burden of our criminal justice policies.

But even if inmates don’t directly pay for their room and board (this policy has been successfully challenged through the courts in several states), inmates do pay in other ways.

Take food for example. If you want to eat “real food” (as my locked up students called it) you have to buy through the prison commissary service. It’s the “company store” and so you pay through the nose.

In the county jail where I was families weren’t allowed to bring food in for their loved ones. There were security reasons for this. Occasionally bread alone wasn’t the only thing that got through those prison gates when packages were left off. For some inmates drugs were more sustaining than food; and a few family members felt compelled to smuggle them in, buried in a resealed box of raisin bran, say, or layered between slices of bread. To address this abuse (and just as likely to save the staff hours of time checking each package that came in) the department of corrections contracted with a private commissary service.

Commissary food wasn’t any healthier than what inmates got at chow. (In jail there’s no breakfast, lunch or dinner, but chow, and all the connotations of that word.) It was loaded with fat, salt, and sugar. Any nutrition was processed out. It was junk food. 7-Eleven food. Bodega food. Chips, honey buns, beef jerky, ramen soups, candy bars.

Each week the private food service (they served over 600 jails nationally) gave out its commissary list. My students, like little boys making their Christmas list, checked off what they wanted, that is if they were lucky enough to have someone to put “money on their books” to pay for their purchases.

I got hold of that commissary list once and was shocked by the prices. Just like the convenience store buried in the inner city, the prices were grossly inflated—even more so. A small jar of basic peanut butter was over $5; a small Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup over $2. Paying top price for food, inmates were lining the pockets of the private food service.

And in a grotesque triumph of consumerism, the company’s website offered what it called the “I Care Gift Services” which “allowed family and friends to send gifts for any occasion.” For a hefty price, an inmate could receive a gift bag with names like Spring Snack; Meal Deal; Chocolate Lovers Pack; or Meaty Big and Beefy, collections of “goodies” that cost double the price of any store.

(The irony of the “I Care” service is its assumption that inmates’ families have access not only to computers, but to credit cards as well, commodities in short supply in the poorest neighborhoods where the majority of the US inmate population comes from.)

Whatever scheme society thinks up to make money from, or cover the cost of its penal system, our broken but burgeoning prison system puts a heavy price on all of Americans. We all pay in ways we have yet to realize.