Capt. Shawn Welch sprays OC spray into the face of Paul Schlosser who is bound in a restraint chair after the inmate, who has an infectious disease, spit at an officer.  June 10, 2012.

This disturbing photo is from an excellent article on Solitary Watch about the inhumane and brutal treatment of mentally ill people in US prisons. In my ten years teaching minors locked up in a New York adult county prison, I witnessed inmates who were  clearly disturbed and dealing with mental health issues being pepper sprayed and tased by emergency response teams (ERTs) dressed in intimidating riot gear as a way to “calm them down.”

Our prisons are overcrowded with mentally ill people who get little to no treatment, handled by people not trained in these issues, all because Americans refuse to confront the needs of the poor and disenfranchised and to provide the funds necessary for proper community mental health services. Instead we, through our lawmakers, spend billions of dollars on war in its many forms.

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This powerful quote from Dr. King contradicts the current rhetoric about “thugs” and “thieves.”

I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

Guest contributor, Aliza Ansell—teacher, mentor, poet, and runner—has spent much of her life working with people pushed to the margins of society. She has seen firsthand how conditions such as poverty, discrimination, violence, substance abuse, and social isolation can misshape people’s lives. Likewise, Aliza has witnessed how those lives in turn can spin out of control. Over the years she has counseled and taught those very people.

You would expect that Aliza automatically would be against the death penalty; that although she would be aware of the horrible things that people can do, she, at the same time, would have faith in the individual’s ability to change and make amends. This, after all, is the core belief she has based her life’s work on: people can change.

Yet the actions of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the Boston Marathon on April 5, 2013 hit home for Aliza and greatly disturbed her. It caused her to reexamine some of the basic values she held regarding justice and the relationship between crime and punishment, up until the day those explosives were planted. In this powerful piece, Wrestling Dzhokhar, Struggling With the Death Penalty she takes us through her struggles to answer the difficult conundrum that all Americans should be asking themselves: Is it ever right for the state to put someone to death for a crime he or she has committed?

This piece was originally aired on WAMC. You can also listen to Aliza reading her essay.

Wrestling Dzhokhar, Struggling With the Death Penalty

It’s 2015 and I’m training for my first marathon. The winter has been merciless: ripping winds, ice, relentless snow storms. But like anyone training for a marathon, I’m out running.

I need to log an extraordinary number of miles before my race. True, it’s not the Boston Marathon; only the strongest qualify for Boston.

But this season is far from ordinary. As I head out with my dogs, I’m aware the Boston Marathon bombing trial is taking place. As my feet hit the ground, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sits facing his victims.

As I run, I think about the guide dog, Rescue, walking beside Jessica Kensky as she wheels into the courtroom. Both of Jessica’s legs were shredded in the explosion.

I look down at my running shoes. I’m aware I have legs and Jessica doesn’t. I think about Rescue, as Jessica tells her story. Rescue waits next to her, while my dogs lumber beside me.

I can’t stop thinking about Dzhokhar. As I run alongside the river, I wonder what he’s thinking while Jessica tells the jurors about the moment her body was ripped apart.

I check my watch. 5.27 miles. I unzip my orange windbreaker.

April 2013 when Boston was in lockdown, I feared for my family’s safety. It was irrational. My parents live in Waltham. But the city was in lockdown. Boston has never been in lockdown.

When Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured, I wanted him to die. I didn’t care when I saw the image of him after his apprehension, his clothes soaked in blood. His thin frame reminded me that he was just a skinny teenager. I didn’t care. He ripped apart runners. He blew apart my city. He did not deserve to live.

On my runs, I can’t push past 14 miles. I feel defeated. But I lace up my running shoes and head outdoors.
***
Today the ice is melting. The dirt roads are a mess. I’m tired. I stayed up late watching Dzhokhar Tsarnaev walk into Whole Foods, wander around, trying to figure out which type of milk to buy after blowing apart 260 people and killing three others.

Dzhokhar waited four minutes before putting his backpack down: a backpack full of deadly explosives, the contents which would blow a part a child’s body.

I clock 4 minutes. The whole time I’m running, Dzhokhar stood next to eight-year old Martin. After the explosion, Martin’s tiny abdomen was blown out of his body.

I’m still running. I’m waiting for my watch to beep. It finally beeps. I stop dead in my tracks and burst into tears.

I’m struggling with what it means to want Dzhokhar to die. I talk with my partner Ric. I ask his feelings about capital punishment. He tells me he’s against it. As Americans we should be above capital punishment. But still, I want Dzhokhar to die.

What does it mean to take a life? I argue with Ric. I don’t want my tax dollars spent housing Dzhokhar. It costs $40,000 a year warehousing criminals. Ric tells me killing people costs more.

I stay up late another night, reading the cost to execute a prisoner.

During the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers, I was on the phone with my mother. We learned that Danny, a young man originally from China, was held hostage at gunpoint by Dzhokhar’s brother Tamerlan and driven around the city.

Stopping briefly at a gas station in Cambridge, mistakenly thinking they only accepted cash, Dzhokhar left the car. Tamerlan temporarily put the gun in a seat pocket to fiddle with the GPS. In a well-calculated decision, Danny fled across the street to another gas station. I know those gas stations. Everyone from Boston knows those gas stations.
***
I ran over 14 miles today. It’s not 20, but I stop fighting the mileage. I stay up late again reading online debates regarding the death penalty. The people in favor of the death penalty are people I’ve never respected, with values I don’t like: eye-for-eye values. Killing terrorists makes the United States safe values.

I stare at my computer screen. I find my answer. There, in front of me are my two choices. I choose life.

I tell Ric. “Do you feel better,” he asks? I said, “Yeah.” Not that it matters. It’s a battle that raged inside my head. The outcome of the trial won’t hinge on my battle either. It won’t bring back the souls ripped apart that day, but neither will Dzhokhar’s execution.

As the sun breaks through the barren tree branches, I put on my running shoes. I trot down the muddy icy road. There are small pockets of warm air mixed with blasts of cold. That’s life, I think, a labyrinth, tangles of sunlight and horror. And it’s our responsibility to sort through the mess.

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Here is a collection of  powerful images taken by photographer, Steve Davis for a series he has been working on for years called Captured Youth.  It’s hard to look into these young people’s faces, and to see the conditions in which they live, and not ask yourself, “How does ‘capturing’ these young people really serve the interests of justice, and of our country. Look at these photographs and answer that question for yourself.

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You hear a lot about how the Prison Rape Elimination standards issued by the Federal government are protecting young people in detention of any kind from sexual violence. The numbers still tell a different story.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post blog.

A prison can’t function without its pecking order. Call it what you will, chain of command, hierarchy, rank, it all comes down to power. Who’s got it, who doesn’t. Who’s on top, who’s on bottom. It’s an all-inclusive, endemic culture: wardens, top assistant wardens, captains, sergeants, and rank and file officers. Frontline correctional officers top inmates, and inmates top whomever they can.

Support staff is notched in there somewhere, just one step above inmates. These “civilians”—medical workers, teachers, social workers, chaplains—are viewed by corrections with almost as much suspicion and contempt as inmates. I know firsthand all about that suspicion and contempt from my years teaching high school offenders locked up in an adult county prison. You get the message pretty quickly when time after time you’re kept standing behind some prison gate or security door, waiting in plain view for an officer to buzz you through while he or she finishes joking with their buddy or finally looks up from their crossword puzzle.

Inmates’ lives are dominated by this same top to bottom hierarchy. For them it’s a food chain that is more blatant, more calculating. The only way to survive is to have your heel, in one way or another, on other inmates’ necks. The young men I worked with had an apt image for making it out alive: “We’re all crabs in a pail scrambling to get out, pulling down the guys in front of you, stepping on them, shoving them down to the bottom so you can make it out.” Extortion, physical strength, ruthlessness, a coldhearted distrust of everyone are the “tools” of survival. Without them an inmate’s well-being and safety are in jeopardy.

You might expect that locked up young kids are on the lowest rung of that ladder both on the block and in the general prison population. Certainly their age, undeveloped thinking and decision-making processes, their inability to physically fend for themselves (despite their bluster and bravado) make them more vulnerable to intimidation, abuse, threats, bullying, and physical force.But it goes lower: incarcerated women—what I call the invisible prison population. Despite the fact that more women are being locked up—an 800 percent increase in the last 10 years—you seldom hear what prison life is really like for them (forget the make-believe you see on “Orange is the New Black”).

The prison I worked in is one small example of how women are unfairly treated in lockup. Aside from the brutal fact of female inmates’ increased vulnerability to sexual assault by staff, the women’s unit in this particular prison was more overcrowded than the men’s, and women had limited or no access to any kind of recreational facilities, while their male counterparts had both gym and yard privileges on a daily basis.

Added to the usual indignities experienced by all women imprisoned in the U.S., the female inmates in the county prison where I taught had to endure the callous authority of a male warden. Among the many arbitrary restrictions he imposed (for example at holiday time teachers on the men’s units were allowed to bring in donuts and hot chocolate while permission was denied for the women’s block), he instigated several “cost saving measures:” rationing of toilet paper, and most egregious and insulting, limiting the feminine hygiene products each woman could receive. This has got to be the bottom of the prison hierarchy for locked up women. How could it not be? To have a man dictate how many tampons you’re allowed to use regardless of your body’s needs.

But it’s not. Some women sink even lower in the prison pecking order. As limited as the public’s awareness of female incarceration is, an even more neglected population are those women in solitary confinement. There has been a lot of attention lately to the U.S.’s overuse of solitary confinement. The United Nations Committee on Torture strongly criticized our use of this form of cruel and unusual punishment, making it clear that it was a form of torture—criticism that the U.S. diplomatic delegation sloughed off with America’s usual disdain whenever confronted with its own human rights violations. But even in the media’s coverage of the hearings and its own investigation of solitary confinement abuses one often heard about the sufferings of male inmates but nothing about those women in isolation.

In 2014, the Federal Bureau of Prisons had agreed under some pressure to conduct an “internal audit” on the uses of solitary confinement. Initially no women’s prisons were included on the list of sites to be examined. Under pressure from human rights groups some women’s units were added. However no one was able—or willing—to say exactly which ones. Once again locked up women, this time women held in solitary, didn’t even exist. Solitary Watch, the website which is a fierce advocate for all people held in “special housing units,” called these women “buried.” Another word comes to my mind, one borrowed from repressive Latin American regimes: “disappeared.”

 

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Photo Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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