Archive for the ‘Human Rights’ Category

Solitary Watch has reported that the American Civil Liberties Union has called on the United Nations to investigate civil liberties violations for US prisoners held in solitary confinement and to put pressure on the US to end this punitive and cruel practice. In the county prison where I worked,  I saw first hand the effects of solitary on inmates who were locked up in total isolation for months at a time, and I described some of those effects on Solitary Watch. Although the stated purpose for the “special housing unit” (SHU) was to contain the most disruptive and dangerous prisoners, the SHU ended up being filled with mentally ill inmates left untreated. Once again the US is out of step with our Western European allies in the humane treatment of those who break the law.

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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

I had just finished reading “Safety and Security,” a chapter from my book I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, at a recent book event. It describes a morning I spent proctoring a state exam for a student who was locked up in solitary confinement at the county jail where I taught high school for ten years.

Each time I read that chapter the horrors of that morning come back to me: the emergency response team dragging in an inmate, struggling, crying, screaming that he couldn’t breathe, that he was dying, couldn’t anybody please help him, until the glass and metal door of his cell slammed shut on his pleas. That morning I knew that I had seen something that no civilian was meant to witness. And I knew, as well, that every man on that block, locked in his own cage of silence, had had a similar story of despair to tell.

After I finished reading the chapter that evening, my listeners sat in stunned silence, caught in the nightmare of solitary confinement. Then, tentatively a hand went up.

“I was married to a man who was in solitary for several years,” a woman in her 60s said. “When I asked him how he made it through, he told me that he practiced walking meditation, and that he got to know, really know, every concrete block in his cell. He said he learned a lot.”

I didn’t doubt her husband’s experience—or her perception of it. Yet I sensed in what she said an attitude I’d heard before from people trying to make sense of this brutal practice. It is an attitude, I suspect, that offers people comfort: solitary confinement as the monk’s cave, as the scholar’s study, as the New Age guru’s retreat; a time for meditation, yoga, reading; self-discovery.

It’s a romantic image—the lone prisoner triumphing over his keeper—that’s been around for awhile and has made its way into the general consciousness. Burt Lancaster in The Birdman of Alcatraz as Robert Stroud serving a life sentence in solitary surrounded by his books and birds. Or Denzil Washington in The Hurricane as Rubin Carter studying his way to personal liberation from his isolation.

Nothing could be further from the truth for the majority of men and women in prisons across the country buried in isolation cells, some for years.

As often as I could I visited my students—some as young as 15—who were locked up in solitary. (Luckily, state education law mandated that an incarcerated high school student must receive some kind of education even in solitary confinement.)

Contrary to that romantic image, the men—young and old—I saw on my escorted walk down the block’s hallway had triumphed over nothing.  “The cage,” as my students called it, reeked of unwashed, long neglected bodies. The walls were scuffed and gouged where shackled inmates writhed and kicked as they were dragged in. The cell door windows were smeared as prisoners jammed their faces at odd angles against the glass, desperate to see anyone, anything, hungry for visual stimulation. If the men weren’t sleeping (and many slept for 15, 16 hours a day, barely waking for meals) they were screeching, howling through the walls, trying to make contact with each other, with another human being, even if those shouts were indecipherable and incomprehensible.

That evening, listening to the woman’s comment, I couldn’t help thinking about those inmates I saw. Few of them, for whatever reasons, had any of her husband’s resources, especially the young men—children really—that I taught whose lives were fractured, some seemingly beyond repair, and whose identities were too fragile to withstand the assault of solitary.

Put in isolation, for behavior the department of corrections deemed dangerous and uncontrollable, a threat to “safety and security”—behavior considered less than human— those individuals were made to live in subhuman conditions in order to learn how to act human. But the only lesson learned is one that most locked up people have known all their lives: There is no end to how cruel we can be to each other; and how easily we are able to justify that cruelty.

I never expected to learn much about hope during the ten years I taught kids locked up in an adult county prison. After all, jail’s a pretty dead-end place. Turns out I was wrong.

I learned a lot about optimism and resilience from some unlikely teachers—my jailhouse students. There was Ray who told me, “I’ve only lived in the world, free, not locked up somewhere, for a total of 6 years and 4 months,” but who firmly believed that God would put a light at the end of his own dark tunnel; or Dario who despite living in shelters, on the streets, or in jails completed his high school diploma; or Wade who was looking at state prison, yet planning how he’d help his little brother when he got out.

Still, I’m a slow learner. In spite of the Obama optimism, I don’t easily see much hope in our nation. It’s hard to look past the bully culture fostered by Tea Party narcissism and conservative righteousness; by laws that require police to suspect, stop and question, anyone whose skin is darker than theirs or whose name hints of Latino origins; by churches who kick children out of their schools because of their parents’ sexual orientation.

That’s why I was pleased, relieved, and frankly startled when the Supreme Court, an institution which in my opinion hasn’t been this country’s greatest source of hope lately, ruled recently that it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles who have not committed homicide to life behind bars without the possibility of parole.

Back in November 2009, when I first wrote on this site and elsewhere about the court’s hearing of this case the reasons for overturning this law seemed so simple and obvious that I was embarrassed to be laying them out so carefully: Yes, kids commit crimes, but they also are able to, and do, learn and change.

But it wasn’t so simple and obvious—that is, if I went by the angry and, in several cases, vitriolic reactions I got from some readers. By their way of thinking, once a person, young or old, committed a crime they were exiled from the human race and thus excluded from the decencies and protections we grant each other. It didn’t matter if the children involved committed their crimes when they were only 13 or 14; that they hadn’t killed anyone during that crime. They deserved to be locked up for life, to die in prison. “Cruel and unusual punishment,” to use the 8th Amendment’s bone chilling phrase, was what they deserved.

It was heartening, then, to see the Supreme Court recognize that, indeed, juveniles have “limited moral culpability,” and that this limited culpability was not an issue of choice but rather the product of cognitive development.

Research into the brain’s “executive functioning” shows that young people don’t fully develop responsible decision making skills until sometime in their twenties. Today’s media in exploring the commonplace trend among twenty-somethings still living at home, slow to make their place in the world, often cite this research. But you rarely hear about that research when it comes to troubled young kids, kids who are usually minority, poor, under-educated, and disenfranchised. Nobody wanted to hear about executive functioning when 17 year old Anthony, a student of mine with developmental disabilities and no prior record, was arrested for snatching a purse. The tough-on-crime county DA running for reelection saw to it that Anthony was sentenced to 5 years in state prison. Now the Supreme Court has challenged that thinking, at least in the case of life term sentencing without parole for nonhomicidal crimes.

The Justices’ ruling also brings the United States closer to the global community’s standards of criminal justice. We have stood outside that circle of justice for too long as a nation that locks up 1 out of 100 citizens, that uses torture, and executes people. Justice Kennedy in writing the majority opinion noted that the United States “is the only Nation that imposes life without parole sentences on juvenile nonhomicidial offenders,” a sentencing practice that “is inconsistent with basic principles of decency.”

In lockups across this country, hope usually comes in smaller doses: a letter from the “shorty” you thought had dumped you; a meeting with your Legal Aid lawyer who finally got you a court date after months of waiting; a job working in the kitchen for a buck a day.

The Supreme Court’s message of hope, slight as it might be—the recognition, as Justice Stevens wrote, that “Knowledge accumulates. We learn, sometimes, from our mistakes”—might take a long time to trickle down to the kids that I taught and their peers, if it ever does. But when, and if they get the word, I know they won’t be surprised by the logic behind the decision. I can hear that chorus of bored adolescent boys now, “Yeah, and?”

Sometimes, we adults are the slowest learners of all.

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.


Repost from “Solitary Watch”

March 26, 2010

Mother Jones this week ran a powerful two-part excerpt from a new book called I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup. The book is by David Chura, who worked for 10 years as an English teacher in the Westchester County Jail. The published excerpt focuses on the jail’s Special Housing Unit (SHU), which is the euphemism New York State uses for solitary confinement.

As the editors’ introduction puts it, “These state-of-the-art, maximum-security isolation blocks became a trend during the late-1990s prison-building boom…And to accompany the construction spree, state and federal legislators enacted new laws that gave more kids adult sentences in adult institutions.”

As we’ve written before on Solitary Watch, in addition to these converging trends, children in adult correctional facilities are disproportionately likely to be placed in solitary confinement–either because they act up, or for their own “protection.” Large numbers of these kids have psychiatric or emotional problems to begin with, and the affects of isolation on their growing bodies and minds is usually devastating. Cutting and other forms of self-harm are common among these incarcerated children, and suicides are far from rare.

Part 1 of the two-part excerpt from Chura’s book vital background by describing the opening of the then-new SHU, which was actually celebrated as a great improvement over the rest of the jail–cleaner, safer, quieter, and implicitly, more humane. Initially Chura’s students even seemed better behaved–more attentive and less rowdy.

In Part 2, the truth begins to emerge. We’ve included a sample here, but the excerpts–and no doubt the book, as well–are worth reading in full. Chura has also started a blog on abuses of juveniles in the justice system.

It was only after I had been visiting the SHU for a while that I began to see things differently. At first, I thought the changes in my students’ behavior were the result of the calmer, cleaner environment.

But more and more I realized that it was, in fact, the result of their total isolation. They listened, they studied my face, they begged me to return, and they watched me leave because they were hungry—for words, sounds, the sight of people—any stimulation that broke their solitude.

In the months that followed, the SHU began to show this underbelly of deprivation. Conditions deteriorated. The walls got scuffed and nicked where inmates struggled against the emergency response teams carrying them in. Windows grew smeared from hands and faces pressed against the glass.

Gradually, the inmates stopped making their beds. They piled clothes on the floor. They left books and papers wherever they dropped. Now when I visited after class, some of my students would be sleeping. They’d bury themselves under the covers, their heads wrapped up in towels for warmth and to shut out the light.

If I was able to wake them, calling through the tray slot, they’d grumble and splutter to be left alone. Once they knew it was me and got up, they were still polite and appreciative, but they would stare, stunned and bewildered—wondering if I was real or just part of some dream.

And they were dirty. Even the guys who were usually fastidious about grooming became sloppy and disheveled. Like Pinto, who used to arrive to class every day scrubbed, shaved, and smelling of Old Spice. His county oranges would be pressed, and his hair clipped short and brushed to a black lacquer.

But in the SHU, his eyes grew puffy and crusted from endless hours of sleep. His face was covered with a patchy, scruffy beard, and his hair was knotted and woolly. When he leaned down to talk to me his breath was sour, and the odor of his unwashed clothes and body rose out of the metal opening like a malevolent genie.

An update on conditions for at the Westchester County Jail can be found in a scathing report released last fall by the Justice Department, which among other things looked at the use of solitary confinement on juveniles. As summarized by Mother Jones:

At the Westchester lockup, investigators found that half of the inmates recently consigned to the SHU were 16 to 18 years old, and many were doing stints of a year or more in isolation. One 16-year-old got 510 days for assaulting a guard. Another teen, an 18-year-old, was simply thrown in the SHU indefinitely. “Such sentences,” the report noted, “may inflict substantial psychological harm” on juveniles.

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When Americans think about the prison system, we think about the men and women locked up in them and the people who work there. But we rarely, if ever, think about inmates’ families. We should.

The Boston Globe had it right in its recent editorial on the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s putting a halt to the Bristol County sheriff’s $5 dollar a day fee on inmates for upkeep. As the Globe noted, since there were no work release programs or jobs at the jail, inmates’ families were the ones who had to pay the fee, placing on them “an even heavier burden” than they already carry. The Globe urged the Massachusetts legislature not to legalize that burden.

Visiting days were some of the hardest days to work at the county jail where I taught incarcerated high school kids. The lobby filled up with anxious mothers and grandmothers, and got a little raucous with toddlers and babies brought to see their daddies by wives and girlfriends who still found the fortitude to stand by their locked up men.

They got there early because they knew that the jail routine ate into their limited time with their loved ones. But getting there early meant an even earlier start from home, many coming cross county. Most visitors didn’t have cars, and so they took bus after bus after bus. Once signed in, they sat on cracked vinyl benches and waited, the way they waited for those buses.

Then, the slow crawl through security where papers were checked; belongings searched; where belts, boots, bobby pins, jewelry, even the occasional bra had to be removed to clear the metal detector. One glitch and the whole process ground to a halt. Except the clock. It kept ticking, robbing families of what little time they had together.

It was nobody’s fault. Things happen. Someone didn’t know they had to have a picture ID. A grandmother only spoke Spanish. And who would have thought that they needed the baby’s birth certificate?

Things like that happen. But that doesn’t explain the most egregious wrong of visiting days—the way the correctional staff treated visitors. Although the officers working the lobby were “polite” in that cardboard cutout way that people in charge can have, the suspicion and contempt with which they treated the visiting family members were as obvious as the print on an arrest warrant. It was as though those mothers and grandmothers, those wives and girlfriends were themselves criminals.

Those correctional officers, however, were only reflecting the general view that most Americans have about inmates’ families. “If you’d been a better mother.” “If you’d only raised your daughter right her son wouldn’t be here.” “Where’s the father?”  “What are you doing having that thug’s baby?”

Jail strips people of their freedom, their community, and their identity. But those family members who we accuse of neglect and complicity are the only ones who give inmates a sense (as tentative as it may be) of stability and self, of connection to a world they are cut off from.

And when inmates are finally released into a world they are expected to fit into, they return home to those same families we consider inadequate. They may not have much to offer the ex-offender, but what they do offer is a lot more than the plastic bag for clothes, the bus token, and the injunction to “stay out of jail” that most criminal justice systems provide. Imposing an upkeep fee on inmates  only adds to the responsibilities these overburdened families already carry.