Posts Tagged ‘Criminal Justice’

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.

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.

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

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.