Posts Tagged ‘Massachusetts Prisons’

I’ve been speaking about juvenile  justice issues and discussing my book, I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Kids in Adult Lockup with a variety of audiences–churches, college classes, libraries, social service agencies, book clubs, teachers’ conventions and advocacy agencies. The questions that participants raise are as different as the settings I speak in.

But one comment and question that comes up over and over again is, “I didn’t know how bad things were. What can I do?” Behind that question is a lot of compassion for the kids trapped in the prison system,  a sense of responsibility for allowing these conditions to continue in one’s own state and nation,  a feeling of powerlessness in the face of our granite block criminal justice system, and finally, a desire do something.

That last is something I stress in my response, “a desire do something.” As I explain to my audiences, the laws that allow minors to be tried as adults and then sentenced to adult prisons were enacted  because we citizens in some way have given our lawmakers  the message  that juveniles should be treated this way; that we’re more interested in seeing  these young people punished then in seeing them rehabilitated.

It’s a harsh truth I dish up here. Many–if not most–if the people who come to hear me talk  are appalled by the conditions they are forced to live under in jail, and they’re deeply distressed by the hard and spirit-breaking lives these kids through no fault of their own have been forced to live. The unsaid hangs in the air,  “Of course, we wouldn’t wish this on them! We just didn’t know.”

And that’s the first thing that I tell people they can do: keep yourself informed. So many of these young people come from fractured families and communities. They have no one to speak up for them. They are truly disenfranchised. Any of us can be their voice just by knowing what is going on in regards to criminal justice trends in our state and nation and by speaking up about it to other citizens and to our public officials.

Unfortunately, the voices that are loudest and most often heard by those legislators are the voices of people who are ill-informed, who believe every stereotype about kids in trouble that is  broadcast on their local evening news. Too often these people react out of fear and a sense of danger and demand that lawmakers “do something.” And so 14, 15, 16, 17 year olds are imprisoned with little or no understanding of the consequences to them or to our society.

Luckily, none of us have to do this on our own. There are many advocacy groups on the local, state and federal level who are concerned about what happens to these throwaway kids. In my own state of Massachusetts a group that is working hard to improve the lives of young people is  Citizens for Juvenile Justice.

CfJJ, based in Boston,  is a small organization, but you could never tell that from the active agenda they are pursing on behalf of young offenders. I’m embarrassed to say that Massachusetts  is among the states that still  tries and sentences minors (in this case 17 years old and above) as adults. Citizens for Juvenile Justice is working to change that by supporting bill H. 450; S. 64 which raises the age to 18. They are also an excellent source of data and other information about many juvenile justice issues. They’re pretty tireless in their efforts, but they’re not beaten down folks. They have energy and determination because they have seen all too well the impact of injustice on kids’ lives.

The kids I taught in the adult county jail never gave up hope. As damaged, as bad, as dead-end as their lives seemed, they believed that things can get better. For those of us who really care about these issues it can seem pretty hopeless. But if we allow that despair and that feeling of impotence to win out we’re just being, as my students would say, “a bunch of wooses.” Groups like Citizens for Juvenile Justice are there to help kids and to help us help them. In turn they need our help. It sounds like a win-win situation.



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.

In March 2007, the nonprofit Disability Law Center sued the state of Massachusetts over its treatment of hundreds of mentally ill inmates. Prisoners with emotional problems who are unruly in some way are kept in 23 hour solitary confinement, which, according to a November 10 Boston Globe article, has “led to self-mutilations, swallowing of razor blades, and numerous suicides.”

In response to these grave concerns the Patrick administration, in an out-of-court negotiation, proposed building special treatment units for mentally disturbed inmates. Now, that proposal is off the table; citing the budget crisis, those units will not be built. So it’s back to court in an effort to force the state to give its incarcerated citizens their constitutional protection against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Massachusetts isn’t alone in facing the problem of caring for mentally ill inmates. Every state has had to confront this growing trend which started in the 1960s and accelerated in the 1980s, when the system of large state psychiatric hospitals was shut down even though, as Oliver Sacks states in his bittersweet eulogy to these former mental hospitals (“The Lost Virtues of the AsylumNew York Review of Books, 9-24-2009), it was obvious that these closings created “as many problems as they solved.” Communities weren’t prepared, and still aren’t prepared, to absorb and meet the needs of what he calls “sidewalk psychotics.”

With these closings, along with the current “tough on crime” policies, it shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that these same people– alone, unsupported, often self-medicated with drugs and alcohol– increasingly end up behind bars, despite the fact that jails aren’t set up to help people deal with emotional problems, problems that confuse their judgments and impel them to destructive actions

No doubt these are hard choices in hard economic times for any state. Yet, once again, as municipalities struggle to come up with innovative ways to deal with the money crunch, the one formula that never gets recalibrated is that the people with the greatest need and the least resources take the biggest hit.

Being locked up is hard enough. Being “crazy” in an already crazy system is the worst. In jail you get “props” from the other inmates for being a “badass” but not for being disturbed. They have names for you– 730, forensic, Gucci gown (at least in the county penitentiary where I taught; if you’re put on the forensic unit, you spend your days in a paper gown that the inmates have branded “Gucci”); along with bugged, psycho, mental.

Attitudes aren’t much better among most of the correctional staff. They treat you as though your mental illness is a part of your crime. You might have had a choice not to carry that gun, or get into that stolen car. But you don’t have a choice about your mood swings, or the voices you hear, or your paranoia, conditions that, when you have your medication, are usually under control. It doesn’t help that when you get locked up those medications stop. The medical information might be taken when you’re booked, but too often it gets “lost.”

I worked with a seventeen-year-old boy in my jail classroom who found himself in that situation. Lamont was a friendly, polite, quiet student. He sat in the back of the room, away from everybody else. He had pretty good judgment, in my opinion: he was eager to learn and wasn’t interested in hanging out with the knuckleheads. But, as the weeks went by, I noticed that he sat further and further back in the room, his back to the door and the rest of the group. The darker the corner he sought out, the darker the expression on his face became. I knew something wasn’t right.

Most days Lamont stayed behind after class. I got the feeling that he didn’t want to give up the safety and security of the classroom for the chaos of the block. He always had a question or a comment about what we had done that day. He never talked about himself, his charge, or what kind of time he was looking at. He had that hooded look that I remembered so well from my years working in a psych hospital– as though he was a denizen of two worlds. Yet he stuck around. He clearly needed to talk. Since I knew education was important to him, I suggested he meet with our school social worker and discuss what he’d like to do with his life– anything to get him into her office.

That afternoon Kay, the social worker, thanked me for recommending Lamont to her. Then she told me a story I’d heard a number of times during my ten years in jail.

Lamont was bipolar. Usually it was well controlled with medication. But since he had been sent to the county lockup he hadn’t gotten them. He had requested them, but got nowhere. His mother had done the same, and got nowhere.

Kay didn’t have to say what I knew already. All kinds of treatments don’t get done, are delayed, or forgotten. “You didn’t do the paperwork right.” “You’re on the list.” Or “The doctor’s only here every other Tuesday.” All tactics to save money. (At least, I’ve always hoped that that was the reason and not the more disturbing one: pure neglect because someone just didn’t give a damn about the people in their charge.)

“It’s amazing that Lamont talked to me. He’s real paranoid by now,” Kay said. “But he can feel himself getting crazier and crazier everyday without his meds, and he’s terrified of what he’ll do. I’m going to see about getting them for him.”

Luckily Lamont was in touch with reality enough to know that he was slipping; and luckily Kay had enough jailhouse capital to get him what he needed.

But it doesn’t always happen that way. Things escalate quickly on the overcrowded, noisy, smelly blocks. Anything can push a kid like Lamont into the ring. Words, looks, or nothing at all can suddenly lead to a fight. Then some guy loses control or his tentative grip on reality breaks, and the emergency response team gets called. They come storming in, shouting, dressed in black with combat boots, the reflective visors on their helmets mirroring back to the inmate the confusion and fear that got him into this mess in the first place, pushing at him with their plastic shields, crowding him, shoving him to the floor, screaming in his face. A paranoid’s dream– and nightmare. Finally, cuffed, dazed and more than likely bruised, the inmate is led away, his head shoved down in submission, and he’s put in isolation where everybody hopes he’ll just calm down, shut up, go to sleep; where, once again, he’s left alone with a life, and mind, out of control.

Of course, not every inmate who has a fight is mentally ill, although the level of instability is high with a prison population used to living the high voltage life of the street combatant in and out of jail. However, there are enough volatile situations that could be avoided if these locked up men and women struggling to maintain their emotional balance were given what they needed– decent living conditions, medications when needed, compassion, and viable therapy, or any therapy at all. It would, if nothing else, save municipalities money in the long run.

I’ve worked with kids at-risk in and out of jail for over 25 years and they just don’t get it. They just don’t get that if you drop out of school, you can’t get a job; and if you hang out on the streets and drink forties the cops harass you 24/7. Get into a stolen car, let your man stash his drugs at your crib, you do jail time.

Experience aside (and some of it with disastrous results on them, on their families) kids just don’t understand that actions have consequences. But this blind spot isn’t limited to kids at-risk. We all have it. Maybe it’s the culture, maybe even the race.

This same blindness to consequences is happening in the Massachusetts prison system, as it is in many other overcrowded state prison systems. At issue is whether double-bunking at one of the state jails is the reason for an increase there in prison violence during the first 10 months of this year. (Boston Globe)

The Patrick administration along with the Department of Corrections argues that this spike in violence has nothing to do with making two inmates share a cell but rather with the type of prisoners—more assaultive and volatile—being moved.

The correction officers union along with various prisoner advocacy groups (at first glance, odd bedfellows, but often COs know, on a day-to-day level, that what’s “good” for inmates is sometimes “good” for them) are opposed to double-bunking and disagree with DOC’s conclusions. They point to the rage inmates feel at being forced to share a cell with another inmate, feeling that their own safety is in jeopardy. As one union official stated, double-bunking is “a tinderbox…the wrong statement to the wrong inmate is just going to make that place blow.

But nowhere in the discussion is anyone talking about the real issue. It goes back to the kid dropping out of school: Actions have consequences. The real issue in prison violence is that the conditions that inmates live in—can’t escape from—affect their behavior. It is, then, a much broader issue, one that goes beyond whether you stick two guys in the same cell.

Behavioral science textbooks are full of  studies that back up this premise. Put any creature (start with rats and work up the food chain) in a noisy, dirty, overcrowded, isolated, subjugated setting and the way that creature acts will reflect the conditions it’s forced to live in.

It’s pretty simple. Treat people like shit, and they’ll act like shit.

Jails are horrible places, whether they are minimum or maximum security, low- tech or high-tech. The conditions that inmates live in are subhuman: Locked away from their loved ones; stripped of their freedom, their power of choice, their privacy; the stench of their own bodies, and worse yet, of 39 other bodies living, farting, belching, crapping three feet away; the shouting and the cursing; the threats and accusations; the attacks or, maybe even worse, the constant fear of attack; the boredom, the feeling of total uselessness, the rage.

And these conditions don’t affect just the inmates. COs work in these same impoverished circumstances at least 8 hours, and all too often 16 hours a day (and who knows what those few hours of sleep that they grab are like)  absorbing, fighting off, defending against the anger prisoners, rightly or wrongly, deflect on them.

In the adult county lockup where I taught, fights were always breaking out between the kids I worked with. A student would disappear from class, and when I asked the CO or the other students where he or she was, I’d hear the latest about who beat up whom, and for what lame reason it all fell out.

In jail a fight means that the emergency response team—the goon squad—is called.  A fight means at least 30 days in “keep-locked,” 23 hour lockdown with one hour out for a shower and some rec.  Or if you’re a real badass, or had had one too many fights, or pissed the ERT off when they brought you down, you get 30 days or more of complete isolation in the special housing unit—the SHU.

Yet to the kids I taught, fights were just one more crappy condition they lived with. Besides, a fight was never your fault.

But I could never let it stop there. When a student returned to class I made a point of asking him or her what the fight was about.

“I was sick of that scumbag with no teeth stealing my banana.”

“I told him not to change the channel.”

“Yo, man, he looked at me.”

A banana? A TV station? A look?

“You mean, you got thrown into the SHU for a banana?” I’d push.

Beneath the bravado of blame, they certainly knew it wasn’t about a banana. Yet they were at a lost to tell me the real cause.  If they could, they’d have to acknowledge the deep rage and resentment they felt about the lives they were forced to live, both in jail and in their poverty ravaged neighborhoods; they’d have to acknowledge the sense of failure that they carried around about how they’d messed up their lives and how impotent they felt to change any of it. They’d have to put into words the truth—that people treated them like shit, so they acted like shit.

We’ve designed an entire prison system to rob people of what little dignity they have. Yet we still wonder why, when that system introduces something like double-bunking to save money, inmates strike back in the only way they know how, they strike back in the only way they see glorified in our culture: Might makes right.

We just don’t get it.