Posts Tagged ‘Rights & Freedoms’

Arizona’s legislature recently passed a law charging prison visitors a onetime $25 fee as a way to help close the state’s $1.6 billion budget deficit. Middle Ground Prison Reform, a prison advocacy group, challenged the law in court as a discriminatory tax, but a county judge upheld its constitutionality.

Fees like that, slapped on prisoners and their families, couldn’t be more counterintuitive. But then again, so many of our criminal justice policies are just that. Since it is mostly the poor, the desperately poor who fill US prisons, the $25 fee is one more economic hardship offenders’ families have to struggle with. It becomes another bill they have to scramble to pay—that is if they can.

These kinds of charges (and Arizona isn’t the only jurisdiction trying to shift the cost of incarceration to the poor) have even graver consequences. When a family can’t pay the fee their contact with their loved one is limited, essentially cutting an offender off from the only supports he or she has in the outside world.

Psychologists have long known how central it is for an individual to have nurturing people in his or her life in order to develop emotionally, psychologically and socially. This need for a supportive network is even more essential when we talk about the young people who are locked away from family and loved ones in our nation’s prisons and detention centers.

As anyone who has worked with kids in the penal system knows on a gut level, it is crucial to have families and other supportive community members involved in young offenders’ lives as they serve their time. Now, that commonsense intuition has been given empirical strength by studies done by such juvenile justice groups as the Vera Institute of Justice which have demonstrated that maintaining young people’s connection to families is a major factor in helping kids stay out of jail once they are released.

But it’s easy to question whether these families are really such a positive influence. After all, if they were doing such a great job what are their kids doing in jail?

It’s an easy assumption to make until you see some of those family members in the prison visiting room with their sons and daughters. I got to do that at least twice a year when the jailhouse high school where I taught for ten years in a county adult facility had its open house for families and caregivers.

The place was packed with mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, or the people who stepped into those roles when circumstances—AIDS, death, addiction, incarceration, abandonment, all the things that ravage the lives of the poor and disenfranchised—demanded it. It wasn’t easy for many of them to get there. Meals had to be missed. Second jobs skipped. Long cross-county bus rides with tickets to pay for, transfers to be negotiated, at night, often in bad weather. The grandmother of one of my students, Leon, a skinny 15 year old who was finally making progress in class, had to travel over an hour on three buses to get there. It was a trip I knew she faithfully made twice a week to see her grandson. “I wouldn’t miss a visit with my boy for anything,” she told me, reaching over and giving Leon’s hair a playful tug. “But now you tell, Mr. Chura, how’s he doin in class?” That set Leon squirming.

It was a conversation I had over and over during those family visits. Miguel’s uncle who gave me his phone number and urged me to call him if Miguel wasn’t in school. Luis’ mother, frail and  in a wheelchair, holding her son’s hand, telling me how when Luis got out of jail she was moving her whole family out of state to get away from the gangs that ran wild in the streets. “I just want my boys to be safe,” she said, her English halting but her fear and determination palpable.

It was hard to hear in the visiting room sometimes with people chattering in several different languages, children running around, little brothers squealing when their big brother in his funny orange jump suit picked them up, mothers crying, locked-up sons trying to explain, promise, console. It was hard to hear but it was easy to know what was going on: Families—fragile, fragmented, strained, mending—were desperately trying to stay a family.

Many of those visitors would be willing to admit that they hadn’t done such a good job at maintaining the family bond, but that they did the best they could given the problems they had to face. Like Luis’ mother the determination was there but the resources weren’t. If we as a nation are serious about reducing crime (and not just by increased incarceration) it is important that we not put more obstacles in the way of young inmates’ families but rather that we give them the opportunities and resources to develop and sustain those crucial connections. It’s an investment that’s worth losing 25 bucks over.

Originally appeared on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

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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

 

We Americans don’t know much about how our criminal justice system works. We have the basics down. “Commit the crime, do the time!” as the pop cliché has it.

If only it were that simple.

Most Americans know that if you get arrested and post bail you’re released from custody while your case grinds through an overburdened court system.

That is, if you’re lucky enough to be able to post bail—which means you’re white enough; rich enough; well connected enough. But if you can’t get bail—which means you’re poor; probably a minority; you’ve burned bridges, are alone—you go to jail. Even though you’ve not been judged guilty. Even though the state has yet to prove that you did the crime you’re accused of.  Even though you’re innocent until proven otherwise. Still you stay locked up in jail, not some special holding place, until your trial. You live with convicted criminals in the same conditions that society has set up to punish (because that’s what jails do) these wrongdoers.

I never understood this until I started working as a high school teacher in a county jail. On my first day I was given a tour by another teacher of the blocks where most of my students lived.

It was pretty disturbing: The suspicious, almost paranoid looks, “Who is this guy?” coming from all sides, inmates and correctional staff alike. The dark, crowded rows of barred cells, no bigger than a closet, each with a toilet bowl, a bunk, a washcloth-size sink. No privacy—ever. You eat, sleep, shit (but never cry, if you want to survive) in view of everybody. A soup of smells you can taste, like an old penny pressed to the tongue. A melee of sounds, day and night, shouting, cursing, screeching, rappin’, singing, jivin’, arguing, groaning. The boredom, and rage, and frustration, and fear as palpable as that soup of bitter smells and as that melee of deafening sounds, none of which you can ever get away from. And did I mention the roaches and water bugs as big as a fist?

There is the dayroom. But that’s no relief. All it is is a dirty concrete square, with chipped linoleum and water stained walls. The smells and noise and claustrophobia of the block trail in with each inmate as the TV blares and fights break out over what station to watch, or who cheated at cards, or Scrabble or Monopoly.

Many of the kids I taught weren’t serving time. They were waiting, waiting for a meeting with their Legal Aid lawyers or for them to return their phone calls; waiting for a hearing; waiting for the DA to stop quibbling about their charges; waiting for the paperwork to arrive; waiting for there to be room on the docket for their case to be heard; waiting for a new judge to be assigned; waiting from one postponement to another, often with months in between; just waiting.

I know that many Americans feel that prisoners have it too easy. Shelter, three meals a day, cable television, weights, medical care, no responsibilities. But that first day, touring the blocks, I didn’t see that red carpet treatment. I saw conditions that seemed so substandard that I couldn’t believe the law allowed it. But what was even more puzzling to me that first day and continued to puzzle me for the rest of my ten years there was how people—men and women, young and old—who were not convicted of a crime were forced to live in such horrific conditions.

The American justice system: Get arrested, can’t make bail, and you’re as good as convicted as you sit locked up, guilty until proven innocent.

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.