Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The History of Racism Behind Ferguson

Here is an article by a former prosecutor explaining how Ferguson is not so much about the conflict between Officer Wilson and Mike Brown, as it is about deep-seeded racism that has plagued our hearts and our institutions of "justice" throughout the entirety of American history.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Keeping Up Appearances

I stood at attention outside my cell door this morning at 9:15 for inspection. The pod was nearly full of inmates with nowhere else to go. Fe men have jobs or are enrolled in classes anymore, especially in this unit where administration is quietly and unofficially concentrating gang members and those with class A and B write-ups. The unemployment rate is around 85%, so almost 100 men stood outside their cells on the lower and upper tiers as the unit manager and the CCO entered the pod and began the ceremony by addressing the men.

"Good morning," the unit manager said. Nobody answered.

"Good morning!" he repeated, and somebody said something unintelligible off to my right, which sufficed to let us move on. Unit manager B____ is a levelheaded veteran of the Department. He has the correct mixture of firmness combined with enough confidence to let things go that don't matter, which is required to handle this type of unit effectively, a set of traits now too rare among staff. Anyone who stands too firmly on ceremony and cannot take a few jibes without getting ruffled in this high-pressure environment quickly and inevitable escalates tensions and loses control.

"We're okay. Not good, just okay," he says. "I haven't been over here in a couple of days."

These daily cell inspections have been intensified this week since the prison itself is being inspected by outside personnel, a yearly event that makes appearances even more critical to the staff. The appearance of order, cleanliness, and security will be presented this week at any cost. To ensure our cells appear especially uniform and correct is one of many visual priorities, the only kind of priorities that appear to matter.

We know and they know and they know that we know it's all a temporary show, and it's the same now as it is every year. The language they use is, "Y'all know we have to do this, so let's get some cooperation and try to make it as painless as possible." And with the inmates' cooperation, several hundred spit-shine jobs take place the week before the inspection. Then the inspectors show up, walk around, and check things off a list. Afterward everyone relaxes a few days, and then operations return to the daily cell inspections mandated by Haslam's campaign promise in 2010, to make it hard on us.

At the first opportunity I got when the staff wasn't looking, I ducked into my cell and removed some cleaning rags hanging beneath my sink - not allowed. The unit manager was being strict today. Otherwise I felt confident we would pass, so I stepped back outside after peeking first and stood at attention by the door again. I had been up since 7:00 a.m. and had spent half and hour cleaning and prepping the cell after m cellmate had gone to work. Daily routine. And as soon as the inspection was complete, I would reassemble our cell the way we actually lived. Daily routine.

While waiting for my turn to be inspected, I overheard with some interest a debate over how to get away with the whiskey-cooking operation in a cell. Simply burning incense wouldn't cover the smell of a batch prepping, one guy argued, sending the message flying across the pod while everyone remained standing at attention. Some cleaning fluids were sprayed and finally the offending door was closed in the hope it would be skipped. We all waited to see if it was passed by . . . and it was. Shalom.

I stood waiting a while. People were restless and bored and started to murmur. "Now if we're talking, we're not in compliance!" the unit manager said. "Nuh nuh nuh nuh-nuh, nuh nuh nuh nuh-nuh," some inmate mocked. The unit manager cocked his eye and continued to the next cell. It was quieter.

"Good morning," he said to me in front of my cell when he went in. "Good morning," I replied while I suppressed the basic human instinct to resist having one's only personal space casually violated, judged, and raked over, after just the promise of it happening in the future had been enough that morning to cause me to rearrange every single possession I own in a way not intuitive or convenient. Then I also suppressed the question which naturally arose in my mind as a man who has served sixteen years already and faces the need to live permanently somewhere on this earth, whether my basic human dignity will endure the Chinese water torture effect of such daily assaults for the rest of my long life, or whether I and everyone else will simply go mad long before then.

Two minutes later the unit manager emerged with a rolled piece of maroon upholstery fabric in his hand, about six inches wife and twenty-four long, which my cellmate uses to cover the cell window when he uses the toilet.

"See this?" He holds it out to me, and I nod." "Not good. It's not good to have colored pieces of cloth like this in your cell!"

At that moment, an elaborate response played out in my head, and I suppose I may be the worst kind of coward for writing about it now instead of just saying it out loud. This is how it went in my head:

"But Mr. B____, how can a piece of upholstery cloth be good or bad? Is God looking down upon us right now and declaring 'BAD!' The human race struggled for millennia to produce the technology to manufacture such embroidered cloth, but now there are a trillion shreds of such material in our landfills. Nobody cares. And you've been around longer than me, so you remember just as I do only fifteen years ago all over the state men in our prisons had bits of carpet on their floors, cushions on their toilets, bed clothing from Wal-Mart, and even wall hangings to warm the walls. Nobody cared. Why would they? They were still the poorest, most pathetic people you knew, barely scratching out an existence on the planet, merely trying to take some pride in their hovels. And the thought of holding up a bit of cloth and calling it 'bad' would have seemed ridiculous to men such as you and me. What has happened to us? Why this obsession with the way things look instead of the way they really are? Why not inspect the inmates themselves instead of their uniforms? How about that guy with the cuts all over his face? What happened to him while the inspectors weren't watching?"

Instead, I said nothing and looked at him and looked at the piece of cloth and nodded. I know it does not good to protest to the person who has a job to do. After all, he is also following orders. "Look, I hear what you're saying," he would say, "but you know I'm just doing my job. I've got people watching me and they expect me to get it done or they'll find somebody else who will. I got mouths to feed. So let's make this as painless as possible, okay?"

As painless as possible. But for whom?

In the movie Saving Private Ryan, there's a scene in which a German soldier kills one of the American heroes by driving a knife slowly into his chest. "Shhh," the German urges as the American's strength fades and the blade slowly sinks deeper. "Shhh. Shhh."

by Moses

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A New Paradigm

In prison I often look around myself and wonder why our citizens accept this state of affairs. Mass incarceration is a tricky puzzle and an expensive problem in our State. Like other states, we have packed men and women into prisons as quickly as we could afford to build them without much thought for what the prisoners would do inside these expensive containers. Gone are the days when every prisoner was expected to have a job or take a class. There aren't enough opportunities to go around. No doubt the Tennessee Department of Correction would portray it otherwise, but in the unit in which I live, unemployment hovers around 80%. Drug abuse, gambling, gang activity, and violence are the order of the day. Our governor and the TDOC commissioner would rather folks not know this, but to be fair, this situation has been building a long time. Having watched it evolve firsthand, I can actually sympathize with the challenge they face. The system is fast-approaching a breaking point similar to the crises faced elsewhere in our nation. This is particularly due to a shift in focus on incarceration.

The concept of rehabilitation is an outdated artifact left over from another era. I don't know why this fact hasn't further penetrated the popular consciousness. Experts and textbooks acknowledge that we no longer concern ourselves with what prisoners actually do in prison. The focus for some time has been simply to increase the capacity of beds in much the same way a burgeoning corporation may increase its market share. We have abandoned all attempts to help an inmate improve, despite the fact that the vast majority will be released back into our communities.

Rehabilitation as an operational goal of incarceration began with the first large prisons in Pennsylvania and New York. It is debatable whether prisons have ever rehabilitated, thus the constant appeals for reform from prisoners and advocates that have understood from the beginning that these institutions do more harm than good. In the name of rehabilitation, countless men and women have suffered unsafe forced labor and the psychological damage of solitary confinement.

As long as people believe prisons are helpful to prisoners and necessary to protect society, the place of prisons in our world is safe. However, as soon as we start researching, pulling back the veil, so to speak, or if we or a family member spend time locked up, a different picture emerges. We begin to see just how damaging prisons are not just to inmates, but to the soul of our entire society, and we cry out for reform.

The changes that have come to the American system of punishment have not altered the landscape in any meaningful way. We can see this by noting that the critiques offered against prisons in the early 1800's closely resemble the protests of modern reformers. As Foucault notes in Discipline and Punish, "It is time to look deeper than ever before into this puzzle and to demand more fundamental changes than have yet been seriously considered.

From the inside, it seems clear that the obscene number of people incarcerated for increasingly long sentences in Tennessee bears no relation to an increased threat of crime. Rather, our unprecedented prison population represents a conscious choice to crusade against people who suffer from complex but identifiable conditions that are inevitably associated with crime, such as poverty, lack of education, lack of opportunities for work that pays a living wage, and self-medication.

Politicians have misrepresented to us that crime could be legislated away without looking deeper into the root causes of crime. We have been content to treat symptoms without diagnosing the underlying disease. All the while, we shovel millions of dollars into the money pit that is the criminal justice system/prison-industrial complex. So many resources are wasted in vain pursuits. Is this really the only response to crime we can come up with? Are we so obsessed with the myth of individualism that we cannot be made to care for other members of our community? Are we content to throw people away as though they were nothing? Are you content to let people like me rot in a state-sponsored human garbage dump?

Every person I have ever met on the inside or outside has a story, a family, caregivers, lovers. What the legislators make view as human garbage is of infinite value to someone, somewhere. Yet the law will not see the positive or the potential for good within a lawbreaker. It can only treat that person according to his or her worst deed. The criminal justice system is a weapon forged against the elements of society that we do not understand because we have had neither the courage nor the love to look at them.

We fearfully cry, "But look what they've done! Look at their guilt! We must be protected from them!" We act as though every one of the 2.3 million people that are locked up in America made a well-reasoned, conscious choice to commit a crime. Without diminishing personal responsibility, we should also acknowledge that the vast majority of these people would not have willingly chosen a life centered around crime or violence, all things being equal. People who are strangled by poverty or addiction are not autonomous in the same way as middle-class, educated people are. Yet we have been content to transplant whole neighborhoods of poor, young, minority men into prisons. These young men were caught up in the cradle-to-prison pipeline, and their fathers and uncles and cousins are waiting to welcome them to their final destination.

What hope of rehabilitation is there for the young man who did not know his father, and due to a learning disability and a failing school system, never learned to read? What hope of rehabilitation is there when his childhood was one extended nightmare of violence, abuse, and neglect? What hope is there when his only chance at belonging to a family came from a street gang? Laws that are passed by upper-middle-class white people cannot account for these narratives.

In the end, prisoners and their families must come to understand that together, they can organize and form a political body to advance their interests, proclaim their narrative, and make their collective voice heard by a society that has for too long been at best apathetic and ignorant, and at worst sadistic and hateful. No longer can we afford to toss people away by the millions merely based on the legal concept of "guilt," while other members of society are in fact guilty of greater sins. Our response to guilt should not be more destructive than the original harm done. No longer can we settle for treating crime as a disease when it is in reality only a symptom of deeper social ills that we have left untreated for generations. Taxpayers must hold our governor, the TDOC commissioner, and our legislators to a higher standard and not let them get away with funneling millions of dollars to corporate interests while spewing cheap, "tough-on-crime" rhetoric.

We do not merely need reform. We need a new criminal justice paradigm. It is time to dream and act.

Monday, November 3, 2014

We Need to Talk About an Injustice

Bryan Stevenson needs less than 22 minutes to educate us about the problems in the American criminal justice system (racism, disproportionate treatment of the poor, sentencing children to die in prison, wrongful convictions, the death penalty) and to inspire us to care for one another, to respect our common humanity, to acknowledge that what affects the least of us affects us all, and to recover our identity by caring for the people on the margins of our society.

Click here to watch the video. Then share it.