Posts Tagged ‘Prison’

It seems to me that I am always criticizing our prison system. But yesterday I had a very positive experience in a local pre-trial center.

I had the privilege of taking a famous writer to this facility. As you probably know, pretrial facilities separate people, so that those who were in a crime together cannot work on their stories. As a result there are many separate sections in pretrial, and they can’t be mixed.

The famous writer did not object to speaking to only two of the six or so units. She was her usual engaging, personal self. Nothing was a problem for her, having her picture taken with the men, moving through all the heavy metal doors, and repeating her talk three times, twice to the men and once to the staff.

Everyone was in a good mood. Was it her charm? Was it the fact of having a NYTimes best seller visit them? Was it that I only saw a small segment of the staff and of the inmates?

Whatever, the morning was filled with laughter and good cheer. There are staff who are human beings and inmates who know how to get along with staff.

It was a lesson for a critical person like me.

An opinion from a former inmate of the federal prison system in the Fraser Valley.

What do we do?

I think something needs to be said about Raymond Caissie. As I’m sure everyone knows he is the man charged for murdering a young girl recently and is now the poster boy for why criminals shouldn’t be released from prison. I’m not trying to defend him; I only seek to point out that it is not for the press to convict him in the media already. If I’m not mistaken that is the job of the courts. I’m sure there will be some readers out there who may not agree with my opinion, but emotion needs to be set aside, so that the situation can be analyzed objectively.

We are talking about a man who served every day of his 22 year sentence and that to me represents a failure on the part of the system to prepare this man for his eventual reintegration. I heard that at one of his hearings he said that he was afraid of what he might do when released. This was a cry for help that went unanswered because the system as it is structured is not capable of dealing with certain types of offenders. Sure the prison staff will say that programs were offered and that there is no responsibility on their part. They are partially correct, inadequate programming was offered but they bear some responsibility just as the rest of us do. How is it our responsibility you might ask? Our elected government – that’s right I said elected – chooses to go with harsher sentences as a deterrent rather than trying a new direction. Caissie’s sentence was 22 years, a sentence he got as a young man, and it didn’t have any deterrent effect.

What could have been done differently? I don’t know anything about what was done to try and rehabilitate this man, the public isn’t privy to that information. If I had to guess by the nature of his previous offences, I would say that he served all his time in Mountain Institution which among inmates is known for housing a large population of sex offenders. Now I don’t know if he did programming or not during his time, but clearly there needed to be more done in the case of this man.

Through all his time in prison and 8 parole hearings, no progress was made. This is a man who had an eventual release date. I know that from public opinion there are those who would call for the suspension of civil rights for those convicted of violent crimes, but I’m here to say that is a very slippery slope. We as a society decide that we must arbitrarily keep some people locked up indefinitely despite the fact that a sentencing judge did not see it that way. Where does it end? In this case a tragedy occurred, and a young girl died. We need to seek solutions not knee-jerk reactions if we are to prevent future tragedies. Let’s call on the government for meaningful change and let’s call on the Correctional Service to lead the way towards creating a system that recognizes the need to change the way it does business. As a society we need to be involved in changing things, and not just count on the people that we have elected. Let us remember that they work for us.

The theory is that prison will teach a man (or woman) how to live in society. It doesn’t work. It’s the farthest thing from what actually happens.

The man gets up at a certain time, marches to the mess hall, and sits with the same three fellows he’s sat with for years. Never does a staff member ask if he could join them. This is an Us and Them world.

The day goes on, the man can only move from one place to another at specified times. He used to have freedom of movement during a good portion of the day, but no more. The staff discovered that it’s easier on them if they put in a military type regime.

This is training to live on the outside?

Then there are programs to take, Cog Skills, Anger Management etc. It doesn’t matter so much whether a man needs a program, the important thing is to keep the classes full. The man has no say in what programs he would like to take. This, of course, guarantees that poor teachers can retain their jobs.

Programs are made conditions of parole. I had a learning experience in this area. I had worked with an inmate for seven years. I knew him thoroughly – he was ready for freedom or at least for a halfway house. I was asked to be interviewed about this man and I agreed. The interviewer was a private individual who prepared reports on inmates. He and I had good conversations, but as we talked, I began to realize that no matter what I said this man was going to report that the inmate wasn’t ready yet. I further suspected that this is what the man always said – this is why the prison system kept him around – he kept filling the prisons, guaranteeing further work for the staff.

“There should be no jails. They do not accomplish what they pretend to accomplish. If you would wipe them out and there would be no more criminals than now. They are a blot upon any civilization.”

Clarence Darrow, 1857-1938

Today we have a guest blog from an inmate in a US federal prison in California.

A Guide to Dining in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

By Christopher

While the days of gruel in a tin cup have long gone by for inmates confined in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, no one imprisoned in today’s facilities will accuse their captors of providing a five-star dining experience, either. Most federal prisoners will agree that a key component of happiness behind bars is ensuring that the food they eat is close to the latter category. Napoleon once said, “An army marches on its stomach.” A similar adage applies to prison: a well-fed prisoner is a happy prisoner.

Meals Supplied by the Federal Bureau of Prisons: The Chow Hall

Most general population BOP (Bureau of Prisons) facilities serve three meals a day in a dedicated cafeteria-type area (the “chow hall” in prison lingo). Most chow halls offer fixed tables, usually with four to six stools bolted thereto. Inmates are permitted to choose where to sit, subject to local custom, and, of course, the ever-present peer pressure, which can be strict in nature. At some prison facilities, particularly high-security ones, where one sits is — literally — a matter of life and death. Fights over seating can be deadly.

Food is obtained via chow lines, much like at a high school cafeteria. Inmate servers, under the watchful eye of BOP food service staff, dole out servings of food onto plastic trays as inmates march through the line. Serving sizes are, at least in theory, strictly controlled, but a wink and a nod to a friend serving food can be helpful just the same.

The “mainline” offerings are determined via a national menu that uses a five-week cycle of variety. The lunch fare is predictable. Hamburgers and fries have been served on Wednesday afternoons since time immemorial; baked or fried chicken is also a weekly staple. Unfortunately, so is chili con carne, chicken pot pie, and “fish,” usually in the form of processed discs or rectangles. At some prison facilities, an actual dessert is served on the line, at others, an apple or small packets of cookies.

Lunch is usually supplemented by a hot bar or cold bar for self-service. In days gone by, rice and beans, soups, salads, and various vegetables were available daily, but in today’s tight fiscal climate, a tray of lettuce or green beans is more likely. Soups made from leftovers might also appear.

Dinner, served around 5 or 6 at night, is much like lunch, but with cheaper entrees and fewer side items. Desserts are no longer served at dinner.

Breakfasts generally consist of a rotation of cereal, “breakfast cake,” and, several days a week, pancakes, waffles, or biscuits and gravy. Milk is served at breakfast (and no longer at other meals, where water and fruit punch/juice are served).

For those with special dietary needs, i.e., religious restrictions and medical issues, the Federal Bureau of Prisons offers alternative items at most meals. Those who require Kosher or Halal meals, for example, can sign up for meals meeting those standards. Low salt and diabetic meals are also offered.

Eating From the Locker: Food Without a Chow Hall

Not surprisingly, many federal prisoners never set foot in a Federal Bureau of Prisons chow hall. For those who can afford to do so, eschewing government-issue fare is certainly a viable option.

Virtually every federal prison offers a commissary, where a variety of foods and sundry items are sold. While many prisoners spend their funds on candy bars, potato chips, sodas, and other snacks that the BOP is happy to sell them, it is still possible for inmates to purchase nutritionally sound food products as well. Most facilities sell single serving tuna packets, rice and beans, sandwich meats and cheeses, nuts and other relatively healthy foods. With the aid of a microwave or hot water supply, resourceful prisoners can dine on homemade pizza, cheesecakes and other surprisingly tasty fare. The quality of prison cooking can vary, but a quick romp across the Internet reveals numerous cookbooks for prisoners available.

Moreover, there is always a healthy trade in stolen food items, from fresh meats and poultry to fruits and vegetables and baking goods. With a tradition of liberal supervision over such matters by Federal Bureau of Prisons staff, there are even plenty of inmates who make a living cooking for others.

Today, no one will starve in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, but how well one eats is a question with many possibilities.

We’ll hear more from Christopher next week about prison education. If you want to contact him, I’ll be glad to pass on a message to his email.

Once in a while, a man in prison excels at writing. Such a man was Mike. I gave him a few principles of writing and off he went. Soon his talent was as good as mine – no, he was better than me.

Mike and I decided to write a book together. We would call it Inside/Out. He, the insider, would say that prison did do some good for guys, even though there were problems. He would not write boring treatises, rather he would tell the stories of individuals. As for me, the outsider, I would stand against the whole prison system and tell stories of how it had ruined the lives of several people.

I wrote my part of the book and Mike wrote his. We were both finished and ready to put together a book. But something happened. Mike came up for parole, but he was rejected because his roommate had a cellphone. That sounds crazy and impossible, but that’s exactly what happened. The cellphone was on Mike’s side of his two man cell, but everyone knew that it belonged not to Mike, but to the roommate.

Mike got a year and a half more in prison. More programs to take even though he’d already taken them. We taxpayers spent $50,000 keeping him there. He was the poster-person for the fact that prison exists mostly for the sake of the staff and the guards.

Mike decided that he no longer liked what he had written for our book. In effect, he said I was right, that prison helped no one. He scrapped his section and started over and, in my opinion, he did a much better job this time.

As with any book that’s written by more than one person, there’s usually conflict. And so it was with Mike and I. Mike felt bad that his section was longer than mine, much longer. But I argued that I was comfortable with my section. I told my story with as many words as I wanted. If I were to make my section longer, it would clearly go against the rule to ‘cut the fat.’

So we published Dystopia and it’s done well on the market. It’s my story of going to prison and it’s Mike’s. He was arrested in Mexico for smuggling drugs and served two years in a Mexican prison and then eight years in a Canadian prison. Mike’s out now and has been for four years. He’s got a little entertainment business and works as an MC on occasion.

Even the word Dystopia I learned from an inmate, a man who called himself the only Jewish inmate in the whole prison.

Dystopia is a society of human misery, squalor, disease, terror and overcrowding. It is the opposite of Utopia.

Inmates should form a union.

Say that line and all manner of objections will arise. “Criminals should not say how they will live their punishment.” “This is a terrible idea – Guards and staff are in charge of the prison, not a bunch of illiterate scum bags.” On and on.

Stop a minute. Think of the idea. Recall the famous line: “Everything that rises, must converge.” It’s the title of the book Flannery O’Connor was working on when she died. But it has a philosophical meaning also – people or a group of people who rise up will converge or meet with the very people who opposed them. If a group of convicts struggle to change the rules they live under, they may or may not succeed. But they will learn what the staff, the guards, are like and they will come to respect them, even if they don’t agree with them.

Everything that rises, must converge.

Here’s an example. Inmates are now told what programs they need before they can move on to a lower security or even be paroled.

But it would be better if the inmates themselves had some say in what programs they were to take. A man might object to taking Anger Management because he’s had the program before and it didn’t help. Or he knows that his real problem is getting along with people who pretend to be better than him. Or – the most common reason – the inmates know that Anger Management is presented by a former mean guard who attended a three month training program on Anger Management, which didn’t do anything about his meanness.

Everything that rises, must converge.

Let’s say a group of prisoners gets together and forms a union around the idea that they should have some say in what programs they are to take. Nobody chooses Anger Management.

Staff gets very upset and cancels the idea that inmates should have a say. The inmates respond by not going to any programs. They stay in their cells.

Time goes on. Administration approaches an inmate who wants to get to minimum, another who wants a PFV (private family visit) with his girlfriend and so forth. If these inmates break the boycott, they’ll be granted their requests. But if management can spy on the union, the union can spy on management. The union finds out which inmates are going to become scabs.

By the next morning, the scabs are in no shape to want anything. No different than any other strike, scabs are dealt with severely.

Though I’m opposed to this violence, I know it will happen. But in the long run, everything that rises, must converge. Union and management slowly see the humanness of the other side. A compromise is reached – the inmates will be asked what programs they want and why before any assignments are made.

Everything that rises, must converge.

For years people said that miners should not have a union, that fast-food workers should not unionize, that teachers should not form a union. I look forward to the day people will talk about inmates having a union.

They called him Doctor, not because he was a medical man, not because he had a Ph.D, but because he was so smart and such a great orator. We’ll simply call him Doctor X.

If the prison system needed an inmate to stand up and speak for all inmates, they called on Doctor X. He knew how to walk the middle, keeping the guys happy and the system happy. In my writing class, he stood out, producing poems and essays that won him awards.

While he was in my class, he got a new trial, calling up the many details that had led to his previous conviction.

I followed the case closely. He and another man met each other in Seattle, and they decided to visit some women in Vancouver. They hired a taxi in downtown Vancouver which took them to the girl’s address. Outside the apartment, the police later discovered the taxi driver murdered, shot in the head.

The justice system wanted the other man to come to Canada for the retrial. He refused. As the trial went on, it became clear to me that it was the other man who had killed the taxi-driver. He was a much bigger man than Doctor X, and had all the characteristics of those who commit murder. While Doctor X had gone on with his studies and his efforts to help his fellow inmates, the other man ran into constant trouble with the law. His very refusal to come to the retrial indicated to me his guilt. This was the old story of not telling on another man, even if it meant your own imprisonment.

No matter who did it, the taxi drivers in our city wanted a conviction, so once again, Doctor X was found guilty.

After his release, he married a local woman, and they had three wonderful children. They worked hard to raise them as good citizens. When Doctor X finished his sentence and parole, he was shipped back to the United States. Without telling his employer of his past, he got an excellent job back East, which he held for almost ten years. He proved his ability in a very responsible job but then, as always seems to happen, somebody found out about his past and told his superiors. They fired him immediately. Many of his friends objected to this, but I knew it was inevitable. It’s a real problem for an ex-con: tell the truth and not get a good job, or don’t tell the truth and get caught years later.

I haven’t heard yet how Doctor X is supporting his family now.

An inmate should not protect another person, even if he fears for his life from that person. Being accused unjustly of murder seems to me to be a living death.

Another point is to tell the truth when you get a job. There are people who will hire you, if you show that you are stronger than what’s been said about you. Yes, many people will automatically refuse you, but it’s much worse to devote ten years of your life to a company and then be fired in one day.

How do we help ex-cons get a job? Many of them want to prove themselves. They want out of the life of crime. I’ve often thought of a company called EX-CONS, a bonded company, construction, cleaning, what have you. Any ideas?

A few years ago, when I taught in prison, I came home one time and wrote down my feelings. I’m not sure my ideas of how to deal with crows are correct. What do you think?

Crows

by Ed Griffin

800 words

I teach a course in creative writing at Matsqui prison. Week after week I drive forty-five minutes into the country to the prison. As I walk to the gate, I notice several crows flying back and forth across the two, razor-wired fences. The crows screech at me as they perch on the fences. What are they trying to tell me? Then suddenly they fly deeper into the prison grounds.

I go into the guard house and chat with the guards. Most of them are good human beings and we talk about the weather or we laugh at my cheap briefcase which I have to pound so it will open for inspection. Occasionally I meet someone with an attitude, but mostly they’re just ordinary people. They’re not eagles or hummingbirds or blue-jays. They’re just crows, like the rest of us, ordinary birds trying to live.

I can’t understand why the men in prison hate them so.

As I wait for the big gates to slide open, the crows fly over my head and scream at me again. I think how strange it is that we call a pack of crows a murder of crows. Why are they flying back and forth? Maybe there’s a murder of crows living in the prison and one outside and they’re just changing shifts.

I go into my class. Jack and Brian and Dennis and….. Not their real names, but just ordinary guys. Guys trying to write. Trying to figure out their lives with pen and paper and keyboard. Jack was beat up regularly by his father, so he figured violence was the way you dealt with society. Now he’s writing about his early years — and his father. Brian, 32, the article writer, sees a lot wrong with the world and especially a lot wrong with his world. He’s trying to write down his anger instead of acting it out. And Dennis, 41, is finding an outlet for his creative energy in fiction rather than in a line of cocaine.

They’re not representative of society as a whole. With few exceptions, they’re poor people. People without resources. A disproportionate number of minorities and natives. They, too, remind me of crows, not eagles or hummingbirds or blue-jays. Crows.

I teach my class. We have a lot of laughs. Occasionally I meet a con with an attitude, but mostly they’re just writers. I can’t understand why the guards hate them so.

Maybe writers are different from the general prison population. But I care about these guys. I read in the paper every day how we should lock these guys up and throw the key away or we should just hang them all. No, not Jack and Brian and Dennis. Don’t.

I finish my class and I walk to the gate to leave. What have I accomplished? A Band-Aid. I haven’t solved the problem of crime. I haven’t faced the agony of a woman who’s lost her daughter to rape and murder. I haven’t broken the cycle of abuse to kids who later turn to abuse. I’ve gone to prison and passed out Band-Aids. It’s very frustrating.

When I go home, my friends will ask me about prison. “It’s a big warehouse,” I’ll say. “What kind of society puts a human being in a cage?” Then my friends will demand my alternatives. I won’t be able to say anything.

The crows laugh at me as the gate slides open. They’re so loud and obnoxious. Caw. Caw. He doesn’t have any answers.

I get back in my car and drive to the city. Questions peck at me. Why do we try to solve crime out in the country, instead of where it happened? Why is Canada locking up more and more people, yet crime seems worse? Why did the government cut funds to educate prisoners? Why are all the criminology books in the library clean and unread, while the public rants on? Why does society give these guys three squares a day and not demand they change their souls?

I’m going mad with questions. I jam a tape in the player, something soothing. Simon and Garfunkle. On the side of the freeway a murder of crows works a farmer’s field for some left-over corn.

I go home and check my bird book on crows. Very intelligent, gregarious. Crows gather together to mob owls and other predators, but may, in turn, be mobbed by other birds. In agricultural areas, crows are considered great pests.

The crows fly back and forth over the prison walls If the crows inside the fences are just like the crows outside the fences, what is to be done with those inside? Put them all in cages? Kill them? No. What do you do about crows? You study them, you learn how to help them, and you put up scarecrows where you have to.

 

Be sure to visit Writers Write Daily on WordPress for a 99 cents deal on my new books, Life Takes a Turn and Delaney’s Hope

Check out an interesting graphic, the Criminal States of America

http://www.criminaljusticedegreehub.com/states/

During the time I taught in prison, about ten men asked me to be their citizen representative at their parole hearing. I did it because nobody else would, but I wasn’t the right person. I didn’t have access to the files that the parole board had. I didn’t see the letters for and against an inmate.

What surprised me was how negative these hearings were. I never – repeat never – heard one positive thing about a man. And everyone I represented had tremendous talent. The parole hearing was not an adversarial discussion, like a trial. No one spoke for the inmate, except an uninformed citizen –me. The parole board members got a handsome per diem, the prison staff made a good salary. I didn’t make anything. If a man’s mother was in the audience, they might acknowledge her, but not give her a chance to speak.

One hearing stands out. My friend, call him Mike, asked me to speak for him. I’d worked a lot with Mike and I knew him well. I mentioned how he helped other inmates, he even stopped an attack on a neighbor. I told about his writing ability, about his plans for his release. He had everything going for him, family, friends, and the chaplain.

His social worker spoke up. “I do not recommend this man. The guards found a cell phone in his unit and I know he’s back in the drug trade.”

Mike spoke up. “The guards searched my unit in the prison and they found a cell phone in a sock. I just want to point out it wasn’t even my sock.”

Mike, of course, couldn’t say that the cell phone belonged to his roommate, but everyone in the hearing knew that. The roommate was the kind of man who didn’t own up to his own actions.

Another social worker came into the hearing. “I know this is unusual, but I must speak up about Mike. He is not in the drug trade. Yes, he did use the cell phone once to see how his buddy was doing in the hospital. But that’s it. He’s been clean and deserves parole.”

I admired her courage and her willingness to speak out, but Mike lost. The real owner of the cell phone got out a month later and Mike spent a year and a half more in prison, with a cost to the taxpayer of around $50,000.

No one, except the second social worker, spoke out for Mike. Of course, I did, too, but I was easy for the parole board to ignore. The parole hearing was a negative fest, everything that was bad about Mike was said and nothing of the good.

I wondered if his prison records were anything like this – all negative. When Mike was getting out of prison, he gave me his thick file to look at. It was amazing. Negative from day one. It seemed that comments repeated themselves. If someone made a comment when Mike was 15, it came up again when he was 19. And there was no mention of his personality, of his willingness to help other guys, of his sense of humor and so on.

Prison specializes in negativity. It’s time for reform.

I’m not a very good poet. It is only when I feel very strong about something that I try to write a few lines of free verse. It’s easy, however, to quote from a famous poet. They say things so well with an economy of words. What do you think of these few lines from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.

But this I know, that every Law
That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took his brother’s life,
And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
With a most evil fan.

This too I know—and wise it were
If each could know the same—
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim.

With bars they blur the gracious moon,
And blind the goodly sun:
And they do well to hide their Hell,
For in it things are done
That Son of God nor son of Man
Ever should look upon!
The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair
For they starve the little frightened child
Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
And gibe the old and grey,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
And none a word may say.

Take any verse and think of today. Could this poem have been written about today’s prisons?

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