Tara Zyst: Live a lie or choose to die?

Originally published by the Tribune News Service

Tara Zyst

My name is Tara Ellyssia Zyst. I was born to another name: Karl Anthony Terry. I am not him. I have never been him. I will never be him.

He is a product of my parents’ wishful thinking. He is a product of their creative mythology. He does not exist and never existed.

But I exist.

I, Tara, am the only real entity birthed from my mother’s womb. Yet, all of my life, I have been denied that acknowledgement.

Now I am 43 years old. I’ve spent the last 23 of those years on Oregon’s death row, convicted and sentenced to death for two murders. I maintain my innocence.

I have been fighting with those charged with holding me — the Oregon Department of Corrections — since 2005, trying to obtain treatment for gender identity disorder. I have formal diagnoses, but the prison clinicians refuse to acknowledge them because they are made by outside providers.

I’ve fought. I’ve taken the prison system to court to force accountability. In 2010, Marion County Circuit Court Judge Joseph Guimond found me to have a “serious medical/psychiatric condition,” in his written decision to my habeas filing but dismissed my petition as moot based on the Department of Justice’s argument that I would be provided appropriate mental health care by the prison.

Seven years later, the facility’s Prison Rape Elimination Act compliance manager finally formally placed me on the list of inmates the Oregon prison system recognizes to be transgender. But their promises to quickly assess and diagnose me through their gender identity disorder specialist have not yet occurred.

Under Obama, the law was evolving to better recognize transgender issues. But given the recent confirmation of our new attorney general, Jeff Sessions — no ally to the LGBTQ community — it seems unlikely that the government will be advancing reforms on the treatment of transgender inmates.

My circumstances are rare but not altogether unique. There are 1.4 million adults who identify as transgender in the United States, according to a Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law survey. Of those, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reveal that 3,200 of us are incarcerated, although that number is likely underreported.

As Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, has said of those in my circumstances, “For too long, institutions have ignored prisoners and casually dismissed medically necessary and lifesaving care for transgender people.”

I was sexually abused as a child and raped in adolescence and adulthood. I continue to carry all that pain, fear, rage and hate. My psyche is tortured. My mind, heart and soul are progressively being eaten away.

Being on death row, my time is finite. Perhaps that’s what prison administrators are counting on. But living out my days this way is no longer an option for me. The only alternative I have left is to waive all remaining appeals and demand my execution date.

Better to die than go on living this nightmare.

Tara Ellyssia Zyst is an inmate at the Oregon State Penitentiary. She wrote this article for Prison Lives (, a nonprofit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals.

The power of the pen inside American prisons is often underestimated

Originally published on The Hill

This past year has seen two of the largest American prisoner protests of all times. 

The biggest, held by inmates in 24 states in September on the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, staged a work stoppage to draw attention to "modern-day slavery" in America's prisons. 

The next largest, just a few weeks ago, prisoners rose up against Aramark— one of the nation's largest for-profit providers of prison food -- over their many reported abuses. The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world, making criminal justice a favorite topic of conversation in the media.

Continue reading this article on The Hill here:

Trump's support for the death penalty puts him on wrong side of history

Originally published on The Hill


Our president is the same man who once paid $85,000 for full-page adsin the top four New York Daily newspapers to loudly express his wish: "Bring Back the Death Penalty!'

He is perhaps the loudest proponent of capital punishment to ever take office. Yet, ironically, in the year he got elected, the total number of executions in this country only amounted to twenty -- a 25-year low.

Further, with only 30 new death sentences imposed in 2016, America experienced the lowest number of new death row inmates since the reinstatement of the sentence in 1976. Will executions ramp up again over the next four years? With a death penalty advocate as the leader of our land, what is happening with capital punishment in America in these first few months?


The following is a state-by-state breakdown of current capital punishment activity since the arrival of President Trump.

Alabama: Known as the final holdout of state's that allow judges to override a jury when sentencing capital murder cases, Alabama passed a bill through their Senate last month to change this practice. It is unclear what will happen to the more than half of the 194 improperly sentenced prisoners currently residing on their death row.

Arizona: After the state's end-of-year ban on the use of Midazolam -- the current, but controversial, sedative of choice in executions across the country -- they are scrambling for an alternative. In what appears to be a desperate sidestep to save their death penalty, last month they introduced a new protocol that invites capital defense attorneys to obtain execution drugs on behalf of their condemned clients. As Dale Baich, from the Federal Public Defender's Office in Arizona put it, "This is a bizarre notion that calls for actions that are both illegal and impossible." Executions are on hold.

California: After the passing Proposition 66 in the last election, an historic measure designed to "fix" the state's death penalty by speeding up the appeals process, the state has hit two substantial snags. First, the California Supreme Court halted the reforms before they took effect to consider a challenge brought about by the state's former attorney general that the measure would disrupt the courts, cost more money, and result in attorneys cutting corners to keep up. The bigger setback, however, came from the state's Office of Administrative law, which, in January, rejected the new lethal injection protocol proposed by the California Department of Corrections, citing inadequacies, inconsistency, and numerous ambiguities. Executions remain on hold.

Colorado: Attempts to repeal the state's death penalty failed along party lines last month. This is despite the fact that only 3 people reside on Colorado's death row, the death chamber has gone unused in nearly 20 years, and estimates hold that the cost of maintaining the penalty cost Colorado taxpayers $5-10 million annually. There is currently a moratorium on all executions.

Florida: One step ahead of Alabama, state legislators announced last month that they are finally moving ahead with a measure that would require a unanimous jury verdict in death penalty cases. This leaves nearly 400 condemned prisoners — the second largest death row population — in limbo. As this particular issue has yet to be addressed in courts, Florida executions are unlikely to resume anytime soon.

Georgia: Executing more prisoners than any state in 2016 -- at 9, accounting for nearly half of all executions last year and outpacing Texas by a couple -- the death penalty in Georgia seems to be as healthy as ever. However, according to Mark Hyden, from the Georgia Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, a Project of EJUSA, "Georgia's death penalty is dwindling so quickly that in a few years it may exist in name only." There are currently no inmates eligible for execution in 2017.

Kansas: In January, eight Republican and seven Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill to abolish their death penalty. With bipartisan support, without an execution since 1965, and with only 10 on death row, there may never be another execution in Kansas.

Kentucky: Bipartisan House and Senate bills have been introduced to limit the maximum punishment in Kentucky to life without the possibility of parole.

Missouri: In February, the state's appellate court ruled that prison officials are not obligated to reveal the source of the drugs they use for executions, clearing the way for executions to resume.

Mississippi: After an inability to acquire lethal injection drugs, state lawmakers have proposed legislation that would add alternative means of execution, including the gas chamber, a firing squad and electrocution. In February, a state senate committee shot down the firing squad, leaving the two other proposed methods still up for debate. Executions are on hold.

Montana: After a bill to abolish the death penalty narrowly failed along party lines in the last session, a Republican lawmaker introduced a new bill to repeal the penalty in this session. With bipartisan support, no access to lethal injection drugs, and a death row population of two, this bill seems to have a good chance of advancing.

Nebraska: Voters approved the reinstatement of their death penalty in the last election (by 61 percent). However, without the drugs needed to actually carry out an execution, lawmakers are considering a bill that would shield the identities of future drug sources. There are currently no executions scheduled.

Nevada: A repeal effort is currently under consideration in the Nevada Assembly. The state recently spent $900,000 creating a new execution chamber, but has been unable to carry out any executions because it has not been able to acquire lethal injection drugs.

New Hampshire: The only New England state with capital punishment still on the books is considering a bill to expand the eligibility for its penalty that would include anyone convicted of killing a minor. New Hampshire only has one person on death row and has not executed anyone since 1939.

Ohio: A federal judge ruled in February that the state's new three-drug lethal injection process is unconstitutional, citing a "substantial risk of serious harm." Ohio is one of the few states that have enough drugs to carry out executions. But without a legal protocol, it is unlikely that they'll be able to use them. Eight executions have already been stayed this year.

Oklahoma: The U.S. Supreme Court cleared Oklahoma to use the controversial sedative midazolam in executions, but due to further legal challenges, ongoing concerns about the state's protocol and its inability to procure the needed drugs, executions have remained on hold.

Oregon: Governor Kate Brown reaffirmed her decision to continue a moratorium on executions in Oregon during her new term. Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty are currently conducting a campaign to raise awareness in preparation for a ballot measure to repeal the penalty.

Pennsylvania: Governor Tom Wolf placed a moratorium on executions in 2016 pending a long-anticipated release of a bipartisan commission report examining the state's death penalty. Another deadline for the report was missed in January, which is now three years overdue. It is unlikely that any of the 175 inmates on death row in Pennsylvania will face their sentence anytime soon.

Texas: After their fewest executions in over a decade last year (seven), Texas carried out the nation's first execution in 2017. However, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for death penalty reform including the repeal of the "law of parties," which holds defendants responsible if they were involved in a crime that resulted in a murder, even if they weren't directly involved in the killing. They have previously executed five people under this statute. Texas is currently suing the Food and Drug Administration over impounded drugs it needs for future executions. It remains to be seen if Trump's new FDA commissioner appointment will stand down on the opposition to the importation of lethal injection drugs.

Utah: Without the ability to obtain lethal injection drugs, Utah re-adopted the firing squad method. There are bills both for and against the death penalty in Utah's legislature to be considered this year. No executions are scheduled.

Virginia: As one of the handful of states that shield lethal injection drug sellers from the public record, Virginia became the second state to execute a prisoner in 2017. There are six remaining death row inmates in the state.

Washington: Attempts to abolish the state's death penalty this year have already failed. But as one of four states that have a moratorium on executions, and with Governor Inslee who has vowed to not allow an execution during his term, there will be no executions anytime soon.

The death penalty continues to suffer from the same maladies that have caused declines in both executions and the seeking of the death penalty. With repeal efforts ramping up across the nation and the ongoing inability to obtain drugs in most states, along with many other problems, it does not appear that the health of the death penalty will improve anytime soon.

Perhaps President Trump will need to purchase a lot more ad space to promote the use of the death penalty. Or maybe it's finally time to put an end to the madness.

Bianca Clark is the director of Prison Lives, a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals while incarcerated for a positive existence both inside and outside of prison life. 

Why is Race Still Pertinent in this Day and Age? Why is Our United States of America Built on So Many Social Injustices?

Marquis Gilliam

Why is Race Still Pertinent in this Day and Age? Why is Our United States of America Built on So Many Social Injustices?
Guest Post by Marquis Omar Gilliam

With so many issues pressing on our domestic soil today, life shouldn't be about how many followers one has on social media. How does the vision become re-energized for the betterment of all?

As someone who takes a broad pro-diverse position on life as a whole, I wonder, is our American dream full of misguided ignorance and pepper-sprayed malarkey? How will we truly understand what defines existence?

Blue eyes and blonde hair has, with bias, represented what one could consider upper-echelon living. This level of thinking ostracizes the conscious mind, leaving its vision dilapidated with myopic views that sacatter like a kaleidoscope. Speaking from the livelihood and/or struggle of an African American male, equality defiines one's ability to honestly dream. Only through the spigot of education does equality balance the playing field.

I personally welcome all cultures inside the intimacy of my self-restructured conscious state. In gluttonous fashion, I devour all outlets, streams and any channel of knowledge. This allows one's trajectory to problem-solving display of full abilities. The thing I enjoy in my life today is learning more about cultures, which will manifest through the rules of engagement.

For every theory there's an opinion. For every question, answers laced with facts surface. Are you open to dig deeper into the residue of race-charged ignorance? I challenge all readers to step out from routine living and the cubicle you hide behind to determine your next move on this chessboard of life.

Intellectualized Intimacy That Secures Itself Emotionally in the Mind

Marquis Gilliam

Intellectualized Intimacy That Secures Itself Emotionally in the Mind
Guest Post by Marquis Omar Gilliam

For the last 20 years, prison has, quite unfortunately, been my dwelling place of residence. With that being said, regardless of how much time escapes me, I continue to find women the desired companion of choice.

Due solely to being incarcerated, physical exchange is not present like it used to be. In order to reach those climactic levels with the opposite sex, one must evolve and come to recognize that there are still so many ways to connect.

For me, wisdom is thy woman. I continue to place my mind in the capable hands of her secure embrace. Intimacy is something that begins, and sometimes ends, between the ears. It should never start below the navel once the mind has reached its climactic level of consciousness.

Creating the ideal love should be viewed as artistry. The trust and patience present will be able to intimately touch the body within the mind, almost as delicately as a wing of a butterfly fluttering. The objective is the rebirthing of genuine attraction and its continuous flow through the stream of intellectuality. 

Emotionally attaching oneself to the ideologies, goals, vulnerabilities, fears and aspirations of the potential chosen one is the task at hand. Loving from an innovative acute angle blanketing the entire erogenous part of the mind unselfishly shall and will be present. Profound conversations displaying provacative innuendos leave one garbed mysteriously throughout the exchange, leaving the imagination running wild. Loyalty grows inside the bond as beautifully as an about-to-be-born baby in the womb.

Being able to agree to disagree will always maintain secured respectful intimacy. Appreciation, sophistication, and sustenance in superflous fashion will faithfully ignite yearning for emotional security. The emancipation of the mind disallows this incarnation from immuring one's desire to avidly destroy any livelihood of ignorance and narcissistic selfishness. It allows one to attentively pay homage to even the smallest detail as if from the hands of a masseuse. 

I welcome all replies from challenged minds.

Self-Inflicted Solitary Confinement

Marquis Omar Gilliam

Marquis Omar Gilliam

By Marquis Omar Gilliam, guest writer for Prison Lives

Let the past be the past. You can't change it. 

If you make the mistake of living in guilt today because of something you did yesterday, you won't have the strength you'll need to live this day in victory. Your only limitation is the one you set up in your mind.

Limitations easily become a form of confinement. Isolating ourselves breeds the solitary perspective that can immure us.

I am incarcerated, but part of me recognizes that a lot of you who live outside these walls are as well. Life choices can build prisons within the mind if one isn't meticulous in making healthy choices. 

The goal of any prison is to break down one's resolve. Understanding this ideology took some time on my part. The formula that allowed me to solve this: Embracing the concept of adversity builds us.

Another solution to defeating confinement comes through investing heavily in educating oneself. Through the channel of learning, freedom roams without restriction. It allows the mind true liberty in eluding the hands of confinement. 

One must harbor aspirations of seducing the minds of our youth into excellence, which would emancipate any likelihood of mediocrity. There is a psychological chain that must be broken in order to restore justice in the hearts of problematic individuals.

Albert Einstein once said, "The world can't be changed until we change our thinking." If one would just maintain this key of understanding, confinement could not place roots in the mind. 

Solitary confinement is used to correct negative behavior. But it also has the ability to thwart being social in healthy fashion. Subjecting the mind to isolation over abnormal periods of time often creates an unbalanced emotional individual.

I'm speaking to someone out there. I would ask that you take the proper inventory within the mind to recognize where you may be placing prison confinements within yourself.

Marquis Omar Gilliam is a prisoner at Stanley Correctional Facility in Wisconsin.

Prison Phone Calls: Trump May Cut the Lifeline 

Originally posted on Forbes

Prison phone

The cost of a phone call today is no more of a thought than the air we breathe. The cost of a phone call from prison, however, can take your breath away. For those who must pay such costs, which can easily average as much as a monthly luxury car payment, breathing just got a lot more labored. 

Phone calls between prisoners and their loved ones on the outside often represent the only contact inmates have with the world beyond prison walls. Recent studies and common sense have shown that maintaining these outside ties is a vital link to successful prisoner reentry, and thus key to reducing recidivism rates. But high prison phone rates have dramatically restricted the amount of meaningful contact that prisoners can have with those that care about them. 

Up until this week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was doing something about it. The cost of a call from prison to an out-of-state loved one was as much as a dollar per minute in most states just a few years ago. That was until the FCC stepped in to enforce rate caps at a quarter of that price. 

Suddenly, inmates were able to connect with those they cared about four times more often. 

The FCC was currently fighting to likewise reduce local/in-state calling rates, now as costly as long-distance calling. It just became painfully apparent, however, that they will likely be abandoning this effort, a devastating about-face for those hoping to soon be able to afford more quality communication with those on the other side of the wall. 

The reason? President Trump. 

Just as the Supreme Court is about to be dominated by the conservative side of the political landscape, so too is the FCC. Prison phone regulations were able to take hold during the Obama administration thanks to a 3-2 democratic majority amongst the five FCC commissioners. But with two majority members of the commissioners retiring from their post last month, President Trump gets to appoint new members, thus creating a new majority. 

One of the likely first acts of the new commission: Roll back the prison phone regulations set in motion by the former office. 

The price-gouging practices of the giant for-profit prison phone providers have been known, as have the millions of dollars in "commission" kickbacks that the prisons receive for utilizing them. As one FCC official, Mignon Clyburn, put it, "In my 16 years as a regulator, this is the clearest, most egregious case of marked failure I have seen." 

The phone providers disagree. Counsel on behalf of the prison phone industry, Michael Kellogg, argues that the proposed regulations, when combined with recent caps and kickbacks paid to prisons put them "under water." A statement that is hard to swallow knowing that this is a $1.2 billion industry. 

Some states have proven that they care more about reducing recidivism rates than profiteering by adopting practices that restrict or ban kickbacks from the phone providers, effectively reducing phone prices. Dramatically so. For instance, while the average cost of a 15-minute in-state call is $2.46, Ohio, New York and New Jersey charge an average of 70 cents. The Virginia's, even though they still accept millions of dollars in kickbacks, have managed to drop their phone rates to a relatively reasonable 3 to 4 cents per minute. 

The majority of states, however, will not reduce rates until they are told they have to. With Trump in office, it is unlikely that requirement will come anytime soon. 

In the meantime, prison systems, prison phone providers, and the incarceration philosophies of a president are allowing exploitation of those most affected by incarceration, essentially and callously extending the punishment to both sides of the prison wall. 

Perhaps partisan politics won't spill over to the upcoming FCC considerations of prison phone company regulations. Perhaps they will wisely see the correlation between prison phone and recidivism rates and opt not to be penny-wise and pound foolish. 

We're not holding our breath. 

Doing Frozen Time: A 30-Year Inmate's View Of Modern Technology

Originally published on February 15, 2017 by Forbes

David Simonsen

By David Simonsen written for Prison Lives

I have never held a cell phone, much less used one to text or take a selfie. I didn't know what a "selfie" was until a couple of years ago. I have never owned a personal computer, much less "surfed" the internet. The internet didn't even exist the day I landed in prison, nearly 30 years ago.

Ronald Reagan was president. Frogger was one of the most popular video games in the world. The highest rated television program was The Cosby Show. The last movie I saw as a new release at the theater: Platoon.

My calendar is stuck in 1988. The penitentiary walls form the lining of the time capsule I live in. What is now considered to be ancient, what I last knew as "modern technology" is still current to me. The only signals that it is not come in the form of looks of bewilderment on the faces of new arrivals when I divulge that my last TV set required the turning of a nob or that my phone had a rotary dial.

The world beyond the walls doesn't seem to be able to exist without the modern conveniences. Can you imagine life without a smart phone, for example? I can. In fact, I'm not allowed to exist with such things. To have my hands on an internet-enabled device would mean an immediate trip to solitary confinement, a place that offers nothing more technologically advanced than a paperback book.

On one hand, I'm envious, knowing how severely I am missing out. The conveniences that technology affords would allow me to do incredible things with the time I must serve. I spend my time in as many positive pursuits as possible, despite my confinement. Unfortunately, hwever, this often requires outside assistance to access the information and resources I need to keep advancing. Internet access would allow a self-sufficiency that I can only dream of.

At the same time, though, from this perspective, it all looks a little absurd. Everyone seems to be completely dependent on technology, almost enslaved by it. The phone is handcuffed to nearly every living unincarcerated person, requiring its holder to be constantly accessible and to respond with an immediacy that looks more intrusive than convenient.

It seems the world is completely dependent on it, as if life can't be enjoyed without it. When I watch a televised event, for instance, I see a thousand cell phones raised trying to capture a moment on stage, a thousand people almost completely missing the best parts because of it.

Recent data states that the average amount of time spent on the internet is in the neighborhood of 25 hours per week, a part time job spent browsing, checking email, and camped out on social networking sites. I cannot relate. It sounds exhausting.

There is a trickling of authorized technology making its way through the prison walls, though. Just a taste. In my prison, for example, I can now purchase what is essentially, I'm told, an iPod from over a decade ago. Today, I have the "privilege" (the prison administration's word, not mine) of downloading overpriced Mp3 music. So, I've stuck my toe in, now buying music as I can afford it -- all 70s and 80s artists, of course. A relative fortune spent on something I should easily still have on cassettes.

Now rumor has it that tablets are beginning to be introduced to prisons across the nation, which will include games, eBooks, magazine subscriptions, and other features, charged by the minute. It's a great money-making scheme for the prison systems, but I'm not sure what's wrong with playing cards and publications you can hold onto.

Living in the nostalgia of my time, without the distraction of the fast-moving world, isn't so bad. It's worked for my entire lifetime. I'm contented. Why change now?

From the contented inside view looking out, it makes me wonder if the world might be a happier, less stressed place without the nonstop pressures of technological "advancement." Or just maybe self-driving cars will indeed be the key to all future happiness. 

Perhaps one day I'll find out, on that morning I'm released from my prison confines wearing my old trusty Levi's button-fly 501 blue jeans clocking my first minutes of freedom on my classic Swatch watch. But until then, 1988 sounds like a perfect year to be stuck in.

Life in the SHU: An Inside Look

By Danny Varner written for Prison Lives

Originally published at the Huffington Post


Displaced from society, we are the faceless and rejected. We are wasting unnecessary years as a punishment, denied basic human rights, comforts, and relief. We've lost our freedom because we temporarily lost sight of what mattered most. But for many of us, our punishment is much greater than what we were sentenced to, as we're forced to reside in a place where we may never find ourselves again.

We are displaced from the general population of prisoners, locked away in a prison inside a prison. Housed in the SHU, short for Special Housing Unit, we are segregated into isolated cells where we remain on lockdown for almost all of every day. Housed under one of three classifications -- administrative segregation, disciplinary segregation, or protective custody -- we are all treated the same. We all live in what amounts to solitary confinement, except with a cellmate.

Upon arrival, even though our classifications are separated by policy, we don't know in advance whether we will be housed with someone who is violent, mentally unstable, disabled or elderly. With no intercoms or panic buttons, assaults brought on by being housed with the wrong person, or other medical emergencies, often fall on deaf ears. Hours may go by before a severe need is known by staff.

Leaving a cell is more akin to removal from it. Hands behind our backs, we are required to stoop down to a slot in the bars that doubles as the porthole for our meal tray. We extend our arms through to be shackled by handcuffs. Refusal results in being coated in pepper spray until we comply. 

Some cells have showers. Most do not. For those of us without, we are escorted, cuffed, to a shower in a cage. We are afforded ten minutes. To shower three times per week is a luxury.

If conditions allow, we are given the privilege of as much outdoor recreation time as can be enjoyed in a cell-sized cage for one hour. Although slated for up to five days each week, the safety and security of the entire prison always takes precedence. Weather and lockdowns often deny us of our privilege.

Cleanliness of the cell is our responsibility. But the SHU presents unique challenges that fight against those efforts. Cleaning supplies are only afforded occasionally, never allowed to be stored in our cells. When they are accessible, they are used to fight the effects of the dirtiness of roaches, infections, and diseases that often prevail, potentially fed by what remains in the toilets that only flush when a timer tells them to do so. Tellingly, correctional officers always don latex gloves.

The age of the prison and its location makes for a chilly stay. The authorized single small blanket offers only weak protection, which is often restricted to nighttime use only. Beds must be made in a military style by day. Complaints go ignored.

Senior staff members make rounds in what are known as "walk-throughs," designed to give us the option of airing complaints or express our needs. Rarely are these actually heard, though, much less acted on.

Food in the SHU? Cold and spartan. Canteen can be purchased to supplement our diet, but the SHU drastically restricts those options for "security" reasons, regardless of whether we actually did anything wrong to land us here. If here for an extended stay, weight loss is guaranteed.

Contact with the outside world is limited to the stamps and writing materials that we can afford... or one phone call each month.

Displacement to this prison within a prison will take a toll. Where we may have lost our sight for a painfully lasting moment before, we are now confronted with the danger of losing our mind. Life was not meant to be lived this way. But with the loss of freedom came the loss of choice. All we can do is hope to survive.

Danny Varner is a guest writer for Prison Lives, a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals while incarcerated for a positive existence both inside and outside of prison life.

Prison Lives provides prisoners and their families with access to information and resources specific to their circumstances through 500+ page publications, including prisoner resource guides, prisoner education guides and prisoner entertainment guides.

Why States Should Pay For Inmates Sex Changes

Originally published on The Hill

Tara Ellyssia Zyst is Oregon's only transgender death row inmate, perhaps the only transgender death row prisoner in the nation. 

Born Karl Anthony Terry, she was convicted in 1995 on two counts of aggravated murder for the deaths of her boyfriend and his brother. Since that time, Tara has sat on Oregon's death row, where she has consistently been denied requests for hormone therapy and sexual reassignment surgery for a diagnosed Gender Identity Disorder.

Continue reading this article on The Hill

Who Lives in Solitary Confinement


Originally Published on

Solitary confinement houses the worst of the worst, the most dangerous of the criminal element in our country. The image is of an angry, spitting, will-hurt-you-if-you-dare-come-close monster of a man who deserves to be locked away for nearly every hour of every day.

According to a November 2016 report from the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA), there are currently around 70,000 such "monsters" living in forced seclusion inside our nation's prisons. Their study polled 48 jurisdictions within the U.S., accounting for roughly 96% of this countries prisoners, providing the only current, comprehensive look inside the world of solitary confinement.

"Our highest priority is to operate institutions that are safe for staff and inmates and to keep communities to which prisoners will return safe," stated Leann K. Bertch, President of ASCA, echoing what most prison administrators express as their reason for using the most extreme version of isolation in this country.

Hearing that conjures images of the horrible miscreants that must be housed within. But come to find out, many living in these scenes are not exactly what we might expect.

Most prison systems use solitary confinement as a first line of punishment, a sort of extreme time-out to discourage future infractions.

"Today, an incarcerated person can be placed in complete isolation for months or years not just for violent acts," reveals Solitary Watch, a nonprofit that tracks the use of solitary confinement in the U.S., "but also for non-violent offenses like possessing contraband, ignoring orders, or using profanity."

"I just spent two weeks in the hole," admitted one Oregon inmate, "locked down for 23-plus hours a day with a blanket and a book because I violated a prison rule by helping a neighbor compose a legal brief." He has never committed a violent act during his decade-long prison stay.

Prison systems often use solitary confinement to house well-behaved inmates claiming there is a potential threat to prison security. Called Administrative Segregation, authorities use this as a better-safe-than-sorry option that often turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy by spawning contemptuous residents.

In 2015, the prison authority in California was taken to court over their practice of housing known gang members in isolation for years on end for no better reason than 'just in case'. It resulted in a victory for those housed there and recent reforms to prohibit the practice.

The heinous use of solitary confinement has become so bad that the federal government and several state legislatures have stepped in to develop statutes in an effort to at least protect the more vulnerable amongst the prison society. For example, in October of 2016, New Jersey proposed a bill preventing the use of solitary confinement for pregnant women, those under 21 or over 65, and those with a mental illness, a developmental disability or other serious impairment.

Solitary confinement has especially become a revolving door epidemic for those with mental illness. The ASCA polling showed that high percentages of prisoners in restrictive housing are classified as having "serious mental health issues." In Louisiana, for instance, 38.7% of those housed in solitary confinement there fall under this category.

Any inmate placed under the harsh conditions of segregation will experience intense mental and physical distress. But for inmates that already have a mental health condition, stresses the AVID Prison Project, a disability rights organization, "these conditions can have a catastrophic impact." Their 2016 report, Locked Up & Locked Down: Segregation of Inmates with Mental Illness, reveals how mentally ill prisoners, unable to cope with the circumstances, often end up with further violations, frequently against staff, appearing to be the 'angry, spitting monsters' we might imagine. The reason for this is less a product of these inmates being a violent sort than it is due to the lack of training of the unit's staff to best deal with mentally ill prisoners. Many go in with a minor infraction only to come out more broken than ever.

From an outside perspective, solitary confinement is necessary to control the prison scene. But if you look a little closer, you find an environment that unnecessarily produces the ill-effects, including the violence we imagine.

What we breed in prison effects all of us upon offender's reentry back into society. There's a reason why human rights groups all over the world condemn America's overuse of this punishment and are calling for an end to the practice of solitary confinement.

Alternatives exist, but it will likely require a learning curve before sweeping reforms can occur in this country. To demonstrate the challenge, New Jersey's Governor Christie vetoed the aforementioned solitary confinement bill.

For now, monsters will continue to be made.

Inside Look: Freedom in Little Things

little things matter in prison

Guest post by Danny Varner written for Prison Lives

It's been many years since I've eaten an Oreo cookie. When I realized that this year's Christmas bag contained real Oreo cookies, I instantly thought about how they would taste with cold milk.

I recalled how real Oreos stayed crispy when dipped in milk, much longer than their generic counterparts. But when left there long enough, crisp would give way to the sweet creamy filling that can only be experienced when biting into the real thing.

It's now Christmas morning in the Phoenix, Arizona, federally funded gated community I reside in. It's cold and wet outside. Even though I have my milk in hand - two plastic-bagged single-serve-one-percenters -- my bones are too cold for the traditional method of Oreo eating. Instead, I've mixed into a half cup of boiled water two spoons of Folgers instant coffee, a vanilla pudding, and one of my milks.

I sit in my cell with my freshly opened pack of Oreos, slowly dunking them one at a time. I feel like a six-year-old kid again. Washing them down with my remaining milky-pudding drink-with-a-boost mixture leaves the milky mustache evidence of my nostalgic pleasure. 

For a moment, I have forgotten that I am in a federal prison cell and the mistakes I've made along the way to land me here. For the moment, I am simply cherishing the little things again.

The Death Penalty: A Russian Roulette

death penalty russian roulette

Written by Prison Lives, originally published on Forbes.

Last week, Ronald Smith, a 45-year-old murderer, was executed by the state of Alabama. He would not have been put to death if he were housed in any other state.

Whether you are for or against the death penalty, it has become apparent that it has problems. Those against it will cite the risk of killing innocent people, the strong possibility of a botched execution, and the lack of proof of its effectiveness. But even the most staunch supporters of it are forced to acknowledge that the current difficulties in obtaining lethal injection drugs and the ridiculous expenses incurred by the 33 states that still have it pose concerns over its future. 

Another complication that is relatively seldom brought up in debates over the capital punishment scheme, however, is one emphasized by Alabama in its most recent use of the punishment -- the crapshoot of its application, depending on the state a defendant lands in.

Over the course of the death penalty's recent history, the glaring disparities between each state's capital punishment laws have become obvious. Up until 2002, for instance, states were split on whether it was okay to execute someone who did not have the mental capacity to make the decisions that led to their crimes. 

All the way up until 2005, each state had a different take on whether they could execute someone for a crime they committed as a juvenile offender.

Most recently, in January 2016, Florida had their death penalty thrown out due to "non-unanimous jury recommendations of death." In other words, some jury members in 320 cases that resulted in death penalties in their state, after hearing all of the evidence presented during a trial, determined that the defendant did not deserve the death penalty. After finding out that not everyone was in agreement as to whether to sentence the defendant to death, however -- the most serious sentence in our land -- the judge decided to sentenced them to death anyway. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, this is "a practice barred in all states..." except three. Florida, Delaware, and Alabama.

The Supreme Court's ruling essentially threw out Florida's death penalty until it could be fixed. Delaware, confronting the same issue, realized that this effectively un-did the death sentences of those on their death row, and decided that this, combined with the other problems of the death penalty, was best solved by abandoning the law altogether. As a result, this year Delaware became the 18th state to ban capital punishment.

Despite this obvious issue and others, some of which affected their state specifically, Alabama has decided to continue to carry out executions. Earlier this year, for example, the 11th Circuit Court, the highest in their region of the country, interceded in the execution of Vernon Madison, a man that Alabama was trying to kill despite findings of intellectual disability. Last year, they were forced to release Anthony Ray Hinton, a man who had wrongly spent 30 years on death row, 13 of which were spent after Alabama knew of his innocence. And now, Alabama is continuing executions despite knowing that they are the only state in the country that allows the unlawful non-unanimous juries.

Last week's execution should not have happened. But it did, and by all accounts from the observers present, as if icing on a morbid cake, it was botched. (Reports show that Ron Smith had failed two of the tests administered to determine a successful execution and that he had heaved and coughed for his last 34 minutes.)

Alabama is not a lone bad wolf when it comes to enforcing death sentences. No matter where a condemned man is housed, he is subject to the over-zealous nature of those who prosecute and uphold the broken system that is capital punishment. 

As Justice Stephen Breyer just said in his dissenting opinion in a recent 4-4 Supreme Court death penalty ruling, "Individuals who are executed are not the 'worst of the worst' but , rather, are individuals chosen at random on the basis, perhaps of geography, perhaps of the views of individual prosecutors, or still worse, on the basis of race."

Some states are worse than others for those on death row, as Alabama has just proven. It's an unluckiness of the draw.

"The time has come for this court to reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty," concluded Justice Breyer.

Unfortunately for those on death row, however, is the recent appointment of our next Attorney General of the United States, Senator Jeff Sessions... otherwise known as the former Attorney General of Alabama.

It may already be too late.

Death Two Inmate: Living on Death Row Often Means Living In Fear

For the first time in my 14 years on death row, I am scared that I may actually be killed. I've known that I must pay for what I have done, perhaps with my life.

But until now, there was no evidence that my end would ever come at the hands of the state that convicted me.

I await my execution in Oregon, a state that, in the 40 years since the reinstatement of the death penalty, has not executed anyone who didn't want to die. The last to face their sentence in Oregon volunteered to do so 20 years ago, during the Clinton administration. It was the next Clinton presidency that was set to all but ensure that no one in this state would be executed again.

Things were going so good.

Published on The Hill, please read the whole article here

Christmas Behind Prison Bars: An Inside Look

Christmas in Prison

Originally published for Progressive Media and published through the Tribune News Service.

Wearing anything in Santa red will land you in solitary confinement -- it's a gang color, and a serious violation of prison rules. 

To give or receive gifts amongst inmates risks disciplinary action -- anything in a cell not sanctioned by the prison is considered to be "contraband."

Yelling "Ho, Ho, Ho...!" can incite violence.

Despite these restrictions, and many more, us prisoners are already celebrating this holiday season. In some ways, Christmas behind bars has the familiar feel of any other celebration of Christmas' past -- something many of us look forward to. But in other ways, this is the time of the year when we wish we didn't have to feel at all, as the season can be the hardest of "hard time" to serve.

The approach of the holiday season is always marked by the same signs, some as conventional as on the free side of the wall, some that never get any easier.

The newspaper is thick with the "best gifts" to buy, punctuated by TV commercials showing just how happy they'll make the ones you buy them for -- now feeling more like mockeries of what some of us will never experience.

The holiday music invades the radio and the off-tune humming of those around us, sometimes feeling as though we are trapped in a haunting, much too cheery and inescapable, music box.

Even holiday decorations start to crop up like color out of a black-and-white film. Tiny fake Christmas trees find a home on the desks of staff, a big fake one adorning the central area of our prison, complete with what seem like symbolically empty wrapped gifts. It's still uncertain whether it's there as an attempt to bring in some holiday spirit or to remind of us of how badly we screwed up and what we're missing because of it.

What makes the season most difficult is that most of us haven't lost the meaning of Christmas, despite the loss of our freedom. In fact, for many of us, its significance is more glaring than ever. We try not to show it, but you can see it on our faces.

During mail call it's most apparent, when you see a hope that one of the colorful greeting-card-sized envelopes in the pile is for us, bringing a much-needed connection with those we haven't heard from in a while. It's often followed by a crushed look when we realize that connection won't be arriving today.

This is the time of year when we miss family the most, even though we'll never say it to one another. But it's evident by the sharing of nostalgic stories of the good times we've had, the gifts we gave and received, and the look that warms over us, if only for a second, before we put our hard facades back on.

If absence of something in the free world makes the heart grow fonder, absence of family through imprisonment forced by the mistakes we've made, especially at this time of year, tenderizes the heart to putty. It threatens to consume. And that's the self-pity side of the equation. It gets far worse when you begin to think about what our incarceration is doing to those we've left behind by our behavior.

It's not all bad. We don't have to deal with the in-laws. Plus, the difficulties of the season are somewhat assuaged, or at least distracted from, by the prison system's attempts to bring Christmas to our side of the wall.

Food is the favorite method used to interrupt the heart. Some of us can receive care packages of food and useful items from our loved ones. For others, the prison expands canteen selections -- including items like white chocolate candy cane bars, winter mint cookies, and marshmallows. Additionally, many prisons will serve at least one special meal for the holidays -- honey-glazed ham this year here -- giving us at least the essence of home.

We may get one free phone call to our family. A local church choir may brave our place long enough to joyfully sing carols. Many of us will even secretly watch 'A Christmas Carol' or 'Home Alone' as our annual attempt to stay connected with our past.

Just like in the real world, it's a time when we look forward to sharing as much as receiving. We will send card and gift creations out to those we miss. We will even share gifts of canteen items and creations with one another inside, despite the rule violation.

We won't wear red or green, but we'll find ways to celebrate in our own way, if for no other reason than to not quite feel so alone and segregated from the rest of the world this time of year.

The holiday spirit behind bars is alive and, well, often painful. But for some of us perhaps it's good to have our holiday cheer mixed with a healthy dose of why we are here, away from our loved ones. This is the season of a remembrance. For many of us it's just the thing we need to spark the beginning of our path to rehabilitation and a future where we can show those we care about that we truly understand the meaning of Christmas and that its message is something that we won't soon forget again.

The Murderer Next Door: The Safest of Neighbors?

Murderer next door

Originally published in the Huffington Post

"Recently Released Murderer Goes on Killing Spree, Slaying Two!" It's a headline that we all fear when we think of a murderer being released from prison. But it's one that we are unlikely to ever read. 

Whether you are of the school of thought that anyone can be rehabilitated if given proper tools, or if you adopt more of the 'eye-for-an-eye' hard line of our president-elect Trump, who once stated in his book, The America We Deserve, "Capital punishment isn't uncivilized, living murderers is," statistics prove that murderers who have been released from prison are among the least dangerous ex-offenders in this country.

Over 170,000 people, or approximately one in nine prisoners, are serving a "life" sentence in the U.S., according to the U.S. Justice Department, nearly all of whom are murderers. 

"Life" doesn't mean a death sentence. In fact, life means something different in every state. For example, in Maryland it means as little as 20 years, while in Indiana it's 45, and in Connecticut, 60. The law books in every state provides a path for everyone who is serving life to one day find freedom. In practice, however, most murderers will never experience the free side of the prison walls again, even though many of them are eligible for it right now.

Perhaps most of us are happy with that. The idea of someone living next door who has taken a life does not breed thoughts of the ideal neighborhood we want to raise our families in. But the reality is that some are released and those who are will almost never be a danger to society.

For those few who have been fortunate enough to find freedom again, according to a special report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Recidivism of Offenders Placed on Federal Community Supervision, a barely perceptible 0.3 percent of ex-federal prisoners who had committed homicide reoffended in any way. As far as recommitting their original crime of murder: zero. As for offenders released from state prisons, the numbers are similarly low.

To put this in perspective, the average rate of recidivism of state prisoners in the U.S. is currently 77 percent. 3 out of every four regular felons will commit another crime within three years of their release. By comparison, the recidivism rate of released murderers is a dream result for the criminal justice system. If they could accomplish the near one percent rate of recidivism of murderers for all other prisoners, prisons would be emptied out today.

How is it possible that the worst of society's offenders are the least dangerous after release?

The overwhelming majority of those with homicidal convictions are young -- often under 18 years of age -- underprivileged minority men (68%). They generally arrive to prison at an immature age, forced to sort through and grow into their lives while behind bars. For some, this hardens the criminal mindset to a point of no return. But for many others, prison is the mind's savior. While it may take longer to mature in a prison setting, with enough time and resolve, a prisoner can find their way to a more positive existence.

Murderers who know they may have an opportunity to one day be released, despite their "life" sentence, tend to take their rehabilitation more seriously. It may take years to get there, which is likely why reentry failure rates are so high for much shorter-term prisoners. But it is not unusual for lifers to accomplish things beyond what most of us would assume their confines would permit.

A recent report from the Maryland Restorative Justice Institute, Still Blocking the Exit, profiled 63 lifers that were eligible for parole and dozens who were recently released. Among them was a common string. All had become educated while behind bars, many achieving college degrees. Everyone had thoroughly participated in prison enrichment programs and skills training. Most had not only accomplished everything asked of them, sometimes even earning the forgiveness and support of their victims’ family members, but they had reached beyond their circumstances to make a better life for those around them, which carried over nicely to their life beyond bars.

"No one disagrees that they were involved in serious crimes that warranted serious consequences" the report concluded. "But with the passage of time, repenting, and hard work, they are not the same people that they were at the times of their crimes."

The number of life-sentenced prisoners continues to grow while those that have the power to decide whether they are free to live their life outside of prison walls once they are rehabilitated are increasingly against their release.

 "1,000 Murderers Paroled in California: Not One Has Ever Committed Murder Again."

That is an actual headline. 

Those who have taken lives cannot provide repayment by bringing back those whose lives they stole 25, 45 or 60 years ago. But leaving them in prison, when they could be of benefit to society is no means of recompense either. In fact, it's leaves a further burden on those of us who must pay taxes to unnecessarily keep them behind bars, and of course on those who have seen the successful rehabilitation of their loved one.

The purpose of prison made the unfortunate transition from rehabilitation to warehousing a long time ago. But when it is obvious that when an offender has been rehabilitated despite this, and the national statistics prove it to be so, it's time to find a better way. 

Perhaps it's time to thoroughly re-examine the approach of our criminal justice system when it comes to those they are housing who are proven the least likely to reoffend.


Prison Lives ( is a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals while incarcerated for a positive existence both inside and outside of prison life.

Prison Lives provides prisoners and their families with access to information and resources specific to their circumstances through 500+ page publications, including prisoner resource guides, prisoner education guides and prisoner entertainment guides.


Bank Of Moratorium: The Death Penalty Cash Cow

This article was published on Forbes.

Bank of Moratorium: The Death Penalty Cash Cow

In October, Oregon’s incumbent governor, Kate Brown, announced that when she wins the 2016 election, she will extend the moratorium on her state’s death penalty. She will do this because, according to her campaign spokesperson, “after thoroughly researching the issue, serious concerns remain about the constitutionality and workability of Oregon’s capital punishment law.”

This is a familiar statement. Not only was something similar used by Governor Brown’s predecessor to put Oregon’s death penalty on hold in 2011, but the same justification has likewise been used recently by several other states. Washington, Pennsylvania and Colorado, amongst others, have likewise halted the possibility of executions for over 200 condemned men, all with the same justification.

They’re all in agreement, the death penalty is broken. Between the strong possibilities of botched executions, the lack of proof of its effectiveness, the risk of killing an innocent person, the difficulties of even obtaining the drugs necessary for the process, and the ridiculous expense of it all, many states are no longer seeing any advantages in keeping it around.

Yet, they are keeping it around. Why?

Every governor that has decided to place a moratorium on executions has the power to completely empty out the death rows of their state. But instead, they press the pause button, ostensibly to address the “serious concerns” to determine if there is a way to salvage the ultimate penalty that was voted in by their people. However, all the while, they are very well aware that it’s unsalvageable. Oregon’s governor said as much in her office’s statement when admitting that they had already “thoroughly researched” the issue, using death-knell words when referring to concerns that capital punishment is “unconstitutional” and “unworkable.”

As the most outspoken proponent of capital punishment in the state of Oregon, Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, stated in regards to his governor’s decision to extend the moratorium, “If she really believes the death penalty is so wrong, then she should have the guts to commute all of those sentences.” Perhaps that’s it, these governors simply lack the courage to bring about the end of something that has been on their law books for the last 40 years. Or perhaps it’s something else.

Capital punishment costs a fortune. In the state of California alone, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, more than $4 billion has been spent on it since it was reinstituted in 1978. When you consider that they have only executed 13 people in that amount of time, each execution essentially cost the state $385 million. That may be an extreme example, yet it’s still representative of the absurd costs of this ineffective punishment.

Very few states have released accurate figures to demonstrate the real costs to their taxpayers, but for those that have, or where independent studies have been conducted, the figures have always been alarming. For example, 15 years ago, the Palm Beach Post reported that Florida was spending $51 million a year more on death penalty offenses than it would cost to punish the same offenders with life-without-parole sentences. That meant that with the 44 executions carried out in the state, each person executed, on average, cost taxpayers upwards of $24 million.

According to an Urban Institute study prior to Maryland’s banning of the death penalty, in the 20 years researched Maryland had spent $186 million on capital punishment during a time when only five people were executed. That means that the death penalty cost the people of the state of Maryland $37.2 million per execution.

About a dozen of the 30 states that still have the death penalty on the books have not executed anyone in over a decade, and yet they are still billing the taxpayers to pay the tab of fighting appeals and housing men who, on paper at least, are condemned. Therefore, it’s a safe bet to assume that hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent this year unnecessarily on capital punishment. But in no states is this more glaringly obvious than the ones who have placed a “moratorium” on the death penalty.

Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington have all been under a moratorium since 2011. But while these are preventing executions from being carried out in these states, these are not moratoriums on the capital punishment scheme itself. This means that death sentences can be, and are still, meted out. What’s more, the hundreds of prisoners in these states who are already on death row are moving forward with their appeals unaffected by their governor’s action.

This means that for FIVE years these states have continued spending the hard-earned dollars of citizens on a system that has already been recognized by governors as a broken one. Every taxpayer in these states is being forced to deposit funds into a bank that is virtually guaranteed to go belly-up in the very near future. What’s worse, these governors know this to be the case.

“America is on the verge of a sea change,” stated Governor Brown’s administration, “by both legislation and more profoundly through court decisions. The past few years have already seen a major shift in the landscape of capital punishment law, and Governor Brown expects more changes on the horizon.”

In the five years that these moratoriums have been in place, five other states have abolished capital punishment altogether. Their governors knew what the moratorium-happy governors know now–the death penalty is ineffective, unnecessarily costly, and a burden to its people. So why prolong the inevitable?

Death row inmates who are fighting their convictions, which are essentially all of them, do not merely have one citizen-paid attorney; they typically have an entire team of people fighting their cause. Between two capital defense attorneys, on average, several investigators, and numerous hired experts on their side, not to mention the staff on the other side of the table, from each state attorney general’s office, who are charged with ensuring the sentence stands, sizable daily withdrawals are coming from the taxpayer-supplied state coffers. When you further tally new capital cases that must be fought and all associated court costs, which are typically four times that of non-capital-charged murder cases, the costs of the death penalty, even though it’s under a moratorium, are still astronomical.

The death penalty is an economy of its own in the states that continue to hold onto it, but is a system that brings no benefits to those who are footing the bill. As passionate as a portion of Americans are about the concept of capital punishment in their state, it is not being used for a reason. It does not work. It’s time to let the death penalty go.

Governors who decide that a moratorium is a good middle ground between satisfying the original wish of their people and the logical conclusion that the death penalty does not work are making a terrible choice. They are single-handedly reaching into the pockets of their constituents and robbing them to pay those who prosecute and defend criminals who are never going to step one foot inside of a death chamber

Worse, by continuing to let the death penalty process continue when it is acknowledged that the system is so broken that executive action must be taken, these governors are essentially letting the car be driven without oil. Every part of the process will be adversely impacted by the parts that are broken, costing even more money in re-do repairs in the unlikely event that the death penalty is miraculously fixed.

Enacting a pause on capital punishment that still allows the flawed death penalty process to continue is either an act of cowardice or stupidity. Either way, it’s unnecessarily costing the people of these states obscene amounts of resources that would be far better spent on enhancing the lives of their citizens. Instead, Governor Brown and the others are throwing much-needed state resources down the money pit of a so-called moratorium.


President Obama's Commutations: The View From Inside

This article was published on Forbes

president Obama's commutations: The view from inside

President Obama just commuted the sentences of 111 federal prisoners, setting the record for the most commutations granted in a single month and taking the total of those he has freed during his time in office to a record 673. My cell block just erupted in celebration through bar-banging, hoots and applause.

According to the White House, Obama has commuted more sentences than the last ten presidents combined, and on average, six times more than any single president in the last ten administrations. Ironically, the next president down the list of these ten is President Clinton, the same president who put in motion the tough-on-crime legislation that incarcerated many of my neighbors, which is now making these Obama commutations necessary.

Every one of us in the federal prison system knows of many just like those the president has commuted — men we live with who were convicted of what would have been relatively minor drug possession offenses but who are now serving time that is equivalent to that received by murderers. To look at the list of those whose sentences are being commuted is like reading a roster of about half of the convictions my neighbors possess. In fact, the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that drug offenses account for 50.1% of all federal prisoner convictions.

“Possession with intent to distribute” small amounts of drugs is a common conviction in these parts. In real terms, these are essentially small time wannabe drug dealers who had enough illegal substance to maybe sell to a few people. Typically, these are the sorts of “dealers” who were trying to support their own habit by selling a little on the side. If you were unlucky enough to get arrested at the height of the crackdown on such offenses, you are now serving a 20-plus year sentence. To put this in perspective, if you were found guilty of this in any place but the federal system, in any county in the U.S., you would likely only serve a handful of months in county jail, which is why this is a focus area for presidential commutations.

If that sentencing is not absurd enough, most of the commutations granted by the president this week were “conspiracy to distribute” offenses. Put more plainly, the convicted criminal didn’t actually have drugs on him when arrested. He was instead convicted of trying to arrange the sale of drugs, or in more common reality, several drug users pointed at him as being the one who sold them their fix in the past. Three such pointers will net you a ‘conspiracy to distribute’ charge by the feds. This can earn you a life sentence, and the very real possibility that you’ll never see the free side of the wall again — the same amount of time as you would be serving if you had killed those three users and a dozen more. This is no exaggeration. A third of those who received relief from Obama are people serving life sentences for just such an offense.

A simple comparison of these harsh federal sentences to those meted out for the same offenses by state courts shows that even with the mandatory minimum sentencing, which has come under recent scrutiny, these offenders would typically have been released from state confines long ago. But that doesn’t matter to the hoards that have amassed on social media in disgust and panic, bashing the gall of President Obama’s “abuse of power” in releasing these dangerous criminals back into society prematurely.

It likewise probably wouldn’t matter to these ones that many who fell under these extreme sentences are actually very productive members of our society, and not in the way that many naysayers might suspect. To do a where-are-they-now sort of look inside, you would find that several of those former wannabe drug dealers were able to exercise their business acumen on upstanding pursuits, such as operating fundraising efforts for community charities or becoming heads of their departments in prison industries. You’ll find more than a few who were sentenced to what amounts to life sentences for “conspiracy” offenses are now involved with organizations that help young people to find better paths than the ones they took. Street lessons have been traded in for schoolbooks, resulting in humbled college graduates out of what many might have assumed were hardened criminals.

Every single one of those who received the gift of commutation by President Obama is a model citizen in the prison community. It was an eligibility prerequisite to be one of those considered for relief. To even scratch the surface of those 673 who made the cut from 11,477 eligible would be to uncover several who have accomplished more positive from behind bars than many of those who are currently tweeting their hatred.

If that’s still inadequate, and there is still an ingrained fear that these released ex-offenders will run amok the moment they are freed consider a recent comprehensive case study:

Due to severe overcrowding in the California prison system, a drastic reduction in the amount of prisoners housed there was recently required. The year 2011 saw the implementation of the California Public Safety Realignment Act, which resulted in the release of thousands of nonviolent offenders, the majority of whom were sentenced for drug crimes.

Within 15 months, California reduced the size of its total prison population by 27,527 inmates. Many feared an instant spike of crime in the state. But those fears turned out to be for naught. According to the comprehensive study, ‘Is Downsizing Prisons Dangerous?,’ published earlier this year by the journal of the American Society of Criminology, there wasn’t a noticeable impact at all.

“An astounding 17% reduction in the size of the California prison population,” the study concluded, “had no effect on aggregate rates of violent of property crime. Moreover, three years after the passage of Realignment, California crime rates remain at levels comparable to what we would predict if the prison population had remained at 2010 levels.” An entire town’s worth of prisoners unleashed on one state, with no ill effect.

While the steep opposition and endless streams of fear mongering currently taking place over President Obama’s historic commutations are likely more politically based than the concerns among California’s residents were, the result of the early release of these nonviolent offenders will likely be the same — a non-event. In fact, experiencing firsthand through life beside the sort that will be released this year, I would go so far as to say that the world will be a better place for it.

As the end of the California study realized, “imprisonment may affect crime, but it does so at a high social, human, and economic cost and is far less cost-effective than alternatives.” Perhaps it’s time to stop having a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of prison depopulation in America, and certainly to the release of a relative handful of prisoners who should have been released long ago. Maybe it’s time to start noticing when positive change is ripe and in small ways occurring right before our eyes, ready to be embraced and expounded on.

Freedom to Vote: A Right I Don't Have, But Badly Want

voter disenfranchisement

I am not a free American. If I were, I could have a say in who my next president will be. Because I was recently incarcerated, however, I cannot vote on Tuesday.

I am not alone. According to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform organization, I am one of the 6.1 million Americans -- 1 in 40 adults in this country -- who have no right to vote because I was in prison, even though I've paid my debt to society.

The law that strips me of this right, felony disenfranchisement, is not a universally applied law, however. In fact, there are wide disparities between states. While those who are released from prison into my state of Florida, for example, have their voting privileges revoked for life, ex-offenders in Maine and Vermont never lost the right of stepping into a voting booth for even a day. In fact, inmates who are imprisoned in those states right now can vote in this election from the comfort of their cells. Most states, however, don't quite go to either such extreme. 

Fourteen states hand voting rights back to prisoners with their driver's license the moment they step beyond the prison gates and back into society. The majority of the remaining states likewise allow ex-convicts the opportunity to reenter the polling booth once they have completed their parole or probation requirements. 

As someone who has spent a substantial amount of time behind bars for my crimes, the latter version of the law seems to make the most sense. If felony disenfranchisement laws are based on the idea that violators of societies rules should not be allowed to help set them, then the law-breakers should prove to that society that they have been completely rehabilitated. As my state's leader, Governor Rick Scott, explained, "These are felonies, and we want to make sure people have turned their life around." 

But how much proof do you need?

More than half of the ex-felons that are restricted from voting in this country, an estimated 3.1 million people, have done everything the state has asked them to do to demonstrate that they have "turned their life around." Yet, 'everything' is apparently not enough.

In Florida, it seems that no amount of time or recompense will ever be enough. An astonishing reveal from a recent Sentencing Project report proved that ten percent of all Floridian adults are ex-offenders who cannot vote. My state houses almost half of the countries felons who have completely paid off what the state said they owed to society. But the 1.5 million of us here alone are being told that we are still not good enough to completely rejoin this society.

"The message that comes across to them is: Yes, you have all the responsibilities of a citizen now, but you're basically still a second-class citizen because we are not permitting you to be engaged in the political process," said Christopher Uggen, University of Minnesota professor and lead author of the report, echoing precisely how it feels.

Perhaps, considering that over 130 million Americans are expected to come out and vote in the upcoming election, suddenly relaxing the voting restriction to allow these few million disenfranchised ones to cast their choice won't make that big of a difference in the formation of the new political landscape. On the other hand, I live in Florida, the same state where the margin of victory in the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush was a mere 537 votes. With an expected tightly contested election in this state, our vote could indeed be a gamechanger.

Just because we committed a crime once upon a time does not mean that we do not have a valid opinion as to who should run this country. I would go so far as to say, having seen the world from an entirely different perspective than most, and considering that the next elected president will likely have a tremendous impact on the criminal justice system during their administration, the vote of ex-offenders who have succeeded despite our current system would be an especially worthy one. 

Letting me vote would not be a reward for repaying my debt. Rather, as far as I'm concerned, it would be a continuation of that repayment. Let me prove that I do truly care about our society, that I am finally free because of it, and that I belong in this country.

Prison Lives ( is a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals while incarcerated for a positive existence both inside and outside of prison life.

Prison Lives provides prisoners and their families with access to information and resources specific to their circumstances through 500+ page publications, including prisoner resource guides, prisoner education guides and prisoner entertainment guides.


Prison Life: Top 10 Ways to Survive

Top 10 ways to survive in prison

(Published on Huffington Post)

Prison is a dangerous place to live, life-threateningly so.

For those who have been sentenced to serve any amount of time behind bars, or if you are merely curious as to what it takes to live there without dying, the following are the Top-10 time-tested strategies for surviving in prison.

1) Know Your Surroundings... every moment of every day.

To live in prison is to live amongst people who have made the worst mistakes people can make. It doesn't mean that everyone around you is bad. It just means that most around you are poor decision makers. The problem this poses is that at any given moment someone could make another terrible mistake, one which, if you're not focused on your surroundings, could easily involve you. And since many of your prisoner-neighbors are there for violent crimes, including rape and murder, someone's mistake could prove to be an especially pricey one.

You'll have to develop a bit of a sixth sense to recognize when something is amiss. If you are constantly aware of your surroundings, though, you will notice when something isn't quite as it should be -- sudden movements, louder voices, people staring -- and areas that you should avoid -- blind spots from cameras and mirrors and areas that are "controlled" by certain groups.

2) Do Not Disrespect Others

Perhaps the most harmful action that you should never take in prison is to tell on someone (snitch). This act alone is considered to be the ultimate disrespect, and one that can literally get you killed. But there are several other things that are disrespectful in prison that should be avoided as a matter of course, such as:

·         Never call someone a "punk" or a "b*tch." This is a direct affront to their manhood and will spark an instant violent reaction.

·         Never assume that you have a right to any item, even if it might otherwise be considered as community property. Many will lay claim to seats, certain areas of the yard, or even items the prison gives freely. Observe. If those seem to be claimed, avoid them, or at least ask before making any move to use them.

·         Never cut in any line. Cutting in line at the chow hall, canteen, or any other place, even if invited by someone you know, can start a riot.

·         Never enter another person's cell. A cell is the ultimate personal space. Even if invited, entering someone's cell could be disastrous.

3) Do NOT Join Gangs.

It's a common misconception that in order to stay safe you must join a gang. The reality, however, is that the majority of everyone who is subject to violence is a member of a gang. Violence is expected in gangs, and in fact is often used as initiation into one, and breeds situations that you cannot avoid if you are a member. The pressure to join a gang is nothing compared to the expectations that are piled on you once you do join. The wisest move is to remain unaffiliated.

Note: If not a member of a gang, it is also wise to stay away from known gang-members as much as possible. Simply being seen as one who favors one gang over another will affiliate you with that gang. If violence occurs between them, you may be targeted.

4) Keep Healthy... and Clean.

Maintaining your health in any environment is a positive thing, but this is especially so in prison. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most challenging places in which to stay healthy. While prison food is supposed to be nutritionally balanced, it usually is not. It tends to be high in calories and low in taste. That means you will likely have to supplement it with healthier choices off canteen, making deals for more fruits and vegetables and taking vitamin supplements. Some additional stay-healthy ideas:

·         Get lots of exercise. Not only is it obviously healthy, but it will alleviate the stress and make you less-likely to be targeted (as the weak are targeted first.)

·         Drink plenty of water (some doctors recommend 1/2 ounce per pound of your weight.)

·         Don't do drugs! It's common to want to find any form of escape in prison. Drugs may have provided that on the other side of the wall, but in prison, they will get you killed. Getting caught using them will instantly land you in solitary confinement, which is a dismal life. But far worse, getting them is not easy, which translates into favors owed to the likes of gang members. Worse still, the odds of getting a bad batch of drugs that may kill you are very high.

5) Don't Whine.

One of the fastest ways to get under the skin of prison guards and fellow prisoners alike is to be a complainer. Whiners put themselves on the radar of everyone who does bad things to anyone that annoys. Prisoners are all feeling the same pains. To vocalize it more than anyone else gives the impression that you are weaker than everyone else. Weakness is bad. But not much will make your life more difficult that having the guards despise you.

6) Be Patient. Be Flexible.

Prison may be the most bureaucratic and inefficient place on earth. If you're waiting for a decision or for something to happen that is within the control of the prison, double the expected response time. Nothing moves quickly. Further, just because something is one way one day, that doesn't mean it will be that way tomorrow. If you cannot go with the guards’ whims that make little or no sense and unusual flow of the prison system, you will drive yourself insane.

7) Stay Sane.

Prison life will be difficult, no matter how you slice it. There is very little support for those who cannot fight the stress of it. The prison's way of dealing with troubled minds is to contain them, to lock them away in solitary confinement, keeping them secluded from the rest. While that may sound like a positive means of getting by, you will be surrounded by truly broken minds. It will be loud, obnoxious, uncontrollable torture, and in a place that you cannot step away from for more than an hour a day. (Most solitary confined prisoners are locked in their cells for 23-hours per day.) Trying to find an outlet for your stress will generally fare better, such as exercise, sports, communication with someone who cares (from outside of prison walls, or possibly a counselor), or just by developing a routine that works for you.

8) Learn Something.

One of the positive things about time in prison is time. Life outside is hectic, often prohibiting you from accomplishing truly productive things that will help you build on your future. Now is a perfect opportunity to learn something. If you have not graduated high school, get your GED. It's free and available in all prisons. If you already have your diploma, learn a vocation or even go to college. Prison education options are available to every prisoner. Many classes are offered by the prison itself. But even where none are offered, colleges all over the U.S. have print-based courses specifically designed for prisoner education. Prison is a much easier place to live when you can think of it as school. The future benefits you'll gain from earning vocational certificates or even college degrees right from your cell could be huge.

9) Communicate with Loved Ones.

Burning bridges seems to be instinctual among many prisoners as they enter the prison gates. Whether out of embarrassment for finding themselves in prison or because they somehow think this is the right thing to do, many prisoners find themselves instantly alone. This is the worst decision a prisoner can make. Maintaining your role as a husband, father, mother, wife, son or daughter or even a friend maintains the most vital link to the outside world. It's not easy to deal with outside-world problems from inside. But at the same time, concerning yourself with real-world problems tends to shrink the day-to-day stresses that you will experience inside.

Your loved ones can literally be your life line, but you can also be theirs. While it will be a difficult time for all involved, staying connected can have a strengthening tie that lasts long after you leave prison. But severing those ties now, or even loosening them, will all but guarantee that those relationships and friendships will forever be strained, if not lost altogether.

10) Have a Plan.

What are you going to do tomorrow, next week, next year... the next time you see the view from the other side of the wall? Making a solid plan that spans from the next moment in your cell deep into your next moments of freedom can give you the motivation you need to take the next step, and the next one. Before you know it, your surroundings melt into the background, the troubles around you become trivial, and your existence inside has a very shiny silver lining as you work towards positive future endeavors.

Surviving in prison is hard work for all involved, but if you start on the right foot, every step will get easier. If done right, time in prison can go a long way towards a better life both inside and outside of prison life, for yourself and for those who love you.

Prison Lives provides positive links between those who must spend time inside and their loved ones who are affected outside. We do so through a variety of relevant, updated and reliable publications that prepare from the moment of incarceration to the day of release. If you or someone you care about is incarcerated or soon to be, the following current publications may prove to be invaluable.


For Loved Ones:

Surviving County Jail: A Guide for Friends and Family


For Prisoners:

Prison Lives Almanac: Prisoner Resource Guide (annual)

Prison Lives Almanac: Prisoner Education Guide (annual)

Prison Lives Almanac: Prisoner Entertainment Guides (4x a year)


Prison Lives ( is a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals while incarcerated for a positive existence both inside and outside of prison life.




ga('set', 'userId', {{USER_ID}}); // Set the user ID using signed-in user_id.