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Trump administration is clueless on criminal justice

Originally Published on USA Today

After President Trump's surprise firing of FBI Director James Comey, the flurry of comparisons to President Nixon started to fly. But the comparison could just as easily have been made to Trump's intentions toward criminal justice.

Trump campaigned on law and order, stating that under his watch "safety would be restored." He was echoing the campaign promises made by Nixon during his 1968 run, where he announced, "We are to restore order and respect for law in this country."

The Nixon administration was decisive, setting the trend for the enactment of a series of law-and-order regulations. Now, it appears the Trump administration is following suit. Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered stricter federal criminal sentencing guidance. Prosecutors should "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense," he wrote, a move that will increase incarceration rates.

The United States has 2.2 million people in prisons and jails — a 500% increase over the past four decades. It has dubiously earned America the most-incarcerated-country-in-the-world award. However, between 2010 and 2015, the national imprisonment rate actually declined 8.4%. For the first time in 40 years, the number of prisoners started to decrease instead of increasing yearly. Notably, the nation's crime rate remained at a 20-year low. Criminal justice finally appeared to be going in the right direction.

Then Trump took office.

Trump says one thing, proposes another

In February, barely a month into his administration, the Department of Justice made the most pronounced change. It decided to reinstate the use of private prisons for federal incarceration, rescinding a key order made by the Obama administration just months earlier to "phase out" their use. In the memo, Sessions said private prisons were necessary "to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system." In other words, the law-and-order mantra of Trump's campaign was about to be realized — incarceration rates are about to ramp up.

But after the fact, the administration released its 2018 budget, indicating an overall reduction in correctional spending. With an announced decrease in Department of Justice spending to the tune of $1.1 billion, his proposed budget actually forecasted a move toward less incarceration — affecting the Crime Victims Fund and the Asset Forfeiture Fund, both designed to reimburse state prisons and county jails for incarcerating undocumented immigrants. Furthering that notion, other crucial funds contributing to mass incarceration were also on the chopping block.

So which is it: a galvanizing of Nixon-sparked mass incarceration or continuing the Obama trend of chipping away at it?

The sentencing guidance formally rescinds the prior administration's policies that successfully lowered federal incarceration rates. Perhaps the biggest clue to the direction of this administration came when the president instituted new executive actions, including the Restoring Community Safety Act, which pledges increased funding for programs that train and assist police. The act was backed up in the proposed budget by a $175 million increase in law enforcement spending. But historically, this is the kind of action that has led to the types of aggressive policing practices that Trump promised on the campaign trail — the sort that heavily contributes to higher incarceration rates.

States, rather than federal government, control most U.S. correctional policy. However, president-enforced spending on increased policing and reactive bolstering of policies surrounding it are what got us into the mass incarceration situation our country is in now. From Nixon through Bill Clinton, this was precisely the way law-and-order promises by presidents have gotten done. Trump and Sessions want to continue this tradition.

For now, the progress of national criminal justice reform seems to have merely stalled. After just a few short months, we have reason to believe we're on the path backwards in history. For those fighting for reforms, it's safest to assume that this is just the calm before the storm. The writing is on the wall.

Bianca Clark is the executive 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.

Happiness for Those in Prison

Happiness for Those in Prison

A guest post written by Joseph Clair for Prison Lives

To the parents of imperfect children.

To the children of imperfect parents.

 We all want our loved ones to be happy. No matter the circumstance. Research has shown that being happy can come from a place above circumstance. Physical conditions do not have to define happiness. Our brains are wired to be happy when what is truly meaningful is present within our thoughts. Being happy is not dependent upon our surroundings. Happiness is a state of bliss inside the mind. When we have meaning and purpose and are focused on what is greater than our surroundings, we can have happiness and peace. The more difficult the situation we find ourselves in, the more evident are the meaningful things that make us truly happy. An inner strength can be built that cannot be taken away by outside forces and will result in a strong invincible happiness.

Happiness is available for those who find themselves imprisoned.

There are many people who are not imprisoned by walls and bars but are imprisoned by other things such as fear, depression, anger, and guilt. The same elements that free us from these mental prisons will free us from walls and bars. Those who seemingly have it easy do not get the benefit of the in depth knowledge that is available to those who have it more difficult. Those who find themselves in very difficult situations gain a reward that is a precious resource they can always rely on throughout their life.

Whether behind physical or mental bars, if a person is experiencing guilt, fear, anger, and depression, then there is no happiness.Our thoughts govern our state of mind. Our brains are made torelease chemicals that give us happiness when our thoughts are based on goodness. No manmade drug is needed to make us happy, our brains manufacture what chemicals we need. The highest high, a wonderful state of bliss, can be attained by simply understanding life and love. There is nothing more powerful than life and love. When our thoughts line up with life itself, then we have what we need to be happy, no matter the circumstance.

The most debilitating state of mind a person can have is guilt. A person with guilt is a person who does not understand love. Love comes from life. Life’s main ingredient, basic characteristic, is love. Life’s love by definition is the giving of life. If a person thinks about the most love they have ever been shown, being given breath, a body, and a mind is the greatest. Life brought us into being not we ourselves. Life is a true gift and being given life is love at its purest. Life made each of us and we are all organic in nature. We are all born weak and ignorant with the opportunity to grow stronger and wiser. We are all the same in our imperfection. There is no human being who is good on their own. All goodness comes from life. No human being made how they are put together and we all are made imperfect. There is no profit in dwelling on our imperfection. To be loved is to be given what is needed. Need is necessary to know love. We all have need because of our imperfection. Love takes care of our need. Imperfection and need are sown into our humanity. It is very important to understand how love works. Love is the ability to make perfect that which is imperfect. No one can make themselves good the same as no one can make themselves. Goodness cannot be earned. Love cannot be earned. Love can only be a gift. Guilt comes from thinking about ourselves, our weakness, mistakes, our imperfection. Love’s ability is bigger than our ability. Love gives us our goodness out of an act of kindness. Love makes us good so we don’t have to be good to be loved. Love is more powerful than our weakness and faults. Nothing can keep us from life’s purpose and love. We may think people are against us but the only thing against us is fear and ignorance. Fear and ignorance have no power over love and wisdom. As light has absolute power and authority over darkness, (walk into a dark room and turn on the light and darkness is absolutely gone instantly), so the knowledge of love and wisdom absolutely removes fear and ignorance.

Love is the most powerful energy in existence. No prison can keep love from us. Love is there for us even in the worst situation. Love cares for us and is devoted to us. Love is a comforting and calming presence that is truly satisfying. There is no fear or guilt in love just as there is no fear in light. When we walk into a dark room and turn on the light switch, we see there is nothing to be afraid of. Darkness is only the absence of light. Guilt is the absence of understanding that love makes us good as a gift of compassion and kindness. Pride wants to earn love. Humbleness is seeing the need to be loved and that love is given without merit. When we focus our thoughts on the love shown to us when we were given our existence, then guilt is taken away. Guilt doesn’t exist in the presence of love.

Knowing the true meaning of love enables us to have a solid unmovable foundation on which to build a life. Love means forgiveness, love means compassion, love means understanding we are all imperfect, fragile, and in need of love’s empathy, grace, and mercy. Those of us who find ourselves in the worst situations can know love the most. Light shines brightest in the darkest places. Love is the authority, not our feelings of guilt. The more we need love’s help, the more we experience love’s goodness.

Love is intended for each of us. Love is etched in our very being. Scientists have found the place in the limbic part of the brain where love comes in and goes out. This part of the brain is connected to all other functions of the mind and body. Nothing helps a person function more than love. All human beings are at their best in all facets of life when they experience being loved. Our minds and bodies, being imperfect, will always let us down, will always make mistakes, will always be in need of love. As light takes away darkness so love takes away mistakes and failure. Seeing love’s goodness towards us removes any guilt and fear. A flower doesn’t bloom when it is put in a dark room. A flower blooms when it is given the sunshine it needs. We can always have our thoughts on what is good and meaningful and loving.

Love is what is truly meaningful and what gives each one of us a great purpose. Love forgets no one and love knows our innermost needs. Focusing our thoughts on the brilliance of life and love makes us happy anywhere and anytime. Being thankful and humble brings feelings of joy and peace. Seeing what life is teaching us every day makes us wise and strong. When we see the love that has been given to us by life itself then we have an invincible state of mind. Love is bigger than any situation we find ourselves in. Nothing has power over love. Life’s love is relentless and timeless. Life is constantly creating and giving life and goodness, which is love. Life is above all. Love is above all.

When we humble ourselves to love’s ability to heal and deliver us from any situation, any pain, any walls and bars, we find rest and happiness.We then have hope. Hope is what is guaranteed just not yet realized. We are all guaranteed a wonderful life as we learn and grow stronger in love’s ability to raise us up and out of our prisons.

More is available at: abookofhappiness.com

The Truth Behind Getting in Trouble in Prison

troubleinprison

The Truth Behind Getting in Trouble in Prison, Originally published on the Huffington Post

By Shannon Ross written for Prison Lives

I recently found myself facing a common choice as an incarcerated individual: be a good person or be a good inmate; follow the dictates of humanity or follow those of the Department of Corrections (DOC). I chose the former.

Forty-two days in the hole later, and counting, I face the prospect of being sent back to a higher security prison further away from home. Yet my time has been spent in thought over how others, my loved ones and supporters, even society in general, misperceive what it means to get in trouble in prison.

To be fair, I did technically violate DOC policy and procedures, but there are many times when such rules can be illogical and ineffective. For instance, to break up a fight, even if one person is getting destroyed, is against the rules, as is making a three-way phone call, even if it's to facilitate a mothers talking to her son on his birthday.

Staff have the power to choose how they enforce the rules -- either according to logic and fairness by following a spirit-of-the-law approach, or to write a ticket or press the emergency button. Letter-of-the-law enforcement requires no more than a sixth-grade reading level and just enough mobility to write a ticket -- a disciplinary infraction. On the other hand, staff can look at the reason behind the regulation, the actions it's meant to prohibit or allow, to decide on any discipline. Three-way calls, for example, are banned so that we don't harass people who don't want to speak with us, especially crime survivors. It is not meant to prevent incarcerated parents from talking to their children (unless convicted of abusing them). Following the spirit of the law here would be equivalent to a cop letting a jaywalker off where there isn't a car within miles.

Correctional officers are managers. Their job is to monitor, control and safeguard the prison setting. Effective management requires flexibility with the rules in order to combat the type of tense, bitter and angry environment that comes with rigid enforcement. As any handyman would confirm, the same tool cannot be used to fix every problem. In many situations it is best to overlook a violation, or even permit it, for the greater good of all involved. Unfortunately, however, such logic and fairness are considerably under-utilized by prison staff.

Again, to be fair, it's safe to say that most of the discipline part to is justified under both spirit and letter. But even within this segment there are many instances that do not translate well to the outside world. For example, fantasy football -- an incredibly popular form of entertainment in society, encouraged as a bonding exercise for families and co-workers -- is understandably forbidden in prison. In this setting it can lead to fights, theft and general disruptions.

None of this takes into account the rules that simply should not exist. For instance, possessing adult porn or insulting a staff member outside of their presence are against the rules, even though no one is harmed. But there is the far-too-common reality where staff exaggerate or all out lie about an incident to intentionally cause trouble for the inmate -- or to deflect attention from their own misdeeds.

What this means for society, especially for those with loved ones behind bars, is that going to the hole does not necessarily indicate a bigger issue. The DOC is kind of like a foreign country where right, wrong, or respectable conduct are contrary to attitudes and behavior that define responsible and successful citizens in American society.

Over the course of my 13 1/2 years in prison, I've received 18 minor tickets and one major -- a behavioral record the DOC has termed "satisfactory." It may seem like a lot of infractions, but that's my point: even the prison administration (when it wants to) acknowledges that much of this disciplinary stuff is trivial.

Based on my only other trip to the hole, I expect to more or less have to defend my current experience to some in my life. I don't hold any grudges over their concerns or doubts. By getting locked up, I put myself in a position to be questioned or judged for every mouse-fart decision I make.

On behalf of every incarcerated individual, however, when you hear about a prisoner in solitary confinement, or if you have an incarcerated loved one who makes the likely trip to the hole, please give them a break -- even if the institution makes it seem serious. Refrain from jumping to conclusions, catastrophizing or moralizing. When it comes to the DOC, where there's smoke it doesn't necessarily mean there's fire.

Written by Shannon Ross 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.

Shannon Ross is an ambassador for The Community newsletter, which is an anti-mass incarceration publication with a mostly Wisconsin focus that comes out every couple of months and is now sending out info via email every couple weeks.

 

How judges and drug companies stopped Arkansas’s execution spree

Originally published on The Hill

death penalty

This week, the Arkansas Department of Corrections, poised to set the nation's record for the most executions administered over a 10-day period, got caught.

With the supply of the first of the three required drugs in the lethal injection drugs cocktail about to expire, the state hastily lined up eight condemned men to face their sentence. But with the drugs prepped and the execution team at the ready, a judge called it off.

The reason for the stay: Arkansas officials lied to their drug supplier.

Arkansas is a state that has adopted secrecy laws to cover up the drugs it is using, how it obtains them, and the procedures it uses for executions. 

According to Asa Hutchinson, governor of the state, "The reason for this is the source of the drug would dry up because of pressure that mounts from anti-death penalty advocates, boycotts, threats."

Continue reading this article on The Hill

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 (www.prisonlives.com), 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: http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/crime/327623-the-power-of-the-pen-inside-american-prisons-is-often-underestimated

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

Originally published on The Hill

execution

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

SHU

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

monsters

Originally Published on Forbes.com


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 (www.prisonlives.com) 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.

 

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