institutions, prison, rehabilitation

A World Inverted

I highly recommend reading Leslie Jamison’s essay “Fog Count,” on visiting her pen pal Charlie Engle in a West Virginia prison. Published this month in The Oxford American, the essay ponders America’s baffling prison rules and its vague, yet cruel philosophies of punishment and remorse. What I found most memorable is the way Jamison describes her own struggles with the divergent perspectives of author and subject. Engle and Jamison quite literally live in two separate worlds, and however close Jamison tries to get to Engle’s world, a huge gulf always remains between them. (Even though Engle is housed in one of America’s minimum-security prisons which, generally speaking, treat their inmates—who are often convicted of white-collar crimes—more humane than maximum-security facilities.)

Jamison’s piece struck a chord because in less than two weeks I will visit a pen pal at Attica, America’s most notorious maximum-security prison. While my pen pal, who has been serving time for murder for more than forty years, appears to be looking forward to my visit, I have ambivalent feelings. I still get chills remembering my last prison visit several years ago. How I was absorbed by this inverted world the moment the gates shut behind me. How forgotten, fearful and lonely I suddenly felt. One step and I was completely cut off from the outside world. Not only did prison look different, it also smelled and sounded different. The light situation was like nothing I had experienced on the outside. If it reminded me of anything it was a morgue.

Here are a couple of excerpts from Jamison’s excellent essay (but you should really read the whole thing):

“There were rules about movement and rules about hygiene and rules about possession. Too many possessions could be a fire hazard. You were allowed five books and one photo album. Hobby craft materials had to be disposed of immediately after use. Finished hobby crafts could only be sent to people on your official visitation list. There would be no postal harassment by hobby craft.” Continue reading

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institutions, prison, rehabilitation

Inside Stories

Excellent article by Beth Schwartzapfel about journalists’ lack of access to U.S. prisons in the Columbia Journalism Review:

Schwartzapfel writes: “Prisons are an abundant source of scoops and stories for enterprising reporters. Life “behind the walls” is rich with drama and moral complexity, and departments of corrections are as badly in need of journalistic sunshine as any other government agency. But to cover them is difficult. They are, of course, closed institutions, meant to lock some people in and keep others out. Reporters often “don’t know how to get access, or they’re refused access and they throw up their hands,” says Michele Deitch, a University of Texas law professor who specializes in prison oversight. Even those who can get in must navigate a complicated relationship with correctional administrators whose goals and needs are often at odds with their own.”

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institutions, poverty, prison, rehabilitation

Passport to Success?

Several years ago I was assigned to write an article for Harper’s Magazine about CEO, the Center of Employment Opportunities, and one of the reentry organization’s clients, Vanetta Washington. The article ended up being “killed.” I was never able to forget Vanetta’s dilemma, her hopelessness, anger and humiliation. When I sifted through my files and came across the original “Passport to Success,” so I decided to post it here:

A long-overlooked epidemic is reaching combustion point: Mandatory sentencing put millions of Americans behind bars and now they are coming back. There are currently five million people on parole or probation, and this year alone some 700,000 prisoners are expected to come home. If past studies are an indication, more than half of them will eventually land back behind bars. No one knows for certain how to rehabilitate these disenfranchised masses. Prison has long decimated their opportunities for improvement, shifting the burden to the communities in which the men and women are released. Having grown enormously in size and number, community-based nonprofit organizations have been testing various rehabilitative methods. One of the largest of these organizations is the Center for Employment Opportunities in New York. This agency tries the most austere, traditional and popular method of rehabilitation on several thousand ex-offenders each year. Its mission brochure, “The Power of Work,” suggests that putting ex-offenders to work upon their release and teaching them punctuality, discipline, respect and presentability increases their self-confidence and their chances of staying free. To promote and monitor these standards, the organization issues its “clients” a Passport to Success—a report card to be worn around their necks and checked off by supervisors at the end of each workday.

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A 42-year-old former crack addict, Vanetta Washington was paroled in 2006 after having served yet another sentence for drug possession. A spotty work history, the surge of criminal background checks and various occupational bars have made it virtually impossible for people like Washington to find legitimate employment. She turned to the Center for Employment Opportunities, whose acronym CEO is meant to be “an aspiration for [its] clients.” “They promised me a lot,” Washington told me. Like thousands of other job seekers with criminal records, she had to first attend a job readiness class, which, depending on the program provider, lasts from a couple of days to four weeks. At CEO’s three-day class the students are instructed to take off their baseball caps and do-rags. They are taught how to fill out job applications and to respond appropriately to the questions of potential employers. In mock interviews the students practice shaking hands and smiling and looking into people’s eyes. They learn to take off their “game face”—the impassive survival mask of the ghetto. They become skilled at speaking about their convictions in a remorseful, non-threatening manner and learn to lie in the honesty test conducted by some .CEO_Passport_a

After graduating from Life Skills class, Washington received her Passport to Success and a pair of state-issued boots ironically like the ones she had to wear at Rikers Island. In the transitional work phase, which lasts up to 75 days, CEO employs its program graduates to clean and maintain state agencies and their jurisdictions. It promises to help find its clients permanent employment if their Passport can prove that they show up to work on time, clean and well-groomed, follow orders and value their work. CEO has grown into a burgeoning business that now serves as a national and international model. It is consulted by agencies from all over the world and its concept has been replicated by Pecan’s Workout program in the UK. Most importantly, its unsentimental philosophy is in line with that of the government, which provides most of its funding.

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CEO’s approach echoes the old saying “idle hands are the devil’s playground.” Work has traditionally been seen both as the main method and desired result of rehabilitation. But some academics are skeptical. “Unemployment only has a modest correlation with criminality,” says Edward Latessa, a criminologist at the University of Cincinnati who assesses programs like CEO. Latessa refers to methods that don’t consider the specific needs and risk factors of ex-offenders and lack sufficient long-term evidence as “correctional quackery.” While work is important, studies have shown that people are not criminals because they are unemployed; they are criminals because they suffer from drug addiction, mental health issues and anti-social attitudes, and because they are unable to escape poverty and their criminal environment. The Fortune Society in New York is one of the few organizations that addresses these risk factors. The agency provides supervised housing as well as educational, mental health and employment services to ex-offenders. The 60 beds in its halfway house and the 4,000 people it is able to serve per year, however, are a mere drop in the bucket.

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institutions, mental illness, racism, rehabilitation

Issa Ibrahim’s Memoir of Madness

I have been posting some things about metal illness, race, discrimination, and violence lately. Some of these posts were inspired by my conversations with people at a New York State mental institution, particularly the artist, musician and writer Issa Ibrahim. Issa’s story interested me for various reasons. He became ill with paranoid schizophrenia in his early twenties. At 24, in a bout of paranoia and fear, he took his mother’s life; his illness had him convinced that she was possessed and needed to be exorcised.

At his trial, Issa pled insanity and spent almost twenty years locked up in a mental institution. He was released to an outpatient residential facility for the mentally ill three years ago.

“It was an accident,” Issa repeats every time the deadly incident comes up in our conversations. More than twenty years after the tragic event Issa is still torn by remorse and the ongoing struggle of trying to understand what happened to him over the course of the 47 years of his life. Issa’s complex emotional landscape is reflected in his work; his parents—his father, who died of cancer shortly before Issa became sick, was a jazz musician and his mother was a painter—have always served as an inspiration and an encouragement for his work.

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Chain of Command, 1994

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Cancer & Homicide, 1996

Last time I spoke with Issa, he explained how his work, when at its best, allows for a sense of forgiveness and peace. “I feel a connection with my mom,” he said as we sat in his room over coffee and cookies. “I just [feel] her presence, or at least a sense of forgiveness, a sense of ‘you’re doing all right, son.’ And so now, whenever I finish a particularly good painting or a particularly good song [and] it’s really better than I thought it could ever [be], I’ll stop for a moment and say, ‘thank you, mom, thank you.’ I feel like a sense of peace in that, more so that she’s forgiven me. It’s a sense of calm within myself finally; part of her lives within me.”

Issa has traced his 20-year-long incarceration in his paintings, music and writing. In March 2012, he self-published a multimedia memoir, titled 330.20 after the Criminal Procedure Law that follows a verdict or plea of “not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect.”

There is much to show and to write about Issa, but for the purpose of this blog he and I decided to feature a small multimedia compilation, including an excerpt from his memoir that addresses the seemingly racially-motivated hierarchies inside the institution. The two paintings we chose are “Chain of Command,” which also deals with this topic, and “Cancer & Homicide,” which depicts Issa’s last memories of his parents. The song “Go Tell ‘Em Like it Was” was recorded and mixed in the room of his outpatient residential facility.

(For an excerpt from Issa Ibrahim’s memoir 330.20: A Memoir of Madness scroll down.)

Song: Go Tell ‘Em How it Was

From Issa Ibrahim’s memoir 330.20: A Memoir of Madness: 

I don’t feel I have much in common with the Mahatas [Mental Health Treatment Aids] who are mostly abusive dullards and virulent racists, to boot. This bothers me because the staff is mostly black and they tend to abuse and victimize the white patients and the minorities who are just too sick for them to form a kinship with. The staff would watch the patients during “prime time,” when the professionals are on duty, and pretty much allow them to work out their relative issues in the safety of this asylum. That is, until the weekend. All the patients were conditioned to dread Saturday morning because this is when the ward staff would come in, put their feet up, eat their sausage, egg and cheese sandwiches with light and sweet coffee delivered from the local deli and begin exacting punishments for long forgotten misdeeds during the week. Continue reading

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Among Murderers, institutions, rehabilitation

The Slow-Moving World of Prison at Twitter Speed

I recently came across a blog project run by volunteers at the infamous San Quentin prison in California. The blog is part of The Last Mile, which calls itself a “startup accelerator program” and claims to “train selected inmates for eventual employment in a paid internship program within the Silicon Valley technology sector.” It teaches prisoners “specific skills related to verbal and written communication, business formation and operation, presentation skills, and computer proficiency.” This doesn’t seem much different from the promises made by CEO and STRIVE, the organizations I visited several years ago while I was researching my book. What all the “work readiness programs” I encountered have in common is that they do not (and maybe cannot) prepare the men for what awaits them in the actual world. The Last Mile website is sort of cluttered, and I couldn’t find out how exactly the organization prepares the men for the myriad challenges of the “outside” job market—background checks, minimum wage labor (if lucky), discrimination, and a highly competitive and rapidly changing technological field, to name just a few—but I hope that it will be able to prove its successes in an independent study.

What I find interesting about The Last Mile is its concept of blog posts written from behind bars. (The organization also has a Twitter account with the handle @TLM that features tweets from behind bars.) From my correspondences with prisoners and ex-prisoners I know that time moves excruciatingly slowly when you’re locked up, and I find it thought-provoking to contrast this slow-moving, inverted world with our fast-moving, ephemeral digital world.

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Among Murderers, institutions, mental illness, racism, rehabilitation

Blackbird Minstrels of Asylumia

I’ve recently been spending time with patients and staff who provide and/or participate in cultural day programs at a state mental institution in New York City. In line with my first book, Among Murderers: Life After Prison, I want to find out which methods of “rehabilitation” currently predominate and how individuals create communities within institutions. How do they bond and how do they distance themselves from those they don’t want to associate with? How do staff, patients and volunteers survive the daily challenges they face, individually and as a group? Having interviewed inmates and staff in the institution’s farming and art programs, I’m also interested in the remaining traces of earlier “rehabilitative” methods. I’m not sure yet whether this will lead to a story or another book (or both), but I do know that I want to continue to convey the daily lives of people at society’s margins to the general public.

Naturally, my ears perked up when a friend mentioned Benjamin Reiss’s Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture. I was particularly absorbed by the book’s second chapter, in which Reiss writes about a troupe of blackface performers that assembled within the New York State Lunatic Asylum in Utica in the mid-19th century. The group called itself the Blackbird Minstrels of Asylumia.

The idea of rehabilitating mentally ill patients by forcing them to participate in debating societies, lecture series, literary journals, dance and dramatic groups came about in the early 19th century. Culture, it was discovered, could be used as a therapeutic tool—and as an opportunity for surveillance and discipline. Under the aegis of culture, authorities attempted to enforce societal norms and standardized, moral behavior, and those who were forced to carry this “ideological baggage” were easy prey. Mental patients in state institutions are for the most part severely sick, isolated and, incapable of resistance.

Here is how Reiss reflects on the irony of white schizophrenics in burned cork and grease performing for patients and staff in the New York State Lunatic Asylum:

“In masking themselves, the outcast actors imitated figures who were equally outcast—the slaves and urban Northern blacks who were tarred by blackness much as the actors themselves were stigmatized by the label of insanity. They enacted scenarios of slave life for the ultimate captive audience; and under the watchful eye of the asylum authorities, they turned a famously unruly form into a spectacle of their own capacity for self-control.”

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