discussion, fantasies, murder, prison, rehabilitation, review, writing

The Murderer and the Manuscript

Amazing story in the New York Times about the winner of a mystery-novel contest who is in prison, serving a minimum of 30 years for murder.

“Just before Labor Day in 2011, Toni Kirkpatrick, an editor at Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, picked up her phone and called an unfamiliar number with a Southern California area code. She was hoping to deliver good news to a man named Alaric Hunt, the newest winner of a debut-detective-novel writing contest, jointly sponsored by Minotaur Books (another St. Martin’s imprint) and the Private Eye Writers of America. The contest has a good track record — a past winner, Michael Koryta, a 21-year-old phenom, has since published 10 successful thrillers — and it also comes with a substantial prize: a $10,000 advance and a guaranteed publishing contract for the book that has been submitted.”

Cuts Through Bone

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criminal justice, discussion, prison, stereotypes

Beyond Punishment

Check out this audio-visual project that focuses on sharing individual stories from the restorative justice movement in the United States. Started by five Middlebury College students in the Spring of 2013, Beyond Justice offers a nuanced look at the ways individuals are challenging traditional approaches to punishment through narrative.

Beyond Justice

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criminal justice, poverty, prison, racism, review, stereotypes, violence

Some Thoughts on Neurocriminology

Adrian Raine’s article “The Criminal Mind” has been buried in a pile of must-reads on my nightstand for months now. When it was first published in April 2013 in The Wall Street Journal, I was too busy with the release of my book. And frankly, I was also a bit afraid. Last night, though, I finally unearthed the article and read it.

Of course I knew from my own research that neurocriminology receives far more funding than environmental psychology of violent behavior, but I’ve always been wary of it. I thought that to look at the brain as the cause of criminal behavior was misleading and dangerous. Why? Crime and incarceration affect a disproportionate number of people of color. The conclusion that the make-up of one’s brain causes a person to become a criminal may suggest to some that African Americans are by nature more violent than white people. It would bring us precariously close to the 19th-century pseudoscience of Phrenology, which claimed that we could recognize a criminal by his physical features. Furthermore, I was—and still am—worried that the increasing focus on the physical traits of criminals lessens our interest in crime-causing factors in the environment, factors that can potentially be changed. We can fight poverty, the easy accessibility of guns, bad schools and a dysfunctional family background, but our brains? Good luck with that! I also wish society would take at least some responsibility for people’s actions.

Raine’s article, however, does justice to the complexity of the issue. A Professor of Criminology, Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Anatomy of Violence (Pantheon, 2013), Raine concludes that “genetics and environment work together to encourage violent behavior.” A child who is predisposed to violent behavior due to his genetics does not necessarily become a criminal; there are plenty of environmental factors that can make up for neurological “handicaps.” Proper nutrition may play a role, for example: Raine writes that studies have shown that Omega-3 supplements in the diets of young offenders reduces serious offending by about 35%. And even if a child’s brain doesn’t show any abnormalities at birth, exposure to environmental toxins, physical abuse and emotional deprivation—a lack of love and a supportive social environment—may alter his brain chemistry, causing him to commit acts of violence. As a result, an initially healthy brain can turn into one that causes impulsiveness, a trait that has long been recognized as a leading cause of violent behavior. Lead is neurotoxic, according to Raine, damaging the prefrontal region which regulates behavior. “Rising lead levels in the U.S. from 1950 through the 1970s neatly track increases in violence 20 years later, from the ’70s through the ’90s.” He concludes, “No other single factor can account for both the inexplicable rise in violence in the U.S. until 1993 and the precipitous drop since then.” Continue reading

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criminal justice, press, prison, public policy, rehabilitation

The Too-Many Prisoners Dilemma

“Prisons are a vast, undercovered but important beat. Why we need more criminal justice coverage” is an excellent article by Dan Froomkin. It laments the lack of coverage of America’s incarceration epidemic by the mainstream media and explains what reporters could (and should) do about it.

I excerpted some quotes from the article that I found particularly eye-opening.

” ‘Too often, no one’s being quoted who doesn’t have a government paycheck, who doesn’t have an investment in mass incarceration,’ Wright [a former prisoner who founded the Prison Legal News] says. (…) Wright is particularly peeved that the New York Times doesn’t have a reporter assigned to the topic. ‘We’ve got two and half million people locked up. Doesn’t this merit a beat?’ ”

” ‘What I see in my work that isn’t as clearly portrayed when I read media stories is that most of the people in prison are not serial killers and child molesters,” [Deborah Golden, the acting director at DC Prisoners Project] says. “Most of the people I meet are really cool, interesting people who usually had a very crappy shot in life. Some people made really tragic mistakes. Some of them made mistakes that lots of people I know made, they just turned out differently, because they got caught.’ ”

“To the extent that the public gets exposure to that kind of message right now, it’s mostly from popular culture. Sesame Street’ this summer introduced a character whose father is in jail, part of an initiative that includes special Muppet appearances at prisons when children are visiting their parents. And one of the most riveting and discussed shows on television right now is the Netflix series ‘Orange is the New Black, which casts its flawed but hardly terrifying female inmate protagonists in a compelling and sympathetic light.”

” ‘If you want to write about prisons, write a couple of stories, and then you’ll get letters, and you’ll find issues,’ Green [Frank Green, who covered prisons full time for the Richmond Times-Dispatch] says. “In fact, I’m probably the last person in the newsroom to get handwritten letters.”

” ‘I don’t think people realize the amount of money involved,” says Lukachick [reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press]. ‘Even if you don’t care about the people—and you should be caring about everybody—we’re talking about billions of taxpayer dollars.’ ”

” ‘No one demands better from our prison officials,’ says Wright.”

” ‘But Drucker thinks what’s needed is something more. ‘I think there’s an apology owed these people,’ he says. And if society is ready to admit its mistakes, and acknowledge how harmful this process has been for the families, he says, then what’s required is ‘a way to sever the tie between them and the criminal justice system, period.’ “

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criminal justice, institutions, prison, public policy, racism

Top Criminal Justice Degrees

Shocking content, bold graphics by Top Criminal Justice Degrees, an online guide to criminal justice degree programs. Thanks, Aria Cahill for sending this!

Profiting Off Prisoners
Image source: topcriminaljusticedegrees.org/private-prisons

Also, check out their infographic about America’s Stand Your Ground Laws.

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criminal justice, police, poverty, prison, public policy, racism, rehabilitation

Turning Points

Let’s hope David Cole is right when he writes that “we are at a turning point in confronting the excesses and injustices of America’s criminal law.” In his NYRB blog post “Getting Past ‘Tough on Crime’,” Cole sums up recent criminal justice achievements across the country:

The coincidental delivery on August 12 of Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech calling for measures to reduce overincarceration and racial disparities in our criminal justice system, and federal judge Shira Scheindlin’s 195-page opinion declaring the New York Police Department’s aggressive “stop and frisk” practices unconstitutional have led some to suggest that we are at a turning point in confronting the excesses and injustices of America’s criminal law. In fact, the turn began some years ago. Both Holder’s brave speech and Scheindlin’s powerful decision reflect a growing recognition over the past decade—in law and in politics—that something is fundamentally wrong with the enforcement of criminal law in America.

Racial injustice in the enforcement of the law, and its disturbing consequences, have been with us for centuries. As President Obama reminded the nation in his remarks after the conclusion of the Trayvon Martin trial last month, “there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.” African-Americans today are far more likely to be arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison for drug possession, even though studies consistently find that whites and blacks use illegal drugs equally. African-Americans are only 13 percent of the general population—and about the same percentage of those who use and sell drugs. Yet African-Americans account for roughly 35 percent of those arrested on drug charges and 53.5 percent of those entering prison for a drug conviction. Much of the rise in the nation’s prison population over the past forty years has been fueled by drug convictions, and African-Americans have borne the brunt of the policy.

But there are encouraging signs that we are moving away from the worst of these practices. While the nation’s incarceration rate has skyrocketed since the 1970s, in the last three years the state prison population has decreased. The drop in 2012 was the largest yet. And racial disparities are also diminishing.

Continue reading…

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Among Murderers, literary journalism, prison, rehabilitation, writing

The Big Lacuna

The following is an essay submitted to me by a prisoner at Attica. Dean Faiello wrote to me a few months ago after reading my book Among Murderers: Life After Prison. Since then we have exchanged some letters discussing prisoner rehabilitation. The chapter “Job Readiness”  of my book deals with rehabilitative programs facilitated by New York reentry organizations such as STRIVE, CEO and the Fortune Society. Serving time for running an unauthorized medical spa and causing the death of one of his clients, Dean Faiello now runs a program at Attica that teaches prisoners business skills. Aware that prisoners are barred from many professions and low wage employers commonly run background checks, Dean knows that most ex-felons will not be able to find employment once they are released. That’s why he encourages his students to open up their own landscaping, web design or construction businesses. When I asked him what other rehabilitative programs are offered to prisoners at Attica, he sent me his essay “The Big Lacuna,” a version of which recently appeared in the print-only Canadian Journal of Prisoners on Prisons. I was so taken by his perceptiveness and his literary voice that I asked him if I could share it.

In short, rehabilitation is virtually absent in prison, even though educational and cognitive behavioral programs have been proven to lower recidivism rates dramatically. Instead, punishment continues to be the focus. Considering that 95 percent of prisoners will eventually be released and that two thirds of them will eventually land back in prison, it is insane that our society cares so little about what happens to those whom we lock up. Dean’s essay offers a rare insight into an inverted world that has become almost entirely inaccessible to the general media.

The Big Lacuna

By Dean Faiello

Under a steel-gray sky, behind Attica’s concrete wall, a grizzled counselor arrived at his office with a paper cup of coffee—black, two sugars. Seated behind a brown faux-wood desk, in a sterile, unadorned office, he booted up his computer. The inbox held a message from Albany. Sipping the somewhat bitter brew, he opened the e-mail.

It was a memo from the Commissioner: “Department of Corrections and Community Supervision counselors will no longer be referred to as ‘counselors.’ Effectively immediately, the new title shall be ‘Offender Rehabilitation Coordinator.’ Furthermore, inmates shall be referred to as ‘offenders.’ These changes in policy will be discussed at administrative meetings in each correctional facility. See the schedule below for further information.”

The counselor noted that Attica’s meeting would be Monday morning in the chapel. As he unconsciously fingered the blue nametag on his shirt pocket, he looked out the narrow window of his office. A steady drizzle had begun to fall.

Although it seemed to be a matter of semantics, as an inmate who is serving time at Attica prison I could understand the Department’s reasoning for the change in titles. DOCCS staff doesn’t provide counseling per se. They coordinate inmate participation in prison programs. However, due to few openings in those programs, especially at Attica, such coordination often consists of merely informing prisoners that they are on a waiting list.

Yet I was hopeful that the new emphasis in rehabilitation signified a change in direction—that rehabilitation would be recognized as an important part of incarceration. Perhaps it would be just as important as the punishment, which appears to be Attica’s priority.

My optimism was short-lived. On the day of the administrative meeting to discuss the changes in titles for counselors and inmates, the entire prison was locked down. No “offenders” were allowed out of their cells. The school building was closed; classrooms were empty. Alcohol and substance abuse programs were shut down. The library was dark. Recreational yards were silent except for the keening cries of seagulls circling and diving for scraps of food.

The guards offered no explanation as to why the cells remained locked. I stood at my gate, dressed, ready for work at my assigned work program. The prison was eerily silent except for the banter of inmates who sat in their cells, wondering what was going on. I took off my boots and lay on my bunk, reading Ralph Ellison’s brilliant novel, Invisible Man.

About an hour later, my neighbor’s cell gate cracked open. An officer yelled down the gallery, “Get dressed. They want you in the chapel.”

Since my neighbor worked in the mess hall, which also served as the chapel, I didn’t think much of it. When he returned after only twenty minutes, I asked him what was going on.

He laughed. “What a bunch a dumb-asses. I go down to the chapel, and all these civilians are sittin’ ’round, starin’ at each other. They tell me, ‘The sound system doesn’t work. Can you fix it?’ So I look at it. There’s no power to it. They didn’t know how to turn the damn thing on. So I flip the switch, test the microphone. It works. What a bunch a ‘tards.”

“Well, how long you think they gonna be down there?”

“Probably all day. They’re just getting started.”

At noon, the clomp of boots indicated that an officer was walking down the gallery.

“C.O., what time we comin’ out?”

“Dunno…”

At 1:00 PM, the officer returned with a clipboard to take the chow list. “Beef cubes” were on the menu. I stayed in my cell until 3:00 PM when the 3 to 11 shift came on duty, and the cell gates opened. No one ever explained to us why the prison was locked down.

I had an uneasy feeling about the administration’s new emphasis on rehabilitation.

About a week later, I met with my counselor for my quarterly review. A sheet of paper with his new title printed in large font, “Offender Rehabilitation Coordinator,” was taped carelessly to his computer. The usually brief meeting serves as an opportunity for me to review my correctional status:

Security level: max

Transfer Status: not eligible

Mandated Programs Status: wait-listed

I’m required by DOCCS to complete two rehabilitative programs—ART (Aggression Replacement Training) and ASAT (Alcohol & Substance Abuse Therapy). I would really like to participate in those programs. I’ve been wait-listed for five years. However, each of those programs has over one thousand men on its waiting lists.

According to my rehabilitation coordinator, most likely I will never see those programs while I am at Attica. Presently, there are only two ART classes running, with fifteen men in each class. Approximately 120 men per year complete the program. At that rate, it will be nine years before the current waiting list is exhausted.

And that doesn’t include the 1,200 new inmates that arrive at Attica every year.

The situation in the ASAT program is even direr. Presently, 1,200 men are on the ASAT waiting list. However, there is only one ASAT counselor. Sixty men per year complete the program, which means it will take 20 years to exhaust the current waiting list. There used to be two ASAT counselors. The other one quit and went to work at another prison. So did the ART counselor.

The exodus of Attica’s rehabilitation coordinators—there are presently four vacant positions—creates a problem not only for the administration, but for us offenders as well. Fights break out at Attica nearly every day. Most likely, those men need the ART program. The officers, who risk injury every time they have to respond to an altercation, would also benefit from more anti-violence programs.

Even those of us seemingly unaffected by a fight in another block are impacted by prison violence. When an alarm sounds, all corridor movement stops. Programs are halted. Classes may be interrupted. The schedule of the entire prison is set back, sometimes causing men to never reach their assigned programs. I’ve seen men miss an opportunity to speak with the Deputy Superintendent of Programs, their rehabilitation coordinator, or attend religious services because 1,000 feet away two men punched each other in the face.

One would think, in view of these ramifications, that the administration would welcome programs taught by volunteers—community members willing to donate their time and efforts to help prisoners, officers and the administration to maintain a peaceful environment. The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) is a nationally recognized program designed to do just that. It is taught at hundreds of prisons throughout the U.S. Yet Attica refuses to pay the salary for one officer, for the three days of the program, so that AVP can take place in Attica’s visiting room. Instead, AVP is permitted to take place only four times a year—when the school is shut down, its classrooms are empty, and standard officer coverage is available.

I wonder what the cost is to the prison for the infractions and hearings needed for those involved in fights, for maintaining special housing units for prisoners convicted at those hearings for fighting with weapons. And what about the sick leave and the medical costs for officers injured breaking up those altercations? Continue reading

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Among Murderers, fantasies, gender, prison, writing

Your Love, Locked up

Shortly after receiving a letter from a prisoner I know asking me if I could find him “a wife, not a girlfriend” online, I came across Melody Wilson’s essay Love Behind Bars: Why did a nice girl like me date an inmate? on Slate.com. I have thought and written about the distorted fantasies prisoners conjure in their cells: the ways they imagine the free world, its women, jobs and daily life. I was never quite able to fully understand why some women seek out men behind bars. Why? Adam, one of the men I profiled in my book, said it quite fittingly: “Most women who come into prison with the idea of developing a relationship with a prisoner have problems developing a relationship with men on the outside,” he said. “And that cuts down on the kind of people you come in contact with.” (p.107) For this reason he had decided to stay single while serving three decades behind bars.

When I read Wilson’s essay, the following paragraphs offered additional insight from the perspective of a woman who had dated a prisoner:

The physical boundaries between me and Justin only served to release us from our inhibitions; nothing was off limits. Writing to him freed me. After all, who was he to judge?

Eventually, Wilson’s relationship with Justin fell apart. She explains,

Our relationship went wrong in much the same way other long-distance relationships do: We grew apart. Things that I had always known about him began to bother me more and more. Justin had never graduated high school, and he hoped to keep working in his dad’s tire shop when he was released. I still wanted more than that. I wanted more than he could give me, I realized.

It is interesting that Wilson understands this to have been a phase, and admirable that she outgrew it. She became a writer, and dating an inmate is only one of many interesting narratives that make up her life. Today she likes tigers, books, cooking and travelling, and is training to compete as a figure skater.

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fantasies, gender, mental illness, outsiders, prison, stereotypes

Gender Swap

If you do a lot of reporting at society’s margins—namely prisons, halfway houses and psychiatric institutions—the importance of fantasy to your subjects becomes painfully evident. Talking to prisoners and mental patients I have learned to appreciate their fantasies. Sometimes I envy them. For example, one of my subjects always talks about food he would like to eat. He has never been out of the country and he frequently asks me about German and Austrian cuisines. We talk about different dishes until our mouths water.

Inspired by my conversations with outsiders, last semester I assigned a gender-switch essay to my freshman students at the College of Mount Saint Vincent. I asked the girls to imagine themselves as boys and vice versa, and to write about the constraints and freedoms of the opposite sex.

The male students hated the assignment. “I almost cringed because being called a woman is considered an insult to me and to many other guys I know,” one boy wrote in a typical response. “If I was forced to be a girl for a day I really have no idea what I would do cause I like doing the things I do now as a guy, I like going to the gym, playing sports and eating as much as I want without the worry of being called fat.” I didn’t know what I should be more worried about: the boy’s gender stereotypes or his run-on sentences. Most boys were so resistant that I hardly got them to write at all.

To be fair, there was one exception: the brave gay student who, after we read Terrence McNally’s play “Andre’s Mother,” decided to come out to his close-minded Philippine parents. In his essay he reveled in fantasies about maxing out his credit card at Victoria Secret, trying out tampons and eating Nutella while on his (or her?) period.

All of my female students said they often felt constrained by their gender and by the expectations tied to it. They had to be home earlier than their younger brothers, were expected to be more chaste and were forced to do more chores around the house. The girls were also sick of the prospect of earning less than their male counterparts—a topic we had explored a couple of weeks earlier.

Most of the girls’ essays made me sad. But there was one that made me laugh out loud. The girl, who chose to remain anonymous, decided to imagine herself in her brother’s skin and mind for a day. With her permission I edited her essay and submitted it to the college’s literary magazine, The Underground.

It begins like this:

If I Were a Boy

My name is Leonardo Vasquez, but my friends call me Trump. I’m a light-skinned Dominican. I stand at 5’11 and the ladies love my light eyes. The first thing I did this morning around six AM was text all my ladies a good-morning message. I make them feel special but in reality I have a chick for every day of the week. I mean, what do you expect? I am young, handsome and I live on my own. I have a main bitch in my life, my Siberian Husky Amber.

To read the whole essay click on the image below.

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