criminal justice, prison, public policy

CAPTURED!

Jeff Greenspan and Andrew Tider have asked prisoners to paint and draw people they felt should be in prison: the CEOs of companies that have destroyed our environment, economy, and society. The resulting portraits are featured in an amazing new book, titled CAPTURED: PEOPLE IN PRISON DRAWING PEOPLE WHO SHOULD BE. “We present this project to help expose crimes masquerading as commerce,” the book’s accompanying website states.

You can click on the paintings and drawings on the website and see the crimes committed by the artists and by the companies’ CEOs and chairmen. An oil painting by Garrett Rushing, who is serving 17 years for drug trafficking with a firearm and possession of meth with intent to distribute, features Michael Corbat, the CEO of Citi Group, for example. Among the crimes Corbat committed are misleading the government into insuring thousands of risky home loans and deceiving investors by concealing the extent of its exposure to toxic subprime debt, fraud, illegal credit card practices and theft. (Corbat “stole over $14 million from customers by ‘sweeping’ positive balances from their clients’ credit card accounts into their general fund.”) Also featured are the CEOs of Walmart (for bribery, looting the public, public endangerment, stealing workers’ wages and tax evasion) and Exxon Mobile, and the chairman of The Nestle Group.

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criminal justice, institutions, literary journalism, outsiders, prison, public policy, Quakers, rehabilitation, writing

Metanoia

jpegI am honored and excited to feature an essay by my prison pen pal Dean Faiello on my blog.  The voices of prisoners are rarely heard–and rarely are they as articulate and beautiful as Faiello’s.

From the ancient Greek, Metanoia means “changing one’s mind.” It happens that one of the main characters in Dean’s essay is our mutual friend Richard Robles, who has gone through a remarkable transformation in the 50 years he has spent in prison. Richard and I have corresponded for the past eight years, and I have had plenty of opportunities to see how he has developed and grown. It pains me to witness Richard’s unrewarded attempts at self-improvement. Since journalists have lost almost all access to prisons, Dean’s essay is one of the few documents we have that allow us a glimpse into a world that is, for the most part, hypocritical, senseless and cruel.

For more of Dean’s writing, purchase Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America (Michigan State University Press, 2014), an anthology edited by Doran Larson. Fourth City features over 70 essays written by prisoners all across the U.S.

Metanoia

By Dean Faiello

I watched Richard Robles, sitting just outside his cell, create a lush, stately oak tree using watercolors and a small, inexpensive brush. I could see the details of each leaf. Yet Richie has been nowhere near a tree for fifty years. The closest tree is far beyond Attica’s massive concrete wall, in a world inaccessible to Richie. The last time Richard enjoyed freedom, the Beatles were on tour in the U. S., and LBJ was in the White House.

I struggled to reconcile the artistic, sensitive Richie with the deranged killer portrayed in New York City newspapers during the Sixties. While he sat at a brown Formica table, Richie’s belly hung over his green sweatpants, his swollen ankles mottled by blue and purple veins. At seventy years of age, his health was frail. Brown plastic bags of medications littered his prison cell.

For about a year, Richie and I were neighbors, our cells separated by just six feet. We shared our frustrations over Attica’s inanity. The parole board wants prisoners to take drug abuse and anti-violence programs before granting them freedom. Yet Attica’s waiting lists for those programs hold over two thousand names. Some men have been incarcerated for more than twenty years before getting the opportunity to take State mandated programs.

Rehabilitation is not a prison priority. Even though drug use contributed to my crime, I was incarcerated for eight years before being granted the opportunity to participate in a State drug program. Further, reentry to society is hampered by the inadequate preparation that inmates receive to succeed outside of prison. Richard Robles’s vocational training is for a computer program that no longer exists. I’ve received no vocational training whatsoever. In a world that communicates at the speed of light using email, texting, and Skype, I toil at a typewriter.

Yet, I strive for self-improvement. For nearly four years, I’ve worked toward a two-year degree in a college program. Embracing change, I attend Alternatives to Violence Project workshops and meditation sessions. I sit cross-legged on moldering black mats in an antiquated classroom where the ceiling tiles dangle precariously and the chalkboard is speckled from years of use, and disuse. In a futile search for recent works, I visit the prison library. The newspapers are weeks old. The Dewey decimal card catalogue collects dust. When I arrive at the school building that houses the library, most of the classrooms are dark; the desks are vacant.

Achieving an education in prison can be a lengthy, frustrating process. The waiting lists for vocational and GED programs hold many names. New York State no longer funds higher education -for prisoners. Richie Robles was among the last of the students to participate in the Inmate Higher Education Program (IHEP) before Governor Pataki terminated its funding. Now, prison college programs are privately funded by compassionate philanthropists. As a result, there exist only a handful of such programs. A very small percentage of New York’s prisoners are enrolled. At Attica, less than two percent of the population is working toward a college degree. Self-improvement in prison is a challenge.

Yet prisoners are not unique in their struggle for change. Human nature resists that which is new or different. Change is uncomfortable, stressful and difficult to achieve. A genuine transformation—a change in behavior, attitude and thinking is hard won, and can require many years of hard work and dedication. The slightest change in my daily routine can throw me off balance. I may logically know how to handle a sudden complication, but emotionally, I resist. Change causes me anxiety.

As I watched Richie Robles patiently create a sylvan scene with watercolors, I had no doubt that he has undergone a transformation. Bald, overweight, and infirm, he is no longer the out-of-control heroin junkie who murdered two women during a drug-crazed binge. After fifty years in prison, he is a college graduate who worked in Attica’s vocational shop making memorial plagues for Corrections Officers who have died. After a religious epiphany, Richie converted to Quakerism and attends prison Quaker meetings every Friday night. He mentors young men who have just arrived in prison, and teaches them artistic skills. When I was taking a college art class, he helped me with a charcoal and pencil portrait, patiently demonstrating the technique of chiaroscuro.

When I had nothing to read because the prison library was inaccessible (closed nights and weekends), Richie lent me books. I read about meditation, Buddhism, the Quakers, and Viktor Frankl’s theory of logotherapy—finding meaning in life. Richie’s books inspired me to write an essay about prison rehabilitation and transformation: ‘The Phoenix.’ I entered the piece in a writing contest. Although I lost, the contest sponsors liked my essay and printed it in a collection of prison writing called ‘The Hard Journey Home.’ 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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