It Ain’t The Promised Land…Part Seven

The prison industry at Canaan is not the problem. Rather, it is very much symptomatic of a much older, deeper, and entrenched policy that builds prisons, buys votes, and destroys lives. Currently, there are approximately 2,500,000 men, women, and children imprisoned in federal, state and local penitentiaries and jails that stretch across this country from its most exciting cities to its smallest and isolated rural communities. No matter their locale or size, they imprison not people, but broken dreams, misguided visions, and failed policies. Each year, that number grows exponentially. Already out-of-control, at the current rate, by the year 2020, the number of prisoners nationwide will reach epidemic proportions.

Currently, there are 10 million convicted felons in the United States, or about 20% of its adult population. Something is very much broken here. To suggest that a society can be described as healthy which at any given time jails upwards of 10% of its people, indeed 25% of prisoners worldwide, at the same time its population is less than 5% of that same world is to turn day into night… an exercise in perverse delusion… or perhaps the best indication that “tough on crime” is but a relentless cheap campaign slogan that plays to the moral agenda of the powerful few while it targets people based largely on race, class, and politics.

The so-called war on drugs has gone on for too long, causing far more societal damage than the underlying drugs themselves, or any short-term economic law enforcement “benefit” generated by their criminalization. Currently, approximately 60% of all federal prisoners are incarcerated because of victimless drug offenses fueled by the desire of offenders to get high or to help others to do so. Another 10% or so of the prison population is comprised of non-violent white-collar offenses.

America’s love affair with drugs is both seamless and timeless. It dates back to the earliest days of the Republic when more than a few of its well-heeled founders enjoyed snuff to ease pain, pass time, or simply escape. Some things don’t change.

Today, sentences for federal drug offenses continue to be draconian and often run into decades of real prison time. While use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes is now lawful in some three dozen states, several dozen prisoners nationwide are doing life sentences with no chance of release because these victims stand convicted of multiple pot offenses and nothing else.

It’s far too easy, and too slick, to simply say that drug offenders make personal choices driven by character weakness or financial greed and thus should not be heard to complain… not in a country where the chase for profit has embraced an addictive tobacco and alcohol industry of death that kills tens of millions of Americans each year through disease and violence… and has for a century or more.

Today, in Pennsylvania, where the Canaan prison complex sits like a mausoleum for the living dead, there are fourteen federal prisons of all security levels ranging from camps to maximum security and a private facility which collectively imprison almost 15,000 prisoners. Nationwide, there are more than 250,000 federal inmates.

Annual costs per federal inmate are approximately $23,000 for minimum security camps, $27,000 for low security, $28,000 for medium security, and $36,000 for high security prisons. Costs per inmate housed in community corrections (residential re-entry centers, and home confinement) for the BOP are approximately $27,000. By contrast, the yearly cost of community-based supervision by probation officers is approximately $3,500 per offender. Dollars alone, the stark, indeed dramatic, difference between building prisons or new probation offices is breathtaking, all the more so considering the recidivism rates. For those so-called offenders who stay at home with support from their families, employed or acquiring real skills, re-arrest figures remain no worse or lower than that for those locked away for the same offenses while their families slip further and further into poverty and despair.

Can it be that the high-growth prison industry in Pennsylvania, indeed nationwide, has become a political perk for politicians such as the late and all-powerful US Senator from the Keystone State, Arlen Specter, who built jails and thus bought votes from his constituents all the years he served as one of the Senate’s most powerful lawmakers and, for many years, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Through his reign, Pennsylvania saw an unprecedented growth in its federal and state prison system while not a single new university was built during that time.

In Pennsylvania, almost 60% of the federal inmate population, which mirrors the country as a whole, is locked away in camps or low-security level facilities. By their very nature, such prisons are filled by those who have been convicted of non-violent drug or white collar offenses. Based on their history, they present no risk or danger to the broader community. They remain, however, imprisoned far from their homes and community at tremendous costs to their families and society as a whole… doing often long, and always lonely, time for retribution’s sake and little else. Today, such prisons are running almost 50% above capacity.

Imagine how much better, healthier, and wiser we could all become overnight with a 60% (if not greater) drop in the federal prison population and the billions it costs to maintain these human warehouses nationwide.

“Count time, count time, count time,” echoes throughout Canaan as the lights dim and another night of darkness takes hold.


It Ain’t The Promised Land…Part Six

It’s the most important room in the prison, bar none. With three ancient microwave ovens, some battered washing machines and dryers, a leaking ice machine and a few faded counter-tops and tables, everything happens here every day. Need a four-course dining extravaganza? Go to the kitchen! Need your blood-stained sheets washed? Go to the laundry! Need to ice down your days-old sour milk cartons? Go to the ice room! Need your prison greens ironed? Go to the dry cleaners! Need a game of dominoes? Go to the game room! All things to all prisoners is this 20×40-foot dreary room with a cracked cement floor, stained white concrete walls, and a large, cold, picture window. Are you an animal lover? Well, early each morning, you can come watch an army of large ants fighting on the floor over crumbs left the night before, mostly by design. Want to hang out and just bullshit or look out at the layered concertina wire, towering brick walls and gun turrets that surround the prison yard several hundred yards away? Go to the veranda.

Early mornings and late evenings are always the worst time in prisons as prisoners race around to get ready for forced, meaningless labor, or sit alone and reflect on lost lives and dreams, afraid of the future.

It’s 8:00 AM on a Sunday morning and Freddie has already been hard at work in his kitchen for some two hours preparing for his weekly banquet. As he dices spoiled apples and dated turkey rolls, crushes bags of Dorito’s chips, and seasons rice and beans, other prisoners begin to stumble in wiping, from their eyes, what little sleep they got and waiting on line to heat their coffee, tea, or eggs at the microwave. While Freddie preps his meal, Joe is busy but a few feet away, in his grey prison sweats, ironing a tight and crisp crease in this prison greens as he gets ready for more visits. Like the mail, he holds the record for most visits as a steady stream of family, friends, and union members pass through Canaan each weekend to give him something to look forward to in his otherwise dreary life.  Logan, as always, is all business as he walks in to confront his “nephew” who is already hanging out talking smack to some other young prisoners. Although not related, the two call each other “uncle” and “nephew” out of endearment. His favorite student, a young black man whose wife died, while he has been in prison, leaving behind three young, now parent-less, kids, broke his appointment to meet with Logan the night before to work on his resume. In walks “Leech,” with his small plastic trash can in one hand, to be topped off with ice, and a bag of dirty laundry in the other. Wallace and Jamal come in together in search of another Muslim prisoner as they ready for the second prayer of the still-young day. Justin, a pasty young white man from rural Maine, paces nervously, waiting to hear the loudspeaker call out “pill line, pill line, pill line” to take the edge off of another day before its pressure mounts.

“People gonna get high,” Freddie joins in as two other prisoners debate drug addiction and laws as they pass time waiting their turn for the washing machine. One, a young Latino graduate of Narcotics Anonymous, who later relapsed and got busted, is especially animated this morning. “The laws aren’t tough enough,” Flacco yells out, with tears in his eyes. “I fucked up and deserve the 24 months the judge gave me. Maybe more. I got no gripes.”

To Freddie, who rolls his eyes, 24 months is a joke, a walk in the park.  To him, Flacco is just looking to score some points with the cops… outside and in.

“It don’t matter what they say or do,” Freddie says as he starts to ready a pie made of week-old bananas, sour milk, and Hershey’s Kisses. “Drugs been here since day one and ain’t leaving. Jail don’t scare a fiend.  He’s gonna do what he’s gonna do and get high. Rich, poor, white, black, young, old, male, female… getting high is all you want. I know. I been there year after year, for as long as I can remember

Cash nods his head in agreement. “Drugs are an illness,” he says, “and sending users or sellers to prison don’t do nothing but destroy families and waste money.” Joe joins in, as he always does on matters of politics and social policy, “Drugs are a disease.” Not all of them, or all amounts, he reasons, “but the government criminalizes health issues to warehouse the poor and extend the prison economy nationwide.”

Logan, now firmly but softly lecturing his nephew about personal responsibility to himself and his kids, joins in. “You’re right, Joe,” he says, “most prisoners in this country are in prison for drugs and nothing else. These sentences are insane,” he continues, “… it takes all the money from poor communities and inner-city schools and infrastructure and for what,“ he asks, as he turns his back to his prized student and continues his lecture to the others.

Justin, quiet throughout, although nervous but attentive, suddenly stumbles into the discussion. “I don’t know what to say,” but breaks his thought mid-sentence as he hears a faint message over the loudspeaker and fears he’ll miss his meds for the day. “I don’t want to get high, he continues, “but I ‘m going home soon and to what… I’ve got no skills, no job… no home. Where am I going?” He adds, “All I’ve done here is time. I don’t want to get high…”

“THEN DON’T!” yells Flacco interrupting in a loud almost-shout to intimidate him. “Then don’t!” he repeats, as he switches to his own fears. “I wish I could stay clean, too. All I want is to start over, “ says the young, now angry Latino. “I lost my family the first time,” he adds, “and they won’t come back to me. Now I’m all alone,” says the NA failure.

“I got depressed and relapsed, too,” says Juan, who has since entered the room to cook his eggs. He’s been getting high in the streets of Newark since 15, beginning not long after his dad was killed by cops.

“Welcome to the club,” says Robert. “My wife and kids are long gone. Just spilt… who knows where. And now with me on my way home after 17 years.” Wallace agrees as he looks out the now-open door for Curtis, anxious to go to prayer. “I lost my family here. They just couldn’t wait any longer for the miracle that never came.”

“What do you expect?” chimes in Jeff, as much a rhetorical question. “We’re all criminals… a country of criminals. How many of us are there now? 10 million, 20 million with convictions and prison records… or on their way to one,” as his voice trails off.

“I don’t know,” Cash joins in, “there are times when all I can do is shake my head. It’s nuts. Just fucking nuts.”

“Years ago, I didn’t know anyone from my hood without a prison bid or record. It’s probably true of my city now,” says Cash. “It seems like no family stays together, just a revolving door.”

Robert adds, “I can’t remember a time when my family was all together at the same time and on the same street. Me, my dad, my brothers… one of us always away or well on their way to it.” He turns to look out the window just as Spice joins in. “In Philly, nothing but cops, courts, and jail. You get all jammed up trying to get straight or to make a little cash… next stop, 5, 10 or 20 years… no bodies, it don’t matter… you’re gone.  All you see in this state is jails, old and new, everywhere it seems there is a prison,” notes Logan. “No new hospitals or treatment centers or schools… nothing for our kids or their future but a public defender and a cell.”

Joe interrupts, “I just read an article on prisons and costs, it’s just unbelievable. The cost to jail someone, a non-violent person, is more than eight times greater than it is to keep him home with his family with supervision and community service. I’ll go get it,” says Joe as he returns the iron to the wall hook and leaves to get ready for his visit. Justin continues, “I tried to get help. I couldn’t. I tried to get a job. There was none. I tried to learn a trade. They laughed. It was a circle, a run-around. It never stopped.”

Justin agrees, “I had to go down south to get clean and when I did, and came home, they busted me for old shit. Here I was finally clean and in handcuffs.”

“What do you want,” says Flacco, “a medal?” as he returns to the room, still blaming everyone but himself for his own failures. “You get high because you’re weak… plain and simple!” he shouts out.

“Fuck off!” Juan yells back. “I wanted help. I tried to get it. There was nothing. All I got was closed doors or a long waiting line wherever I turned.”

“Yeah, right,” adds Curtis. “Just waiting. We’re always waiting, it seems, for the feds to come… to take us away.”

“You know the deal,” Spice adds in. “Spin me, turn me, give up your friend, your cousin, your mom.”

“It don’t matter,” adds Curtis, “They don’t care about the truth. They just want more and more bodies… dead or alive.

“The feds just don’t give a fuck,” adds Juan. “It’s all the same shit,” says Chris as he walks out the door with his coffee now hot and his anger not much cooler.

“It’s all about cops,” says Leech, himself now upset as he shakes his head staring out the window. “It’s about class and color and wealth. White folks don’t get busted the way we do,” adds Cash, “and when they do, it’s usually a walk. They get embarrassed, but then go on.” Upset, he leaves the room, slamming the door as he does.

Mike, who’s been sitting watching Freddie work, largely silent, is from the same mean streets as Robert. He’s been down himself for 18 years because of drugs. Now in his late 40’s with his family grown and gone, he’s seen it all as he’s worked his way down from deadly high security prisons, where he fought to survive one night at a time, to camps where the boredom eats at you day in and out. Big, tough, muscular and usually silent, there’s much more to Mike than the body he’s built up all these years. Late at night, he can be seen reading, often all night long, everything he can find from daily newspapers to magazines and books to treatises. “Most of these prisons are death traps and the rest unnecessary. No way the people in them need to be there,” he says, almost detached and academic, as he puts on his scarf and jacket and prepares to leave. “I’m just so tired of the revolving door.” he adds, “… young kids coming in, sitting, and years later leaving, old and broken, with new ones taking their place.” No one moves or jumps in as Mike speaks. He’s earned his say and respect from all… including many guards. “Lives lost, families destroyed, and for what?” he continues. “Why? Most prisoners in this country are not violent or dangerous. They should be at home. Community supervision is just so much better for all… and cheaper.” With his voice trailing off, he walks out the door into the morning cold.

Joe’s since returned, standing quietly by the ice machine, still waiting to hear his name called out for a visit, but now dressed in his pressed greens, wearing spotless white sneakers that he keeps bagged and only uses for such occasions. Agreeing with everything he’s heard the past few minutes, he weighs in on the double standard he sees at the DOJ in who it prosecutes. Himself a prominent older white man, he rails with passion about jails filled mostly with poor, young, inner-city men of color while huge corporate profiteers get a free pass. “Everywhere I look in prison, I see mostly black and brown faces. The white ones are all guards or a few small fries… guys busted for low-level frauds or insider trading.  Where are the bankers?” he shouts out, almost like a Sunday morning pastor preaching to the choir, his face turning red with anger. “They ain’t here,” he continues. “Forget it. Where are the banks?.Where’s HSBC, or CitiBank, or Chase… caught red-handed laundering billions for drug cartels and others and they get nothing… a civil settlement and fines which they write off on their corporate taxes.”

In a room filled mostly with prisoners of color, you can hear a pin drop. As the 7 or 8 other remaining men in the room nod in agreement, the announcement finally comes for Joe’s visit. He straightens his greens and leaves, shaking his head as he walks out the door.

“Money, money, money,” says Leech. “It keeps politicians in office and us in prison. They could rebuild our cities, schools, and hospitals but won’t,” adds Robert, his hands shaking. Logan, now looking for his nephew long gone to work out adds, “Don’t be naïve. Prisons win elections. Crime pays,” he continues as he grabs his tea. “Law and order sells, it makes most voters feel good and politicians feel tough. Tough is good.” Mike nods his head in agreement as he takes a taste of Freddie’s as yet unfinished pie. “Pill line, pill line, pill line,” rings out. Justin stop pacing and almost smiles. He hurries out, on his way to the clinic to make it through another day. He’s not alone… dozens are already lined up when he arrives… jailed for drugs and now using drugs… just different ones… to survive jail.

One by one, the men leave the room as others arrive to repeat the morning ritual. Though it seems like many hours have passed, for the seven or eight men this morning, it’s only been an hour or so of pouring out their hearts and hopes. Their frustrations shared, it helps… at least till tonight when darkness and lonely despair returns.

For Freddie, he cleans the plates and bowls and tables. He’s about done as he packs up today’s menu and sets off to make his morning deliveries. In prison, it’s hard work to survive.

It Ain’t The Promised Land… Part Four

Every city has its own character, a unique identity that says who and what it is. Nothing speaks louder about a city’s life than Broadway, which seems to run through the heart of each one. Prison is no different.

In our Gulag, Broadway runs as a two-lane aisle which intercepts row after row of identical grey metal bunks and cubicles. To walk up and down Broadway here is to quickly feel the pulse of our brotherhood of 130. We may not have neon lights, but heart we got.

Bunk 7. Phil is 70-something. A grandfather of eight and the former president of a workers’… real workers… union in metropolitan New York. Phil is serving nine years… essentially for beating the government, time and time again, over disability claims for his workers. They adore him.

It’s been a tough day already and it’s only 10:00 AM. Phil sits on his bunk and stares at the photos of his grand kids taped to the broken metal “desk” he shares with his “bunkie.” Moving slightly, Phil now stares out into space as he scratches his brow, thinking out loud yet barely audible, “I still can’t believe I’m sitting here for nothing more than fighting for workers’ rights for 45 years.”

Charged, along with several physicians, for fraudulently enabling hundreds of his union members to gain millions in disability payments to which the government claims they were not otherwise entitled, all members were stripped of their benefits before Phil went to trial. There, his efforts to introduce evidence that the members were in fact disabled was rejected by the judge… Phil, convicted. Months later, it was widely reported that almost 100% of the contentious disability findings had been upheld by a panel of independent physicians and the benefits restored to all. While his appeal drags on, Phil walks day after day trying to maintain his sanity and control the anger, wondering with each step how a lifetime of work for others triggered the government’s drive to get him at all costs – including the truth.

Meanwhile, like the steady stream of visitors each weekend, the support letters roll in each day at mail call… dozens from family, friends and union members, current or retired, and many on disability thanks to Phil. It’s his only arrest ever.

Bunk 43. John, a 50-something New York City school teacher and part-time computer consultant is imprisoned for 24 months for “hacking,”… essentially accessing government networks and information to which, prosecutors say, he was not entitled. Sound familiar? A strong, independent, stubborn man, an African-American with a PhD, John teaches all day long and counsels, till late each night, mostly young men of color with little more than his heart and passion. Outside, he makes a difference… a real difference… among young, inner-city victims of the now century-old “war on drugs”… lives lost as time moves on. Here, it’s no different. “Education, education, education,” is John’s mantra which reverberates in his tiny, drab classroom and throughout Broadway. The “kids” love him. He gives them confidence and hope in a prison which otherwise beats them down. Each night when he goes to sleep, John takes photos of his own kids to bed with him… for now, they are fatherless. This was John’s only arrest.

Bunk 11. Gil is 27. He’s been in prison for the last two and half years… in fact, six prisons… all for an offense not a crime in his home state. But when the Feds want you, they get you. A heroin addict since his late teens, Gil sold a couple of guns, from his dad’s collection, to friends for some quick cash during a desperate time when he was dope sick. Not a crime to sell the guns themselves, the Feds busted his friends who gave up friends who, in turn, gave up Gil.

Like the huge federal pyramid scheme it is, cooperation… even against friends… is, in prison, a fact of life… a last-ditch effort to avoid jail yourself no matter what it takes or who it hurts. It’s not much different for those in federal prison where many, pressured or desperate to earn a “better” job, bunk, or more halfway house time, serve as the eyes and ears of the Broadway cops.

So, one might ask, if it’s not a crime, why is Gil in prison? Well, having entered an inpatient drug program, Gil became , under an arbitrary federal law, barred from “possessing” a gun. Unbeknownst to him, just the hour or so that he handled and sold his dad’s guns converted a 24-year-old with no criminal record into a federal felon.

Arrested and released on bail not long thereafter, Gil relapsed from the stress of federal prosecution and prison… and almost died from an overdose. With his bail now revoked, he went from prison to prison as he discovered what is called, inside, “diesel therapy.”

Gil spends his mornings cleaning toilets. His afternoons are spent walking and walking and walking just beyond the barracks…afraid to stop. Not knowing whether he will get high the first time he can, he keeps on walking. To Gil, the mounds of snow, ice, cold temperatures, and gale-force winds are just “one of those things”.

Meanwhile, at night, he pours over real estate manuals hoping that, after his release in some six months, he can start all over again as a real estate broker. Oh, yeah, Gil’s “rehabilitation” does not permit for such lofty dreams. A convicted federal felon cannot obtain a broker’s license.

Bunk 67. “I would not trade my misery, and that of my family, for someone else’s family.” With these words, Robert, who refused to cooperate with the government or to “trade someone else’s freedom for [his] own,” heard a federal judge sentence him to prison for 404 months… thirty-three years… as a first-time offender for the non-violent sale of crack! His two younger brothers received sentences of 35 and 31 years. Two other co-defendants received life without the chance of release for the same offense.

Born and raised in a hard-scrabble family, Robert spent his youth on the streets of North Philly, known for its drugs, violence, and police corruption. In his family, and among his intimate friends, cooperation was just something one didn’t do. Unfortunately, for Robert and his brothers, it was not a lesson learned by all. Their convictions were obtained almost entirely on the backs of government informants who got a walk while they lost their youth.

Now in year 15 of his sentence… reduced to 18 years by two recent changes in the law… Robert muses that the “feds don’t care what you’ve done, or will do again, they just want you to give someone up, anyone… it doesn’t matter who… friends, family, or even a stranger. If you do, you go home. If you don’t, they bury you.”

One can only wonder about the institutional integrity, indeed cruel folly, of a system in which a sentence can be cut almost in half, many years later, with the same offender, offense, and judge… with 33 years becoming 18 not because of “rehabilitation” but simply changing “moral” values or priorities. Robert asks, “What’s changed? What’s different? I am still the same man. What I did long ago remains the same today.”

Arrested at 27, the father of three young kids, Robert has seen birthdays, illnesses, and graduations whiz by far from him as they have gone from child to adulthood raised by one parent. Throughout these years, he has been shuffled, from coast to coast, to eight different institutions… the first six, high security prisons… the last two, camps… most recently at Canaan. Now almost 43 years old, the last 15 years seem so much a blur to him, although vivid and painful memories of institutional violence, brutality, and rape in the prisons is hard to forget. Nor is the ugly systemic “racism from top to bottom in the camps where it matters less what you’ve done than the color of your skin… its just so much a way of life. ”

Early on, Robert remembers sitting night after night in the dark, just trying to survive in cold, isolated cells buried deep inside a prison not much safer than the streets from where he came. Thoughts about his family and future were ever rare, distant, confusing moments because, “… when you got that kind of time, you’re not thinking about what you will do when you get home… you’re just thinking about surviving and praying you will get home.”

Now, many years later on the “eve” of release, Robert still lays awake late at night on his darkened, tiny bunk with his brain “spinning and spinning”… at times “rushing out of control” trying to process the dramatic changes soon to come.

Nervous about his family and the uncertain world outside which awaits, he jokes about an 8-hour furlough he received in his last camp several years ago… his only one in all his years of confinement. Picked up by his family for a day outing at the large local mall, Robert remembers fumbling with his cousin’s iPhone as he tried to place a call without a dial pad. Racing down the highway staring out the window at new cars and billboards with places and things he had not seen or heard of before, Robert quipped to his daughter that it might as well be “Mars.” At McDonald’s, he stumbled with the change his family had given him as he savored his Big Mac… his first non-prison meal in more than a decade. At the mall, his family had to help him to traverse toilets and sinks without handles. Overwhelmed by changes in technology, Robert could not spend more than a few minutes in the Apple Store, and left amazed at the collection of iPads.

“Count time, count time, count time.” As we hurry back to our bunks, Robert shakes his head and my hand. He thanks me for the chance to talk, to spill his heart, to let go of lots of memories… mostly bad… that have followed him these last 15 years. He walks away as he entered… a proud, unbroken man that has survived the hell called the “war on drugs.”

Soon, the prison doors will open and Robert will go home to family and friends… many lost as the years of his youth have given way to retribution and survival. His father waits for him. A recovered addict himself, he too has seen the inside of prison walls for almost thirty years for numerous convictions related to drug abuse and is now a well-respected community organizer who fights for the rights of recovering addicts and returning felons.

Robert wonders what awaits him. Nervous about what he will find, and unable to trust others, fortunately some friends have volunteered to be helping hands of sorts, buying him clothing and a used car. Thirty other childhood friends will not, however, be there to greet him in the burned-out, mean streets of North Philly. They’ve lost their lives to guns, drugs, and disease these last 15 years.

Bunk 109. Prostrate in front of the steel desk in his tiny cubicle, Curtis lies hunched over, his forehead touching his saj-jad, or prayer rug, which covers a small square on the stained and cold cement floor. As he does five times daily, Curtis is deeply immersed in prayer, thankful for his life and blessings… odd, one might think, for a man who has lost his family and fifteen years of his life to a mandated sentence regime little more than a game of number-crunching.

A devout Muslim from Baltimore who came fully to embrace Islam upon arrival in prison some eight years ago, Curtis realizes great inner strength and peace of mind from his faith. “It makes me a better person, more peaceful, better able to deal with prison,” he says even as he looks back over his often dark and violent experiences while locked up.

Now thirty-five and a father of five still young kids, Curtis is barely halfway through his mandatory 15-year sentence for possession of crack. Unlike those who have benefited from two recent sentence reductions for drug offenses, he’s stuck . . . locked in place and time. Like thousands of others, largely young men of color, he pleaded guilty to a sentence with a mandatory minimum to avoid one twice as long, or longer, if convicted after trial. The reductions have no impact on these sentences.

Though he had a series of minor “street” brushes with the law, at the time of his arrest at age 27 Curtis had no history of serious drug involvement and certainly no connection to the violence glorified in the wildly popular, but fictional, TV glimpse into the life of Baltimore in “The Wire.”

A sometime low-level drug dealer, Curtis’ jacket, with his driver’s license inside, was recovered from his “connect’s” apartment along with a modest amount of drugs and a relatively small amount of cash from another room. Almost magically, photos of the crime scene depict the license, the drugs and the cash not in the places they were actually found, but now stashed together in a wall safe that had been pried open.

Like so many other prosecutions, driven by mandatory minimum sentences which can run into decades of prison for even small amounts of drugs, the wholesaler, whose apartment was raided, cut a quick deal with federal prosecutors. Refusing to cooperate, himself, overnight, Curtis went from a nickel and a small-timer to wholesaler, as the real one went home.

In federal courts, across the country, it pays handsomely to be a cooperating kingpin of sorts… as the more you know, the more you can give (whether truthful or not) and the more you can get in return.

Eight years later, Curtis thinks back to the few meetings he had with his court-appointed attorney that were much less about strategy and meaningful options than they were coercion. He reports that “from day one, the attorney said over and over again that I had no chance, no choice, that no one won at trial, that I should either take the 15 or get ready to do 30.” Frightened, unable to hire an attorney of his own choice and told that he would likely get a drug camp and far less time, Curtis pleaded guilty.

Curtis’ experience was not unique. It is played out day in and day out in the world of drug prosecutions where prisoners across the country complain of similar fates; case after case where they had “no choice” but to plead guilty… overwhelmed by the prospect of even greater draconian sentences if they went to trial represented by court-appointed counsel who described that process as a futile gesture… little more than an exercise in form over substance.

In federal courtrooms across the country, this process repeats itself; prosecutions fueled by desperate, dishonest cooperators, shaped by over-zealous prosecutors who threaten inflated charges, overseen by judges who sit powerless or paralyzed, unwilling to break the vicious cycle, thus turning the criminal justice process into so much “dead man walking.”

In the years since his plea, Curtis has known nothing but hard times as he struggled to stay alive and sane, mostly in high-security prisons, with the screams of hopeless prisoners, trips to the SHU, and abusive guards that “treat you like the stray cat that’s been hanging around, feeding you one day and the next, when they tire of you, kicking you away.”

For Curtis, the drug camp never came, nor did the reduced sentence… but Canaan has. Here, like other prisoners, he often lays awake at night staring up at the top bunk thinking about his lost life, marriage and five kids he has seen but once these many years… since moved on far away and fatherless. Unable to sleep, night after night he reminds himself that he has to “… get up in a little while and deal with this shit all over again.”

All prisoners, no matter what their placement, know this chant. We all live it and cope with it …if we can… in our own way… and many do so until their deaths behind high brick walls and Concertina wire. For Curtis, years of isolation and loneliness permeated, at times, with meaningless, unproductive jobs as a research clerk, in a butcher shop and recycler, at 12 cents per hour, plus some courses in horticulture, as a cook’s apprentice and in a faith-based program is all he has known.

Unless he is lucky, the lyric “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose” is as close as Curtis will come to the prison’s front door for another seven years. Barring a miracle, it will be that long before he returns to Baltimore, homeless and broke, with little more than his faith. He prays it will see him through.

Bunk 69. The thick metal door slams, or rather, Ray slams it looking for some way, any way, to scream. As the deputy marshal unlocks the holding cell and tells him to get in, all Ray can think about is the discussion he had with his court-appointed lawyer. When scared by the thought of a much “longer” sentence, he decided to plead guilty. “The judge is fair,” the lawyer said to him. “He’ll find a way to do the right thing… pot’s not a hard drug…besides, you didn’t have that much.” Ray spun these words over and over again in his mind as if it was yesterday. Was it incompetence or wilful indifference he wondered? Years later, he still asks the same question.

At his sentence, the judge repeated the same line, almost as a script that countless others have heard, throughout the U.S., since the sentencing guidelines became mandatory in 1987 and parole abolished. “I wish I could do more,” said the judge-for-life to Ray. “This doesn’t seem like the worst offense… or offender… but my job is not to make policy, but to enforce the law as others say it is. You strike me as a good man with a good family who made a mistake. Hopefully,” the judge concluded, “something will change and you will get a break.” 151 months. Next case.

Sitting all alone in the holding cell behind the courtroom where he had just lost almost 13 years of his life to politics and a mechanical sentencing formula, Ray ripped off his tie. It made no difference. Ray struggled to process, to understand what had just happened and what 151 months meant. Without paper and pencil, it wasn’t easy. “Wait!,” he screamed out, ”That’s 12-and-a-half years!”. “What?,” he screamed out again, “The lawyer said no more than 48 months!” Ray was lost. He had no idea what these upward adjustments the judge spoke of meant…none at all. Four points for leadership. Two points for obstruction of justice, two points for abuse of trust. “How did I lose credit?”, he questioned. Two points for renouncing responsibility and one for untimely plea. “I don’t get all this stuff!”, he cried out. “How did 48 months become 151? Wait, judge!” he yelled as he kicked the bars, knowing full well no one could hear him… or cared. “I’m not guilty! I’m not guilty! I’m not…”

As he was led away in handcuffs shackled to his waist, the part-time pot dealer thought to himself that nothing he had said to the judge mattered… not his life, his family, his hopes, or what he did or didn’t do. It was all very much a game.

“151 months for what? Who did I kill? Or rape? What did I blow up? It’s just not right!” is the last thing Ray recalls thinking to himself as he was herded onto a bus already filled with other black men surrounded by white marshals and guards.

Like thousands of prisoners throughout the country, and tens of thousands before them, federal prisons are today filled with women and men convicted of pot offenses… even as it remains the drug of choice and lawful for millions of Americans from coast to coast… even in Washington, DC, home to the Department of Justice… the very agency which prosecuted him.

With lives destroyed, families torn apart, and futures dashed, prisoners sit waiting year after year for that miracle release to happen… they don’t. And as the so-called “war on drugs,” more particularly on pot, fades in state after state, Ray and thousands like him sit as so many casualties of its first battles.

Now 46 years old and in his ninth year of prison, Ray has been shuttled from prison to prison some seven times, from coast to coast, for his mid-level role with a dozen others in a California-based pot case. He himself was not around, let alone handled, more than a couple hundred pounds of the leafy green substance now grown and sold legally in three dozen states nationwide, including California… with many others anxious to follow.

“I didn’t get 151 months,” Ray says. “My family did.” Although he thinks about his wife and two young kids every day, they have since moved on to other towns and relationships, unable to wait any longer, as he wonders about what might have been. Rare is the prison family that survives intact, as spouses with kids, often broken or on their way to it, have to survive and survive typically without a parent no matter how much they are loved and missed.

Is it an accident? Ray thinks not. Parroting what thousands of other prisoners doing real time say, “they know what they are doing to our families. It’s what they want. It’s the ultimate punishment. It guarantees that poor, inner-city families and lives remain fractured while the rural ones profit nicely from costly nearby prisons that dot the countryside. Prisons need guards,” he says as his voice trails off.

With the echo of “count-time, count-time,” it’s 9:00 PM and with darkness soon to overtake the prison unit, Ray readies his small, portable reading light attached to the side of his icy steel bunk. Tonight it’s the Bible. He’s read it 6 or 7 times before. Tomorrow it will be the Koran or the Talmud… parts of which he now knows by heart. These holy books have given him faith in the most unholy of places. Hundreds of other books, mostly fictions, have helped him to escape reality, if only for a short while… taking him to a world of fantasy far from the illness and despair he has lived with every day for nine years.

As he turns the final few pages of John II and reaches over for his reading light, Ray fears for the future… a fear that never quite leaves his side. As he’s done a thousand times before, Ray wonders what he will do if and when he gets out.

He thinks to himself, “I have no skills. I can’t compete with young guys.” He’s terrified that he will die outside helpless and homeless.

To Ray, Apple is but a fruit. He’s never used an iPad, a laptop or an iPhone, Facebook, Google, E-Bay and Twitter are just things to him… little more than items he’s heard about on TV. “And all this for pot”, he muses.

He turns the light off and goes to bed.

It Ain’t The Promised Land… Part Two

[Please note that this series was written while Stanley was imprisoned at Canaan, however, portions may have been expanded, added or reworked since his release. As a result, there may be some inconsistencies in tense which are, overall, minor in relating his story. ..ed]


Part 2

Designated a “Level 2” medical facility, the forced labor camp at Canaan where I serve my 18-month sentence is the prison care counterpart to “Obamacare”… long on PR and little else.

Canaan’s medical facilities, until recently headed by a chain-smoking former long-term local coroner who liked to quip “we are all going to die,” are remarkable not for the quality of their care, but rather institutional indifference and incompetence… particularly at the camp. Inmates both past and present, as well as health care professionals imprisoned there themselves with significant experience in a number of fields, describe the medical care as simply “shocking.” By all accounts medical care at the prison complex has a reputation… even in emergency situations… of being substandard and dramatically delayed with broken appointments and essential tests deferred, often for months, including necessary x-rays, blood tests, and other specialized procedures.

Medical staff are known for trivializing prisoner complaints and can often be heard belittling inmates, telling them not to be babies, to get on with it, and to stop “malingering”… a term used often by administrators and guards alike whenever prisoners complain of illness or injury. Not surprisingly, prisoners, some with serious conditions, often wait (some too late) to seek medical help rather than to be subjected to such verbal abuse. Staffed by physicians, dentists, psychologists and assistants described by other health care experts as largely lacking in the requisite knowledge and expertise to meet the current necessary standard of care, no privilege exists between medical personnel and inmates who are often reminded that as BOP service providers, the information they obtain about mental and medical health is shared with lay personnel and administrators. Lacking in sophisticated equipment and skills, and ill-prepared for specialized follow-up care and procedures for prisoners referred out to local hospitals for emergent situations, numerous are the instances where prisoners pay a terrible and inhuman price for the loss of their liberty.

Thus awakened a few days ago by the routine blare of screeching inane announcements and on my way to the filth and stench of the bathroom with 130 others, I suddenly found myself walking through puddles of fresh blood. No, not the result of a fight or stabbing, the trail of blood traced back to a prisoner’s bunk whose vein had ruptured and bled out because of raging, unchecked diabetes. Like the 2 previous occasions when the same vein had ruptured, the prisoner was eventually provided a Band-Aid to cover the seeping and told to “watch it.” A fellow prisoner, a physician on the “outside,” tried to clean up the spill with but a small bottle of sterilizing solution as blood was spread by other prisoners racing to ready for work.

Three days earlier, a prisoner waiting for count collapsed striking his head on the floor with the echo of his skull crashing against it heard throughout the barracks. Lying on the cement floor unable to respond to questions from other concerned prisoners as to where he was, or why, or what had happened, he sat dazed as the guard who responded nonchalantly called in an “incident ”over his radio, simply reporting a prisoner had “fallen out” and that someone “might want to come down and take a look at him.” For an hour, the prisoner, who had suffered his second inexplicable collapse in the last few months, waited for help to arrive… none did. Eventually, unseen by medical personnel, he was ordered to report to the medical unit in a separate building some 150 yards away. Dazed and unable to walk without assistance of fellow prisoners, he reached the unit through blizzard-like conditions. An hour later, he was removed from the prison by an outside ambulance.

How much better off was this prisoner than an earlier one who collapsed on the floor during “count” and remained there unattended to for some 3 hours by guards who marked him as a “malingerer,” ordering other inmates not to assist him.

Or the one who laid on his bunk for months complaining of severe stomach pain, receiving scant medical attention save for a diagnosis of indigestion and cramps and ordered to return to work. Not much later, he fell off a ladder. Taken to a local hospital and diagnosed with a hip fracture, it was discovered with little examination that he had colon cancer. Soon thereafter, he died.

Or the 91 year old World War II veteran, yes, 91 year old prisoner, convicted of a white collar offense almost a decade ago that has recently relapsed and faces certain death from cancer. To him, death would be a welcome companion, as his life all but ended with the passing of his wife of 60 years who languished at home alone in their bed while he underwent difficult and painful treatment for his first brush with cancer far from their home. He was not permitted to attend her funeral.

Or to the 63-year-old physician sentenced to 10 years for illegally dispensing a modest amount of painkillers who is forced to shovel snow and ice despite having suffered nine “mini” strokes while at Canaan. Often seen shuffling, occasionally stumbling, as he walks in meaningless circles, “Doc” typically forgets his train of thought mid-sentence as he rambles on.

Or the sixty-something “white collar” offender convicted of security fraud and sentenced to 15 years who lays day in and out largely immobilized or asleep on his cot with a history of multiple heart attacks and strokes within the prison system including one of each while at Canaan. On the occasion of his last stroke, the ambulance “rushing” him to the hospital stopped for some two hours while its attendant took care of a personal errand. Maintained on ten different medications daily and suffering from likely recurring and untreated cancer, his complaints about recurring urinary infections and blood in his urine have gone completely untreated, as has his need for a necessary knee replacement and treatment for a torn ACL.

Or the prisoner who suffered a heart attack and underwent triple bypass surgery who was returned to his bunk one day later and left to sit in a wheelchair oozing pungent bodily fluids onto the concrete slab floor from his surgical tubes.

Dozens of prisoners, many young, walk around the camp with gaping holes in their mouths because the resident dentist, known as Dr. Pull ‘Em, typically does only extractions, no matter what the dental problem may be, performing no alternate procedures routinely done on the outside. When I went to see the dentist and was looking at an ex-ray with her, she ordered me to return to the chair, under threat of being sent to the SHU, after I objected to her plan to do an unnecessary extraction, and because I had earlier refused to permit her 19 year old assistant to perform a dental procedure on me. The assignment of her dental tasks to him, is very much the norm.

More than a few of the prisoners in Canaan are elderly and bed-ridden. Unable to control their own bodily functions, at times they urinate or defecate on themselves or the floor, often unknowingly, as they remain heavily medicated to keep them happy and asleep throughout the day. Frequently, hours pass before the waste is discovered, let alone cleaned up. In prison its business as usual.

Indeed, highly contagious skin rashes are endemic within the close knit quarters of the camp with little in the way of “prevention” but the use of napkins on bathroom and shower stall handles and on doorknobs. Typically, the few soap dispensers in the camp remain empty and not once during my 11 months at Canaan did I see any paper towels in the bathroom. Often, the toilets back-up, leaving puddles of excrement and urine all over the floor, on occasion running out into communal sleeping areas.

Like the penal colony “up top,” the forced labor camp below is filled with mostly prisoners of color, inner-city young men (and those who once were) imprisoned for years, many serving mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent, complaint-less drug offenses, so much the victims themselves of a destructive, morality-driven economic agenda that buys cops, builds prisons, and buries our young… and little else. The remaining camp prisoners are white, most above 55 years of age, most imprisoned for many years for so-called low-level “white collar offenses” while the bankers and CEO’s cut civil deals, pay fines, and go to the club for multi-billion dollar corruption and fraud that threatens the economic and social well-being of the country.

Currently, the race and age breakdown at the camp approximates that of the federal prison system nationwide. Thus, while Black men constitute but 6.5% of the US population, they amount to 40% of the federal prison inmates nationwide, and 60% of the population at the Canaan camp. By the very nature of camp placement criteria itself, none of the prisoners pose a threat to the community at large, yet they remain isolated and separated from family and friends for no purpose but retribution, plain and simple.

Indeed, I have met no prisoner at the camp who could not otherwise and safely be at home providing for his family, raising his kids, and contributing to his community though community service and other volunteer programs.

For those at the camp fortunate enough to escape the strokes, the seizures, and the surgical mishaps, life in the Gulag remains one very much filled with isolation, despair, and futility. For our partners, children and parents, they too are imprisoned, serving sentences identical to ours until our release as they struggle to hold together healthy relationships and families while trying to stave off financial disaster at every turn. For us, life in the camp is at its absolute worst when we hang up from the brief, periodic monitored phone call or email exchanges, powerless to do anything about the fears and suffering our loved ones go through while we earn from 8 to 12 cents per hour cleaning toilets, bagging lunches, and shoveling snow.

It Ain’t the Promised Land

In compliment to Prison America Parts I & II,  this is the first installment in a new ongoing series…

It’s 6:00 AM, the loudspeaker blasts out, “Main line, main line, main line,” as the huge cracked panel lights go on as so much a collective alarm clock waking all those whose blanket has slipped from their face as another day of despair begins for 130 battered men in the “House of the Dead.”

Whoever has experienced the power and the unrestrained ability to humiliate another human being automatically loses his own sensations. Tyranny is a habit, it has its own organic life, it develops finally into a disease. The habit can kill and coarsen the very best man or woman to the level of a beast. Blood and power intoxicate…the return of the human dignity, repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The House of the Dead”

In his epic, semi-autobiographical novel of life and death in an 1880’s Siberian Gulag where he was imprisoned for four years as a political dissident, Dostoyevsky wrote of despair, isolation, sickness, and death. 130 years later, what was then and there remains very much here and now.

Pennsylvania is one of many states that has profited richly from a Gulag system run by federal, state, and local governments. Home to more than 40 penitentiaries of one sort or another, within Pennsylvania sits a massive penal archipelago that employs many thousands of administrators, guards, and local service workers as beneficiaries of a nation wide “crime pays” empire that costs some 75-80 billion dollars annually to operate as it cages some 2.5 million prisoners in Federal and State Prisons and local jails (an additional 4.8 million are supervised on probation and parole plus appx. 50,000 youths held in Juvenile Detention), most for complaint-less or non-violent offenses (appx 8% incarcerated for violent offenses). Pennsylvania State Prisons, alone, account for appx. 2.1 billion dollars annually. 25 years ago, most non-violent offenders were released on their own recognizance. Today, most are given bail and will pay a bondsman if they can afford it. Roughly .5 million adults, annually, sit in jail awaiting trial because they cannot afford bail. It costs an additional 9 billion, annually, to house them.

Located in an isolated valley surrounded by rolling hills in the Northeast corner of Pennsylvania not far from the New York border sits Canaan, one such federal prison complex. Although it plays an essential role in the economic lifeblood of a distressed rural community which provides dozens of local jailers and contractors, Canaan is, nevertheless, viewed locally, with much suspicion, as so much the odd stepchild not to be talked of, let alone seen.

Perhaps the deaths two years ago of two local residents turned guards… one at the hands of a prisoner under mysterious circumstances and the second a suicide that followed in its wake… has left Canaan very much like the haunted house on the hilltop that all know of, yet only the foolhardy dare to visit. Or, perhaps, like all prisons in this country, Canaan, by design, remains ever foreboding, out-of-sight, out of mind to all but its caged and their gatekeepers.

Anything but a Biblical place of promise, hope, and redemption, Canaan is a cold, vicious, and isolated outpost of psychic and occasional corporal punishment which exudes desperation and despair from every wall, cell, and bunk whether from its maximum security prison or companion “camp.”

Seemingly quarantined, like most prison outposts that dot this country from coast to coast, Canaan and its host community are always on edge. Taut with the tension born of ignorance and fear, racked with suspicion, both are hostile to “those” people. Whether it’s the town’s one pub which, almost proudly, suggests to the few Black customers passing through the exclusively White community that they move on before sunset, or the stuffed monkey hanging from a small noose posted outside the office of a Black (now former) prison administrator, or the constant call of “boy” that rings throughout the prison, or the admonition that prisoners stop acting like “angry Black men,” ugly, pervasive racism is a constant companion to those who live and work voluntarily or otherwise in the very much gated community. For Jews, life is no more comfortable. More than a few report outbursts of anti-Semitism from guards ranging from “I thought Jews didn’t eat Hershey’s” to “You eat all of them, you will be a fat Jew boy” to “You’re a malingering Jew.” In one sudden outburst at a forced labor assignment, a guard screamed at a Jewish prisoner that he was the “SS commandant”, this [was] his camp, and [that] “you are all my campers.”

Six months a year, Canaan gives meaning to Dostoyevsky’s Siberian nightmare as very much a barren, frozen wasteland buried in mounds of snow swept by frequent blasts of gale-force winds with subzero Arctic wind-chill factors the norm.

The maximum-security prison rated both on and off the mythical grid as among the most repressive and violent federal prison tombs in the United States is home to some 1,500 prisoners, two-thirds serving sentences of 20 years or more, the rest, life without the possibility of release. To them, some 500 men, the coroner’s wagon will at day’s end provide the only freedom they will again know. Meanwhile, day in and out can be heard the shrill screams of men buried in hopelessness and futility as they struggle to survive yet another day where stab wounds, broken bones, and burns become a rite of passage among many prisoners and guards alike.

At any given time, 15% of the prison population is segregated in the SHU, or Special Housing Units. Designed to isolate “acting out” or “violent” prisoners, the SHU at Canaan, like all federal prisons, has evolved to become the cornerstone of the BOP’s unofficial behaviour modification program. For those prisoners who refuse to be broken or silenced, or who display any open independence, a trip to the SHU is all but just a matter of time.

Buried deep in the cavernous prison, the SHU occupies three isolated and frigid floors divided into rows of dirty and dank cells each with a single window frosted over to ensure its prisoners cannot see outside the walls of their 7 by 10 foot homes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, often for many months on end.

Provided but a single sheet and blanket for their tiny 2 ½’ x 6′ cots along with a jumpsuit, a single pair of socks, and shorts, prisoners on the top two floors shiver around the clock as wind pours through missing window seals with temperatures controlled to remain at 62 degrees year-round. For the truly unbroken or unrepentant, the bottom floor of the SHU, or the “hole,” awaits prisoners provided but a single sheet, one t-shirt, and a pair of boxer shorts to insulate them from the punishing 55-degree temperature likewise maintained day in and out.

For the two men who share each cell with a combination sink and toilet, each is provided but a single towel, never laundered or replaced; one spoon and cup, not exchanged if broken; and no cleaning supplies to scour the ever-present layered filth from the purgatory they call home. During a prisoner’s stay in the SHU, there is essentially a ban on prison visits from family and friends and almost no communications permitted with others, be it by telephone, email, or letter. Likewise, no mail is received. In each cell sits a shower timed to run but for 4 minutes at a time, from which runs scalding hot water which burns the skin off as prisoners try to wash themselves… and which they use over and over again throughout the day to fill the boredom. Allowed but two books per cell every two weeks, prisoners read and re-read the same books over and over again as they desperately try to maintain their sanity in the House of the Dead.

A recent prisoner at the SHU advised he received absolutely no exercise or “rec” or time out of his cell (save for some 15 minutes) during the many weeks he was kept there, and wore the same pair of underwear, socks and t-shirt for the first 21 days of his isolation. Meanwhile “up top” in the main prison, life and death goes on very much unchanged for mostly young men of color who sit and stare at broken dreams and lost lives praying silently for that early release miracle that never comes as their 20’s give way to their 30’s and their 40’s typically for getting high, or helping others to, and so little else.