Attica Lives

Attica Lives

September 9th is fast approaching- a day that stands out in the celebrated history of domestic resistance against official State terror and institutional slavery in this country. On that day in 1971 thousands of prisoners entombed in an upstate prison in rural New York, perhaps the worst in the United States at the time, said enough as they seized Attica. They said no to slave wages, no to physical abuse and no to psychological torture; they demanded improved living conditions, medical treatment, religious freedom and educational and training opportunities. Most important, they demanded an end to the systemic assault upon their dignity as human beings.

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Although much has been written about the take over and ensuing assault on the prison by state police and national guard troops some four days later which resulted in the murder of forty three individuals, including ten hostages, one statement by a 21 year old spokesperson for the inmates, himself later executed by police after they retook the prison, rings no less true or powerful today, some forty five year later:

“We are men! We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. The entire prison populace, that means each and every one of us here, have set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States. What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed. We will not compromise on any terms except those terms that are agreeable to us. We’ve called upon all the conscientious citizens of America to assist us in putting an end to this situation that threatens the lives of not only us, but of each and every one of you, as well.”
Elliott James “L.D.” Barkley, 1971

Decades after Attica briefly stunned the all too limited attention span of this country, it remains very much business as usual with millions of Americans mostly women and men of colour locked away largely in rural prisons often for decades for nonviolent drug offenses. Some things about Prison America just don’t seem to change- out of sight out of mind.

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Like 45 years ago, today prisons remain cold, cruel crypts- mausoleums designed to crush our spirit, destroy our families and guarantee failure should we ever return to the communities we once called home. We work long senseless, repetitive days typically for one to twelve cents an hour under the ever watchful and abusive eyes of guards who constantly berate us for our “attitude,” or for exhibiting any signs of independence or for the slight of refusing to consider them as superiors by mere virtue of their race and badge alone. In the system of mass incarceration which today is an unbroken web of state and federal prisons that span the country from coast to coast, we toil on as so much scab labor cleaning broken, overflowing toilets, cracked shower stalls and blood spills as very much the norm … a daily ritual of indentured servitude while classrooms remain empty stripped of computers, meaningful training or educational opportunity. For those of us who disdain the label chattel, the loss of good time credit looms large. For others, a visit to the SHU (special housing units) soon becomes home… locked down 24-7 with freezing cold our only constant companion. For the fortunate recalcitrants among us, it “simply” means the loss of family visits or phone, commissary or television privileges.

Although the torture meted out to “Big Black” a respected leader of the Attica rebellion, has largely given way to more subtle pernicious forms of daily collective abuse and humiliation in prisons throughout the country, it is important to recall Black’s description of his torture at the hands of state police and guardsmen after they retook the prison; in these words we get a glimpse of the continuing age old power equation between those that we imprison and those we empower as modern day slave masters:

“Here’s Black, here he is,” and they made me get up, beat me, and beat me into an area of the yard and laid me on the table and put a football under my neck, up under the catwalk, and told me that if it fall, they was going to kill me, and they spit on me and dropped … on me, and went through the torture word, you know, while I was laying there, “Nigger, why did you castrate the officers, why did you bury them alive? We going to castrate you,” and I’m laying on the table spread-eagle, buck naked as they burned me with cigarettes and hot shell casings. But everybody in the yard was naked, the majority of these people, you know, and that went on for, like, three, four, five hours. You know, and right behind me, I’m laying here, and here’s the catwalk, and right here’s the hallway, they had a gauntlet set up and it had glass broke on the floor, and they was running everybody through the gauntlet, beating them — they had 20, 30 people each side — with what they called their nigger sticks.”

In 1971 over 60% of all prisoners in the United Sates were young woman and men of color, the majority of them essentially kidnapped from police occupied urban communities to rural prisons controlled almost exclusively by local white cops. 45 years later, those figures remain largely untouched although the prison population today has exploded by some 400%. While increasing numbers of prisoners are now so-called “white collar” offenders, and older, in both state and federal criminal justice systems throughout the country race, class and politics still remain the prime determinants of who goes to prison and who goes to the club, who becomes the indentured servant and who profits from their servitude.

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September 9th, 2016 will be the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising. For those of us who have been to prison since, who remain entombed there today, or who will most certainly end up in one because of race, class or politics and little else this anniversary reminds us of who we are, where we are, and where we must go if we are to maintain our dignity and humanity. In that spirit the IWW Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has released the following announcement of prisoner solidarity calling for a nationally coordinated prison work stoppage for September 9th, 2016:

“On September 9th of 1971 prisoners took over and shut down Attica, New York State’s most notorious prison. On September 9th of 2016, we will begin an action to shut down prisons all across this country. We will not only demand the end to prison slavery, we will end it ourselves by ceasing to be slaves.

In the 1970s the US prison system was crumbling. In Walpole, San Quentin, Soledad, Angola and many other prisons, people were standing up, fighting and taking ownership of their lives and bodies back from the plantation prisons. For the last six years we have remembered and renewed that struggle. In the interim, the prisoner population has ballooned and technologies of control and confinement have developed into the most sophisticated and repressive in world history. The prisons have become more dependent on slavery and torture to maintain their stability.

Prisoners are forced to work for little or no pay. That is slavery. The 13th amendment to the US constitution maintains a legal exception for continued slavery in US prisons. It states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Overseers watch over our every move, and if we do not perform our appointed tasks to their liking, we are punished. They may have replaced the whip with pepper spray, but many of the other torments remain: isolation, restraint positions, stripping off our clothes and investigating our bodies as though we are animals.

Slavery is alive and well in the prison system, but by the end of this year, it won’t be any more. This is a call to end slavery in America. This call goes directly to the slaves themselves. We are not making demands or requests of our captors, we are calling ourselves to action. To every prisoner in every state and federal institution across this land, we call on you to stop being a slave, to let the crops rot in the plantation fields, to go on strike and cease reproducing the institutions of your confinement.

This is a call for a nation-wide prisoner work stoppage to end prison slavery, starting on September 9th, 2016. They cannot run these facilities without us.”

The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population but more than 25% of its prisoners. Every decade we lock away millions of women, men and children in penal institutions ranging from high security prisons, to camps, to halfway houses to immigration facilities, to pre-trial and home detention settings. Millions of others are under daily supervision by probation, parole, or pretrial release officers under unnecessarily stringent and counterproductive requirements that accomplish little but damage already fragile homes and families, destroy employment opportunities and render futures little more than wishful thinking. But the suffering of others has always been a core component of the American dream, one that places profit before people, especially those of colour, the poor, and the dissident. Occasionally inmates rebel and become socially and politically visible. That’s what happened at Attica.

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This September 9th all across the United States prisoners will once again become socially and politically visible and, in so doing, necessarily vulnerable. For those of us on the outside we must ensure that our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and children languishing, but not forgotten, behind the deadly walls of silence saying no to penal slavery and abuse understand that they are not alone. To those that imprison and seek to enslave them they too must know that we will hold them accountable; that we will not forget our families and friends leaving them to the mercy of a cruel cold economic system that exploits and benefits from each scream in the middle of the night whether from a maximum security SHU or the bunk of a privatized halfway.

On September 9th as a sign of support and solidarity, shut the shit down. From coast to coast refuse to go to school or work-no business as usual. Hold teach-ins, sit-ins and demonstrations. Peacefully block prisons, halfway houses, courts, police departments, government offices and the corporate headquarters of prison profiteers. Send an unmistakable and loud message to the imprisoned and those who profit from mass incarceration and penal slavery, that the road home in a just and fair society is not more mass incarceration but economic and political justice.

Attica Lives

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The above commentary on the Nationally Coordinated Prison Work Stoppage beginning September 9th, 2016 was composed by Stanley L. Cohen , formerly known as 19846 052

Drawings by Seth Tobocman, originally published in “You don’t have to fuck people over to survive.” Other books include “War in the neighborhood,” “Disaster & resistance” and “Len.”

The Road Home for Prisoner 19846 052

{The following is the final chapter in the 8 part series “It Ain’t The Promised Land”}

The Road Home for Prisoner 19846 052

by Stanley L. Cohen, Attorney

“I don’t give a shit about your dog. You pay us in full by the end of the day or report here with your clothes… home confinement is done. If you don’t show… you’re a fugitive.”

With these words Katasha R. Artis, the dramatically under trained ex jock who serves as the Director of the GEO halfway house that I called home for some 10 weeks after being released from the Federal prison camp at Canaan, slammed the phone down; discussion done. As I had learned over the previous 10 weeks, that’s the way Ms. Artis — a former WNBA player and junior college coach — runs the house; the way she deals with its staff and residents. It’s her way or none. To Artis, during the banker hours that she keeps, it’s all about power and control; fear and redemption; carrot and stick. Most of all, it’s about money. She calls it “substenance [sic] fees.”

In a matter of seconds I was forced to choose between my dog’s life and paying a private corporation thousands of dollars my family could not afford, but had to, in a readily transparent shake down scheme to remain free to deal with surgeons and oncologists fighting to save her life. Emma won.

These words, more than any other, sum up my experience at the Bronx based private halfway house that I was released to when the prison component of my sentence was completed this past December. One of dozens of facilities operated by GEO Group, Inc a for-profit contract agency used in the United States by state and federal governments to house prisoners in either pre-trial detention or sentence, or while on community based release, this halfway house is very much the face of an industry that feeds off of the most vulnerable among us as little more than a get rich scheme that has earned billions for GEO, a multi-national prison conglomerate.

Indeed, according to SEC filings, from 2008-2012 it’s CEO, George C. Zoley, was compensated to the tune of $22, 315,704 almost all of it taken from U.S. taxpayers. Zoley appears to be worth every penny he has charged the government: in 2011 GEO had reported revenues of more than 1.6 billion dollars. It had an operating income of almost 200 million dollars, a net income of 75 million dollars, total assets of 3.5 billion dollars, equity of 1.3 billion dollars and employed some 20,000 in its prison empire. As of the fiscal year ended December 31, 2012, GEO managed 96 facilities totaling approximately 73,000 beds worldwide, including 65,949 active beds and 6,056 idle ones. The company had an average facility occupancy rate of 95.7% for 2012.

Disaster In Waiting

Nationwide, GEO is a veritable primer of disaster in waiting. All over the United States complaints have been filed against it which clearly demonstrate that it is completely unworthy of competing for scarce federal dollars for incarceration or “reintegration” services let alone offering any commitment to the health, safety and well being of the tens of thousands of prisoners it oversees, or the communities in which the GEO facilities are located. Violations filed by private individuals and state and federal agencies abound. They include:

• In 2001 an inmate was murdered at GEO’s Rio Grande Detention Center in Texas and ultimately found liable for $47.5 million for destruction of evidence and negligently causing the man’s death;

• In 2007 inmates rioted for two hours at the GEO Group’s New castle Correctional facility in Indiana, resulting in fires and minor injuries to staff and inmates. Subsequently it was found that a cause was the lack of experience among prison staff;

• Between 2005 and 2009, at least eight people died at the GEO Group-operated George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, the state’s only privately run jail. Several of those deaths resulted in lawsuits by family members, who said the facility did not provide adequate medical care or proper supervision for offenders. On December 31, 2008, GEO pulled out of operations at this facility, “citing underperformance and frequent litigations”;

• In 2007, the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) fired seven employees after discovering inmates at the GEO-run Coke County Juvenile Justice Center living in “deplorable conditions.” An inspection by the TYC found the facility to be understaffed, ill-managed, and unsanitary. The TYC ordered that all inmates be transferred elsewhere, terminated their contract with GEO, and subsequently closed the facility. GEO had run the facility since 1994;

• In 2010 a federal lawsuit was filed against GEO and the state agencies that operated and owned the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional (YGCF), alleging various abuses, high rates of violence, and negligence to occur. The lawsuit states that prison guards engaged in sexual intercourse with the prisoners and smuggled illegal drugs into the facilities, and that prison authorities denied education and medical care. As of that month the prison had about 1,200 prisoners ages 13–22. Previously, the Department of Justice noted that the conditions there were “among the worst that we’ve seen in any facility anywhere in the nation,” where poorly trained guards, some with gang affiliations, brutally beat youth, used excessive pepper spray and showed deliberate indifference to prisoners possessing homemade knives which were often used in gang fights and rapes. GEO and the state settled the lawsuit in February 2012. The state dropped GEO as contractor for (YGCF) which subsequently gave up management of another local facility where its operations for mentally ill inmates had been strongly criticized. Former Walnut Grove mayor William Grady Sims resigned from his town office after pleading guilty to charges stemming from his employment as warden at WGYCF between 2009 and 2010 and was sentenced to 7 months in prison. He pleaded guilty to removing a female inmate to a motel for sex in 2009 and pressuring her to lie about it to investigators and was sentenced to seven months in federal prison. Sims owned 18 vending machines inside the prison that generated income for him;

• In 2012, two undocumented immigrants in Florida turned themselves in to police, knowing that they would be housed in GEO’s Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach Florida. Their intention was to report on the conditions inside the facility firsthand; these anecdotal reports included “substandard or callous medical care, including a woman taken for ovarian surgery and returned the same day, still bleeding, to her cell, and a man who urinated blood for days but wasn’t taken to see a doctor.” In response to these and other serious allegations twenty-five congressional representatives demanded a case by case investigation of the complaints.

While my own experience at the GEO based facility did not mirror these nightmares, after 10 weeks there and another 6 weeks in home confinement under its staff supervision, there is no doubt in my mind that from top to bottom the site is completely ill suited to provide for a fair, supportive and healthy environment in which to facilitate the return of those on their way home, often after years in prison, to families and communities very different from those they had said good bye to long before.

No Novice… Still So Much To Learn

When I walked out of prison on December 15, 2015 to the waiting arms of loved ones, I was not a novice to the concept of so-called reentry programs: I had overseen a halfway house as a social worker many years before, and for decades since represented more than a few federal clients who ultimately ended up in one. Nevertheless, because I had no firsthand knowledge of the Bronx based program I was going to, I was unsure of what the coming days would bring. Torn between rumors within the prison of an unprofessional and ineffective GEO facility in the Bronx, and an opportunity to finish my sentence there working for a decent wage with the freedom to spend some quality time with my family, the choice seemed easy enough. To complicate matters, I had been told that the halfway house had for some time balked at my admission because I was not in need of its “services.”

The reality is that private halfway houses are very much closed worlds, notorious for arbitrary and punitive decisions made under cover of darkness, with a strong overriding drive to cut corners, make money and to avoid public accountability. In every sense of the word, they seek out captive audiences; dependent, in need residents who, thankful for being out of prison, will not cause trouble or make waves. As one BOP official opined to me before I left Canaan “the last thing GEO wants is to see itself on the front page of the NY Times… and, with you, there’s always that possibility.”

For weeks before my release I made repeated attempts to acquire written rules and regulations, for this particular halfway house, from prison staff. My efforts proved a waste of time. Repeatedly, I was told they had nothing to do with the halfway house and that they had been unable to acquire the information for me either on line or by requests made directly on my behalf to GEO. Likewise, efforts made by family and friends to acquire policy and procedure information from the house itself also failed- they were simply told that none was available and that I would receive an “orientation” upon my arrival.

I’ll not forget the two hour drive to the halfway house from the prison camp I called home for eleven months. It was all so surreal, with excited stops along the way to get some real coffee and a bagel with cream cheese and to use a clean rest room all by myself. I remember well looking in the mirror chuckling to myself that with my wild, untrimmed beard and unkempt hair Ted Kaczynski had nothing on me. (A commissary guard had taken to calling me Ted, not long after my arrival in Canaan. In reply I called him Billy Bob and often asked how things were going at the trailer park.)

Reality soon hit home, however, with my arrival at 2354 Crestin Avenue in the Bronx, a dilapidated five story brick fortress in the heart of its Fordham Road community that sits across the street from a park where cheap drugs can be easily purchased and where two murders had apparently been committed not long before.

Upon my arrival at the halfway house I was ordered to a small “cafeteria” where my personal property and clothing was spread out and searched for all to see on a tiny all purpose dining/work table where a number of residents ate a junk-food lunch while checking out what I owned. It was ok, though, because when I suggested to the intake supervisor doing the search that perhaps it would be better done elsewhere, she assured me that I should not worry because “Jesus was watching over us.” Of course he was; after-all it was close to his birthday as evidenced by the broken bulbs hanging from a nearby cracked window sill and a small plastic Christmas tree lying nearby on its side. Growing weirder by the moment, soon several young female employees raced through the room wearing sexy red elves costumes including tights and very low cut blouses exhibiting their Christmas spirit to a room filled with men, most of whom had done many years of hard, lonely time in prison. The tension that filled the room while the elves wished us Merry Christmas was enough to melt its prominently displayed sign that the facility was a “zero tolerance” one, with regard to issues of sexual abuse or harassment.

Indeed, as I would soon learn GEO is really big on a culture of slogans as a substitute for meaningful support and performance. Located throughout the house, as so much pep talk and little else, are numerous signs and posters that run the gamut from “good things are going to happen” to “be the best you can be today” to “someone is happy with less than what you have” to “keep calm . . . no smart phones allowed.” On several floors tattered posters of Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi are prominently displayed. Soon, I discovered that the appearance of newly posted signs was advance notice of a rare on-sight visit by a BOP representative. Another dead give-away of a pending inspection is that head phones, routinely worn by many staff, disappear until after the feds leave.

It’s fitting that Mother Theresa’s picture is displayed at the house. Like her poverty work in Calcutta, the halfway house is filthy from top to bottom but not for want of interest or effort by those unemployed residents who otherwise earn their way and several hours of out-of-doors time each week by trying to clean its floors, toilettes and showers. It’s a dark, dreary place with cracked stained floors and tattered windows throughout, narrow hallways and cave-like rooms for two with barely enough room for one and no privacy to speak of at all. On each floor are four bathrooms, most with tiny shower stalls that remain grimy from top to bottom, which often back up and overflow spewing soapy water out onto the floor or sitting several inches deep in the bottom of the stall; the water remains there until the next cleaning. Only the cockroaches feel comfortable in the bathrooms, scurrying about as lights go on and off, oblivious to the periodic visits by exterminators. No one dares to use the showers in their bare feet for to do so is to invite rampant fungal infections such as athlete’s foot. Often the toilets back up to their lids and remain clogged for want of plungers; they are stained with feces and urine no matter how much the residents try to clean them and have seats that are improperly installed and/or broken. Likewise, the sinks do not drain properly and remain stuffed with soap suds and tooth paste for hours on end. The doors to the bathroom do not close properly and most of their locks are broken, further removing any chance of privacy while in use. The bathroom lights either break or burnout with predictable frequency leaving the tiny rooms darkened for days on end until staff finally remember to replace the bulbs. Not unusual at all, urine spills out on the floors and puddles up until the next cleaning. There are no soap dispensers and only once did I find paper towels or toilette paper in a bathroom.

In keeping with Gandhi’s vow of simplicity, the resident rooms themselves are approximately 12 by 10 feet each with a double bunk bed typically cracked and rusted at its edges. The mattresses are but a few inches thick and offer no support, essential for many residents that present a host of health problems as a result of years of medical indifference or malpractice in prison, or who have bodies that have just not aged well because of stress and a lack of proper exercise or adequate diet while imprisoned. The rest of each room is occupied by two small metal lockers which often don’t close properly and have bottoms that routinely fall out leaving clothing or other personal items or documents on the floor or stuck in between cracks of each metal stall.

Almost all winter long the radiator in my room cranked out a raging heat that could not be lowered or adjusted in any way. To manage the sauna like temperatures in the tiny room I called home for two and a half months it was necessary to keep its single window wide open all night long no matter how cold, or wet the weather outside. On several occasions I woke up to find the floor soaked with rain water or melted snow that had blown in overnight through the open window. Rare were the times when it was necessary to get under the paper thin blanket provided us, for even with the window wide open, it was still too hot to cover yourself with it. On occasion, the radiator would shut down completely leaving the room freezing cold . . . with or without the window open. During one period, the boiler shut down on our side of the building leaving upstairs rooms heat-less in the dead of winter. Like prison itself, the halfway house was a veritable incubator for illness with dozens of its residents at any given time falling ill to flu or infections that had started out benign enough with just one or two residents.

Although there were usually ample supplies of fresh fruit available in the tiny kitchen/dining area of the house, the food itself served up by microwave oven alone was uninviting, essentially lacking in any nutritional value whatsoever. Heavy with unhealthy starches and saturated fats, the meals were obviously intended to temporarily bloat ones stomach and not much more. Indeed, as a dietary “supplement”, the most popular part of the “kitchen” was its vending machines that were constantly emptied by residents of their candy bars, chips and high sugar drinks.

Home at any given time to approximately 130 or so mostly men, the halfway house has but one small all purpose “lounge” area on the main floor with two televisions, a battered table, a few chairs and some milk crates jerry-rigged to serve as extra seating. On those rare occasions when a resident is granted an in-house visit, long separated families can, at times, be seen huddled in a corner holding painful intimate discussions for all to hear. On one such occasion, I was witness to an incident where a visitor’s tears were met with a yell to be quiet because she was interfering with the televised ball game. To describe this government funded community room as anything other than a fee generating mausoleum for the living dead, is to pay GEO an ill deserved courtesy.

The Highly Undereducated

Typically, private halfway houses employ and empower poorly paid, ill trained and immature women and men, many of whom seem to relish the control they exercise over others who have been locked away in isolation, some for decades, while the outside world has raced them by. Of course some staff display with pride certificates of accomplishment on the walls of their tiny public cubicles, but periodic 6 hour weekend lectures by one time prison guards turned counselor/teachers simply cannot substitute for well paid and experienced counselors, social workers and therapists… committed, trained professionals that are available, but ignored, by corporate halfway houses lest it eat into their profit margin.

The Bronx based GEO facility is no exception. Under the lead of Coach Artis and her assistants Mmes. Leeder and Mejia, its management staff is remarkable for little else besides being cold, aloof and punitive and not just to residents but subordinate staff as well. Indeed, a constant murmur can be heard among case managers and counselors alike complaining about the failure of upper management to respond to inquiries, to provide information, to follow through on requests, or to be available to resolve a problem. Numerous are the occasions when the Bronx based GEO management team is locked inside the Artis’ office enjoying some coffee, having a laugh at the expense of a resident.

Power, Control And Punishment

Administrators and many subordinate staff enjoy making grand statements to residents in the presence of others using the hammer of collective audiences and tease as a means of reinforcing their power over men who typically have lost years of their lives to bully boy tactics of prison guards. Often can be heard the admonition that the halfway house is surely a better place than prison and that federal marshals can come at any time to pick up and return residents there for the slightest breach of rules; this is especially true for those “trouble makers” who indicate any sign of independence or challenge to authority no matter how valid their concerns or complaints might be. While I was there, this proved to be no idle threat as many residents were seized by deputy marshals and returned to prisons with no rights to due process or even an opportunity to be heard. Indeed, it appeared that marshals included 2354 Crestin Ave. as a regular weekly stop after picking up donuts at the nearby Dunkin Donut shop located just several blocks away. Although we joked about who would be seized next, it was no laughing matter for loved ones who once again needlessly lost partners and dads for minor indiscretions that ranged from the use of smart phones to petty arguments with staff.

In prison, for most inmates there comes a time when the count-down begins in earnest; that moment when you dare to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel; the time when phone calls with loved ones move on from guarded strength to guarded hope. Some keep a calendar on the inside of their locker- the fortunate, mark off freedom not in years or decades to come, but in months. Others fantasize about it as they spend hours walking aimlessly on a treadmill to escape, or pass hard, lonely time doing one or two hundred pull ups 3:00 am each morning on a rusted shower stall.

Rumors abound in prison… we call it inmate.com… the unofficial “official” word that makes its daily rounds selling fool’s gold to the desperate, spreading the gospel of hope derived not from a compassionate god, but from a favorable sea change in the law or a one in a million appeal that like a magic elixir can suddenly and dramatically reduce sentences over night. Most important of all can be the terse loudspeaker announcement that just might herald your destiny: “Cohen, Cohen, Cohen report to your case manager.” Ultimately, these meetings can provide the key to the prison door, and a good night or bad, as they are the final bureaucratic “reentry” step when you learn how much halfway house and/or home confinement time (if any) you have been awarded by the BOP. More often than not, these meetings are ministerial in purpose: they’re held merely for statistics sake alone and to note in a cold prison record an interest and update in a given inmate when, in reality, there is none.

In prison, it’s all about control. No, not the kind necessary for security or safety but the pernicious overarching type designed to reinforce the state’s power over you, to keep you uncertain… dependent. Indeed, as time passes, prisoners grow to understand a sinister purpose behind these public broadcasts that as a rule are intended to do little more than keep you on edge, to manipulate your spirit and mood by good news, bad or none, or to spread rumors within the prison population of one’s “most-favored” status with a BOP official who inexplicably calls for a mid-day meeting for no apparent reason. But then again, collective group punishment of one prisoner, at the hands of the rest, though frowned upon by the BOP in its written rules and regulations, is ultimately very much the preferred… hushed… manner and means of maintaining institutional control.

In prison, collective punishment of inmates runs the gamut from minor personal impediments, to group loss of privileges, to violations of fundamental human rights for all. Behind the bars, it’s a constant battle to maintain your own dignity and self respect against an administrative machine that seeks to chew it up by reducing all prisoners to a common denominator… except for those that serve it by becoming informants. Thus, if one inmate defecates on himself and the floor because he is ill and untreated, TV privileges are suspended for all. If another is caught returning to the unit with several candy bars from a public vending machine, all prisoner visits are canceled the following week. Though sleep deprivation constitutes a clear violation of fundamental human rights, in state and federal prisons across this country lights are routinely left on at night in a conscious effort to punish inmates for even the slightest breach of protocol… often for no greater offense than “talking back” or questioning a given prison policy. Indeed, I can recall of one such instance at Canaan when prison guards left the large overhead florescent lighting on all night long in a not too subtle effort to send a message about an “incident” that had occurred several days before but had not, as yet, been resolved internally. Needless to say, after several days of sleep deprivation prisoners found a creative way to, all at once, resolve the incident and again darken the bunkhouse each night without further involvement or punishment by the institution.

In prisons across the country, collective self-discipline can be swift and unrelenting as administrators turn their back and simply walk away, leaving “problems” to be resolved within the prisoner population itself. This should come as no surprise given a federal sentencing scheme which currently leaves little in the way of meaningful discretion, in the hands of prisons, as to when a prisoner can be released and even less incentive for those jailed to comport themselves to largely meaningless and typically abusive regulations.

Indeed, long ago the federal prison system abandoned parole or “earned release” time which, in theory, provided for a common sense sentencing scheme that balanced the whole person with their prison conduct and community support in determining when those jailed could return to their families. Up until 1987, many federal sentences provided for relatively modest time behind bars after which prisoners were eligible for consideration for release with community based supervision. However decades ago common sense gave way to the political winds of Congress and the White House which, all at once, imposed a mandatory sentencing scheme and abolished parole to satisfy the cheap hue and cry of “get tough on crime.” Overnight, tens of thousands of prisoners suddenly found themselves looking to halfway house, home confinement and good time release as the sole, largely token vehicles, by which to get home a bit earlier than the draconian sentences demanded by the government and routinely rubber stamped by the court. Not surprisingly, these “release” prospects are used by the BOP to keep you in line; for to “act out” while incarcerated… no matter how minor or meaningless your lapse… can mean not just a trip to the SHU (special housing unit) but an administrative penalty that can augur an end to all three of these early release possibilities.

Halfway houses are no different. They demand strict, often mindless, obedience to arbitrary, ever changing, rules that make no sense and have little to do with facilitating community and family reentry for many women and men who have lost years of their lives to the isolation and control of cold, often brutal and rural prison settings. Like prison, halfway houses are designed to reduce all residents to a common denominator yet reward those individuals who cooperate with, and benefit, the institutional demands of the particular setting itself. In prison, that means snitches; in private halfway houses it means residents with an available cash flow that bloats the coffers of private corporations.

Paying For Illusions

Those who make decent incomes, large “substenance” [sic] fees, or percentages paid directly to the halfway house from paychecks, can buy the freedom of 12 hour work days on the street, three day passes with family and maximum periods of home confinement. For residents who cannot afford to purchase their freedom, it means the tease of long hours separated from family and friends solely because they are unemployed or too poor to pay the price… even though the halfway house may be but blocks from their home and family. At day’s end, as with the criminal justice system itself, the reality of race and class once again pervert the halfway house setting with older white residents of means or employability getting release time breaks from halfway house directors that their younger counterparts of color or poverty simply do not obtain.

In theory, halfway houses should, indeed must, be the bridge that supports a difficult, at times overwhelming, transition for mostly people of color that have lost years of their lives to a prison industry that is America; one that has left them ill prepared to return to often broken homes with scant employment skills, a host of medical and mental health issues and technical skills long outpaced by changes in their community and world on such basic issues as “cut and paste,” Google and smart phones. As a social worker, lawyer and prisoner, I’ve seen both sides of the prison wall. I’ve represented, known and most recently lived with thousands of inmates going back decades. I know of none who return home and want to fail; to fall back into old ways or habits that targeted them justly or not and which stole their lives and liberty as it needlessly punished their loved ones along the way. It’s not so easy, though. We are a population very much of special needs, no matter what our backgrounds. At times it drives us to the covers happy to close our eyes and to forget about the reality of the moment… for many, that moment can become days or even longer. No matter how strong or independent we may once have been, prison changes the dynamic of survival for everyone once warehoused behind its walls. Reintegration is a large word for more reasons than just the sheer number of its letters.

Given the reality of reentry and recidivism rates that prove our criminal justice system is broke, one would think that of all places along the road to release, halfway houses would be staffed not just by caring individuals but by those who by education, training and experience are prepared and capable of smoothing the transition process for those that have been forcibly ripped from their family and communities, often for years. Tragically, nothing could be further from the truth.

These are not mere abstract or academic thoughts, but very much a dark reality for halfway house residents and those of us who have fought this system from without and within for years. Indeed, the road to community “reintegration” is filled with pitfalls that serve as a constant reminder that it’s not designed to work. Crime pays, whether intended, or not. It pays for arrest, prosecution and imprisonment. It pays for prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and cops alike. It builds and maintains prisons across largely rural America and props up failing local economies by employing many not otherwise employable. Most profitable of all, it pays with cruel, mind numbing sentences that pickup where recidivism takes hold. For many, recidivism becomes almost a certainty, as women and men are dropped often into impoverished communities without marketable skills, employment and safe housing.

I hate the phrase reintegration; it’s so disingenuous. The reality is that the majority of returning prisoners never belonged to, or were welcome, in our race and class based society… not before they went to prison and certainly not now. But it’s a feel good concept and a phrase that’s been the proffered aim of our criminal justice system for years, despite posting signs everywhere you look that say in loud, dark colors… “not wanted.” Nowhere is that more painfully evident than in the corporate halfway house system I just survived.

The concept of community reintegration is not rocket science or magic. It’s not complicated and doesn’t have to be costly. Indeed, it’s an entry level course taught in most undergraduate programs throughout the world. All it requires of us is some hard work and a commitment to growth and care.

Having a stable support network and employment skills upon release from prison and a bit of financial security is vital to a successful return home. Families and friends can be a source of that support, provided they are equipped to do so and have a meaningful opportunity to participate in the process. It takes a lot of forgiveness, therapy, and effort on the part of all involved to achieve a healthy family support system. Parents who have been imprisoned face hardships re-establishing relationships with former spouses, partners and children.

Likewise, successful employment can reduce recidivism rates, however, finding and maintaining work is difficult (sometimes impossible) for many former prisoners. There are fundamental “skill sets” demanded in today’s employment market yet are well beyond the expertise of returning prisoners who have spent years working as so much slave labor at meaningless jobs for 12 cents per hour. Steps we take for granted such as being computer literate; knowing how to Google and to cut and paste; to complete employment searches or job applications on line; staying in touch with family, friends and prospective employers by smart phones can be daunting for those who have lost decades to “count time.”

Most inmates leave prison broke, or close to it, saddled with personal and family debt and without any viable credit rating or ability to improve upon it. For the lucky few who leave with remaining funds in their commissary account they are provided a debit card which includes a prominently displayed photo of your prison mug-shot; yes, your fucking mug shot. Now that’s a positive step toward healthy reentry:

“Hi, you don’t know me, but I’d like to open an account with your store or obtain a credit card or have some food delivered to my home, or apply for a job, or get an apartment. Can I use my debit card? . . . Oh, that . . . not to worry, that’s just my federal prison mug shot.”

GEO is no more solicitous of smoothing reasonable transition fears for returning prisoners, many of whom lack drivers’ licenses or other forms of state issued identification. Not long after your arrival you receive a “Bronx Community Re-Entry Center” ID card that says BOP on it and provides your inmate number. But then again most residents have scant use for identification in the outside world, as the majority spends much of their time participating in meaningless job fair activities or ex-offender programs structured specifically for returning prisoners. When not serving as “rehabilitation” statistics for GEO at such programs to satisfy its BOP contract, most can be seen taking cigarette breaks in front of the building, watching TV or mopping the floors to earn some nominal pass time with their families. For the majority who are able to find employment, typically, it’s got nothing to do with GEO, or its efforts, but rather arrives thru the assistance of, or employment by, family or friends.

And what of those fortunate enough to obtain employment while at the halfway house? From them, GEO extorts a tithe of up to 25% of their gross income (in reality 40% of their net) for their stay at the facility in addition to the bounty that it receives for each one from federal coffers to provide services it simply does not. Of course, like the illusory counseling or job training programs inside prisons, GEO goes through the motions and little else… far removed from public accountability while holding hostage women and men who bite their tongues and say little to remain outside of the deep dark walls from where they came.

Imagine hosting meetings three nights a week in a halfway house where long separated couples can get together in private with a seasoned facilitator to talk through their fears, anger or needs. Or where a parent can begin to spend some quality time with children they’ve not seen since they were toddlers. What about the idea of more frequent home visits and overnight stays even for those residents too poor to buy a weekend pass from GEO. How about kids… no longer children themselves… introducing their mom or dad to a grandchild for whom they are named. Or group sessions where returning veterans of a very different kind of war can share their fears with each other and learn from those who returned home before them… and made it.

Is it too much to ask for a halfway house to arrange for family outings to a ball game or an amusement park or a library? Let’s get really revolutionary… how about in-house computers and on-site training on how to use them and smart phones and access to traditional resource materials while there… such as dictionaries and a thesaurus and books and paper and pens. Instead of extorting money from vulnerable residents, why not help those who are employed to open a bank account and to set aside some necessary funds for use upon release to the community or to help their families with current pressing financial concerns. What about training programs where unemployed residents can receive decent stipends while learning a marketable skill, or improving upon those they have but can’t find employment to match. Costs, you might ask? In the long run it’s far more cost effective and efficient than that attendant to class and race based recidivism.

None of these activities or resources exists at the GEO house in the Bronx. None are even contemplated. While some staff at the facility struck me as caring, I met no one there who had the training or experience to undertake such programs… let alone in a healthy productive format. In any event, given its extreme physical limitations there’s simply no room there to initiate such efforts in a professional and constructive manner even if there were such staff present. Most important, it takes management committed to people, and not to profit, to initiate, support and oversee progressive reintegration steps. No such management works at 2354 Crestin Avenue in the Bronx. To them, it’s all about billable hours and nothing else.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve supported community based alternatives to prisons for years. Putting aside the issue of pre-trial detention, today more than 60% of all sentenced federal prisoners (approximately 150,000) have been convicted of non- violent offenses or present backgrounds that clearly indicate they pose no threat to the community as a whole, or to their own families. Jailed in so-called camps or low security facilities at approximately $30,000.00 per year per inmate, these women and men could just as easily, and far more cheaply, be housed in halfway houses or in home confinement coming in at about 3,000.00 per year each. Add to these figures another 8300 or so ex-inmates sent at any given time to private halfway houses, throughout the country, to complete their sentences, and you quickly get an idea of just how enormously profitable the prison industry is today in this country. I know it all too well for to save my dog’s life I had to pay almost eight–thousand dollars. But ,then again, Emma is worth so much more to me than GEO.

Corporate Con… Victims Above, Victims Below

In federal prison we are considered all alike, no matter what our differences. It’s easier and cheaper that way. Don’t you know, prisoners are there because of poor impulse control or bad judgment? The notion that millions have been criminalized and jailed, essentially in an enormous profit making industry fueled by race, class or politics, is just not something that Washington can wrap its arms around let alone discuss openly. After all, to do so is to acknowledge that our history has been a grotesque political lie. Halfway houses are no different. While GEO argues that uniformity removes the prospect of special treatment, in practice it’s a pretext that maximizes profits by cutting costs. It all but guarantees mass failure and recidivism.

People ask what I took away from the GEO experience. I learned, as constituted, this halfway house, like the others I’ve heard about or dealt with, is a dumping ground… a get rich quick scheme for corporate profiteers that oversee human commodities and nothing else. Although I’ve been critical, here, of upper management at GEO Bronx, on a rudimentary level I found the few case managers that I interacted with to be professional, concerned and, to the extent possible, helpful. However, as in prison, there is only so much subordinate staff can do. Ultimately, like the residents themselves, in this GEO facility they too are held hostage to the petty politics, unavailability and malevolent mood swings of upper management. In the Bronx that meant days, sometimes weeks on end, trying to work through a maze of incompetence and indifference, or retribution for daring to ask why… or for saying no.

The day after my arrival at 2354 Crestin Avenue I met with my “case manager.” A bright enough young college graduate, she showed a great deal of empathy and concern for my needs even as we were forced to waddle through a world of rules and regulations that had nothing to do with my past or my future. I’ll always remember the “red book.” Like each resident no matter their age, experience or the basis for their conviction, I was required to fill out a 20 something page questionnaire, the answers to which determined those areas in which I needed personal “improvement” to ensure a healthy transition back to my community. That decision was made via computer program on the basis of a test score alone.

Thus, it asked of me . . . “Why do I hate cops? Can I forgive myself, or those that hurt me? Do I fear my partner cheated on me while I was gone? Have I learned it’s better to work than steal? What do my kids do that makes me angry? Have I learned crime does not pay? Would I rather work 40 hours per week for $500.00 than deal drugs for $10,000? When will my embarrassment end?”

The questions, neither literate nor nuanced, ran on ad nauseam, no doubt designed by a PhD candidate or an outside contract agency. Dozens were entirely ambiguous making abstract references to concepts like justice, love, freedom and growth. When I sought clarification none was available. “Just fill it out” was the constant refrain. Needless to say, while I enjoyed crafting the answers in my ambiguous red book there was nothing at all humorous or ambiguous about the priority of GEO to grab as much money as it could from me and other residents no matter what the cost to our families. Indeed, the day after my arrival I was informed by my case manager that it was expected I pay GEO “up to” 25 % of my gross wages to reimburse it for my stay and “services” there. This kickback scheme was to prove a source of constant turmoil for me, and my family, with the administrative staff at the halfway house and came very close to being the cause of my return to prison and a hunger strike to protest it.

Although I’d led a successful life for many years before prison, given the extent of my pro bono work, resources were certainly not unlimited and the exorbitant price of the defense in my case had all but drained us financially over the many years that it had raged on. Not unlike many accused, financial considerations ultimately rubbed up against the price of justice and came to bear in our decision to resolve the prosecutions rather than to continue on with no end in sight. For almost all, prison means a dramatic loss of income and mounting debt no matter what your background or “stature” in life. It also takes a tremendous toll on even the strongest of relationships and often tears apart families leaving them reeling and uncertain about the future. Fortunately, for me after serving eleven months in prison I returned to a well paying job as a consultant to a number of law firms pending resolution of the status of my own license.

Typically, residents are not permitted to begin work for a few weeks upon arrival at halfway house even where employment is guaranteed. For me, however, an employment letter detailing a significant salary at a Manhattan based law firm set off bells and whistles at GEO with the prospect of them obtaining a healthy and immediate tithe enticing enough to permit me to immediately begin 12 hour work days outside the house. Though there was preliminary discussion about how much payment was expected from me to GEO for the privilege of bed space and nothing more, the precise amount sought of me remained a point of controversy right from the start… both in principle and application.

While a 25% cap on a resident’s salary is a formula thrown about by GEO, it’s misleading in the extreme. As constructed, it’s demanded share of a returning prisoner’s labor is, in fact, much more and ends up for GEO as very much a tax free windfall. In reality, GEO receives almost 40 % of a resident’s disposable income as they are responsible for all tax consequences including their own and that of GEO. For example, if your gross salary is 4800.00 per month your projected disposable income after taxes is approximately 3200.00. If GEO were to receive 25% of 3200.00 its share would be 800.00, or two hundred per week and it would still carry its own tax responsibility for that share. Under this formula the resident’s disposable income would end up at 2400.00 or 600.00 per week or 50% of their gross income. By charging residents 25% of their gross salary, GEO’s share ends up being 1200.00 dollars per month with no corporate tax liability. Under this formula, for the resident, they take an additional beating inasmuch as their net income drops further to 2000.00 per month… approximately 41.5 % of their gross wages. Put another way, and using these hypothetical salary figures as a basis, under GEO’s formula they end up tax exempt on the demand as a whole, and making almost 40% of the resident’s net income. Only in the world of hedge funds does this seem fair; to the rest of us its usury. For GEO, it’s a government sanctioned extortion scheme that demands kickbacks from the most vulnerable and their families lest they lose their liberty for no reason other than debt and privation.

I refused the swindle. Not only was I offended by an unwarranted demand that I buy my way home, but, from a practical standpoint, to do so would have exacted outrageous payments leaving me unable to catch up on debts accumulated while in prison and ill-equipped to maximize steps necessary for going forward… you, know, the reintegration module that GEO likes to huff and puff about at public seminars and for which it receives enormous federal dollars to implement and oversee. Assured of a “mitigation” process that permits GEO to reduce subsistence fees upon a showing of need, I agreed to go forward contingent upon a significantly reduced payment plan. Within days it was agreed between GEO and a CPA firm representing me that, based on my projected needs, my payments to GEO would be approximately $840.00 per month. It was a resolution that would prove to be short lived.

About a month after I began work I was suddenly called to a meeting with Ms. Mejia, who essentially serves as the vig collector for Coach Artis. Denying any knowledge about the payment plan that had been agreed to between my representative and GEO… and for which I was current… she simply announced that it had been decided by Artis that my subsistence cost had now been “recalculated” at over 100.00 dollars per day… yes, per day… for a total of approximately 3,000.00 per month… an increase of almost four hundred percent retroactive to the day of my arrival. Recounting the agreement we had reached with representatives of GEO and my financial needs, I refused. Later that day I learned a formal mitigation request had not been filed by GEO but simply left hanging, unresolved, like so many other issues that impact upon the health and safety of GEO residents and their families. Within days of this discussion I submitted a formal mitigation request in writing to Coach Artis and attached almost $9,000 worth of receipts for essential bills that had been paid with my salary. I also indicated that if necessary additional evidence could be provided that wages I earned were not being partied away but addressed to other core expenses for me and my family. Although I checked with the administration weekly on the status of my request, I was simply told that it was under consideration. No request was made of me for further documentation.

Weeks later while on home confinement I received an unexpected message that Artis had ordered me to return to the halfway house and to “bring my clothes”… code for being violated. That I lived 100 plus miles from the City, without a car and would not have a ride for my regular scheduled weekly visit till noon the next day didn’t matter to Ms. Leeder, the delighted messenger who insisted that I arrive at the Bronx no later than 9:00 am the next day… an all but impossible task. A bully who regales in her power over residents and case managers alike, Leeder likes to be the center of attention; one that thrives on setting impossible deadlines and then violating residents for their failure to perform like caged monkeys in a zoo.

Upon arriving for my weekly visit… without my clothes… and not until my regular scheduled time, I was told by Artis that because I was thousands of dollars in arrears to GEO I had forfeited the “privilege” of my home confinement… a benefit, I might add, set not by GEO but by the BOP. When pushed for a status report on my mitigation request. now 6 weeks old, Artis fumbled for an answer. After hemming and hawing, she acknowledged that it had not been forwarded to the BOP then blamed me for the omission because I had not provided additional information required of me. When asked who had conveyed that news to me, she simply shrugged her shoulders and changed the subject.

The meeting ended with an agreement that I would provide additional documentation to her within two days. Two days later I hand delivered another batch of receipts totaling an additional nine thousand dollars worth of payments made by me for essential bills, old and new. As of that submission, I had established that between tax expenses, necessary expenditures and payments to GEO (at that point almost 3,000.00) almost all of my wages for the previous three months had been exhausted leaving perhaps a hundred dollars or so per week for my food and transportation.

Several weeks later I learned that Emma had been struck down with cancer and required numerous doctors’ appointments both locally and in New York City before a decision could be made on how to best proceed. In keeping with the requirement that I get permission from GEO before leaving my home confinement for unscheduled trips, on each such occasion I called the halfway house to obtain consent to leave. Not once did I receive prompt approval from subordinate staff to take Emma to hospital. At times, it took several calls to accomplish and required me to provide written documentation of the visit after the fact. Increasingly the delays became longer and longer as it became apparent to me that I was being punished by GEO during this time of a critical medical emergency for my family.

At one point, during a weekend when Emma’s leg suddenly swelled to the size of a tree limb, I was told no one was available to give approval to rush her to the hospital. After insisting that Artis be contacted, I received a return call with a terse message she had denied my request. After demanding that I be provided the name and number of the BOP duty officer for the weekend, Artis relented and authorized a four hour pass to cover the 200 mile round trip to the NYC hospital and treatment time… as she knew, an impossible task. Artis further rejected my request to drop off the necessary proof of treatment on my way home from the city, insisting instead that I drive another 200 miles the next day to drop off the proof. On the way home I dropped off the proof.

While awaiting surgery, and still at home with me, several days later Emma’s leg opened up to reveal a gaping hole in her femur. The cancer was spreading out of control. After being told by the surgeon to bring her to hospital immediately, I placed the dutiful call to GEO for permission to travel to NYC. Not long thereafter, I learned Artis had authorized the travel with the caveat that after dropping Emma off I had to either bring her a check in the amount of 7,980.00 for the outstanding money “due” GEO or to return there with my clothes as home confinement and community passes were canceled. According to Artis, she could care less that the mitigation claim had not been resolved, that I did not have any available resources and, most important, that my presence would be needed over the next few days to meet with surgeons and oncologists to make life saving decisions on behalf of Emma. In the words of Artis, before she hung up the phone… “I don’t give a shit about your dog . . . if you want to save her, pay me the money.”

I’ll spare you the precise details of the calls that followed while I awaited a ride to New York City. From a prison administrator I knew, I received the name and contact number for the Regional Director of Community Release Programs for the BOP. From him I learned that because the mitigation request had not been filed by Artis there was nothing he could do to help. From Ms. Mejia I learned that despite having over twenty-thousand dollars worth of receipts from me she had been ordered by Artis not to submit the request because I had not as yet provided an outstanding electric bill for approximately 250.00 dollars. Of course no one had told me anything about the bill or the decision.

I don’t know what the future holds. But because I was immediately able to borrow the eight thousand dollars, Emma is alive and sitting by my feet as I conclude this piece. For tens of thousands of other less fortunate prisoners returning home, their Emma, their child, their partner would have died because for them there was no one to turn to and borrow money.

Stories abound of residents returned to prisons from “reentry” centers across this country because they chose to buy school books or clothes for their kids or treat their partner to a healthy dinner rather than pay what little money they had earned to a billion dollar industry.

During the ten weeks I spent at GEO Bronx I received no counseling services I was in need of, nor training of any sort. Nor did I eat a single meal there, receive a stipend or subsidy for my subway/taxi fares back and forth to my job, for the cost of laundry or dry cleaning services or for dental or medical needs that arose during that time. Yet I paid GEO over eleven thousand dollars for the privilege of staying wide awake 6 hours per night, four nights a week, in a filthy bug infested 12’ by 10’ tenement room and nothing more.

The Takeaway

Recently I was asked by a journalist what if anything I learned from my experience at GEO Bronx. Without hesitation I replied . . . “to make the perfect egg salad sandwich.” Yes… the perfect egg salad sandwich. You see, as in prison, all halfway house residents are dumbed down to the lowest common denominator; we’re all there because of poor judgment, an inability to craft healthy productive plans and then to see them through to fruition. So, in preparation for our return home, all of us are required to identify an area that we want to improve upon and come up with a goal within it that can be spread out and monitored till completion. It’s sort of like a prison thesis but without words… a real priority.

For me, it was easy. Always envious of the chef that can make the perfect egg salad sandwich, it immediately became my choice for my special month long project that covered each weekend of the final four that I spent at home on a pass to prepare me for eventual home confinement.

Returning to GEO Bronx after my first weekend, I excitedly recounted to staff how I had gone through some two dozen eggs until I finally figured out how to boil the perfect one… and did. On week two, I really worked hard; this time becoming skilled at seasoning boiled eggs, learning how to mix them with just the right amount of mayonnaise, fresh lemon juice, minced onion and finely chopped celery. On week three, it was all about toast. Not too dark, not too light. Just brown enough to compliment the rich yellow of the eggs. For the grand finale, after weekend four, I raced back to the Bronx early Sunday evening to make sure that everyone learned that I had in fact made the perfect egg salad sandwich. There it was: a month of weekend passes and the perfect egg salad sandwich to show for it. It looked wonderful. How did it taste? I don’t know. I hate egg salad.

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After costly (to family and practice) years of attempting to defend against government investigations related to his defense for a variety of politically reviled (by the US & foreign governments), high profile groups and individuals, the “We can’t get you on any real charges so we pull out our ace in the hole…Impeding The IRS…” canard finally caused Movement and Human Rights Attorney, Stanley L. Cohen, to end the farce through negotiating a plea deal which would see him sent to the Canaan Prison Camp in Pennsylvania in January of 2015. Stanley was released to the Bronx Halfway house and then Home Detention in December of 2015. It should be made clear that he was never charged with attempting to defraud the IRS or avoid taxes. Stanley has a long career of activism, both as an individual and an Attorney. Notable clients were charged with offenses related to the destruction of the Twin Towers (Sulaiman Abu Ghayeth), blocking access to Indigenous lands in Canada (Mohawk Warrior Society), blocking access to PayPal (PayPal 14), material support of terrorists (Abdourahman Alamoudi) (Patrice Lamumba Ford) (Members of the Holy Land Foundation 5) among the many. He has represented Hamas, Naturei Karta, USA, War Resistors League, Black Block, and a host of other groups and individual activists. http://istanleycohen.org/index.php/cases Stanley began a blog while imprisoned to capture his thoughts and observations, Caged But Undaunted https://cagedbutundaunted.wordpress.com/ , where can be found a 2 part piece on “Prison America” and a 7 part series called “It Ain’t The Promised Land”. Stanley has been a guest on numerous broadcasts, both radio and television, and has debated media personalities and academics (Some of which can be found on YouTube). Just prior to his incarceration, Stanley risked his life to attempt saving that of former military turned aid worker, Peter Kassig. from his eventual beheading by ISIS. http://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/18/-sp-the-race-to-save-peter-kassig

We Feared Witches. We Hung Women

So the campaign is winding down and, barring what’s been described as a minor miracle in waiting, ultimately it will end up as a coronation of one degree of evil or another- be it Trump or Clinton. I hope that in its final days, Sanders’ supporters will allow the campaign to run its course without engaging in media vilification or trial by ambush. I do so not in the spirit of building a united front to challenge Trump in the general election- quite frankly, I could care less. More important, I raise the concern that to roll in the gutter can leave a stench that follows activists the rest of their political lives whether they continue the good fight or ultimately surrender to the mainstream body politic.

It’s no secret I don’t support Sanders; in point of fact, I’ve challenged him for years over what I view to be his well documented record of poor priorities and failed policies and votes. Before you turn away, this is not an attack on him but a bow to you. Since leaving prison, I’ve said time and time again that the involvement in this campaign of large numbers of experienced and newly minted activists has been inspirational indeed. I am sure that our collective future is that much the brighter because of your hard work, and drive for truth, justice and peace.

Yours is the next generation in a long and storied line of activists who have sacrificed much, often all, in speaking truth to power and confronting it in evolving creative ways in the streets and courts and now very much so in the world of cyber space. Though our community of resistance has been diverse in makeup and tactics, clearly we have been united in our determined refusal to embrace a strategy of disinformation or hate built on the back of character assassination, rumor and innuendo- each a proud trademark of the forces of greed and exploitation that we have challenged since the first days of the Republic.

Recently we’ve seen increasing almost desperate attacks on Clinton not just for her dreadful policies, but her alleged status of felon in waiting soon to be indicted for a host of crimes. In support of this public true bill, documentary “evidence” and boilerplate statutes are thrown about by lay litigators as little more than the tools of a modern day star chamber chaired not by jurists but the howl of a vindictive mob erecting the gallows long before the verdict.

“We Feared Witches.  We Hung Women”

I don’t like Clinton, nor do I trust her; not now, not twenty five years ago. If I were to vote, there is no chance that I would cast it for her. But to see her tried in public without the benefit of her entitled full day in court with an opportunity to confront and challenge her accusers is so much the core hallmark of the power brokers that have sold our collective past, and would our future, to the winds of the highest bidder. Several days ago I saw two posts by Sanders’ supporters about Clinton that are false –namely that a top Clinton “advisor” and super delegate – former NY State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had been sentenced to prison for twelve years for corruption related charges. Although reports of the sentence are correct-the claims about his current alleged relationship with Clinton or her campaign are patently desperate and false. In any event, even if they were true- so what? Indeed millions still adore Obama despite nagging allegations of a one-time close relationship with former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich now serving fourteen years in federal prison for corruption charges himself.

And what of the allegations in the Free Beacon, that Sanders has, on multiple occasions, steered campaign and nonprofit money to friends and family. Thus, the conservative news service claimed that Sanders’ wife—Jane O’Meara Sanders—and his stepdaughter, Carina Driscoll, both received salaries from his early political campaigns. (Sanders’ House campaign reportedly paid O’Meara Sanders $90,000 for “consulting and ad placement services from 2002 to 2004.”) Driscoll, too, got paid $65,000 between 2000 and 2004. And at Burlington College, where O’Meara Sanders served as president until 2011, at least two contracts yielded six-figure payouts for companies run by Driscoll and a close friend of the Sanders family.

Given the source of the story I have great questions about its accuracy or reliability. Nevertheless it is a classic example of the manipulative cross examination in which the witness is asked “so when did you stop beating your wife.” The denial is meaningless once the allegation is published to the jury, as it takes on a life of its own whether true or not.

Several days ago another Sander’s fan announced on twitter that a top advisor to Clinton had been “taken in” by the FBI assumedly to be questioned with regard to what he may have known about what’s now simply called the server “case”. Not only did the post do a great disservice to the advisor by implying that he himself had broken the law, but it showed a complete ignorance about federal procedure. It’s well settled that the FBI cannot “take someone in” unless there is a warrant or probable cause for his or her arrest. Only in the world of movies can law enforcement take someone in to be questioned. So grab your seat and get your popcorn – “Kool-Aid” is now showing in your favorite theater.

Yesterday I was accused of “splitting hairs” by the author of one of these patently false posts who went on to justify his campaign “hyperbole” by simply saying that Clinton and Silver were “two peas in the pod . . . on the same pay league.” Joe McCarthy would have smiled in agreement. Indeed, collective and class guilt has a long and sordid history in this country. Thousands were rounded up and jailed early in the twentieth century, many deported, including our icon Emma Goldman during the Palmer Raids; their crime- speech and association.

Most shocking of all, for months now we’ve seen Clinton convicted by more than a few journalists on the left and their adoring readers because the vaunted FBI is investigating her under the lead of the Department of Justice- who, we know, always get their “man” or, in this case, their woman.

DOJ and the FBI have been at war with political opponents and dissidents, truth tellers and whistle blowers since literally the first day that their doors opened. While we know all about their collective efforts in COINTELPRO to destroy the Black Panther Party, it was but one of many federal law enforcement campaigns in which they spared no effort to vilify, or even murder, those perceived as enemies of the status quo, indeed the state.

I’ve spent decades unraveling political and criminal cases put together by DOJ and the FBI in their insatiable drive to destroy lives, and to bury the truth. Legion are the cases in which helpful witnesses or documents arguably under the reach, if not control, of the government have simply disappeared, unavailable to testify or to be used at trials. At other times critical forensic evidence was prepared with negligence or falsified to support overarching theories of guilt. So, too exculpatory scientific evidence has been suppressed by those who see convictions no matter what the evidence, or lack thereof, as desired justice, and acquittals as impediments to the security of the state, and personal failures.

In a series of recent explosive admissions the FBI conceded:
• That it has discovered errors in data used by forensic scientists in thousands of cases to calculate the chances that DNA found at a crime scene matches a particular person;
• Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far;
• That nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000;
• That nearly every criminal case reviewed by it and the Justice Department has included flawed forensic testimony from the agency;
• That “errors” in evidence provided by its forensics laboratory to US courts to help secure convictions, including in death penalty cases, over more than 20 years;

Indeed in a damning highly detailed report issued by the FBI Inspector General numerous instances were cited of critical forensic errors even in some of its most high profile cases of the day including:
• Scientifically Flawed Testimony in the Psinakis, World Trade Center 1, Avianca, and Trepal cases;
• Inaccurate testimony by an EU examiner in the World Trade Center case, by a former Laboratory examiner (who is still an FBI agent) in a hearing conducted by the judicial committee of the Judicial Council of the Eleventh Circuit regarding then-Judge Alcee Hastings, and by the CTU Chief in the Trepal case;
• Testimony beyond the examiner’s expertise in the World Trade Center, Avianca, and Hastings cases;
• Improper preparation of laboratory reports by three EU examiners who altered, omitted, or improperly supplemented some internal scientific findings (dictations) as they were being compiled into an official report of the Laboratory. A former EU Chief failed to substantively review all of the reports in his unit, authorized EU examiners to modify forensic dictations when incorporating them into EU reports, and fostered a permissive attitude toward changes to such dictations;
• Insufficient documentation of test results by the examiner who had performed work on hundreds of cases, including Psinakis and the UNABOM investigation, and by the CTU Chief;
• Scientifically flawed reports in the VANPAC and Oklahoma City cases, and in numerous cases by the former MAU examiner who worked on Psinakis, and in a few instances by an EU examiner who altered science reports;
• Inadequate record management and retention system by the laboratory;
• Failures by management to resolve serious and credible allegations of incompetence lodged against the examiner who worked on the Psinakis case; to review properly the EU report in the Oklahoma City case; to resolve scientific disagreements among Laboratory examiners in three cases, including Avianca; to establish and enforce validated procedures and protocols that might have avoided problems in examiner reports in the Psinakis and VANPAC cases; and to making a commitment to pursuing accreditation by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board before 1994;
• A flawed staffing structure of the explosives unit that should be reconfigured so that examiners possess requisite scientific qualifications.

The list of intentional or negligent government missteps is literally endless by some federal prosecutors and many agents who see themselves as very much the sole repositories of truth and justice involved in a war with those who refuse to bend to their political will.

Yet the dark often evil history of these agencies is conveniently overlooked today by some Clinton opponents who in their thirst to get her, and at all costs, appear to embrace federal agencies and their tactics that have terrorized our community for time immemorial. This is particularly ironic since many who suggest law enforcement perfection here, are the same who quickly reject it when it comes to the events of 9/11.

In this country the howl of the mob has a dark and dangerous history. It has brought us the execution of hundreds of not guilty women and men, thrown a noose around the neck of thousands because of race or rumor or innuendo, and destroyed the lives of countless artists, musician and dissidents because their beliefs or association were suspect. Now it seems to target political opponents in an unbecoming effort to obtain a “victory” that it apparently could not acquire at the polls.

In the law of libel one who acquires a public persona has a diminished expectation of privacy- it comes with the turf, I get it. Nevertheless, lots of things that are lawful are still tasteless or unprincipled. Many of us know the sting of false public accusation and ridicule as so much the shrill cry of the desperate that cannot compete fairly in the open and robust market place of debate. It says less about the target than it does those who stoop so low.

Clinton represents much that is wrong and unhealthy about our society, indeed our world. However, activists should not lower themselves or our movement and its traditions to that level. Sadly, the next time you read of someone charged and convicted in the media it may just be you.  “We Feared Witches. We Hung Women”

Stanley Cohen unbound: Radical lawyer out of jail, headed abroad

Stanley Cohen unbound: Radical lawyer out of jail, headed abroad

March 17, 2016 | Filed under: Community,News,People | Posted by: The Villager

Stanley Cohen during an interview earlier this month at a Downtown law firm where he is currently serving as a consultant.

stanley-1-600x399 sarah ferguson

Photo by Sarah Ferguson

BY SARAH FERGUSON | Going to prison can be a radicalizing experience. So what happens when you take a radical attorney and lock him up in a federal prison camp in northeast Pennsylvania for 11 months on criminal tax offenses?

Not much, according to former East Village attorney Stanley Cohen.

“Prison didn’t touch me. It didn’t change me. It didn’t soften me, it didn’t harden me,” says Cohen, who started a blog called “Caged But Undaunted” during his stay at Camp Canaan in Waymart, PA.

The LES’s most infamous defense lawyer also served three months at a Bronx halfway house and is now doing five more weeks of home confinement at his Upstate New York cabin in the foothills of the Catskills. Cohen, who is in his early 60s, was convicted last April on charges of “obstructing and impeding” the Internal Revenue Service. In essence, the I.R.S. got him for failing to file timely returns from 2005 to 2010, for failing to report some $35,000 in cash transactions, and for running a largely cash business in which he kept slack or no records.

In court, prosecutors alluded to millions of dollars in cash Cohen received from clients, many of them pot growers and smugglers from the Mohawk Nation’s Akwesasne Reservation on the Quebec border.

Cohen insists the notion that he was rolling in the dough is ludicrous. He says his prosecution on tax charges was part of a broader effort of political retribution aimed at silencing a radical defender who has spent the last three decades representing the rights of other radicals, outcasts and the oppressed. It’s a not too preposterous theory, considering that he has represented everyone from Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and Kathy Boudin of the Weather Underground to East Village squatters and Occupy Wall Street protestors, the leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah members of the Mohawk Nation and the Anonymous hacktivists known as the “PayPal 14.” (Cohen’s former law partner Lynne Stewart was convicted in 2010 of aiding a terrorist by helping her client communicate to followers from prison.) In 2002, he filed suit against Israel, accusing it of war crimes.

“They started investigating me in 1997, for material support of terrorism, because I was involved in a half-dozen battles with them over terrorism cases,” Cohen alleges, referring to inquiries launched over the years by the F.B.I. and Treasury and Justice departments.

“My case was not about taxes,” insists Cohen, who says he took the plea agreement only because the lengthy legal fight was “bankrupting” him, straining his family, and making it difficult to practice law.

“Am I banned from Israel and Egypt and Kuwait because of taxes?” he demands. “Shouldn’t that sort of say something? There isn’t a f—ing federal prosecutor in the United States who believes this is about f—in’ taxes,” maintains Cohen, who had to give up his Avenue D loft when he went to prison.

Prosecutors at the Northern District U.S. Attorney’s Office in Syracuse, where Cohen’s tax case was tried, insist their beef with him was not political. Asked whether the case against Cohen was politically motivated, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Southwick responded succinctly: “It was not.”

Cohen is still battling the I.R.S. in civil court over exactly how much in back taxes he still owes. But he was never fined for his tax offenses — a point he considers telling: “Go find another f—ing I.R.S. criminal prosecution in the United States without an order that you must repay a certain amount of money as part of your sentence. We looked. It doesn’t exist.”

Clearly undaunted, Cohen sat down with The Villager earlier this month for a wide-ranging interview in the offices of a Downtown law firm. Cohen says he was hired by the firm to consult on a big pro bono project, just two days after he entered the halfway house.

Although Cohen’s law license is currently suspended, he has not been disbarred. Rather, his law license is now “pending review” — meaning it is under the discretion of the New York Bar Association whether it will be reinstated once his full sentence has been served.

***

VILLAGER: So it’s not a given that you will lose your law license?

STANLEY COHEN: The haters are going around saying I’ve been disbarred, but it’s not true. In fact, there are those who believe that it’s highly significant that I wasn’t disbarred. There are those who believe the grievance committee sees — “There’s something going on here.” (Cohen moves in conspiratorially and casts a wink.)

V: So you can still help prepare legal cases?

S.C.: If your license is suspended or pending, you can’t even practice until it is resolved. But I can still be a consultant. I can’t give legal advice — which I’m not — and I can’t go into court. But I can research, and I can write, and I can set up pro bono projects.

V: What was it like in the Big House?

S.C.: I did 10 months and three weeks in a prison “camp” that was very much like a f—ing Boy Scouts barracks. It was a camp, which is no bars, no cells, no barbed wire, no keys, no guns. One hundred twenty men in a bunkhouse with communal showers and communal bathrooms, making 12 cents an hour. And then we’re attached to one of the ugliest maximum-security prisons in the United States, filled with about 1,000 guys doing at least 20-year sentences, and 500 doing life without.

[Cohen’s blog includes the interviews he did with his fellow prisoners, some living in the camp and others he encountered when he worked the red-eye shift at Canaan’s maximum penitentiary, packing lunches during a three-week lockdown.]

V: And how did prison deal with you as a radical attorney?

S.C.: I was designated a C.M.I., which is a Centrally Monitored Inmate. Within three days of my arrival, I had to sign a document which identified me as a C.M.I., that said quote unquote, “Because of inmate Cohen’s high public persona, his career of controversy, and the access to the media and the cases he’s handled, the Bureau of Prisons has decided he has to be a monitored inmate.” They wanted to keep me under their eye as much as possible; so when I got there, I was immediately assigned to the plumb librarian job of the law library. There were like 50 guys waiting to get the librarian job — [but] they gave it to me because it was 20 feet from the administrative offices, and people could walk by day in and day out and see me.

***

While in prison, Cohen says he received more than 100 interview requests — including one from CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria wanted to follow up on Cohen’s foiled efforts to negotiate with spiritual leaders of ISIS and Al Qaeda to intercede to obtain the release of American hostage Peter Kassig, who was beheaded by ISIS last November — just before Cohen reported to prison. The British Guardian did an 8,000-word series on Cohen’s role in the hostage negotiation, though the story did not receive much play here in the U.S. Unfortunately, according to Cohen, the Bureau of Prisons has a rule forbidding any filming or taping of interviews, so the CNN interview got scrapped.

Cohen says he was also visited by London playwright Chris MacDonald, who is writing a play about Cohen, and who spent a weekend “taking notes up his arm” while being monitored by the acting warden of the camp.

In addition, Cohen taught three terms of law classes to his fellow inmates, covering topics ranging from civil rights and American government, to the revolution that toppled apartheid in South Africa, the Israeli/Palestine conflict, and human rights law.

“I did serious stuff,” shrugs Cohen. “My classes were volunteer, they were at night, you got no credit for attending. And yet they regularly drew attendance of 30 people — about a third of the camp,” he adds.

“One of the guys who attended all my classes told me, ‘I love your classes. I feel like we’re in college. We’re like adults, like men. We discuss. We’re not dumbed down, we’re not f—ing idiots.’”

***

V: What was your hardest thing about being behind bars?

S.C.: Nothing about prison was hard for me — zero. There’s isolation and despair, there’s dirt and boredom, and there’s periodic violence — sometimes psychic, sometimes physical. None of that was a big deal. The biggest problem, especially in camps, is you’re powerless to take care of family problems. You get your periodic phone calls and visits; you get a certain number of e-mails now in prisons. But it’s not like your wife or husband or son can just pick up the phone and say, “I’m having a problem,” and you intervene and then they don’t have to worry about it… . All you can say is, “It will be all right, you have to deal with it.”

Low-security prisons and camps are designed to hurt you by hurting your families. The prison doesn’t hurt you. The camps themselves are a f—ing joke. Sixty percent of every man and woman in federal prison in the United States has been convicted of a nonviolent offense and/or poses no risk of danger to the community. They do not have to be in prison. The whole purpose is to punish the person, and the greatest retribution is meted out to wives, husbands and children on the outside. That’s where they get you, that’s where they f— you up. I have a strong partner of many years, but she had problems.

V: How was the food?

S.C.: Terrible. I’m a vegetarian. I had a friend of mine [in prison] who made me salads. There are exchange systems. I lived on a lot of oatmeal, a lot of nuts. I didn’t eat in the camp cafeteria at all the last five months. I would, however, go in two meals a day and get meals for friends who were big. I mean, breakfast was at 6 a.m. every day, lunch at 10:45 and dinner at 4. Who wants to eat lunch at 10:45?

I went in heavy because I’d been traveling a lot and hadn’t been taking care of myself before I went to jail. So I lost 23 to 24 pounds — roughly two pounds a month, and got back to my normal weight.

***

The Villager reached out to Cohen again over this past weekend, following his release from the halfway house, to ask how he was enjoying his relative freedom, under home confinement in his Catskills retreat.

Cohen said he was battling a terrific chest cold but seemed otherwise nonchalant about it all. He said he was keeping busy cleaning up the lawn, writing his blog and catching up on Turner Classic Movies with his longtime partner, artist Joni White. According to the terms of his sentence, he is now allowed to travel domestically related to his work and things like health appointments, but must spend each night at home.

Ever the troublemaker, Cohen says he’s been blasting tweets about the state of Gaza, promoting B.D.S. campaigns against Beyoncé and J. Lo and Springsteen because of their plans to play Israel, and of course, harping on the current trainwreck of a presidential election. (He’s got more than 20,000 Twitter followers.) Since he got out, he says he’s received a half-dozen death threats via Twitter and online from “white national socialists” who are pissed about something he wrote about Trump and Sanders.

***

V: Aren’t you at all worried about putting yourself back in the government’s — or your haters’ — crosshairs?

S.C.: Let us be very clear about this. Serious political lawyers put ourselves in the firing line all the time. It is what we do. Have there been times when I said f— you to the beast and exposed myself and let myself be vulnerable? Of course. Comes with the turf.

The government spent five years looking for hidden proceeds, because they are used to scammers and a–holes. They aren’t used to people like me. They’re not used to political fighters. They assumed that Stanley Cohen was getting rich because of the work he did — that Stanley Cohen was doing it for the money. It’s all nonsense. So they spent five years looking for offshore bank accounts and hidden dollar amounts and stock portfolios, and found nothing, zero, because there was nothing.

What they didn’t get — what they really didn’t get — was I didn’t give a f—. Who gives a f—? Was I reckless in certain regards? Absolutely. Did I not give a f— about some of their rules and regulations? Abso-f—ing-lutely. Did I see them as being intrusive? Absolutely. In my sentencing memo, it says, “Stanley Cohen has to be one of the best defense attorneys around… There’s no doubt he is an indefatigable force on behalf of his clients. But he’s a lousy businessman.” Really?

V: So what’s next?

S.C.: I’m thinking about bank robberies… No, seriously, what am I going to do? Even once I get my license back — and I’m convinced I will — my days of running a major national criminal defense firm are done. I will continue doing international human rights work — maybe political cases, terrorism cases. I expect to become an expat and live abroad — essentially reversing the past 20 or 25 years of living in the United States and traveling abroad three or four times a year. I will now live abroad and travel to the United States three or four times a year. I’ll reverse it.

V: Any idea where you’ll go?

S.C.: My partner has agreed that there are a certain number of countries that she will go live with me in. She’s an artist, she’s got a gallery, a small studio in Florida which she wants to maintain. We’re looking in the Gulf States somewhere, we’re looking in Lebanon, where she and I have been. We’re looking in South Africa… The countries I am thinking about are the countries that are very vibrant and in flux, in one way or another in a state of revolution. So they are involved in human rights struggles.

V: So you’ll pick up where you left off abroad?

S.C.: Look, I represent some very serious people. And I have been aligned with some very serious political movements for many years. And I have been a consultant to foreign governments. So I could do this tomorrow — never pick up a law book, never cross-examine a witness, never step into a courtroom again — and continue. I’ve got teaching offers in a half-dozen countries that I could do. I could be a consultant in many places.

Two weeks ago, when the South African Muslim Lawyers Association tried to get Shimon Peres arrested there, I was a consultant in that case. I was part of the strategy that — well, it didn’t work at this point, the special prosecutor said the case was not likely to prevail — but I was part of that.

V: But will you keep a place here?

S.C.: Oh, I’m not giving up the cabin. We want to look for a place on the Lower East Side — just to stay connected. Something small, one bedroom.

V: Seriously? You can afford to rent on the LES after the case just bankrupted you?

S.C.: Yeah. We’re gonna look.

The Villager encourages readers to share articles:

 

{Please look for Part Eight (The final chapter) of “It Ain’t The Promised Land” (Stanley’s time at Camp Canaan Prison) which will be posted in a few short weeks}

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 Five

Part 5

Bunk 11. Born into the heart of the deep south in 1947 while segregation still controlled the destiny of millions of her black citizens, to talk to Freddie is to travel down well-worn, distant roads paved over, but not repaired. For him, the journey from Southern cradle to Northern prison has not been solitary. The stain of racism is his ever-present companion.

The youngest of four children born to a farm couple in rural Williamsburg, South Carolina where his family tree traces back to slavery well before the Civil War, he remembers, like yesterday, segregated black schools, churches and water fountains. Raised on a steady diet of his grandmother’s tales of slavery, she often warned him not to cross the imaginary line that separated their property from the “white man’s.” The few white kids he knew were the ones he played with out back behind the large plantation house where his mother cooked meals, washed floors, and did laundry to make ends meet. The tobacco, cotton, and corn crops they grew only went so far in those tough and, at times, dangerous back roads.

Even now, sixty-plus years later, Freddie cannot forget news of local lynchings or the night when, but eight years old, he was awakened by his mother’s screams as the local Klan threatened to burn down their home unless his dad paid protection. He did.

From the day the hooded men on horseback attacked his home until he went up North, some eight years later, to live with his older brother, Freddie was not the same. The Klan had turned an adventurous childhood into one of sullen moments, fear, and withdrawal. Begging his parents to return with his visiting brother to New York and not quite yet sixteen, he quit school, never to return, and left with three dollars his dad had given him and two from his mom.

Within a year of his arrival in upstate New York, Freddie found himself homeless. Tired of his brother’s binge drinking and abuse and no longer willing to surrender his meager paycheck to him, he moved out. Still but a teenager, Freddie began a decades-long journey into one addiction after another… at first with heroin and ultimately crack. For the next 35 years, his life revolved around drugs and little else. Never a major dealer, he bought, he sold, he used… he bought, he sold, he used. The pattern repeated itself over and over again as his journey, which began as a terrified eight-year-old in the hate-filled South led to stops in Harlem, back to South Carolina and, ultimately, prison.

The Harlem of the late 70’s and early 80’s belonged to Frank Lucas, Nicky Barnes, and heroin. On every street corner, you soon learned that the drug was king and that all night meant just that…all night. To Freddie, who had fled from years of dope and despair in Rochester and in search of getting “straight,” Harlem held out hope. Soon, however, he found the lure of its streets and after-hour clubs too much to resist. For the next eight years, he was trapped in a vicious, endless cycle of dope, parties, and more dope on the streets of Lennox Avenue. Free at last from the overt racism of the South, the challenge was simple… to sell enough dope to get high and to avoid the violence and police corruption of the time uptown in New York City.

As his thirties gave way to his forties and the street drug of choice changed, Freddie, like thousands of other Harlemites, discovered crack. Too much to resist and desperate to escape the full-time rush that was crack, he returned to where it had all begun many years before in Williamsburg, South Carolina. The return to the family homestead was to prove so much fool’s gold.

Returning some 35 years after he had left the Deep South, to Freddie, it seemed little more than a blink of an eye. Although the Klan sheets had given way to the board rooms of new nearby corporate headquarters, little else had changed. Blacks still lived and played with black, whites with whites, and to travel down rural roads of Williamsburg County late at night was to tempt fate.

For Freddie, the transition from uptown Harlem and user to family farm hand proved to be a daunting task. Soon, he relapsed.

Over the next decade, until his arrest in 2001 for possession and distribution of crack, Freddie successfully transplanted his Northern lifestyle to his birthplace. Once again, he found himself smoking crack, partying, and smoking crack as he ran the drug from the coast of Florida to South Carolina to support his habit and to make ends meet.

Although he had but 100 grams of crack and a few ounces of cocaine powder at his disposal at the time of his arrest, federal prosecutors threatened to enhance the overall drug weight in his case if he went to trial. Facing a life sentence if convicted on the basis of so-called “ghost drugs,” Freddie pleaded guilty to a minimum 20-year sentence. Like enhanced mandatory minimums, ghost drugs…those not actually possessed but merely contemplated… have become the drug hammers that have filled federal prisons from coast to coast.

In the year between his arrest and sentence, Freddie was jailed in Effenhorn Detention Center. During this time, he quickly learned that, in South Carolina, federal prosecutions were race-driven… with most prisoners black and guards, prosecutors and federal judges white. Frequent were the times that this now fifty-something black man was called “boy.” No less frequent were the cases he came across where like-accused white defendants received sentences far less than his. Some things don’t change.

Following sentencing, Freddie was sent to the low-security prison at Petersburg, Virginia. Within days of his arrival, there was an incident involving a young black man assigned to a cell with a Klan member imprisoned for burning down black churches. Ignoring his repeated requests for a transfer, eventually the young man was attacked and severely injured by his Klan cell-mate. Later, Freddie learned that race-based incidents with black prisoners targeted by other prisoners and guards were commonplace at Petersburg. After 9/11, such attacks grew… with Muslims increasingly targeted. Freddie recalls shouts of “towel-head” and “nigger” as they echoed throughout the prison.

Towards the end of his first year at Petersburg, Freddie began to feel some discomfort in his stomach. Gradual at first, it gave way to periods of excruciating pain coupled with bouts of disorientation and chronic lethargy. Eventually, the pain became constant, causing him to often double over, to the alarm of fellow prisoners and some guards. Though he knew something was seriously wrong, over the next year or so, he received no sophisticated tests. Like many other prisoners throughout the BOP who report significant medical ailments, he was told repeatedly that it would pass. When it didn’t, inconclusive routine blood work was ordered.

Fortunately for Freddie, one day while at sick call, unable to walk or stand straight, a concerned physician’s assistant took the extra step of sending his blood work to Southern Regional Hospital… a private facility located not far from the prison. It saved his life.

With his voice cracking, years later, Freddie recalls the news he received the very next day. It was advanced stage IV cancer with not much chance of survival. Almost miraculously, he proved them wrong. He lived.

Admitted to the same hospital, Freddie soon underwent a four-hour operation to remove a large cancerous mass that had grown throughout his stomach. He awakened to the news that, although most of the mass had been removed, the prognosis was not good and that an extensive chemotherapy regimen remained as an almost last-ditch effort to save his life. Just ten days after his surgery, Freddie was returned to the prison… his body filled with tubes and racked with pain. He remembers lying for days on his bunk with little medical follow-up… unable to eat or properly care for himself.

Almost six months to the day of his surgery, and without notice, Freddie was transferred to the BOP medical facility at Butner, North Carolina for his chemotherapy… an intensive eight-month regimen which left him often violently ill and, on occasion, praying for the final relief that comes from death.

A determined man of strong faith, he had the sense that somehow he would survive… that there was a plan of sorts for him. Today, Freddie remembers the fright he felt with the insertion of a “port” … or surgically-placed reservoir attached to a tube in his chest cavity through which the chemicals were introduced into his system.

Following each five-hour treatment, he had to wait 28 days, all the while again racked with pain, nausea, and uncertainty… hoping that his blood cells would return to normal so that the next round of chemotherapy could begin. At one point, the port had to be removed because of an infection that would not go away. The treatment stopped, only to begin all over again, anew.

For eight months, the process repeated itself. At various times, Freddie was unable to eat and lost thirty-five pounds. He remained constipated throughout; unable to move his bowels, he developed a painful hernia which remains to this day.

Freddie recalls lying in his prison bed fighting infection, waves of nausea, and slipping in and out of consciousness… searching the ward for familiar faces which changed day by day as prisoners died, mostly from delayed treatment. Often he would hear them screaming out, reliving earlier times and places as they took their last breath and passed away. He estimates that during the year he stayed at the Butner hospital, a hundred or more prisoners died, mostly from cancer and because, like him, valuable treatment time had been lost to medical indifference in BOP facilities throughout the country.

Not far from Butner is a small but growing graveyard with the bodies of those prisoners who died without families or too poor to purchase the remains of their loved ones. It costs $1,000 per body. Although unseen by most, it is said that the headstones abound not with the names of the dead, but their prison numbers.

Eight years after surviving cancer and now in the fourteenth year of his 20-year sentence, Freddie, now 68 years old, is a frail man who tires easily. Never fully restored to his former health, there are moments when he just “does not feel right.” Of late, his CEA, or early cancer warning scores, have begun to once again elevate… a sign that worries Freddie but is ignored by the medical staff at Canaan.

Freddie can be seen early each morning mopping the floors in the bunkhouse. Each night, he prepares a “homemade” meal with goods purchased from the commissary. Creative and tasty, Freddie’s recipes are popular especially with the young prisoners at Canaan. He also likes to share stories with them as he provides counsel in moments when they are scared or depressed.

Although Freddie has seen two recent sentence reductions for drug offenders, he has not benefited from either. His mandatory minimum sentence renders him ineligible for any reductions.

While the BOP provides for “compassionate” and “second chance” releases, because he looked death in the face and survived, he is not eligible for either. Late at night, Freddie sits on his bunk wondering whether he will live long enough to walk out of prison and return to the South of his youth. Only time will tell.

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 inmate.com 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.