Melissa talks about how our perverse and tyrannical criminal justice system derails lives, devastates families, destroys communities and how its very personal invasion of her life drove her to make a difference in the lives of our discarded incarcerated populations.
Pinellas County Florida’s Sheriff Bob Gualtieri’s complicity in creating a racial divide leading to constant strife, stress and physical fights among the prisoners at the county jail facility under his charge actually costs the taxpayers untold thousands of dollars.
Being one of those prisoners and having a firsthand account, I can tell you that if divide-and-conquer is the goal, the exorbitant costs thrown at this draconian method of imprisoning humans and leaving no hope for a second chance and the possibility of a productive life is completely unnecessary. Not to mention the fact that it is counter to any stated goal of making the community a safer place to live. When you create an environment that is in most cases worse than the one the person was plucked from, it only makes sense that the one that still exists on the streets is going to perpetuate itself. Long Live the King.
Let me cut to the chase. Jail is not a place where people are coddled. But some bureaucratic genius there at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office came up with the bright idea of allocating thousands of dollars for brand new 50” flat-screen TVs with remote controls. The jail pods cage inmates 24 hours a day in crowded conditions – in some cases with 6 and 7 men including the one sleeping on a plastic “boat” bunk on the floor, in a space the size of a bathroom. The most disconcerting part of that is the toilet is right in the middle of the space. But I digress.
The tensions run as high as the testosterone with the stress level being fed by practically non-existent legal help since the public defender’s sham is in complete collapse, but the fiscal hypocrisies abound. The conditions are a further detriment in an environment that already has such a negative draw on life and humanity.
Another bureaucratically genius decision was to award a huge contract to a parasitic organization known as Trinity Services Group. Think about the implications of the play on words with a name that includes trinity in its title. This is one of the largest food service companies that feed not only from the taxpayer trough, but also from the broken families whose would-be breadwinners are imprisoned. Trinity runs the “company store,” a.k.a. commissary, charging outrageously high prices for staple items like ramen noodles at 75¢ per package, a product that retails for less than one third that cost outside the gates. The genius in that decision lies in the fact that even though the dietary intake of the prisoners is so atrocious that stray animals at the S.P.C.A. have a better nutritional plan, the officers are enticed by the fact that they get free, yes free, meals while at work. Why else work in such a degraded environment? Well, $21 per hour starting wage is not a bad perk either. Ah, but yet again I digress.
How does all this feed racial tensions and encourage criminal behavior while perpetuating anger, violence and hatred? Let’s start with the beautiful new televisions, complete with cable TV. There is a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality in here and not because of the racially disproportionate numbers of prisoners but because idle time is the devil’s workshop. The particular pod I’m housed in has 13 whites, 5 Hispanics and 8 African Americans. Whites have an approximate average age of 50, Hispanics 30, and African Americans 38. The problem stems from who controls what. Since the officers do their checks only once every half hour (by forced issue I might add after such a high number of incidences of things like unanswered inmate medical emergencies), the bullying and juvenile acts of a small number of prisoners prevail when they control of the remote. If you don’t like it you can fight because no amount of diplomacy seems to impact this mentality and any attempts to address the issue with staff as a mediator gets you labeled a “snitch.”
The attempted solution we proposed was that control of the remote would be designated according to the existing rotating cleaning duties assigned to each inmate. But because this remedy didn’t work for a couple of people who have an incessant need for control, or maybe an inability to see things from their limited perspectives, that it has become a battlefield again.
The bullies’ excuses for holding the beautiful new 50″ flat screen television hostage come in endless torrents, but as anyone who has ever been in jail or prison knows, divide-and-conquer is the mentality that keeps separation at the forefront of inhumanity. Unfortunately, the racial divide is the most efficient method to tear at the fabric of the under-educated, unprotected and underrepresented villains of amerikan society. The most devastating component of this attack on humanity is that it works.
So I’ll leave you with this question. Is it more cost efficient to tack 50″ flat screen TVs to the walls of jails and pump already stimulation-starved minds with 75 channels of cage-fighting, NFL, and Real Housewives of…outer space, than it would be to implement some real, cohesive, educational programs designed to halt the madness of mass recidivism, racism, hatred and juvenile antics that lead to the kill-or-be-killed-for-control-of-the-television mentality?
I guess we would have to ask Pinellas County Florida’s Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, since the taxpayers don’t seem to have any say as long as the fight isn’t brought to their living rooms. Yet!
Regardless of the typical squabbles between siblings, my brother has always been someone I’ve looked up to — it’s even fair to say I have idolized him. (Except for the times I want to smash his face in, like all siblings do from time to time). Growing up, he was both the comic relief and the genius of the family. The class clown. Popular with teachers and students — though he didn’t seem to notice that. Every single one of my girlfriends had a crush on him (which continued after we became adults). He is the favored uncle to my kids. He’s HIGH-larious. Seriously — he’s Jerry Seinfeld-funny. He has the kind of talent as a musician that intimidates other artists. He has a photographic memory – I’ve never seen anything like it. (A friend was stunned when Rick described what was on page eight of a schematic he hadn’t seen in years). He is wrong so infrequently that it is super annoying. I mean come on! He’s impossible to argue with, which is usually why I want to smash his face in. I used to argue with him constantly. He’s my only sibling. When he and his wife bought property in Texas back in 2000, turning the talk of a long-distance move into reality, I couldn’t even speak the news out loud. It felt like I was losing my best friend. I thought it was the worst news ever.
It wasn’t. In the summer of 2013, our dad delivered the actual worst news ever. Rick had been arrested, because someone told a lie. A monstrous lie. In Texas, that’s a go-directly-to-jail card. Everything in my life is measured by that day — what happened before it, and what happened after it.
I wrote the true story below back in December of 2014, after a year and a half of the daily anguish every family member knows only too well when you’re seeing someone you love suffer unjustly.
And yet, one of the first things Rick said to me from a phone in Travis County Jail was, “There are a lot of good people in here. And a lot of sad stories.” In the midst of his own despair, he wanted to do something to help people — and Adopt an Inmate was born.
While, three and-a-half years after his arrest, we have adjusted to a “new normal,” and it helps Rick and the whole family every time we can share news that we’re helping more people — certain memories still feel like a fresh kick in the gut. This is one of them.
I hardly ever want to smash his face in any more.
Cards, Letters and Jail Shenanigans
It took four attempts to collect it from the jail. After a number of blatant lies and conflicting stories from a handful of guards and post officers, the bag was lost. We feared it had been thrown in the trash. On the third attempt to collect it, I was shouted at by one of the guards, who literally refused to hear anything I had to say.
Finally on the fourth attempt – I was shown some measure of civility by one guard, who informed me that the property had been located, and would be walked over to the video visitation building, where I was waiting for my last visit with my brother before I flew back home, and before he would be moved to prison. The guard who shouted at me exhibited great maturity when, after the bag was delivered, refused to hand me the bag even though it was six inches in front of her on the counter. She actually called another guard over (the civil one) to pick it up from in front of her and hand it to me.
This is what it’s like to try to get anything done for someone who is in jail. It is exactly how everything else has gone since this nightmare began. Save for a few angels, it is pure hell.
But wait, there’s more.
Because I was made to wait an hour and a half for the visit, even though there were over 20 —TWENTY! — available video booths and zero people ahead of me (they have perfected the art of causing families to suffer every possible unnecessary nuisance), I missed my flight. Then because of weather (now the landing time would be after dark), the connecting flight was first delayed, and then diverted, so instead of arriving home at six pm that day, I landed at an airport in a different city, and took a two and-a-half hour bus shuttle, arriving home at 4:00 the next morning.
Thanks, Travis County Correctional Center.
This bag of letters was my carry-on. I held on to that bag like it was made of gold, as if Rick himself were in there. I carried it with me through the airport to my connecting gate, clutching it until my flight finally departed. I read the cards and letters in the air, and wept quiet tears of both joy and grief, trying not to disturb my seat mates.
Among the letters were also notes from other inmates, that Rick would pass on to us so that we could contact family members and give them messages. There are many pre-trial detainees that don’t have someone on the outside with the resources to help them, so we tried to fill that gap when we could – but mostly we felt helpless.
Innocent until proven guilty? No. Not in this country. Unless you are wealthy, or have some substantial political clout, you will not be permitted to participate in your own defense. If you are charged – you’re going down.
This, and every other shenanigan we have been forced to go through, is exactly why we are starting a non-profit, to address these kinds of issues. These people have no lobbies, and thus no voices – their stories go unheard, their urgent needs unmet. That is not okay.
Look for news about our non-profit in the near future, and please continue to send cards and letters while we wait out this next chapter. We’ll get through it by focusing on this positive work, and looking forward to his release.
Trust me, there will be a big party. You’re all invited, and I can’t wait to see you there.