Daily Prison Life Series: How To Fix What We Refuse To Acknowledge Is Broken

Daily Prison Life Series: How To Fix What We Refuse To Acknowledge Is Broken

In a real world of problems and solutions it is generally practiced to recognize where a problem exists and to seek a resolution to the problem. Enter the incredibly inaptly named world of the Florida Department Of Corrections. The misnomer doesn’t only stem from the fact that there is absolutely zero correcting the behaviors of the wards of the state, but also it stems from the need to acknowledge the department’s inherently flawed inabilities to police itself and seek solutions to the problems that come from a need to cover up the behaviors of the very people charged with correcting the behaviors of the wards of the state.

Let me see if I can un-convolute this for you with a couple of situations.

The process for a prisoner to redress a problem is known as the ”grievance process.’ In Florida this is a three step process that must be completed before a person in prison can exercise his constitutional right to seek redress from the courts. Thanks be to the U.S. Supreme Court for consistently viewing prisoners as less than human. No matter, the grievance process simply doesn’t work anyway. Knowing this, I use this process only to bring attention to the problems that are rampant with the people who run this show. It is decidedly so that the system will spend a million dollars to save a dime.

This brings me back to the great sock caper. If you remember a couple of weeks ago I reported that the top ranking officer at dormitory inspection essentially helped himself to socks that I had in of all places… my laundry bag. For reasons unknown, the major emptied my laundry bag onto the middle of my bunk and made away with another mesh bag we use for canteen shopping that I had meant to throw away, and three brand new pairs of socks. I received a property form for the canteen bag but alas not the socks. The following is a verbatim copy of the grievance that followed and the response.

This informal grievance is in accord with F.A.C. CH 33-103.001(1)(2)(4), 33-103.002, 33-103.005, 33-103.010, 33-103.011, 33-103.014. On Feb 10 20211 during dorm inspection Major Crawford emptied my laundry bag onto my bunk. For whatever reason the major confiscated a trashed canteen bag and three brand new pairs of quarterly order socks with gray toe and heel. If these socks were taken because there were other socks, those were all the state socks with holes that I could not get replaced from laundry. Hence my family had to purchase those socks. The major could have taken the state socks. Later that evening Sgt Cooper brought to me a property slip for only the canteen bag. He knew nothing about the socks. It will be evident on camera that Major Crawford left with the socks and most of the dorm witnessed him with the socks. The remedy sought is to return the 3 pairs of brand new quarterly order socks or apply to risk management for a refund of the amount of purchase as per F.A.C. ch. 33-602.201(14)(a thru e).

(Response from someone named Washington): Informal is vague and cannot be clearly investigated. You’ve failed to provide the time of this incident therefore video cannot be reviewed.

This is a tactic frequently employed by the department of corruption in order to avoid owning up to the completely flawed system that allows for the lack of professionalism and the recycling of criminal behaviors that fuels recidivism and mass incarceration. Never mind that dorm inspection is every Wednesday at approximately the same time. Defend and deflect.

Again, do you want your cities to be safer? Do you want your incarcerated loved ones to become productive members of society? We have to have professionals who act professionally. We have to make punishment subordinate to rehabilitation. And we must acknowledge the inherent and problematic methodology of penology that is more akin to Abu Grab than the treatment of our own citizens.

The only real effect the flagrant lies spewed onto the grievance response served was to piss me off. My only recourse is to continue the grievance process with an appeal to the creators of the mess in Tallahassee at the head office, which will invariably be denied thru either the same or some other contrived nonsensical reasoning, then go on to file a small claims court suit in which FDC will spend copious amounts of money to not admit that the offending employee was in fact wrong, also requiring them to replace six dollars worth of socks. Obviously a route 99.99% of inmates are not willing to travel. So with the blessing of the dysfunctionality of a system designed to not only allow, but to perpetuate itself thru the permissible subterfuge of supposedly keeping the public safe, men and women are abused, sometimes to death, women are impregnated, and even juveniles suffer atrocities at the hands of so-called professionals and all are left with a method of redress known as ” the grievance process” that is not just simply ignored, but actively thwarted by it’s inherent design. If all you show a man is corrupt methods of existence, in order to sustain the same system that calls itself the department of corrections, that’s all a man will learn. Dysfunctional corruption. Teach a man to fish.

This picture I’m painting is as representative as I believe anyone could paint no matter how outlandish it may appear. There is absolutely nothing rehabilitative about the penology employed by the Florida department of corrections. As I suspect is true in other departments throughout the U.S. as well rendering the rate of return to prison commensurate with the need for jobs to stir the economy in a state that depends on being pretty to sustain the lavish lifestyle of the few.

We’ve yet to discuss the nonexistent medical care in the Fla. department of corruptions, a subject that will I think require an installment all its own.
On a final note, I’m no longer at Columbia correctional, I’ve been transferred to Lake correctional, an institution purportedly scheduled to be torn down. Your guess is as good as mine. The topic shall be commented on in future postings.

Until then, much peace and love. Namaste.

Opinion: Time for Oregon to pull back on Measure 11’s mandatory minimums

Opinion: Time for Oregon to pull back on Measure 11’s mandatory minimums

Time for Oregon to pull back on Measure 11’s mandatory minimums. An opinion piece by one of our featured writers, Martin Lockett in Oregon, published in The Oregonian.

Lockett is serving the final year of a 17-year sentence at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras.

Seventeen years ago, I drove drunk and crashed into a car that killed two people and injured another. I was 24.

At the time, I was working full-time and attending Portland Community College part-time. In full disclosure, I was no stranger to the law. I was finishing my final two months of post-prison supervision after serving three years for my part in a robbery when I was 19. Nonetheless, I had turned over a new leaf – until my troubled relationship with alcohol led me into the most catastrophic mistake one can make while intoxicated. My victims were in recovery themselves and to learn I had taken their lives was devastating.

While incarcerated, I focused on honoring my victims by doing all I could to help others who struggle with addiction. In order to do this, I knew I would need a formal education. I have earned a master’s degree in psychology and state certification as an alcohol and drug counselor. I have published two books and co-facilitated Mothers Against Drunk Driving-sponsored discussions with family members of those killed by drunk drivers at the Oregon State Correctional Institution. I produced a video of my story that is regularly shown at community panels. Moreover, I have never been written up for a transgression during my 17-year stay. I do not highlight these accomplishments to give myself a proverbial pat on the back but to say none of that will make a single day’s difference in my sentence. Like many others in Oregon’s prisons, I am serving a mandatory sentence which offers zero incentive to change.

My transformation was solely of my own doing, not because any mechanism in the system aided or encouraged it. My education was privately financed, and I was fortunate enough to land at the only prison in Oregon that enabled me to log clinical hours for certification. But I can assure you I am not an anomaly. There are countless others serving 10 – 30-year sentences under Measure 11 who are far different from their young drug-addicted selves who committed crimes decades ago. Yet they have no hope of returning to their communities anytime soon to offer them the benefit of their new knowledge. And while some take the opportunity to change, these lengthy sentences push many others even further into criminality. They know that violating institution rules won’t cost them their chance at a reduced sentence, because they aren’t eligible for it anyway.

I am deeply proud of how progressive Oregon can be when it comes to many things, most recently the decriminalization of possession of smaller quantities of drugs. Legislators also passed reforms to Measure 11 in 2019, recognizing how unfair and unproductive its heavy-handed treatment of juveniles was. Yet, the heart of this law, which dates back to the ’90s tough-on-crime, prison-building era persists.

Retribution vs. Rehabilitation

Retribution vs. Rehabilitation

What is the most effective approach to dealing with crime and punishment? Should the criminal justice system primarily be used to punish those who violate the law by sending them to prison for lengthy terms? Or should it rather serve as a mechanism for rehabilitation? This dichotomous question is a polarizing one that aligns people on opposite sides of this argument and has shaped our penal system since its inception.

When men and women come to prison, we invariably cost hard-working, law-abiding taxpayers across this country billions of dollars annually to feed, clothe, and house us. Our water, heat, medical and dental care are all paid for on the backs of hard-working Americans from all walks of life. Recidivism rates show that most of us who are eventually released will re-offend and return to these overcrowded prisons within three to five years, continuously costing taxpayers many more billions of dollars for our lengthy terms of incarceration. This bleak trend will, unfortunately, remain intact if prisons continue to be used to primarily warehouse inmates.

Statistics show the higher the education one attains while incarcerated, the greater the likelihood of his or her success in the community, leading to a lesser likelihood that he or she will return to prison. Subsequently, the longer he or she thrives in a productive role in society, the more he or she will feel like a member of a community and not a criminal outcast. Earning a college degree or becoming certified in a trade while in prison is the key to this radical transformation and reintegration into our communities.

Having noted these promising outcomes, I know it is also paramount that the individual who commits a violent felony pays for his or her crime by serving time in prison. The sensible thing to do is to ensure that prison doesn’t continue to have a revolving door that perpetually costs taxpayers and state budgets billions of dollars, but rather to educate prisoners so they can begin to contribute to society. Offer college and apprenticeship programs to prepare them for the ever-evolving technological and service-based occupations that comprise the 21st century economy. When people have more at stake to lose, they tend to think twice about risking it by doing something illegal.

Understandably, many would vociferously rebut this assertion by arguing, “So, we’re just supposed to reward criminals with a free college education?” My answer would be pragmatically blunt: “No, you don’t have to offer any education of substance at all, but either way you’re going to spend those same tax dollars — either on lengthy incarcerations for re-offenders or on education that would enable them to contribute to society in an economically and socially meaningful way.” Which scenario benefits society more?

I am dismayed that this country that offers abundant opportunity on one hand can simultaneously incarcerate more people per capita than any other nation on earth! We’ve become a state and nation that would rather warehouse human lives in the name of retribution than rehabilitate people for the greater good of our collective society. Ironically, every state in the Union includes the word “corrections” in reference to its prison system. The (fill-in-the-state) Department of Corrections sounds as though it is primarily designed to correct or rehabilitate its occupants — but how? This is paradoxical to say the very least.

Personally, I’ve been extremely blessed to have had the financial means and support from loved ones that have enabled me to attain a college education. When I started this journey in 2004, I’d made the decision to make the most of my time by getting a college education and becoming a substance abuse counselor. I didn’t know how this was going to happen, but I was nonetheless determined.

When I arrived at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in 2005, I began taking college courses one at a time for $25. After my father passed away, I used my portion of his life insurance policy to fund my education via correspondence. I began independently taking courses from other universities, earning a Certificate in Human Services from Louisiana State University, AA from Indiana University, BS in Sociology from Colorado State University, and an MS in Psychology from California Coast University. I was certified as a recovery mentor last year and recently as a substance abuse counselor. Good for me, but what about everyone else? It disheartens me when I think of the lack of opportunity for countless others in Oregon prisons because they have been institutionalized with no real opportunities to rehabilitate themselves and gain something tangible to show for it. Sadly, this deplorable trend will only continue if retribution over rehabilitation remains our state’s and nation’s motive for incarceration.

Restorative Justice is Key to Rehabilitation

Restorative Justice is Key to Rehabilitation

For a peek inside the Restorative Justice process, see CNN’s original series The Redemption Project with Van Jones.

For the first twelve years of my incarceration I was convinced I had done everything I could to atone for my crime — then I was proven wrong. Although attaining a BS in Sociology and an MS in Psychology while becoming a certified recovery mentor have been milestones, they did not — and could not — fully rehabilitate me. My education could not provide me with the empathy-inducing face-to-face encounters with survivors that are necessary for complete rehabilitation. This transformative catalyst could only come about through the impaired driver victim impact panels.

By pouring all my efforts into a college education (privately funded) that would allow me to counsel adolescents struggling with substance addictions, I felt a sense of purpose and direction. During my studies, I came to understand the underlying causes of my addiction. I gained a level of insight that helped me grasp the complex biopsychosociospiritual model of addiction and criminality. I had convinced myself that because I no longer drank and helped men confront their own pathologies, while encouraging them to strive for better in their own lives, I had exemplified recovery and rehabilitation. What I have accomplished during my incarceration has been integral to my rehabilitation; however, it is not the most transformative component of this comprehensive process.

Three years ago I was given the opportunity to participate in an impaired driver victim impact panel. I eagerly agreed, knowing this would enable me to help others by sharing my story. Little did I know it would be the compelling stories I’d hear from those on the other side of crime that would leave a lasting impact on me!

During our first panel there were approximately 50 inmates in attendance and two volunteers from the community who had been impacted by drunken drivers: one had lost her 28-year-old son, the other was a survivor of a DUII collision. I intently listened to these two courageous women speak about the devastating losses they had endured as a result of these crimes. I found myself feeling ashamed to know I had also left indelible scars on the survivors of my victims, yet I felt encouraged to hear these women also speak of their ability to forgive the people who had taken so much from them. One said, “I can hate the man who has done this to me, but who does that really hurt? So, instead, I choose to forgive and live.” It was silent in the room but for the intermittent sniveling from men who futilely tried to gather their emotions. Since my sentencing, this was the first time I had met with people who are living with the ever-present impact of losing someone to a drunken driving collision. But there was another side.

Because I was recruited to participate in this inaugural panel, I was also asked to tell my story. I prepared intensely because I prided myself on being composed and fluid when I spoke. Thankfully, I was able to deliver, but it was what came afterward that surprised me. The two women thanked me for sharing; they told me they needed more of us to do the same when we get out so people can gain a different perspective from the offenders. I cannot adequately express how this made me feel. To know that the victims of crime would now be eager to work alongside those who, in many ways, represent the criminals who have victimized them was nothing short of remarkable. It was then that I was able to truly appreciate the necessity of coming full circle in my rehabilitative efforts by collaborating with victims and working toward a common goal: preventing further crime. Three years and over 20 volunteers later, the shared healing continues.

During my 15 years of incarceration, I have seen many programs that inmates are able to access (GED, cognitive restructuring, drug and alcohol treatment, religious services, anger management, etc.). All of these serve a valuable purpose in the complex process of helping inmates come to terms with their underlying issues that have manifested in deviant, criminal behavior. However, it has become painfully obvious that this effort would not be complete without exposing inmates to the unique, therapeutic, enlightening and empathy-producing experience that a restorative justice program offers. There is no substitute for hearing, feeling, and witnessing the severe impact our actions have had on victims, families, friends, and communities. As grateful as I am for having had the rare opportunity to earn a graduate degree, the empathy and insight I have gained from listening to those who are on the other side of crime has done more for my rehabilitation than I could have ever imagined. It is, therefore, imperative that any efforts to fully rehabilitate the inmate population include programs of restorative justice.

Nothing On My Table

Nothing On My Table

While certainly not as grossly unjust as it was prior to the 1980s, incarceration is still an incredibly dehumanizing experience, and given that people are incarcerated for years at a time, imprisonment in the United States often permanently scars a person to the point that many prisoners no longer feel like people at all. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not saying we are victims, and I’m not forming my conclusions based on the sense of entitlement that is so pervasive in American culture. It goes without saying that prison is punishment for criminal misconduct, and my actions warrant that punishment. I can accept that. I have developed into a man who can acknowledge the fact that my act of egregious violence not only cost another human being his life, but ultimately harmed everyone involved, including the victim’s family, my family, and the community at large. I am not denying that, nor am I blaming anyone else for my situation. 

However, the commission of and consequences for a criminal act, especially an act of violence, doesn’t take place in a vacuum, right? I mean, in the same way that there are identifiable social and psychological ramifications for criminal activity, there are many social and psychological variables that influence and shape the reasons why a person commits a crime. Redemptive justice should look to identify and treat the highly individualized social and psychological deficits in those who engage in criminal activity in an effort to redeem the human beings behind the acts and prepare them for reintegration into society while simultaneously disciplining them with proportionate punitive measures. Unfortunately, prisons in the United States are neither redemptive nor restorative. They are overly punitive and dehumanize the already troubled human beings confined within them. 

One example, a situation with which I am dealing currently is an increased emphasis on the enforcement of property rules on my unit, which is completely understandable because things have grown lax in recent years. I live on an incentive housing unit and we all had too much property stored in unauthorized places. However, the one in charge of communicating this elevated enforcement to those who run the units is less than approachable. 

One day, he came to the unit after we were called to chow. We returned to chaos and intimidation — I entered my cell, and the folders I had on the table were thrown to the floor, my papers scattered, the blanket on the end of my bunk thrown to the middle, and as I surveyed the small room where I live, I could hear him threatening to move people off the unit when they simply tried to explain that this unit offers less storage space than other units. While this seems like a relatively innocuous incident, it is emblematic of a larger reality. 

Another crucial aspect of being human is feeling warmth and love. The incarcerated are almost never shown warmth and love, and we rarely show it to each other. It is generally viewed as a weakness within prison culture, and the staff are trained to put on a persona that lacks any degree of warmth or compassion when dealing with us because it is believed that showing concern and warmth will reduce their authority, even though there is an argument that holds warmth would increase not only the authority and credibility of the staff, but also their safety. In an environment as cold and unfeeling as prison, it can become difficult to express warmth at all after a while. It just becomes so foreign, and if we are unaware of this dynamic, which most of us are, then it can become uncomfortable to receive it as well.

Every human being is unique and has a need to express his or her individuality, but in prison, our ability to experience and express our own individuality is limited. Communication is stifled. Staff rarely listen to or even allow us to explain our side of a given situation, believing we are trying to manipulate everything to our advantage. We are treated as if we are all the same, cattle to be exploited for profit by both the state and the private companies that do business within the prison system, rather than the unique human beings we are. 

Meaning and purpose are also crucial aspects of being human. People need to feel like they matter; they need a reason to wake up, to put one foot in front of the other. The “Will to Meaning,” as Victor Frankl put it, provides the impetus for growth, the drive to become a better, more actualized person. While certainly not comparable to Frankl’s Nazi internment camp experiences, the dehumanization of contemporary incarceration still works against the will to meaning. The effects are simply more subtle and, therefore, more insidious. In fact, the prison system has no vehicle or mechanism either to express why meaning and purpose are so critical for rehabilitation or how to help the incarcerated find meaning and purpose in their lives. When humans are treated like their lives are meaningless, it becomes too easy to believe the lives of others are meaningless, too. 

The punitive aspects of prison are out of balance with the stated mission of rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the current reality of the prison system is that it more often than not produces people who come out more broken than when they went in. They feel disrespected, frustrated, empty, alone, humiliated, and unloved. Academic and vocational training is limited in both scope and availability. Substance abuse or sex addiction treatment programs are literally non-existent, even though 75% of the incarcerated in Oregon are in for either a drug offense or sex crime. Although I’m not a sex offender, I was drunk when I committed an act of violence against another man, and I had a history of drug and alcohol abuse at the time. 

Cognitive dissonance involves a psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously. The idea is that one cannot hold competing beliefs and attitudes for long — it is inevitable that a person will eventually take one position over the other. I feel like when this manager looks in the cells and sees pitchers full of ice water or colored sugary drinks, folders, books, and other evidence of human presence, it causes a psychological conflict for him because he does not view us as human. He wants no human possessions to be visible on the tables and walls — only steel and brick. He wants to see an animal in a cage, rather than a man in a room, so he reacts with venom, intimidation, and vitriolic rhetoric.

Problems of dehumanization are paradigmatic and systemic. Take for example the man in charge of pushing the elevated enforcement of property rules on my unit: It is not the enforcement of the rules that is dehumanizing. It is how he treats people as he enforces them. The lack of flexibility, nonverbal intimidation, and verbal threats reveal his cognitive dissonance regarding the incarcerated. 

He is not the only one. Many administrative staff hold these views of the incarcerated, and because of the paradigm with which they do their jobs, subordinates adopt similar views, making it a systemic problem. I don’t blame them too much. I’m not sure they even understand the ripple effect they have on their world, but the consequences go far beyond themselves. 

Constant dehumanization, experienced everyday in a thousand different ways over a period of years, amounts to socialization. The negative and abusive patterns of treatment during incarceration socially conditions the incarcerated to view themselves as less than human, unlovable, and undeserving of empathy, thereby reducing their capacity to empathize with those in society. In fact, gang members, sex offenders, and drug addicts who desperately want to change their lives find little in the way of guidance or counseling — when they are in that liminal space between their criminally-oriented past and whatever their future may hold, the only consistent message prison offers is that they are less than authentically human. 

Sure, in this environment, we all have the choice to grow… or not, but the criminal justice system certainly does not highlight the better choices one could make. Nor does it show the incarcerated person how to purposely and positively alter his or her decision-making patterns in order to realize genuine change. This method of “rehabilitation” does not curtail criminal behavior or reduce the recidivism rate. Unfortunately, current models of incarceration and systemic dehumanization actually work to increase criminal thinking and antisocial behavior patterns. But…at least there is nothing on my table now.