The Places We Put Prisoners

from the Boston Herald

There is always heartbreak in parole hearings for lifers. Tragic deaths and tragic long sentences behind bars. As I wrote in Boston Magazine in 2011 about petitions before the full Parole Board, the Natick hearing room “looks like a converted warehouse,” where “seven men and women sit behind a long table.” Rows of chairs are set up facing the Board, a seven member panel.There’s an aisle down the middle, and both families—that of the murderer and the one belonging to the deceased— sit apart, each with their own grief.

The Board has always seemed to have a sense of the loss suffered by the families. Since Charlene Bonner took over the as Chair, there has also been more understanding of the parolee expressed, and sometimes sympathy (Note: I have attended 19 of the 24 lifer hearings so far, out of 63). All of the lifers have been male, and they sit in front of the Board in cuffs, leg irons, and a waist chain. The plea for parole is always the same. The question the Board has is the same too: Will the petitioner be a good candidate for parole?

But from the start of the July 30, 2015 hearing, this was not exactly the case of Patrick Nerette, now forty-three years old, who has served twenty-five years behind bars.

When Nerette appeared before the Board, he said that as a young men he was “angry at the world.”  He talked of how he came from Haiti, spoke no English, was bullied, and with problems at home, slipped into crime. Guns were part of his lifestyle; he gave his co-defendent the gun that killed Jean Stranberg, a Dorchester store clerk. He knew her; she used to give him candy because he had no money, and he said he didn’t expect her to be in the store that day. Although he was not the shooter, he was part of the crime, and he was convicted of felony murder.

Nerette turned down a plea bargain when he was a teen because he could not imagine being convicted of a life sentence with no parole. How could any teenager imagine that? And he also said he did not fully understand “joint venture,” the idea that he might be as equally guilty as the boy who pulled the trigger. How shocked he must have been when he heard that the shooter, who took a plea bargain, was released a couple of years ago. Nerette was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life without parole.

In 2012, he found new hope. The U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision, Miller v. Alabama. Miller said science had proven juveniles were different from adults; they needed a judge’s thorough consideration, case by case, and could not automatically be sentenced to life without a meaningful chance at parole.Then in 2013, Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) went further in its interpretation of Miller with the Diatchenko v. District Attorney decision. The SJC struck down all sentences of life without parole eligibility for juveniles. Nerette is one of the sixty-three in Massachusetts’s prisons who, because of retroactivity, are now eligible for parole hearings.

But because of the place where he has been held, a prison where he was sent by the Department of Corrections, Nerette has had little access to programming and to the kind of growth experiences that he needs in order to relearn how to live in the free world. This is in some part because of the DOC. He was not permitted to stay in Massachusetts and sent to a prison that his attorney said made Cedar Junction look like “a day at the beach.”

At the hearing, it was clear that his lawyer knew Nerette didn’t really have a chance of going home to Haiti (even if the Boston Herald reported Nerette “begged” for it in their story above). His life behind bars had been so brutal that his description of a boy who never had a chance evoked an episode of Oz . In that long-running TV show, young men were pulverized if they did not fight back: they were in Nerette’s own words, “marks.” After a violent episode at Walpole, where he knifed another prisoner, he was punished, said his attorney, and sent to the Western Correctional Institution of Maryland in Cumberland, Maryland, near Baltimore. The attorney felt this was a deliberate act by DOC to get him out of Massachusetts because of his behavior.

Board member Lucy Soto Abbe told Nerette he should have “used his words” instead of using a knife. But who is to tell a young man how to survive in a maximum security prison filled with adults? And for that, we have to ask why we send kids to such places at all? What do we expect? The surprise is when children manage to grow into undamaged men and women with hopes and dreams. How can we expect someone so easily to learn to use their words?

Maryland prisons have been written up for their violence by Prisoner Legal News (PLN). In March, 2015, the magazine wrote an article entitled: “Murders in Maryland Continue Despite Reforms.” From PLN: “Prison officials reported that while the number of serious assaults on prisoners dropped 47% from 2006 through 2012, and serious assaults on prison staff fell 65% during the same time period, the number of homicides in 2012 jumped to six – a three-year high – and additional murders occurred in 2013 and 2014.”

Nerette said he can’t live in Massachusetts prisons because “there is a hit out on me.” In Maryland, he has little access to programming because there are not programs available to him, in particular the kinds of programs the Board looks for like Emotional Awareness and Alternatives to Violence. The attorney asked the Board to help Nerette get to another prison that could actually provide him with programs, keep him safe, and reinforce change.

Will he get a second chance this time around? Not in my opinion. Although, no decision has been rendered yet. But was he ever directed and guided and helped? Or was he just sentenced to a place where he had to fend for himself, once again a Haitian defending his territory in a place that divides the world so it can control its charges?

Yes, Patrick Nerette committed a crime, but the way we house people, the places we put them, the kind of expectations we have of change…as the masterful writer Toni Morrison wrote in her latest book, “God help the child.”

Don’t Get Sick Behind Bars

This week, I have found myself amidst two poles: the absurd arrest, lack of monitoring in jail, and death of Sandra Bland in Texas, and the joyous #BlackLivesMatter gathering in Cleveland July 24-26, where blacktivist men and women are meeting to plan next steps of a growing movement.

And yet, also in the news, not quite as prominent, but certainly populous amidst claims that Sandra Bland was depressed, are the infuriating and tragic stories of people who are sick or plagued with some kind of mental illness and are not getting adequate treatment behind bars.

Mentally ill behind barsPhoto Courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder

I come to these stories with experience. When I taught at Framingham MCI in Massachusetts I watched Dolly, a prisoner who I wrote about in Shakespeare Behind Bars, worry about her heath. First she was sent to have a mammogram and was waist-chained and handcuffed on the way, only to sit in a one-way mirrored room at the hospital for almost eight hours. No mammogram. Nothing but waiting. Dolly swore she’d never go back, damn the cancer, because who could stand such humiliation? Then, when she finally got out of prison, she had heart problems—all from lack of care. Dolly ended up dying in her 70’s, way too young, but not surprising, considering that 55 is borderline geriatric behind bars.

But at least Dolly got out of prison. Mamie, another student, tripped and fell on a prison walkway when moving from one unit to another. It took a while to get guards to respond to the fall, she later told me, and others concurred. She had been complaining about pains and ignored for weeks. Again, diagnosed with cancer. This time, she died before she could get out— in a hospital, alone, without her family.

So, when I read stories, like the one in Newsweek this week, entitled “Don’t Get Cancer if You’re in Prison,” I echo back to images of Mamie in a hospital bed and Dolly storming into our class from that awful hospital van ride. And I echo back to my own breast cancer more than fifteen years ago, where I immediately had help from friends and family, excellent medical care, a good prognosis, and follow-up treatment. Today I am as healthy as I ever have been.

But not so for so many who suffer such a gruesome disease in prison. The story of Manfred Dehe, reported in that Newsweek article, stated he had to beg health care workers at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Eyman for health care. It took Dehe six months to get an exam that proved he had metastatic prostate cancer after blood tests were alarmingly elevated. Likewise, a California prisoner, Ferdinand Dix, “complained for two years of lung cancer symptoms such as chronic cough and shortness of breath, and tested positive for tuberculosis—but never received proper treatment.”

“There is little public investment in correctional health care systems, and generally speaking neither public nor private providers can offer competitive salaries to prison health care workers,” wrote Victoria Bekiempis. Problematic too are privatized prison health care groups like Wexford Health Sources and Corizon, considered to be in it for the money—both well-aware of Dehe’s symptoms, said the Newsweek article.

Massachusetts’s Deborah DiMasi, the wife of convicted former House Speaker Sal DiMasi has gone on record over and over that she fears her husband will die in prison. I wrote about Sal DiMasi for Boston Magazine delineating the poor treatment he received behind bars in 2013. On July 13, 2015, his wife told WGBH her husband waited for a biopsy for three months. “There was seven months of time that his cancer was allowed to spread, and it did spread. So that to me is just so inhumane.”

As I wrote in 2013, we should be giving treatment to sick and dying prisoners. And Massachusetts should be supporting medical release in dire cases for the ill and elderly. Per my online article in Boston Magazine about DiMasi, “more than forty states have some sort of medical release provision. According to Modern Healthcare, an online news weekly, Michigan has managed to release 100 elderly and infirm prisoners since 2008.” In Massachusetts it costs more than $68,000 to house a state prisoner who is sick and dying,  “If those 100 prisoners were released and lived for one year beyond their release, it would mean a savings of $6.8 million.”

Which brings me to another occurrence this week: why the Massachusetts Legislature needs to support an override by the governor to Prisoners’ Legal Services’ (PLS) budget. While PLS is a nonprofit, its biggest source of funding is its contract with the Masschusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Governor Charlie Baker vetoed 12% (over $190,000) of PLS’ appropriation last Friday.

Among many of the things PLS has done for prisoners in Massachusetts, it has championed H.1628 / S.843, a medical release bill which would be cost effective at a time when every dollar counts. This bill has not yet had a hearing, but it is a no brainer, in my opinion. And it is one drop in the bucket of the painstaking work that PLS does for prisoners.

I urge Massachusetts people to contact their representatives by MONDAY, JULY 27th, and say they want them to override Governor Baker’s veto of $194,504 for Prisoners’ Legal Services (0321-2100). You can also call the Speaker and the House Ways and Means Chairman:  the Speaker’s office (617.722.2500) and the office of Chairman Dempsey (617.722.2990) voicing your support for an override.

Meanwhile, prisoners are sick and dying, disappearing as my friend Lois Ahrens of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, says. They are disappearing behind walls, bars, chains, locks, and silence. When we can speak out, we must. It is our freedom, our right, our obligation.