Phi Theta Kappa’s Policies? NOT GOOD if You’ve Ever Been in Prison

PTK2009_KEYLOGO_BL281_copyrightSecond chances are important to those who’ve been incarcerated. Almost every day, I hear about someone who got out of prison and is leading a productive life. Take for example, Shon Hopwood. He started out as an Illinois bank robber and then while incarcerated, made the decision to change, and after he found himself cleaning the law library, studied law behind bars. He soon became the go-to jailhouse lawyer, and journalist Adam Liptak publicized his work when Hopwood was released. Hopwood earned his undergraduate degree, and won a full ride to study law from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He graduated last spring from the University of Washington Law School. He now works as a clerk for the DC Circuit Court, and will begin a two year fellowship soon at Georgetown University. He married a longtime sweetheart along the way and wants to continue to help others. I’d call that success.

Karter Reed, whom I met in 2007 and am writing a book about, is another young man who made serious mistakes when he was young and is making the most of his second chance. Reed killed a boy in a high school classroom when he was sixteen-years-old, and went to prison for second-degree murder. He ended up serving almost twenty years, but changed his life and attitudes behind bars. He only earned three disciplinary reports in his time in prison, read books, took classes, wrote up a storm, and participated in every prison program possible to better himself. He also learned law behind bars. By the time he got out of prison in 2013, on lifetime parole, Reed had developed the kind of character necessary to thrive and not just survive. He was determined to go to college, and eventually, to become a sociologist. In the two years since his release, he has completed what takes others three years at a local community college, and will be graduating in May with a 4.0 average. Then he hopes to continue his studies.

Unlike Shon Hopwood, Karter Reed has no one fending off his financial burdens. Reed works full time at UPS in Worcester, Massachusetts, from wee hours in the morning to mid day, has a girlfriend, and together, they have managed to save up enough money to put a down payment on a house. He spends time with his family who live all across the state. This, I’d also call success; and most people would be hard pressed to say Reed is not a productive citizen.

This year, Reed was asked by his college—Quinsigimond Community College—to join Phi Theta Kappa (P.T.K.), an honor society whose expressed purpose stated on their website is “to recognize and encourage scholarship among two-year college students.” Quinsig, as it is called, requires a 3.5 average for membership, and acknowledges that “this membership can have far reaching impacts when it comes to transferring to a four year institution and even for prospective employers.” I spoke at a P.T.K. event at my college a few years ago, and for the honorees, it was a singular recognition, even better than graduation. Everyone (including me) was thrilled to get their own gold.

PTKBut imagine Reed’s surprise when he received the application which said “A person currently incarcerated is not eligible for membership. A person convicted of a felony crime or any crime whose potential sentence is more than one year is not eligible for membership until three years following completion.” Reed had glowing recommendations from professors, and let’s be honest, you can’t get higher than a 4.0 average, but Reed was deemed unworthy. Ironic. Not only was he two years out from his time behind bars instead of three, but he had worked doubly hard to complete courses in those two years, earning the highest possible grades. P.T.K. adds another twist that would make Karter ineligible: the applicant must complete “all conditions of sentencing, including probation.”

Research has shown that for people coming out of prison, it is far better to be supervised, on parole or probation, if an officer gives the person guidance and not merely rules. People wrapping up sentences and exiting directly from prison without supervision have more chance of recidivating. And that’s just fact. But P.T.K. has not done its research, to say the least.

I argued with Reed that a 4.0 average should be enough to get him into an honor society, but he disagreed. In an interview, Reed said how he had no objections to Phi Theta Kappa requiring, as they do, applicants who adhered to what they call “moral standards of the society.” He objects to how such “decency” is measured. Certainly, said Reed, an incarcerated person needs honor society recognition, perhaps even more than others on the outside. What if they’ve had no disciplinary reports for the past five years? Why judge the person on what they did twenty years ago? And he said, it is even more impressive if someone is a “morally upright person in a hostile negative environment.” Reed added, “Let’s look at your conduct now and not how your conduct was one day in 1993″—in his case, twenty-two years ago.

Interestingly, Melissa Mayer, spokesperson for Phi Theta Kappa sent me this statement in lieu of an interview with anyone from the organization. In spite of what it says on their website and application forms, Mayer wrote in an email that they had changed the policy recently. It now reads, she claimed: “Students eligible for membership in Phi Theta Kappa include those who have been convicted of felony crimes following completion of all conditions of sentencing, including probation. Possession of recognized qualities of citizenship is a requirement for membership.”

This new statement is problematic in many obvious ways. It certainly won’t help the thousands of excellent students behind bars or in the free world, on probation or on parole. And that includes Karter Reed. Talk about Catch 22.

The final irony of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society debacle is that, according to a March 15, 2015 article in Inside Higher Ed, its Executive Director and C.E.O., Rod Risley, is currently being investigated for a sexual harassment claim from two female students. While Risley fully disputes the claims, Inside Higher Ed reported: “Rachel Reeck, 23, and Toni Marek, 36, served as P.T.K. student international officers in the 2013-14 school year. They say that during that time they experienced sexual harassment, intimidation, inappropriate touching and unprofessional behavior by Risley.”

The investigation is ongoing, and as troublesome as it is, perhaps P.T.K. could learn from this. What really determines moral character? And if you are going to wade in that pool, you had best be squeaky clean.

But, whether we live in society or behind bars, if we earn a 4.0 average in all our community college classes, and have been as much a model a citizen as anyone else, for three or five years—you decide— shouldn’t we be at least eligible for the Phi Theta Kappa honor society? If we say people deserve second chances, we need to truly dispense them and not pretend when we give them the illusion of opportunity.



Taking My Students to Prison

Every semester my students from Voices Behind Bars, a class I teach at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts, go to prison. They used to visit state institutions but now that the Massachusetts state prisons do not offer tours (perhaps because it is a hassle to have outsiders trooping through them and criticizing what they see) the students take a tour of Billerica House of Correction, where they experience confinement to some degree and listen for an hour to an incarcerated man talk about his life and what it is like to be behind bars.

jail-cellOriginally, the Middlesex House of Correction was built in 1929 and housed 300 men. Now it has more than 1100, after a $37 million dollar expansion which prison officials say was to accommodate the closing of the Cambridge Jail —not without objections from activists and community members who opposed more prison building (actually costing $43 million per The Lowell Sun.)

I’ve always thought it’s not ideal to have my students learn about prison by going to a place where people are only kept for 2 1/2 years,  That’s the county sentence at a house of correction. Certainly a far cry from a life sentence. I told myself students couldn’t really learn as much about the strains of prison without seeing the harsher conditions that exist in state institutions. That is, until this last visit.

Most of the tour went as usual. We went through the older part of the facility where cells can get up to 110 degrees in the summer. We saw the visiting room where men talk to their loved ones through glass. The officer who showed the students around Billerica explained that prisoners must walk on the green stripes in the hallways; there were the usual men cleaning with mops and pushing large barrels down walkways; the smell was of too much cleaning fluid. We passed through the health unit where men were waiting to see practitioners and others were isolated in cells. It was prison as usual.

We no longer are allowed to see the Hole or what prison officials call the Segregation Unit, since men are there disciplined to solitary confinement which my students know Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently said can drive men mad. Therefore, the highlight of the tour is always taking them into what is called a “pod.” A pod is the relatively new term in prison construction where prisoners can live in a contained unit. These pods are somewhat stale and robot-like but they allow the COs the ability to see what is going on.

STV_P 0022We entered the pod where men do drug treatment and have earned some privileges. It has the reputation of being a better place to reside than the old part of the institution which is pretty grim and can house two men in a cell. To the left is one old institutional unit at Blillerica, looking a little prettier than it really is with whitewashed grey walls, all somehow devoid of color in reality:Billerica


On the pod we entered, those incarcerated run some of the addiction groups themselves, we were told. On the tier above the day room where prisoners sit, eat, and play cards at the tables, are rows of cells where men live. Also those cells are on the first floor all around the room.  Each cell has a tiny vertical slit—a window—and when we come into their space, the men inevitably stare out the window at us. At times, they’ve pounded on their doors; at other times, they’ve all been at tables eating lunch, trying to ignore the fact that there are outsiders nearby.

This time, when the twenty of us entered, there were only a few men in their brownish beige uniforms sitting at tables. Another two were talking to the guards who policed the room, two perched at a computerized station at one end. The students all took turns entering a cell to see what it is like, a rather disturbing experience on many levels for most of them. One student, we’ll call her Sofia, suddenly turned toward me as Spanish was heard above us. She pointed up at a window where a man smiled widely and pressed his face against the slit.

“That’s my brother,” Sofia said, her eyes filling with tears.

I looked up and he waved at me, his sister’s teacher. Sofia looked away.

I asked the young woman if she had known he would be here, and yes, Sofia said, she knew he was in this  facility but no, she had no idea she might see him. She seemed torn, wanting to look, wanting to hide. She said under her breath as others continued their entrance into cells, as far as she knew, he had no hope of ever not doing drugs. She’d lost touch, she said. She couldn’t imagine he might be doing OK.

But the young man’s face, lit with joy when he saw her, and before we left that unit, it was almost as if a light went off for her too. Prison became about loneliness, about being apart, about the kind of pain that happens when families break up. It was no longer just about this space or this room or that hallway. Sofia’s brother, as close as he was, was nowhere near his sister. And would not be for a long time, perhaps never. She understood that and so did I.

When we exited Billerica that day, Sofia told the other students about her brother behind bars. Now, after walking through Billerica, and after being with Sofia, they understood why prison is not just a physical place, but a deep wound.

Dying While Black and Brown

Dying While Black and Brown1 Antoine Hunter (below), Travis Santell Rowland, Rashad Pridgen, and Matthew Wickett (above, left to right)

A dance performance at Harvard Law School on Friday showed that art is one of our most powerful ways to fight for justice. See my new post online about the Zaccho Dance Troupe and their spectacular Dying While Black and Brown atBostonDailyLogo_landing_New

An Act Relative to Searches of Female Prisoners

video-camera-e1409320901864-638x357Image courtesy of Shutterstock

There’s some good news about a bill that’s been filed by Massachusetts House Representative Kay Khan (D-Newton), now known as HD1073. The good news is that the bill aims to prevent employees of the opposite sex from the use of video cameras in jails or prisons during strip searches. At this point, some activists feel that the bill doesn’t go far enough, but hopefully that can be corrected.

A strip search in this context, refers to any search where a prisoner is required to remove all of his or her clothing. Per the language of the proposed bill which according to Khan’s office, is still under construction, a strip search “may include a visual inspection of a nude inmate’s oral, anal or vaginal cavity.”

The need for such a bill came about as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Law Offices of Howard Friedman in 2011 against Sheriff Michael J. Ashe and Assistant Superintendent Patricia Murphy of the Western Massachusetts Regional Correctional Center in Chicopee. I wrote about this case here1 and here2, explaining how taping of searches began in mid-September 2008.  According to the suit, 68 percent of the tapes show “some or all of the women’s genitals, buttocks, or breasts.” Per Friedman’s law office website: “From September 15, 2008 to May 20, 2010, males held the camera for about 70% of the strip searches.” While the jail contended that these videotapes were used for safety reasons and to document a “potentially dangerous move” from general population to the segregation unit, David Milton, an attorney in Friedman’s office, said of the jail, in a telephone interview in 2014,“No one could identify a single place in the country that videotaped strip searches.”

The suit contended that videotaping the searches violated the Fourth Amendment which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. The case was successful and Judge Michael Ponser’s decision came down on August 26, 2014. The judge ruled for Debra Baggett, the plaintiff in the class-action case, and 178 former and current detainees at the Chicopee jail. The case sent a jolt through anyone who was complacent about such horrors as the public discovered that 274 strip searches had been videotaped, all of women, mostly by men who supposedly didn’t look. An article at Think Progress, reported that Judge Ponser stated in the decision, “The fact that the male officer, while operating the video camera, may be turned to one side or have his back turned will do little, for most female inmates, to diminish the sense of embarrassment, humiliation, and vulnerability that she must inevitably feel.”

A few months after the suit was settled, in November, 2014, Lois Ahrens, director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, wrote a letter to the editor (LTE) which first appeared on and then in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.  She pointed out the cost of this process to taxpayers. Through a public records request, Ahrens discovered that the Sheriff’s office had spent close to $500,000 on lawyer’s fees to defend itself, saying they had not violated women’s rights when videotaping the searches.

Governor’s Councillor, Michael Albano, who represents the counties of Hampden, Hampshire, Berkshire and Franklin—where the Chicopee jail resides— became concerned about this. Ahrens said in an interview, that his interest was sparked after reading her LTE. Albano approached Rep. Khan about a bill.

Khan’s bill aims to add new language to Chapter 127 of the Massachusetts General Laws, which governs “Officers and Inmates of Penal and Reformatory Institutions, Parole and Pardons.” At this point, the language to be added is in flux and Khan said in a telephone interview that she hopes people will come to the to-be scheduled hearing to discuss their concerns. Concerns can and have changed bill language, said Khan.

The bill states that “Strip searches of inmates, including the videotaping thereof, shall not be conducted by or in the immediate vicinity of a correction officer or other employee of the opposite sex, except under an emergency or otherwise urgent situation.” This indicates that men cannot be videotaping body cavity searches of women except in emergency situations. “But what defines an emergency?” asked Ahrens. She said this needs to be clearly spelled out.

Ahrens also raised the issue that the bill does not call for outside oversight. If videotaping is mishandled, the superintendent or designees of the prison or jail get the news and are required to file a report. But Ahrens pointed out this could be problematic as they are the ones who have ordered it. “It’s a closed loop,” she added, and that doesn’t assure regulation. “The big question,” said Ahrens, is “Why do they have to videotape strip searches at all?”

Khan was receptive to all of these issues when hearing the criticism, and hopes that the bill can be ironed out in committee after public hearings when testimony on the bill will be heard. She said she too wondered why videotaping was necessary, and would ask the Department of Correction (DOC) that same question. “Oversight is a very good point,” she said, but admitted that even when the Department of Mental Health has gone behind bars to review conditions, it has been difficult to monitor some practices in the Department of Corrections (solitary confinement, for example).

In notes from a February 28 meeting of the Massachusetts Justice Network (MJN), a group that works on policy changes for incarcerated women, there was discussion of the bill. Suggestions were made that any searches of women should be based on new recommendations for the Bangkok Rules, the new UN global standards for justice-involved women. The Bangkok Rules put it this way: “Given the risk of abuse during pat-down searches and even more so during strip or invasive body searches, they must be carried out by female staff. Alternative screening methods should be developed.”

In other words, international standards say that we should end invasive searches. Period. Never mind videotaping them. About strip searches, MJN asked: “Why not use scanners and end demeaning (and trauma-inducing) body cavity searches.” Kay Khan said she was also receptive to this idea.

The protection of women prisoners is important. When shackling was ended in Massachusetts, it took many organizations coming together to raise their voices as to why shackling should not occur when pregnant women were giving birth behind bars. Now, Massachusetts has the opportunity to prohibit the videotaping of searches behind bars. In fact, it has the opportunity to raise questions about alternatives to invasive searches. Those organizations that got behind the inhumanity of shackling women need to speak out and help create a bill that has legs, and ultimately a law that protects the incarcerated from potentially abusive treatment.