Keep Kids Out of Handcuffs

I have a new post on Truthout. My new article is “Keep Kids Out of Handcuffs” It begins like this:
“The handcuffs just slipped off her wrists; in fact, Desre’e Watson was so small that they had to handcuff her by her biceps to haul her down to the station, the Florida police chief told The New York Times in 2007. No one could calm her tantrum, so the cops charged her with battery on a school official, disruption of a school function, and resisting a law officer. She was fingerprinted, had a mug shot taken and was kept briefly in a jail cell. She was 6 years old.”

On the Anniversary of Anti-Shackling

pregnantwomanjailImage via ColorLines

“It blows my mind that I have to sign a law for that,” Massachusetts former governor Deval Patrick said in May 2014, after he signed into law the Act to Prevent Shackling and Promote Safe Pregnancies for Female Inmates in Massachusetts. The law was groundbreaking in that it both protected women’s health behind bars and forbid shackling of pregnant prisoners.

Currently 29 states still allow women behind bars to be shackled during birth. This occurs, in spite of the fact, reported by the Women’s Media Center (WMC) in March 2015, that “this practice has been condemned by many medical and international humanitarian organizations, including the American Medical Association, Amnesty International, and the United Nations Committee Against Torture.” WMC added that it wasn’t until 2000 that merely “one state—Illinois—enacted legislation restricting the use of restraints.”

According to the Massachusetts Anti-Shackling Coalition, the 2014 Massachusetts law went beyond banning shackling and aimed to insure a “safe healthy pregnancy, birth experience and postpartum recovery, including prenatal care, adequate nutrition, and support during labor and birth.” So would it blow Governor Patrick’s  mind, if he were to learn that indeed the law to support pregnant prisoners is not being followed in many of the places we incarcerate women throughout the state?

Barbaric restraints that never should have been used in the first place are still in use. According to Judge Nancy Gertner, in a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe, shackles and waist chains for pregnant women are “unconstitutional…a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.” Vans without seat belts are still employed to transport women to and from jails. The statute is clear: no restraints except for handcuffs up front, but facilities are not following the law, in spite of the fact that statute forbids shackles “except in extraordinary circumstances,” and as Judge Gertner clarified, “even then, without leg or waist restraints.” Healthy pregnancies, how are they faring behind bars? Early results seem to indicate that violations of the statute on that front are also alive and well. Healthy diets and suitable clothing and undergarments are not being provided.

Two major advocacy groups, Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS) and Prison Birth Project (PBP) interviewed women who were pregnant, and some who gave birth in the last year, since the law went into effect. A few of their experiences, reported anonymously, show the ways the law is not being followed:

  • “I took a shower after the birth and they put me back in bed and shackled me to the bed by my left ankle. I said it was against the law, but the female C.O. said she had never heard of that. She called the jail and whoever she talked to also said they never heard of it. So I stayed shackled to the bed.”
  • “It was very uncomfortable in the back of the vans. You’d slide everywhere, it was a very bumpy ride. It was scary. I would sometimes get cramps on those rides. Me and another pregnant girl who was having twins would talk about whether we’d go into labor in the van itself. We would joke around as a way to deal with how awful it was.”
  • “I hate being this pregnant, being hungry and only having access to an extra cheese sandwich. Knowing what I do about being pregnant I know I should be eating more fresh vegetables.”

Lauren Petit, an attorney from PLS, in an interview, said that when the law was passed, jails and Department of Correction (DOC) prisons received the language of the statute—no more, no less. They were to do their own implementation, and by “they”—all the county facilities that transport women, like Essex, and those that house them including jails in the counties of Bristol, Barnstable, Hampden, Suffolk, as well as the Department of Correction state prisons—Framingham MCI and South Middlesex.

Petit said that stopping the shackling of pregnant prisoners is “a huge culture shock” for correction officers. Jails have to train their officers but it seems that most do not have polices in place to do so. Petit said results are varied and inconsistent. “Chicopee Jail in Hampden County has done a good job of training in some areas”—(my note: They better, considering the recent video camera suit they lost)—but, Bristol, under Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, said Petit, is doing a “terrible job.”  Bristol often transports pregnant women in vans with no seat belts. Chicopee sometimes won’t let women go to appointments because, although they know the law, there are no seat belts in that day’s available van.

Petit added that DOC has a different responsibility than the jails per the statute. She said, The DOC “was to put together a set of minimum health care standards and consult the Department Public Health and the Massachusetts sheriffs.” But have they done this? “I can’t say 100% that they have not done it but so far it seems like they have not,” said Petit. The DOC has been unresponsive to her records’ requests.

By the end of May, Petit, Marianne Bullock, co-founder of the Prison Birth Project, and Rachel Roth, women’s health policy expert, will release a report to describe compliance throughout the state. Roth said she was heartened to discover more women behind bars than she expected had heard about the law and were educating others. She is also working on outreach to make sure everyone knows about the statute, including defense attorneys and medical professionals.

The upcoming report is a result of funding that PLS and the PBP recently received from the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH) to monitor implementation of the Massachusetts law.  In an email from Roth, the NIRH was described as working “to promote reproductive rights and expand access to reproductive health care through bold advocacy, creative education campaigns, and high-impact partnerships.”

An email from Marianne Bullock said that funding will also allow the Prison Birth Project “to engage formerly incarcerated women and allies to educate community members about their rights” as well as to allow PBP to work with pregnant women in jail. Bullock and the PBP plan “to ensure that rights are respected under the new law,” and to work on advocacy with the jail administration “to update its practices and policies to reflect the provisions of the law.”

Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel at the ACLU of Massachusetts, in the above noted article by Women’s Media Center, spoke of the importance of this law: “Women’s experiences giving birth matter. It’s also important to make a public policy statement that this is not okay. We shouldn’t have to make this kind of statement of principle in legislation because it’s so obviously unacceptable treatment, but apparently we do.”

But until the law is followed as it should be, we are left with the fury of this law’s violations. Just after Mother’s Day, and here we are with the Massachusetts Anti-Shackling Coalition‘s insistence that we tend to our mothers behind bars: “The Commonwealth has made a commitment to health care for all, which promotes the well-being of pregnant women and gives every baby a healthy start in life. We call on the Secretary of Public Safety to ensure that the state Department of Correction and all county Sheriffs fully comply with the law and take seriously the health and treatment of pregnant women who are incarcerated.”



Flash from my Past: Shakespeare Behind Bars

Found this you-tube video from when I spoke at Marblehead’s Abbott Library and thought I’d post it! At the end (last 3 minutes or so) there’s a wonderful clip of a scene from the production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice I directed at Framingham Women’s Prison in Massachusetts.

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.