Thanksgiving in Prison

I posted this first in 2012, but I’m posting it again this year, in part because I need to think about people in prison on Thanksgiving. And in part because as much as we all see hope on the horizon, we still are the largest incarcerator in the world.

I’ve been thinking about all the 2.2 million people in this country who will spend this Thanksgiving behind bars.  Yes, some of them have done pretty horrible things.  And some of them have been away from their family for years for very good reasons.  But many prisoners, the people we sentence to our darkest places — in fact, over one quarter of them according to The National Review  online — are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. And many of them will be saying their thanks for what they are grateful for; most of it has to do with love.

I have written much and often about how prisoners are not merely their crimes, and that their humanity is what often allows them to transform themselves behind bars whether it be through reading, programs, art, deep epiphanies about themselves and/or remorse.  While on the day of Thanksgiving, no prisoner gets the benefit of home, even the dysfunctional home, many prisons provide a turkey dinner with the usual trimmings.  Maybe not mom’s home-made pumpkin pie, but nonetheless, pie.

Thanksgiving is rough on the families who are visiting their loved ones behind bars. Mary Gautier, Louisiana born and Nashville now, kicking around with over five albums, has a song that really hits me when I think of how hard it is for everyone in this constellation, the families and the prisoners.  It’s called “Thanksgiving.”  You can listen to it here.

“We stood in a long line waiting for the doors to be unlocked
Out in the cold wind, ‘round the razor wire fenced in cellblock
Young mamas with babies, sisters and other kinds of kin
At Tallulah State Prison on Thanksgiving Day, we’re waiting to get in

You gotta get here early, it don’t matter how many miles you drove
They make you wait for hours, jailers always move slow
They run names, check numbers, gravel faced guards they don’t smile
Grammy and me in line, silently waiting single file

Thanksgiving at the prison, surrounded by families
Road weary pilgrims who show up faithfully
Sometimes love ain’t easy, sometimes love ain’t free

My grammy looks so old now, her hair is soft and white like the snow
Her hands tremble when they frisk her from head to her toes
They make her take her winter coat off then they frisk her again
When they’re done she wipes their touch off her dress, stands tall and heads in

Thanksgiving at the prison, surrounded by families
Road weary pilgrims who show up faithfully
Even though it ain’t easy, even though it ain’t free
Sometimes love ain’t easy, I guess love ain’t free”

Mary isn’t alone in thinking about prisoners on Thanksgiving.  A lot of us who have worked behind bars turn our thoughts to those who can’t go home.  Jack Cashill, an Emmy-award winning filmmaker and producer, shared a letter online from a prisoner.  It doesn’t surprise me one bit — the gratefulness expressed.  But I’d say it’s a lesson for many of us who complain about the minutia of life (me), and even those of us (me) who are sad on Thanksgiving without our parents to share our joy and sorrow. Most of us need to stop and see how much being in the moment and appreciating what we have is a way to heal our hurts.  Of course, prisoners learn this too.  Here’s a snippet of the part of the letter that I like best.  So thanks to Steven Nary who wrote it in Avenal State Prison in California:

“For everyone who has ever come into my life, no matter how long our interaction was or whether it was inside or outside of prison, I am grateful for each moment, which is a gift in itself and a blessing…”

On a day where we think both about what we’ve lost and what we’ve found, let’s remember those behind bars.

Support Primary Caretakers

Andrea2.Hearing_10-14-15-7.HasnaMuhammed Andrea James, Photo by Hasna Muhammed

When I taught in prison, I memorized this fact: More than two-thirds of women in state prisons are mothers of a minor child. I memorized it because I saw woman after woman who could not manage visits with her kids—families lived miles away from the one state prison for females in Massachusetts. Some women could not afford to pay for their children’s transportation; others had no one to drive the distance. These moms suffered with each flu, bad grade, or neighborhood bully. They felt the mixed blessing of each child’s christening, birthday, or graduation. They cried themselves to sleep; they metaphorically clung to their kids when they made phone calls. They talked about them in classes, to each other, in letters, and to their loved ones. Women without their children leads to a kind of loneliness behind bars that has a painful tenderness to it, a pulse, a deep shade of the color blue.

This past August, Tess Domb Sadoff of the Vera Institute wrote an article entitled “Gender and Justice in America: Alternatives to Incarceration for Moms Aim to Strengthen Families.” Her comments underscore my point: “When mothers who act as primary caregivers serve time in prison, the loss of emotional and tangible support they provide—in the form of regular caretaking, income, housing, and more—can have a traumatic and disruptive impact on their families and communities.” There are also collateral consequences. The Women’s Prison Association reported that children of incarcerated parents are “five times more likely than their peers to end up in prison themselves. One in ten will be incarcerated before reaching adulthood.”

In recent years, diversion programs across the country have sprung up as an important and necessary alternative to incarceration for convicted mothers. Oklahoma, Oregon, and Washington have created or passed initiatives to that effect. Now, Massachusetts has House Bill H.1382, and on October 14, at a hearing before the Judiciary Committee, An Act to Create Community-Based Sentencing Alternatives for Non-Violent Primary Caretakers of Dependent Children was heard.

3Andrea.Hearing_10-14-15-10.HasnaMuhammed           Formerly incarcerated woman and advocates; photo by Hasna Muhammed

Lead sponsor for the Bill is Rep.Russell Holmes of Boston, and lead advocates, the indomitable Andrea James, and Families for Justice as Healing, formerly incarcerated women who aim to end the incarceration of women. Sociologist Susan Sered, author of Can’t Catch a Break, described the House Bill in her blog, “This bill would require a sentencing judge to determine whether a person is a custodial, primary caretaker of a dependent child, and eligible for…a non-incarcerating sentencing alternative.” Alternatives would be based on “individual assessments,” noted Sered, and could include services such as counseling, relapse prevention, domestic violence, vocational or educational groups.

The women who testified for the bill spoke passionately. Ayanna (standing behind Andrea James) said how difficult it was to be away from her father, her primary caretaker, and that visiting parents inside doesn’t help heal the wounds of incarceration. Diane (far right) said why primary caretakers should be allowed to stay in their communities. Her child was born in prison, and all of her kids went to foster care. It took quite a while for her to get her children back. Marianne Bullock (below), founder of the Prison Birth Project, gave birth to her oldest after incarceration. Now she works with incarcerated women throughout their pregnancies, and noted how painful that separation is, when mothers have to have a family member, or worse, a stranger raise their child.
                                Photo by Hasna Muhammed

Leslie Walker, Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said that there is 392 percent overcrowding at Framingham MCI’s awaiting trial unit, and that “it’s a preventable train wreck.” Drug treatment is far better in the community, she added, where it is cheaper and more effective than in the women’s prison. Patsy Ryan of the ACLU added that two-thirds of the women also have open mental health cases.

The goal of this legislation is to alleviate “harm to children and their parents or caretakers caused by separation due to incarceration, while reducing recidivism and strengthening family unity and communities.”

Certainly we do not need more punitive responses to crime, but working, evidence-based alternatives that keep families together. This legislation can help us take steps to save the next generation from ending up behind bars or from the kind of despair that fills our women’s prisons.

Poetry from Prison or ReEntry 101

There’s a long tradition of people writing poetry behind bars. Besides letters, poems are the written communication used most by prisoners to reach out to others or to communicate with deeper parts of oneself. Some of my favorite prison poets include Ethridge Knight and Jimmy Santiago Baca. But imagine my surprise when my niece who spent not quite a year in a Texas jail sent me three poems from her time behind bars. And she sent them as they were written in a notebook.

Hannah1It’s touching to see how she felt like she had a “scarlet letter” even after a year, how she knew what lay ahead was terrifying, and how there was nothing but warehousing going on for her drug habit.

NO nameHannah

While she’s in her 20’s, she has the wisdom to see how she’s been silenced and has had rights taken away. But what I find profound, is that she also is aware how easy it is to lose hope and motivation–even with a first offense.

Hannah3But perhaps my favorite of her poems is this one. She realizes what heroin has done to her young life. “I’ve been locked behind bars and time has been murdered.”

This is not a new story but it is one we need to pay attention to. Yes, she needed treatment, but jail gave her a kind of death. Now, out in the world, she pays a few hundred dollars a month for probation, drug testing, and the “privilege” of wearing an ankle bracelet.She writes that the costs are broken down like so:

“$65/month for probation fees
$182/month for ankle monitor
$10 per drug test at random
$1400 for SMART residential “treatment” program (jail rehab)
$260 for aftercare
And there’s probably some other court costs and what not
that I can’t even remember at the moment.”

She must take a long bus ride for testing several times a week, and she stays home nights. She still has no real treatment follow-up program to what she went through in jail. Luckily, she has some family standing behind her and has found a place to live, and a few friends to share her world with. But she has no job.ankle bracelet

This is reentry in the United States.


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.”